Inflation, QE, Stocks & Assflation

Nima discusses an article by Cullen Roche on PragCap.com about the Federal Reserve, Quantitiative Easing (QE), interest rates, consumer price inflation, and asset price inflation (assflation).

Source:

Let’s Talk About QE and Assflation (https://www.pragcap.com/lets-talk-qe-asset-price-inflation/)

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AIG – A Ponzi Scheme, Endorsed and Bailed Out by Uncle Sam

AIG, of which, since the “rescue”, 80% is now owned by the Federal Reserve Bank, is a bloated, confusing, procrastinating, monstrous, liabilities-shifting, allegations-denying, catchphrase-uttering apparatus whose cracks are leaking left and right:

The dozens of insurance companies that make up the American International Group show signs of considerable weakness even after their corporate parent got the biggest bailout in history, a review of state regulatory filings shows.

Over time, the weaknesses could mean trouble for A.I.G.’s policyholders, and they raise difficult questions for regulators, who normally step in when an insurer gets into trouble. State commissioners are supposed to keep insurers from writing new policies if there is any doubt that they can cover their claims. But in A.I.G.’s case, regulators are eager for the insurers to keep writing new business, because they see it as the best hope of paying back taxpayers.

In the months since A.I.G. received its $182 billion rescue from the Treasury and the Federal Reserve, state insurance regulators have said repeatedly that its core insurance operations were sound — that the financial disaster was caused primarily by a small unit that dealt in exotic derivatives.

My comment: This sounds a lot like the early assurances that “sub-prime” was a well contained issue that will have no spill over effects to other sectors, right Mr. Bernanke? It was obviously clear to everyone that these statements from the insurance regulators were complete and utter nonsense, right?

But state regulatory filings offer a different picture. They show that A.I.G.’s individual insurance companies have been doing an unusual volume of business with each other for many years — investing in each other’s stocks; borrowing from each other’s investment portfolios; and guaranteeing each other’s insurance policies, even when they have lacked the means to make good. Insurance examiners working for the states have occasionally flagged these activities, to little effect.

More ominously, many of A.I.G.’s insurance companies have reduced their own exposure by sending their risks to other companies, often under the same A.I.G. umbrella.

Echoing state regulators’ statements, the company said the interdependency of its businesses posed no problem and strongly disputed that any units had obligations they could not pay.

“There is absolutely no concern about the capital in these companies,” said Rob Schimek, the chief financial officer of A.I.G.’s property and casualty insurance business. The company authorized him to speak about these issues.

My comment: If there was absolutely no concern, then why does Mr. Schimek have to assure us so vehemently? What he really means is of course “There are serious, really serious, concerns about the capital in these companies but I am hoping we can hide it for as long as I am still in charge”.

Nothing is wrong with spreading risks to other companies, a practice known as reinsurance, when it is carried out with unrelated, solvent companies. It can also be acceptable in small amounts between related companies. But A.I.G.’s companies have reinsured each other to such a large extent, experts say, that now billions of dollars worth of risks may have ended up at related companies that lack the means to cover them.

“An organization like this one relies on constant, ever-growing premium volume, so it can cover and pay for the deficits,” said W. O. Myrick, a retired chief insurance examiner for Louisiana. If A.I.G.’s incoming premiums shrink, he warned, “the whole thing’s going to collapse in on itself.”

My comment: … also known as a “Ponzi scheme”.

Mr. Myrick has not fully examined all the A.I.G. subsidiaries but said his own recent review of many state filings raised serious concerns, particularly about the use of reinsurance to “bounce things around inside the holding company group.”

“That is a method used by holding companies to falsify the liabilities,” he said.

A.I.G.’s premiums have, in fact, been declining in important lines. Its ratings have fallen, and customers tend to steer clear of lower-rated insurers. To woo them back, A.I.G. has in some cases lowered its prices, competitors say. A.I.G. executives insist they would rather lose a customer than drive down prices dangerously.

A.I.G. has also pledged a share of its life insurance premiums to the Fed, to pay back about $8 billion. Details have not been provided, but consumer advocates say it is not clear how the life companies will pay future claims if their premiums are diverted.

