May 23, 2022

We entered the year with household net worth on record highs. 
The job market was tight.  Consumers and businesses were flush with cash.  And residential real estate valuations were on record highs. 
Add in a record high stock market and ultra low interest rates, and we had a recipe for hot consumption.
That was the top.  
The high for the year in stocks was January 4th.  On Friday, we hit "technical bear market" territory for the S&P 500.  That's down 20%. 
What changed?
Was it war in eastern Europe?  Was it domestic policy mistakes?  Was it inflation? 
None of the above (not even oil). 
It was the Fed. 
Sure, the Fed is reacting to inflation.  But they could have executed a campaign to get inflation under control, by stepping UP interest rates.  They probably could have even done an emergency meeting rate hike to take the Fed funds rate back to neutral (around 3%), in one fell swoop.
And the economy, and the stock market, would have probably (still) boomed, at least until the Fed was seen to be clearly charging down the path of restrictive monetary policy (i.e. projecting as if they might move rates toward or above the inflation rate).  And that could have been by late this year, or early next year.  In that case, the Fed would have been putting the brakes on a very hot economy.  
Instead, the Fed opted against a traditional rate tightening campaign, and they opted for launching an attack on demand.  
The easiest way to take the air out of demand?  Crush the stock market.
The easiest way to crush the stock market?  Tell consumers, businesses and investors that you're going to attack demand. They will sell stocks.
That's precisely what the Fed did.  Jay Powell said explicitly back in March that they were trying to better align demand with supply (i.e. bring demand down).
With all of the above in mind, we talked last week about the Fed's "forward guidance" game.  This is how they talk their desired effect into existence, without having to take any big policy action.
Ben Bernanke (the former Fed chair) gave a presentation today at the Brookings Institution, where he said just that:  "Monetary policy is 98% talk and 2% action."  Their talk, at the moment, is intended to deflate stock prices, deflate animal spirits, and deflate demand.  That mission is being accomplished. 


May 20, 2022

Let's take a look at Tesla.
From the pandemic lows, Tesla stock rose about 14-fold in a matter of ten months.   By November of last year the stock was up almost 19-fold from the pandemic lows (that's in 20 months). 

Thanks to this rise, Tesla became a top four weighting in the S&P 500.  And Elon Musk became the richest man in the world. 
Why did Tesla's stock take off?
If you believed that the pandemic would derail a Trump re-election, and clear the path for the clean energy agenda and America's return to the Paris Climate Accord, then Tesla represented the global climate action cooperation trade — the anti-oil trade. 
As such, money plowed into the stock, from around the world, seemingly indiscriminately — as the manifestation of the global clean energy transformation. 
Tesla became valued as if it would destroy the entire auto industry.  By December of 2020, the market value of Tesla was equivalent to the market values of Toyota, Volkswagen, Daimler, GM, BMW, Honda and Ford … combined
How did Tesla even get there in the first place?
The Obama administration loaned the company $465 million back in 2009, at the depths of the financial crisis, under the administration's strategy of "investing in emerging technology."  Telsa had a new CEO (Elon), was burning cash and amassing liabilities (they were broke), and had yet to produce a consumer viable car.  This was an uninvestable company, that the government plowed almost half a billion-dollars into. 
But when the government money hit, the big institutional money aggressively followed it.  After all, at the depths of a economic and stock market crash, government stimulus was the only game in town.  Tesla not only survived, with the government as it's partner, but began to build market share with the benefit of government subsidies.  
Fast forward to March of 2020.  Again, government stimulus was the only game in town.  And the investing universe somehow quickly saw the pandemic as a catalyst to drive political change in the United States, and subsequently, profligate fiscal spending to fund the climate agenda.
The result:  The chart above. 
But then Elon made the mistake of pursuing the takeover of Twitter.  This appears to be biting the hand that fed him, as he is threatening the control that Twitter has had over information, and the company's influence it has had in supporting the domestic and global political and economic agenda.
As such, the sentiment tide has turned against Elon.  Not only has he been attacked personally, there is an attack on the Tesla share price.  The stock has been cut in half in just six weeks.  That's half a trillion dollars in value, evaporated.
Sure, the high valuation big tech stocks have all been taken apart this year, with the regime shift in monetary policy (i.e. a new rising interest rate cycle).  
But Tesla carries some bigger risk. 
Clearly, there is political opposition to Elon's Twitter deal.  And if Tesla's stock is being used as a tool, to prohibit the takeover (i.e. to make him poorer), then the S&P 500 — the broader market is at risk. 
Remember, Tesla is the fourth largest component of the market cap weighted S&P 500 index (the world's barometer of economic health).
That said, the hair cut Musk has already taken to his net worth, has made the affordability of the Twitter deal questionable.
Something to keep an eye on.  

