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December 17, 2007

A Little Acid Test for Fed "Liquidity"

John P. Hussman, Ph.D.
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The stock market retreated from its overbought position last week, as typically happens when overbought conditions occur in unfavorable Market Climates. Given that last week's decline cleared that overbought condition, I'm back to the more typical position of having no specific short-term views. That said, there is one particular scenario that would be ominous in my view. That would be if we see a relatively uninterrupted series of declines that breaks cleanly through the August and November lows, followed by a one-day advance of 200-400 Dow points. That's a script that markets tend to follow pre-crash. Though it's not a strong expectation or forecast, it's something worth monitoring, because we've started to see the pattern of abrupt jumps and declines at 10-minute intervals that is often a hallmark of nervous markets.

Last week's quarter-point move by the Fed gave the dollar an opportunity to rebound from its own oversold condition. A move to about 115 yen/dollar would be about where that condition would “clear,” and given still weak economic conditions and inflation pressures, that's about where the buck may again be vulnerable to fresh downward pressure.

With the November CPI figures released last week, the year-over-year headline CPI inflation rate is now 4.3%. That's not a surprise. As I noted way back in my July 30 market comment, “If you look carefully at the CPI figures (and tinker with the monthly numbers), you'll also discover that even if the figures average a 2% annual rate in the months ahead, the year-over-year headline CPI inflation rate will be pushing 4% by November. This is already “baked in the cake.” Since Bernanke is clearly concerned with the inflation expectations of the public, as well as the Fed's credibility, that headline CPI figure may create some complications for cutting rates in the months ahead, unless resource utilization falls out of bed.”

As usual, that's not to say that Fed actions provide more than psychological effects and a sort of “square dance call” for short-term rates anyway (which market rates often ignore, or precede). Still, inflation and dollar risk does complicate things a bit for the Fed, which is now forced to finance its predictable repos with great fanfare, as if they actually matter.

Case in point is the ridiculously over-hyped “term auction facility” announced last week. According to that announcement, the Fed plans to auction about $40 billion of “liquidity” this week: $20 billion on Monday December 17th, which will be a 28-day repo, and another $20 billion on December 20th.

If you've been following my weekly comments about Fed repos at all in recent weeks, you can figure out that there are currently $53 billion of repos outstanding (as of Friday), fully $39 billion that mature this week. And wouldn't you know it, the Fed is going to be “injecting” $40 billion this week too.

Acid Test

So here's a little acid-test of whether the Fed will actually be providing new “liquidity,” or whether it's just trying to brew up a tempest with what's already in that little teapot. Watch the NY Fed's listings of open market operations:

http://www.ny.frb.org/markets/omo/dmm/temp.cfm?SHOWMORE=TRUE

If the Fed is actually adding liquidity, you'll see not only the two $20 billion repos on the 17th and 20th, but additional repos to replace the $39 billion that are coming due this week ($5 billion mature on Tuesday the 18th, and fully $34 billion are set to mature on Thursday the 20th). If the Fed does nothing but those two $20 billion longer-dated repos, all it will have done is to change the maturity of its outstanding repos, without changing the amount.

Now, that's not to say I believe that even if the Fed does temporarily buy $40 billion of government securities for 28 days, before selling them back out, it will do much for the solvency of the $12.7 trillion U.S. banking system, much less exotic CDOs and mortgage-backed securities. As I've emphasized in recent weeks, if you track all those daily and weekly rollovers and figure out the total quantity of Fed repos outstanding at any given time, you'll find that the Fed has only injected $18 billion in “liquidity” since March.

If investors think the Fed buying up a few billion of Treasury and agency debt means a hill of beans, they might do well to remember that the U.S. government is running up annual deficits in the hundreds of billions. In fact, the U.S. Treasury will float tens of billions of new debt in December alone (most of which will be sopped up by foreigners, who have increased their holdings of Treasuries by well over $200 billion in the past year). This will be mixed in with refinancings.

Last week, for example, the Treasury auctioned $21 billion in 3-month bills and $20 billion in 6-month bills. In doing so, the Treasury offset every bit of the Federal Reserve's actions this week, even if it turns out that the $40 billion “term auction facility” represents new liquidity and not just rollovers. Why aren't investors just as interested in that? When the Fed does open market operations, all it's doing is buying up (temporarily or permanently) a tiny fraction of U.S. Treasury debt and replacing it with currency and bank reserves. But every time the Federal government issues more debt to finance its deficits, the new issuance cancels out any beneficial increase in liquidity the Fed could possibly provide.

