Sunday, January 29, 2012

Transparency Has Landed

Frederick J. Sheehan is the author of Panderer to Power: The Untold Story of How Alan Greenspan Enriched Wall Street and Left a Legacy of Recession (McGraw-Hill, 2009) and "The Coming Collapse of the Municipal Bond Market" (, 2009)

See Frederick Sheehan's Interview on

"The Larry Parks Show" (Janurary 12, 2012)

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke has finally achieved his childhood fantasy. He has passed into existence (note: not law, regulation, or any other formal apparatus that cannot be ripped from his bodice by the People's Representatives) a policy of achieving 2.0% inflation.

From a January 25, 2012, Federal Reserve press release: "The Committee judges that inflation at the rate of 2 percent, as measured by the annual change in the price index for personal consumption expenditures, is most consistent over the longer run with the Federal Reserve's statutory mandate." (For the prelude to his ploy, see: "
Presidential Rivals: Drop the 'One Percent.' Trumpet the 'Negative Four Percent.'" and "A Quartet of Fed Chairmen Body Slam Bernanke.")

"Personal consumption expenditures" are calculated by the Commerce Department. They have been rising at a 1.7% annual rate. This must be why the ad lib policymakers at the Fed drop-kicked the CPI (consumer price index, calculated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics) into the Potomac, since it is rising at a 3.0% annual rate. The pilferers might still have chosen the CPI, after dropping food and energy: a measure Chairman Bernanke often talked about. The ex-food, ex-energy CPI rose at a much-closer-to-target 2.2% over the past year.

Whatever the Fed's reasons for siding with personal consumption expenditures, the BLS states (in its December Consumer Price Index Survey) that food prices rose 4.7% over the past year. Dairy and related products rose 8.1% in 2011. From the American Petroleum Institute: gasoline prices have risen 9.5% over the past year. McDonald's announced on Tuesday that it is increasing prices again - it did so three times last year - due to higher costs. That probably includes transportation. The recently released Cass Freight Index (through December 2011) noted that North American freight costs "were up an astounding 18.8% against an increase in freight volumes of only 0.7%."

After the Fed press release, Burglar Ben held a press conference. This is part of his "transparency" ploy. Among other oddball comments, the math whiz claimed: "At levels of inflation this low, interest rates should fully compensate for the losses to savers." To approximate, current savings rates in the United States are about 0.0001%. The Fed's press release left a clear path for someone to bludgeon the Bernanke Fed. (Nobody will, but we can pretend.) From the aforementioned press release: "The inflation rate over the longer run is primarily determined by monetary policy...." Monetary policy is in the hands of a man who cannot subtract.

It is slowly becoming clearer that Alan Greenspan should be warming up in the bullpen.

Friday, January 20, 2012

A Quartet of Fed Chairmen Body Slam Bernanke

Frederick J. Sheehan is the author of Panderer to Power: The Untold Story of How Alan Greenspan Enriched Wall Street and Left a Legacy of Recession (McGraw-Hill, 2009) and "The Coming Collapse of the Municipal Bond Market" (, 2009)

"Ben Bernanke's quest to make the U.S. Federal Reserve more transparent may be nearing an end as it debates a new statement of goals and strategy that is likely to put a number on its preferred inflation rate. A formal, numerical goal for inflation could become Mr. Bernanke's most durable legacy as chairman of the Fed. It would bind his successors to stable prices; end confusion caused by Fed officials who can have slightly different goals; and by reinforcing the Fed's determination to control inflation in the long-run, it could create space for monetary easing."

--"Fed Nears Inflation Target Decision;" Robin Harding in the
Financial Times, January 17, 2012

This P.R. release barely needs comment. For the purported "transparency," see
"Presidential Rivals: Drop the "One Percent." Trumpet the "Negative Four Percent."" "Presidential Rivals" quoted from a strategy session at which the FOMC [Fed Open Market Committee] gathered a consensus to not tell a soul outside the temple that it would officially adopt a policy to create inflation (i.e., "Inflation Targeting"). The Federal Reserve does not command the authority for this "transparent" maneuver.

