Time to Think About the Next Story-Inflation, Rising Rates, Commodity Prices, Weak Dollar

Time to Think About the Next Story-Inflation, Rising Rates, Commodity Prices, Weak Dollar

The credit crisis is all you hear about from officials in Washington and from talking heads on TV. Indeed, the credit shortage is still alive and well. Employment is still falling and small business owners–the only real source of new jobs–have an even tougher time getting working capital loans from banks than they did 2 months ago before bankers fell in love with the new government bailout plans. But it’s time for investors to move on to the next story.

Bank Reserves

Bank Reserves

The credit crisis is ending. The wall of money created by the Federal Reserve to extinguish the credit crunch and deflation that they, themselves, had created has rigged the deck so banks will make money. The banking system today is being run as a de facto monopoly bank by the Fed. The Fed is paying them interest on reserves, which at $990 billion are roughly ten times the level they were just eight months ago. Over the same period, bank depositors withdrew roughly $90 billion from their bank accounts to keep at home just in case their bank failed. As I pointed out in a post yesterday, there are signs people are beginning to exhale–currency holdings are no longer rising. When they once again feel safe they will put that $90 billion bank into their accounts, which will swell bank reserves by the same amount from 10x to 11x times last August levels.

This tsunami of reserves since last September translates into bank profits at no risk. The Fed pays the same 0.25% interest on bank reserves whether the bank lends the money to customers or not. How much? One quarter percent of the $1 trillion reserve increase equals $2.75 billion per year in incremental bank earnings. The spread between deposit rates–effectively zero–and lending rates, including fees is huge. And the FASB accounting rule change at the end of the first quarter that allowed boards of directors the leeway to value assets based upon their expected cash flow rather than firm quotes from dealers was a huge boost to bank balance sheets. That’s why bank stocks have knocked the lights out since then. And those reasons are why bank stocks have been the biggest bet in my portfolio this quarter with returns 17% over the market so far this year.

Now it’s time to change the bet gain. I still have big bets on bank and financial stocks but have been increasing my exposure to two other bets, China and inflation. Both bets have been working nicely.

My visits with Chinese leaders and Asian CEOs at the BOAO Forum in April convinced me that we were going to see a long string of positive growth surprises from China and its main suppliers around the Pacific Rim–Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia and Indonesia.

The inflation bet is still early. But the recent run of commodity prices and weakness of the dollar suggest it is not too early. Once the credit crunch and recession are off the front page people are going to focus more and more on two factors. First, the Fed tsunami of bank reserves will sooner or later translate into rising price levels. If the Fed allowed the reserves it has already created to remain in the market after the crisis is over the U.S. price level would rise to about 9x its current level over a small number of years, i.e., the $3 vanilla latte you bought at Starbucks today is going to cost you $30–you better start saving your money. Of course, the U.S. political system will not allow a nine-fold increase in the price level so sooner or later the Fed is going to have to take steps to reduce bank reserves. Hint: the same guys who brought you the current disaster are going to be the ones who will be in charge of shrinking reserves. This is not going to be elegant.

The other reason, of course, is that government spending is completely out of control. Ever since last fall when Treas. Secretary Paulson convinced Congress to give him $700 billion to spend however the hell he wanted with no controls or oversight the barn door has been open. Obama’s team has pushed trillions of dollars of new spending through that door in the space of a few months. The result is the $3.5 trillion budget Obama proudly presented to Congress. That budget projects budget shortfalls of roughly $1 trillion per year for the next decade. And that does not even include the added cost of his new national healthcare system.

Those huge spending numbers, of course, mean that Congress will soon increase every tax rate in the book including taxes on ordinary income, dividend income and capital gains as well as higher corporate taxes. We can also expect increased excise taxes on tobacco, liquor, and energy of a forms. Last week the White House also floated the idea of adding a national sales tax–they call it a value added tax–that would be a huge increase on working families. The problem is these tax rate increases are not going to generate much revenue–they never do–because people can easily avoid them by either using tax shelters or by simply deferring or avoiding the realization of income. Over the past 6 decades tax rates have varied all over the map but tax revenues, the amount people actually pay, has been 19% of GDP +/= one percent.

If spending is out of control and the government can’t raise more tax revenue we are going to have massive budget , or budget deficits, shortfalls every year. The Treasury is going to have to sell truckloads of new Tbills and bonds into the market every year as well as roll over the ones already out there. That is the scenario that is now beginning to spook the bond and currency markets. Big bank reserve growth, big spending increases and big budget deficits mean the market is being floods with dollar assets, which has to drive down the value of all assets denominated in dollars. That’s why the long Treasury bond yield has increased by more than 100 basis points, or one full percentage point, in recent weeks. And the dollar is posting new lows against both the Euro and the pound. And that’s why the vice Premier of China asked me last month if there was a way China could protect its $2 trillion Tbill portfolio against inflation and a falling dollar.

Faster growth in China and higher inflation point you in the same direction–commodity stocks. I have been increasing my exposure to oil (STO), coal (BHP) and copper and metals (FCX). I expect to add more to these positions next week.

It has been a long time since we needed to worry about the impact of budget deficits on interest rates. But now we do. The best analysis I have done on the topic is Chapter 4 of my book Lessons from a Road Warrior. Over the next few days I will write a series of blogs to help readers think through the issue.


John Rutledge


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