Why the Stock Market is so Good when the Economy is so Bad

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 31st, 2014

Economics 101

No One is going to get Rich by Buying and Selling only one Share of Stock

It takes money to make money.  I’m sure we all heard that before.  If you want to ‘flip’ a house you need money for a down payment to get a mortgage first.  If you want to start a business you need to save up some money first.  Or borrow it from a family member.  And if you want to get rich by playing the stock market you need money.  A lot of money.  Because you only make money by selling stocks.  And before you can sell them you have to buy them.

Stock prices may go up and down a lot.  But over a period of time the average stock price may only increase a little bit.  So if you bought one share of stock at, say, $35 and sold it later at, say, $37.50 that’s a gain of 7.14%.  Which is pretty impressive.  Just try to earn that with a savings account at a bank.  Of course, you only made a whopping $2.50.  So no one is going to get rich by buying and selling only one share of stock.

However, if you bought 10,000 shares of a stock at $35/share and then sold it later at $37.50 that’s a whole other story.  Your initial stock purchase will cost you $350,000.  And that stock will sell for $375,000 at $37.50/share.  Giving you a gain of $25,000.  Let’s say you make 6 buys and sells in a year like this with the same money.  You buy some stock, hold it a month or so and then sell it.  Then you use that money to buy some more stock, hold it for a month or so and then sell it.  Assuming you replicate the same 7.14% stock gain through all of these transactions the total gain will come to $150,000.  And if you used no more than your original investment of $350,000 during that year that $350,000 will have given you a return on investment of 42.9%.  This is why the rich get richer.  Because they have the money to make money.  Of course, if stock prices move the other way investors can have losses as big as these gains.

Rich Investors benefit most from the Fed’s Quantitative Easing that gives us Near-Zero Interest Rates

Rich investors can make an even higher return on investment by borrowing from a brokerage house.  He or she can open a margin account.  Deposit something of value in it (money, stocks, option, etc.) and use that value as collateral.  This isn’t exactly how it works but it will serve as an illustration.  In our example an investor could open a margin account with a value of $175,000.  So instead of spending $350,000 the investor can borrow $175,000 from the broker and add it to his or her $175,000.  Bringing the total stock investment to $350,000.  Earning that $25,000 by risking half of the previous amount.  Bringing the return on investment to 116.7%.  But these big returns come with even bigger risks.  For if your stock loses value it can make your losses as big as those gains.

Some investors borrow money entirely to make money.  Such as carry trades.  Where an investor will borrow a currency from a low-interest rate country to invest in the currency of a higher-interest rate country.  For example, they could borrow a foreign currency at a near zero interest rate (like the Japanese yen).  Convert that money into U.S. dollars.  And then use that money to buy an American treasury bond paying, say, 2%.  So they basically borrow money for free to invest.  Making a return on investment without using any of his or her money.  However, these carry trades can be very risky.  For if the yen gains value against the U.S. dollar the investor will have to pay back more yen than they borrowed.  Wiping out any gain they made.  Perhaps even turning that gain into a loss.  And a small swing in the exchange rate can create a huge loss.

So there is big money to make in the stock market.  Making money with money.  And investors can make even more money when they borrow money.  Making money with other people’s money.  Something rich investors like doing.  Something rich investors can do because they are rich.  For having money means you don’t have to use your money to make money.  Because having money gives you collateral.  The ability to use other people’s money.  At very attractive interest rates.  In fact, it’s these rich investors that benefit most from the Fed’s quantitative easing that is giving us near-zero interest rates.

People on Wall Street are having the Time of their Lives during the Obama Administration

We are in the worst economic recovery since that following the Great Depression.  Yet the stock market is doing very well.  Investors are making a lot of money.  At a time when businesses are not hiring.  The labor force participation rate has fallen to levels not seen since the Seventies.  People can’t find full-time jobs.  Some are working a part-time job because that’s all they can find.  Some are working 2 part-time jobs.  Or more.  Others have just given up trying to find a full-time job.  People the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) no longer counts when calculating the unemployment rate.

This is the only reason why the unemployment rate has fallen.  If you add the number of people who have left the labor force since President Obama took office to the number the BLS reports as unemployed it would bring the unemployment rate up to 13.7% ((10,459,000 + 10,854,000)/155,724,000) at the end of February.  So the economy is still horrible.  No secret to those struggling in it.  And the median family who has seen their income fall.  So why is the stock market doing so well when businesses are not?  When profitable businesses operations typically drive the stock market?  For when businesses do well they grow and hire more people.  But businesses aren’t growing and hiring more people.  So if it’s not profitable businesses operations raising stock prices what is?  Just how are the rich getting richer when the economy as a whole is stuck in the worst economic recovery since that following the Great Depression?

Because of near zero interest rates.  The Fed has lowered interest rates to near zero to purportedly stimulate the economy.  Which it hasn’t.  When they could lower interest rates no more they started their quantitative easing.  Printing money to buy bonds on the open market.  Flooding the economy with cheap money.  But people aren’t borrowing it.  Because the employment picture is so poor that they just aren’t spending money.  Either because they don’t have a job.  Only have a part time job.  Or are terrified they may lose their job.  And if they do lose their job the last thing they want when unemployed is a lot of debt they can’t service.  And then there’s Obamacare.  Forcing people to buy costly insurance.  Leaving them less to spend on other things.  And increasing the cost of doing business.  Another reason not to hire people.

So the economy is going nowhere.  And because of the bad economy businesses have no intentions of spending or expanding.  So they don’t need any of that cheap money.  So where is it going?  Wall Street.  The only people who are borrowing and spending money.  They’re taking that super cheap money and they’re using it to buy and sell stocks.  They’re buying and selling like never before.  Making huge profits.  Thanks to other people’s money.  This is what is raising stock prices.  Not profitable businesses operations.  But investors bidding up stock prices with borrowed money.  The people on Wall Street are having the time of their lives during the Obama administration.  Because the Obama administration’s policies favor the rich on Wall Street.  Whose only worry these days is if the Fed stops printing money.  Which will raise interest rates.  And end the drunken orgy on Wall Street.  Which is why whenever it appears the Fed will taper (i.e., print less money each month) their quantitative easing because the economy is ‘showing signs of improvement’ investors panic and start selling.  In a rush to lock in their earnings before the stock prices they inflated come crashing down to reality.  For without that ‘free’ money from the Fed the orgy of buying will come to an end.  And no one wants to be the one holding on to those inflated stocks when the bubble bursts.  When there will be no more buyers.  At least, when there will be no more buyers willing to buy at those inflated stock prices.  Which is why investors today hate good economic news.  For there is nothing worse for an investor in the Obama economy than a good economy.

