Submitted by Chris Martenson of Peak Prosperity
What to Do When Every Market Is Manipulated
Hint: cut the strings
What do the following have in common?If you don't know who the sucker at the card table is, it's you.~ old gambler's saying
LIBOR, Bernie Madoff, MF Global, Peregrine Financial, zero-percent interest rates, the Social Security and Medicare entitlement funds, many state and municipal pension funds, mark-to-model asset values, quote stuffing and high frequency trading (HFT), and debt-based money?
The answer is that every single thing in that list is an example of market rigging, fraud, or both.
How are we supposed to make decisions in today’s rigged and often fraudulent market environment? Where should you put your money if you don’t know where the risks lie? How does one control risk when control fraud runs rampant?
Unfortunately, there are no perfect answers to these questions. Instead, the task is to recognize what sort of world we happen to live in today and adjust one’s actions to the realities as they happen to be. The purpose of this report is not to stir up resentment or anger -- although those are perfectly valid responses to the abuses we are forced to live with -- but to simply acknowledge the landscape as it is so that we can make informed decisions.
In this report I connect the dots on the fraud, noting both what we already know about and what we'd better prudently suspect is happening (but not yet revealed). In Part II, we talk about ways to operate, make decisions, and control risk given the sorry state of affairs in our financial markets.
Swimming NakedAs Warren Buffet said, "It’s only when the tide goes out that you learn who’s been swimming naked."
What he meant was that poorly-run companies can appear healthy during boom times but are later exposed as hollow shells when the economic tide retreats. Naturally it's a lot easier to make money when times are booming, but much more difficult when the economic pie is stagnant or shrinking. The dot-com companies of the late 1990s are the poster children for this phenomenon.
My corollary to Buffet’s naked swimming quote is this: It’s only when the pie stops expanding that you find out who’s been running a Ponzi scheme.
The global pie is no longer expanding, and the relentless parade of disquieting economic and financial news can be laid right upon that fact.
Sure, there are the prosecutable examples, such as Bernie Madoff, but state and municipal pensions and the Social Security entitlement program also fit the definition. So does the practice of expanding public debt at a faster pace than GDP, which many nations, provinces, and states have done for many years running. These are all Ponzi schemes in the sense that they require constant growth to remain 'healthy' (or hidden, more accurately) and are therefore mathematically certain to fail. Now that the economic pie is no longer growing like it used to and most likely will not for decades to come (if ever), all of these schemes are rapidly falling apart.
The insolvency of Greece, which is now in a full-bore depression, is simply a reflection of a multi-year Ponzi scheme that has now run its course and fallen apart. It is simply not possible to borrow forever at a faster rate than your income growth, and Greece is now a harbinger of things to come for every country in a similar position. That includes all of the PIIGS, Japan, and the US.
Now that the pie has stopped expanding, all of the countries that have been swimming naked are exposed. Timing will vary, as in this metaphor some were in shallower water (Greece) than others (the US), but timing aside, there really isn't much of a difference between any of them.
Illegal and Condoned FraudWhere does one even begin with a discussion of all of the rampant fraud that has been revealed of late? Should we suspect that there is suddenly a lot more fraud in the system? Or is the lack of growth simply revealing the extent to which fraud and Ponzi schemes are a significant feature of our political-financial-regulatory-banking landscape? I lean towards the latter view.
I suppose we need to begin this discussion with the fact that any exponential, debt-based monetary system is, at its very core, a Ponzi scheme. It simply has to keep expanding so that there’s enough money and credit manufactured today to meet yesterday's principal and interest loads. Without endless growth, sooner or later the debt pile collapses, and truly extraordinary losses are taken by somebody.
If our entire money system is itself a Ponzi scheme, then it follows that much of what will be based on that monetary superstructure will, almost by definition, share that characteristic.
The garden-variety illegal schemes, such as those run by Bernie Madoff and Peregrine Financial, are easier to cover up and keep running when money and credit are readily available and expanding rapidly. Their early demise just means that they were in the weakest positions and therefore unable to survive the first rounds of crediting/money stagnation.
Next in line is the practice of borrowing at a faster rate than economic growth. That process is already well underway for Greece, Spain, Italy, and Portugal -- but just barely. An enormous gap exists between any practical level of funding and the desired levels of spending, and closing that gap will be a long and painful process.
Following this will be the state-sponsored schemes. Woefully underfunded pensions and entitlement programs will take longer to unravel, but it will happen too in one form or another, most likely by cutting benefits.
The simple truth is that when credit and money expansion stops, all of the various schemes that relied upon the illusion of growth supplied by that dynamic are exposed as unworkable propositions. One summary of the current crisis is this: Credit growth stalled and there simply wasn't enough 'juice' left in the system to cover the various 'legal' and illegal Ponzi schemes.