Previous Federal Reserve Chairmen were dead set against the idea of any inflation. Back in those days (Before Bernanke), "stable prices" meant no inflation. (That every Fed chairman quoted below failed, and some failed terribly, to accomplish this mandate, should be seen as a warning of what will happen now that the Fed is determined to create inflation.)

How did we arrive at this point? The central banking industry has turned what we know to be true upside down. For instance,
Bernanke preens about the advances of the science of macroeconomics, yet, no previous Federal Reserve chairman even mentioned the need to give himself a two or eight or twelve percent inflation cushion to prevent economic implosion.

In what follows, former Chairman Martin explained exactly what the "99%" should know. Their beef is a direct consequence of the very policy that the Federal Reserve will now enshrine in its "goals and strategy." Former Chairman Volcker was dismissed by the current generation of central bankers when he encountered their Orwellian distortion of the term "stable prices
." Former Chairman Greenspan's comments of the Fed's forecasting record ("terribly discouraging") should alert readers to sell dollars and buy things: gold, silver, land, canned goods.

Fed Chairman William McChesney Martin (1951-1970) has been quoted here before. His Senate testimony on August 13, 1957, was a particularly fine diatribe. He was fighting a losing battle against Harvard economists who told politicians we needed an inflation rate of 2% to compete with the booming Soviet economy.

Martin warned the Senate Committee on Finance that recent inflationary pressures arose from strong economic growth fostered by "'imbalances in the economy' in which 'rising costs and prices mutually interact upon each other over time with a spiral effect.'" Martin went on.
The person most likely to be injured in the inflationary cycle was the "'hardworking and thrifty...little man' on fixed income who could protect neither his income nor the value of his savings." Harvard and the senators had other priorities (themselves), but this is a condensed History of the United States in the 55 Years That Followed. (The conquest of the 99 %.) Regarding the target of a 2% institutionalized inflation rate, Martin said: "[Two] percent may not seem startling [but] the price level would double every 35 years and the value of the dollar would be cut in half each generation. Losses would be inflicted on millions of people, pensioners...all who have fixed incomes.... [T]hose who would turn out to have savings in their old age would tend to be the slick and the clever...."

It can at least be said the current Federal Reserve understands who wins and loses when the Fed stimulates inflation. Current
New York Federal Reserve President Dudley talked up asset inflation on October 1, 2010. In the first sentence (ahead), the former Goldman, Sachs economist describes the "spiral effect" of irresponsible money-making before the bankers were bailed out. The second sentence addresses consequences to the "little man." Sentence #1: "The surge in home prices was fueled by products and practices in the financial sector that led to a rapid and unsustainable buildup of leverage and an underpricing of risk during this period." Sentence #2: "These dynamics in turn provided the fuel that caused house prices and consumer spending to rise much faster than income."

Federal Reserve Chairman Arthur Burns (1970-1978) was a "no-percenter." Leading up to the 1960 presidential race between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, MIT economists Paul Samuelson and Robert Solow argued in favor of "moderate levels of inflation." In his 1959 presidential address at the American Economic Association Conference, Burns chided this politically opportunistic position by declaring any inflation was untenable. The M.I.T. professors, and inflation, won. Solow was one of Ben S. Bernanke's Ph.D. thesis advisers.

Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker (1979-1987) bemoans today's central banking incumbents. At the spring 2006
Grant's Interest Rate Observer Conference, Volcker told the audience the upstarts were a puzzle to him: "A great mantra of central bankers these days is 'inflation targeting.' I don't understand that nomenclature. I didn't think central bankers were in the business of targeting inflation. I thought we were supposed to be targeting stability. We all say we are in favor of stability. You hear these speeches, Bernanke saying 'We are in favor of stability. That is why we are targeting inflation.' There is a certain semantic problem for me in that connection."

Volcker went on to say he had returned from a central bankers' synod in Frankfurt, Germany. On the topic of inflation targeting, he believes he was the only dissenter in the room: "The debate was me on one side and all of the central bankers on the other side." It was explained to Volcker "the importance of inflation targeting was to never go above that. There was an ironclad agreement to keep the inflation rate below that or below the target." This is nonsense. The professors will never be wrong. They have prepared for 2, 4, and 6% inflation. The "literature" (Bernanke loves to say that) has been peer-reviewed and published.

