Sunday, April 10, 2011

Jumping the Treasury Shark

By now, it is is painfully obvious that the U.S. economy is not going to "recover" and that its fiscal situation will continue to deteriorate over the next few years, at least to those of us who value being truthful to ourselves. This will happen regardless of how much chatter is generated by the politicians about "fiscal responsibility" and the importance of reducing the deficit, or an imminent "government shutdown". That begs the question, however, of what will actually happen to the U.S. treasury market and the dollar as a "store of value" during this time.

Those two investments are ultimately driven by the forces of supply and demand, just like all other ones. Their supply will be plentiful, as the federal government generates new credit to fund the increasing gap between tax revenues and spending, so the question is whether there will be enough demand to meet the supply. The answer to that question is not as simple as determining whether rational investors will maintain their confidence in the U.S. treasury market and place their limited capital at its feet.

Your average financial investors (individuals, asset managers) are, A, not rational, and B, not the only source of support of support for the market. The latter is clear enough from the fact that the Federal Reserve, a privately-owned institution with no actual reserves, is now the largest creditor of the federal government, as its treasury holdings surpassed those of China earlier this year. The Fed (along with a few other central banks and the IMF) is merely a front for a cartel of major financial institutions that are primarily located in the U.S., Japan and Europe, as well as other multinational corporations that work with them to maintain their operations.

These institutions, unlike the average and irrational financial consumer, will not necessarily throw their support behind the treasury market out of panic or fear of a worsening global economy. If they choose to continue "investing" in U.S. treasuries, it will be a calculated decision that is based on what they believe is the best method of preserving their wealth and power. It is obvious to even the mainstream financial world that the public bond markets of the EU (and possibly the UK) and Japan are not going to last much longer, so those investments are not really options at all.

The choice they face can be analogized to the choice faced by a middle-class entrepreneur with a relatively profitable business operation in his home country. Although the businessman may be getting anxious about the market for his products and his ability to continue generating revenues and profits, he is also very experienced at operating the company in its current environment, with his current clients and his traditional methods of conducting business.

The market for his products may indeed by on the verge of collapse, but he cannot be sure that a similar market in another artificially-created jurisdiction would be any healthier for his business. On top of that, his family and friends all live in the jurisdiction where the business currently operates, and the businessman is very familiar with his local clients and his community.

There is no guarantee that a smaller market in another community would even be able to accommodate the scale at which he is used to operating his business, or that new clients there would be able or willing to entertain his services. Ultimately, the physical, financial and psychological costs of such a dramatic switch do not appear to be worth the trouble for the businessman. He decides to simply continue running his local business and hoping or praying for the best possible outcome.

Are the major financial players, who hold trillions of their net worth in dollar-denominated debt-assets, any different from the hypothetical businessman above? Perhaps they have a degree of more flexibility in their decision-making process and significantly more resources to help them decide, but they are also slaves to tradition and the human tendency of sticking to what they know.

The debt-dollar markets (equity markets, commodity markets, real estate markets, bond markets), already systematically entrenched around the world, combined with the "full faith and credit" of the federal government and the Fed's unrestricted license to generate credit with the push of a button, tilt the scales in favor of sticking it out with the U.S. treasury market and currency. There are certainly alternative courses of action at the disposal of the wealthiest institutions in the world, but they are all a far sight short of being attractive.

One alternative plan would be to begin dumping all of these debt-assets on some clueless investors and taxpayers (via government programs such as TARP) and use the freed up capital to invest in hard assets (land, gold, oil, grains, etc.) and/or perhaps in the "emerging markets" of India, Brazil, China, etc. Personally, if I somehow ended up in the wacky world of financial elites, where priority #1 is to protect ungodly amounts of wealth and political power during a global economic depression, then I would dismiss this alternative as soon as it was presented to me.

The plan would have numerous flaws, some of which are too complex to even predict, but my general line of thinking could be summed up by comparing a few statistics and conducting a simple analysis.

The global bond market was valued at $91T as of 2009, and the U.S. treasury market accounts for almost 8% of that value. [1].