“Eventually, there’s going to be a battle between the policyholders and the feds,” said Thomas D. Gober, a former insurance examiner who now has his own forensic accounting firm that specializes in insurance fraud. “The Fed is going to say, ‘We want our money back,’ but the law says, ‘Policyholders come first.’ It’s going to be ugly.”

Mr. Gober is a consultant for a lawsuit on behalf of A.I.G. policyholders, filed in California Superior Court in Los Angeles. The lawsuit seeks a court order requiring all A.I.G. subsidiaries doing business in California to put enough money to cover their obligations into a secure account controlled by the state treasurer.

The goal is to keep money from being moved out of California or used to finance A.I.G.’s other activities, said Maria C. Severson, a lawyer for the plaintiffs. The lawsuit also seeks to bar A.I.G. companies from soliciting new business without full disclosure of their financial condition.

The condition of A.I.G.’s individual companies is hard to see in the parent company’s filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Those filings simply tally all the individual subsidiaries’ financial information.

The companies’ weaknesses emerge in their filings with state insurance regulators — particularly when several are reviewed together. But that appears not to happen often, because there are so many. A.I.G. has more than 4,000 units in more than 100 countries.

Responsibility for A.I.G.’s 71 American insurance companies is spread among 19 state insurance commissions, which do not conduct examinations simultaneously.

As a result, Mr. Myrick said, a conglomerate like A.I.G. “can keep moving assets around to clean up one company” at a time, when examiners were looking. He said that it would take a coordinated, multistate examination of all the insurance companies to catch this.

Mr. Schimek, speaking for the insurance companies, said that in 2005, a team of examiners had at least considered A.I.G.’s property and casualty businesses as a group.

“It was a thorough examination,” he said. “I have absolutely no concern about the integrity of the financial information that’s been filed under my watch.”

My comment: Translation: “I am absolutely and 100% concerned about the integrity of the financial information filed under my watch.”

State regulators confirmed that they believed the A.I.G. subsidiaries under their authority were solvent. Mike Moriarty, deputy insurance superintendent for New York State, said that while A.I.G. subsidiaries did not report all their reinsured obligations on their balances sheets, state regulators could “follow the trail of liabilities” and make sure they did not get lost in the holding company.

Obligations “can’t be hidden from state insurance regulators,” Mr. Moriarty said.

One A.I.G. subsidiary, the National Union Fire Insurance Company of Pittsburgh, shows what can happen by heavily relying on affiliates. Its most recent regulatory filing in Pennsylvania said it had more than enough money to pay its obligations.

But at the end of 2008, more than a third of National Union’s portfolio was invested in the stock of other A.I.G. companies, which are not publicly traded. National Union might not be able to sell all of these shares, and it is not clear what it could get for them. Many states bar insurers from investing that heavily in related companies.

Meanwhile, National Union has $42.1 billion in obligations looming off its balance sheet. These have been transferred to 56 other A.I.G. companies, through reinsurance. National Union will have to pay any of these claims and then collect from its relatives.

But it is not clear that the affiliates could pay promptly. National Union’s biggest reinsurance partner is American Home Assurance, an A.I.G. subsidiary that has taken $23.1 billion of obligations off National Union’s hands. In a New York filing, American Home reports total assets of $26.3 billion, but part of that consists of assets that cannot be used to pay claims, like furniture. It too includes a number of investments in other A.I.G. companies.

My comment: This is, by and large, one of those cascading dependencies that I was talking about in Inflation & Deflation Revisited:

The US economy has been at the center of a worldwide network of such cascading credit relationships. Central banks loaned fiat money to fractional reserve banks, those would pass it on to financial institutions which would make it available as wholesale mortgages, individual mortgage banks would take those on and make loans to homebuyers. Insurance companies would insure one or the other loan in the chain and again consider the insurance policy as good as money, using it as collateral to obtain … more credit.

Everyone insures everyone and everyone thinks everything is fine. In the meantime the money has been squandered and it will come back to haunt everyone once everyone wants to see real cash.

In addition, American Home has “unconditionally” guaranteed the obligations of 16 other A.I.G. subsidiaries, bringing the total it might have to pay to $140.6 billion.