Socially speaking, as long as the pie is expanding, there is virtually zero public or political support to call out the schemes for what they are. If anything, the opposite is true. It is only once some limit to growth is reached -- the most recent case being the bursting of a multi-decade credit bubble in 2008 -- that the party ends, heads groggily lift, and the painful lack of standards and critical thinking are finally revealed.
The fraud has always been there, often in plain sight, but very few really cared as long as the status quo was being maintained. Obviously and mathematically unworkable municipal and state pension plans are a prime example of this dynamic. For as long as the fiction could be maintained, very few challenged the system, even though they were quite obviously going to be an eventual fiduciary train wreck.
The recent spate of municipal bankruptcies indicates that the ‘eventual’ train wreck has begun and the first few cars of a very long train are off the rails.
Officially Supported FraudAs bad as the private frauds are, and as corrosive as they are to public trust, they pale in comparison to those perpetuated at the very highest levels. The fact that some frauds are supported and encouraged by the regulatory bodies and official institutions should render them no less palatable to the rational mind. In fact, the opposite should be true.
Recently it has become clear that various regulatory bodies can be counted on to look the other way when certain frauds are aligned with the aims and goals of the state while punishing other frauds selectively and grudgingly. There are many recent examples to support this view.
The LIBOR scandal is a perfect example of regulators ‘looking the other way when it suits us.’ Because a LIBOR rate that was manipulated to inappropriately low levels created the appearance of robust bank health, the Fed and other central banks and regulatory authorities were more than happy to look the other way. Not just briefly, but over many years.
That the manipulation of LIBOR also happened to pad the profits of big, well-connected banks (another prime goal of the central authorities) was just one more reason to tacitly support the manipulation. It’s important to note that LIBOR was and is the main determinant for the rate of interest paid on tens of trillions of loans and hundreds of trillions in derivatives.
If the central authorities are willing to overlook fraud on that scale, how far are they willing to go in other areas? Asked another way, just how serious is the predicament we face, and what are we not being told?
The painfully clear message from all of this is that lying, cheating, and stealing are all just fine, as long as they support the main policy aims of the times (and perhaps a few current or prospective colleagues). That is a main lesson of LIBOR-gate, and it is ugly.
Which Brings Us to GoldOne of the prime reasons that I support the notion that the price of gold is neither free nor fair is that I think there is an incentive for the US and UK central banks (and the others, too) to have no serious questions raised about fiat money. Gold is the only monetary barometer that exists outside of the world of fiat money.
If the Fed was willing to look the other way while banks colluded to keep LIBOR artificially low because that sent the 'right' signal about bank health and boosted profits, do you really think they would not also look the other way if banks could make money by manipulating the gold market into a more stable or even lower price band than it otherwise might occupy?
To me, it is a given that the Fed, et al., would condone literally any and all activities that would boost the apparent health of major banks (their prime clients) and the apparent health of fiat money (their only product). Said more directly, it is unthinkable that they do not have gold squarely in their sights on a daily basis.
The second point I want to make about gold is that with every revelation of fraud and/or price manipulation, I grow more convinced that gold should play an increasing role as an anchor to your portfolio. The lessons of LIBOR-gate suggest a haphazard approach to enforcing the rules and reinforce the idea that perhaps things are a bit worse off under the surface than we’ve been told.
Beyond the regulatory and process lapses (like the oil trading story below) that contribute to both illegal and sanctioned fraud, the most grotesque mispricing of everything begins with the mispricing of money itself. Thanks to three years of money priced at zero percent, the entire system is riddled with distorted prices, especially the price for risk. For example, virtually every pension fund is now essentially forced to lend money to the US government for ten years at 1.5% interest, a ridiculous rate given the risks of inflation and even default that a free market would price very differently.
A final thought here is that we simply cannot trust the prices we see around us as much as we used to. I know that one of the central axioms of traders and reasonable people everywhere is that the market is always right. If the price of gasoline is $3.50/gallon or the price of gold is $1,550/ounce, then those are the correct and right prices.
However, it now seems likely that most of the prices we see are simply reflections of something at once more mundane and sinister: central planning. First they are distorted by the pernicious effects of mispriced money, and second by selective lack of enforcement.
An Unfortunate Lack of AccountabilityThe many years that Bernie Madoff was able to continue his fraud despite ample and clear proof supplied to the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), coupled with the complete lack of consequences for the named regulators known to have actively ignored the evidence, tell us simply that above certain levels, accountability has all but disappeared.
Can anyone provide a compelling reason why Jon Corzine is not behind bars or charged with something…anything?
Most recently, the SEC declined to press charges against Goldman Sachs for their role in misleading clients about the riskiness of the toxic mortgage products they manufactured and sold.... Read more>>Guest Post: What To Do When Every Market Is Manipulated