Friday, October 3, 2008

Bailout Pork Effect: Short-Term Rally, Long-Term Disaster

Defeat of the Paulson bailout plan in the house last week was nothing short of a remarkable victory of democracy. All of our political leaders were for it, future ones included, showing more unity than the Chinese Communist Party. The mainstream media were so politically aligned with the Government, they put Xinhua to shame. Yet individual voter-tax-payers, with hardly any meaningful organizing effort, fought for their self-interest and won against all odds. Wow.

If only we had done it five years ago on Iraq war and the Patriot Act, today's American citizens would be hailed as a shining example of independent citizenry of a strong democracy for centuries to come.

Unfortunately, we hardly had time to throw a party before the Senate pulled an old political trick and forced the hands of the House and the voter-tax-payers on the same plan. Only with $170 billion added pork to punish the rebelion act. That ought to teach the citizenry a lesson about respecting the Leaders.

There's no doubt SOMETHING must be done, and quickly, to stop this financial crisis from spreading to the wider world and becoming an economic crisis. The question is what that SOMETHING is. There've been many ingenious ideas floating around the internet. The Leaders have supposedly even considered some of these alternatives. Yet they chose the most costly (to tax payers) possibility and gave us two choices: are you for action or gridlock?

It's the same false choice as the one five years ago: are you for freedom or terrorism?

I used to pull this trick on my kids sometimes: who would you like to wash your hands, mom or dad? They started realizing the Possibility Universe is far larger than what I presented, somewhere around six years old. And I actually felt a bit guilty.

The Leaders have been doing this to us. And we never have the intellectual and/or political capacity to see through the same old trick. And they never have any guilt, I'm afraid.

But, we have to face reality at the end of the day -- would that be Friday?

If the Bailout Pork Package is passed, I'm willing to go with the conventional wisdom that the markets (stocks, bonds, derivatives, USD, commodities, gold) would have a broad rally, with the only exception being the treasuries as money exits the bunker and goes to work. Not too shabby huh?

Well, with $700B you'd expect more. Much more, and much more long term. But long term will be ugly.

First of all, the government has totally abandoned fiscal discipline. Well, it's abandoned it for a long time but now the world cannot pretend it didn't know any more. Foreign investors will have to stop playing suckers and buying the treasuries. They wanted to sustain the pretend game as much as we do. But now we finally killed the chance. Even a pretend game has a limit, beyond which the players simply cannot pretend any more. With the double whammy of hugely increased debt and higher interest, maybe CDS on US is not such a dumb idea (nah, it's still a dumb idea for, if...when US defaults, whoever sold you the CDS will not be around to pay).

Secondly, whereas inflation was a strong possibility in summer 07, now it's a certainty. Excess liquidity (credit) is easy to suck out as long as the Fed is determined to (which they weren't when they had a chance to deflate the housing bubble). But what the Bailout Pork Package puts into the economy is not just liquidity, but a massive amount of capital. Excess capital will stay around in the system for much longer. Capital chases return. Excessive capital chases excessive return. Excessive return at the macroscopic level can come from only two sources: asset bubble or inflation. In this case, it will be both.

Which leads to the third long-term effect: commodities bubble (yes, again, the real one) driven by negative real interest rate. The only reason that can explain the commodities bubble until a couple months ago is negative real interest rate. Supply and demand may have the right sign during some periods, but cannot possibly account for the magnitude of the surge. Amount of speculative money is an ontologically flawed argument since it by definition cannot explain why there were so much of it. When the real interest is negative, it does not make sense to hold cash (and cash there will be a lot of it now).

Real assets is one of the best places to park this massive amount of capital windfall, especially through continuously rolled futures since you don't pay the storage cost. What kind of real asset? Housing (mortgage) was the obvious choice when real interest rate became negative during Greenspan years, and especially after the massive rate cuts in 01. But now people will be careful touching mortgages for at least a few years. The only outlet left is commodities -- gold, oil, metals, rice, corn, who cares what it is. Never mind that there will only be so many taking actual delivery, demand will only increase so much and supply will only decrease so much by the mot exaggerated estimates. The $1T+ excess cash must be parked somewhere and earn some return.

While the effect of the housing bubble on inflation could be indirect and delayed, the impact of commodities is direct and immediate, as we learned with pain earlier this year. As I mentioned above, it will be commodities bubble and inflation.

Early in the year I expected the first thing the new president, whoever it may be, will do is to call up Uncle Ben and tell him to raise rates and kill off inflation. Yes, there will be short-term pain. But he could always blame that on his predecessor, however well deserved it may be, and take credit for the long-term benefits to the economy. I believe this is the main reason why the bubble contracted in the last two months.

Now, however, no matter how much the new president wants to play the game and Uncle Ben wants to be a good political lapdog, they cannot possibly do enough to kill the pending inflation without causing another crisis.

Yes, taxpayers may make money when the $1T+ toxic asset the Leaders will be buying for us matures or gets sold. But only before inflation adjustment.

Five years ago, the Leaders of both parties committed this once-great country to the Iraq war, with unspecified amount of lives and money for unspecifiedlength of time. "Imminent! Danger! We must act! Now! Don't ask questions! We don't have time for that! Just give me the power and money! Trust me!" Even if future Leaders were willing and capable, they cannot escape the commitment.

Now, the same Leaders will commit this country to years of inflation and generations of massive debt. "Imminent! Danger! We must act! Now! Don't ask questions! We don't have time for that! Just give me the power and money! Trust me!" Even if future Leaders were willing and capable, they cannot escape the commitment.

I'm still holding out hope that this Bailout Pork Package will somehow miraculously be defeated and some better alternatives will be considered with sincerity.

Nah, we don't have time for that. Let's just trust the Leaders. It's not like we have any other choice.

Don't we?

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