Doug Noland

Doug Noland: Permanent Market Support Operations

My view is that normalization is impossible. Extended global market Bubbles are too fragile to endure a tightening of financial conditions. At the same time, sustaining Bubbles has become perilous. Especially in the U.S., with deficits and a weak currency as far as the eye can see, the risks of allowing inflation to gain a foothold are significant. For the first time in a while, there is pressure on the Fed to tighten financial conditions. This places the great central bank experiment at risk. Bubbles don’t work in reverse. 


U.S. stocks posted the strongest week of gains since 2013 (would have been 2011 if not for late-day selling). The S&P500 surged 4.3%, and the Nasdaq Composite jumped 5.3%. The small cap Russell 2000 rallied 4.4%. After closing last Friday at 29.06, the VIX settled back down to a still elevated 19.46. Foreign markets recovered as well. Germany’s DAX rose 2.8%, and France’s CAC 40 gained 4.0%. The Shanghai Composite was closed for the lunar new year. The dollar index was back under pressure this week, sinking 1.5%, giving a boost to commodities prices. Price instability abounds.

While stocks rather quickly recovered a chunk of recent losses, the same cannot be said for corporate bonds. Notably, investment-grade bonds (LQD) rallied little after recent declines.

February 16 – Bloomberg (Cecile Gutscher and Cormac Mullen): “Corporate bond funds succumbed to rate fears that have gripped stocks to Treasuries. Investors pulled $14.1 billion from debt funds, the fifth-largest stretch of redemptions in the week through Feb. 14, according to a Bank of America Merrill Lynch report, citing EPFR data. High-yield bonds lost $10.9 billion alone, the second highest outflow on record. As benchmark Treasury yields traded at a four-year high, it shook the foundations of a key support for risk assets — low rates. ‘Investors don’t sell their cash bonds in a big way until they are forced to, which happens when the outflows start picking up more sustainably,’ Morgan Stanley strategists led by Adam Richmond wrote…”

U.S. junk bond funds suffered outflows of $6.3 billion (from Lipper), the second highest ever. IShares’ high-yield ETF saw outflows of $760 million. U.S. investment-grade bond funds had outflows of $790 million (Lipper), the first outflows since September. This was a big reversal from last week’s $4.73 billion inflow. The iShares investment-grade ETF had outflows of $921 million, the “largest outflow in its 15-year history.” Even muni funds posted outflows ($443 million), along with mortgage and loan funds.

A strong equities rally into option expiration – after a bout of market selling and hedging – is not out of the ordinary. Hedges put on over recent weeks were unwound, creating potent buying power for the rally. Scores of systematic trading strategies that were aggressively selling into market weakness turned aggressive buyers into this week’s advance.

I’m not much interested in sharing my guess as to where markets might head next week. It certainly wouldn’t be surprising if this week’s buyers panic subsides abruptly and selling reemerges. At the same time, I’ve seen enough of short squeeze and derivative melt-up dynamics to take them seriously. They have had a tendency of taking on a life of their own. I’m not, however, shying away from my view that recent developments mark a critical juncture in the markets – and for the world of finance more generally. Markets could find themselves in trouble in a hurry.

My objective for the CBB is to offer (hopefully valuable) perspective. I believe the blowup of the “short vol” and the revelation of how quickly the great bull market can succumb to illiquidity and losses have fundamentally altered the risk-taking and leveraging backdrop. The cost of hedging market risk, while down this week, has risen significantly. Treasuries have revealed themselves as an inadequate hedge against risk assets. Moreover, exceptionally high asset correlations experienced during the recent sharp selloff have illuminated the shortcomings of many so-called “diversified” strategies. There will be ebbs and flows, often wild and intimidating. Yet I believe de-risking/de-leveraging dynamics will gain momentum. Fragilities will be exposed.

I have serious issues with contemporary finance. Unique in history, the world operates with a financial “system” devoid of limits on either the quantity or quality of “money” and Credit. Unlike a gold standard (or other disciplined monetary regimes), there is no mechanism to contain the creation of new finance. As such, traditional supply/demand dynamics have little relevance in the pricing of finance. Today’s contemporary financial apparatus – where central bankers largely dictate the price of Credit – lacks effective regulation of supply and demand. Importantly, the contemporary system fails to self-correct or adjust. Left unchecked, it feeds serial Bubbles and busts.

