Panic at the Fed, Queen Calls for Water War, Food Prices Rise, Gold Forecast, and More!

Posted On Mar 11, 2008 By

by Addison Wiggin & Ian Mathias

  • Fed fright… Bernanke sets up multibillion-dollar emergency CDO bailout
  • Even the queen is worried about water… her majesty on the next “potential conflict”
  • Food prices lead explosive Chinese inflation… plus charts showing food prices in U.S. growing rapidly
  • Has The 5 reversed its gold prediction? Bill Bonner on the future of precious metal prices
  • Plus, “the John Galt plan to save the economy”

 

You have to admit, widespread panic at the Fed is entertaining.

One week after calling “Mulligan” on the entire mortgage bubble, Bernanke is suggesting we pass the entire mess onto the next generation. God forbid the baby boomers ever take responsibility for their own actions.

The Federal Reserve announced this morning that it will make an additional $200 billion available to strapped lending institutions. But instead of firing up the printing presses and going about business as usual, the Fed has unveiled a whole new plot, and a handy acronym to go with it: Term Securities Lending Facility (TSLF).

The new initiative, like the old Term Auction Facility (TAF), will provide short-term loans to distressed financial institutions. But instead of enticing banks with cheap interest rates, the Fed is now offering to swap mortgage-backed securities for U.S. Treasuries.

Thus, a bank swelling with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac paper and other “AAA” mortgage-backed assets can unload it on the Fed for the next 28 days. The Fed wants banks to take that money and lend to the masses, thus stimulating the economy. No word yet how much additional debt it will take for the government to absorb this mess.

The new TSLFs will begin on March 27.

U.S. markets loved this idea. The Dow leapt up like a leopard after a gazelle on the news — up 2% within minutes of the announcement this morning.

And not a moment too soon, Jim Cramer would say. Yesterday, the Dow lost 1.2% in its fifth day of losses out of six. The S&P 500 and Nasdaq were down 1.5% and 2%, respectively.


Yesterday was an ugly day for homebuilders. Hovnanian reported contracts for the first quarter were down 41% from the same period last year. The actual dollar value of those contracts fell as well, by 50% year over year. For the first quarter, the homebuilder reported a net loss of $130 million… twice the size of its first-quarter loss in 2007.

Another homebuilder feeling the housing pinch, KB Home, announced its closing operations in New Mexico, Illinois, Maryland and Virginia. The company posted a $772 million loss in the fourth quarter, 15 times the size of its fourth-quarter losses in 2006.

Do you think it’s possible that Queen Elizabeth II of England is reading The 5? If not, she’s getting awfully close to plagiarizing one of our drumbeat themes.

“The competition for fresh water by a growing population is itself becoming a source of potential conflict,” the queen warned her subjects yesterday. Her majesty shared a few words on Commonwealth Day regarding precarious scenarios surrounding the Nile. “This river is a fragile ecosystem and its vulnerability grows with the number of people dependent upon it, so that a single incident of pollution upstream may affect the lives of countless numbers downstream.”

“Water is going to be a priced commodity,” the U.K.’s chief scientific adviser echoed last week. He warned that food and water security could be “enormous problems” as the crisis slowly develops. Here, here. Harrumph… grumble. Ha-hem.

In the U.S., water isn’t as sparkling clean as you’d like to think. A five-month study conducted by The Associated Press found trace levels of ibuprofen, antibiotics, anti-convulsants, antidepressants… even sex hormones in the drinking water of at least 41 million Americans.

Among the hundreds of different drugs found floating in U.S. tap water, the AP reported that all were far too diluted to be considered medically useful. Darn. For what it’s worth, Philadelphia fared the worst… over 56 pharmaceuticals were found in Philly tap.

Your editors have been looking for an excuse to drink more wine and coffee anyway. Cheers.

Chinese consumer inflation grew at a stunning 8.7% in February — its fastest pace in 11 years. Food prices alone in China boomed 23% in a 12-month period ending last month. According to Bloomberg, pork prices are up 63%.

The Chinese central bank has raised rates six times over the past year, up to 7.4%, but to no avail. Rapid growth, an undervalued currency, all shades of farming crisis, a gnarly winter storm and loss of arable land to ineffective transport solutions are all factors with which even the most organized central government would have a bitch contending.

Then again, food prices in the U.S. aren’t faring much better. We present this chart, courtesy of The Boston Globe:

“As the prices of food commodities rise,” writes our crisis and opportunity champion Chris Mayer, “companies are starting to make changes to how they produce your food. This you might not want to know. Sara Lee, for example, is reformulating its breads using cheaper, lower-protein wheat.

“Food producers across the board face stiff increases in the price of certain commodities. Campbell’s Soup will cut back on the number of ingredients it uses in its soups. Some companies have much less wiggle room. If you’re Hershey’s, for example, you’ve got to worry. Hershey’s relies on expensive commodities such as milk, sugar and cocoa. There’s not a lot you can do. If you’re Tyson Foods, you need grains, which are trading near record highs.

“Commodities may face a nasty pullback, given the sharp rise in prices lately. But on the other hand, given the fall in the dollar and flow of money into commodities, it seems to me that commodity prices will only head higher.”

