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The debt bomb just got bigger

The amount of debt worldwide is more than all of the bank accounts in the world, and the current financial situation in Cyprus is the inevitable next phase: Confiscation.

All pretense is now gone that central or global bankers can ‘securitize’ growth by packaging and repackaging debt; by hypothicating and rehypothicating debt; by regulating and rergulating debt. Since the bond market rally began in the early 1980s (yes, it’s that old) each crisis has been met by central and global bankers – the IMF, EU and ECB, to name a few – and their Wall St. and City of London brethren with an increase in debt, and an extension of the debt’s maturity.

The result has been – as of 2007 – the biggest mountain of on-balance sheet and off-balance sheet debt in history: A staggering $220 trillion in debt in America’s $14-trillion economy alone (when you include all public, private and contingent liabilities of unfunded entitlement programs). Deals in the global debt derivatives market now stand in excess of $1 quadrillion, riding above a global GDP of approximately $60 trillion.

But starting in 2007, and then becoming spectacularly apparent in 2008 with the Lehman collapse, the ability of the world’s taxpayers to pay either the interest or principal on this debt has hit a brick wall. And for several years now, governments around the world have tried the same old tricks of ‘extend and pretend.’ Repackage and extend the maturity, and pray that tax receipts start picking up enough to pay some of the debt off. It didn’t work. The debt bomb just got bigger. Now in Cyprus we see the inevitable next phase: Confiscation.

To pay off the debts that were incurred to finance the biggest wealth grab in history, we see in Cyprus, as well as central and global banking institutions around the world, a trend to just reach in and grab people’s money from their ‘insured’ bank accounts. We should have figured out this was coming when JP Morgan (read: Jamie Dimon) reached in and illegally stepped ahead of customers at MF Global and grabbed over $1 billion, with the help of his crony pal Jon Corzine.

Have we learned our lesson yet? They have more debts to pay than there is money in all the bank accounts in the world. This means that chances are, you – whoever you are, and whatever country you live in – will have a sizable percent of your savings stolen by banksters.

Since the crisis hit (and for several years leading up to it) we’ve been recommending on ‘Keiser Report’ to put as much money as you can in gold and silver. Our advice then and now is: The only money you should keep in a bank is money you’re willing to lose.

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Fed Up: Bernanke Declares War On The Poor

September 14, 2012

This week, we saw both the European Central Bank and the Federal Reserve deliver massive amounts of stimulus to the markets.

The ECB is now backed by the 500 billion euro European Stability Mechanism facility, which has been ratified by the German parliament. This is a game-changer for Europe, as now it is finally moving toward a federalist system, similar to the one in the United States. This measure has been successful in bringing down the bond yields for Spain, Italy and Ireland to a very manageable level. And it is likely that those central banks might not even need to tap the ESM.

The big surprise this week, however, came from the Federal Reserve.

The Fed has decided to go all-out in fueling the next massive asset bubbles through its QE3 bazooka. The Fed announced plans to buy $40 billion worth of mortgage securities per month on an open-ended basis, while continuing to reinvest its income from the securities purchased during QE1 and QE2.

The following statement from the Fed shows its clear intent to support its mandate of full employment. But I fail to see how it will manage to do that “in the context of price stability” while creating asset price inflation through unabashed QE programs.

If the outlook for the labor market does not improve substantially, the Committee will continue its purchases of agency mortgage-backed securities, undertake additional asset purchases, and employ its other policy tools as appropriate until such improvement is achieved in a context of price stability.

This new move by the Fed is unleashing massive amounts of money into the risk assets. Markets will now believe that, between the ECB and the Fed, all tail risks to the markets have gone.

In other words, this could mean that all the money that was hiding in the safety of U.S. Treasuries will now leave the Treasury markets and flow into equities and commodities.

If so, I would not be surprised to see a parabolic move into year-end in both gold and equities that could take the S&P 500 to 1,650 and gold to $2,000 per troy ounce by year-end.

