Wednesday, February 27, 2019

The Doomsday Scenario for the Stock and Housing Bubbles

It was always folly to believe that inflating asset bubbles could solve the structural problems of a post-industrial economy.
The Doomsday Scenario for the stock and housing bubbles is simple: the Fed's magic fails. When dropping interest rates to zero and flooding the financial sector with loose money fail to ignite the economy and reflate the deflating bubbles, punters will realize the Fed's magic only worked the first three times: three bubbles and the game is over.
So what happens when punters realize there won't be a fourth bubble? They sell. Bids disappear because who's dumb enough to bet (with Japan and Europe as lessons) that more liquidity and negative interest rates will magically work when zero interest rates didn't move the needle?
Who's foolish enough to catch the falling knife (i.e. buying plummeting assets on the way down) on the unsupported assumption that the next dose of Fed magic will reverse a bidless market?
And should the Fed start buying stocks, mortgages, housing and bonds to prop up those bidless markets, what's the message it will be sending? Desperation.If the only buyer is the money-printing central bank, that's pretty good evidence that your economy and markets are in free-fall.
The loss of faith in central bank magic will be gradual at first, as magical thinking dies hard. It's oh so comforting to believe the central bank will rescue every overleveraged mal-investment and bail out every high-risk speculation, but the funny thing about the Fed's magic is it only works in liquidity crises--in every other condition, it only makes matters worse.
Does making it cheap to borrow improve the productivity of capital investments? You must be joking. The poster child of Fed magic is corporate buybacks, which 1) create no goods 2) create no services 3) do nothing to improve real wealth creation, i.e. higher productivity and 4) burden the company with higher debt loads, inhibiting future capital investment in actual productive capacity.
The only thing stock buybacks accomplish is to enrich shareholders and top managers with stock options. Rather than fix what's broken in the economy, the Fed's plan of "make the already-wealthy even wealthier" has created a new and monstrous problem: soaring wealth inequality.
The Fed's idea of a solution was to triple the value of a small bungalow from $150,000 in the late 90s to $450,000 in 2007. When that bubble burst, the Fed's solution was to double the bungalow's value to $900,000 today.
The structural problems of the U.S. economy cannot be solved by inflating asset bubbles, but that's all the Fed can do. Ironically, everyone cheering on Fed dovishness today is writing the obituary of Fed influence going forward because the masses have awakening to the Fed's role and the political blowback against enriching the already-rich is going to blow away the Fed's political leeway to further enrich the already-rich.
Since the Fed has lost the political permission to further increase wealth inequality, it won't be able to inflate another asset bubble. But even if the Fed was able to bamboozle the populace into allowing it to inflate another asset bubble, the mechanisms no longer have the desired effect: what worked to inflate the prior three bubbles no longer has the power to inflate a fourth bubble.
Those who are confident that there's nothing standing in the way of a fourth asset bubble need to back up their faith with some historical examples of bubble economies running past the third bubble.
This will lead to a sudden realization that the Fed has failed and can't possibly succeed in inflating a fourth asset bubble. This will unleash a phase shift in the market's belief system that will lead to a conclusion that the only rational strategy is to sell now before the bid disappears entirely.
But by then, of course, it's too late, because everyone else will be hitting the "sell" button at the same time.
It was always folly to believe that inflating asset bubbles could solve the structural problems of a post-industrial economy in the throes of profound demographic and technological change. The Fed has pursued the folly for 25 long years to the cheers of the class that has seen their wealth soar but reality is about to play Godzilla to the Fed's Bambi.
This is the Doomsday Scenario for those who believed $900,000 bungalows were going to $1.8 million and the S&P 500 was going from 2,800 to 5,600., but for those who understand the mortal danger of relying on asset bubbles to prop up a failing status quo, it will be a welcome reset that will enable desperately needed structural changes.
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Monday, February 25, 2019

Now that Housing Bubble #2 Is Bursting...How Low Will It Go?

