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Unexpectedly Early Social Security Funding Problems Emerge
Pento: Inflation to Skyrocket When Fed Reverts to New QE & Interest Rate Cuts
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Welcome to this week’s Market Wrap Podcast, I’m Mike Gleason.
Coming up Michael Pento of Pento Portfolio Strategies joins me examine what’s happening beneath the surface in the markets right now, and why we should all be very leery of putting too much stock into what we’re hearing from the mainstream financial media these days regarding the economy. Don’t miss another sensational interview with Michael Pento, coming up after this week’s market update.
Gold prices see-sawed around the $1,300 level this week as silver prices advanced to 7-week highs. As of this Friday recording, gold trades at $1,298 an ounce, up 0.2% for the week. Silver prices come in at $16.75, good for a 1.8% weekly gain.
Silver’s outperformance could bode well for precious metals markets heading into next week’s Federal Open Market Committee meeting. The Fed is widely expected to hike its benchmark rate. But as is often the case, the gold market seems to be holding its breath until the actual announcement.
Perhaps next week traders will finally give the gold market a decisive push above or below the $1,300 level. The recent narrowing in the gold to silver ratio in favor of silver gives bulls some hope for a bullish outcome. Silver being the more volatile metal, it tends to lead on both the upside and the downside.
The gold to silver ratio currently checks in at about 77 to 1. The ratio has narrowed from a high of 82.5 to 1 recorded in early April. It has the potential to narrow much further in a bull market for silver.
In the meantime, the precious metals markets will continue to test the patience of bulls. The long, grinding, sideways trading action of the past few months has worn out some metals investors and lulled the general public into disinterest.
As a consequence, bullion buying volumes have dipped. At the same time, selling by the public has increased. Speculators have also piled in on the short side in the gold and silver futures markets.
Sentiment is extremely negative even as gold and silver prices have merely maintained their trading ranges. Although both gold and silver came close to suffering major technical breakdowns this spring, no long-term damage was actually done.
Given the negative sentiment and the strength of the U.S. dollar last month, the downside in metals markets could have been far worse. The fact that it was minimal suggests underlying technical strength.
Of course, few investors are paying attention to precious metals as a safe haven asset class when the financial media are touting rosy economic numbers as a reason to buy stocks. The supposedly stellar unemployment numbers overlook millions of jobless Americans who aren’t counted as officially unemployed. Be that as it may, economic indicators will ebb and flow in cycles.
What isn’t cyclical is the upward trajectory of the national debt and unfunded entitlement liabilities. The U.S. faces a long-term structural funding crisis.
This week, Medicare’s finances were downgraded in a report from the program’s trustees. Medicare’s hospital insurance fund is now projected to be depleted in 2026 – a full three years earlier than projected in the trustees report last year.
Meanwhile, the Social Security trustees forecast that the program’s so-called trust funds will be depleted in 2034. Social Security has already begun the process of depleting its reserves. Starting this year Social Security will have to dip into its trust fund in order to pay out benefits – an issue that was the subject of Congressional hearings this week.
Rep. Sam Johnson (R-TX): Social Security is in trouble, and its problems will only get worse.
Rep. John Larson (D-CT): Social Security is neither Democrat or Republican, it's American.
Fox Business News Anchor: Well, yeah, but is it broke? I mean, that's the question. The House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security holding a meeting this afternoon, revealing that the program will be forced to dip into its reserves this year…
At the heart of what was promised to us is a fraud, and that fraud is that your tax money, the money that you put in every week that goes into Social Security, is put in this “lockbox.” You actually had politicians talk about it.
The reality is that there is no Social Security lockbox or trust fund in the true sense of the term. Social Security’s assets consist of IOUs – essentially promises by the government to tax future workers who will fund the promised benefits.
The problem is that there won’t be enough workers paying enough taxes to support the growing wave of beneficiaries. That leaves politicians with the unpleasant choice of raising taxes or cutting benefits.
This week some members of Congress openly suggested reducing the real value of benefits by jury-rigging the Cost of Living Adjustment. It is currently tied to the Consumer Price Index – which itself already understates credible measures of real-world inflation.
