The financial commentariat and the robo-machines are all in a tizzy this morning because Gary Cohn up and quit. But we say good riddance: The man gave Trump bad advice on nearly every single issue—trade, taxes, fiscal policy and the Fed.
We didn’t make any bones about that viewpoint during our appearance on Fox Business this AM. When Maria Bartiromo asked us about Cohn’s departure, our reply was: Hallelujah, the Goldman Sachs Regency in the White House is finally over!
The fact is, we do have a trade crisis, but Gary Cohn and the Wall Street pseudo-free traders don’t care and never have. That’s because they fiercely support a perverted, self-serving monetary regime that systematically and massively inflates financial assets, even as it strip mines and deflates the main street economy.
As we have been pointing out in this series, there is a perverse symbiosis between the Fed and the Dirty Float central banks of the 10 major countries (China, Vietnam, Mexico, Japan, etc), which account for 90% of the nation’s $810 billion trade deficit (2017). Together they have ripped the guts out of the US industrial economy—effectively sending jobs and production abroad and cash flow and liquidated capital to Wall Street.
For its part, the Fed has monkey-hammered US competitiveness. That’s the result of its insensible 2.00% inflation policy, which has fatally inflated nominal dollar wages in a world market drowning in cheap labor priced in artificially under-valued currencies.
At the same time, its massive interest rate repression and price-keeping operations in the stock market have turned the C-suites of corporate America into financial engineering joints. So doing, they have slashed real net business investment by nearly 3o% since the turn of the century, by 20% from the 2007 pre-crisis peak and, actually, to a level in 2016 that barely exceeded real net investment two decades earlier in 1997.
Meanwhile, the C-suites shuttled upwards of $15 trillion of cash flow and debt capacity during the last decade alone into stock buybacks, vanity M&A deals and excess dividends and recaps. As we said in today’s Fox interview, America’s business leaders will not stop strip-mining their companies in order to juice Wall Street and goose their own stock options until they are taken to the woodshed by a stern task-master at the Fed.
By that we mean a central bank that is willing to get out of the financial asset price propping and pegging business, and to thereby permit the kind of stock market collapse that would finally expose the folly of corporate America’s endless financial engineering. Indeed, at this point nothing else will stop them except being run out of their jobs for massive dissipation of corporate resources and piling their balance sheets high with unproductive debt.
Yet until there is a clean sweep at the Fed and a purging of today’s crop of financial engineers and speculators from the C-suites, there is no possible way to reverse the nation’s faltering trade accounts. Doing so would require a major revival of investment in facilities, equipment, technology, people and business innovation that simply isn’t in the cards in today’s casino.
Yesterday we mentioned that the US has incurred a massive and widening trade deficit for 43 years running, and that the cumulative shortfall totals $15 trillion. But much of that reflects long-ago dollars that have since been inflated away by the Fed’s relentless effort to stimulate more inflation.
Accordingly, if that 43-year string of trade deficits is re-priced in 2016 dollars of purchasing power, the horror shows is just all the more stunning. To wit, the US economy has incurred nearly $19 trillion of cumulative trade deficits since 1975 in today’s purchasing power.
Is there any wonder that US manufacturing output is still 2.5% below its pre-crisis level of late 2007, and that total industrial production including energy, mining and utilities has barely returned to the flat line?
In this context, one of the chief culprits responsible for those dismal results is the trillions of cheap debt-fueled M&A deals that occur annually, and which cause massive layoffs, facility closures and asset reductions in the name of short-run “synergies”.
Of course, all of this booming M&A is supposed to represent the noble work of productivity enhancement and the efficiencies fostered by the so-called market for “corporate control”. And it would in a world of honest money and free market financial discipline.
But just the opposite is true under the Fed’s destructive regime of financial asset inflation. Overwhelmingly, M&A has become a vanity project of empire-building boards and CEOs, who then slash investments and necessary operating costs in order to deliver paint-by-the numbers “synergies” and to service their bloated debts. In effect, they shrink the GDP, not expand it.
