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  • When the Future Becomes Today

    First, I want to express my shock and quiet despair over the events in Dallas this weekend. The shock comes from this actually happening in Dallas. If anything, Dallas police are accommodating and work with the community as well as any police force in the country. But this event is a reminder that tragedies don’t just happen somewhere else. All it takes is one or two lone actors, and the world of somewhere else lands on your doorstep. This sad spectacle is part and parcel of what we will be discussing today: a world where common sense and reasonable discourse are breaking down, leaving us with social outcomes that only a few years ago would have seemed impossible. As Buffalo Springfield sang, “There’s something happening here; what it is ain’t exactly clear.”

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  • The Fed Prepares to Dive

    This week’s letter has two parts. The first deals with some of the practical aspects of negative rates and what the Fed is really signaling. The second part, which is somewhat philosophical, deals with why the Fed will institute negative rates during the next recession. This letter is longer than usual, but I think it’s important to understand why we will see negative rates in the world’s reserve currency (and the currency in which most global trade is conducted). This policy trend is truly a foray into unexplored territory.

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  • Merkel Opens the Gates

    It wasn’t a shock that the Federal Reserve did not raise rates. Even the most inside of insiders said the odds were at most 50-50. Those Wall Street Journal reporters who have an “inside ear” at the Federal Reserve all indicated there would be no rate increase. The IMF and the World Bank were pounding the table, declaring that it was inappropriate to raise rates now, and although most FOMC members give lip service to the fact that Federal Reserve policy is to be based solely on domestic considerations, global concerns may well have played a role in their decision.

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  • Oil, Employment, and Growth

    Texas has been home to 40% of all new jobs created since June 2009. In 2013, the city of Houston had more housing starts than all of California. Much, though not all, of that growth is due directly to oil. Estimates are that 35–40% of total capital expenditure growth is related to energy. But it’s no secret that not only will energy-related capital expenditures not grow next year, they are likely to drop significantly. The news is full of stories about companies slashing their production budgets. This means lower employment, with all of the knock-on effects.

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  • On the Verge of Chaos

    “Great powers and empires are, I would suggest, complex systems, made up of a very large number of interacting components that are asymmetrically organized, which means their construction more resembles a termite hill than an Egyptian pyramid. They operate somewhere between order and disorder – on “the edge of chaos,” in the phrase of the computer scientist Christopher Langton. Such systems can appear to operate quite stably for some time; they seem to be in equilibrium but are, in fact, constantly adapting. But there comes a moment when complex systems “go critical.” A very small trigger can set off a “phase transition” from a benign equilibrium to a crisis – a single grain of sand causes a whole pile to collapse, or a butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazon and brings about a hurricane in southeastern England.

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  • Arsonists Running the Fire Brigade

    Six years ago I hosted my first Thanksgiving in a Dallas high-rise, and my then-90-year-old mother came to celebrate, along with about 25 other family members and friends. We were ensconced in the 21st floor penthouse, carousing merrily, when the fire alarms went off and fire trucks began to descend on the building. There was indeed a fire, and we had to carry my poor mother down 21 flights of stairs through smoke and chaos as the firemen rushed to put out the fire. So much for the advanced fire-sprinkler system, which failed to work correctly.

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  • What Would Yellen Do?

    The US Senate Banking Committee will hold hearings on Thursday, November 14, on the nomination of Janet Yellen for Federal Reserve chair. There will be the usual softball questions, for example, "Do you think high unemployment is a problem in the United States and if so what do you intend to do about it?" (which allows a senator to express his concern over unemployment and for the nominee to agree that it's a problem). Or the always popular question, "What is the basis under which you would continue to hold interest rates at their current low level?" – as if she would answer anything other than, "Any future policy decision is of course data-dependent" or some variation on that response. Boring.

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  • Bubbles, Bubbles Everywhere

    You can almost feel it in the fall air (unless you are in the Southern Hemisphere). The froth and foam on markets of all shapes and sizes all over the world. It is an exhilarating feeling, and the pundits who populate the media outlets are bubbling over with it. There is nothing like a rising market to help lift our mood. Unless of course, as Prof. Kindleberger famously cautioned (see below), we are not participating in that rising market. Then we feel like losers. But what if the rising market is … a bubble? Are we smart enough to ride and then step aside before it bursts? Research says we all think that we are, yet we rarely demonstrate the actual ability.

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  • Any Bonds Today?

    By a continuing process of inflation, governments can confiscate, secretly and unobserved, an important part of the wealth of their citizens. By this method, they not only confiscate, but they confiscate arbitrarily; and, while the process impoverishes many, it actually enriches some. The sight of this arbitrary rearrangement of riches strikes not only at security, but at confidence in the equity of the existing distribution of wealth. Those to whom the system brings windfalls . . . become 'profiteers', who are the object of the hatred of the bourgeoisie, whom the inflationism has impoverished not less than the proletariat. As the inflation proceeds . . . all permanent relations between debtors and creditors, which form the ultimate foundation of capitalism, become so utterly disordered as to be almost meaningless….

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  • QE Infinity: Unintended Consequences

    There is an intense debate going on in the first-class cabin of Economics Airlines about the direction in which our plane should be pointed. And while those of us back in the cheap seats don't get to help decide, knowing where we will land is of intense interest to all of us. This week we listen in on the debate, in the form of speeches and academic postings passed back from first class for the rest of us to read. This type of debate also occurred when Greenspan held rates down at an abnormally low level for a very long time. The unintended consequence of that move was a housing and debt/leverage bubble. Are there potential unintended consequences to Bernanke's current monetary policy, which some are calling Quantitative Easing Infinity? I suggest you put up your tray tables and fasten your seatbelts – the ride could get bumpy as we explore QE Infinity: Unintended Consequences.

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  • Debt Be Not Proud

    "In the financial markets, the current economic cycle is still often viewed as if it is comparable to the far shorter cycles we have experienced since World War II. If that was indeed the case, the solution would be to implement fiscal and monetary stimuli now until lending to the private sector and thereby growth rise substantially. However, what is being overlooked is that the total debt/GDP ratio has risen so sharply over the past 75 years that the limit has probably been reached.

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  • Daddy’s Home

    I have often said that when someone is appointed to be a member of the Federal Reserve, they are taken into a back room and given a complete DNA change. They simply are not like you and me once they step out of that room, with the exception of Fisher and Lacker and a few colleagues who seem to be able to resist the infection. This week we will look at the recent action of the Fed and use that as a springboard to think about how effective Fed policy can be in an age of deleveraging. And if there is time, we simply must look at Europe. I started this letter in Texas and will finish it this morning in Spain.

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  • The Answer We Don’t Want to Know

    2012 will be the 11th time in my short life that I will be able to participate in the choosing of a president of the United States. While it may just be me, it seems like each and every election is cast as the most important election of our time and a defining moment for the American Experiment. The future of the Republic was being weighed in the balance, and only the proper outcome (which would of course be the election of the candidate you supported) would assure its survival. This week we will continue our meditations on the economic choices that confront the world, this time focusing on the US.

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