Unless the Fed is going to start buying millions of homes outright, prices are going to fall to what buyers can afford.
There are two generalities that can be applied to all asset bubbles:
1. Bubbles inflate for longer and reach higher levels than most pre-bubble analysts expected
2. All bubbles burst, despite mantra-like claims that "this time it's different"
The bubble burst tends to follow a symmetrical reversal of very similar time durations and magnitudes as the initial rise. If the bubble took four years to inflate and rose by X, the retrace tends to take about the same length of time and tends to retrace much or all of X.
If we look at the chart of the Case-Shiller Housing Index below, this symmetry is visible in Housing Bubble #1 which skyrocketed from 2003-2007 and burst from 2008-2012.
Housing Bubble #1 wasn't allowed to fully retrace the bubble, as the Federal Reserve lowered interest rates to near-zero in 2009 and bought $1+ trillion in sketchy mortgage-backed securities (MBS), essentially turning America's mortgage market into a branch of the central bank and federal agency guarantors of mortgages (Fannie and Freddie, VA, FHA).
These unprecedented measures stopped the bubble decline by instantly making millions of people who previously could not qualify for a privately originated mortgage qualified buyers. This vast expansion of the pool of buyers (expanded by a flood of buyers from China and other hot-money locales) drove sales and prices higher for six years (2012-2018).
As noted on the chart below, this suggests the bubble burst will likely run from 2019-2025, give or take a few quarters.
The question is: what's the likely magnitude of the decline? Scenario 1 (blue line) is a symmetrical repeat of Housing Bubble #2: a retrace of the majority of the bubble's rise but not 100%, which reverses off this somewhat higher base to start Housing Bubble #3.
Since the mainstream consensus denies the possibility that Housing Bubble #2 even exists (perish the thought that real estate prices could ever--gasp--drop), they most certainly deny the possibility that prices could retrace much of the gains since 2012.
More realistic analysts would probably agree that if the current slowdown (never say recession, it might cost you your job) gathers momentum, some decline in housing prices is possible. They would likely agree with Scenario 1 that any such decline would be modest and would simply set the stage for an even grander housing bubble #3.
But there is a good case for Scenario 2, in which price plummets below the 2012 lows and keeps on going, ultimately retracing the entire housing bubble gains from 2003.
Why is Scenario 2 not just possible but likely? There are no more "saves" in the Fed's locker. Dropping interest rates to zero and buying another trillion in MBS won't have the same positive effects they had in 2009-2018. Those policies have run their course.
Among independent analysts, Chris Hamilton is a must-read for his integration of demographics and economics. Please read (via Zero Hedge) Demographics, Debt, & Debasement: A Picture Of American Insolvency if you want to understand why near-zero interest rates and buying mortgage-backed securities isn't going to spark Housing Bubble #3.
Millennials are burdened with $1 trillion in student loans and most don't earn enough to afford a home at today's nosebleed prices. When the Fed drops the Fed Funds Rate to zero, it doesn't follow that mortgage rates drop to zero. They drop a bit, but not enough to transform an unaffordable house into an affordable one.
Buying up $1 trillion in sketchy mortgages worked in 2009 because it bailed out everyone who was at risk of absorbing huge losses as a percentage of those mortgages defaulted. The problem now isn't one of liquidity or iffy mortgages: it's the generation that would like to buy homes finds they don't earn enough, and their incomes are not secure enough, to gamble everything on an overpriced house that chains them to a local economy they might want to leave if opportunities arise elsewhere.
In other words, the economy has changed, and the sacrifices required to buy a house in hot markets at today's prices make no sense. The picture changes, of course, in areas where 2X or 3X a typical income will buy a house, and 1X a pretty good income will buy a house.
Unless the Fed is going to start buying millions of homes outright, prices are going to fall to what buyers can afford. As China's debt bubble implodes, the Chinese buyers with cash (probably not even cash, just money borrowed in China's vast unregulated Shadow Banking System) who have propped up dozens of markets from France to Vancouver will vanish, leaving only the unwealthy as buyers.
The only question of any real interest is how low prices will drop by 2025.We're so accustomed to being surprised on the upside that we've forgotten we can surprised on the downside as well.


