The Fed has backed itself not into a corner but to the edge of a precipice.
Though the Federal Reserve never stated its Grand Bargain explicitly, their actions have spoken louder than their predictably self-serving, obfuscatory public pronouncements. Here’s the Grand Bargain they offered institutional investors and speculators alike:
We’re taking away your low-risk, high-yield investments by slashing interest rates to near-zero, but we’re giving you endless asset bubbles as a new way to notch reliable gains. This trade-off has worked for 20 years as the Fed hyper-inflated one asset bubble after another until they finally inflated everything to precarious extremes: The Everything Bubble of 2019 that started unraveling in September 2019, long before the pandemic.
The Everything Bubble includes: stocks, housing, commercial real estate, corporate debt, junk bonds, CDOs, CLOs, bankrupt companies, phantom companies, etc. The Fed inflated all these assets bubbles as a “can’t lose” proposition for yield-starved institutions that can’t survive on low-risk 1% Treasury yields.
These institutions include: public union pension funds, insurance companies, mutual funds, wealth management entities, hedge funds, banks and 401K retirement fund managers.
Asset bubbles are not a substitute for Treasury bonds and AA-rated corporate/municipal debt for one reason: risk. Despite all the extravagant claims about risk being hedged, the reality is that risk cannot be made to disappear, it can only be transferred to others.
Asset bubbles are intrinsically unstable and therefore risky. All bubbles pop, period, and whomever is holding the bag as the bubble pops will suffer catastrophic losses. The Fed and its countless apologists / lackeys claim the Fed has our back and so bubbles will never pop because the Fed will print as much money as needed to reflate any bubble that’s losing air.
After unprecedented asset bubbles popped in 2000 and 2008, the Fed apologists / lackeys all claimed the bubbles only popped due to a policy error. If only the Fed had (insert policy: waved more dead chickens over the bonfire, danced the humba-humba with Paul Krugman, bought bat-guano futures through offshore proxies, etc.), then the bubble would have continued expanding to infinity: Dow 100,000, yee-haw!
This fantasy ignores the dynamics of bubbles: when bubbles reach extremes, they implode regardless of policy tweaks and media appearances.
The Fed lowered rates to bring demand forward and lower the cost of additional borrowing by households, companies and governments, the goal being to stave off recession and encourage speculative gambles in housing and stocks that would generate the wealth effect to further stimulate imprudent borrowing and spending.
Don’t put off buying that new pickup, the Fed screamed; buy it now while rates are near-zero. (Buying what you would have bought next year right now is bringing demand forward.)
The problem with bringing demand forward is eventually there’s no demand or credit left to buy more stuff because all the demand was brought into the present and only the most marginal borrowers (and those who refuse to borrow more no matter how low rates go) are left.
Goosing stocks to ever-higher valuations even as revenues and earnings stagnate or collapse reaches the same end-game: by the time stock valuations have completely lost touch with reality (in March 2000 and again now in February – June 2020), the delusionally euphoric belief that stocks will continue to loft ever higher because the Fed has our back is only credible to the last few greater fools. Once the pool of greater fools is drained, stocks crash.
The same can be said of corporate debt, which has reached unprecedented levels around 50% of GDP. Once again, greater fools are buying potentially worthless junk bonds because the Fed has our back, even though the Fed’s junk-bond buying is a leaky bucket compared to the tsunami of defaults that’s about to wash away the entire junk bond sand castle.
The Fed’s primary job has been to transfer risk from the most ferociously parasitic and predatory speculators to its own balance sheet, which expands as the Fed buys the fetid garbage of a speculative bust through proxies. Whatever risk can’t be buried in the Fed’s foul cellar of financial sewage is off-loaded onto the hapless taxpayers via soaring federal deficits.
The Fed’s shameless army of apologists/lackeys claim the Fed can always start buying stocks directly as the final measure to goose stocks to ever more absurd highs. But the apologists/lackeys never follow through to the logical end-game of their folly: eventually the Fed owns most of the assets it has goosed to the moon, leaving nothing for private-sector capital to earn a return on.
If the Fed ends up owning most long-term Treasury bonds, most corporate debt, most of the mortgage backed securities (MBS), most of the stock market, etc., then what’s left for the tens of trillions in private-sector capital that sold all its risky assets to the Fed? What’s left to invest in that’s low-risk and high-yield?
The answer is: nothing. Simply put, inflating asset bubbles is not a substitute for low-risk, high-yield investments such as Treasuries, and buying the guaranteed-to-default sewage of corporate junk bonds doesn’t make new junk bonds any less risky or any less prone to default.
The Fed has backed itself not into a corner but to the edge of a precipice. It cannot allow interest rates to rise enough to offer institutions low-risk alternatives to gambling in asset bubbles, and it can’t goose the insanely over-valued asset bubbles it’s inflated any higher without triggering political blowback as the Fed’s asset bubbles are the primary driver of soaring wealth inequality.
Buying stocks directly won’t create low-risk, high-yield returns for institutions; all it will do is bury the risk in the Fed’s ballooning balance sheet while stripping insurers and pension funds of the returns they need to remain solvent.
Yields will remain near-zero while all the asset bubbles implode, destroying tens of trillions of dollars in phantom capital. The Fed’s grand bargain–offering inherently risky asset bubbles as a substitute for low-risk, high-yield bonds–has collapsed. Everyone with a stake in an asset bubble is about to have a Wile E. Coyote realization that the risk they thought had vanished has emerged as gravity.
It’s a long way to the bottom of the canyon, and the impact will be devastating. This impact is the dreadful price of avoiding healthy business-cycle recessions in 2000, 2008 and 2016 that would have cleared the economy of speculative deadwood and toxic zombie companies.