Gold News

Mr.Market Meets Mr.Trouble

The Fed's $4.1 trillion balance sheet is a standing invitation to trouble...
 
BACK in the late 1970s, writes Bill Bonner in his Diary of a Rogue Economist, Michael Milken persuaded his boss at Drexel Burnham to let him start a high-yield bond trading department.
 
High-yield bonds are non-investment grade bonds that carry high default risk. Hence their nickname: "junk bonds". Soon, Milken's trading department started earning a 100% return on investment.
 
The junk-bond market was tiny – with total issuance only rising to about $30 billion in the mid-1980s. Milken was right about junk bonds being hugely profitable. But that didn't stop the feds from putting him in jail in 1990 on six counts of securities and tax fraud. Because Milken didn't just stop at legitimate means of making money in the high-risk world of junk bonds.
 
Nevertheless, the junk-bond market continued to grow. At the end of the 1990s, issuance was hitting new records – at about $150 billion. Then junk-bond issuance collapsed with the tech bubble.
 
But unlike tech stocks, junk bonds were soon flying higher than ever. In the middle of the 2000-07 period, annual junk-bond issuance rose above the $150 billion mark. But in 2013, the junk really topped the charts – with about $330 billion of new bonds issued.
 
Why so much junk?
 
Ah, for that...as for so much else...we have a central bank to thank. Lower yields on Treasury bonds and investment grade corporate bonds, as a result of Alan Greenspan's driving down the federal funds rate in the wake of the tech-wreck and the 9/11 attacks, encouraged investors to stretch beyond their comfort zone for higher rates of return in lower quality issues.
 
By 2007, they were driving into bad neighborhoods to get what they needed. And by 2013, they were dumpster diving for a measly 5%.
 
Can you blame them, dear reader?
 
With the Fed holding down interest rates, there was less and less reason for anyone to default. A mismanaged zombie business didn't need to stop paying its coupons; it just had to rollover its debt. Borrowers and lenders were deceived. The former found lenders unusually motivated; the latter believed borrowers were uncharacteristically solvent.
 
All of which just serves to highlight our latest dictum: The Fed's $4.1 trillion balance sheet is a standing invitation to trouble.
 
Mr.Trouble walks through the door every morning and into a party every night. But he is a master of disguise.
 
One day, he comes with the healthy mien of a robust high-yield debt market. The next day he is crumpled over, as if depressed by unusually low consumer price inflation. And on the weekend here he is again – a big shot from Wall Street with the highest profit margins in 60 years.
 
Yes, dear reader, trouble comes in many guises and disguises. An honest, properly functioning economy spots him immediately and promptly shows him the door. But a trumped-up, highly manipulated and mountebank economy is like a carnival hoedown. You can find anything you want...but nothing is exactly what it appears to be.
 
Economists refer to this as the problem of "distortion". The real cost of real capital is usually set by the prevailing interest rates. When the Fed permits Mr.Market to function normally investors can take the facts at face value. When the Fed intervenes the effect is to distort the economy and the markets.
 
Artificially sending interest rates lower makes capital too cheap. It is borrowed too easily and spent too readily. The result is over-speculation...and over-investment.
 
That is why we have a record issuance of junk bonds in 2014. It is just one more of the many drag queens and carnival kings that have been corrupted by the Fed's heavy-handed meddling in the markets.
 
On display, too, is the US "recovery" – the weakest ever in postwar history! Never before has such a strong recession been followed by such a weak bounce back. Quarter after quarter, job growth, GDP growth and consumer price growth substantially underperform every other recovery since World War II.
 
Another record! And just one of the many jolly revelers who opens the door for Mr. Trouble when he shows up.

Bill Bonner has co-authored a number of New York Times Bestsellers including Financial Reckoning Day, Empire of Debt and Mobs, Markets and Messiahs. In his own opinion, Bill's most recent title, A Modest Theory of Civilization: Win-Win or Lose, is his best work yet. Bill also founded The Agora, a worldwide community for private researchers and publishers, in 1979. Financial analysts within the group have exposed and predicted some of the world's biggest shifts since that time, starting with the fall of the Soviet Union back in the late 1980s, to the collapse of the Dot Com (2000) and then mortgage finance (2008) bubbles, and more recently the election of President Trump.

See full archive of Bill Bonner articles

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