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Bretton Woods System, Quasi Gold Standard, Inflation, Savings, Nixon Shock and Monetizing the Debt

Posted by PITHOCRATES - February 4th, 2014

History 101

(Originally published 2/5/2013)

The Bretton Woods System was a quasi Gold Standard where the U.S. Dollar replaced Gold

Government grew in the Sixties.  LBJ’s Great Society increased government spending.  Adding it on top of spending for the Vietnam War.  The Apollo Moon Program.  As well as the Cold War.  The government was spending a lot of money.  More money than it had.  So they started increasing the money supply (i.e., printing money).  But when they did they unleashed inflation.  Which devalued the dollar.  And eroded savings.  Also, because the U.S. was still on a quasi gold standard this also created a problem with their trade partners.

At the time the United States was still in the Bretton Woods System.  Along with her trade partners.  These nations adopted the U.S. dollar as the world’s reserve currency to facilitate international trade.  Which kept trade fair.  By preventing anyone from devaluing their currency to give them an unfair trade advantage.  They would adjust their monetary policy to maintain a fixed exchange rate with the U.S. dollar.  While the U.S. coupled the U.S. dollar to gold at $35/ounce.  Which created a quasi gold standard.  Where the U.S. dollar replaced gold.

So the U.S. had a problem when they started printing money.  They were devaluing the dollar.  So those nations holding it as a reserve currency decided to hold gold instead.  And exchanged their dollars for gold at $35/ounce.  Causing a great outflow of gold from the U.S.  Giving the U.S. a choice.  Either become responsible and stop printing money.  Or decouple the dollar from gold.  And no longer exchange gold for dollars.  President Nixon chose the latter.  And on August 15, 1971, he surprised the world.  Without any warning he decoupled the dollar from gold.  It was a shock.  So much so they call it the Nixon Shock.

To earn a Real 2% Return the Interest Rate would have to be 2% plus the Loss due to Inflation

Once they removed gold from the equation there was nothing stopping them from printing money.  The already growing money supply (M2) grew at a greater rate after the Nixon Shock (see M2 Money Stock).  The rate of increase (i.e., the inflation rate) declined for a brief period around 1973.  Then resumed its sharp rate of growth around 1975.  Which you can see in the following chart.  Where the increasing graph represents the rising level of M2.

M2 versus Retirement Savings

Also plotted on this graph is the effect of this growth in the money supply on retirement savings.  In 1966 the U.S. was still on a quasi gold standard.  So assume the money supply equaled the gold on deposit in 1966.  And as they increased the money supply over the years the amount of gold on deposit remained the same.  So if we divide M2 in 1966 by M2 in each year following 1966 we get a declining percentage.  M2 in 1966 was only 96% of M2 in 1967.  M2 in 1966 was only 88% of M2 in 1968.  And so on.  Now if we start off with a retirement savings of $750,000 in 1966 we can see the effect of inflation has by multiplying that declining percentage by $750,000.  When we do we get the declining graph in the above chart.  To offset this decline in the value of retirement savings due to inflation requires those savings to earn a very high interest rate.

Interest Rate - Real plus Inflation

This chart starts in 1967 as we’re looking at year-to-year growth in M2.  Inflation eroded 4.07% of savings between 1966 and 1967.   So to earn a real 2% return the interest rate would have to be 2% plus the loss due to inflation (4.07%).  Or a nominal interest rate of 6.07%.  The year-to-year loss in 1968 was 8.68%.  So the nominal interest rate for a 2% real return would be 10.68% (2% + 8.68%).  And so on as summarized in the above chart.  Because we’re discussing year-to-year changes on retirement savings we can consider these long-term nominal interest rates.

Just as Inflation can erode someone’s Retirement Savings it can erode the National Debt

To see how this drives interest rates we can overlay some average monthly interest rates for 6 Month CDs (see Historical CD Interest Rate).  Which are often a part of someone’s retirement nest egg.  The advantage of a CD is that they are short-term.  So as interest rates rise they can roll over these short-term instruments and enjoy the rising rates.  Of course that advantage is also a disadvantage.  For if rates fall they will roll over into a lower rate.  Short-term interest rates tend to be volatile.  Rising and falling in response to anything that affects the supply and demand of money.  Such as the rate of growth of the money supply.  As we can see in the following chart.

Interest Rate - Real plus Inflation and 6 Month CD

The average monthly interest rates for 6 Month CDs tracked the long-term nominal interest rates.  As the inflationary component of the nominal interest rate soared in 1968 and 1969 the short-term rate trended up.  When the long-term rate fell in 1970 the short-term rate peaked and fell in the following year.  After the Nixon Shock long-term rates increased in 1971.  And soared in 1972 and 1973.  The short-term rate trended up during these years.  And peaked when the long-term rate fell.  The short term rate trended down in 1974 and 1975 as the long-term rate fell.  It bottomed out in 1977 in the second year of soaring long-term rates.  Where it then trended up at a steeper rate all the way through 1980.  Sending short-term rates even higher than long-term rates.  As the risk on short-term savings can exceed that on long-term savings.  Due to the volatility of short-term interest rates and wild swings in the inflation rate.  Things that smooth out over longer periods of time.

Governments like inflationary monetary policies.  For it lets them spend more money.  But it also erodes savings.  Which they like, too.  Especially when those savings are invested in the sovereign debt of the government.  For just as inflation can erode someone’s retirement savings it can erode the national debt.  What we call monetizing the debt.  For as you expand the money supply you depreciate the dollar.  Making dollars worth less.  And when the national debt is made up of depreciated dollars it’s easier to pay it off.  But it’s a dangerous game to play.  For if they do monetize the debt it will be very difficult to sell new government debt.  For investors will demand interest rates with an even larger inflationary component to protect them from further irresponsible monetary policies.  Greatly increasing the interest payment on the debt.  Forcing spending cuts elsewhere in the budget as those interest payments consume an ever larger chunk of the total budget.  Which governments are incapable of doing.  Because they love spending too much.