So it's difficult to understand why investors would get all excited about the Fed temporarily buying up a few billion in government securities, when we've got a Federal government that's simultaneously and permanently issuing and then constantly rolling over many, many times that amount. It‘s an escape into dreamland to believe that Fed actions have any chance at all of providing more “liquidity” when the Federal government's deficits suck up in a matter of weeks every bit of liquidity that the Fed has provided in a year. These Fed actions are nothing but marginal tinkering around the edges of the global financial system, and investors are starting to catch on.

Still, it's fun to watch when you understand what's going on. In fact, there will be all kinds of interesting things we'll get to watch this week. For instance, the Fed does its first $20 billion auction on Monday, but there's a timing disparity - only about $5 billion of expiring repos come on Tuesday, and the other $34 billion come due on Thursday. So between Monday and Thursday, we'll observe at least a temporary jump of $15-20 billion in Fed repos outstanding. There's a good chance that during that 3-day overlap, the actual Fed Funds rate will creep below the current target of 4.25% (watch the chart here: http://www.ny.frb.org/markets/openmarket.html ). If that happens, you can bet that some analysts will incorrectly conclude that the Fed is doing some sort of “stealth easing.” But it will be nothing more than a 3-day timing overlap between maturing and new repos.

More interesting is to watch what happens on Thursday. That's when we get $34 billion of repos coming due. If the Fed does little more than $20 billion through its “term auction facility,” that will put the total for the week at $40 billion, versus $39 billion expiring, and it will be clear that this whole maneuver is simply a way for the Fed to temporarily refinance its expiring repos using a slightly longer 28-day maturity, rather than any effort to actually increase the amount of reserves.

In any event, banking conditions aren't likely to change even if $40 billion in additional 28-day repos actually materialize. Indeed, a Bloomberg report noted “A Fed official told reporters that the U.S. central bank's efforts won't add net liquidity to the banking system. The plans are aimed at buttressing so-called term funding markets, such as for one-month loans, rather than overnight cash.” Should be interesting.

Finally, it's worth repeating that the total amount of outstanding repos has increased by only $18 billion since March, nearly all of which has been drawn out as currency in circulation. Most likely, the Fed will enter a “permanent” open market operation on the order of $10-20 billion at some point in the coming weeks to formalize that increase in outstanding currency. That move will probably be met by ridiculously over-hyped reporting as well. But it's entirely predictable.

In short, Wall Street analysts aren't paying attention to the data if they believe that the Fed is "pumping" hundreds of billions into the economy to provide some kind of “safety net” for the banking system or the mortgage market. Is it really too much to ask that they make some attempt to understand the subject about which they opine incessantly?

As for the Fed itself, it's a great gift to offer people hope, but a great disservice to offer people false hope, and I think that's what the Fed is doing. What's going on in the mortgage market is not a crisis of confidence that we can talk ourselves out of – it's a problem of structural insolvency, where many borrowers literally don't have the means to service their debt over the long-term, because many of them were counting on rising home prices over the short-term. By acting as if a few billion in repos will substantially change this equation, the Fed is raising hopes, and setting the markets and the economy up for disappointment that will be far worse as a result. Bernanke would be better off admitting that the Fed has no chance of providing meaningful “liquidity” when the Federal government is issuing Treasuries at ten times the rate the Fed can absorb them. At that point, Americans would see better that the resources we need to invest, compete and become a financially sound nation are being hoarded by the Federal government and sent up in flames.

Market Climate

As of last week, the Market Climate for stocks remained characterized by unfavorable valuations and unfavorable market action. With last weeks' decline having cleared the overbought condition from the prior week, I have no pointed expectations about near-term market action. Again, however, I do think it's important to emphasize that the likelihood of recession remains intact, so investors should allow for the potential for substantial further market weakness. The Strategic Growth Fund remains fully hedged, not because of any specific near-term forecast about market direction, but because the prevailing conditions of valuations and market action have historically been associated with average returns well below Treasury yields.

In bonds, the Market Climate remains characterized by unfavorable yield levels and modestly favorable market action. As usual, we'll tend to increase our durations in the Strategic Total Return Fund on periodic spikes in yields, and clip them after significant dips. Credit spreads remain wide, and the potential for further loan losses does have the tendency to mitigate inflation pressures. That said, commodity prices and a generally weak dollar, combined with continued federal deficits are putting up a good fight to keep inflation pressures alive. My impression is that the default pressures will ultimately win out, but we've got a good chance of seeing a run on the dollar first. Again, the recent rebound in the dollar appears to be mostly a “clearing rally” from an oversold low, with the modest quarter-point Fed cut serving as the occasion. The Market Climate for precious metals remains favorable here, and the Strategic Total Return Fund continues to carry about 15% of assets in precious metals shares.

Don't miss Bill Hester's new research piece: Price-to-Sales Ratios May Prove Valuable

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