Forecast 2018 — What Could Go Wrong?

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by James Howard Kunstler, Kunstler:

Markets

If you take your cues from Consensus Trance Central — the cable news networks, The New York TimesWashPost, and HuffPo — Trump is all that ails this foundering empire. Well, Trump andRussia, since the Golden Golem of Greatness is in league with Vladimir Putin to loot the world, or something like that.

Since I believe that the financial system is at the heart of today’s meta-question (What Could Go Wrong?), it would be perhaps more to the point to ask: what has held this matrix of rackets together so long? After all, rackets are characterized by pervasive lying and fraud, meaning their operations don’t add up. Things that don’t comport with reality are generally prone to failure so sooner or later they have to implode.

Financial markets have been surging supernaturally on “liquidity” since 2009 — and by “liquidity” I mean “money” (digital credit from thin air) supplied by the Federal Reserve, in rotation with the other sovereign central banks, BOE, ECB, BOJ, PBOC, from whence it pings ‘round the world, wherever the lure of the main chance sparkles. Trillions wafted into the stock and bond markets, levitating them as a sort of stage-managed misdirection from the sickening spectacle of wobbling real stuff economies. In 2017, The Dow Jones Industrial Average recorded an astounding 5,000 point year-on-year upzoom, with 12 months of gains and no loser months, and a string of 71 record highs.

America’s central bank, the Federal Reserve, acted as if pumping up the stock markets was the only thing that mattered. The result was a Potemkin economy, a glittering Wall Street false-front with a landscape of “flyover” squalor and desolation behind. The Fed now works at cross-purposes with itself by raising the Fed Funds rate a quarter-point every few months, and supposedly “shrinking” (ha!) their balance sheet — dumping bonds onto the market plus “retiring” termed out bonds, which allows the Fed to disappear the principal paid by the borrowers, namely the US Treasury, or the quasi-governmental werewolf called Freddie Mac (The Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation), which bundles all kinds of janky mortgages into giant bonds the Fed buys in order to artificially pump up the real estate market. Did your eyes glaze over yet? That’s the great thing about finance: it’s bewildering, so that when shit goes wrong, nobody notices until its way too late.

What could go wrong with that program? Well, if you dump billions of bonds on the market, you will change the supply-and-demand equation in the direction of too much supply, and interest rates will have to rise when there isn’t enough bid from the demand side — especially if the US Treasury is creating ever more new bonds to make up for ever-greater deficit spending at the same time the Fed dumps bonds into the market. And if, for instance, the interest rate on the benchmark 10-year US Treasury bond goes up past 3.00 percent, well that may be all she wrote for the US government’s ability to service its monstrous debt. And it may be tits up for the real estate sector, too, because mortgage rates will rise, and fewer people will buy houses. The Fed’s latest actions boil down to a lame attempt to have some maneuvering room to once again lower interest rates and refill their balance sheet via a QE-4 orgy when the economy heads south in a way that even the US Bureau of Labor Statistics can’t obfuscate.

The ECB and the BOJ have already made noises about curtailing their vacuuming up of securities, so the liquidity rotation may end altogether. The new Tax Cuts and Jobs Act has at its centerpiece the lowering of corporate income tax from 35 to 21 percent. The hidden agenda may be to hope this can act as a substitute for the dwindling central bank liquidity injections. The tax cuts and other new gimmicks would increase the federal debt by at least $1 trillion over a ten year period (and, by unofficial estimates, probably much more) paving the road to national bankruptcy with good intentions. But, of course, quite a few wise men in this culture have declared that deficits don’t matter. My own view is that they don’t matter until they do, and then you’re pretty screwed.

In the background of all this is an array of perilous real world events playing out that include especially potential conflict around North Korea and the Middle East. China’s banking system is a fun-house of scams and dodges that don’t add up anymore than ours do. The whole wicked pottage of EU / Brexit issues simmers away, along with the EU’s fatal flaw of lacking any fiscal discipline among member nations, so government spending has no relation to sovereign borrowing. NATO’s aggressive military posturing on Russia’s borders is pointless, stupid, dishonest, and provocative. Nobody knows what kind of gambit Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia will try next. Iran demands to be recognized as the regional hegemon. And our dear exceptional nation, with its restless Deep State black box “assets,” is capable of all sorts of mischief at home and abroad.

Any of these things could shove American markets into criticality, as if they don’t have enough built-in fragility already. Manipulation of the markets by the Fed and its water-carrying Too Big To Fail partners have deprived the markets of their chief function: price discovery, the ability to discern what things are really worth. Markets are therefore functionally useless and their uselessness is a giant hazard. No society that depends on money can work for long if nobody knows the true value of things, including the value of money itself. The price of attempting to live in a culture of pervasive dishonesty is that a re-set is inevitable. When it happens, it will be hugely destabilizing.

I expect the DJIA to move down sharply before the third quarter, rebound a little, and eventually bottom at 14,000 or lower by this time next year. I’ll call the S & P to settle in under 1,000. The NASDAQ may be the weakest, since its FAANG members — Facebook , Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Google (aka Alphabet)— are among the most mis-valued stocks, and the most based on vaporous products and services. Call NASDAQ to land at 2,700. Calling for a US dollar index (DXY) of 79 by December. Calling for gold $2,500 and silver $60 twelve months from now. There it is, like so much meat on the table.

Bitcoin and other cryptos have a superficial appeal as a wealth safe haven supposedly out-of-reach of avaricious governments — if you don’t consider everything else that’s wrong with it. (Yesterday, Dec 31, Australia’s biggest banks froze the accounts of Bitcoin investors.) I think the safe haven idea will prove fallacious. Governments are already finding ways to interfere, using taxation schemes and shutting down exchanges. Bitcoin’s other claims on “moneyness” look bogus as well. It’s too unstable to be a medium of exchange, and too difficult to even access when need to sell, and you certainly can’t price anything in it as it shoots up and crashes every day. Bitcoin went way up because people — or maybe just algorithms — saw it going way up, so they hitched a ride. The rush to the exits will be brutal. Its final resting place will be zero, but perhaps not without a trip or two to nosebleed levels in 2018, especially as other markets wobble in the first half of the year. Bitcoin $50-K wouldn’t surprise me. But I’m not among the buyers. Enjoy the show.

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