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The Obama Recovery is Good for Wall Street but Bad for Main Street

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 18th, 2014

Week in Review

The December jobs report was pretty bleak.  It showed that the unemployment rate fell to 6.7% and that the economy added 74,000 jobs.  Not great but good enough for some who say that President Obama’s policies are finally working after 5 some years of trying.  Which is ridiculous.  Because that unemployment rate doesn’t tell you how many people lost their jobs.  And how many people disappeared from the civilian labor force as they gave up trying to find work that just isn’t there.  Which hides the number of people who lost their jobs.  Because the Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t count anyone as unemployed if they are no longer looking for work.  But if you dig down into the jobs report you’ll find this data.  And see that for every person that entered the labor force about seven people left it in December (see The BLS Employment Situation Summary for December 2013 posted January 13th, 2014 on PITHOCRATES).  Which is anything but an economic recovery.

All during the Obama presidency the Federal Reserve has been stimulating the economy.  Right out of the Keynesian handbook.  By keeping interest rates near zero to encourage people to borrow money to buy things they don’t need.  But few have.  No.  The only people borrowing that money are rich investors.  Who are borrowing this ‘free’ money to spend in the stock market.  Helping Wall Street to do very well during the worst economic recovery since that following the Great Depression.  While Main Street sees their median family income fall.  Still the chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, thinks he did a heck of a job (see Bernanke Says QE Effective While Posing No Immediate Bubble Risk by Jeff Kearns and Joshua Zumbrun posted 1/16/2014 on Bloomberg).

Bernanke is seeking to define his legacy before stepping down on Jan. 31. During his eight-year tenure as leader of the Fed he piloted the economy through a financial crisis that led to the longest recession since the 1930s. He has tried to bolster growth by holding the target interest rate near zero and pushing forward with unprecedented bond buying known as QE.

“Those who have been saying for the last five years that we’re just on the brink of hyperinflation, I think I would just point them to this morning’s CPI number and suggest that inflation is not really a significant risk of this policy,” Bernanke said, referring to a Labor Department report showing the consumer price index rose 1.5 percent in the past year. The Fed has set an inflation target of 2 percent…

The Federal Open Market Committee (FDTR) announced plans last month to reduce monthly purchases to $75 billion from $85 billion, citing improvement in the labor market. The jobless rate last month fell to 6.7 percent, a five-year low.

The only reason why we don’t have hyperinflation is that everyone has depreciated their currency so much to boost exports and pay for bloated welfare states that all currencies are losing value.  And of all these bad currencies the American currency is the least bad of the lot.  Which is why some foreign nationals will pay to park their money in American banks.  Because the risk of it losing its value is so much greater in their home country.

But that doesn’t mean inflation hasn’t reared its ugly head in the US economy.  Just go to a grocery store and look at a bag of chips.  Or a box of cookies.  Or any packaged item that didn’t seem to get overly expensive during the Obama recession. A bag of chips may be the same $3-4 it was before the recession.  But notice the size of the bag.  It’s gotten smaller.  So, yes, consumer prices have not shown great inflation.  But packaging has gotten smaller.  So instead of paying more for the same quantity we are paying the same price for a lesser quantity.  Which means we may be buying 4 of something in a month instead of 3 of something.  It adds up.  Which is why there are so many more people on food stamps.  The Bernanke inflation is taking more of our paycheck to buy what it once did.

The economy is horrible.  Fewer people are in the labor force with each jobs report.  Our grocery packaging is shrinking.  And once the Fed stops its bond buying the stock market is going to fall.  A lot.  For every time rich investors think the economic data will show solid economic activity what do they do?  They sell their stocks.  Causing a stock market fall.  Why?  Why would investors leave the stock market when the data say the economy is getting stronger?  Which seems to go against common sense?  Because they know there’s been only one thing helping them get rich during the Obama presidency.  That ‘free’ money.  Once that source of cheap money goes away they will sell before those inflated stock prices fall back to earth.

The Obama recovery.  Good for Wall Street.  Bad for Main Street.

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The Opportunity Cost of Debt

Posted by PITHOCRATES - September 16th, 2013

Economics 101

Housing Sales drive the Economy because almost Everything for Sale is for the Household

Once upon a time the rule of thumb was to buy the most expensive house we could possibly afford.  We saved 20% for a down payment on a conventional mortgage.  We lived on a shoestring budget and paid our mortgage no matter what.  Even if we had to live on meatloaf and macaroni and cheese for the next five years.  Or longer.  We did this because we would be paying that mortgage payment for 30 years.  And though tough at first during those 30 years we advanced in our careers.  And made more money along the way.  Making that mortgage payment easier to pay as time went by.

So that was the way it used to be.  And it was that way for a long time.  Until the Federal Reserve started playing with interest rates to stimulate economic activity.  Altering the banking system forever.  Instead of encouraging people to save their money so banks could loan money to homebuyers they printed money.  Flooded the market with it.  Ignited inflation.  And caused housing bubbles.  Then the government took it up a notch.

Housing sales drive the economy.  Almost everything for sale is for the household.  Furniture and appliances.  Beds and ceiling fans.  Tile and paint.  Cleaning supplies and groceries.  Dishes and cutlery.  Pots and pans.  Towels and linen.  Lawnmowers and weed-whackers.  Decks and patio furniture.  When people buy a house they start buying all of these things.  And more.  Creating a lot of economic activity with every house sold.  So the government did everything they could to encourage home ownership.  And few governments did more than the Clinton administration.  By applying pressure on lenders to qualify the unqualified for mortgages.  Which gave us the subprime mortgage crisis.

Lenders used Subprime Lending to Qualify the Unqualified to Comply with the Clinton Administration

People in poor neighbors tended to be poor.  And unable to qualify for a mortgage because they couldn’t afford the house payments.  When these poor people happened to be black the Clinton administration said the banks were racist.  They were redlining.  And advised these lenders that if they don’t start qualifying these people who couldn’t afford a house that the full weight of the government will make things difficult for them to remain in the lending business.  So they complied with the Clinton administration.  Using subprime lending to put people into homes they couldn’t afford.

