Friday, December 17, 2010

Does The Republic Still Stand? Part Three: Not Really

If by "Republic," you mean Goldman Sachs, then yes it's doing really really well, so well that "still standing" is more like "surveying the world in a towering, thrustingly Brobdingnagian manner." Patient and perceptive Phil over at Perils of Caffeine in the Evening asked in the comments section of Part Two of this series, seems about a month ago (it is), "Does this mean I should buy Goldman's new 50-year bonds?" That's a great question, Phil. Let's share a virtual martini before I advise you to sell out your entire Berkshire Hathaways position.

Goldman's first $1.3 Bill bond issue, originally priced at 6.25%, was so oversubscribed that the final yield went down to 6.125% and the instruments sold out in about 5 minutes. So for practical purposes the question now becomes, will Goldman issue more? Either way, it's important to supplicate the Beast, one bond issue being neither here nor there, so I recommend setting up a large and handsome altar in your front yard, erecting an imposing and permanent Buddha statue not less than 8 feet high with burning incense and shiny flags sticking out at trapezoidally proper angles, and a laminated picture of patron saint Hank Paulson's face lovingly hung over Buddha's. If that's too much for you, a stopgap for the holiday season would be flashing lights that say "WELCOME, GOLDMAN! SACHS TOO!" hung in your front window instead of the outmoded "MERRY CHRISTMAS."

Now that we've had that virtually refreshing pause, I am about to channel the Ghosts of Stock Markets Past in trading floor lingua fracas, circa 1989. One of my mentors, or more accurately a guide through hell, happened to be a 32nd-degree Master Mahan of Fuck-Speak, a true virtuoso and the only person I've met who used "infuckitively" as a word. Forgive me in advance, though I'll censor out the dirty stuff:

"Phil-Phil! I hear you wanna buy those big swingin' Goldmans! C'mon, though, a measly 50 year term? You *%(#*#@ kiddin' me? If Goldman Sucks wanted to really tell the other banks to go $#$^ their grandmothers, those pompinos woulda gone with 100-year bonds straight outta the *&^# and paid, I dunno, let's say 6.66%. HahahaHAAA!! {Grand Master playfully punches you in left shoulder, making you nearly fall down.}Well I say *%(# 'em, buncha friggin finocchies playin' widdemselves, only sold, what, like rat shit, $1.3 bill last month? Whaddathey, *%(#^*&@^ Germany? *%(#^*%&* Switzerland? Goddammit, this is America! My Aunt Mary coulda made more than that blowin' sailors! Ya never know, maybe the *&$(%&(#%^s find the #^*&^s to ante up, so me personally, I'm gonna hold out for those big 100-year marangas and go in-fucking-finite. {Grand Master holds two cupped hands up and well out in front of his chest, indicating sign language for gigantic firm female breasts, and makes corresponding antic gestures.} But with that ass-raping 5-year call on the 50s? They can %*(% the $%(* outta my @##*&@^&$%^& @#%$^&$#!"
Emerson once wrote, "A man must be clothed in society, or he shall feel a certain bareness and poverty." One must naturally incline to agree whilst endeavoring to be more than a mere collection of personal vices, but on a trading floor everyone,  your friends most of all, attempts to rip that social clothing off and lay you bare. Reasons for doing so are the usual boredom, depravity and sadism, of course, but it's also because the sharp point of a market is a deeply cynical place, and your only real purpose for being there is to make money. A market is a collection of arguments over value, and real fistfights are apt to break out at any time. I've seen them, and once saw a grown man fake a heart attack to avoid being physically attacked. I've also seen a real heart attack, sex in the bathroom, suspiciously white nostrils, a famous trader taken from the floor in handcuffs by Giuliani's goons, and a close-up video of a female broker giving birth played from every TV on the floor. The last one made everybody stop what they were doing and more than one man in my presence had to wipe tears from his face, and another said "Dat's da most byootiful ting I eva seen!" Markets are like Geiger counters for emotion.