Normally, when an insurance company weakens, regulators in its home state will first measure its capital. They may demand a weak company rebuild its capital, and if it fails, eventually bar it from selling new policies.

Like New York regulators, Pennsylvania regulators say they do not see a problem. “The insurance companies remain strong and are probably the most valuable assets within the A.I.G. structure,” said Joel Ario, Pennsylvania’s insurance commissioner. “To the best we know it, we think the companies are sound.”

My comment: Haha, well put, commissioner! Such a statement requires no further comment.

But policyholder advocates said they feared state regulators were deferring to the wishes of the Fed and Treasury, to use the insurance operations to pay back the taxpayers.

“The insurance commissioners, for whatever reason, are letting them do this,” Mr. Myrick said. “I’d be jumping out of my shoes.”

Taxpayers won’t see their money back. Why would they?? The very purpose of corporate bailouts is to rip him off! It is what we already realized months ago: Sinking Money Down a Hole.

The government should have let AIG go bankrupt right then and there. Now the Fed is stuck with a huge non-performing asset that will be worth a tiny fraction of what they paid. Who knows, most likely the obligations to policy holders will be worth much more than what was acquired, in which case the value of assets held is less than zero. The oh so “independent” Fed just needs to assure us one thing: Don’t you dare come to the taxpayer and have the Treasury reimburse you for the losses you will suffer and probably have already suffered from this hideous acquisition of AIG!

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Federal Reserve Balance Sheet – April 30 2009

Treasury notes and bonds $530,623 25.2%
Term auction credit $403,573 19.2%
Mortgage-backed securities $366,153 17.4%
Central bank liquidity swaps $249,513 11.8%
Net portfolio holdings of Commercial Paper Funding Facility LLC $181,795 8.6%
Federal agency debt securities $68,158 3.2%
Other Federal Reserve assets $60,254 2.9%
Credit extended to AIG $45,492 2.2%
Primary credit $45,261 2.1%
Treasury currency outstanding $42,290 2.0%
Net portfolio holdings of Maiden Lane III LLC $27,449 1.3%
Net portfolio holdings of Maiden Lane LLC $26,502 1.3%
Treasury bills $18,423 0.9%
Net portfolio holdings of Maiden Lane II LLC $18,328 0.9%
Gold stock $11,041 0.5%
Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility $6,379 0.3%
Mutual Fund Liquidity Facility $3,699 0.2%
Special drawing rights certificate account $2,200 0.1%
safe $653,790 31.0%
risky $1,453,343 69.0%

Bottom line: At this point, the US “Lender of Last Resort” is holding 70% risky and 30% safe assets. How much do you trust it?

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The Insolvency of the Fed

Please consider reading The Insolvency of the Fed:

Since August 15, 1971 the US dollar has been an irredeemable paper currency. Every irredeemable paper currency in history has failed. Yet, the experiment of the US dollar and the rest of the fiat paper world continues.

During the current crisis, however, financial systems all over the world are increasingly struggling, and the end of the experiment seems closer. In fact, the Federal Reserve System has used up much of its “ammunition” for monetary interventions in an attempt to keep the experiment going, lowering its target interest rate almost to zero. Other central banks are also quickly approaching the “zero limit” for interest rates.

Figure 1:
Figure 1
Average of World Central-Bank Interest Rates (FED, BOJ, BOE, ECB, Switzerland)

During these inflationary decades, economic structures have developed that can only survive with falling interest rates. As the world approaches a zero interest rate, it appears that finally there might be a full adaptation of the structure of production to the demands of consumers, and the experiment might come to an end.

Yet, has the Fed really “run out of ammunition”? First of all: what is the Fed shooting at? It is trying to artificially stimulate the economy with its monetary policy, thereby it is also unwittingly shooting at the value of the currency. Through its monetary policy, the Fed is trying to bail out an insolvent and illiquid banking system to maintain an unsustainable structure of production. As long as the currency is not totally destroyed, the Fed will never run out of ammunition. In order to assess the ammunition left, one should have a look at the balance sheet of the Federal Reserve — especially at the assets the Fed can still obtain. The Fed’s balance sheet also gives insights on the condition or quality of the dollar.