The main reason why people can’t afford to buy a house is the size of the mortgage payment.  Which can be pretty high if they can’t afford much of a down payment.  So these lenders used special mortgages to bring that monthly payment down.  The adjustable rate mortgage (ARM).  Which had a lower interest rate than conventional mortgages.  Because they could raise it later if interest rates rose.  Zero-down mortgages.  Which eliminated the need for a down payment.  Coupled with an ARM when interest rates were low could put a poor person into a good sized house.  No-documentation loans.  Which removed the trouble of having to document your earnings to prove you will be able to make your house payment.  Making it easier to approve applicants when you don’t have to question what they write on their application.  Interest-only loans where you only had to pay the interest for, say, 5 years.  Greatly reducing the size of the monthly payment.  But after those 5 years you had to pay that loan back in full with a new mortgage for the full value of the house.  Which may be more costly in 5 years.

So these lenders were able to meet the Clinton administration directive.  They were putting people into homes they couldn’t afford.  Just barely.  These people had house payments they could just barely afford.  Thanks to the low interest rate of their ARM.  But then interest rates rose.  Making those mortgage payments unaffordable.  With zero-down they had little to lose by walking away.  And a lot of them did.

The Interest on the Debt is so large we have to Borrow Money to Pay for the Cost of Borrowing Money

Buying a house is a huge investment.  One that we finance.  That is, we borrow money.  Sometimes a lot of it.  Because we don’t want to wait and save money for a down payment.  And because we want so much right now we buy as much as we can with those borrowings.  Doing whatever we can to lower the monthly payment.  With little regard to long-term costs.  For example, assume a fixed 30-year interest rate of 4.5%.  And we finance a $150,000 house with zero down.  Because we have saved nothing.  The monthly payment will be $790.03.  But if we waited until we saved enough for a 10% down payment that monthly payment will only be $684.03.  And if we saved enough for 20% down the monthly payment will only be $608.02.  That’s $182.01 less each month.  The total interest paid over the life of this mortgage for zero down, 10% down and 20% down is $123,610.07, $111,249.06 and $98,888.05, respectively.  Adding that to the price of the house brings the total cost for that house to $273,010.07, $246,249.06 and $218,888.05, respectively.  So if we wait until we save a 20% down payment we will be able to buy a $150,000 house and $54,723.02 of other stuff during those 30 years.  This is the opportunity cost of debt.

We are better off the less we finance.  Because long-term debts are with us for a long time.  And they don’t go away if we lose our job.  Or if interest rates go up.  Like with an ARM.  A large driver of the subprime mortgage crisis.  Let’s see what was happening before the housing bubble burst.  Let’s say we could buy that $150,000 house with a zero down mortgage with an adjustable interest rate of 2%.  Giving us a monthly payment of $554.43.  Very affordable.  Which helped get a lot of people into houses they couldn’t afford.  But then the interest rate went up.  And what did that do to someone who could just barely pay their house payment when it was $554.43?  Well, if it reset to 4% that payment increased to $716.12 ($161.69 more per month).  If it reset to 6% that payment increased to $899.33 ($344.90 more per month).  Bringing the total cost of the house to $323,757.28 ($150,000 principle + 173,757.28 interest).  Which is why a lot of these people walked away from these houses.  There was just no way they could afford them at these higher interest rates.

Interest payments on long-term debt at high interest rates can overwhelm a borrower.  Making the Clinton administration’s Policy Statement on Discrimination in Lending insidious.  It destroyed people’s lives.  Putting them into houses they couldn’t afford with subprime lending.  But if you think that’s bad consider the national debt.  These are long-term obligations just like mortgages.  And currently we owe $16,738,533,025,135.63 (as of 9/13/2013).  At an interest rate of 3.9% the annual interest we must pay on this debt comes to $652,802,787,980.29.  That’s $652.8 billion.  Which is more than we spend on welfare ($430.4 billion).  Almost what we spend on Social Security ($866.3 billion).  And more than half of the federal deficit ($972.9 billion).  This is the opportunity cost of debt.  It limits what we can spend elsewhere.  On welfare.  Social Security.  Etc.  The interest on the debt has grown so large that we even have to borrow money to pay for the cost of borrowing money.  And there is only one way this can end.  Just like the subprime mortgage crisis.  Only worse.

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Capital Markets, IPO, Bubbles and Stock Market Crashes

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 22nd, 2013

Economics 101

Entrepreneurs turn to Venture Capitalists because they Need a Lot of Money Fast

It takes money to make money.  Anyone who ever started a business knows this only too well.  For starting a money-making business takes money.  A lot of it.  New business owners will use their lifesavings.  Mortgage their home.  Borrow from their parents.  Or if they have a really good business plan and own a house with a lot of equity built up in it they may be able to get a loan from a bank.  Or find a cosigner who is willing to pledge some collateral to secure a loan.

Once the business is up and running they depend on business profits to pay the bills.  And service their debt.  If the business struggles they turn to other sources of financing.  They pay their bills slower.  They use credit cards.  They draw down their line of credit at their bank.  They go back to a parent and borrow more money.  A lot of businesses fail at this point.  But some survive.  And their profits not only pay their bills and service their debt.  But these profits can sustain growth.

This is one path.  Entrepreneurs with a brilliant new invention may need a lot of money fast.  To pay for land, a large building for manufacturing, equipment and tooling, energy, waste disposal, packaging, distribution and sales.  And all the people in production and management.  This is just too much money for someone’s lifesavings or a home mortgage to pay for.  So they turn to venture capital.  Investors who will take a huge risk and pay these costs in return for a share of the profits.  And the huge windfall when taking the company public.  If the company doesn’t fail before going public.

The Common Stockholders take the Biggest Risk of All who Finance a Business

As a company grows they need more financing.  And they turn to the capital markets.  To issue bonds.  A large loan broken up into smaller pieces that many bond purchasers can buy.  Each bond paying a fixed interest rate in return for these buyers (i.e., creditors) taking a risk.  Businesses have to redeem their bonds one day (i.e., repay this loan).  Which they don’t have to do with stocks.  The other way businesses raise money in the capital markets.   When owners take their business public they are selling it to investors.  This initial public offering (IPO) of stock brings in money to the business that they don’t have to pay back.  What they give up for this wealth of funding is some control of their business.  The investors who buy this stock get dividends (similar to interest) and voting rights in exchange for taking this risk.  And the chance to reap huge capital gains.