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Sunday, February 24, 2019

What's Been Lost: The Value of Being Reasonable

In terms of signaling one's loyalty and fervor, extremism pays dividends within the tribe while being reasonable will get you shunned or ejected.
Just about the only thing the virulent proponents of various extremes can agree on is that anyone attempting to be reasonable is a mortal threat that must be neutralized or destroyed. Dating back to the era of Benjamin Franklin, a willingness to hear another point of view and another set of solutions--i.e. being reasonable--was the hallmark of political progress.
The value of being reasonable has been lost, and I think there are three sources of this erosion:
1. Though few will admit it publicly, the awareness that the economic pie is slowly but surely shrinking is seeping into the collective unconscious / subconscious. The natural response to scarcity and competition for a dwindling supply of necessities is to tighten the tribal bonds to sharply delineate friend from foe. This is a global phenomenon which is manifesting in rising nationalism and renewed national identity, resistance to open borders and a reluctance to accept free-riders, which is a rational response for tribes facing scarcity.
In domestic politics, tribal loyalties are increasing and dissenters-- perceived as threats to tribal unity and thus power--are ostracized and members of competing tribes are demonized in much the way enemies in war are depicted as sub-human to reduce the moral hesitation to slaughtering them in combat.
Thus any "progressives" who question the "progressive" orthodoxy are labeled "fascists" (i.e sub-human) along with everyone who hasn't declared their loyalty to the "progressive" tribe by publicly endorsing the expected litmus-test tropes, i.e. virtue-signaling. This dynamic is visible in every politically defined tribe.
2. Being reasonable is a direct challenge to the extreme positions that have become the defining litmus-test virtue-signaling within each tribe. This is the result of two well-known manifestations of human nature:
A) it's very stressful to maintain a sense of identity and security in intrinsically ambiguous, complex, non-linear situations, and so humans default to simplistic orthodoxies as a bulwark against the strain of constantly having to monitor, assess and adjust one's beliefs and actions.
Put another way, the OODA Loop -- observe–orient–decide–act -- isn't innate, and every iteration thins our internal buffers, especially if the cycles are constantly speeding up as the situation becomes more chaotic, disordered and unpredictable / non-linear.
B) As my friend Dave P. has noted, the default reaction to any challenge of these basic existential orthodoxies is to double down and increase our devotion and commitment to the orthodoxy, in direct correlation to the effectiveness of the challenge in raising legitimate doubts: The Backfire Effect (via Dave P.).
The greater our doubts and the more telling the challenge, the greater our desire to protect our identity and certitude.
3. As my friend GFB has explained, the corrosive incivility of the online digital world has been normalized to such a degree that it has infiltrated the real world: people now feel they have the right to heap abuse and scorn on those outside their tribe in the real world just as they do online, and fabricate completely staged hate crimes to justify their demonization of competing tribes.
Righteous indignation is now viewed as a free pass to act with appalling incivility and relentlessly demonize anyone expressing skepticism of your tribe's virtue-signaling, promoting a differing set of values and solutions, or indeed, being reasonable in an increasingly unreasonable era.
In terms of signaling one's loyalty and fervor, extremism pays dividends within the tribe while being reasonable will get you shunned or ejected from the tribe. Desire more "likes" and positive feedback in the tribe? The way to garner more support is to be even more extreme. Want quasi-hysterical uncivil criticism and accusations of being a traitor or Trojan Horse? Express rational skepticism and a desire to understand others' points of view.
Reasonable people have no tribe, as being reasonable is intrinsically averse to the simple certainties that define tribes. As reasonable people are drowned out in a rising sea of simplistic orthodoxies and perverse incentives to become ever more extreme and rigid, the system that depends on reasonable compromise and mutual acceptance comes apart. All that's left are unreasonable, stridently orthodox warring camps seeking the eradication of competing tribes.
The recognition that such a system is incapable of making any sustainable progress has been lost along with the value of being reasonable.
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Saturday, February 23, 2019