The only other alternative for Washington is to print the tens of trillions of dollars needed to shore up Social Security and Medicare.
As such, investors should brace for some unpleasant combination of tax hikes, benefit reductions, and inflation as the entitlement crisis plays out in the years ahead.
Well now, without further delay, let’s get right to this week’s exclusive Money Metals interview.
Mike Gleason: It is my privilege now to welcome back Michael Pento, president and founder of Pento Portfolio Strategies and author of the book, The Coming Bond Market Collapse: How to Survive the Demise of the U.S. Debt Market. Michael is a well-known money manager and a fantastic market commentator, and over the past few years, has been a wonderful guest and one of our favorites here on the Money Metals Podcast. We always love getting his highly-studied Austrian economist viewpoint.
Michael, welcome back, and thanks for joining us again.
Michael Pento: Thanks for having me back on, Mike.
Mike Gleason: Well, Michael, we were struck by one statistic in particular in the latest edition of your always great Pentonomics commentary and we urge people to sign up for your email list, so they can start getting those themselves, if they're not doing that already. But in that piece, you referenced Chapter 11 bankruptcy spiking 63% in March versus the same month a year ago. This is a dramatic move, and it tells a very different story than the one people are hearing all day long on CNBC these days. You also mentioned the carnage in the retail sector, rising delinquencies in the subprime auto loans and other indicators, which are back to levels we last saw just before the 2008 financial crisis.
Meanwhile, the talking heads are going on about how strong the U.S. economy is, and to be fair, they can point at statistics such as unemployment, strong performance in the equities, at least until recently, consumer sentiments, and other positive signs. At this point, most Americans think the U.S. economy is in better shape and likely to get stronger, but we know at key turning points in the markets, most people wind up being wrong. Now, you are certainly sounding the alarm here, Michael, so give us your thoughts on the real state of the U.S. economy, and what are a couple of the key indicators, and what are those indicators telling you about what we should expect in the months ahead?
Michael Pento: Well, Mike, first of all, this kind of reminds me a little bit of maybe late 2007, early 2008. And I want to remind all your listeners that the economy entered a recession officially, for NBER rates recessions, in December of 2007. We were already in a recession at the end of 2007, but nobody really knew it. The stock market was still doing okay. And if you look at the metrics, some of the metrics that you quoted in that question still looked very well and fine and dandy, but underneath that ersatz construct, the economy was eroding very quickly. The yield curve had already inverted. Bank lending was drying up. And home prices were already in the process of rolling over. You fast-forward to today, and you can point to many things that will make you think the economy is doing well. You look at the JOLTS, Job Opening Labor Turnover construct. If you look at ISM Manufacturing surveys, we still have some time to go before this recession becomes absolutely, positively manifest.
But here's what's going on underneath. Let me just show you how, and let me try to prove to your listeners and your audience why this particular edifice is built of cards, this economic edifice is going to wash away. Let's just take a couple of things that I want to point out to your audience. In the wake of the Great Recession, it became clear to me that the level of asset prices along with the amount of debt outstanding in the world absolutely mandates that interest rates remain near 0% and never normalize. Otherwise, the entire artificial financial construct falls apart. This is the only thing keeping everything together. So, this is the rubber bands and tape and glue that's keeping Japan solvent, that's keeping the eurozone solvent, that's keeping China any semblance of solvency, and even in the United States.
Let me give you an example of what I'm talking about. If you look at the total value of equities as a percent of GDP, it's now at a record high, very close to 150%. If interest rates move too far off the zero bound, that ratio would close by the denominator, which is GDP, falling, but the numerator, which is asset prices, crashing much, much faster. Let me give you one more example. You touched on it a little bit when you mentioned business debt. Corporate debt as a percentage of GDP is also at a record high. These are nominal records and as a percentage of the economy. And also, the credit quality of that debt is at a record low. As this ratio contracts, what you'll see is GDP contracting again, but corporate debt defaulting in spades, which will manifest into a global recession/depression, which will be marked by rapid deflation. That is the condition of the global economy today. It's held together by artificially low rates, which are now in the process of being removed.
