Where are the Hawks, Goldilocks, and Deflation?

By: Ed Bugos | Wed, Sep 3, 2003
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Keeping in mind the old spring (coil) metaphor, or Say's Law, or even the well known physics law - "every action causes an equal and opposite reaction" - let's imagine interest rates were already pushed as low as they could go by late 2002... to or beyond the boundaries of so-called equilibria.

But then (in the second quarter of 2003), imagine that interest rates were pushed down even lower. I'm talking about long term rates, which the Fed typically has less control over, and which were reported as sticky (unresponsive to the Fed's rate cuts) in 2001. In other words, even while the FOMC slashed short term rates from 6% to 2% in 2001, long term rates hardly fell that year (they ranged from 5.5% at the beginning of the year to a low of 4.2%, but ended the year at around 5% - see graph further below).

In fact, the only reason they fell to the 4% range to begin with was that Treasury Undersecretary Peter Fisher pulled our leg about a suspension of the 30 year bond in October (2001) - on account that the surplus would inevitably return, and that it would be less expensive for the government to issue shorter term bonds in the meantime.

But medium and long term yields didn't stay down. They went down for a week or two, then shot up real quick. That didn't stop the gang from trying again.

At about the same time, Greenspan was lobbying Congress for an expanded open market operations mandate - to include longer term Treasuries and mortgage backed securities on the basis that the ongoing budget surplus would eventually make obsolete the effect of their normal operations in the shorter end of the market (supposedly the pool of Treasury securities they are allowed to buy and sell would dwindle because the surplus would be used to buy them back). Believe it. They said it.

But presumably, the market did not believe it.

When they realized nobody was really buying the prospect of indefinite budget surpluses another angle began to see the light of day. They called in the term "unconventional tools". Specifically, the Fed said it now planned to force "long term" rates down by buying longer term maturities. I'll be darned. Same thing, different spin. You know the story. The term was circulated by the press every time there was bad news, or whenever stocks fell too sharply. It became a catch-phrase that fueled a climactic bond bubble into the summer.

Have a look at the chart of the 10 year Treasury yield below and notice the late 2001 and early 2002 back up in yields (from 4.2% to 5.5%) - which we contend was largely the reaction to the prior forced policy decline.

Remember, the bulls were breaking the Dow out then too, and they claimed the rise in yields was due to a strengthening economy rather than inflation expectations or failed policy. I guess they just couldn't take that last little push in March 2002 though, because shortly after that stock prices plummeted.

Yes, I am telling you what you already know, that falling interest rates are bullish for stocks, and rising interest rates just ain't good at all.

However, this time, when stocks turned down, yields really fell, particularly after gold prices peaked early in June 2002 (as was also the case this past March 2003) and as stocks just kept on falling.

The combination of a new bear market low in stock prices in September, widening terror anxieties, and the threat (or promise) of "unconventional tools" that circulated through Wall Street trading desks easily overcame the obvious inflationary developments - such as a weak dollar, soaring housing market, and strong commodity complex - and yields fell sharply into May 2003.

The Fed wasted no time rousing deflation fears - we call it the head on method of tackling inflation expectations.

Even after the rally in stock prices that finally got under way post March, the promise of a yield cap reached a pitch investors could hear all the way to China... literally! No doubt they bought bonds over car insurance.

The more they spun, the harder yields fell. It seemed to work. Stock prices gained, just like they often do when that happens. In fact, I can't see how the stock rally would have done without it.

In the end, as the stock and commodity markets increasingly crowded them out, it turned out to be mostly talk.

They sure pushed this thing all the way to the wall.

But two key things happened. First, gold and commodity prices were stoked by it, as they were in late 2001, and thus reaccelerated to higher highs. Second, the interest rate spring unwound this time as it did after the mini-Treasury rig effort of late 2001.

Let me ask, what better evidence is there that bond yields were pushed below market than the fact that they just shot up at their fastest pace in almost 20 years, and wiped out all the cuts back to July 2002 in one and a half months? - such that the 10 year bond yield is back up to 4.5%, not a heck of a lot lower than its 5.5% high in 2001.

I want to establish this fact. It's important. As the market sees through this charade, gold prices are gonna get pushed higher, and so will yields. How long can the Dow rise in the face of that?

It should be obvious that the Fed's open mouth policy impacted other markets - stocks, commodities, etc. - significantly, as well as the economic aggregates (on the way down to a 3.1% ten year bond yield at any rate), and that it will equally if not unpredictably impact them in reverse on a jaunt back to the 5% range, or higher if we're really right.

It should also be evident that it's unfolding now (strong gold and rising rates), as September encroaches, and the new stock trading season has begun. For most of the year so far, markets have worked hard factoring in all the bullish consequences of the Fed's policy. They haven't considered the other side of the coin since last fall.

I am confident you'll soon see that the Fed's effort to unstick the yield market in the last few years is not only self-defeating, but has clearly strengthened the fundamentals of our overall gold sector hypothesis.