The common stockholders take the biggest risk in financing a business.  (Preferred stockholders fall between bondholders and common stockholders in terms of risk, get a fixed dividend but no voting rights.)  In exchange for that risk they get voting rights.  They elect the board of directors.  Who hire the company’s officers.  So they have the largest say in how the business does its business.  Because they have the largest stake in the company.  After all, they own it.  Which is why businesses work hard to please their common stockholders.  For if they don’t they can lose their job.

During profitable times the board of directors may vote to increase the dividend on the common stock.  But if the business is not doing well they may vote to reduce the dividend.  Or suspend it entirely.  What will worry stockholders, though, more than a reduced dividend is a falling stock price.  For stockholders make a lot of money by buying and selling their shares of stock.  And if the price of their stock falls while they’re holding it they will not be able to sell it without taking a loss on their investment.  So a reduced dividend may be the least of their worries.  As they are far more concerned about what is causing the value of their stock to fall.

Investors make Money by Buying and Selling Stocks based on this Simple Adage, “Buy Low, Sell High.”

A business only gets money from investors from the IPO.  Once investors buy this stock they can sell it in the secondary market.  This is what drives the Dow Jones Industrial Average.  This buying and selling of stocks between investors on the secondary market.  A business gets no additional funding from these transactions.  But they watch the price of their stock very closely.  For it can affect their ability to get new financing.  Creditors don’t want to take all of the risk.  Neither do investors. They want to see a mix of debt (bonds) and equity (stocks).  And if the stock price falls it will be difficult for them to raise money by issuing more stock.  Forcing them to issue more bonds.  Increasing the risk of the creditors.  Which raises the bond interest rate they must pay to attract creditors.  Which makes it hard for the business to raise money to finance operations when their stock price falls.  Not to mention putting the jobs of executive management at risk.

Why?  Because this is not why venture capitalists risk their money.  It is not why investors buy stock in an IPO.  They take these great risks to make money.  Not to lose money.  And the way they expect to get rich is with a rising stock price.  Business owners and their early financers get a share of the stock at the IPO.  For their risk-taking.  And the higher the stock trades for after the IPO the richer they get.  When the stock price settles down after a meteoric rise following the IPO the entrepreneurs and their venture capitalists can sell their stock at the prevailing market price and become incredibly rich.  Thanks to a huge capital gain in the price of the stock.  At least, that is the plan.

But what causes this huge capital gain?  The expectations of future profitability of the new public company.  It’s not about what it is doing today.  But what investors think they will be doing tomorrow.  If they believe that their new product will be the next thing everyone must have investors will want to own that stock before everyone starts buying those things.  So they can take that meteoric rise along with the stock price.  As this new product produces record profits for this business.  So everyone will bid up the price because the investors must have this stock.  Just as they are sure consumers will feel they must have what this business sells.  When there are a lot of companies competing in the same technology market all of these tech stock prices can rise to great heights.  As everyone is taking a big bet that the company they’re buying into will make that next big thing everyone must have.  Causing these stocks to become overvalued.  As these investors’ enthusiasm gets the better of them.  And when reality sets in it can be devastating.

Investors make money by buying and selling stocks.  The key to making wealth is this simple adage, “Buy low, sell high.”  Which means you don’t want to be holding a stock when its price is falling.  So what is an investor to do?  Sell when it could only be a momentary correction before continuing its meteoric rise?  Missing out on a huge capital gain?  Or hold on to it waiting for it to continue its meteoric rise?  Only to see the bottom fall out causing a great financial loss?  The kind of loss that has made investors jump out of a window?  Tough decision.  With painful consequences if an investor decides wrong.  Sometimes it’s just not one individual investor.  If a group of stocks are overvalued.  If there is a bubble in the stock market.  And it bursts.  Look out.  The losses will be huge as many overvalued stocks come crashing down.  Causing a stock market crash.  A recession.  A Great Recession.  Even a Great Depression.

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Bretton Woods System, Quasi Gold Standard, Inflation, Savings, Nixon Shock and Monetizing the Debt

Posted by PITHOCRATES - February 5th, 2013

History 101

The Bretton Woods System was a quasi Gold Standard where the U.S. Dollar replaced Gold

Government grew in the Sixties.  LBJ’s Great Society increased government spending.  Adding it on top of spending for the Vietnam War.  The Apollo Moon Program.  As well as the Cold War.  The government was spending a lot of money.  More money than it had.  So they started increasing the money supply (i.e., printing money).  But when they did they unleashed inflation.  Which devalued the dollar.  And eroded savings.  Also, because the U.S. was still on a quasi gold standard this also created a problem with their trade partners.

At the time the United States was still in the Bretton Woods System.  Along with her trade partners.  These nations adopted the U.S. dollar as the world’s reserve currency to facilitate international trade.  Which kept trade fair.  By preventing anyone from devaluing their currency to give them an unfair trade advantage.  They would adjust their monetary policy to maintain a fixed exchange rate with the U.S. dollar.  While the U.S. coupled the U.S. dollar to gold at $35/ounce.  Which created a quasi gold standard.  Where the U.S. dollar replaced gold.

So the U.S. had a problem when they started printing money.  They were devaluing the dollar.  So those nations holding it as a reserve currency decided to hold gold instead.  And exchanged their dollars for gold at $35/ounce.  Causing a great outflow of gold from the U.S.  Giving the U.S. a choice.  Either become responsible and stop printing money.  Or decouple the dollar from gold.  And no longer exchange gold for dollars.  President Nixon chose the latter.  And on August 15, 1971, he surprised the world.  Without any warning he decoupled the dollar from gold.  It was a shock.  So much so they call it the Nixon Shock.

To earn a Real 2% Return the Interest Rate would have to be 2% plus the Loss due to Inflation

Once they removed gold from the equation there was nothing stopping them from printing money.  The already growing money supply (M2) grew at a greater rate after the Nixon Shock (see M2 Money Stock).  The rate of increase (i.e., the inflation rate) declined for a brief period around 1973.  Then resumed its sharp rate of growth around 1975.  Which you can see in the following chart.  Where the increasing graph represents the rising level of M2.

