It’s the Fed’s “hold my beer” moment.
After more than a year in which Federal Reserve leadership appeared clueless, pollyannish, and indecisive, the Fed is conducting a full-throated messaging campaign to show that it is as serious as cancer about the inflation surge that is scaring the bejesus out of consumers, investors, and economists.
There was a little March Madness on Wall Street. In fact, the month turned into an old-fashioned blood bath. But you wouldn’t have found any carnage in the stock market. In fact, the Dow Jones gained a decent 2.3% on the month. But beneath that glittery stock market stage (that attracts the most investor attention) there was some chaos in the orchestra pit. The normally sleepy bond market just experienced one of its worst months ever, and one of its worst quarters in over forty years, down almost 7%. The municipal bond market just posted its worst quarter since 1994, down more than 5%.
With 2021 now in the rear-view mirror, I believe that future financial historians may regard it as the year of peak speculation.
While the history of American markets is littered with periods of irrational exuberance, none of those episodes can really match the current market for outright delusion and the blatant disregard for basic investment discipline.
The inflation that we were emphatically told would be transitory and unmoored continues to persist and entrench. As the troubles gather momentum Washington is doing its best to ignore the problem or actively make it worse.
The “transitory” inflation swamping the country has stubbornly persisted into July. Producer prices posted a second straight 1% month-over-month increase, which brought the full-year number to a record 7.8%. Twelve-month US export prices rose 17.2%, and nearly 22% if the rate of the first seven months of 2021 were annualized. (I find it telling that those prices – which are subject to no after-the-fact data collection adjustments – are rising at a rate that is nearly triple the CPI).
What exactly is “transitory?” You and your wife may disagree on its meaning when your old friend asks if he can stay with you while he “Sorts things out.” The term is virtually worthless without some guiding context, as in “Honey, he’ll be out of here by Monday. Tuesday the latest.”
It’s dawning on many investors that our post-Covid financial problems may not be as easily solved as Washington claims.
The latest clue that trouble is brewing has come from the sudden and dramatic arrival of inflation. On May 12, it was revealed that the Consumer Price Index (CPI) had risen 4.2% year-over-year, the fastest pace since 2008.
Some tried to downplay concern by pointing out that the gains resulted from the “base effect” of comparing current prices with the artificially depressed “Covid lockdown” prices of March and April of last year. But that ignores the more alarming trend of near-term price acceleration.
Recently, a piece of collage art entitled “Everydays: The First 5000 Days,” by an artist known as Beeple, sold at a Christie’s auction for $69 million. The Wall Street Journal noted that the price was higher than any that has ever been paid for works of Frida Kahlo, Paul Gaugin, or Salvador Dali. But, before the auction, few outside the digital art world had ever heard of Beeple, which may explain why the bidding started at just $100. But the sale does not suggest a sudden re-evaluation of his talents. Instead, it is a stunning statement about the medium of the art itself or, more precisely, the lack of it. In fact, “Everdays: The First 5000 Days” isn’t made out of anything you can touch. It is entirely virtual.
The tale of GameStop has much more to say about the current state of investing.”
The central idea in the classic Mel Brooks comedy “The Producers” is that unscrupulous Broadway impresarios could succeed fabulously by creating a play so uniquely awful that it would close on its first day. Their idea was to oversubscribe shares to investors, to the point where hundreds of percentages of ownership could be claimed. But if the show failed spectacularly, there would be no proceeds to fight over, all the investors would accept that their shares were worthless, and no one would know that they had been conned. The producers could pocket the excess money. The only way they could fail would be by producing a hit.
For years, I have been warning that during the age of permanent stimulus (which began in earnest with the Federal Reserve’s reaction to the dotcom crash of 2000), each successive economic contraction would have to be met with ever larger, increasingly ineffective, doses of monetary and fiscal stimulus to keep the economy from spiraling into depression. I have also said that the enormity of the asset price gains over the last 10 years had increased the danger because reflating the bloated stock, real estate, and public and private debt markets would bring on doses of stimulus that could prove lethal for the economy. But even though I expected that the next financial crisis would be catastrophic, I thought that it would come into the world in the usual way, as a credit crisis triggered by over-leverage. But the Coronavirus ripped up those stage notes, and instead ushered in a threat that is faster and deeper than I imagined, and I imagined a lot. It’s a perfect storm, a black swan with teeth.