Going Into September
The US dollar ended down last week but finished up for its 3rd month in a row in August. The move had no chart or technical significance and could simply be countertrend.

The bulls rallied it up to its 200-day moving average the week before, straddled resistance there for most of last week, then fell away from it by Friday and bounced back up to it yesterday. The three month uptrend is intact; the last highest short term low is at 95 on the trade-weighted index. The bears have to push through there to signal a fresh down leg.

The US dollar index mirrors the European currencies most on the charts. Meanwhile, the Canadian, South African, and Australian currencies so far have refused to confirm the Euro and Swiss Franc's August lows.

Now, yen bulls are taking another stab at breaking out, finishing a bullish outside day just yesterday. I can't imagine the Swiss Franc trading down much if the dollar breaks down against the yen now, or if US stock and bond markets CONTINUE to underperform the European markets in coming weeks - as they have since the Euro peaked in June.

The gold sector continued strong last week amid bad Fed rumors and good headlines for the global economy. We've said it before. They're climbing a wall of worry - unlike Wall Street's current infatuation. Still, it's gold's role to lead, and as strong as gold prices have been in recent months, bulls have yet to break out.

Cutting Through the Euro Baloney
Japanese authorities say enough is enough on the yen's rise, that it's just a correction in the euro that's causing it. The next day Treasuries pop as if the Japanese were buyers. They usually are. It rarely fails - so far.

Meanwhile, the western media has other incentives. It says the euro is falling because of either a) a global recovery led by Japan, or more typically b) a global recovery led by the US; in both cases Japan and the US are said to be benefiting more than Europe.

But we observe that hot money flows seem to prefer both Japanese and European bonds & shares to US bonds & shares, and that the upward trending trade surplus in Europe alone argues that the latest slide in the Euro is probably just corrective / technical.

Dollar bulls would counter that the trade surplus is growing in both Asia and Europe, which proves there is a US led global recovery underway.

We would counter, that if it were the case, that US equity markets would have to perform even better than they are, or that interest rates would have to practically double (in order to carry the twin deficits). Otherwise the greenback would have to falter in order to correct the trade imbalances. There's no way around it.

Yet the policy after math of the 90's bubble has kept many investors relatively bullish on the dollar, despite its young bear market outgrowth.

Consider three important differences between now and then:

1) Where the strong dollar of the late nineties - propped up in part by improving relative real returns in US assets stoked by currency crises in Europe and Asia - was a self reinforcing boon to interest rates and stock values, the weak dollar is typically the opposite.

2) Where the late nineties boom in US dollar denominated assets was at least born out of the semblance of a tight monetary policy, the current 12 month boom is born out of a no holds barred cowboy style inflationary policy whose designers claim is intended to avoid the consequences of deflation.

3) Whereas the late nineties boom ran alongside an administration that at least paid tribute to the idea of a balanced budget, the current boom is a textbook case application of Keynesian deficit spending.

What does it mean?

In the United States in particular, it means disinflation is gone. Fiscal prudence is gone. The hawks at the FRB, well, they've turned a blind eye. But there are consequences.

Inflation expectations are likely to continue to rise, the dollar is likely to remain weak, and interest rates are likely to soar... as we keep saying, especially once most investors figure it all out. It's happening right before your eyes. And it's precisely why we believe US markets have underperformed all others over the past few months - not because of a global recovery trade.

Thus, we look at the Euro's correction as the product of countertrend forces favoring the US dollar at the moment, which seem unsustainable for even a few days longer (but may be).

One way or another, either the dollar has to fall in order to correct the current account deficit, or interest rates have to rise. But at 25 times earnings for the S&P 500, any significant increase in interest rates is likely to pressure the dollar if it chokes off the official capital flows currently supporting it. The more inflation there is, the more the dollar becomes overvalued, and the more this process pressures interest rates higher tomorrow.

This is what gold prices have been predicting well since 2000, and it's been coming to fruition. Always, under the patronage of the Fed, there is much more inflation than productivity. There is no recovery trade. There's just the noise typical of countertrend moves.

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Ed Bugos

Author: Ed Bugos

Edmond J. Bugos

Ed Bugos is a former stockbroker, founder of GoldenBar.com, one of the original contributing editors to SafeHaven.com and former editor of the Gold & Options Trader. He continues to publish commentary on market and economic trends; and provides gold, economic and mining research to private clients worldwide.

The editor is not a registered advisory and does not give investment advice. Our comments are an expression of opinion only and should not be construed in any manner whatsoever as recommendations to buy or sell a stock, option, future, bond, commodity or any other financial instrument at any time. While we believe our statements to be true, they always depend on the reliability of our own credible sources. We recommend that you consult with a qualified investment advisor, one licensed by appropriate regulatory agencies in your legal jurisdiction, before making any investment decisions, and barring that, we encourage you confirm the facts on your own before making important investment commitments.

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