M2 versus Retirement Savings

Also plotted on this graph is the effect of this growth in the money supply on retirement savings.  In 1966 the U.S. was still on a quasi gold standard.  So assume the money supply equaled the gold on deposit in 1966.  And as they increased the money supply over the years the amount of gold on deposit remained the same.  So if we divide M2 in 1966 by M2 in each year following 1966 we get a declining percentage.  M2 in 1966 was only 96% of M2 in 1967.  M2 in 1966 was only 88% of M2 in 1968.  And so on.  Now if we start off with a retirement savings of $750,000 in 1966 we can see the effect of inflation has by multiplying that declining percentage by $750,000.  When we do we get the declining graph in the above chart.  To offset this decline in the value of retirement savings due to inflation requires those savings to earn a very high interest rate.

Interest Rate - Real plus Inflation

This chart starts in 1967 as we’re looking at year-to-year growth in M2.  Inflation eroded 4.07% of savings between 1966 and 1967.   So to earn a real 2% return the interest rate would have to be 2% plus the loss due to inflation (4.07%).  Or a nominal interest rate of 6.07%.  The year-to-year loss in 1968 was 8.68%.  So the nominal interest rate for a 2% real return would be 10.68% (2% + 8.68%).  And so on as summarized in the above chart.  Because we’re discussing year-to-year changes on retirement savings we can consider these long-term nominal interest rates.

Just as Inflation can erode someone’s Retirement Savings it can erode the National Debt

To see how this drives interest rates we can overlay some average monthly interest rates for 6 Month CDs (see Historical CD Interest Rate).  Which are often a part of someone’s retirement nest egg.  The advantage of a CD is that they are short-term.  So as interest rates rise they can roll over these short-term instruments and enjoy the rising rates.  Of course that advantage is also a disadvantage.  For if rates fall they will roll over into a lower rate.  Short-term interest rates tend to be volatile.  Rising and falling in response to anything that affects the supply and demand of money.  Such as the rate of growth of the money supply.  As we can see in the following chart.

Interest Rate - Real plus Inflation and 6 Month CD

The average monthly interest rates for 6 Month CDs tracked the long-term nominal interest rates.  As the inflationary component of the nominal interest rate soared in 1968 and 1969 the short-term rate trended up.  When the long-term rate fell in 1970 the short-term rate peaked and fell in the following year.  After the Nixon Shock long-term rates increased in 1971.  And soared in 1972 and 1973.  The short-term rate trended up during these years.  And peaked when the long-term rate fell.  The short term rate trended down in 1974 and 1975 as the long-term rate fell.  It bottomed out in 1977 in the second year of soaring long-term rates.  Where it then trended up at a steeper rate all the way through 1980.  Sending short-term rates even higher than long-term rates.  As the risk on short-term savings can exceed that on long-term savings.  Due to the volatility of short-term interest rates and wild swings in the inflation rate.  Things that smooth out over longer periods of time.

Governments like inflationary monetary policies.  For it lets them spend more money.  But it also erodes savings.  Which they like, too.  Especially when those savings are invested in the sovereign debt of the government.  For just as inflation can erode someone’s retirement savings it can erode the national debt.  What we call monetizing the debt.  For as you expand the money supply you depreciate the dollar.  Making dollars worth less.  And when the national debt is made up of depreciated dollars it’s easier to pay it off.  But it’s a dangerous game to play.  For if they do monetize the debt it will be very difficult to sell new government debt.  For investors will demand interest rates with an even larger inflationary component to protect them from further irresponsible monetary policies.  Greatly increasing the interest payment on the debt.  Forcing spending cuts elsewhere in the budget as those interest payments consume an ever larger chunk of the total budget.  Which governments are incapable of doing.  Because they love spending too much.

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Phillips Curve

Posted by PITHOCRATES - September 17th, 2012

Economics 101

A High Savings Rate provides Abundant Capital for Banks to Loan to Businesses

Time.  It’s what runs our lives.  Well, that, and patience.  Together they run our lives.  For these two things determine the difference between savings.  And consumption.  Whether we have the patience to wait and save our money to buy something in the future.  Like a house.  Or if we are too impatient to wait.  And choose to spend our money now.  On a new car, clothes, jewelry, nice dinners, travel, etc.  Choosing current consumption for pleasure now.  Or choosing savings for pleasure later.

We call this time preference.  And everyone has their own time preference.  Even societies have their own time preferences.  And it’s that time preference that determines the rate of consumption and the rate of savings.  Our parents’ generation had a higher preference to save money.  The current generation has a higher preference for current consumption.  Which is why a lot of the current generation is now living with their parents.  For their parents preference for saving money over consuming money allowed them to buy a house that they own free and clear today.  While having savings to live on during these difficult economic times.  Unlike their children.  Whose consumption of cars, clothes, jewelry, nice dinners, travel, etc., left them with little savings to weather these difficult economic times.  And with a house they no longer can afford to pay the mortgage.

A society’s time preference determines the natural rate of interest.  A higher savings rate provides abundant capital for banks to loan to businesses.  Which lowers the natural rate of interest.  A high rate of consumption results with a lower savings rate.  Providing less capital for banks to loan to businesses.  Which raises the natural interest rate.  High interest rates make it more difficult for businesses to borrow money to expand their business than it is with low interest rates.  Thus higher interest rates reduce the rate of job creation.  Or, restated another way, a low savings rate reduces the rate of job creation.

The Phillips Curve shows the Keynesian Relationship between the Unemployment Rate and the Inflation Rate

Before the era of central banks and fiat money economists understood this relationship between savings and employment very well.  But after the advent of central banking and fiat money economists restated this relationship.  In particular the Keynesian economists.  Who dropped the savings part.  And instead focused only on the relationship between interest rates and employment.  Advising governments in the 20th century that they had the power to control the economy.  If they adopt central banking and fiat money.  For they could print their own money and determine the interest rate.  Making savings a relic of a bygone era.

The theory was that if a high rate of savings lowered interest rates by creating more capital for banks to loan why not lower interest rates further by just printing money and giving it to the banks to loan?  If low interests rates were good lower interest rates must be better.  At least this was Keynesian theory.  And expanding governments everywhere in the 20th century put this theory to the test.  Printing money.  A lot of it.  Based on the belief that if they kept pumping more money into the economy they could stimulate unending economic growth.  Because with a growing amount of money for banks to loan they could keep interest rates low.  Encouraging businesses to keep borrowing money to expand their businesses.  Hire more people to fill newly created jobs.  And expand economic activity.