May 19, 2022

The top finance officials from G7 countries are meeting in Germany.  It's a three day meeting to conclude tomorrow.  This is a prep for June meetings of G7 leaders.  
Importantly, both the finmin meetings and the leaders meetings have a history of resulting in meaningful market influence – especially in times of crisis.  And we have plenty of crises to review over the past 14 years.  
The biggest takeaway from these meetings over this past 14 years, is the commitment to "global coordination."
In times of economic weakness, and financial market instability, they have consistently vowed to coordinate.  And when they do, and they lead the communique with focus on the economy, stocks have done well.
But much of this 14-year era was dealing with demand problems.  Now, we are dealing with supply problems.  We're dealing with an inflation problem.  And we're dealing with financial market instability.
With that, what should we expect to come from these meetings of the world's most powerful finance officials? 
The report from Reuters today, is that the communique will focus on:
1) climate change, 2) Ukraine support, 3) food and energy support for emerging markets (keep exporting, even in the face of domestic shortages), 4) inflation, and 5) crypto.
This is not a focus on the economy.  It's a focus on the globally coordinated transformation agenda (climate and social), which has created most of the problems they are vowing to address.
So we shouldn't expect a G7 finance ministers lifeline for global stock markets (probably no mention at all).  
Importantly, in that regard, they vow to crack down on crypto (with swift regulation).     
Remember, on Friday, we discussed the likelihood that we may see a response (from these meetings) to the deflating crypto bubble.  After all, last week we saw the first fracture in the stablecoin business — with the failure of the stablecoin called Terra.
The big brother in the stablecoin world is Tether.  A similar run on Tether (as we've seen on Terra) could expose the lack of integrity behind the reserve management of this $74 billion stablecoin (i.e. based the company's own disclosures, they don't appear to have liquid access to the dollars, necessary to back the coins). 
Swift regulatory requirements here, could result in a swift end of Tether – and perhaps the fall of crypto dominoes.  Governments have made no secret that they want to regulate away private crypto, to make way for sovereign crypto (central bank digital currencies).   

May 18, 2022

The technical relief rally in stocks was short-lived. 
As we've discussed, this continues to look like the Fed is using stocks as a tool to bring down demand (to bring down inflation).  Just as they explicitly influenced stocks higher in the low inflation, low demand post-Global Financial Crisis era … they are now using that strategy in reverse, by talking tough and telegraphing tighter financial conditions, which is a headwind for stocks. 
Arguably, they have achieved their goal, already.  The animal spirits of just months ago has been knocked down.  The conversation has flipped from boom to recession.  That will slow the rate of price change (i.e. inflation).  
What won't change is the level of prices.  Higher prices are hear to stay. 
The offset to that, is higher wages.  That's a new paradigm for corporate America, and though they talk a good game, they don't want to reset the wage scale.  We are seeing that translate into lower margins at Target and Walmart (where the low end of the pay scale was adjusted sharply higher, to get people back to work, and to comply with the social agenda pressures).
On a related note, the Fed is now attacking (verbally) wage growth.  They begged for wage growth for fourteen years (when inflation was low).  Now they are attacking it (when inflation is high). 
That means, we should be prepared for a slow adjustment in wages across the rest of the pay scale.  It will be over time, to close the gap with what was a swift jump in prices (the consequence of the massive pandemic response, and the additional $3.1 trillion opportunistically poured on top, to fund the Biden agenda).
This slow closing of the wage/price gap will mean lower of standard of living/lower quality of life.  This was telegraphed all along the way.  Higher prices, but not higher value. 