The "over-the-counter" derivatives market was notionally valued at $615T as of 2009, with interest rate derivatives accounting for 70% of that value, and 32% of those being directly sensitive to the value of the U.S. dollar and rates on the U.S. treasury curve. [2].

The U.S. has the first and third-largest equity markets in the world, and they combine to have a market capitalization of about $15T, which also equals the total capitalization of the other eight markets in the largest ten. [3]
About 5.3 billion troy ounces of gold have been mined in human history as of 2009, and gold is currently selling at record prices, for about $1450/oz.

There are less than 10 billion acres of arable land on Earth, and some of the most expensive farmland in the U.S. averaged about $2K/acre in 2006.[4],[5].

Average consumers of financial products in the developed world simply do not have enough capital to buy up a significant portion of the dollar-denominated debt-assets that the elites would like to dump, especially when those assets are "officially" marked as being much more valuable than they really are. Foreign governments, of course, can barely afford to finance their own operations, let alone pour additional funds into U.S. treasuries. The same is true of institutional asset managers (pension funds, mutual funds, etc.) who may have rebounded a bit of business activity since 2007-08, but are still teetering on the edge of destruction from quarter to quarter, not knowing whether they will record a profit or a digital suicide note when the next one comes around.

These institutions may be willing to aid the elites in transferring worthless mortgage and equity instruments to average workers and taxpayers through government directives, pension plans and mutual funds, but they simply do not have the free capital to do the same for U.S. treasuries. That is truly the limiting factor, as the U.S. treasury market and its sprawling derivatives contract extensions make the stock market look like a penny-ante game of Bingo at Uncle Sam's Fiesta Rancho Casino.

Regular old investors or fund managers with modest stock portfolios and limited capitalization cannot absorb the behemoth treasury market at full value, or anything close to it. Even if they could, where would the elites take the dollars that they received in exchange? The exact same problems described above apply to farmers, miners, manufacturers, etc. who work, invest and deal in the markets for hard assets. Besides, there is no need to pay people for their gold, land or oil when you can just take it by brute military force.

And that's really the beauty of the debt-dollar system for the financial elites. It is globally established and it comes with the implicit understanding that, if you buck the system, there will be a fiery dose of hell to pay. These elites have all the time and resources they need to abandon the current system and down-size from the Yukon Denali to the Ford Focus, but the word "sacrifice" isn't a part of their vocabulary. Instead, they will fight hard to keep the system functioning in whatever form they can manage, as long as it remains at the same scale of operation.

They are not under the illusion that the U.S. treasury or currency markets are sparkly diamonds in the rough, or even shined shit in the land of fool's gold. Fundamentally, the dollar is no healthier than the euro and they know it. The choice, however, is whether to wholly abandon the treasury shell game between the federal government, the Fed and private banks or to keep a good thing going while it seems to be working. They are banking on the Fed's monetary operations, political illusions (the appearance of two parties working towards reducing the deficit), panicked "flights to safety"and a little bit of luck to preserve the debt-dollar system until global markets "reset" and economies begin to grow once again.

Perhaps they will keep other options open, as lifeboats to hop into in the last second before the Treasury Titanic is fully submerged. The problem for them is that such backup options never really end up working out as planned, especially when time is not on the same side as you are. It is also a distinct possibility that, despite what anyone wants or plans, the treasury market will blow its lid sky high next month or the month after. Possible, but not very likely, given the current situation in global bond markets and the "full court press" that is being launched by the elites. Personally, I give the treasury market and the dollar at least a few more years before their shine truly wears off, and the fan has its way with them.


  1. Ashvin,

    How do you explain the actions of Bill Gross then? He is a part of the elite and he has dumped all his treasury holdings in PIMCO and gone into a cash position.

    ZH reports that he is taking a short position as well on US Govt debt.

  2. Every entity has an angle...

  3. @Austrian man,

    I hope to provide a somewhat coherent answer to that question with an article that should be out shortly on The Automatic Earth.

    By the way, I encourage everyone who reads this site to check frequently, and follow them or subscribe to their RSS feed, as my articles will be posted there a few days before appearing on Simple Planet.