Volcker also told his audience: "I can remember my old professors at Harvard, in 1951 or so, saying a little inflation is a good thing. 'We don't want very much, but 2% is good.'"
Chairman Martin addressed the 2% target in his August 13, 1957 testimony: "There is no validity whatsoever that any inflation, once accepted, can be confined to moderate proportions." Martin was thinking of an intelligent person or shrewd FOMC: Either was doomed. That is not the case today. Martin could not have imagined the existence of a Bernanke.

Adam Posen, one of the co-authors, along with Ben S. Bernanke, of
Inflation Targeting: Lessons from the International Experience, believes inflation rates of "4, 5, or 6 percent a year, say, will [not] hurt growth. It is just not there in the data." He went on to say (in Challenge, July/August 2008) that researchers have found once "you get to an annual inflation rate of 10 percent - some would say 8 percent, some people would say 12 percent," you "begin to see significant negative effects on growth." This is all too stupid to discuss, but Posen, an American, is now serving on the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England. Why? Is it only American universities that produce ideas so bad they are needed around the world to inflate paper currencies out of existence? (Another of Ben Bernanke's MIT thesis sponsors was Stanley Fischer, also an American, who has been shipped off to run the central bank of Israel. Israelis are hereby warned: gold and canned goods.)

Three years after speaking at the 2006
Grant's Conference, Paul Volcker told the New York Times the Bernanke Fed "is not really in control of the situation."

Now we turn to the Maestro: former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan (1987-2006). At the February 1-2, 2005, FOMC meeting, he opposed inflation targeting. The transcript has the ring of Paul Volcker's séance in Frankfurt. The younger generation of central bankers, who now monopolize the debate, had spoken. Greenspan, always the gentleman, did not say they are up after their bedtime, yet they are.

CHAIRMAN GREENSPAN: I don't see how we can define a specific number for price stability....and the reason is that inflation targeting presupposes an ability to forecast, which I don't think any of us have, or can have." [The obvious question here, oh, forget it. - FJS] "The vast majority of examples we are going to run into, if we go to inflation targeting, will be cases where suddenly price inflation is at the outer edge of the target, or indeed, has actually breached it - and other evidence on the underlying trends in inflation is not clear." Greenspan went on to say the Fed may see "contrary notions," meaning, indicators that inflation is both rising and falling.

The chairman who was never Time's Person of the Year continued: "Now, one of things we always forget, looking back, is how little we knew at the time things were occurring or about to occur. When I read the transcripts of earlier meetings, I am surprised, because I thought we were really knowledgeable about what was going to happen
. Something happens and I say to myself, 'Well, we got that right; our forecasts were terrific and our insights were great.' When I go back and read the transcripts, I find that it just isn't so....Go back and read the 1979 transcripts....I found reading those transcripts terribly discouraging. My view of the extraordinary institution of which we are all part fell about 20 percent because some of the comments being uttered around this table were absolute nonsense. If you go back to October 1979 and read the transcripts from that time on, you will see how little everybody knew or thought they knew...."

It was on October 6, 1979, with consumer price inflation rising at a 12% rate, that Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker announced the Fed would no longer peg interest rates, specifically, the fed funds rate. The FOMC would concentrate on controlling the supply of money. Looking back, Volcker's decision was correct. On October 6, 1979, the funds rate bounced within a target range of 11-1/4% to 11-3/4%. Cast loose, it rose to a monthly average of 17.6% in April 1980, fell to 9.0% by July, and traded at an average rate of over 19% in June 1981.

Greenspan continued: "I don't wish to downgrade the importance of the actions taken. They were tough and they were the right actions. But to presume there was great intellectual control over what was going on is completely undercut by reading the contemporaneous transcripts. That's just the way we are. We have a recollection of what we did which is, unfortunately, fictionalized. I've been in this business for too long!"

The Fed's genius for always being wrong is not a revelation to readers of
Panderer to Power, but: Why does the Federal Reserve employ a single economist? It should stick to funds transfers.