Now here is the dangerous side to this equation. This rally will also lead oil and grains to new highs, which will results in higher gas prices at the pump and food prices at the grocery store. While employment and wages are still low, this will hurt the working class.

This massive and irresponsible Fed stimulus package by Ben Bernanke & Co. will make the rich richer by fueling their asset portfolios and bringing loads of misery to the poor, who will find it harder to make ends meet.

Besides the poor, this latest move also declares war on the retirees or those who subsist on fixed income returns from bonds. With the Fed’s monetary policy stuck at zero for another three years at least and more Federal money creating artificial demand for fixed income assets, yields will not rise for quite a while. This means that the coupons on newly issued government and agency bonds will be stuck at below inflation rates.

Another debilitating aspect of the latest round of QE is that by removing coupon generating bonds from the monetary system, it reduces the amount of money in the economy, thus reducing aggregate demand.

In summary, QE will reduce net savings of U.S. dollar holders and increase paper wealth in terms of higher equity market valuations.

While the initial reaction of the markets has been to sell the U.S. dollar, fewer U.S. dollars as a result of QE will result in the dollar eventually rallying hard, especially against the EUR. My target will be around 1.3500 before EUR/USD starts heading back down towards parity.

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Investors Prepare for Euro Collapse

The fear of a collapse is not limited to banks. Early last week, Shell startled the markets. “There’s been a shift in our willingness to take credit risk in Europe,” said CFO Simon Henry. He said that the oil giant, which has cash reserves of over 17 billion dollars, would rather invest this money in US government bonds or deposit it on US bank accounts than risk it in Europe.

Banks, companies and investors are preparing themselves for a collapse of the euro. Cross-border bank lending is falling, asset managers are shunning Europe and money is flowing into German real estate and bonds. The euro remains stable against the dollar because America has debt problems too. But unlike the euro, the dollar’s structure isn’t in doubt.

08/13/2012
By Martin Hesse

Otmar Issing is looking a bit tired. The former chief economist at the European Central Bank (ECB) is sitting on a barstool in a room adjoining the Frankfurt Stock Exchange. He resembles a father whose troubled teenager has fallen in with the wrong crowd. Issing is just about to explain again all the things that have gone wrong with the euro, and why the current, as yet unsuccessful efforts to save the European common currency are cause for grave concern.

He begins with an anecdote. “Dear Otmar, congratulations on an impossible job.” That’s what the late Nobel Prize-winning American economist Milton Friedman wrote to him when Issing became a member of the ECB Executive Board. Right from the start, Friedman didn’t believe that the new currency would survive. Issing at the time saw the euro as an “experiment” that was nevertheless worth fighting for.

Fourteen years later, Issing is still fighting long after he’s gone into retirement. But just next door on the stock exchange floor, and in other financial centers around the world, apparently a great many people believe that Friedman’s prophecy will soon be fulfilled.

Banks, investors and companies are bracing themselves for the possibility that the euro will break up — and are thus increasing the likelihood that precisely this will happen.

There is increasing anxiety, particularly because politicians have not managed to solve the problems. Despite all their efforts, the situation in Greece appears hopeless. Spain is in trouble and, to make matters worse, Germany’s Constitutional Court will decide in September whether the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) is even compatible with the German constitution.

There’s a growing sense of resentment in both lending and borrowing countries — and in the nations that could soon join their ranks. German politicians such as Bavarian Finance Minister Markus Söder of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) are openly calling for Greece to be thrown out of the euro zone. Meanwhile the the leader of Germany’s opposition center-left Social Democrats (SPD), Sigmar Gabriel, is urging the euro countries to share liability for the debts.

On the financial markets, the political wrangling over the right way to resolve the crisis has accomplished primarily one thing: it has fueled fears of a collapse of the euro.

Cross-Border Bank Lending Down

Banks are particularly worried. “Banks and companies are starting to finance their operations locally,” says Thomas Mayer who until recently was the chief economist at Deutsche Bank, which, along with other financial institutions, has been reducing its risks in crisis-ridden countries for months now. The flow of money across borders has dried up because the banks are afraid of suffering losses.

