Gas prices hit another record high. Soaring food prices ignite riots the world over. It should come as no surprise that a 71% increase in food prices since 2006 has the good citizens of South Africa, Morocco, Egypt, Ethiopia, Bangladesh and Mozambique up in arms.
And if you thought things couldn’t get any worse, the Financial Times reported on Monday that U.S. mortgage rates soared last week amid a sharp rise in Treasury market yields. Make no mistake, inflation’s back. A Volker-like response may seem alarmist, even far-fetched, to many. However, investors are bracing for the Federal Reserve to raise rates going forward.
At least those rate increases could help U.S. Treasury Secretary Paulson fulfill his recent promise to “defend the dollar.” Secretary Paulson is on the final day of a four-day trip to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates to negotiate currency and economic issues (i.e., a supply increase) from members of the OPEC cartel.
Shall we say America’s relationship with OPEC is a bit strained? Perhaps we’ve stayed a bit too long and expected a bit too much. The greenback keeps sliding down a cliff. Oil-producing states holding their dollar currency pegs are importing more and more inflation. At some point, both parties must reconcile that M3 – the fullest measure of U.S. money supply – can’t outpace a nation’s GDP forever.
Regardless, the Fed seemed content to exchange $16 billion worth of Treasury notes for mortgage- and asset-backed securities last Thursday. In its 10th Term Securities Lending Facility (TSLF), the Fed gave desperate investment houses another chance to dump their worthless derivatives for good ol’ American IOUs. To date, brokerage firms have dumped $175 billion on the Fed’s balance sheet.
Even holders of the mighty euro are feeling the pinch. We read in The Economist last week that customs seizures of counterfeit goods rose by 17% in the EU last year. Cigarettes and clothing accounted for more than half the sham gear seized.
It seems like desperate times call for desperate measures. And the masses, desperate for answers, call on politicians for help.
And any political production worth its salt has three main characters: the hero, the martyr and the villain. Heroes (politicians) need a martyr (America’s middle class) and a villain (oil companies) – and, if they’re lucky, a super villain (foreign oil companies).
Our colleague Eric Fry sums it up best: “When share prices soar, we call it a ‘bull market.’ When home values soar, we call it ‘healthy price appreciation.’ But when oil prices soar, we call it ‘speculation’ and ‘manipulation’…and then we gaze around for someone to blame.”
The members of Congress recently convened a special hearing to berate, rebuke and ridicule executives from five major oil companies. Each congressional inquisitor took a turn excoriating the oil companies for daring to earn a profit, especially when so many Americans have so little money. It just isn’t fair.
A few months earlier, you may recall, Congress invited the heads of America’s leading financial institutions to a little tête-à-tête. During that encounter, the congressional inquisitors took turns admonishing the finance CEOs for feathering their nests a bit too lavishly. But none of the execs in attendance drew much criticism for frittering away billions of dollars of shareholder wealth.
Therefore, the essential message from the nation’s top lawmakers is clear: Losing billions of dollars of shareholder wealth is a bad thing, but not nearly as bad as adding billions of dollars to shareholder wealth. In fact, earning billions for shareholders is such a bad thing that it must be legislated away or taxed into extinction.
Where were the nation’s top legislator-inquisitors when the NASDAQ bull market of 1999 and 2000 was powering higher? Where was the outrage over the “speculation” that produced obscene “windfall profits” for the Wall Street firms?”
We’re not so sure. But we continue to see that many in the West want to go through life pretending they’re still the greatest story never told.
It comes as no surprise. From Dutch tulips to dotcoms, people fool themselves into believing it’s “different” this time.
It’s never different this time.
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