Of course, Bernanke had never made an economic forecast in his life until he was chosen as Fed chairman, yet his economic predictions are televised and quoted and move markets.

Legendary investor Jim Rogers was interviewed on TV in May 2011. The interviewer asked Rogers something (long since forgotten) about a recent Bernanke forecast. Rogers, fuming that he (or, probably, anyone else) should be asked to analyze Bernanke's prediction, replied:
"This guy Bernanke - YOU should do an expose - You should go back and just - EVERYTHING he said for eight years was wrong! It's astonishing....He's a great contrarian indicator!"

It is clear that Ben S. Bernanke has never given a moment's thought to the possibility his accommodating and manipulative policies may demand a similar decision to Paul Volcker's in October 1979. Nor could he possibly orient his mind to acknowledge that today's economy will react more violently. By the fall of 1979, interest rates had
gradually risen for close to three decades. Today, floating rates would either (1) crush an economy dependent on low, low, low rates, (2) pass 19% about 10 minutes after the change in policy, or, first (2), and then (1).

A practical question: how can anyone really "invest" with government conduits around the world attempting to control every market: a mad hatter's scheme that is doomed, that has established price corridors convenient to a bureaucrat, will snap back in a vicious manner, but at an unknown time?

Bernanke was interviewed on "60 Minutes" on December 5, 2010. When asked with what degree of confidence he could prevent inflation from getting out of control, he replied: "One hundred percent." In 2008, the Chicago Tribune quoted globetrotting economist David Hale. Bernanke had told Hale: "We have lost control. We cannot stabilize the dollar. We cannot control commodity prices." In an earlier (March 2009) interview on "60 Minutes," Bernanke told America he had "never been on Wall Street." In 2006, Simple Ben enlightened Congress that Wall Street operated at a new, permanent high plateau: "The management of market risk and credit risk has become increasingly sophisticated.... [B]anking organizations of all sizes have made substantial strides over the past two decades in their ability to measure and manage risks. The banking agencies will continue to promote supervisory approaches that complement and support banks' own efforts to enhance their risk-management capabilities." From personal knowledge, Ben believed every word in that statement.

What will they make of us in 100 years?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Presidential Rivals: Drop the "One Percent." Trumpet the "Negative Four Percent."

Frederick J. Sheehan is the author of Panderer to Power: The Untold Story of How Alan Greenspan Enriched Wall Street and Left a Legacy of Recession (McGraw-Hill, 2009) and "The Coming Collapse of the Municipal Bond Market" (, 2009)

Frederick Sheehan will be interviewed on "The Larry Parks Show," Thursday, January 12, 2012, from 7:00 to 7:30 PM, on Time Warner Channel 56, RCN Channel 83, and Verizon Channel 34.

Here is a topic begging for a presidential candidate's attention. It is simple to explain and to understand. The White House hopeful should grab the baton from the weary "one percent" couriers. In its place, "I'll stop those negative four percenters," will shine with "a cross of gold" in America's heritage. The "one percent" is a vague call-to-arms since it is not clear where the disenchanted should concentrate their energies. The "negative four percent" is directed at a single source.

An outline of what follows: First, will be an explanation of the negative four percent. Second, a look at the gestation of Inflation Targeting. Third, the constitutional question: is such an adoption within the authority of the Federal Reserve System? Fourth and finally, will be comments behind closed doors by Federal Reserve officials of whether the Fed should receive authorization by Congress for Inflation Targeting. A preview: on the whole, participants thought it would be best not to open this can of worms before the legislators. A future episode will explore the comments of four former Federal Reserve chairmen who either are (or were) enemies of such a leap into academic abstractions.

The formula follows. The Federal Reserve is rumbling towards an official "Inflation Target." On January 5, 2012, St. Louis Fed president James Bullard told Bloomberg radio: "I think we're very close to having inflation targeting in the
U.S. This may be an opportunity to get something done that everyone on the committee can rally around."