The U.S. dollar is doing its part to keep the commodity boom alive, too. The dollar index shimmied down to yet another record low this morning: 72.4.

The euro inched a bit further into the record high level of $1.54. The pound remains on the high end of $2.01. But the yen backed off a bit… down to 102.

Oil rolled right through previous record highs yesterday, to a new all-time high this morning of $108.

“The U.S. economy is, indeed, showing further signs of slowdown,” commented a slightly panicky spokesman from the International Energy Agency (IEA) today. “We are in an era of higher oil prices. If we look at $100 per barrel of oil, we have to do so with an understanding that prices are unlikely to return to levels seen in the early part of this decade.” You really think?

The IEA went on to lower its demand forecast for 2008, but only by a very small margin. Currently, the agency expects demand to grow 2% this year. Its expects gasoline demand to slow with the economy too.

Let’s hope so. U.S. gas prices have reached a new all-time average high of $3.23. Hawaiians are already paying $3.60 per gallon. Californians, $3.58.

Diesel has reached a record high of $3.84.

Gold rebounded this morning from yesterday’s sell-off. Spot prices shot up $20 over the past 24 hours, to a price this morning of $985 per ounce.

“Do I detect a subtle ‘changing of gears,’” asks a reader, “in your notorious bull posture with respect to gold? Seems several of you folks are taking a CYA (cover your ass) position recently?”

The 5 responds to this reader: Busted. Our position with respect to gold is only a marketing ploy to get you to buy our newsletters. Too bad it’s gone up 390% since we began recommending it at $253 in early 2000. You would have been much better off investing in tech stocks back then… and piling all your profits into real estate. Sorry to have inconvenienced you with our opinions. Thanks for reading all the same.

The 5’s response, if you’re not a cynical jackass: Of course, we get nervous when any asset we’re recommending goes up almost 400%. Show me an investor or analyst who isn’t trying to “cover their ass” every day. As our Ed Bugos points out, “Nothing goes up in a straight line.” But while a short-term correction is likely, nothing has changed with respect to the long-term case.

Here’s our most “notorious” gold bull, Bill Bonner, with an attempt to explain why:

“Even at today’s price around $975, gold is still less than half the inflation-adjusted high it set the year Ronald Reagan moved into the White House. And think of all that has happened since then! For one thing, more gold has come onto the market. Gold is never destroyed or used up. Still, an additional ounce of it is much harder to make than a crisp, new $100 bill. You have to find it and then dig it up out of the ground. That’s why the world’s gold supply increases only about 2-3% per year.

“But the supply of the paper money — in which gold is calibrated — goes up much, much faster, at least four or five times as fast over the past 30 years. And the world’s assets — also measured in paper money — have skyrocketed too. Our houses are worth three, five, 10 times as much as they were in the early Reagan years. So are our stocks. What’s more, now there are trillions of dollars worth of tradable financial assets in places where none existed at all in ’79 — such as in India, China and the former Soviet Union.

“Gold began floating on this flood of liquidity nine years ago. It has doubled… and doubled again. Since 2001, it has gone up 240%. Since Ben Bernanke began cutting rates on Sept. 18, 2007, it has gone up 37%. And if you believe in the volume theory of money — and we do — you can reasonably expect its price to keep going up. Gold is, ultimately, money, and it is also the world’s ultimate money. Adjusted for inflation, it will have to go up to $2,500 or so, just to match the peak set in 1980.

“Most likely, it will go far further; we’re no longer young and foolish enough to think we know where.”

“Your reader who suggested he stop paying his mortgage,” opines our last reader today, “was onto something. For those too young to remember the savings and loan bailout, the only way to get the attention of the Resolution Trust Corp., the government bailout agency, was to stop making payments.

“The only people who could even make offers on the loans were the politically connected, which probably explains why our dear politicians never passed any legislation to prevent a repeat. The Keating Five and the Clintons and Whitewater were just some better-known examples. I speak from experience, having spent two years trying to buy the loan for a large apartment complex from the RTC.”

The 5: Caroline Baum suggests as much in a recent column on Bloomberg. “Any day,” she writes, “I expect some government official to unveil the John Galt plan to save the economy.” Galt, if you’re not familiar, is the iconic hero of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged — an entrepreneur, tired of government meddling, goes on strike and encourages his fellow producers to do the same. Once the world starts falling apart, the government kidnaps Galt and asks him what they should do. His plan to save the economy: “Get out of the way.”

“Today’s economic and financial crisis,” resumes Baum, “would resolve itself more quickly and efficiently if the government got out of the way. Yes, there would be pain. Some banks would fail. Others would clamp down on credit to atone for the years of lax lending standards. Homeowners-in-name-only would become renters. Housing prices would fall until speculators found value.

“That’s not going to happen. The bigger the mess, the more urgent the calls for a government solution, the more willing government is to oblige.

“We want laissez-faire capitalism in good times and a government backstop against losses in bad times. It’s a tough way to run an economy.”

Cheers,

Addison Wiggin,
The 5 Min. Forecast


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