Commentary

Will Fed Easing Turn Out Like ’95 or ‘07?

July 15, 2019

 You should completely understand that the market is dangerously overvalued and that global economic growth has slowed to a crawl along with S&P 500 earnings. However, you must also be wondering when the massive overhang of unprecedented debt levels, artificial market manipulations, and the anemic economy will finally shock Wall Street to a brutal reality.

Artificially-low bond yields are prolonging the life of this terminally-ill market. In fact, record-low borrowing costs have been the lynchpin for perpetuating the illusion. Therefore, what will finally pull the plug on this market’s life support system is spiking corporate bond yields, which will manifest from the bursting of the $5.4 trillion BBB, Junk bond and leveraged loan markets. And, for that to occur, you will first need an outright US recession and/or a bonafide inflation scare.

We already have a manufacturing recession abroad and a contraction in the US, as illustrated in the new orders data from the June the ISM report. Wall Street is now starting to understand that there will be virtually zero earnings growth for the S&P 500 for the entirety of 2019. However, what is holding up the high-yield market and, consequently, equity prices now is the view that the Fed’s new rate cutting path will allow this ersatz economy a bit of a reprieve by taking interest rates back to zero and thus suppressing junk-bond yields as well.

The answer to the question regarding when stock prices will crash back toward a fair valuation hinges upon whether or not the Fed’s return trip back to free money will be enough to levitate asset prices and the economy a bit longer. Therefore, you must determine if Jerome Powell’s quick retreat on monetary policy will be like the rate cutting exercise that occurred in 1995, or will it be more like the 2001 and 2007 FFR cutting cycle, which turned out to be far too late to save stocks.

Those three economic cycles all experienced a flat or inverted yield curve with rapidly decelerating economic growth; similar to what we find today. But unlike the relatively innocuous period of ’95, the ’01 & ’07 cycles proved that the rate cuts implemented were not nearly enough to avert a brutal stock market collapse.

Let’s look at a bit of history. After first having raised the Fed Fund Rate (FFR) by 300 bps leading up to the middle of the 1990s, the Fed then began cutting rates by February of 1995. It ended its three 25 bps rate cutting cycle by January 1996. The total amount of 75 bps of rate reductions were enough to not only steepen the yield curve and propel the economy out of its two-quarter growth recession but also launched the S&P 500 on an epoch five-year run of 140% by the year 2000. Of course, Wall Street would love for you to believe that Jerome Powell’s new-found dovishness will lead to a similar result.

In sharp contrast to what occurred nearly a quarter century ago, the Fed’s last two attempts to pull the economy out of a nose-dive ended in disaster.

The Fed began to raise interest rates in June of 1999 in an effort to put a damp cloth on the red-hot NASDAQ bubble. By May of 2000, it had undergone a total of 175 bps worth of rate hikes. Mr. Greenspan then began to lower rates in January of 2001 and finally ended his rate cutting cycle in June of 2003 after he reduced the FFR by a whopping 550 bps. Nevertheless, those rate cuts were not enough to save equity prices.  By the fall of 2002, Greenspan had already lowered the FFR by a total of 525 bps, but that didn’t stop the NASDAQ from losing 78% of its value by that time and for investors to see $5 trillion worth of their assets obliterated.

It was a similar situation regarding what occurred during the Great Recession. Chairs Greenspan and Bernanke collaborated to raise the FFR by 425 bps from June of 2003 thru June of 2006. Ben Bernanke then began cutting rates in September of 2007 with an oversized 50 bps reduction right off the bat. He then, in a rather aggressive manner, took rates to virtually zero percent by December of 2008. In other words, he slashed rates to a record low level and by a total of 525 bps, and it only took him one year and three months to do it! However, even that wasn’t enough to keep the stock and housing bubbles from crashing. By March of 2009, the Dow Jones had shed 54% of its value, and home prices plunged by 33%  on a national basis.