Regular readers know the story behind the story. (For instance, see
The 8% Solution and "Who Am I? What is Money? The Fed is Here to Help". Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke is the partial author of Inflation Targeting: Lessons from the International Experience.

Inflation Targeting (not normally capitalized, but it needs celebrity promotion) is a toy with which a central bank picks an inflation rate out of the air. The People are then subjected to a race against inflation. The rate might be any single-digit number other than zero. (Purists may claim zero is not a number, but this is a political campaign.)

Only two variables need to be explained and understood by the public. One is the
interest rate; the other is the inflation rate. Put together, the Federal Reserve is vectoring towards an official policy of reducing Americans' personal wealth by four percent each year.

In fact, this Fed would hold short-term rates at zero forever, if the real world allowed it. Its policy permits no one in the
United States to save. It would still be possible to retain one's savings and accumulated wealth with a zero-percent inflation rate. However, the Fed is about to instate an official policy of inflating prices and devaluing the dollar.

The inflation rate chosen for this presidential campaign is 4%. Thus, zero percent of interest earnings and 4% inflation equals a confiscation of 4% of American's personal property - compounded - each year.

Why 4%? The Bureau of Labor Statistics' consumer price index (CPI) is around 3.5%. There is no reason to insist on precision with the campaign slogan. According to John Williams of Shadow Government Statistics
, if the BLS used the same methodology to calculate the CPI that it used in 1990, it would be over 7%. If the BLS used the same methodology that it used in 1980, the CPI reported by the media today would be 10%.

A different
John Williams, this one is President of the San Francisco Fed, and, as of January 2012, a voting member of the FOMC, has publicly proposed an Inflation Target of 4% (See: Heeding Daedalus: Optimal Inflation and the Zero Lower Bound). He is the Fed's new poster boy.

Wall Street Journal
reporter Jon Hilsenrath wrote a profile of John Williams (of the San Francisco Fed, not Shadow Government Statistics) in the January 9, 2012, edition. Hilsenrath relays the Fed's publicity releases to the public through the Journal. The "brainy" San Francisco Fed president "might consider an inflation objective even higher than 2% under some circumstances." This hardly does Williams justice. He has already proposed going much higher, but it apparently is not yet time to break that news.

Even more unsettling is the Federal Reserve's decision to pursue Inflation Targeting without review. How did it receive authority to construct a policy of currency debasement? Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution states: "Congress shall have the power... to coin Money." Leaving aside Congressional dereliction of said Section, the Federal Reserve is pursuing its confiscatory policy by stealth.

What follows is an unusual opportunity to read Fed officials' honest reasons (behind closed doors) for violating institutional checks-ands-balances. Inflation Targeting was the topic of discussion at the February 1 and February 2, 2005, FOMC meeting. In summary, they veered towards importing Inflation Targeting on the sly.

This is such a ripe topic for an ambitious candidate. It's on record. It is easy to understand: just a "0" and a "4." Americans know, or at least sense, they are being abused. A candidate can direct energies to a single, concrete source.

Vincent Reinhart, then a Federal Reserve staff economist, now at some think tank, presented "Considerations Pertaining to the Establishment of a Specific, Numerical, Price-Related Objective for Monetary Policy." Reinhart broached the question: "Should the inflation goal be decided by the Congress (presumably through the process of amending the Federal Reserve Act) or by the Committee?" Reinhart presented the pros and cons. One con: "In particular, is the Committee comfortable in seeking amendment to the Federal Reserve Act? Reopening the act could lead to other changes that the Committee might not welcome...."

Reinhart later added: "[A]n inflation target should be delegated to a conservative central banker. That seems to have been the equilibrium worked out over time, and you might not want to perturb that equilibrium now." Compromise of what, with whom, and the equilibrium not to be perturbed were not discussed. Let's take a guess since the period between 2005 and 2012 needs to be addressed. The Fed and Congressional oversight committees have reached a "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" accord. If true, this is fertile ground for a candidate. If false, it is still fertile ground since the overseers are derelict.