Don't forget, in the United States, QE ended in, I believe, 2014. QE ended. We have raised rates six times. There'll be a seventh rate increase next week. The ECB went from €80 billion per month to €30 billion. They'll probably end that program. We'll find out more next week. They'll probably end that program by the end of this year. And what you have is a condition when you have global debt as 330% of GDP, $230 trillion, up $70 trillion since the Great Recession. Interest rates are going to start to rise, because central banks have the hubris to believe that they solved all of the world's problems. And it is that rising debt, which is going to pop asset prices and pop corporate debt and personal debt and student loans and credit cards and leveraged loans, CLOs, these are all of the things that are going to pop simultaneously. It's going to happen very quickly. And unfortunately, I believe it is going to be much worse, the fallout is going to be much worse, than that of 2009.
Mike Gleason: People listening to this would say, "Well, why do they have to raise rates? Maybe they'll just stand where they are or go with the lower," but obviously there's a credibility factor here that's going to probably prevent them from reversing course, at least talking about the Fed. They've talked about raising interest rates. They're probably going to do it because their credibility is at stake. Isn't that fair to say?
Michael Pento: Well, first of all, they've already committed to raising rates, just look at their dot plot forecast, at least two more times this year, maybe three more times. Now, whether they go two more times, and they go in June and September, or June, September, and December, I don't know, but they're pretty much 100% committed to going next week in June. But here's the more important part. The Federal Reserve, this is not Michael Pento, the Federal Reserve has stated that the draining of its balance sheet, the selling of its assets, is a program that is on autopilot. And what that means is that currently it's 30 billion per month of asset sales, mortgage-backed securities and Treasuries, but that rises to 40 billion in July and goes to 50 billion a month in October. You're selling $600 billion worth of assets.
No matter what happens with the economy, they said that no matter what happens, they're not even going to talk about it. When Jerome Powell gets up next week and talks about his Fed funds rate hike, he's not going to really mention the balance sheet at all unless a reporter asks him, because he said that this is a program that's on autopilot. So, unless the stock market goes down 50% and the economy turns into a depression, this isn't even on the table. And this is one of the reasons why LIBOR's up from 0.3% to 2.35%. This is the reason why the 10-year Treasuries went from almost 1.5 to 3% on the 10-year note.
You see what's happening over today in the European bond market, where the governor came out on the ECB saying we are going to discuss the ending of our asset purchases in the June meeting. So, as central banks believe that they believe they are successful, Mike, because they're looking at the unemployment rate, which is now well below 4% on the U3 metric. And they're screaming, "Hey, look how great the economy is, and we've achieved our 2% inflation target, so let's withdraw the stimulus," and that is bursting the bond bubble, de facto bursting the bond bubble. That is causing and will lead up to the next great recession/depression.
I'm sure your audience is thinking, "Well, hey, why don't they just stop raising rates and draining the balance sheet?" Well, that I'm sure is going to happen after margin debt, which is at an all-time high, comes crashing down, after corporate debt gets slashed in half, after asset prices get cut in half. I'm sure that's going to happen. But you have to ask yourself the question, on the other side of that, just stopping to raise rates and just stopping to drain their balance sheet, is that going to be enough to immediately turn this global depression around? I don't think so, because we are starting off at debt levels and asset prices that have never before been witnessed. So, it's going to take something else, some other form of QE.
And by the way, and here's why I think they're so loath, Mike, to just immediately admit, "Hey, we can't normalize interest rates," because let's just say, Mike, that they get to their 1.75% on the Fed funds rate right now, and let's suppose they get to 2.25 or 2.5 before this whole thing starts crumbling. They never got to where they were even prior to the Great Recession, so the interest rates on the Fed funds rate were 5.25% [at that time]. Let's just say they get to 2.25 or 2.5. That means they're halfway to where they were before the Great Recession, and even at that point, 5.25 wasn't a normal Fed funds rate, which is more like 6%. So, basically, if the Fed has to come in and say, "We can't raise rates more than 2.25%," that basically a tacit admission saying, "The central bank of the United States can never normalize interest rates, and the balance sheet can never be drawn down." Basically, that's an admission that they have monetized this debt permanently.
