The Federal Reserve’s Nuclear Option: A One-Way Street to Oblivion

Submitted by Charles Hugh-Smith of OfTwoMinds blog,

The Fed cannot create a bid in bidless markets that lasts beyond its own buying.

We all know the Federal Reserve (and every other central bank) has one last Doomsday weapon to stop a meltdown in the global financial markets: creating trillions of dollars out of thin air and using the cash to buy assets that are in free-fall. This is known as “the nuclear option”–the direct monetizing of stocks, Treasury bonds, commercial real estate mortgages, student loans, corporate bonds, non-U.S. sovereign bonds, subprime auto loans, defaulted bat guano securities, offshore loans denominated in quatloos–you name it: The Fed could print money and buy, buy, buy to create and maintain a bid in bidless markets.

The idea is to stop a cascade of panic by buying assets in quantities large enough to staunch the avalanche of selling. The strategy is based on one key assumption: that no more than a small percentage of the asset class will change hands in any day or week.

Thus a low-volume sell-off in the $20 trillion U.S. equity markets can be stopped with large index buy orders in the neighborhood of $10 – $100 million–a tiny sliver of the total market value.

But in a real meltdown, popguns will no longer conjure a bid in suddenly bidless markets, and the Fed will have to become the bidder of last resort on a massive scale in multiple markets. We need to differentiate between loans, backstops and guarantees issued by the Fed and actual purchase of impaired assets.

After poring over all the data, the Levy Institute came up with a total of $29 trillion in Fed and Federal bailout-the-financial-sector loans and programs. The GAO found the Fed alone issued $16 trillion in loans and backstops:


The heart of quantitative easing and ZIRP (zero interest rate policy) is the Fed’s direct purchase and ownership of assets: residential mortgage-backed securities and Treasury bonds. The Fed has been operating not as the buyer of last resort but as the bidder who buys interest-sensitive securities to keep interest rates near-zero (known as financial repression).

The Fed’s purchases of impaired mortgages has also made its balance sheet “the place where mortgages go to die:” the Fed can hold impaired mortgages until maturity, effectively masking their illiquidity and impaired market value. We can see these two major purchase programs in this chart from Market Daily Briefing:

Despite all the talk of “tapering,” the Fed’s asset purchases on a grand scale continues:

Such a handy word, “taper:”

The Nuclear Option rests on another questionable assumption: markets only go bidless in brief panics, not because the assets have lost all value. The basic model of Fed emergency loan programs and asset-buying is 1907–a financial panic that erupts out of a liquidity crisis.

In a liquidity crisis, the underlying assets supporting loans retain their market value; the problem is a shortage of credit needed to roll over short-term loans on those still-valuable assets.

But what the world is finally starting to experience is not a liquidity crisis: it is a valuation crisis in which assets and collateral are finally recognized as phantom. I explained the difference between liquidity and valuation crises in In a Typhoon, Even Pigs Can Fly (for a while) (January 30, 2014).

Let me illustrate why the Fed’s Nuclear Option is a one-way street to oblivion.

What is the market value of a defaulted student loan that has no hope of ever being repaid by an unemployed ex-student debtor? The answer is zero: the “asset” has a value of zero and will always have a value of zero. It is not “coming back.”

What is the market value of a commercial mortgage on a dead mall that has no hope of ever being repaid by an insolvent mall owner? The answer is zero: the “asset” has a value of zero and will always have a value of zero. It is not “coming back.”

The New York Times recently published an article that nails the core issue in the entire U.S. economy: the top 10% is the only segment able to support additional consumption:The Middle Class Is Steadily Eroding. Just Ask the Business World     (Yahoo news version)

“The Biggest Redistribution Of Wealth From The Middle Class And Poor To The Rich Ever” Explained

This raises an obvious question: can the excess consumption of the top 10% support every mall, strip mall, premium outlet and retail center in the U.S.? Equally obvious answer: no. Most dead malls cannot be repurposed; the buildings are cheap shells, and while the land might retain some value for future residential housing, the coming implosion of the latest housing bubble nixes that hope: WARPED, DISTORTED, MANIPULATED, FLIPPED HOUSING MARKET (The Burning Platform).