According to the ECB, cross-border lending among euro-zone banks is steadily declining, especially since the summer of 2011. In June, these interbank transactions reached their lowest level since the outbreak of the financial crisis in 2007.

In addition to scaling back their loans to companies and financial institutions in other European countries, banks are even severing connections to their own subsidiaries abroad. Germany’s Commerzbank and Deutsche Bank apparently prefer to see their branches in Spain and Italy tap into ECB funds, rather than finance them themselves. At the same time, these banks are parking excess capital reserves at the central bank. They are preparing themselves for the eventuality that southern European countries will reintroduce their national currencies and drastically devalue them.

“Even the watchdogs don’t like to see banks take cross-border risks, although in an absurd way this runs contrary to the concept of the monetary union,” says Mayer.

Since the height of the financial crisis in 2008, the EU Commission has been pressuring European banks to reduce their business, primarily abroad, in a bid to strengthen their capital base. Furthermore, the watchdogs have introduced strict limitations on the flow of money within financial institutions. Regulators require that banks in each country independently finance themselves. For instance, Germany’s Federal Financial Supervisory Authority (BaFin) insists that HypoVereinsbank keeps its money in Germany. When the parent bank, Unicredit in Milan, asks for an excessive amount of money to be transferred from the German subsidiary to Italy, BaFin intervenes.

Breaking Points

Unicredit is an ideal example of how banks are turning back the clocks in Europe: The bank, which always prided itself as a truly pan-European institution, now grants many liberties to its regional subsidiaries, while benefiting less from the actual advantages of a European bank. High-ranking bank managers admit that, if push came to shove, this would make it possible to quickly sell off individual parts of the financial group.

In effect, the bankers are sketching predetermined breaking points on the European map. “Since private capital is no longer flowing, the central bankers are stepping into the breach,” explains Mayer. The economist goes on to explain that the risk of a breakup has been transferred to taxpayers. “Over the long term, the monetary union can’t be maintained without private investors,” he argues, “because it would only be artificially kept alive.”

The fear of a collapse is not limited to banks. Early last week, Shell startled the markets. “There’s been a shift in our willingness to take credit risk in Europe,” said CFO Simon Henry.

He said that the oil giant, which has cash reserves of over $17 billion (€13.8 billion), would rather invest this money in US government bonds or deposit it on US bank accounts than risk it in Europe. “Many companies are now taking the route that US money market funds already took a year ago: They are no longer so willing to park their reserves in European banks,” says Uwe Burkert, head of credit analysis at the Landesbank Baden-Württemberg, a publicly-owned regional bank based in the southern German state of Baden-Württemberg.

And the anonymous mass of investors, ranging from German small investors to insurance companies and American hedge funds, is looking for ways to protect themselves from the collapse of the currency — or even to benefit from it. This is reflected in the flows of capital between southern and northern Europe, rapidly rising real estate prices in Germany and zero interest rates for German sovereign bonds.

‘Euro Experiment is Increasingly Viewed as a Failure’

One person who has long expected the euro to break up is Philipp Vorndran, 50, chief strategist at Flossbach von Storch, a company that deals in asset management. Vorndran’s signature mustache may be somewhat out of step with the times, but his views aren’t. “On the financial markets, the euro experiment is increasingly viewed as a failure,” says the investment strategist, who once studied under euro architect Issing and now shares his skepticism. For the past three years, Vorndran has been preparing his clients for major changes in the composition of the monetary union.

They are now primarily investing their money in tangible assets such as real estate. The stock market rally of the past weeks can also be explained by this flight of capital into real assets. After a long decline in the number of private investors, the German Equities Institute (DAI) has registered a significant rise in the number of shareholders in Germany.

