First from Eric Sprott and David Baker of Sprott Asset Management.
2012 is proving to be the 'Year of the Central Bank'. It is an exciting celebration of all the wonderful maneuvers central banks can employ to keep the system from falling apart. Western central banks have gone into complete overdrive since last November, convening, colluding and printing their way out of the mess that is the Eurozone. The scale and frequency of their maneuvering seems to increase with every passing week, and speaks to the desperate fragility that continues to define much of the financial system today.
The first major maneuver took place on November 30, 2011, when the world's G6 central banks (the Federal Reserve, the Bank of England, the Bank of Japan, the European Central Bank [ECB], the Swiss National Bank, and the Bank of Canada) announced "coordinated actions to enhance their capacity to provide liquidity support to the global financial system".1 Long story short, in an effort to avert a total collapse in the European banking system, the US Fed agreed to offer unlimitedUS dollar swap agreements with the other central banks. These US dollar swaps allow the other central banks, most notably the ECB, to borrow US dollars from the Federal Reserve and lend them to their respective national banks to meet withdrawals and make debt payments. The best part about these swaps is that they are limitless in scope – meaning that until February 1, 2013, the Federal Reserve is, and will be, prepared to lend as many US dollars as it takes to keep the financial system from imploding. It sounds absolutely great, and the Europeans should be nothing but thankful, except for the tiny little fact that to supply these unlimited US dollars, the Federal Reserve will have to print them out of thin air.
Eurozone banks may now be hooked on what is clearly a back-door quantitative easing (QE) program, and as the warning goes for addictive drugs – once you start, it can be very hard to stop.
Britain is definitely hooked. On February 9, 2012, the Bank of England announced another QE extension for 50 billion pounds, raising their total QE print to £325 billion since March 2009.3 Japan's hooked as well. On February 14, 2012, the Bank of Japan announced a ¥10 trillion ($129 billion) expansion to its own QE program, raising its total QE program to ¥65 trillion ($825 billion).
Who needs traditional QE when the Fed already buys 91 percent of all 20-30 year maturity US Treasury bonds? Perhaps they're saving traditional QE for the upcoming election.
All of this pervasive intervention most likely explains more than 90 percent of the market's positive performance this past January. Had the G6 NOT convened on swaps, had the ECB NOT launched the LTRO programs, and had Bernanke NOT expressed a continuation of zero interest rates, one wonders where the equity indices would trade today. One also wonders if the European banking system would have made it through December. Thank goodness for "coordinated action". It does work in the short-term.
The problem with central bank intervention is that it never works out as planned. The unintended consequences end up cancelling out the short-term benefits. Back in 2008, when the Fed introduced zero percent interest rates, everyone thought it was a great policy. Four years later, however, and we're finally beginning to appreciate the complete destruction it has wreaked on savers. Just look at the horror show that is the pension industry today: According to Credit Suisse, of the 341 companies in the S&P 500 index with defined benefit pension plans, 97 percent are underfunded today.12 According to a recent pension study by Seattle-based Milliman Inc., the combined deficit of the 100 largest defined-benefit plans in the US increased by $236.4 billion in 2011 alone. The main culprit for the increase? Depressed interest rates on government bonds.
Let's also not forget the public sector pension shortfalls, which are outright frightening. In Europe, unfunded state pension obligations are estimated to total
$39 trillion dollars, which is approximately five times higher than Europe's combined gross debt.15 In the United States, unfunded pension obligations increased by $2.9 trillion in 2011. If the US actually acknowledged these costs in their deficit calculations, their official 2011 fiscal deficit would have risen from the reported $1.3 trillion to $4.2 trillion. Written the long way, that's a deficit of $4,200,000,000,000,… in one year.
I know Eric Sprott wants us to buy gold from him but I could not agree more on the points he has made here or write any better. So I quote from a very long essay and applaud.
The next one is from David Rosenberg of Gluskinn-Sheff:
There is perception and then there is reality. In a replay of events this time last year, investor optimism is near an extreme according to many measures and views over the economic outlook have become much more constructive. This is the perception and it is well ingrained. But there is also the reality that some critical hurdles for the economy loom on the horizon and should not be dismissed out of hand:
The European recession is just getting started and the impact on Asian trade flows is already evident in the data — with Chinese export growth completely vanishing in January and manufacturing diffusion indices flashing modest contraction in February. We are potentially one to two quarters away from seeing a significant shock to the U.S. GDP data from an eroding net foreign trade performance.
What upset the apple cart this time last year was the run-up in oil prices, followed by a lag with a surge in gas prices at the pump. Once again, oil prices have ratcheted up and with a lag, we can probably expect a return to $4 per gallon for regular gas at the pumps by the time spring rolls around. The front page of the USA Today makes the case for why $5 per gallon is likely coming. The transport stocks see what's coming, having peaked on February 3rd, and since then this group has suffered 9 losses out of the past 13 sessions, representing a 4% decline from the nearby peak. This is a bit of a problem for the bulls because the transports never did confirm the new highs that the Dow and S&P 500 made — and the index is now at a critical juncture as it kisses the 50-day moving average on the downslope.
This hurdle will likely only become apparent in the second half of the year and it relates to tax uncertainties and the implications for rising personal and corporate savings rates.
First, the top marginal personal tax rate rises to 39.6% from 35% as the Bush tax cuts expire at the end of 2012. A limit on itemized deductions will add a further 1.2 percentage points to the top rate. Second, a new 0.9% Medicare tax on incomes over $200,000 gets imposed ($250,000 for joint filers). Moreover, the top 15% rate on long-term capital gains rises to 20%. And dividends will once again be taxed at ordinary rates — 39.6% for the top income earners. A new 3.8% tax on investment income also gets introduced for incomes over $200,000 ($250,000 for joint filers). The top estate tax rate goes from 35% to 55% (60% in some cases). The estate tax exemption falls to $1 million from $5 million (the gift-tax exemption also drops to $1 million and the rate adjusts hither to 55%). In all, 41 separate tax provisions expire this year.
Of course we know Rosenberg as the perma bear and as such his views are to be read with the dark glasses but there is no denying the points he is making. Understanding the risks will save us from snake oil salesmen who are painting the sky in rainbow colours now.
And then there is some interesting reading from Greece:
Greece MP sends one million euro abroad. (s/he should know why) http://www.athensnews.gr/portal/9/53581
A third bailout of Greece is not ruled out (and we are not finished with 2nd one yet) http://www.athensnews.gr/portal/11/53580
China asking for its pound of flesh from EU in exchange of promise to help. http://www.testosteronepit.com/home/2012/2/24/china-tightened-the-vise-on-eurozone-bailout.html
John Stewart makes fun with the Republican contenders and Republican Party in general http://www.thedailyshow.com/full-episodes/thu-february-23-2012-paul-rudd
Bill Maher gets nasty with Republicans as well http://screen.yahoo.com/crazystupidpolitics
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