David Stockman’s Contra Corner
By Michael Pento
Despite all of the central bank manipulations over the past seven years, it is finally becoming clear economies will not be able to achieve escape velocity. The U.S. central bank has the longest track record of treading down the path of monetary manipulations. And has achieved anemic average annual growth of 2.2% since 2010. Therefore, to further demonstrate the failure of money printing to engender economic growth, the dismal Q1 GDP read of just 0.2 % displays the failure of this policy once again. Wall Street Shills have been quick to once again blame snow in the winter for the Q1 miss. However, it is becoming evident that Q2 will not produce any such anticipated rebound.
Markit’s Flash U.S. Services PMI (Purchaser Managers Index) for April indicated that business activity rose at a slower pace than expected. The April reading came in at 54.2, which was below the consensus of 56.2 and below March’s level of 55.3. Adding to the bad news was the Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence Index that hit 95.2 in April. Economists polled by Reuters expected a reading of 102.5. And, the Richmond Fed Manufacturing Index fell into the minus column for the second month in a row at -3 for the start of Q2.
Things don’t look much better across the globe. The Euro zone Purchasing Managers’ Survey disappointed investors with the German PMI index falling to 54.2, from March’s eight-month high of 55.4. France’s PMI also showed a slower expansion than forecast in the services sector and a worse contraction in manufacturing than predicted.Manufacturing PMI in France decreased to 48.4 in April, from 48.8 in March.
Japanese manufacturing activity contracted in April for the first time in almost a year, as domestic orders and output fell. The Markit’s Japan Manufacturing Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) fell to a seasonally adjusted 49.7 in April, from a final 50.3 in March. The index fell below the 50 threshold that separates contraction from expansion for the first time since May of last year.
We are in our seventh year of record-low interest rates and banks have been flooded with reserves. However, the developed world appears to be debt disabled. That is, already saturated in debt, therefore unwilling and unable to service new debt due to a lack of real income growth.
So the problem for central banks and governments is how to get the money supply booming in an environment where consumers want to deleverage and save. Zero percent interest rates (ZIRP) are inflationary and negative real interest rates foment asset bubbles and encourage new debt accumulation. For decades central banks have used their control of the price of money to coerce boom cycles that eventually turn to bust. But for the past six years, their foray into ZIRP land hasn’t provided the boom cycle they were expecting. Sure, they have created massive bubbles in bonds and equities–but the economy has yet to enjoy the promised growth that is supposed to trickle down from creating these bubbles. They have set the markets up for a bust, yet the economy never enjoyed the boom.
This has left Keynesians scratching their respective heads and scheming new ways to encourage even more borrowing and spending. The Keynesians who rule the economy now control the price of money but are having difficulty controlling its supply and producing rapid inflation rates.
Bank deposits that pay nothing and ultra-low borrowing costs haven’t proved effective in boosting money supply and velocity growth. The growth rate of M3 has fallen from 9% in 2012, to under 4% today. And monetary velocity has steadily declined since the Great Recession began. Therefore, unfortunately, the next baneful government scheme is to push interest rates much further into negative territory in real terms; and also in nominal terms as well!
You would think this is absolutely absurd but it is already happening. The European Central Bank, has a deposit rate of minus 0.2 percent and the Swiss National Bank, has a deposit rate of minus 0.75 percent. On April 21st the cost for banks to borrow from each other in euros (the euro interbank offered rate, or Euribor) tipped negative for the first time. And as of April 17th, bonds comprising 31% of the value of the Bloomberg Eurozone Sovereign Bond Index, were trading with negative yields.
Could Negative Interest Rates Arrive In America?
They already have. Beginning on May 1st, JP Morgan Chase has announced they will charge certain customers a “balance sheet utilization fee” of 1% a year on deposits in excess of the money they need for operations. That amounts to a negative interest rate on deposits. Banks formerly competed for your money–now they want to charge you to park it with them.
With interest on deposits at next to nothing, or now slightly negative, the only reason for consumers to keep money in the bank is convenience. The more money you lose money on your deposits in the form of a “utilization fee”, the more attractive your mattress becomes. But, as long as paper money and your mattress are available, the Fed will not be able to fully implement its negative rate policy in its quest to create inflation. After all, there would be a global run on the banking system if rates were to fall into negative territory by more than just a few percentage points.
So how can central banks and governments ensure rapid money supply growth and velocity if consumers have the option to hoard cash? Some of the “best minds” in Keynesian thought, like Kenneth Rogoff, have a solution to this. They are floating the idea that paper money should be made illegal and the evidence shows governments are listening. If you outlaw hard cash, and make all money digital, there is no limit to how much borrowers can get paid to borrow and how much savers get charged to save. This would make it unprofitable to hoard cash, and compel people to consume and borrow electronic currency as fast as possible. Money in the bank would become the “hot potato”: as soon as it hits your bank account the race would be on to move it to the next person’s account. Whoever gets stuck with the money when the music ends pays a fee; that would be some increase in velocity! And vastly negative real interest rates would force the amount of leverage in the economy to explode.
This idea sounds fairly Orwellian-allowing central banks to control every aspect of monetary exchange and giving the Federal Government an electronic gateway to every financial transaction. But when you think about it, the idea of a fiat currency and the Federal Reserve were radical ideas before they became common place. Indeed, this is exactly why the authors of our constitution tried to ensure gold and silver would have the final and only say in the supply and value of money.
Just as gold once stood in the way of governments’ desire to expand the money supply, physical cash is now deemed as a fetter to the complete control of savings and wealth by the state. History is replete with examples of just how far governments will go to usurp control of people under the guise of the greater good. Sadly, the future will bring the collapse of cash through its illicit status, which will in turn assist in the collapse of the purchasing power of the middle class. Wise investors would take advantage of the opportunity to park their savings in real money (physical gold and silver) while they still have a chance.