Board member Ben Bernanke thanked the staff for its pro and con discourse. (Alan Greenspan would be chairman until January 2006.) Bernanke regretted it "was difficult to get precise empirical evidence on...whether or not low inflation is good in the first place." [Editor's note - This question was asked by the "conservative central banker" about to run amok bespattering
America with his college thesis. - FJS]

Chairman Greenspan put an end to this silly distraction, stating that low-inflation and "sustainable long-term growth" are "as close to a generic macroeconomic principle that we can have." [Editor's note - The non-academic chairman had to waste his time telling the former head of the
Princeton University economics department, who loves to remind audiences: "I am a macroeconomist rather than a historian," of the "the most generic macroeconomic principle that we can have." - FJS] [From the editor who won't stop butting in - The specific "macroeconomist/historian" quote just cited comes from page six of Ben S. Bernanke's Essays on the Great Depression. The professor wanted it understood up front that he has no patience or time for the history of the Great Depression. - FJS]

Janet Yellen, president of the San Francisco Federal Reserve (at the time; she is now vice chairman of the Federal Reserve System), thought the Fed could slide Inflation Targeting in the back door. In Yellen's words: "augmenting the status quo" could be pursued by "very carefully crafted language" from a 2003 speech by Federal Reserve Board member Ben S. Bernanke. Yellen's suggested course (in her mind) would explain "to the public why
the Committee endorses an inflation objective that actually differs from true price stability." [Italics added - FJS.]

It is worth tucking that sentence away. It is not likely we will read another admission from a central banker that Inflation Targeting is a different species from "true price stability." Congress has established a mandate for the Federal Reserve to maintain "stable prices." Yellen made it crystal clear that the Fed ignores "true price stability."

Mark Olson, president of the Fed's
Atlanta branch, was leery of telling Congress the FOMC was adopting Inflation Targeting in its mandate. Olson thought "if we tinker with any element of the Congressional mandate, we would do so at our peril." Olson told his cronies that when he went through his confirmation hearing in 2001, "at least one member of the Senate informed us that if they opened up the Federal Reserve Act, he would want a mandate that zero inflation ought to be the law."

Chairman Greenspan spoke, as was his wont, after all FOMC members had their say: "[T]he political issue bothers me a great deal." He did not say why. Possibly, he looked upon the day's discussion as exploratory in nature. He had less than a year remaining as chairman, so knew Inflation Targeting was a decision for the next chairman. Greenspan discussed operational problems of Inflation Targeting. These will be quoted in the next episode: discourses by former Federal Reserve chairmen about Inflation Targeting.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Markets Vanish - "In a Flash"

Frederick J. Sheehan is the author of Panderer to Power: The Untold Story of How Alan Greenspan Enriched Wall Street and Left a Legacy of Recession (McGraw-Hill, 2009) and "The Coming Collapse of the Municipal Bond Market"(, 2009)

What follows is the same warning broadcast in January 2011. In his January 6, 2012, Credit Bubble Bulletin, Doug Noland discussed the same topic: "The '08 crisis is considered a low-probability "tail event" - a so-called rare "black swan" or "hundred-year flood." Yet I would argue that such a financial crisis was in reality a high probability outcome. Bubbles burst - plain and simple. It is the act of predicting the timing of their demise that tends to be an exercise in low probability outcomes. This is especially the case when government policymaking is a major factor fueling Credit and asset Bubble excess...

Government interference extends unstable market conditions longer than would otherwise be true. By doing so, George Eliot's observation (at the bottom, here) is even more appropriate in 2012. - FJS - January 8, 2012

Following is a short excerpt from "War of the Nerds," which I wrote for the December, 2006, edition of the Gloom, Boom & Doom Report. I discussed the crises an investor ("Our Serious Investor") navigated from the 1960s to the present. Doomsday had been predicted since the dollar crises of the 1960s, yet risk had been transient. By the fall of 2006, it was obvious the U.S. mortgage market and banking system were in collapse, but securities markets were deemed riskless, as measured by bond and credit-default spreads. It is timely to resurrect the vanishing bond markets of 1914 and 2007 after the failed or distressed auctions since December 27, 2010, of euro zone, Chinese, and U.S Treasury bonds with 5-year and 7-year maturities.