Economists thought they had found the Holy Grail to ending recessions as we knew them.  Whenever unemployment rose all they had to do was print new money.  For the economic activity businesses created with this new money would create new jobs to replace the jobs lost due to recession.   The Keynesians built on their relationship between interest rates and employment.  And developed a relationship between the expansion of the money supply and employment.  Particularly, the relationship between the inflation rate (the rate at which they expanded the money supply) and the unemployment rate.  What they found was an inverse relationship.  When there was a high unemployment rate there was a low inflation rate.  When there was a low unemployment rate there was a high inflation rate.  They showed this with their Phillips Curve.  That graphed the relationship between the inflation rate (shown rising on the y-axis) and the unemployment rate (shown increasing on the x-axis).  The Phillips Curve was the answer to ending recessions.  For when the unemployment rate went up all the government had to do was create some inflation (i.e., expand the money supply).  And as they increased the inflation rate the unemployment rate would, of course, fall.  Just like the Phillips Curve showed.

The Seventies Inflationary Damage was So Great that neither Technology nor Productivity Gains could Overcome It

But the Phillips Curve blew up in the Keynesians’ faces during the Seventies.  As they tried to reduce the unemployment rate by increasing the inflation rate.  When they did, though, the unemployment did not fall.  But the inflation rate did rise.  In a direct violation of the Phillips Curve.  Which said that was impossible.  To have a high inflation rate AND a high unemployment rate at the same time.  How did this happen?  Because the economic activity they created with their inflationary policies was artificial.  Lowering the interest rate below the natural interest rate encouraged people to borrow money they had no intention of borrowing earlier.  Because they did not see sufficient demand in the market place to expand their businesses to meet.  However, business people are human.  And they can make mistakes.  Such as borrowing money to expand their businesses solely because the money was cheap to borrow.

When you inflate the money supply you depreciate the dollar.  Because there are more dollars in circulation chasing the same amount of goods and services.  And if the money is worth less what does that do to prices?  It increases them.  Because it takes more of the devalued dollars to buy what they once bought.  So you have a general increase of prices that follows any monetary expansion.  Which is what is waiting for those businesses borrowing that new money to expand their businesses.  Typically the capital goods businesses.  Those businesses higher up in the stages of production.  A long way out from retail sales.  Where the people are waiting to buy the new products made from their capital goods.  Which will take a while to filter down to the consumer level.  But by the time they do prices will be rising throughout the economy.  Leaving consumers with less money to spend.  So by the times those new products built from those capital goods reach the retail level there isn’t an increase in consumption to buy them.  Because inflation has by this time raised prices.  Especially gas prices.  So not only are the consumers not buying these new goods they are cutting back from previous purchasing levels.  Leaving all those businesses in the higher stages of production that expanded their businesses (because of the availability of cheap money) with some serious overcapacity.  Forcing them to cut back production and lay off workers.  Often times to a level below that existing before the inflationary monetary expansion intended to decrease the unemployment rate.

Governments have been practicing Keynesian economics throughout the 20th century.  So why did it take until the Seventies for this to happen?  Because in the Seventies they did something that made it very easy to expand the money supply.  President Nixon decoupled the dollar from gold (the Nixon Shock).  Which was the only restraint on the government from expanding the money supply.  Which they did greater during the Seventies than they had at any previous time.  Under the ‘gold standard’ the U.S. had to maintain the value of the dollar by pegging it to gold.  They couldn’t depreciate it much.  Without the ‘gold standard’ they could depreciate it all they wanted to.  So they did. Prior to the Seventies they inflated the money supply by about 5%.  After the Nixon Shock that jumped to about 15-20%.  This was the difference.  The inflationary damage was so bad that no amount of technological advancement or productivity gains could overcome it.  Which exposed the true damage inflationary Keynesian economic policies cause.  As well as discrediting the Phillips Curve.

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The Bank of India to Reverse its Monetary tightening and Resume Inflationary Expansion

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 4th, 2012

Week in Review

After battling inflation in India for over a year the Bank of India is ready to reverse course.  To halt the decline in their export market growth rate.  With some inflationary Keynesian policy (see Factory growth eases, but keeps healthy pace in Feb by Sumanta Dey posted 3/1/2012 on Reuters).

…employment contracted for the first time in three months and export orders grew at their slowest pace since November…

Price pressures also rose, with the sub-index for output prices, or the cost of finished products, hitting an 11-month high, and the survey suggests inflation could tick up.

A fall in the headline inflation, as measured by the wholesale price index, to 6.55 percent in January, its lowest level in more than two years, had raised expectations the Reserve Bank of India could start easing policy.

After 13 rate rises to stamp out inflation in between March 2010 and October 2011, the central bank signalled in January it was shifting its focus to growth by cutting the cash reserve requirements for banks by 50 basis points.

Clearly with falling export orders the rise in prices isn’t due to demand.  This rise in prices is inflation driven.  Something they’re no stranger to in India.  And something very Keynesian.  Thirteen interest rate hikes in about 19 months?  That’s about one rate increase every month and a half.  That’s some serious monetary tightening.  And now that inflation is down to 6.55% they’re ready to ease policy.  With some inflationary policy.  By lowering bank reserve requirements.  To expand the money supply via fractional reserve banking.  Which will, no doubt, increase prices further.  As inflation tends to do.

By lowering interest rates they are encouraging Indian manufacturing to borrow and expand production.  To meet a falling demand.  And what happens when businesses expand production amidst a falling demand?  Well, in Japan and the United States that resulted in some nasty asset bubbles.  That brought on some long and unpleasant deflation.  Will this happen in India?  It could.  And may.  Unless some markets open up to absorb any increase in supply.  But with the European Union and the United States still limping along and a Chinese export market competing head to head with the Indians, that’s not likely going to happen.