A big reason for all the undressing is that the most dangerous and expensive commodity in a market is bullshit so credible it makes you lose all your money. Most of the people working the floor around me grew up on the corners of Bedlam and Squalor and heaped derision and scorn much like a patellar reflex because it correlated with financial survival. They would never have failed to take notice that Goldman Sachs has started acting like a sovereign nation, and my real mentor, the last independent floor trader on either exchange at the time, would easily have seen the intention behind these Goldman Longs, as well as significance and likely consequences. On the surface, a bond yielding 6.125% over 50 years looks pretty damned attractive, sorta like Nicolette Sheridan did in that red bikini top and sarong in which she played The Sure Thing. Hubba hubba! But when I first read about these 50s they're dipping a toe into the water with, I asked myself, "Why would they borrow money for 6% per year when they can get it for free from the Window, and already drew upwards of $600 Bill last year?"

That's on top of getting completely bailed out on $160 Bill of bad AIG bets. And wouldn't the ability to front-run every Fed bond auction be enough for even Gordon Gecko? Issuing these mid-range vehicles begs immediate you-and-me-sense, and it may be unprecedented unless your bankers happen to be Hoares (the world's oldest surviving investment bank, and pun intended). Come to think of it, the 484 rolls of toilet paper I've already stacked in the Zombie Bunker are unprecedented too; I figure we might be down there for awhile, and what if we ran out? One thing is sure. Goldman felt October was time to test the market for these long bonds, and that was right when they were hearing, ahead of everyone else, what the Fed's plans were for Quantitative Easing Two. (The bar chart above shows Treasury holdings in November 2010, when the Fed became the largest owner of US debt.)

To roll with a metaphor in the previous paragraph, this 50-year issue is the equivalent of Goldman getting up in the middle of a movie and loudly announcing it has to drain its main vein. It proceeds out past the exit sign, sets the garbage can ablaze then leans back in and starts screaming FIRE! Just as any modern investment banking MBAs will do when they feel well positioned, their incentives are aligned and pointing straight at that next Christmas bonus. Goldman Banksters have been paying close attention and correctly and finally responded to global retail investor desire for yields between where so much scared money flew down to, (i.e., out of retail equity and mutual funds and into Treasuries paying well below real inflation), and to where so much hedge fund money flew up into (to corporate junk bond packages yielding between 7 and 13 percent, where there hasn't been enough product to satisfy appetite). The Banksters saw the blips going into commodities, which have made moonshots as the monetary base went pure vertical. They saw the housing sector resume its slide, banks hoarding cash and not making loans, and they saw a municipal bond market obviously about to go bidless sometime this Fall or Winter. They drew a few conclusions: Treasuries Will Tank. We Can Become As Gods. And Rule Humanity From Our Ranches In Costa Rica.

There was a yawning yield vacuum, and Goldman, having effectively taken over the US government's fiscal and monetary policies two years ago along with its Treasury and central bank, can step in to fill it with vast, practically infinite amounts of free capital and serve as the pricing benchmark for a whole new market in mid-yield bonds. Current investor sentiment will price Goldman's debt more favorably than almost any other country's (whoops, Freudian slip). Goldman is kinda like a doctor who admits himself into the Emergency Room with a broken leg in order to take over the entire hospital. At its sole discretion, it took over $600 Bill of the first $3.3 Trill in 2008 bail-out electrons. It has taken more since then and given an accounting of where it's put the money to nobody. 6.125% per year on $1.3 Bill over 50 years is indeed rat shit to them. So what's the point? Is there a deeper agenda? You can count on me to think so.

Goldman has become far more than just an investment bank in a globally securitized world. They are the First Bank of the New World Order. The geniuses Goldman employs out of the finest MBA schools and physics departments, the thousand-yard-stare boys willing to work 90 hour weeks to play grab-ass with each other, have determined that sovereign interest rates must go way above 6 or 7 percent, bailouts be damned. Fortunately it took them a couple years for this play to completely dawn on their cocaine-starched white collars and minds, because long-term bond plays are very dangerous investments. Fortunately my mantra position of huddling under the office desk with my AK, loaded banana clips going snik-snik-click as I check them in turn while watching It's A Wonderful Life as I munch away on Costco-sized bags of Cheetos pulled from long-term food storage no longer seems entirely paranoid. At least to me. Inflation could easily send long-term bond yields up by 3%. Or 5%. Or 15%. Pick a number. 