May 17, 2022

On Friday we looked at a couple of key technical levels for stocks, that looked like a valid spot for a relief rally. 
We hit a 50% retracement in the Nasdaq, from the pandemic lows to the post-pandemic highs, on Thursday (hit it on the nose). It bounced, and we’ve since had three days of higher highs for a near 8% bounce. 

We also fully retraced to pre-pandemic levels on the Russell 2000 (small caps).   That too, has bounced for 8%. 
Is it the greenlight for the broad stock market?
Very unlikely. 
Remember, as we discussed yesterday, the Fed appears to be using stocks as a tool to “bring demand down.”  And they are doing it through tough talk, or as they call it, “forward guidance.”
For fourteen years, the Fed (and global central banks) used this tool of promises and threats to manipulate stocks higher, to induce confidence, paper net worth, and therefore, demand. 
Now, it looks like we’re seeing this strategy in reverse. 
With that, today, in the face of a nice three day rally for stocks, (Fed Chair) Jay Powell was interviewed as part of a Wall Street Journal event, where he hammered home this message … 
Again, those are the words we're hearing, but they aren't even projecting to end the rate cycle above what would be considered historically "normal" levels (which is around 3%) — much less anything near the current rate of inflation (above 8%). 
Still, this continues to be framed by the Fed and the media as an "aggressive" posture by the Fed. 
Contrast this, with what former Fed Chair, Ben Bernanke, said during the depths of the financial crisis.  When asked about the inflationary risks of QE, back in 2010, he said dealing with inflation is no problem.  "We could raise rates in 15 minutes." 
That would be an aggressive offense against inflation.

May 16, 2022

We entered the year with record high net worth for both consumers and corporate America.
And near record low debt service. 
And with inflation running at forty-year highs.
We knew, coming into the year, that the Fed had finally acknowledged the inflation problem, and was ready to take action — albeit in very conservative baby steps. 
Even after seeing it's first 8%+ inflation number, the Fed still was projecting a shallow rate hiking cycle, to end around 3% on the Fed Funds rate.  That's about historically neutral (not accommodative, not restrictive to economic activity).
As we've discussed, if we look back at the inflation fight of the early '80s, beating inflation required the Fed taking the Fed Funds rate above the rate of inflation.  The Fed Chair at the time, Paul Volcker, beat double-digit inflation with short-term interest rates that approached 20% — and in doing so, he took the economy into recession. 
But he also, in stabilizing prices, set the stage for a long and very good period of development for the U.S. economy.    
The current Fed still has given us no indication that they have the appetite to take such a path with rates.
That said, what they have done is promised to "bring demand down." 
And the sacrificial lamb, as the Fed has explicitly framed it, is the job market. 
So, yes, we have a Fed that suddenly trying to manipulate to the goal of less jobs.
At the moment, there are two open jobs for every one job seeker.  Not only has Fed Chair, Jay Powell, told us that they intend to bring the ratio of job openings/job seekers to one-to-one, but Ben Bernanke (the Fed Chair that presided over the Great Financial Crisis), echoed that game plan this morning (bring the job seekers ratio to one-to-one). 
The question is:  How do they do it? 
Raise rates, aggressively?  Higher rates equals tighter credit.  Tighter credit equals less business spending and investment.  And less business spending and investment tends to equate to less hiring.
But, again, the Fed is not projecting an aggressive, inflation chasing rate hiking campaign.  
With $6 trillion of new money floating around (thanks to all of the post-pandemic fiscal spending largesse), the level of demand is being reflected in an inflation rate of over 8%.  Yet the Fed's projected interest path, ending around 3%, gets them no where near the inflation rate. 
As it stands, executing on the Fed's projected rate path would still fuel demand (and therefore inflation).
So how to they intend to get their desired effect?
It may be that they intend (hope to) talk it into existence
What the Fed and other central banks learned through the global financial crisis fight, was that once they crossed the line and backstopped nearly everything, the markets would respect their threats/promises. 
This became a new tool, added to the central bank toolbox.  They called it "forward guidance." 
Throughout the financial crisis, the Fed used forward guidance to manipulate behaviors of consumers and businesses by telling us that rates would remain low for "an extended time."
The European Central Bank adopted it in 2012, by promising to defend the solvency of the collapsing European sovereign bond market, by saying they would be a buyer of unlimited sovereign debt (they would be the buyer of last resort).  Just by saying it, interest rates of the weak countries of Europe fell sharply, and the risk of major defaults subsided — without the ECB having to buy a single bond.  The threat, alone, worked.  And that was something that Mario Draghi (the ECB President, at the time) bragged about.
So, perhaps the Fed's threat to "bring down demand" is just "forward guidance," intended to influence behaviors (weaker demand).  Just talk. 
If so, it's working – so far. 
Stocks are behaving as if the Fed will take some recession-inducing action.  The (roughly) a 20% haircut in the stock market lowers the net worth of consumers, from record levels, which will soften demand.  That (stock market decline) alone, is good enough to put a dent in job creation, as companies start reining-in risk (from "uncertainty").  

