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Part 2: 2017, When The Wheels Finally Come Off

Kunstler  |  Howard Kunstler

The Year of Living Anxiously

Under Bernanke’s successor, UC-Berkeley Professor Janet Yellen, the emphasis in Fed policy has been an elaborate game of “data-dependent” foot-dragging — a lot of talk with no action — with the data itself largely fraudulent, especially the easily gamed employment and GDP numbers that supposedly determine the rise or fall of interest rate policy. In short, the racketeering continues while the authorities quail in the face of accumulated and now inescapable debt quandaries ever more certain to end in systemic collapse.

Get this: the Fed is completely full of shit. It is terrified of the conditions it has set up and it has no idea what to do next. The “data” that it claims to be so dependent on is arrantly fake. The government’s official unemployment number at Christmas 2016 was 4.6 percent. It’s a compound lie. The 4.6 percent does not include the 95 million people out of the workforce, most of them able-bodied, who have simply run through their unemployment benefits and given up looking for work. Nor does it figure in the fact that roughly 90 percent of the new jobs created are part time jobs, many of them held by people working several jobs (because they have to, to pay the bills). Nor does it detail the quality of the jobs created (minimum wage shit jobs.)

That 4.6 unemployment figure is the main pillar of the Fed’s “data.” They interpret it as meaning the economy is roaring and has their full confidence. They‘re lying about that, of course. They have been touting “the recovery” (from the crash of 2008) continually and heralding a program of “normalizing” interest rates upward for two years. In 2015 they didn’t do anything until the very last Fed meeting of the year when they raised the Fed Funds rate 25 basis point (that’s a measly one-quarter of a percent). They raised, they said, because they were “confident” about the economy. No, that’s not why. They did it because they talked about it all year without doing anything and their credibility was on the line. They also promised four rate hikes altogether in 2016, which they then failed to carry out.

After that December 2015 rate hike, the stock markets tanked 10 percent. By springtime, the markets appeared to be bouncing back, so the Fed started talking about more rate hikes again. They talked it up all year without acting, an impressive act of fakery. The surprise Brexit vote gave them the heebie jeebies. They laid low. Meanwhile, the US election season was on. The Fed denies this, but they did not raise interest rates for eleven months in 2016 solely because they wanted to make the Democratic administration look good heading into the November vote, and they knew the economy was fragile. Once Hillary was nominated they were determined to usher her into the White House on a high tide of fake good economic news.

When she lost the election the stock markets surprised everyone by entering a super-bubblicious Trumpxuberance rally. There is a narrative for that too in the media chatter and it is simpleminded nonsense based on the sheer hope that Trumponomics will be great for business. More on that below.

Roaring stock markets were a secondary pillar of the Fed’s economic world-view. The post-election 2000 point upsurge in the Dow, along with the historically low 4.6 unemployment number, gave the Fed the opportunity on December 15 to do the same thing they did the previous year: cover their asses and preserve some credibility by hiking the Fed Funds rate one-quarter percent. You’d think if they were really confident in the economy — especially given the year–end rally — they would venture to raise by half a percent or more. They are not confident. They are lying with their fingers crossed.

The Fed Funds rate is one thing. As it happens, the Fed does not directly control the interest rates on US treasury bonds, and they have been rising shockingly through the second half of 2016. The crucial ten-year treasury rate has gone up a hundred percent since the summer. Because bond values move inversely to bond rates, the price of treasuries has tanked, inducing trillions of dollars in losses to bond-holders around the world. The bond market is many times larger than the stock markets. Bonds have been in a bull market since the early 1980s and that bull rolled over in mid-2016. A bear market is now on, meaning bond-holders are dumping their bonds. China and Saudi Arabia are among the leading dumpers of US Treasuries because they need the money for one reason or another. They will dump more in 2017 because both countries are in deep economic trouble. Too many bond sellers and not enough buyers in the market drive interest rates up. Rates have a lot room to move up, since they started at near-zero. Accordingly, their value has a long way to fall.

Bonds, of course, represent debt. Total US debt has doubled under President Obama from around ten trillion to twenty trillion dollars (as it doubled under Bush Two from five to ten trillion dollars). The reason, as stated above, is that we don’t produce enough to cover the cost of our national way of life, so we have to borrow continually at ever-greater volume. Every year, the Treasury has to pay interest on all that debt. It’s a lot of money. This year, with interest rates starting out at historically unprecedented lows (not seen ever in recorded history), the Treasury paid over a quarter-trillion dollars in interest. By the way, the government borrows money to make these interest payments too. An interest rate rise of one percent, would drive the annual US debt higher by $190 billion. As the late, great Senator Everett Dirkson (R-Ill) once pungently remarked: “…a billion here, a billion there, sooner or later you’re talking about real money.”

A sharply rising interest rate on the ten-year Treasury bond will thunder through the system. A lot of other basic interest costs are keyed to the ten-year bond rate, especially home mortgages, apartment rentals (landlords hold mortgages), and car payments. When the ten year bond rate goes up, so do mortgage payments. When mortgage rates go up, house prices go down, because fewer people are in a position to buy a house at higher mortgage rates, and rents go up (more competition among people who can’t buy a house). Zero Interest Rate Policy (ZIRP), in force for ten years, has driven house prices back to stratospheric levels. They are now primed to fall, perhaps severely, leaving many homeowners “underwater,” with houses worth way less on the market than the amount of mortgage left to pay off. The re-financing market is dead. Housing starts were already down by a stunning 19 percent in November. Automobile sales are rolling over. Manufacturing and retail sales numbers are down at year end. What’s up: stocks, stocks, stocks.

Yet investors did not execute the usual end-of-year profit-taking in the expectation that Trump would lower the capital gains tax in 2017, so why sell now? You can wait until January 3, 2017 to sell, and then not have to pay tax on your profits until April of 2018. Will investors start dumping in the first trading days of 2017? I think so. And will that selling beget a stampede for the exits? And what will happen if the interest rate on the ten-year bond hits three percent? (It doesn’t have far to go). Or maybe even four percent? What happens is the stock markets go down in the first quarter of 2017. My forecast is 20 percent down on the S & P. That will only be a preview of coming attractions once Trump gets his mitts on the levers of power. A still bigger crash ahead later in the year!

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