Particularly large amounts of money have recently flowed into German sovereign bonds, although with short maturity periods they now generate no interest whatsoever. “The low interest rates for German government bonds reflect the fear that the euro will break apart,” says interest-rate expert Burkert. Investors are searching for a safe haven. “At the same time, they are speculating that these bonds would gain value if the euro were actually to break apart.”

The most radical option to protect oneself against a collapse of the euro is to completely withdraw from the monetary zone. The current trend doesn’t yet amount to a large-scale capital flight from the euro zone. In May, (the ECB does not publish more current figures) more direct investments and securities investments actually flowed into Europe than out again. Nonetheless, this fell far short of balancing out the capital outflows during the troubled winter quarters, which amounted to over €140 billion.

The exchange rate of the euro only partially reflects the concerns that investors harbor about the currency. So far, the losses have remained within limits. But the explanation for this doesn’t provide much consolation: The main alternative, the US dollar, appears relatively unappealing for major investors from Asia and other regions. “Everyone is looking for the lesser of two evils,” says a Frankfurt investment banker, as he laconically sums up the situation. Yet there’s growing skepticism about the euro, not least because, in contrast to America and Asia, Europe is headed for a recession. Mayer, the former economist at Deutsche Bank, says that he expects the exchange rates to soon fall below 1.20 dollars.

“We notice that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to sell Asians and Americans on investments in Europe,” says asset manager Vorndran, although the US, Japan and the UK have massive debt problems and “are all lying in the same hospital ward,” as he puts it. “But it’s still better to invest in a weak currency than in one whose structure is jeopardized.”

Hedge Fund Gurus Give Euro Thumbs Down

Indeed, investors are increasingly speculating directly against the euro. The amount of open financial betting against the common currency — known as short positioning — has rapidly risen over the past 12 months. When ECB President Mario Draghi said three weeks ago that there was no point in wagering against the euro, anti-euro warriors grew a bit more anxious.

One of these warriors is John Paulson. The hedge fund manager once made billions by betting on a collapse of the American real estate market. Not surprisingly, the financial world sat up and took notice when Paulson, who is now widely despised in America as a crisis profiteer, announced in the spring that he would bet on a collapse of the euro.

Paulson is not the only one. Investor legend George Soros, who no longer personally manages his Quantum Funds, said in an interview in April that — if he were still active — he would bet against the euro if Europe’s politicians failed to adopt a new course. The investor war against the common currency is particularly delicate because it’s additionally fueled by major investors from the euro zone. German insurers and managers of large family fortunes have reportedly invested with Paulson and other hedge funds. “They’re sawing at the limb that they’re sitting on,” says an insider.

So far, the wager by the hedge funds has not paid off, and Paulson recently suffered major losses.

But the deciding match still has to be played.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

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Euro zone fragmenting faster than EU can act

By Paul Taylor
PARIS | Mon Jul 9, 2012 2:05am EDT

(Reuters) – Signs are growing that Europe‘s economic and monetary union may be fragmenting faster than policymakers can repair it.

Euro zone leaders agreed in principle on June 29 to establish a joint banking supervisor for the 17-nation single currency area, based on the European Central Bank, although most of the crucial details remain to be worked out.

The proposal was a tentative first step towards a European banking union that could eventually feature a joint deposit guarantee and a bank resolution fund, to prevent bank runs or collapses sending shock waves around the continent.

The leaders agreed that the euro zone’s permanent bailout fund, the 500 billion euro ($620 billion) European Stability Mechanism, would be able to inject capital directly into banks on strict conditions once the joint supervisor is established.

But the rush to put first elements of such a system in place by next year may come too late.

Deposit flight from Spanish banks has been gaining pace and it is not clear a euro zone agreement to lend Madrid up to 100 billion euros in rescue funds will reverse the flows if investors fear Spain may face a full sovereign bailout.

Many banks are reorganizing, or being forced to reorganize, along national lines, accentuating a deepening north-south divide within the currency bloc.

An invisible financial wall, potentially as dangerous as the Iron Curtain that once divided eastern and western Europe, is slowly going up inside the euro area.

