Tag Archives: VIX

Get Ready To Party Like It’s 2008

Apparently Treasury Secretary, ex-Goldman Sachs banker Steven Mnuchin, has threatened Congress with stock crash if Congress doesn’t pass a tax reform Bill.  His reason is that the stock market surge since the election was based on the hopes of a big tax cut.  This reminds me of 2008, when then-Treasury Secretary, ex-Goldman Sachs CEO, Henry Paulson, and Fed Chairman, Ben Bernanke, paraded in front of Congress and threatened a complete systemic collapse if Congress didn’t authorize an $800 billion bailout of the biggest banks.

The U.S. financial system is experiencing an asset “bubble” that is unprecedented in history. This is a bubble that has been fueled by an unprecedented amount of Central Bank money printing and credit creation. As you are well aware, the Fed printed more than $4 trillion dollars of currency that was used to buy Treasury bonds and mortgage securities. But it has also enabled an unprecedented amount of credit creation. This credit availability has further fueled the rampant inflation in asset prices – specifically stocks, bonds and housing, the price of which now exceeds the levels seen in 2008 right before the great financial crisis.

However, you might not be aware that Central Banks outside of the U.S. continue printing money that is being used to buy stocks and risky bonds. The Bank of Japan now owns more than 75% of that nation’s stock ETFs. The Swiss National Bank holds over $80 billion worth of U.S. stocks, $17 billion of which were purchased in 2017. The European Central Bank, in addition to buying member country sovereign-issued debt is now buying corporate bonds, some of which are non-investment grade.

The table to the right shows the YTD performance of the US dollar vs. major currencies and the gold price vs major currencies. The dollar has appreciated in value YTD vs. alternative fiat currencies. More than anything, this represents the false sense of “hope” that was engendered by the election of Trump. As you can see from the right side of the table, gold is also up YTD vs every major currency. Note that gold has appreciated the most vs. the U.S. dollar. The performance of gold vs. fiat currencies reflects the fact that Central Banks globally are devaluing their currencies by printing currency and sovereign debt in increasing quantities. The rise vs. the dollar also reflects the expectation that the Fed and the Treasury might be printing even more currency and Treasury debt at some point in the next 6-12 months. This is despite the posturing by the Fed about “reducing” the size of its balance sheet, which is nothing more than scripted rhetoric.

“We have the worst revival of an economy since the Great Depression. And believe me: we’re in a bubble right now.” Donald Trump, from a Presidential campaign speech

Margin debt is at a record high. At $551 billion, it’s double the amount of margin debt outstanding at the peak of the tech bubble in 2000. It’s 45% greater than the amount of margin debt outstanding at the peak of the 2007 bubble.

Stock investors and house-flippers in the U.S. now make investment decisions based on the premise that, no matter what fundamental development or new event occurs, the market will always go up. “It’s different this time” has crept back into the rationale. The markets are particularly dangerous now. The concept of “risk” has been completely removed from investment equation.

This dynamic is the direct result of the money printing and credit creation which has enabled the Fed to keep interest rates near zero. The law economics tells us that increasing the supply of “good” without a corresponding increase in demand for that good results in a falling price. This is why interest rates are near zero. The Fed and the Government have increased the supply of currency via printing and issuing credit. Investors , in turn, are taking that near-zero cost of currency and credit and throwing it recklessly in all assets, but specifically stocks and homes.

Currently, anyone who puts their money into the stock, bond and housing markets in search of making money is doing nothing other than gambling recklessly on the certainty of the outcome of two highly inter-related events: 1) the willingness of Central Banks to continue pushing the price of assets higher with printed money; 2) the continued participation of investors who are willing to pay more than the previous investor to make the same bet. Most asset-price chasing buyers have no idea that they are doing nothing more than sitting at a giant casino table game.

The current bubble has been created by a record level of money printing and debt creation globally. Unfortunately, the upward velocity of rising asset prices has seduced investors to recklessly abandon all notion of risk. Based on several studies on investor cash holdings as a percentage of their overall portfolio (cash on the sidelines), investors are “all-in.” One would have to be brain-dead to not acknowledge that global Central Bank money-printing has caused the current “everything” asset bubble. But it’s a “fear of missing out” that has driven investors to pile blindly into stocks with zero regard for fundamental value. Even pensions funds, according to someone I know who works at a pension fund, have pushed equity allocations to the limit.

For the most part, Central Banks are now posturing as if they are going to stop printing money and, in some cases, “shrink” the size of their balance sheet (i.e. reverse “quantitative easing”). To the extent that the first chart above (SPX futures) reflects a combination of Central Bank money printing and investors going “all-in” on stocks (record low cash levels), IF the Central Banks simply stop printing money and do not shrink their balance sheets, who will be left to buy stocks when the selling begins?  If they do shrink their balance sheets, the central banks will start the selling as they have to sell their holdings in order to shrink their balance sheets.

Why Is The Dow Outperforming The SPX And Naz?

“The combination of central banker-applied brute force (buying everything in sight) and deitylike central banker pronouncements has dampened market volatility and frisky free-lancing, but at the same time it has encouraged risk taking (in market positioning, not it business formation). We have thought, and still think, that confidence in central banks and policymakers has been unjustified and thus could erode or collapse at any time. Since the major financial institutions which comprise the financial system are still way overleveraged and opaque (in fact with record amounts of debt and derivatives at present), such a break in confidence could happen abruptly and without warning.” – from Paul Singer’s Q2 investor letter (note: Paul Singer is the founder of Elliot Management, one of the most successful hedge fund management firms since its inception in 1977).