You think you have 2% inflation now, wait until you see how high inflation goes when the Fed and the ECB and the Bank of Japan have to go back into QE and, well, not back into QE, but the Fed goes back into QE, and the ECB and the Bank of Japan can never really end QE at all and can never get off zero, and they have to start a whole new round of debt monetization. I mean, that will, I believe, crush the value of fiat currencies and the faith that investors have in them. That is why they're going to be so loath and very slow to go back into this next round of quantitative easing.
Mike Gleason: Given your thoughts that you think we'll see higher rates in the short-term here, what do you think that portends for the gold and silver markets, Michael? Some consider higher rates to be negative for gold markets, because gold does not offer yield, but gold has often done well in a rising rate environment. Now you've been optimistic about where gold is headed. Why do you think both gold and interest rates can move higher in lockstep?
Michael Pento: Well, it's not nominal rates that gold is primarily concerned with. It's concerned with real interest rates and the value of the currency. So, I run a portfolio. It's a dynamic portfolio. It's the inflation-deflation and growth portfolio. There are times when I'm overweight gold, 40% long gold. There are times when I have 5% gold or 10% gold. The gold market right now is suffering from two things. You have a rising U.S. dollar. It's been rising for the past several months. I've been long the dollar temporarily in my portfolio, in the model portfolio. Beyond that, gold doesn't like rising real interest rates. Well, nominal rates are rising, and they're rising faster than inflation in my view. So you have two things going against gold.
Now, on the other end of this manifestation of a recession, what you're going to find is you're going to see nominal rates falling much faster than deflation. So, you're going to have interest rates fall in real terms, and also the divergence in central bank monetary policies and the divergence, diversity in growth goes away. So, the U.S. dollar's going to weaken, and real interest rates will be falling shortly after the next recession manifests. That's why I believe you're picking up gold here…. gold is pretty much washed out, nobody's interested. I think I read a story this morning that the interest in ETFs is down 11% year-over-year. Nobody likes gold, but it can't seem to go much under $1,300 an ounce. And I think you've found a nice floor to accumulate gold in about a 10% position and wait for this dynamic to change. That's what I model, that's what I measure, and that's what I map. And when my model says it's time to go much longer of gold, that's when the portfolio will be 30, 40% gold, because the mining shares will skyrocket, probably like you've never seen before, once this happens.
Mike Gleason: Michael, where will all of these tariffs get us in terms of the dollar? I mean, that's another potential dynamic we haven't even discussed here, but it seems like the longer we antagonize the rest of the world with these types of actions, and more and more other nations will retaliate, even increasing their already robust efforts to sidestep the dollar in international trade. So, are we correct in thinking that this will have a damaging effect on the dollar long-term, or is that going overboard?
Michael Pento: Well, short-term, I believe that the dollar might benefit as a flight to safety, but in the long-term, look, you have eight ... I measured eight dynamics that are going to happen probably around the fall, which is going to lead me to get to the exit in a quick fashion. I mentioned the Fed already, and not only they're raising Fed funds rate, but they're also draining the balance sheet. That's affected interest rates, and I mentioned LIBOR. The repatriation of earnings from overseas is going to wear its course by the end of this year. The year-over-year earnings growth on the S&P 500 is probably going to go from 20-some-odd percent to zero or even negative, Q1 2019 over Q1 2018. Of course, I haven't even mentioned the federal budget deficit is going from 660 billion to over a trillion dollars this fiscal year, and then 1.2 trillion in 2019. I don't know who's going to buy all this debt when the Fed's out of the picture.
But yes, you mentioned, you mentioned the fact that we have the potential for trade wars. Now, we already saw tariffs being imposed on Canada and Mexico. Mexico retaliated recently. Middle of June, Mr. Trump's going to decide what he wants to do with China. China is the real enemy here as far as the people, and I know some of the people who serve with personally, Peter Navarro and Larry Kudlow. I've worked with them before. I know these people, especially in terms of Mr. Navarro. He blames China for nearly everything that's wrong with the United States, so there's a lot of pressure on Trump to impose more tariffs, not only just on our crumbling NAFTA neighbors but also on China. So, I believe that's going to exacerbate and expedite this next economic downturn.