The interest rate gap between north European creditor countries such as Germany and the Netherlands, whose borrowing costs are at an all-time low, and southern debtor countries like Spain and Italy, where bond yields have risen to near pre-euro levels, threatens to entrench a lasting divergence.

Since government credit ratings and bond yields effectively set a floor for the borrowing costs of banks and businesses in their jurisdiction, the best-managed Spanish or Italian banks or companies have to pay far more for loans, if they can get them, than their worst-managed German or Dutch peers.

POLITICAL BACKLASH

The longer that situation goes on, the less chance there is of a recovery in southern Europe and the bigger will grow the wealth gap between north and south.

With ever-higher unemployment and poverty levels in southern countries, a political backlash, already fierce in Greece and seething in Spain and Italy, seems inexorable.

European Central Bank President Mario Draghi acknowledged as he cut interest rates last week that the north-south disconnect was making it more difficult to run a single monetary policy.

Two huge injections of cheap three-year loans into the euro zone banking system this year, amounting to 1 trillion euros, bought only a few months’ respite.

“It is not clear that there are measures that can be effective in a highly fragmented area,” Draghi told journalists.

Conservative German economists led by Hans-Werner Sinn, head of the Ifo institute, are warning of dire consequences for Germany from ballooning claims via the ECB’s system for settling payments among national central banks, known as TARGET2.

If a southern country were to default or leave the euro, they contend, Germany would be left with an astronomical bill, far beyond its theoretical limit of 211 billion euros liability for euro zone bailout funds.

As long as European monetary union is permanent and irreversible, such cross-border claims and capital flows within the currency area should not matter any more than money moving between Texas and California does.

But even the faintest prospect of a Day of Reckoning changes that calculus radically.

In that case, money would flood into German assets considered “safe” and out of securities and deposits in countries seen as at risk of leaving the monetary union. Some pessimists reckon we are already witnessing the early signs of such a process.

OVERWHELMING?

Any event that makes a euro exit by Greece – the most heavily indebted member state, which is off track on its second bailout program and in the fifth year of a recession – look more likely seems bound to accelerate those flows, despite repeated statements by EU leaders that Greece is a unique case.

“If it does occur, a crisis will propagate itself through the TARGET payments system of the European System of Central Banks,” U.S. economist Peter Garber, now a global strategist with Deutsche Bank, wrote in a prophetic 1999 research paper.

Either member governments would always be willing to let their national central banks give unlimited credit to each other, in which case a collapse would be impossible, or they might be unwilling to provide boundless credit, “and this will set the parameters for the dynamics of collapse”, Garber warned.

“The problem is that at the time of a sovereign debt crisis, large portions of a national balance sheet may suddenly flee to the ECB’s books, possibly overwhelming the capacity of a bailout fund to absorb the entire hit,” he wrote in 2010, after the start of the Greek crisis, in a report for Deutsche Bank.

European officials tend to roll their eyes at such theories, insisting the euro is forever, so the issue does not arise.

In practice, national regulators in some EU countries are moving quietly to try to reduce their home banks’ exposure to such an eventuality. The ECB itself last week set a limit on the amount of state-backed bank bonds that banks could use as collateral in its lending operations.

In one high-profile case, Germany’s financial regulator Bafin ordered HypoVereinsbank (HVB), the German subsidiary of UniCredit (CRDI.MI), to curb transfers to its parent bank in Italy last year, people familiar with the case said.

Such restrictions are legal, since bank supervision is at national level, but they run counter to the principle of the free movement of capital in the European Union’s single market and to an integrated currency union.

Whether a single euro zone banking supervisor would be able to overrule those curbs is one of the many uncertainties left by the summit deal. In any case, common supervision without joint deposit insurance may be insufficient to reverse capital flight.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, keen to shield her grumpy taxpayers, has so far rejected any sharing of liability for guaranteeing bank deposits or winding up failed banks.