At length, of course, these so-called synergies get lost in the fog of time and new deals, even as they eventually morph into reduced capacity for long-term growth, employment, competitiveness and profits. And when M&A deals eventually fail, the mountains of goodwill created by these over-priced transactions get written off, while plants, equipment and people get “restructured” into what Wall Street is pleased to call “one-time costs” that are to be added-back to ex-items “earnings”.
Likewise, the fetish of share-buybacks is not reflective of the free market at work, either, even as Wall Street risibly proclaims that companies are “returning capital to shareholders” because it is the “highest and best” use of available cash.
No it’s not!
In a technologically dynamic world where continuous heavy investment is a prime facie condition for sustainable growth, the cult of stock buybacks would better be described as the grim reaper of corporate finance. In fact, it is part and parcel of the ultra-speculative climate on Wall Street and in the corporate C-suites alike that has been fostered by the Bubble Finance policies of central bankers.
It is now almost universally the case that scalping short-term profits and virtually overnight trading gains is what is driving the casino. So how in the world did Trump get convinced that borrowing $1.5 trillion to slash the corporate tax rate to 21% would “stimulate” anything except an orgy of stock buybacks and financial engineering?
Indeed, if any exclamation mark was needed on the departure of Goldman’s current plenipotentiary in the White House, this morning’s announcement that February brought an all-time record of $153 billion of stock buyback announcements was surely it.
At the current annualized run rates, stock buybacks at $800 billion plus upwards of $2 trillion of domestic M&A deals and hundreds of billions more of LBOs, leveraged recaps and special dividends will pump $3.5 trillion of cash back into the canyons of Wall Street this year.
Did Gary Cohn explain this to the Donald?
Nah, it was his job to make sure nothing got in the way.
At the same time that corporate America is being strip-minded by Wall Street and the C-suites, US workers also have one foot on the banana peel of inadequate corporate investment in productivity enhancing tools, technology and training; and one-arm tied behind their backs owing to the drastic inflation of nominal wages.
But the latter has done nothing more than help some keep up in part or whole with the Fed’s 2.00% inflation, while relegating many others to outright jobs losses—owing to them being off-shored to the China Price for goods and the India Price for services.
Thus, since the year 2000, nominal wages of US production and nonsupervisory workers (blue line) are up by nearly 60%, which has not helped them one bit because consumer price inflation (green line) has been nearly as high.
Accordingly, real weekly wages of prime age male workers (orange line) have actually flat-lined for the past 17 years.
In the interim, of course, US goods and services production has been massively off-shored. And this trend has been acutely compounded by the systematic under-valuation of currencies by the 10 great trade offenders described yesterday.
To repeat, the US does $4 trillion of combined export and import business with the rest of the world each year. About $2 trillion of that is spread among approximately 150 countries where trade is evenly balanced as between about $1 trillion of imports and exports each.
For the most part, the counties involved such as Canada, the UK, the Scandinavian nations, Brazil etc. have not attempted to trash their own currencies any faster than the Fed has inflated its own dollar liabilities. That means they defended themselves from the Fed’s rampant expansion of US dollar liabilities, but did not take advantage of it to justify outright exchange rate suppression and mercantilist export promotion.
By contrast, the other $2 trillion of trade is accounted for by just 10 countries, of which China, Vietnam and Mexico account for over half. Yet among the Dirty Float Ten, US exports in 2017 amounted to only $625 billion, while imports from these countries were more than double that figure at $1.352 trillion.
Stated differently, US exports to the Dirty Float 10 amounted to just 46% of imports from them. And that absurd imbalance is not remotely due to faltering capitalist enterprise on main street or bad trade deals made in Washington.
To the contrary, the real US trade problem is a monetary problem that can only be cured by regime change in the Eccles Building.
While we have little hope that this reality will ever penetrate the orange comb-over, there is still a double dose of “good news” (of sorts) in today’s contretemps.
To wit, Gary Cohn didn’t get the Fed Chairman’s job, which would have made all of this far worse. And Goldman Sachs has finally been purged from the Oval Office.
There’s that—and it’s at least something.