Since the crisis broke out, the Fed has continuously weakened the quality of the dollar by weakening its balance sheet. In fact, the assets the Federal Reserve holds have deteriorated tremendously. These assets back the liability side of the balance sheet, which mainly represents the monetary base of the dollar. The assets of the Fed, thereby, hold up the value of the dollar. At the end of the day, it is these assets that the Fed can use to defend the dollar’s value externally and internally. Thus, for example, it could sell its foreign exchange reserves to buy back dollars, reducing the amount of dollars outstanding. From the point of view of the buyer of the foreign exchange reserves, this transaction is a de facto redemption.

In the first stage of the crisis that lasted until September 2008, the Federal Reserve did not increase its balance sheet. Instead, the Fed changed its balance sheet’s structure. These changes are very important for the value of the currency. Imagine that the Fed announces tomorrow that is has sold all its gold and has bought Zimbabwean government bonds with the revenues. The Fed would explain this move by arguing that the stability of the Zimbabwean economy would be crucial for the US economy and the welfare of mankind. This action by itself would not change the quantity of money at all, which shows that concentrating exclusively on the quantity of money is not sufficient to evaluate the condition of a currency. Qualitative issues can be even more important than mere quantities. In fact, an asset swap from gold to Zimbabwean government bonds would mean a strong deterioration of the quality of the dollar.

While this example might sound extreme, something similar happened during the first stage of the sub-prime crisis. The Fed weakened the composition of its balance sheet not in favor of the Zimbabwean economy but in favor of the US banking system. The Federal Reserve sold good assets in order to acquire bad assets. The good assets were not gold but mainly the still highly-liquid US treasury bonds in the category of “securities held outright.” The bad assets were not Zimbabwean government bonds but loans given to troubled banks backed by problematic and illiquid assets. This weakened the dollar.

Figure 2:
Figure 2
Fed Balance-Sheet Assets (6/28/2007–1/15/2009, in $US Million)
Source: Fed (2009)

As can be seen in the chart, starting in August 2007, the lower-quality assets increased. They grew especially in the form of repurchase agreements and, later, new types of credits such as term-auction credits — through the Term Auction Facility (TAF) — starting in December 2007. As the Federal Reserve did not want to increase its balance sheet, it sterilized the increasing amount of bad assets by selling good assets to the troubled banking system. Swapping good assets for bad assets can in fact be considered a bail out of the banking system on a gigantic scale. Moreover, the Federal Reserve started lending securities (good assets) to banks in the so-called Term Securities Lending Facility (TSLF). This measure provided the banks with high-quality assets they could pledge as collateral for loans. As a consequence, the amount of securities decreased via selling and lending, as can be seen in the following chart.

Figure 3:
Figure 3
TSLF and SHO (1/03/2008–1/15/2009, in US$ Million)
Source: Fed (2009)

Thus, the average quality of the Federal Reserve balance sheet deteriorated in the first stage of the crisis and continues to do so as shown in the following compositional graph.

Figure 4:
Figure 4
Fed Balance-Sheet Assets (6/28/2007–1/15/2009, in percent)
Source: Fed (2009)

In the second stage of the crisis, which started with the Lehman bankruptcy, it became clear that the policy of merely changing the balance-sheet structure was coming to an end. The Fed was running out of Treasury bonds. Moreover, this policy did not allow for the strong liquidity boosts that the Fed deemed appropriate in this situation. Hence, the Fed started to increase its balance sheet. It no longer “sterilized” the additional loans it granted with the sale of good assets. In fact, it would not have had enough good assets left to sell. In our imaginary example, the Fed would run out of gold. It would stop selling gold and keep on buying Zimbabwean government bonds. Of course, the Fed did not buy Zimbabwean government bonds but other assets of low quality, mainly loans to an insolvent banking system. As a consequence, the sum of the balance sheet has nearly tripled since June 2007.

The increase of the balance sheet in favor of the financial system required some unconventional policies. Thus, the Fed has invented new credit programs with a tendency for longer terms, such as the aforementioned TAF. It has granted special loans to AIG and bought Bear Stearns assets that J.P. Morgan did not want. It has allowed primary dealers to borrow directly from the Federal Reserve in the Primary Dealer Credit Facility (PDCF). In addition, the Asset-Backed Commercial Paper Money Market Mutual Fund Liquidity Facility (AMLF) was created. This facility allows depository institutions to borrow from the Fed with collateral of asset-backed commercial paper.