Veteran EU watchers say political determination to make the single currency irreversible will drive euro zone leaders to give birth to a full banking union, and the decision to create a joint supervisor effectively got them pregnant.

But for now, Europe’s financial disintegration seems to be moving faster than the forces of financial integration.

(Editing by David Holmes)

Banker to the Bankers Knows the Numbers Are Lying

By Jonathan Weil
 Jun 28, 2012 5:30 PM CT

The Bank for International Settlements, which acts as a bank for the world’s central banks, should know fudged numbers when it sees them. What may come as a surprise is how openly it has been discussing the problem of bogus balance sheets at large financial companies.

“The financial sector needs to recognize losses and recapitalize,” the Basel, Switzerland-based institution said in its latest annual report, released this week. “As we have urged in previous reports, banks must adjust balance sheets to accurately reflect the value of assets.” The implication is that many banks are showing inaccurate numbers now.

Unfortunately the BIS’s suggested approach is almost all carrot and no stick. “The challenge is to provide incentives for banks and other credit suppliers to recognize losses fully and write down debt,” the report said. “Supporting this process may well call for the use of public sector balance sheets.”

So there you have it. More than four years after the financial crisis began, it’s so widely accepted that many of the world’s banks are burying losses and overstating their asset values, even the Bank for International Settlements is saying so — in writing. (The BIS’s board includes Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank.) It fully expects taxpayers to pick up the tab should the need arise, too.

No Change

In this respect, little has changed since the near-meltdown of 2008, especially in Europe. Spain has requested 100 billion euros ($125 billion) to rescue its ailing banks. Italy, perhaps the next in line for a European Union bailout, is weighing plans to boost capital at some of the country’s lenders through sales of their bonds to the government.

Those bank rescues almost certainly won’t be the last. All but four of the 28 companies in the Euro Stoxx Banks Index (SX7E) trade for less than half of their common shareholder equity, which tells you investors don’t believe the companies’ asset values. While it may be true that the accounting standards are weak, the bigger problem is they are often not followed or enforced.

Government bailouts might be easier for the world’s taxpayers to swallow if banks were required to be truthful about their finances, as part of their standard operating procedure. Nowhere in its report did the BIS discuss the role of law enforcement, although the last time I checked it’s against the law in most developed countries to knowingly publish false financial statements. There have been few fraud prosecutions against executives from large financial institutions in recent years, in the U.S. or elsewhere, much to citizens’ outrage.

In the BIS’s eyes, it seems that it’s enough to merely encourage or incentivize banks to come clean about their losses, by dangling the prospect of additional taxpayer support before them. For example, on the subject of how to deal with overvalued mortgage loans: “One frequently used option is to set up an asset management company to buy up loans at attractive prices, i.e., slightly above current market valuations,” the BIS report said. “Alternatively, authorities can subsidize lenders or guarantee the restructured debt when lenders renegotiate loans.”

The BIS report got this much right: The lack of transparency and credibility in banks’ balance sheets fuels a vicious cycle. When investors can’t trust the books, lenders can’t raise capital and may have to fall back on their home countries’ governments for help. This further pressures sovereign finances, which in turn weakens the banks even more. The contagion spreads across borders. There is no clear end in sight.

Propping Up

To date, the task of propping up the economies in Europe and the U.S. has fallen largely to central banks. As the BIS wrote, easy-money policies also can make balance-sheet repairs harder to accomplish.

“Prolonged unusually accommodative monetary conditions mask underlying balance sheet problems and reduce incentives to address them head-on,” the report said. “Similarly, large- scale asset purchases and unconditional liquidity support together with very low interest rates can undermine the perceived need to deal with banks’ impaired assets.”

At some point, the cycle will break, only nobody knows when. This you can count on: It will take more than subtle inducements to make banks fess up to all their losses. Prosecutors must have a role. There’s nothing like the threat of a courtroom trial to focus a bank executive’s mind. The risk just has to be real.

To contact the writer of this article: Jonathan Weil in New York at jweil6@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net

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