Monday, December 22, 2008

Why "quantitative easing" will work, but at what cost?

The tandem of the Federal Reserve and the Treasury have taken extraordinary measures to solve the credit crisis. They've lowered interest rates as low as they can go (Treasury bills temporarily dipped below 0% yield recently), providing the markets with plenty of credit. The problem was no lenders were lending, and no borrowers were borrowing. Lenders used the swaps to shore up their balance sheets, dumping bad assets for Treasuries, but they weren't lending.

The Treasury stepped up by pumping the system with trillions of dollars, injecting capital in hopes of stimulating spending. It worked, so we can expect them to step up their efforts. It's one thing to extend credit; now the government is literally printing money out of thin air.

This is, by definition, inflationary. It's necessary to avert a category 5 Great Depression, but it will prove to be problematic down the road when hyperinflation rears its ugly head. Printing money also debases the local currency, as the US Dollar continues to plummet. This flight to quality and perceived safety (short-term T-Bills and long-term T-Bonds) is bumping interest rates down to historical lows, due to the high demand for Treasuries. The operative word is "perceived" as I will soon explain.

My investment thesis is that this low-interest environment will eventually reverse course, as investors demand higher rates of return once they realize how flimsy the US Dollar is. Parking money in Treasuries at such low rates will prove to be disastrous, as inflation asserts itself, accompanied by higher interest rates. Finance 101: when interest rates rise, bond prices decrease.

With borrowing costs so low, we are to the point where any asset other than cash seems too irresistible to pass up. Having said that, with fears of deflation and blood in the streets, temporary irrational pessimism could cause markets to undershoot more than they have. Therefore, despite snapback rallies, further lows could be tested in equities and real estate in this secular bear market.

It is impossible to time market bottoms or tops, but there is value for the patient. My contention is that inflationary monetary policy will eventually lead to inflation, and that precious metals will resume their secular bull market. Equities and other commodities will follow suit within the new couple years, and real estate will recover within 3 - 5 years. I am unsure of the timing, but the direction will reverse course eventually. In other words, I can't call the bottom, but we are closer to the bottom than a top, as many have already taken a 50% haircut on their portfolios and 30% on their home values.

Hence, my current positions are long gold, long the Japanese yen (short the US Dollar), short Treasury Bonds (10 - 30-year maturities). With inflation and rising interest rates, bond prices will plummet going forward.

For those favoring income and dividends, I believe high-quality corporate bonds are extremely attractive relative to Treasuries. A handful of shares are attractive, including companies with leading market share, high cash reserves, strong cash flow, and no debt. For the non-faint of heart, some high-yielding (junk) bonds may also be profitable due to their extreme spreads (20 points above Treasury yields). But be prepared for high default rates.

Please consult your investment and tax professional before investing.

No comments:

Post a Comment