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Classical Greece, Persian Empire, Hellenistic Period, Roman Empire, Italian Renaissance, Venice, Florence and Government Bonds

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 17th, 2012

History 101

The High Cost of Mercenary Soldiers and a Bloated Bureaucracy brought down the Western Roman Empire

Classical Greece dates back to the 5th century BC.  Lasted about 200 years.  And was the seed for Western Civilization.  Classical Greece was a collection of Greek city-states.  There was no Greek nation-state like the nation of Greece today.  The city-states were independent.  And often waged war against each other.  Especially Sparta and Athens.  Athens is where we see the beginnings of Western Civilization.  Sparta was a city-state of warriors.  While Athens kicked off science, math and democracy, Sparta bred warriors.  And boys trained from an early age.  Or were abandoned to die in the wilderness.

Adjacent to Classical Greece was the great Achaemenid Empire.  The First Persian Empire.  The empire of Cyrus the Great.  Which extended from the eastern Mediterranean all the way to India.  Some of those Greek city-states were on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean.  Did not like Persian rule.  And the Ionians revolted.  Supported by Athens.  The Ionian Revolt (499 BC) was the first in a series of Greco-Persian Wars.  Persia’s Darius the Great was tiring of the Greek’s insolence.  And set out to conquer the Greek mainland.  Only to get turned back at the Battle of Marathon.  His son Xerxes returned to Greece to complete the work his dad started.  King Leonidas of Sparta delayed him at the Battle of Thermopylae for three days.  But he defeated the vastly outnumbered Spartans and marched on to Athens.  Where he sacked the abandoned city.  But he would lose the subsequent Battle of Salamis naval engagement.  Losing his navy.  Forcing Xerxes to retreat.

The Greek city-states united to fight their common enemy.  And won.  With the common enemy defeated, Sparta and Athens returned to fighting each other.  In the Peloponnesian War.  Where Sparta emerged the dominant power.  But the constant fighting weakened and impoverished the region.  Making it ripe for conquest.  And that’s exactly what Phillip of Macedon did.  He conquered the great Greek city-states.  And Phillip’s son, Alexander the Great, succeeded his father and went on to conquer the Persian Empire.  Creating the great Hellenistic Period.  Where the known world became Greek.  Then Alexander died.  And his empire broke up.  Then the Romans rose and pretty much conquered everyone.  And the known world became Romanized.  Built upon a Greek foundation.  Until the western part of that empire fell in 476 AD.  Due in large part to the high cost of mercenary soldiers.  And a bloated bureaucracy.  That was so costly the Romans began to debase their silver coin with lead.  To inflate their currency to help them pay their staggering bills.

In Exchange for these Forced Loans the City-States Promised to Pay Interest

The history of the world is a history of its wars.  People fought to conquer new territory so they could bring riches back to their capital.  Or to defend against someone trying to conquer their territory.  And take their riches.  Taking riches through conquest proved to be a reliable system of public finance.  For the spoils of war financed many a growing empire.  It financed the Roman Empire.  And when they stopped pushing out their borders they lost a huge source of revenue.  Which is when they turned to other means of financing.  Higher taxes.  And inflation.  Which didn’t end well for them.

With the collapse of the Western Roman Empire the world took a step backwards.  And Europe went through the Dark Ages.  To subsistence farming on small manors.  The age of feudalism.  Serfs.  Wealthy landowners.  And, of course, war.  As the Dark Ages drew to a close something happened in Italy.  At the end of the 13th century.  The Italian Renaissance.  And the rise of independent Italian city-states.  Florence.  Siena.  Venice.  Genoa.  Pisa.  Much like the Greek city-states, these Italian city-states were in a state of near constant war with each other.  Expensive wars.  That they farmed out to mercenaries.  To expand their territory.  And, of course, to collect the resulting spoils of war.  These constant wars cost a pretty penny, though.  And built mountains of debt.  Which they turned to an ingenious way of financing.

These Italian city-states could not pay for these wars with taxes alone.  For the cost of these wars was greater than their tax revenue.  Leading to some very large deficits.  Which they financed in a new way.  They forced wealthy people to loan them money.  In exchange for these loans these city-states promised to pay interest.

Renaissance Italy gave us Government Bonds and a new way for a State to Live Beyond its Means

The vehicle they used for these forced loans was the government bond.  Used first by the Italian city-states of Venice and Florence.  Which were very similar to today’s government bonds.  Other than the being forced to buy them part.  The bond had a face value.  An interest payment.  And the bondholders could then buy and sell them on a secondary market.   The market set interest rates then as they do now.  The market determined the likelihood of the city-state being able to pay the interest.  And whether they would be able to redeem their bonds.

When there was excessive outstanding debt and/or war threatening a city-state’s ability to service their debt interest rates rose.  And the face value of existing bonds fell.  Because if the state fell these bonds would become worthless.  When state coffers were full and peace rang out interest rates fell.  And bond prices rose.  Because with a stable state their existing bonds would still be good.  Just like today.  So if you’re into government bonds you can thank Renaissance Italy.  And their wars.  Which gave birth to a whole new way for a state to live beyond its means.

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Standard & Poor lowers the Credit Rating for Nine European Countries

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 15th, 2012

Week in Review

Interest rates are subject to the laws of supply and demand.  The more questionable a borrower looks to be able to repay the loan the higher the interest rate.  Because there is a low supply of people willing to loan to such risky borrowers.  So they have to offer higher rates to get people to take a greater risk.

When S&P took away America’s AAA rating this did not happen, though.  Not because America was immune to the laws of supply and demand in the bond market.  But because Europe had even bigger problems.  And they just got worse (see S&P cuts credit ratings for France, Italy, Spain by JAMEY KEATEN posted 1/14/2012 on Yahoo! News).

Standard & Poor’s swept the debt-ridden European continent with punishing credit downgrades Friday, stripping France of its coveted AAA status and dropping Italy even lower. Germany retained its top-notch rating, but Portugal’s debt was consigned to junk.

In all, S&P, which took away the United States’ AAA rating last summer, lowered the ratings of nine countries, complicating Europe’s efforts to find a way out of a debt crisis that still threatens to cause worldwide economic harm.

Austria also lost its AAA status, Italy and Spain fell by two notches, and S&P also cut ratings on Malta, Cyprus, Slovakia and Slovenia.

Some are arguing that this won’t impact the Eurozone bailout.  Because of the austerity measures the troubled countries have taken.  But it doesn’t help.  It just pushes the final resolution of the Eurozone debt crisis further out.  And probably makes it more unpleasant.

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