Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Are Central Bankers Throwing Life Preservers or Anchors?

Central banking 101 seems to view "financial rescue" as a virtuous deed. We saw this tenet put into action in the subprime crisis and it is about to emerge again in the coming European sovereign debt bailout. The problems are kicked down the road rather than addressed. CB101 states that it is better for all taxpayers to suffer later, so that creditors and investors don't feel immediate pain. It was put into effect to rescue Fannie and Freddie, and, it appears, the Germans and IMF are about to do an encore with troubled Euro zone borrowers.

Belt tightening is the solution. But, as proven by the recent strikes in Greece, politicians, and their constituants, don't have the stomach for actual solutions. Anchors disguised as life preservers are more palatable. Loan guarantees and public ownership do not solve problems, they only transfer and redistribute the problem. More debt doesn't cure a debt induced ailment. But it does if you are a central banker.

If failure isn't an option and if entitlement cutting isn't viable, what is left in the CB101 playbook. First, defer as long as possible. Put as much lipstick on the debt pig as possible. When she is no longer pretty to anyone, inflate the debt repayment to a manageable level. The bond market is starting to get it "a little" as yields have been moving upward. The Chinese get it "a lot" as they are diversifing their holdings and attempting to minimize the impact of upcoming reflation. There is no other option and smart creditors see the future clearly. The process to protect buying power has begun and will continue.

What might be done to counteract CB101? Equities should do better over time as businessmen tend to be nimble. But, my bet is that markets will offer a much lower entry point prior to reflation in ernest. Midwestern farm ground, even though prices have increased, should hold capital together and produce a modest return. Municipal bonds are going to get very risky as they carry not only interest rate risk, but, increasingly, default risk. Cities, states, and special improvement districts have serious problems, on balance sheet and off. A short term government bond ladder has merit only if one can stomach book losses and hold until maturity. Byron Wein, strategist at Blackstone, opined yesterday that fed funds would go from zero to two percent by yearend 2010. If his view is correct, I'd be patient till later this year and then build that ladder. But, consider quality corporate bonds for additional yield, and if you believe my statement that businessmen are nimble, and safety. Finally, gold, even though it doesn't produce any income and supply never goes away, should gain luster in face of bond inflation.

The next time you see Jean Claude Trichot or Ben Bernancke toss a life preserver, don't get giddy and think good times are here again, get wary and think capital preservation.

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