What is the value of a company’s shares if that company has lost any means of earning a profit? Answer: the book value of the company’s assets minus debt.Given the staggering debt load of the corporate sector, the real value of many companies once their ability to reap a real (as opposed to accounting trickery) net profit vanishes is near-zero.

How about the value of Greek sovereign debt? Zero. The value of mortgages on empty decaying flats in Spain? Zero. And so on, all around the world.

This leads to a sobering conclusion: Should the Fed attempt to create and maintain a bid in bidless markets, it will end up owning trillions of dollars in worthless assets–and the market for those assets will still be bidless when the Fed stops being the bidder of last resort.

Let’s assume the Fed’s leadership will feel a desperate need to stop the next global financial meltdown in valuations. Offering trillions of dollars in liquidity will not stop sellers from selling nor magically create value in worthless assets. The Fed can only stop the selling by becoming the entire market for those assets.

The list of phantom assets the Fed will have to buy outright with freshly conjured cash is long. Let’s start with hundreds of billions of dollars in defaulting/impaired student loans. Once the debtors realize the system is swamped with defaults and can no longer hound them, the flood of defaults will swell.

The Fed can buy as many defaulted student loans as it wants, but it will never raise the value of those loans above zero. The market for worthless student loans will remain bidless the second the Fed stops buying.

The same is true of all the defaulted, worthless commercial real estate (CRE) mortgages on dead malls, decaying strip malls and abandoned retail centers: no amount of Fed buying will create a market for these worthless assets.

Dead Mall Syndrome: The Self-Reinforcing Death Spiral of Retail (January 22, 2014)

The First Domino to Fall: Retail-CRE (Commercial Real Estate) (January 21, 2014)

There is no technical reason the Fed cannot create $10 trillion and buy up $10 trillion of worthless or severely impaired assets; the Fed can become the owner of every dead mall and every defaulted auto loan in America should it wish to.

That would of course render the Fed massively insolvent, as its assets would be worth a fraction of its liabilities. But so what? The Fed can simply assign a phantom value to all its worthless assets and let them rot until maturity, at which point they vanish down the wormhole.

The point isn’t that “the Fed can’t do that;” the point is that the Fed cannot create a bid in bidless markets that lasts beyond its own buying. The Fed can buy half the U.S. stock market, all the student loans, all the subprime auto loans, all the defaulted CRE and residential mortgages, and every other worthless asset in America. But that won’t create a real bid for any of those assets, once they are revealed as worthless.

The nuclear option won’t fix anything, because it is fundamentally the wrong tool for the wrong job. Holders of disintegrating assets will be delighted to sell the assets to the Fed, of course, but that won’t fix what’s fundamentally broken in the American and global economies; it will simply allow the transfer of impaired assets from the financial sector and speculators to the Fed.

Anyone who thinks that is the “solution” should read QE For the People: What Else Could We Buy With $29 Trillion? (September 24, 2012).

The Retail Commercial Real Estate Domino with Gordon T. Long and CHS:

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Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies flash-crashed Saturday night, one day after the US Commodity Future Trading Commission (CFTC) sent subpoenas four cryptocurrency exchanges in an ongoing probe into bitcoin manipulation that began in late July - following the launch of bitcoin futures on the CME, according to the Wall Street Journal
CME’s bitcoin futures derive their final value from prices at four bitcoin exchangesBitstamp, Coinbase, itBit and KrakenManipulative trading in those markets could skew the price of bitcoin futures that the government directly regulates.
In delay reaction, Bitcoin fell as much as $433 or 5.6% in Saturday night trading, with some noting that the flash crash happened shortly after a 90th ranked crypto exchange, Coinrail, had suffered a "cyber intrusion", and was likely the more relevant catalyst for the crypto price drop.
While major Cryptocurrencies were down from 4.5 - 5.5%, Bitcoin Cash dropped over 8.4%. 
The CTFC subpoenas were issued after several of the exchanges refused to voluntarily share trading data with the CME after being asked last December. Of note, the CFTC regulates the CTC. 
According to the WSJ, the CME, which launched bitcoin futures in December, asked the four exchanges to share reams of trading data after its first contract settled in January, people familiar with the matter said. But several of the exchanges declined to comply, arguing the request was intrusive. The exchanges ultimately provided some data, but only after CME limited its request to a few hours of activity, instead of a full day, and restricted to a few market participants, the people added.
What is curious, is that if there was indeed manipulation since the launch of bitcoin futures, it was to the downside, as the price of cryptos peaked around the time the crypto futures were launched, and are down well over 50% in the 6 months since.
Coinbase in particular has been under the watch government regulators. On February 23, Coinbase sent an official notice to around 13,000 customers to notify them they were legally required to turn over their information to the IRS
The IRS had initially asked Coinbase in July 2017 to hand over even more detailed information on every one of its then over 500,000 users in an attempt catch those cheating on their taxes. However, another court order in Nov. 2017 reduced this number to around 14,000 “high-transacting” users, which the platform now reports as 13,000, in what Coinbase calls a “partial, but still significant, victory for Coinbase and its customers.”
Coinbase told the around 13,000 affected customers that the company would be providing their taxpayer ID, name, birth date, address, and historical transaction records from 2013-2015 to the IRS within 21 days. Coinbase’s letter to these customers encourages them “to seek legal advice from an attorney promptly” if they have any questions. Their website also states that concerns may also be addressed on Coinbase’s Taxes FAQ. The ongoing legal battle between Coinbase and the US government dates back to November, 2016, when the IRS filed a “John Doe summons” in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California.
On Feb. 13, personal finance service Credit Karma released data showing that only 0.04 percent of their customers had reported cryptocurrencies on their federal tax returns. 
And in April, former New York Attorney General, Eric "we could rarely have sex without him beating me" Schneiderman, launched a probe of 13 major cryptocurrency exchanges according to the Wall Street Journal - claiming that investors dealing in the fast-growing markets often don’t have the basic facts needed to protect themselves.
Former AG Schneiderman’s office said the program, called Virtual Markets Integrity Initiative,  is part of its responsibility to protect consumers and ensure the integrity of financial markets, and its goal is to ensure that investors can have a better understanding of the risks and protections afforded them on these sites.
CFTC Commissioner: Crypto is a "modern miracle"
While the CFTC, IRS and New York Attorney General's office are all cracking down on cryptocurrency exchanges, it seems to all be part of the government's embrace of virtual currencies.  Last week CFTC Commissioner Rostin Benham called cryptocurrencies a "modern miracleat the Blockchain For Impact Summit held at the UN in New York last week. 
But virtual currencies may – will – become part of the economic practices of any country, anywhere.  Let me repeat that:  these currencies are not going away and they will proliferate to every economy and every part of the planet.  Some places, small economies, may become dependent on virtual assets for survival.  And, these currencies will be outside traditional monetary intermediaries, like government, banks, investors, ministries, or international organizations.
We are witnessing a technological revolution.  Perhaps we are witnessing a modern miracle. -Rostin Benham
Rostin hinted at the upcoming legal action against the exchanges during his speech:
Under the CEA and Commission regulations and related guidance, exchanges have the responsibility to ensure that their Bitcoin futures products and their cash-settlement process are not readily susceptible to manipulation and the entity has sufficient capital to protect itself.  The CFTC has the authority to ensure compliance. In addition, the CFTC has legal authority over virtual currency derivatives in support of anti-fraud and manipulation including enforcement authority in the underlying markets.

Meanwhile, the official Bitcoin website removed references to Coinbase, Blockchain.com and Bitpay, according to Crypto News - only one of which, Coinbase, was subpoenaed. 
http://Bitcoin.org  just removed/censored the 2 largest US Bitcoin companies (@BitPay Payment processing and @coinbase Bitcoin Exchange). It’s a good move: Bitcoin Core is obviously no longer Bitcoin, and should ideally be removed from both @BitPay and @coinbase too.

The CFTC officially recognized bitcoin as a commodity in September of 2015 when it went after Coinflip for operating a platform for trading bitcoin options without the proper authorization. Since the agency effectively asserted its dominance over the bitcoin market with that decision, this is the first time it has given its blessing to an bitcoin options trading platform. Expect a burst of institutional trading activity to follow - especially since they approved institutional options trading in July
This post sponsored by Total Cryptos @ www.totalcryptos.com  

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