Early CBBs focused on the instability of this new world of “Wall Street finance.” Unfettered finance, much of it directly targeted to asset markets, had created powerful asset inflation and Bubble Dynamics. Indeed, by the late-nineties the perilous instability of contemporary finance had become abundantly clear. One could point to “portfolio insurance” contributing to the ’87 crash; the role of non-bank finance in late-eighties excess; the 92/93 bond/derivatives Bubble that burst in 1994; the 1995 Mexican collapse; the ’97 Asian Tiger collapses and the spectacular simultaneous 1998 Russia and Long-Term Capital Management debacles.

Somehow, there’s never been a serious and sustained effort to analyze contemporary finance’s shortcomings. Rather than contemplating evident deficiencies, each burst Bubble led immediately to whatever reflationary measures deemed necessary. Structural issued be damned. All along the way, few have been willing to admit the fundamental flaws inherent in various modern forms of risk intermediation. Rather than mitigate risk, structured finance and derivatives tend to distort, disguise and transfer myriad risks. Various risk intermediation mechanisms work to lower the cost of finance, in the process exacerbating Credit excess, risk-taking, speculation and leveraging.

Perhaps most momentous, the experiment in unconstrained finance spurred an experiment in economic structure. The U.S. economy was free to deindustrialize. With newfound access to unlimited finance and inflating asset prices, Americans were to indefinitely trade financial claims for endless cheap imports. The bane of “twin deficits” had been eradicated. Even more miraculously, the flood of finance the U.S. unleashed upon the world would, largely through foreign central banks, be recycled right back into booming American securities markets.

After the burst of the “tech” Bubble – and, importantly, the 2002 dislocation in the corporate debt market – the Fed panicked. Even more than 1987, 1990 and 1998, the Fed feared “the scourge of deflation.” Somehow, the Fed, Wall Street and others found solace in Bernanke’s radical monetary ideas of “helicopter money” and the “government printing press.” The Federal Reserve was willing to slash rates to one percent – and peg them there in the face of several years of double-digit annual mortgage Credit growth.

Let’s call it what it was: reckless. The Fed looked the other way from conspicuous financial and housing-related excess (as they have more recently in the securities markets). Why? Because they had specifically targeted mortgage Credit as their inflationary mechanism of choice. The Bubble was untouchable.

The 2008 crisis marked the failure of a great financial experiment. Fannie, Freddie and GSE risk intermediation failed. Wall Street structured finance failed. Derivatives markets and Wall Street firms failed. Counterparties failed. Across the financial landscape, catastrophic flaws were exposed. In short, contemporary finance failed spectacularly.

The ‘08/’09 crisis should have provided an historic inflection point. The greatest upheaval in decades should have marked the beginning of an era of more stable finance – of sounder money and Credit and firmer economic underpinnings. It would have been an arduous process, no doubt. Central bankers had other ideas.

I’ve never been tempted to give up on the analysis. For going on ten years, I’ve chronicled the greatest experiment in the history of central banking. Central bankers have adopted the most extreme rate, “money printing,” and market manipulation measures ever. They have guaranteed abundant cheap (virtually free) finance for going on a decade now. What was meant to be a temporary rescue of fragile private-sector, market-based finance morphed into history’s greatest global Bubble.

The greatest flaw in central banker doctrine/strategy was to believe that after intervening temporarily with reflationary measures the system would stabilize and gravitate right back to normal operations. Central bankers reflated a deeply unsound financial structure, only exacerbating flaws and compounding contemporary finance’s vulnerabilities. In particular, a decade of reflationary measures profoundly inflated risk intermediation distortions and fragilities.

The “Moneyness of Risk Assets” has seen Trillions flow into an untested ETF complex on the assumption that central bankers would ensure ETF holdings remained a safe and liquid store of value. Reflationary measures also incentivized Trillions to flow into sovereign debt, corporate Credit, structured finance and the emerging markets on the belief that central bankers would not tolerate another market crisis. Trillions have flowed into various derivative trading strategies on the view that central bankers would ensure liquid and continuous markets – no matter the degree of market excess.

The upshot has been market distortions and the accumulation of risks on an unprecedented scale. Fragilities have surfaced on occasion (i.e. “flash crash”), spooking the central banker community sufficiently to ensure that “temporary” reflationary measures evolved into Permanent Market Support Operations. Central bankers had slipped fully into the markets’ trap. Cautious measures expected to normalize policy over time only ensured that financial conditions loosened further – and global Bubble inflation accelerated.