Singer is considered one of the most shrewd and accomplished investors in the modern era. The quote above embodies two of the concepts I’ve been discussing for quite some time in the weekly Short Seller’s Journals:  Central Bank intervention will ultimately fail in spectacular fashion; the Too Big To Fail Banks (TBTFs) currently have more leverage and OTC derivatives – the latter well hidden off-balance-sheet – than just before the 2008 financial crisis/de facto collapse.

Singer has been quite vocal recently about the inevitability of an eventual market/systemic collapse. It’s not a question of “if,” but of “when.” I read an analysis last week from Graham Summers of Phoenix Capital in which he suggests that the Fed would lose control of the VIX – lose control of its ability to keep the VIX suppressed – and a large spike up in the VIX would trigger an avalanche of selling from the $10’s of billions in Risk Parity Funds. These funds buy stocks when the VIX falls and unload stocks when it rises – all based on algorithms which are automatically executed by “black box” computerized trading systems.

I have to believe that the Fed (not the FOMC figure-heads but the Phd “rocket scientist” personnel who work behind the scenes at the Fed) is well aware of this possibility and has
taken the necessary steps to ensure the readiness of a “safety net” that will buffer the selling deluge that would accompany an uncontrollable spike in the VIX.

Upon further reflection, I believe that the eventual “black swan” event will be an unanticipated derivatives explosion that occurs from an out-of-control OTC derivatives position buried deep off-balance-sheet on one of the TBTFs. This is what occurred in 2008. The Lehman bankruptcy/liquidation triggered a massive counter-party failure by AIG on OTC derivatives underwritten by Goldman Sachs. This was the event that prompted then-Treasury Secretary and ex-Goldman CEO, Henry Paulson, to scramble furiously to arrange a Fed/taxpayer bailout of AIG and Goldman. The bailout was extended to dozens of banks, domestic and foreign. But the Goldman/AIG implosion was the nexus.

Circling back to the relevancy of Paul Singer’s quote, the degree of risk embedded in TBTF bank OTC off-balance-sheet derivatives can not be properly assessed because, not only did changes to accounting regulations enable banks to hide derivatives more easily and thereby lie to the institutional investor universe, but bank officials (including CEO’s) lie about their risk exposure to the Fed and to Government regulators. Some bank CEO’s do not even know the full extent of risk hidden on their bank’s balance sheet. Jamie Dimon admitted this when the JP Morgan London derivatives “whale” catastrophe occurred (2012). Having been on a risky bond trading desk in the 1990’s, I can attest first-hand that trading desks have the ability to hide risky or bad positions from a bank’s upper management. We did this every year before our books were marked to market and squared for bonus pool assessment by the risk control and accounting people.

At this point, I thus think that stock market crash event-trigger will be the detonation of a derivatives bomb (Warren Buffet’s weapon of mass financial destruction). Likely a credit, interest rate or currency based derivatives position and related counter-party default. The Fed will not see it coming because it was covered up and never disclosed to the Fed. Is this the flight-to-quality that marks the beginning of the end for the stock market
run?

The Fed heads dating back to at least Alan Greenspan always remark that it’s impossible to know whether or not an asset bubble is occurring until after it pops. Yellen went as far as to suggest there would not be another financial market crisis in our lifetime. These assertions are so absurd that I don’t think a response is necessary. But I ran some varying duration index comparisons and discovered this (click to enlarge):

You can see that the SPX, Dow and Naz were tightly correlated in mid-July. This correlation extends further back in time. You see that the Dow began outperform the SPX/Naz starting Tuesday, July 25th, after AMZN reported an unexpectedly huge earnings miss (the plunge in the green line), the SPX and Naz entered a downtrend while the Dow continued higher.

Back in the day when investors were more likely to on focus fundamentals rather than stockprice momentum, a chart like the one above would elicit references to Dow theory, which asserts that the final stage of an out-of-control bull market culminates with a “flight-to-quality” from risky stocks into the lowest risk market sectors. Traditionally the Dow is considered less risky than the universe of stocks that comprise the SPX and Naz.

The idea behind this theory is that, as big investors sense that smaller-cap, higher-beta stocks have reached a point of overvaluation and high risk, these investors move money from the overvalued stocks into the Dow stocks, which are traditionally considered more stable and more liquid. Investors ride the Dow until the entire market rolls over. Some articles appeared last week which made note of the deterioration in technical indicators. For instance, one analyst noted that the recent string of Nasdaq new highs occurred with “negative breadth” to a degree that ha not been seen since 1999-2000. Negative breadth is when an index has more stocks declining than advancing. It’s a negative divergence that often signals that large investors are moving more cash out of the stocks than is flowing into stocks.

No one knows for sure which of the many hidden “financial bombs” will explode unexpectedly and cause a market melt-down.  But like all Ponzi schemes throughout history, the U.S. Ponzi scheme will implode under a massive weight of hubris, extreme greed and widespread ignorance disguised as complacency.

The above commentary is from the latest Short Seller’s Journal. Despite the inexorable climb to new records in the Dow, SPX and Naz, dozens of stocks are falling from the sky like pheasants in hunting season.  The Short Seller’s Journal can help you make money from the short side. You can learn more here:  LINK