The historian Niall Ferguson (The Cash Nexus, War of the World) has written a paper on the risk imbedded in sovereign bond spreads between 1848 and 1914: "Political Risk and the International Bond Market Between the 1848 Revolution and the Outbreak of the First World War." Published in the Economic History Review earlier this year, his exhaustive study of weekly great-power bond prices (United Kingdom, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia) comes to a surprising conclusion - the closer Europe edged towards war, the less the financial markets cared. Ferguson sees two distinct periods: from 1848 through 1880, the markets were anxious. Sovereign bonds were sold at the slightest scent of war. After 1880, the response to international tensions grew less and less pronounced.

....It is 2006. Our Serious Investor has grown calloused to once-in-the-history-of-the-universe events. Our Investor survived the dollar crises, the stock market collapse and deep recession of 1973-1974, the Business Week "Death of Equities" front cover, the $250 billion federal budget deficits of the 1980s, the frequent financial and derivative crises of the past twenty years (far more prevalent than between 1950 and 1970), the current $500 billion federal budget deficits, and the (prospective) $1 trillion trade deficit. Our Serious Investor has prospered. He gradually learned to shrug off the deteriorating macro world. He grew accustomed to the "Greenspan put" (that is, central banks will bail out any-and-all financial meltdowns), the risky adventures of hedge funds, the abandonment of debt covenants by bond issuers, the private-equity moon shot; he has, by now, grown so accustomed to the warnings that he keeps his head down, plugs away....

Ferguson's narrative of the countdown to war is a splendid chronology of how quickly the world can change: "It was not until 22 July [1914] - more than three weeks [after Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated, on June 28, 1914] - that the possibility of a European political crisis was first mentioned as a potential source of financial instability in the financial pages of The [London] Times....

The 2-1/2% British consols rose from a 3.30% yield on July 7 to 3.31% on July 22 - a single basis point of fear.... Tensions rose on the exchanges and grew acute on July 27 when the Vienna and Budapest exchanges closed. The Sarajevo incident could still be interpreted as a local affair, but trading slowed on the other European exchanges. Now [British] consols rose to 3.45%. The St. Petersburg exchange closed on July 29 and the
Economist considered the "Berlin and Paris bourses closed in all but name."

....A wholly unanticipated domino effect now engulfed London. The bond market did not seem to acknowledge this vaporization of liquidity: "....
The Economist was especially struck by the widening of the bid-ask spread for consols (the gap between buyers' offers and sellers' asking prices) to a full percentage point, compared with a historic average of one-eighth of 1 per cent... "

The London market started to close on July 29. London clearing banks concentrated on funding their stock-exchange clients, eight of which failed by the end of the day. On July 30, the Bank of England raised its discount rate from 3% to 5%. On July 31, the Stock Exchange was closed and the Bank of England raised its discount rate from 5% to 8%.

As to how much we can trust the Greenspan "put": "[T]he British and Continental financial authorities pulled every trick." [Ferguson] furnishes a list of clever, arbitrary and confiscatory maneuvers, but, "systematic central bank interventions to maintain bond prices" only worked for a time. Government assistance "could only disguise the crisis that had been unleashed in the bond market; it could not prevent it."
[My bold- FJS]

Ferguson scrapes up the debris: "For all save the holders of British consols, who could reasonably hope that their government would restore the value of their investments when the war was over, these outcomes [for French, German, Austrian, and Russian sovereign bond holders] were even worse than the most pessimistic pre-war commentators had foreseen. The fact that investors do not seem to have considered such a scenario until the last week of July 1914 surely tells us something important about the origins of the First World War. It seems as if, in the words of
The Economist, the City only saw 'the meaning of war' on July 31-'in a flash'."

Aside from the origins of World War I, the last week of July 1914 surely tells us something important about investors today.

"The sense of security more frequently springs from habit than from conviction, and for this reason it often subsists after such a change in the conditions as might have been expected to suggest alarm. The lapse of time during which a given event has not happened, is, in this logic of habit, constantly alleged as a reason why the event should never happen, even when the lapse of time is precisely the added condition which makes the event imminent."

-George Eliot,
Silas Marner