Food Diversity's Enormous Impact on Your Health

What is left unsaid by many articles on these healthy oldsters is the variety of fiber-rich foods in their diets.
This essay was initially distributed only to subscribers and patrons, but at the suggestion of some longtime subscribers, I'm sharing it with all readers. I hope it helps everyone manage our most precious wealth, our health. CHS
One of the most astonishing developments in science is the profound impact of the microbiome, the 100 trillion microbes that live within us, on our health. It's now clear that this immense colony directly impacts our immune system, our sense of well-being, our appetite, weight, and so on.
Scientific American summarized this new research thusly: "Leading scientists now think of humans not as self-sufficient organisms but as complex ecosystems colonized by numerous collaborating and competing microbial species. From this perspective, human health is a form of ecology in which care for the body also involves tending its teeming population of resident animalcules."
Poorly functioning microbiomes are now linked to Parkinson's disease and a host of auto-immune disorders as well as metabolic disorders such as diabetes. (It seems that the majority of people who develop Parkinson's suffer from chronic constipation.)
I've been following this research since 2012, when the new understanding started to attract funding and media coverage.
"I came away from Sonnenburg’s office with a sense that I’d glimpsed a principle underlying our relationship with microbes. Wringing calories from wild, fibrous fare required a village-- microbes specialized in distinct tasks, but each also dependent on its neighbors. The difficulty of the job encouraged cooperation between microbes. When you withheld fiber, though, you removed the need for that close-knit cooperation. The mutually beneficial arrangements began to fray.
In their recent book, The Good Gut: Taking Control of Your Weight, Your Mood, and Your Long-term Health, the Sonnenburgs argue forcefully that boosting fiber intake is the best way to cultivate a healthier community of microbes."
There are hundreds of articles on this rapidly expanding field; here are a few that illustrate the breadth of research:
How Gut Bacteria Tell Their Hosts What to Eat: By suppressing or increasing cravings, microbes help the brain decide what foods the body “needs”
Here is a documentary on the topic from 2013: The Gut: Our Second Brain(documentary) (Amazon Prime members can watch it for free)
Here is the key take-away of this research in my view: diversity and variety are essential features of healthy ecosystems, including the one inside us and the social-economic ecosystems we inhabit.
Given what we know about the microbiome, it makes excellent sense to eliminate / restrict processed foods. But it also makes excellent sense to consume as wide a variety of fiber-rich fruits and plants as possible, and to consume a wide variety of types of foods in moderation, as a means of supporting a diverse and healthy microbiome.
It's also wise to spend time outdoors, working in the garden and soil if possible and weather permitting, as there is evidence that suggests living in sterile interiors increases allergies and other disorders. This makes sense, as our genome (including our digestive/immune ecosystem) is adapted to living outdoors, not to living in sterile indoor environments.
Much has been written about human populations that are healthy far into old age: people who live in the Greek islands, Okinawa, etc. It has been widely noted that these elderly people eat real food (i.e. not refined/processed), much of which they grow themselves. They also live in a healthy social ecosystem of friends and sharing.
What is left unsaid by many articles on these healthy oldsters is the variety of fiber-rich foods in their diets: whole grains, vegetables, fruits, etc. Yes they eat meat and fish, and in the Mediterranean they drink wine, and these are integral to the variety in their diet. But the core of their diet is fiber-rich plants. This aligns with what we know about healthy microbiomes and thus healthy immune systems.
Of related interest:
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Thursday, February 21, 2019