Again, this begs the crucial and salient question: will the hoped-for rate cutting cycle, which Jerome Powell indicated at his testimony before Congress on July 10th will probably begin on July 31st, be enough to keep the record equity bubble from imploding? Of course, nobody knows for sure, but there is a strategy to help us accurately model the answer.

First off, the rate cutting cycle in the mid-nineties was abetted by the massive productivity boom engendered by the advent of the internet. There is no such productivity phenomenon of commensurate capacity evident today. In addition, China was on the cusp of bringing 200 million of its population into the middle class by taking on $38 trillion in new debt. The building of that giant pile of debt was responsible for creating 1/3rd of global growth and cannot be duplicated again. Indeed, global growth today is careening towards the flat line rather than being on the cusp of a major expansion.

Not only this but the debt burden in 1995 pales in comparison to that of 2008 and 2019. Total Public and Private US debt as a percent of GDP was just 260% in 1995. However, by the year 2008, it had surged to 390% of GDP, and that figure still stands at 365% today. That is over 100 percentage points higher than it was in ’95.

Another comparison to view is the amount of overvaluation in the stock market between periods. In 1995 the total market cap of equities to GDP was around 70%. But by 2000, it shot up to 148% of GDP. That figure was 110% at the end of 2007 and has now climbed all the way back to 146% today.  The bottom line is the economy is much more fragile today than it was in 1995.

But perhaps even more important than the overvaluation of equities and the massive debt burden the economy must endure is the fact that the Fed could only raise the FFR to 2.25% before stocks began to falter during this last hiking cycle. Therefore, it can only cut rates nine times before returning to the zero-bound range. In each of the previous three rate-cutting cycles, the Fed had plenty of dry powder. In fact, in ’95 it had 600 bps, in 2000 it had 650 bps, and in 2008 it had 525 bps of rate cuts available to deploy.

Also, when looking at the effective number of rate hikes the Fed has engaged in during this latest tightening cycle, you get approximately the equivalent of 625 bps of hiking since 2014. This would include the wind-down of $85 billion in QE, 225 bps of nominal FFR hikes, and the $700 billion QT program – which for the first time in U.S. history saw a tremendous amount of base money destroyed. That amount of monetary tightening is absolutely extraordinary.

The unavoidable conclusion is that the efforts from Mr. Powell will not be nearly enough to thwart the market from its well-deserved day of reckoning.

Michael Pento is the President and Founder of Pento Portfolio Strategies, produces the weekly podcast called, “The Mid-week Reality Check” and Author of the book “The Coming Bond Market Collapse.”

Baoshang Bank Could Be China’s Indybank

June 17, 2019

For the first time in nearly 30 years, the Chinese central bank and the Banking Regulatory Commission announced it would take control of one of its banks. The troubled Mongolia-based Baoshang Bank had assets of 576 billion yuan ($84 billion), and its seizure is indicative of the deteriorating health of small-scale banks, mostly in rural areas and in smaller cities, as China’s economy slows.

The turmoil surrounding its conservatorship has led interbank lending rates to spike, forcing the Bank of China to inject billions of yuan to quell the fear of systemic contagion. For years China’s regional banks have used shadow-financing to obfuscate their exposure to precarious borrowers. While China has made an effort to rein in shadow-banking activity, this is the first time in decades that regulators have assumed control of a bank in this way. In 2015 and 2016, they recapitalized lenders and merged stronger banks with weaker ones, but these restructuring efforts were disorganized, inadequate, and didn’t address the main issue at hand…insolvency.

According to data compiled by Bloomberg, for the first four months of the year, companies defaulted on 39.2 billion yuan ($5.8 billion) of domestic bonds. This is 3.4 times the total for the same period during 2018.

With the solvency issues plaguing the smaller banks and the rise in defaults, it is becoming evident that funding needs for China’s major commercial banks are becoming intractable for Beijing. The PBOC is running low on the U.S. dollars it needs for activities both at home and abroad. In 2013, China’s four largest commercial banks had around $125 billion more worth of dollar assets than liabilities. But today they owe more dollars to creditors and customers than are owed to them.