Meanwhile, market interest rates (determined by the market) are at just 2.88% (having done an about face after trading as high as 3.2%).
A ten-year yield at 2.88 (at today's close) is not pricing in an aggressive, inflation chasing, rate hiking cycle.  If the bond market is indeed "smarter" than the stock market, perhaps the bond market knows the Fed is just playing the "forward guidance" game — talking, with no intention on big policy action.  
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May 13, 2022

As we head into the weekend, stocks had a nice technical relief rally.  
Let's look at a few charts.
Here's the Russell 2000 (small caps)…

As you can see, the small cap index has fully retraced to pre-pandemic levels (and has bounced). 
What else has fallen back to pre-pandemic levels?  Japanese stocks did, in March.  And German stocks are back to pre-pandemic levels. 
Above is a look at the Nasdaq (the center of the tech bubble universe).  As you can see, this has bounced from the 50% retracement of the move from the pandemic lows.  Pre-pandemic levels for the Nasdaq would still be 20% lower. 
So, has the tech bubble deflated – or more to come?
Bubbles tend to end with panic.  What does seem to be on path for panic is the bubble in crypto currencies. 
As we've discussed this past week, the stablecoin cryptocurrencies have been exposed as vulnerable this week (with the failure of the stablecoin Terra).  
I suspect more is to come.  And with that, brings risks to the financial system.  Coincidently, the G7 finance ministers are scheduled to meet next week in Germany.  If there are any shock waves from crypto, a coordinated response from global central banks to restore stability would likely be quick. 
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May 12, 2022

We talked yesterday about the crypto currency bubble.  Bitcoin has more than halved, which is not unusual for its history.  But the bigger issue is the stablecoin universe.  
Again, this is a couple of hundred billion dollars that were traded for private digital currencies, with the promise of remaining pegged to a currency (like the dollar) or asset (like gold). 
These pegs have broken.
A once $15 billion stablecoin called Terra now trades for 42 cents on the dollar.  The biggest stablecoin is Tether ("tethered" to the U.S. dollar).  It too, has broken the peg, trading as low as 95 cents on the dollar.
Interestingly, on Monday (May 9) the Fed released its annual report on Financial Stability.  That same day, Terra broke the peg.  And on Tuesday, Janet Yellen (the Treasury Secretary) testified before the Senate Banking 
Committee.  Tether broke the peg on Tuesday.
In the Fed report, among the vulnerability to the financial system that were cited:  "the vunerability to runs" in the "rapidly growing stablecoin sector." 
Guess what that triggered?  Runs on stablecoins (i.e. mass simultaneous investor withdrawals/redemptions).
So, is this a threat to the financial system?  Will there be contagion?  
In the case of Tether, it doesn't hold its $80+ billion of liabilities in U.S. dollars in a bank.  In fact, below is the breakdown of how the Tether liabilities ("reserves") are invested, based on their end of year 2021 independent accounting report. 