10 Common-Sense Amendments to the U.S. Constitution

These are my suggested loophole-closing amendments.
Unfortunately, my recent essay Let's Face It: The U.S. Constitution Has Failed deeply offended readers whom I had no intent to offend. One reader even decided to stop reading my work, which is extreme in the polite and cordial little world of Of Two Minds, where differences of opinion are expected and welcomed as long as they add to our shared understanding of the great issues of our era.
The key point of offense is my suggestion that the Constitution itself is wanting, when it is obvious to all that it's those who have been entrusted to administer the Constitution who are wanting. My error was in not stipulating this self-evident truth at the outset.
But I also think many readers misunderstood my point, which is that the Constitution was devised as a living document that could be amended as needed. It was not intended as a text that could not be updated as conditions change. This is why the method of amendment is spelled out very precisely.
The founders feared exactly what has come to pass: a government that no longer represents the interests of the citizenry. They did their best in a fractious debate to stipulate safeguards, but it's clear that many of the Founders understood that no document could completely safeguard the Republic against a leadership that sought to undermine the Republic at every turn for personal gain.
It is also constructive to recall Jefferson's observations on the need for dissent to maintain liberty:
When Jefferson said, “God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion,” he was expressing the idea that “liberties are ensured by the spirit of resistance” and that all great nations had rebellions (again justifying that liberty shouldn’t be sacrificed by conservative worry). (source)
It seems to me that adding strict limits to the government's powers and closing the loopholes that now threaten the Republic are forms of dissent that deserve an open airing. I offer these proposed amendments as a start. I consider them common-sense ways to limit the abuses of power and rank corruption that are undermining the Republic. The penalties have to be severe enough to thwart all who seek to exploit the government's many powers for their private enrichment and gain.
1. No branch of the government may create an agency or entity, public or private, that is not expressly authorized and defined by the Constitution.
No more Federal Reserve, CIA, etc. unless the authorization is added to the Constitution.
2. No agency or entity, public or private, may issue United States currency, or substitute forms of currency, other than the Treasury.
No more Federal Reserve or Federal Reserve notes.
3. The Treasury is authorized to issue loans of one year or less duration to public and private entities in response to financial crisis.
Resolving liquidity crises is the sole justifiable function of central banks. This amendment gives those powers to the Treasury, so there's no need for a central bank.
4. No government may restrict the citizens' enjoyment of the civil liberties defined in the Bill of Rights on all public and private land, with the sole exception being activities that restrict or disrupt the normal flow of commerce.
No more "free speech zones" situated 5 miles from the political hack giving a hackneyed speech.
5. No personnel, paid or unpaid, of the government, government contractors or entities receiving direct or indirect funding from the government may set foot on any foreign soil for the purposes of hostilities or actions preparing for hostilities except as authorized by a Declaration of War by Congress.
No more "wars of choice" or Imperial meddling / over-reach. You want military or mercenary operations in 20 countries? Then get 20 Declarations of War from Congress.
6. No person or entity, living, robotic or digital, may contribute more than one day's pay of the average American laborer to any person seeking elected office in any one election cycle, in currency, goods, services or labor, paid or unpaid. Any person seeking elected office who accepts more than this sum in any form, and anyone who seeks to circumvent this statuary limit on campaign contributions, shall be barred from holding office for their lifetime and will serve a minimum prison sentence of 5 years.
This is about $100 in today's money.
6A. No person or entity which has received funding, favors or contracts from the government, directly or indirectly, within the previous 5 years is allowed to contribute to any elective office campaign, under the penalties described in Amendment 6. Additionally, any entity that seeks to bypass this restriction shall be fined 5 years of annual revenues, payable upon conviction.
6B. Every contribution, direct or indirect, in currency, goods, services or labor, paid or unpaid, made to a person seeking elected office, must be published publicly within 48 hours of receipt. Every entity's contribution must carry the name of the person or persons responsible for the entity's management. Any entity that seeks to bypass this restriction shall be fined 5 years of annual revenues, payable upon conviction.
A corporation with annual revenues of $1 billion would pay a $5 billion fine, or be liquidated. Its shareholders and bondholders would be wiped out.
6C. No individual may spend more than one month of the average laborer's monthly pay on their own campaign for elective office. Anyone who seeks to circumvent this statuary limit on campaign contributions shall be barred from holding office for their lifetime and will serve a minimum prison sentence of 5 years.
This is about $4,500 in today's money.
7. The civil rights of citizens cannot be extended to legal entities, and are reserved solely for living individual citizens.
8. No government employee may accept a position in any private entity that has accepted funding, favors or contracts from the government in the previous 5 years for a period of 10 years after leaving government office.
No more revolving doors, no more corporate capture, no more campaign contributions beyond trivial sums. Campaigns of volunteers will face off against each other.
9. Every agency and office of the government, and every entity or person that has received funding, favors or contracts, directly or indirectly, from the government, shall be independently audited every 4 years, and the results of these forensic audits are to be made public on the day of their issuance. Any entity that seeks to bypass or evade this requirement shall be fined 5 years of revenues, payable upon conviction. Any person who seeks to bypass or evade this requirement shall serve a minimum prison sentence of 5 years.
No more unaudited agencies and government contractors.
10. The government is restricted solely to the powers explicitly stipulated in the Constitution. No additional powers may be assumed unless authorized by an amendment to the Constitution.
This won't stop all mischief, but it at least provides a constitutional barrier and a bulwark of dissent to governmental over-reach.
These are my suggested loophole-closing amendments. You undoubtedly have others and / or improved versions of these. Let's put them on the table for debate and discussion.
My book Money and Work Unchained is now $6.95 for the Kindle ebook and $15 for the print edition. Read the first section for free in PDF format.


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