So, basically you have to be here every day. You have to model the dynamics of the global geopolitical system. You have to have a model that maps the dynamics between inflation, deflation, and growth. That is the only way you're going to be successful in the long run. You can't just be 100% long gold and short the dollar all the time. You can't also be long the stock market all the time. This is another prediction I'm going to make. The return of active management is going to come back in dramatic fashion later this year and into 2019, because the buy and hold dollar, cost averaging, or just buy emerging markets, philosophy of investing is going to fail you badly.
Mike Gleason: On that point, that's definitely why people need to trust a professional like yourself when it comes to managing their finances. Just a little plug there for you, but as we begin to close here, Michael, any final thoughts about what you're going to be watching that maybe we haven't hit on? Also, I'm curious. Is there anything that may happen that could alter your thinking on how this might play out.
Michael Pento: Well, I'll tell you, Mike, as we wrap up, I want to tell you I'm very closely watching the devolution of the yield curve. You look at that 2-10 spread, it was 260 basis points not too long ago, and now it's just 40 basis points. That's the difference between the 10-year note and the 2-year note. I don't know how you can possibly have a Federal Reserve that's going to raise rates two or three times this year, and then three times next year, and not completely invert the yield curve. Just let me touch on that dynamic briefly. When the yield curve flattens out and inverts, all it means is that banks don't get paid for lending money. It actually costs them money to lend. And if it costs you money to lend, you stop lending money. And higher interest rates and a distressed consumer and a distressed corporate sector, a distressed municipal sector, a distressed government sector, and a flat or inverted yield curve, that is going to be the primary catalyst for the next recession/depression.
Now, what could change my mind? I guess if we have some kind of a inflation scare short-term, which really takes inflation way higher than 2% and brings that yield curve higher… but even in that case, Mike, you wouldn't have an inverted yield curve, but does anybody really believe that the real estate sector, record high home prices, home price to income ratios, which are pretty much at all-time highs, and people have been shut out of the refi market completely, does anybody really believe that spiking LIBOR and spiking 10-year note is going to help the economy just because the yield curve didn't invert? What I'm trying to say is that when you print money to the extent that central banks have printed to the tune of $160, $180 billion per month over the past few years, and you take interest rates around the globe into negative territory to the tune of about $16 trillion worth at its peak, the unwinding of that is going to be fraught with danger.
And I don't believe these people with their phony models that don't work and have never worked know what they are doing. When that dynamic changes, when you go from massively negative interest rates that extend around the globe, and when that changes, it tends to change in violent fashion. It does so with volatility, with currencies, with bonds, and with equities. And that's what's going to happen. Please stay tuned. I'll give you a plug. Stay tuned to this podcast, and hopefully you have a lot of people like me come on that are monitoring the situation, know that it's untenable, know that it's unsustainable, and will let you know when it's time to get the heck out of harm's way.
Mike Gleason: Yeah, very well put. We'll leave it there, and certainly can't wait to follow up with you again this fall as we might just see some of this stuff unfold. Thanks again for your great insights as always. We love getting your perspective on the state of things. And before we go, as we always do, please tell people who want to both read and hear more of your wonderful market commentaries and also learn about your firm, let them know how they can do all that.
Michael Pento: My website is PentoPort.com. You can email me directly at [email protected]. You go to the website. You could subscribe to the podcast, comes out every Wednesday night. It's only $49.99, or better than that, become a client, and I'll specifically take care of your retirement needs and make sure that you survive and thrive during the coming chaos. The number here for the office is 732-772-9500.
Mike Gleason: Well, thanks again, Michael. I hope you enjoy your summer, and we look forward to talking to you again before long. Keep up the good work.
Michael Pento: Thank you, Mike.
Mike Gleason: Well that will wrap it up for this week, thanks again to Michael Pento of Pento Portfolio Strategies. For more information visit PentoPort.com. You can sign up for his email list, get that podcast and get his fantastic market commentaries on a regular basis. Again, just go to PentoPort.com.
And don't forget to tune in here next Friday for next Weekly Market Wrap Podcast, until then this has been Mike Gleason with Money Metals Exchange, thanks for listening and have a great weekend everybody