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The Shell Game Continues...

Monday, April 5, 2010, 6:53 PM
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The Shell Game Continues...

Monday, April 5, 2010

Executive Summary

  • Record-breaking Treasury auctions continue to go off without a hitch, thanks to massive foreign participation.
  • However, the amounts reported to be bought in the auction results do not match the Custody Account or TIC report amounts.
  • The Fed is allegedly all done buying MBS and Treasury paper.  This cuts off an important source of liquidity for the Treasury, commodity, and stock markets.  
  • How will these markets respond to a liquidity drought?

The end of March is upon us.  I need to take a moment to re-analyze the data to see what might happen now that the stimulus money has worn off, and, more importantly, now that the Federal Reserve's massive Mortgage Backed Security (MBS) purchase program is over.

This is important for a variety of reasons.  The first is that the enormous flood of liquidity that the Federal Reserve injected into the financial system has found its way into the Treasury market, supporting government borrowing and also lowering interest rates for the housing market.  How will the Treasury market respond once the liquidity spigot is turned off? 

The second is that this flood of liquidity has supported all sorts of other asset markets along the way, including the stock and commodity markets.  What will happen to these when the flood stops?  Will the base economy have recovered enough that the financial markets can operate on their own?  Will stocks falter after an amazing run?  Or will the whole thing shudder to a halt for a double-dip recession?

Back in August of 2009, I wrote that the Federal Reserve was basically just directly monetizing US government debt by buying recent Treasury issuances as well as Mortgage Backed Securities (MBS).

Here's the conclusion from that report: 

The Federal Reserve has effectively been monetizing far more US government debt than has openly been revealed, by cleverly enabling foreign central banks to swap their agency debt for Treasury debt.  This is not a sign of strength and reveals a pattern of trading temporary relief for future difficulties.

This is very nearly the same path that Zimbabwe took, resulting in the complete abandonment of the Zimbabwe dollar as a unit of currency.  The difference is in the complexity of the game being played, not the substance of the actions themselves.

When the full scope of this program is more widely recognized, ever more pressure will fall upon the dollar, as more and more private investors shun the dollar and all dollar-denominated instruments as stores of value and wealth. This will further burden the efforts of the various central banks around the world, as they endeavor to meet the vast borrowing desires of the US government.

My surprise at all of this has been twofold.  The shell game has continued this long without the bond market calling the bluff, and I am baffled by the extent to which the other world central banks have both enabled and participated in this game

Part of the explanation behind this unwavering support for the dollar and US deficit spending by other central banks lays in the fact that other Western and Eastern governments are equally insolvent.  It's possible that they feel they really have no choice but to play along, because the alternative would be to inflict a vicious and deeply unpopular austerity program on their own country, while everybody else is partying on thin-air money.  Who's going to be the first to do that?  Nobody, that's who. 

 

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