Here's the one thing markets really suck at: properly discounting adverse long-term risk. The less recent volatility, the more presumption of stability. Just because aliens haven't landed on the White House lawn to meet with President Obama doesn't mean they're not going to. Or that they haven't had more private consultation. But even under more imaginable scenarios, such as a mere 3% increase in long-term yields due to a mild inflationary frisson (and the 10-year Treasury yield has already risen from 2.3% to over 3% in just the past two months despite the Fed's cunning plans to keep it low), then the face value of those pristine Goldman 50-year bets would fall by about 33%. How's that for capital preservation?
Ah, volatility. She whom age cannot wither nor custom stale. The European Union is imploding (more on that next time) and markets have already priced various sovereign debenture yields up over 10%. An alleged European Central Bank and the IM-effing-F are riding in to save bondholders with taxpayer money, and to unleash austerity programs which have about as much chance of succeeding as my plans to own Magritte's "Use of Language" (I've built a backlit frame!). Put simply: Goldman Sachs is betting on dollar hyperinflation, a plethora of imitators have lined up to dangle bait, and that's how market vacuums get filled, often with nasty stuff sucked up loose from floors. 

There is every reason to think this new class of bonds is why the Fed is having so much trouble selling its 10-year Treasuries. Mexico has just issued dollar-denominated 100-year bonds. Venezuela and Brazil are issuing similar instruments. Investors are gobbling up recent 50-year issues from Norfolk Southern, the Netherland's Rabobank, GDF Suez and, umm, I'm having a little trouble typing this last one out, I t a l y (aaagggg, swallowing my tongue... the seizures hit again...hey, those Mexican Centominos are starting to look pretty good!). This long bond gravy train is on motion lotion and it's got biscuits for wheels.

If you think the dollar is going to hyperinflate, it makes perfect sense for you to sell as much debt as you can and convert it into something of real value. Then you pay off with cheap-o dollars in the future. This is a really great time for anyone besides the US Treasury to be issuing bonds, and it's just the tip of the iceberg. It's also a great time to take credit card companies up on those 0% for 15 month offers and buy RonCo products. US Treasuries aren't priced anywhere close to reflecting their true default risk. So the Fed has become that chap so sought-after by Wall Street professionals, the Fool in the Market, and its Chairman is too stupid to even have seen the vacuum much less recognize it as his own creation. Treasuries are someday, maybe in 2011, going to look a lot like the average American Muni bond: gangrenous. Anyhow, a violent market argument has started and it's not too hard to see who's going to get the beat-down. The US will next attempt to force various countries to buy its Treasury bonds at the barrel of a gun, or its sudden absence. There's no other way to keep selling them for long.

What are the chances the sovereign states of Goldman Sachs, Mexico, Venezuela and Brazil are going to stick around for the next lifetime and pay off? Doesn't matter, not relevant. The new market has been created, is swelling, and the music blaring in it is rock and roll, so you don't have to wait for salvation. It's right here. I recognize my future masters, and I want in. After all, you can still buy really neat stuff with dollars and my bonds will be backed with high-grade toilet paper and Cheetos, and they will yield 6.3%. 6.5% if you get in right now. When Goldman Sachs buys Nebraska and people are fighting each other to become indentured servants on its farms, it'll be even more obvious who's running this country. So to finally answer the question, Phil, I would wait for the inflation wave to crest, wipe out the face values of the extra-long bonds, and then step in and buy a basket of some that aren't defaulting.


Phil said...

Thanks for the advice, Mark! I'm pulling all my money out of the market and betting on the aliens.

Phil said...

(sorry it took me so long to read the piece - I've been in Milwaukee doing some emergency forensic accounting)