That Ben Bernanke. What a tease. His Friday remarks gave investors just enough hope that the Federal Reserve will soon pull the trigger on massive purchases of U.S. bonds (otherwise known as quantitative easing). Investors, speculators, doormen, taxi drivers, and the dog across the alley have all been buying stocks, bonds, and commodities ahead of this planned “queasing.”
But Ben was just coy enough to keep us guessing until the Fed’s November 2nd meeting. In a speech Friday he said, “Given the committee’s objectives, there would appear – all else being equal – to be a case for further action.” Exactly what the real objectives of the Federal Reserve are – price stability and full employment or engineering a giant wealth transfer from the Middle Class to Wall Street – is another matter.
However it’s not hard to characterise the market’s reaction to Friday’s cryptic speech. It was a resounding, “Meh!”
Stocks were down. Gold sold off a bit. If anything, Bernanke’s boring and pedantic speech put everyone to sleep, which is another way of calming things down, if you think about it.
Calm is good. Complacent is not. Keep this in mind: since the “robo signing” mortgage foreclosure scandal began to gather steam last week, shares in Bank of America (NYSE:BAC) have fallen almost 10%. The more people understand this story, the scarier it gets.
Lest we be accused of fear mongering, though, let’s just put it out where what’s at stake here: the rule of law in the American housing market. That’s all. Nothing too important.
Or is it?
Our view is that there are three parts to this crisis, the legal, the political, and the sociological. The legal side part revolves around the trail of documents that establish ownership of mortgage. If the banks securitised and sold mortgages they can’t prove they owned, the investors in those securities will put them back to the banks and the banks will have to pay. More capital will be needed. A lot. Expect class action lawsuits by investors who claim the banks made false representations.
The political aspect – being all about a bunch of elected cowards – is easy. The politicians will not reverse engineer a legislative solution that allows banks to more easily foreclose on millions of homeowners when the banks are clearly guilty of at least some level of fraud in the documentation process.
No elected official worth his own vanity is going to cast a vote to save the banks’ bacon again. Even a deadbeat Congress returning to Washington after the November elections but before the new Congress is sworn in is unlikely to take up the cause of the banks. If anything, a still-Democratic lame-duck Congress may push for the to-big-to-fail firms to be nationalised in GM-style.
That brings us to the sociological. A growing number of American homeowners – those in good standing on their mortgage and those underwater – will begin considering sticking it to the bank (strategic default) as a legitimate non-compliance strategy. The lawyers and the community organisers will be keen to surf this rising tide of popular rebellion. Imagine millions of Americans – en masse – simply refusing to pay their mortgages or leave their foreclosed homes.
What do you think happens in a market where title can’t be transferred? Where prices don’t communicate any information because buyers and sellers don’t trust anyone? That’s not a market. That’s chaos; chaos which threatens all the securities whose value is derived from mortgages.
Neither the financial press nor Wall Street seem are looking at this issue with much imagination. They see it mainly as a matter of establishing the paper trail. But for millions of homeowners, this is emotional confirmation of what they’ve suspected all along: somehow they got screwed. The drive to right this perceived wrong by stiffing the banks is going to be very strong and politically irresistible.
We’ll see how it plays out. The worst case scenario is quite plain: this is the undoing of one or two major banks in America. They never cleaned up their mortgage act. They are not adequately capitalised. They will be nationalised. And the whole affair feels very Lehman-like.
Whether it has the same consequences for the global financial system is yet to be seen. On the “uh oh” side of the ledger are soaring commodity prices and rising stocks. Markets are at the same heady highs as they were pre-Lehman.
On the “not so fast” side of the ledger is the fact that this would appear to be largely a problem with the collateral/capital structure of the American banking system. Australia, like the rest of the world, must be hoping that it can decouple from the American housing train wreck. Capital flows already indicate a strong desire by investors to exit the dining car, find a platform, jump from the train, wave to Chief Engineer Ben Bernanke, and get well clear of the tracks.
Meanwhile, all the rest of the central bankers, central planners, bureaucrats, free loaders, and zombies on the train are shouting, “Stop the train!” Too late people. This train left the station in 1971. It ain’t coming back.
But where is it going? Probably the total destruction of the U.S. dollar. This sounds radical. But it is usually the fate of fiat currencies. And this is the trouble with the current global financial system.
The U.S. dollar is the world’s reserve currency. The drivers of the dollar are taking it down on purpose. Like an air show tricks team where each pilot follows a fixed spot on the plane ahead of him, the rest of the world’s central bankers are driving their money into the ground too.
If there is any decoupling ahead, it may come in the equity markets between developed debtor country markers and emerging creditor country markets. If stocks beat inflation – and that’ a big if – the better bet may be emerging market equities over the S&P 500.
Keep in mind that at the micro level, independent of inflationary monetary policy, each commodity market has its own supply/demand dynamic. That dynamic contributes to the general outlook for that commodity. The outlook is, at least to some extent, independent of the monetary realm.
One example is the current rare earths mania. We began covering the story a few years ago, when it sounded mostly like crackpot/cranky fear mongering about obscure modern metals in your television and iPod. Now, investors/speculators can’t get enough of the story.
One share we’d never even heard of went up by 105% in the first five minutes of trading last Thursday because it said it had discovered rare earths mineralisation in the Northern Territory. No details on the characteristics of the deposit or even any plans for production.
Meanwhile, the one Aussie company that is actually already mining rare earths ore – and which Kris Sayce told you about in late July – is up 133% since then. The point? You can make money in this market. But you’ll have to do it as a speculator. And you’ll have to be early on the best stories to make the most money.
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