May You Live in Interesting Times

May You Live In Interesting Times

Risk is higher. Markets are more unpredictable, and valuations more volatile. So, when anyone says “this time it’s different” it usually makes good sense to stop listening. However, these days the markets have given us more frequent and intense volatility. The NASDAQ is down almost 30% so far this year, and shocks from the pandemic, the Ukrainian war, massive central bank interest-rate maneuvers, and China’s zero-covid policy, are all ongoing inputs for turmoil that will continue for some time. Persistent uncertainty creates higher costs of capital and less affordability, weakening business investment, slowing GDP growth, and reducing investment returns. Hyperbolic “this time it’s different” statements are turning out to be true. This time days look darker, uncertainty greater, economic growth lower, vulnerability to additional shocks higher, and investors fear many more dark days to come. More frequent and intense volatility will not be calmed anytime soon. It really may be different this time.

Hope Over Experience

Hope Over Experience

The Fed’s latest projection was for annual inflation to fall from over 5% at the end of 2022 to about 2.5% by the end of 2023. At this point, we’re not taking the Fed’s projections seriously, and for good reason. They were spectacularly wrong when a depth of understanding and insight into critical future events was essential. In other words, the understanding of how the economy works, the Fed’s ability to predict the effects of economic shocks, and its policy actions have gotten no better over the last 50 years. More specifically, price stability doesn’t seem to be coming anytime soon because people simply don’t think it will. If we look at the combination of rising wages and inflation expectations for both consumers and businesses, it is these expectations that drive inflationary pressures more than central bank policy. Inflation levels will be stickier than first theorized by the Fed, and the time to resolution is likely longer. Expect more “surprises” that will be no surprise.

Digital central banks

Initiative, savvy, luck, circumstance, and convolution have taken over currencies – or at least digital creations purported to be currencies (but in reality don’t, and never will, quite fit the bill). Those entities that create and support real currencies are taking notice. In other words, welcome to government in action. Here come central bank digital coins. Now imagine these “developed” governments (of whom France is probably not the worst offender) trying to deal with a global currency, currency exchanges, and the transfer of funds internationally. We don’t have to look too far to find the convoluted rules behind Bretton Woods, the WTO, and other international absurdities to recognize that this problem is not easily solved, or even understood. Bureaucrats are generally better at devising rules, charging fees, and collecting taxes and information than making anything that is useful or even comprehensible.

Luck rather than leadership, circumstance rather than foresight or political skill, seem to have been more helpful in triggering these developments. Digital coins (while loosely described as “currency” are more like a digital asset easily transferred and accounted for in a digital ledger) represent a handful of rather clever people taking on central government’s mighty bureaucrats. Armed with simplicity, clarity, and algorithms, they are defeating all administrations’ fondness for complexity, confusion, and rules.

In general, bureaucrats are masters of the art of convolution. Essentially, governments work overtime to create farce in the spirit of precision. An example of bureaucratic absurdity can be found in France (admittedly, a country that has taken bureaucracy to an art form – perhaps more so than art itself). When the government started a new lockdown because of the pandemic, they devised a two-page permission form to leave home, with 15 different justifications, before, thankfully, shelving it in the face of ridicule. The French can buy alcohol, for instance, but not underwear. These rules were simply to be able to walk out the front door, and the government imagined that this kind of detailed process was somehow useful, and not the bewildering reality it represented.

Inflation, Profits, and Bitcoin

“I believe that the present, accurately seized, foretells the future.” V.S. Naipaul There is a lot of uncertainty today in the markets, but there has always been uncertainty in the markets. We have never had certainty regarding the economy or the future. The most reasonable exercise, as V.S. Naipaul reminds us, is simply to understand the present. So what’s going on? The economy is accelerating. Inflation isn’t a problem. The Fed is going to keep interest rates as close to zero as possible for the foreseeable. These components are driving valuations higher, and in some cases, approaching stratospheric levels. Some concern is warranted in certain sectors, but overall, things seem to be relatively steady and not too overblown. Earnings appear likely to grow, and in many cases, quite rapidly, for the next couple of years – assuming something unforeseeable does not occur (but this probability is not zero). Bitcoin has a few interesting characteristics worth understanding. It is a decentralized, permissionless, peer-to-peer network of computers that’s permanent and unhackable .An investment in Bitcoin is, in reality, a part of the peer-to-peer computer network (essentially, a slot on the database), and almost all of those slots have been allocated. Only 21 million Bitcoins will be produced and 18.5 million have already been mined and circulated. Price is a function of supply and demand (see Economics 101).Arguments about “inherent value” are, and always will be, meaningless. Is there really some kind of “inherent value” in gold? We just decided it was valuable to us. The same is happening with Bitcoin. Bitcoin supply grew 2.5% in 2020; it will grow 2.0% in 2021.The question for Bitcoin valuation is simple: Is demand growing faster or slower than 2.0% annually?

Abundant Cash Is Not Cash Available Abundantly

The pandemic, Fed interest rate policy and bond purchases, restrictive banking regulations, and banks’ swelling cash balances will have a lingering impact on liquidity and produce some mind-bending policies to deal with this uncharted territory.

As the pandemic emerged in March 2020, strange things happened:

o Bond markets seized up and investors panicked.

o Bond yields spiked causing severe price declines.

o Credit default swap prices (debt protection derivatives) rose 100x in less than a month.

o The dollar rose and liquidity dropped for U.S. Treasuries, usually the world’s most liquid security.

o There was substantially lower demand at U.S. Treasury auctions.

The Federal Reserve responded with an almost never-ending pile of cash, buying vast quantities of bonds with newly created cash. It has continued its purchases, at a pace of at least $120 billion a month.

But this has not resulted in “happy days are here again.” This mountain of dollars is limiting liquidity and constraining markets. That’s right, read that again if you must – too much cash can constrain the economy.