Friday 22 April 2011

US credit wobbles; hold cash not bonds

The fuss about S&P's "AAA with negative outlook" for US credit is remarkable mainly for being so far behind the curve.

The Beijing-based Dagong credit rating company gave America a significantly lower "AA" with negative outlook, back in July 2010 (and the UK was one level worse than that). Remember that China is a business partner and needs a clear view of how commercial operations are proceeding; this is not about Oriental mischief-making.

On the other hand, the talk of US Treasury default is wild, and I quite understand how it makes pensions expert Leo Kolivakis decidedly impatient; after all, that "negative outlook" comment is screwed to the side of a continuing AAA rating. But I do rather doubt that current US bonds will be honored in the sense of preserving and slightly increasing your wealth.

Charles Hugh Smith's thesis, on which I commented a few days ago, is that the American plutocracy will consolidate its gains by forcing a bond strike; personally, I think it's unnecessary to postulate a conspiracy in order to agree with him about the consequences. With interest rates at an historic low in the Anglo-American sphere, there's really only one direction in which they can change. Why would you buy now? And more importantly, why would you hold, when a rate rise could savage the tradable value of your holding?

Those who need to keep exports flowing, such as China, may be prepared to pay the price of maintaining the status quo, making on profits what they're losing on bonds, but as I said in February ("Global Credit Warfare"), the language over there is getting rather anxious and aggressive. Dagong's report bluntly states that America is exporting inflation worldwide.

Having said that, inflation in prices is very uneven and unfair. Proportionally to income, the rising costs of food and energy are hitting the poorest worst: I can cut back on brandy and weekend leisure trips, but how does the underclass cut back on hamburger helper? And with a large wad of ready cash, the better-off are in a position to snap up residential property cheaply, and bargain hard for luxuries such as cars, computers and other shiny gewgaws. I should think this is a great time to go to bankruptcy auctions, especially since the taxman isn't much bothered about setting a reserve. So in many ways, inflation hasn't yet really reached the rich.

But invulnerability is an illusion. When the remains of Mayan civilization were discovered, no wealthy Mayans were found sipping mai tais among the half-finished stone carvings.

We're all in this together, and because it's global now, we're mutually involved in a way that hasn't happened before. As Adam Fergusson relates in his chilling book(recently reissued) "When Money Dies", during the 1923 Weimar hyperinflation and the period leading up to it, German export business did very well, so well that the jealous and punitively-minded French wondered who'd won the war. Speculators also prospered, until the currency was reorganised, at which point they "took off for Paris and went to work on the franc, their departure the first signal that stabilisation was a fact." For a long time, reports Fergusson, visitors to Germany would see apparent national prosperity, simply because the cafes and restaurants were full of the winners; they didn't see the middle class exchanging their pianos for a side of ham.

But now, with an increasingly integrated international economy, it's getting more difficult to evade the problems simply by moving to another country. Tensions are rising, and not just in the Arab street.Western governments are deferring the day of reckoning, consuming their own debt like the serpent Ouroboros but without the element of timelessness. The present state of affairs cannot continue indefinitely, as Karl Denninger has been saying since 2007.

What are the possible outcomes?

Outright default? Don't hold bonds.Bond strike, interest rate rise, savage economic retrenchment? Don't hold bonds.Total collapse of the currency? Don't hold bond. High inflation? Don't hold bonds.

The least nuclear of all the options is the last, so unless we have a collective death wish that seems the most likely. Jesse thinks the dollar won't go to zero, but have a few zeroes knocked off it, like the French franc in 1960 (not that that stopped the decline): "I think the reissue of the dollar with a few zeros gone is inevitable. It is the timing of that event that is problematic. It could be one year, or it could be fifty years. There is a big difference there for your investment strategy." Reminds me of the scene in an old Cheech and Chong movie where they offer a peasant dollars and he spits on the money, saying you haven't got Mexican? Except this time he'll want a chicken or a silver necklace, instead, because inflation now respects no national boundaries.

Whether the debt-accelerated system manages to slam on the brakes without hospitalizing the vehicle's occupants, or hits a tree (everyone got airbags?), or simply grinds to a rutted halt in a cornfield, buying into the bond market now without some ulterior motive looks like wanton self-sacrifice.

Don't take it from me; take it from Bill Gross, who "sees no value in U.S. government bonds at current interest rates" and has dumped them altogether.

Meanwhile, let's start a national debate about social cohesion. That or wait for the jungle to recolonise the abandoned temples.

INVESTMENT DISCLOSURE: None. Still in cash, and missing all those day-trading opportunities.DISCLAIMER: Nothing here should be taken as personal advice, financial or otherwise. No liability is accepted for third-party content, whether incorporated in or linked to this blog.

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