Making things even worse for the Chinese banking system is that its problems extend beyond mainland China; there is a looming banking crisis in Hong Kong as well.

Hong Kong pegs its currency to the US dollar and therefore has been overaccommodative with their monetary policy since 2008. This has led to a massive bubble in real estate. Hayman Capital’s Kyle Bass believes Hong Kong is reminiscent of Iceland, Ireland, and Cyprus, whose banking systems imploded during the European banking crisis. The commonality was that each country had allowed their banking sectors to grow to almost 1,000% of GDP, leaving them vulnerable to the smallest economic hiccup. Bass believes that Hong Kong is in a similar situation with its banking system sitting as one of the most levered in the world at approximately “850% of GDP (with 280% of GDP being lent directly into mainland China)”.

Mainland China would be directly on the hook for Hong Kong’s failure as the two largest banks in that nation (Standard Chartered and HSBC) were once filled with British depositors, but now have mostly Chinese obligations.

China’s government has operated its economy much like a Ponzi scheme. It has been stimulating growth by printing money and issuing debt since the year 2000. This is much the same throughout the developed world. But this practice has been on steroids in since 2009. For example, M2 money supply in has skyrocketed by over 133 trillion Chinese Yuan, nearly $20 trillion during that timeframe. But during that same period, China’s annual GDP grew by approximately only $8.4 trillion—proving much of that debt issuance was of the non-productive variety. Therefore, it takes an ever-increasing supply of new money and debt to grow its economy and continue the economic charade.

China is in the midst of one of the largest financial bubbles in modern history. The ratio of banking assets to GDP is much higher than the US at the top of the housing bubble and higher than the EU right before its sovereign debt crisis in 2012.

Still, there are many in the market who believe that with the impressive $3.2 trillion pile of foreign exchange (FX) reserves held by China, nothing can go wrong. Those people should note that that figure was $4.0 trillion not long ago and is currently declining at a rate of $100 billion per month.

Kyle Bass notes that China needs $2.7 trillion of required minimum reserves just to keep trade functioning properly. Thus, making that FX safety cushion a lot narrower.

China is just now experiencing cracks in its banking system that will test their newly established deposit insurance system, making a run on the banks a real possibility. For the Chinese government to save the banks, it may have to destroy their currency in the process. As it stands right now, the yuan is getting close to breaking the all-important 7 per dollar key psychological level. If this level is indeed breached, you may see a massive flight of capital out of the Chinese yuan.

Therefore, the government is forced to continuously issue a massive amount of new currency and debt to keep the economic mirage in place. Yet, at the same time, must find a way to keep its currency afloat. This is the Achilles heel of China’s communist command and control economic model, and it is negatively affecting the yuan’s purchasing power. Consumer prices in May increased by the most in 15 months, while food inflation spiked 7.7% year over year.

Will the conservatorship of Baoshang bank be the event that finally unravels their banking system’s Potemkin Chinese Wall of solvency?  That still is not clear. But with each new iteration of stimulus, the yuan weakens–even against other currency manipulators like the Fed and ECB.

Very few investors thought back in July of 2008 that Indybank was the canary in the coal mine, which gave an advanced warning regarding the insolvency of much of the US financial system. At the time of the bank’s failure, FDIC Chair Sheila Bair assured markets not to worry and that its failure was well within the range of what they could handle. Fed Chair, Ben Bernanke, also gave assurances that the incipient subprime mortgage crisis was completely contained. It wouldn’t be until later that year when investors realized the full extent of the banking crisis that led to the conservatorship of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the takeover of Washington Mutual in September of 2008–and, soon thereafter, the near collapse of the entire global economy.

Given that China’s total debt has quadrupled in the past twelve years, a feat that is absolutely unapparelled in history, it wouldn’t be surprising if the collapse of Baoshang Bank forebodes the same fate for China’s economy as Indybank did for the United States.