Along the way, Permanent Market Support Operations changed the game – in global finance as well as throughout economies. Everyone was free to assume more market risk – savers, investors, pension funds and institutions, and the leveraged speculators. Corporate management could issue more debt and buy back more stock. Easy “money” ensured an easy M&A boom. It took time, but animal spirits in the Financial Sphere eventually manifested in the Real Economy Sphere.

The most aggressive companies, managers, entrepreneurs and swindlers all enjoyed the greatest success. Seemingly any clever idea could attract funding. With finance virtually unlimited and free, almost any investment could be viewed as having merit irrespective of prospects for economic returns. There was abundant “money” to be thrown at everything – the cloud, the Internet of things, AI, robotics, autonomous vehicles and all things tech, pharmaceuticals, alternative energy, all things media and so on. It became New Paradigm 2.0, with the earlier nineties version now such a triviality.

Things just got too crazy. Central bankers were much too complacent as Bubble Dynamics gathered powerful momentum. Booming asset inflation and 4% unemployment weren’t enough to convince the Fed it was time to tighten up the reins. Meanwhile, the ECB and BOJ clung stubbornly to negative rates and massive QE programs. Chinese Credit went nuts. Through it all, wealth disparities only worsened, fueling in the U.S. a populist movement and anti-establishment revolt that placed the Trump administration in power. Despite a massive accumulation of debt and ongoing large deficits – not to mention increasingly overheated late-cycle economic dynamics – the Republicans pushed through historic tax cuts. Next on the President’s agenda: tariffs and trade battles.

Everyone became so transfixed by daily stock market records, historically low volatility and the easiest conditions imaginable throughout corporate Credit. It was easy to ignore pressures percolating on the inflation front. And it became just as easy to disregard the possibility that central bankers might actually raise rates to the point of tightening financial conditions. Heightened uncertainty began to manifest in currency market volatility. Meanwhile, excesses were mounting in the securities markets on a daily basis – including incredible flows into perceived safe and liquid ETFs, rank speculation, “short vol,” derivatives and leverage.

For the most part during this extraordinary cycle, Monetary Disorder has remained conveniently contained within the securities and asset markets, seemingly staying within the purview of global central bank policymaking. Rather suddenly, however, markets are beginning to realize there are unfolding risks not easily resolved by monetary stimulus. Deficit spending has become completely unhinged, while inflation is gaining sufficient momentum to garner concern. As such, central bankers may feel compelled to actually tighten financial conditions. Bond markets are on edge, commencing a long-overdue price adjustment. At the minimum, the Fed and others will likely be less hurried when coming to the defense of unstable equities markets.

The bulls see this week’s quick stock market recovery as confirmation of sound underlying fundamentals. The selloff was a technical market glitch completely detached from the reality of booming corporate earnings, robust economic growth and extraordinary prospects.

I see this week’s big market rally as confirmation of the Bubble thesis. Markets have lost the capacity to self-adjust and correct. Derivatives and speculation rule the markets. Option expiration week certainly provides fertile ground for short squeezes and the crushing of put holders. But it does raise the important question of whether markets at this point can correct without dislocating to the downside. I have serious doubts. The quick recovery has markets again dismissing mounting risks. Perhaps it will also keep the Fed thinking economic risks are tilted to the upside – that they need to ignore market volatility and stay focused on normalization.

My view is that normalization is impossible. Extended global market Bubbles are too fragile to endure a tightening of financial conditions. At the same time, sustaining Bubbles has become perilous. Especially in the U.S., with deficits and a weak currency as far as the eye can see, the risks of allowing inflation to gain a foothold are significant. For the first time in a while, there is pressure on the Fed to tighten financial conditions. This places the great central bank experiment at risk. Bubbles don’t work in reverse.

The world is changing. These flows out of corporate debt ETFs are a significant development – another step toward “Risk Off.” Similar speculative and hedging dynamics that hit equities hold potential to spark major dislocation and illiquidity in corporate Credit. For further evidence of change, look no further than a Tuesday headline from the Wall Street Journal: “White House Considering Cleveland Fed President Mester for Fed’s No. 2 Job.” A central banker I admire considered for a top Fed post? Is this part of a changing of the guard at our central bank, or perhaps administration officials recognize that with years of huge deficits looming on the horizon, along with dollar vulnerability, the Fed will soon be in need of some inflation-fighting credentials.

Original Post:  17 February 2018

Categories: Doug Noland, Perspectives