They have about $40 billion of investments (including commercial paper, money market funds, secured loans and other digital currencies).
This is like a shadow bank. 
It seems very likely, that the company will have a difficult time recovering principal from these investments to return to Tether holders – if they see mass Tether redemptions.  But the bigger problem is what a mass exodus of Tether's investments (all of that commercial paper, money market funds, etc.) might mean to the financial system.  
Remember, it was a run on a money market fund back in 2008 that set off more similar runs across the money market universe, requiring the Fed to step in.  They halted redemptions, and guaranteed the principal of money market funds.
This risk seems to be what is adding significant weight on markets.
With all of the above in mind:  
>The Japanese yen tends to behave like a safe haven in times of global uncertainty and economic/financial stress.  Today it was up 1%. 
>Treasuries have bounced sharply the past three days (THE place for global capital flight when risk is elevated). 
>And the dollar made new 20-year highs today (the other hiding place for global capital in "risk-off" environments).
As we've discussed, when the Fed announced it's quantitative tightening plans, history tells us that unforeseen consequences will follow (something will break in the financial system).  This may be it, in the making.  
The good news:  History also tells us that the Fed will respond (in such a case).  With backstops, guarantees, more QE.  Whatever it takes.  
The easiest, first step for the Fed to take, to curtail any flare up in the financial system, might be to signal to markets that they will hold off on QT — take a wait and see approach.     
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May 11, 2022

The inflation report came in hotter than expected this morning.  Yet, both the monthly and twelve-month change came in lower than the March report's blow out numbers.
So, has inflation indeed peaked, as the media, the administration and the Fed have suggested throughout the past month?  
Unlikely.  The 8.3% twelve-month change in prices for April (in this morning's report), was indeed cooler (slightly) than the 8.5% inflation in the March report.  But oil had a lot to do with the cooler number. 
If we look at the change in price of crude from Feb to March, it was 18%.  From March to April, crude prices were down 6%.  Not so coincidently, Biden announced a record release of oil from the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR), on March 31.  Oil prices were manipulated lower.  But now, prices have returned to pre-SPR announcement levels.
Bottom line:  This oil price driver of inflation isn't going anywhere.  And with the strong ex-food-and-energy inflation number this morning, we should expect higher inflation prints from here (i.e. we haven't seen "peak").
With all of this, yesterday we talked about the dynamic between bitcoin and gold.  With the bursting of the tech bubble, bitcoin has technically broken down, and we suspected that a hot inflation number today might reveal a return of the real inflation hedge (i.e. gold).
We might be seeing it.  As I write, bitcoin is down 10% on the day.  Gold is up better than half a percent.  
These are the two charts we looked at yesterday.  One is bouncing (gold), technically, the other has broken down (bitcoin)…   

As Warren Buffett has said, "only when the tide goes out, do you discover who's been swimming naked."  The "tide" in this case, is the easy money, low inflation era. 
The tide has gone out, and the mal-investment is being exposed.  That includes high valuation, no earnings tech companies … SPACs … and crypto currencies. 
Those "no eps" tech companies, that have relied on endless streams of capital to burn have been exposed as uninvestable (without easy money terms).  
The stablecoin universe is beginning to break.  This is a couple of hundred billion dollars that were traded for private digital currencies, with the promise of remaining pegged to a currency (like the dollar) or asset (like gold).  These pegs started to break over the weekend (i.e. those initial dollars invested will not be returned).  
This may be (likely is) the beginning of the end of private crypto currencies.  At the very least, it's a major shakeout.  We should expect this reckoning in crypto to create continued selling in the tech sector (tech stocks).  And a bursting of the crypto bubble will likely create some waves in the financial system.  We will see.   
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May 10, 2022

The big April inflation report comes in tomorrow morning.
Let's talk about what to expect …
First, it was the inflation report from last month that finally got the market stirring.  The 8.5% headline change in prices, from the year prior, was the hottest since 1981. 
But it was the monthly change that was even more stunning, at 1.2%.  That number, compounded monthly, would give us around 16% annual inflation.  And that would actually sound more like the reality of prices consumers are seeing in every day life.
Still, following that report last month, the media, the administration and the Fed immediately responded by promoting the idea that (somehow) inflation had peaked. 
We will see tomorrow. 
The market is expecting a 0.2% change from April to March.  That would be a dramatic softening from the March report.   And the year-over-year expectation is for 8.1%.
If we focus on the monthly number, this sets up for a negative surprise (i.e. a hotter than expected number).  
This comes as the historic inflation hedge, gold, sits on this big technical trendline/ support.  

Meanwhile, what has been considered the "modern day gold," and new inflation hedge, Bitcoin, has already technically broken down — in sympathy with the bursting of the tech bubble.   
If we get a hot inflation number tomorrow, and moreover, if inflation has yet to peak, I suspect we will get to see if gold recovers its role as the favored inflation hedge. 
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