Later the Fed decided to supplement the AMLF with the Commercial Paper Funding Facility (CPFF). Now unsecured commercial paper is also eligible as collateral. (Unsecured commercial paper is not backed by specific assets but only by the name of a company.)

Furthermore, the Fed has set up the Money Market Investor Funding Facility (MMIFF), which allows money market mutual funds to borrow from the Fed via special purpose vehicles. Three characteristics of these policies can be found:

  1. they contain credits of longer maturities;
  2. they contain credits of a broader range of eligible institutions backed by a broader range of assets than was the case before; and
  3. they, thereby, reduce the average quality of the Fed assets and consequently the quality of the dollar.

Despite of all these efforts, credit markets still have not returned to normal. What will the Fed do next? Interest rates are already practically at zero. However, the dollar still has value that can be exploited to keep the experiment going. Bernanke’s new tool is the so-called quantitative easing. Quantitative easing is when a central bank with interest rates already near zero continues to buy assets, thus injecting reserves into the banking system. In fact, quantitative easing is a subsection of qualitative easing. Qualitative easing can be defined as the sum of the policies that weaken the quality of a currency.

But what new assets is the Fed acquiring? The Fed has already started buying the debts of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mae, and the Federal Home Loan Banks. It has also bought mortgage-backed securities issued by Fannie Mae, Ginnie Mae, and Freddie Mac. Bernanke is also considering buying other securities backed by consumer loans, credit card loans, or student loans. Long-term government debt is also on the list of assets that the Fed might buy.

In the analysis of the Fed balance sheet and the condition of the dollar, another detail is extremely important. The equity ratio in the Fed balance has fallen from about 4.5 to 2%.

Figure 5:
Figure 5
Fed Balance-Sheet Equity Ratio (6/28/2007–1/15/2009, in percent)

This figure implies an increase of the Fed’s leverage from 22 to 50. As we have seen there are large new positions of dubious quality on the Federal Reserve balance sheet. More specifically, should only 2% of the Fed’s assets go into default — or if there is a loss in value of 2% — the Fed becomes insolvent.

Only two things can save the Fed at this point. One is a bailout by the federal government. This recapitalization could be financed by taxes or by monetizing government debt in another blow to the value of the currency.

The other possibility is concealed in the hidden reserves of the Fed’s gold position, which is only valued at $42.44 per troy ounce on the balance sheet. A revaluation of the gold reserves would boost the equity ratio of the Fed to 12.35%.[1]

Figure 6:
Figure 6
Fed Balance-Sheet Equity Ratio (6/28/2007–1/15/2009, in percent, hidden reserve included)
Source: Fed (2009)

It is ironic that in troubled times a revaluation of the “barbarous relic” could save the Fed from insolvency. Yet, this would only be an accounting measure and would not change the fundamental problems of the paper dollar. While shooting its last bullets and weakening the dollar, the Fed is outmaneuvering itself. The end of the experiment is getting closer.

I also wrote about this a little while ago in Federal Reserve Bank – Balance Sheet (December 2008).

On the Federal government bailing out the Federal Reserve Bank please consider The Treasury’s Supplementary Financing Account and Update on the Treasury’s Supplementary Financing Account.

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Federal Reserve Balances Decline

Since the Federal Reserve released its balance sheet from December 18th 2008 reserve balances have steadily begun to decline. On that day they amounted to a total of $2.25 trillion. Since then they have dropped by roughly 15% to $1.99 trillion on January 29th.

At the same time retail sweeps have been falling since October 08. I have been talking about a resurgence of inflation since the money supply growth seemed to have exceeded the 3% mark lastingly. However, it looks like I called that way too early. It will be important to watch how the true money supply will develop over the next few months. Recent trends and data indicate that it might be headed back down and that all recent reflation attempts by the Fed could fail completely.

Deflation, it is true, is not easy to beat, if at all possible. It might work if the correction is a mild one. When faced with a global financial tsunami, it should be rather impossible.

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