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Inflation, inflation, inflation, and maybe stagflation. We’ve been talking about this for a while now, and it seems finally, maybe, somehow the Federal Reserve has finally woken up. Hello, everyone, I’m Trish Regan. Welcome to American Consequences. It’s good to have you here this week on a week where we’ve got lots and lots of news.
For starters, of course, we’re dealing with another variant. So, the market’s reacting. You’re seeing some volatility. People start to get nervous. But I would just caution and remind everyone – you know what – we have seen this movie before, so to speak, have we not? Both with COVID-19 and then the variant Delta. Now we’re dealing with Omicron. I have a feeling we’re going to be OK. I have a feeling we’re going to make it through. I think you can only look to what we’ve already been through to know that.
Look, we are going to have to learn to cope and deal with this virus. It’s just going to be a new reality. I know nobody likes it and we all wish it would be gone for good. But it’s reality. The issue, now, is we cannot cut off our nose to spite our face. Right? You can’t shut down the economy again. You’ve got to learn how to live with this. That’s what’s most critical.
Meanwhile, we’ve got the Federal Reserve somehow finally admitting that, yeah, inflation’s going to become – and is – a problem. We’ve seen 6.2% growth in consumer prices. But you know what? That’s just the tip of the iceberg. You think about what people are using and consuming in their everyday lives from heating oil that’s up 59% – 59% – since this time last year, or gas prices which have increased $1.29 per gallon. I mean, that hurts when you’re filling up a car and you’re living on a restricted income.
Think about food prices. The price of bacon is up 20%. Housing which, by the way, this really gets me. They don’t even include it in the CPI data. They do not even include it. Apparently, they decided in the ’80s housing was going up too, too fast, so they just took it right out.
So, when you look at CPI, Consumer Price Index, you see core CPI, which takes out food and energy – again, the things that people need… housing’s already out of there – and you see CPI overall. Both are pretty bad right now. Both are seriously showing signs of the consumer being under so much strain. That comes with, obviously, political consequences, which is one of the reasons why I think you see this renewed attention on to dealing with the inflation that exists.
But it’s tough because there’s only so much Washington can do. At some point, it really is, in my view, the fault of the Federal Reserve. The Federal Reserve, which has printed so much money by way of this bond-buying extravaganza that they’ve been on in terms of mortgage-backed securities and Treasurys that they’ve been buying up. I know. I know they’re cutting back. But are they are cutting back quickly enough?
My next guest is a legend, a true legend on Wall Street. He’s the president and CEO of William R. Rhodes Global Advisors. His name is Bill Rhodes. He’s spent more than 53 years at Citigroup back when it was Citibank. He was there, became chairman, senior vice chairman, and senior international officer of Citi. He’s a guy who’s really seen it all.
I mean he has been on the forefronts of international financial diplomacy back in the ’80s and the ’90s. The guy that created the Brady bonds and had a big hand in the debt-reduction agreements out of Argentina, as well as a whole bunch of other countries in Latin America. This is the gentleman that did it all. He’s the publisher of a terrific book called Banker to the World. I encourage you to read it. Banker to the World: Leadership Lessons from the Frontlines of Global Finance.
He also was very good friends and actually the office mate, later in life, of none other than Paul Volcker. Paul Volcker, who was chairman of the Federal Reserve and credited with bringing inflation under control, which had become so disastrous, right, in the late ’70s and into the early ’80s. He got that under control. Well, Bill Rhodes has been warning of the need for a Volcker moment for some time now. He’s here to tell us what his concerns are, not just about the U.S. economy and the inflation fears that he has about us, but the overall global economy and the challenges of this escalating inflation and what it might bring.
Bill Rhodes, it is such a thrill to have you on this program. You have such an incredible history and such a fascinating background. I kind of want to go around the world with you a little bit because you are the ultimate banker to the world. But let’s start here with the Federal Reserve. Given what, now, we’re up against, again. It’s like déjà vu, unfortunately. This keeps happening. Now, we’re confronting a new virus. From your perspective, can the Fed, should the Fed do anything this time around?
Bill Rhodes: Well, I think you saw my op-ed that I did on Reuters back in June about the need to recognize that inflation was a serious problem. A lot of people criticized me and laughed at me, but just watching the testimony of Chairman Powell, a few minutes ago, while I was waiting to get on the line with you, he admitted that they had underestimated the – this was his testimony in front of the Senate Banking Committee, Finance Committee – that he had underestimated the amount of inflation that was building up and that he was going to speed up the tapering of the bond-buying program. I think this is coming late in the day, but I think the Fed finally realizes that they have really waited too long and inflation is starting to get embedded and raise expectation levels, which is always a concern for the type of inflation we faced in the late 1970s and the early 1980s.
Trish Regan: Yeah. In that particular piece, I know that you were saying, “Look, it’s a time to return to Volcker.” That’s scary for the markets, of course, but when you look at what’s going on… Look, I think that there are, in the near term, still some fundamentals that suggest there might be a little bit more wiggle room in this market, more upside potential. All that said, there’s a lot of margin and people working on margin accounts, a lot of retail investors, a lot of money that’s not normally at play in the markets. That tends to make me, especially when you see all this meme activity, and given your long history on Wall Street, I mean this is all sort of new stuff. Does it make you uncomfortable?
Bill Rhodes: We’ve had massive fiscal and monetary stimulus since the beginning of COVID. This is all coming home to roost because I think the Fed should have started tapering months ago because they were under the, let’s say, misapprehension, delusion that this was just going to be transitory. Now, even Chairman Powell admits it’s not transitory. He’s talking about inflation right through not only next year but on to 2023.
So, the real danger here is that they don’t move fast enough on ending the program of bond buying and start raising interest rates because, otherwise, this whole mentality of inflation will get embedded. As you know from your experience following Latin America, it then becomes part of the expectation levels of people. That helps drive more permanent inflation. So, the need for the Fed to really make up ground is important.
Also, we have the passage by both houses, president signed it, of a trillion, 200 billion worth of stimulus for infrastructure. The Democrats are trying to push another trillion, 750 – almost a trillion, 800 million in social spending. This just adds flame to the fire, I think, that we’re taking a look at here. So, I think that we are in serious danger of getting ourselves into more difficult inflationary spiral. If that happens – I’ve seen this movie many, many times. The movie ends the same way, is you get a blowup in the markets, and we get into some sort of stagflation or recession.
Trish Regan: So, one of the things that Powell has said is he has some concerns about risks intensifying with our supply-chain disruptions, right, because now you’ve got another variant, the expectation being that some factories overseas might shut down. Hey, it could even happen here. So, consequently, that supply chain gets backed up even further. But you have to have demand, Bill, right, in order to kind of drive up prices.
One of the statistics I found interesting was that Cyber Monday sales this year went down for the first time, more than a percent. They’ve never gone down. Cyber Monday always goes up. For some reason, people stepped back from shopping online. You think that they would have been happy to shop online, right, given everything that’s going on. So, do you think that there’s less tolerance at all or, as you said, once it gets embedded, that’s that?
Bill Rhodes: People are very concerned about this new variant that’s come up from South Africa. But I think you have a lot of pent-up demand. We saw that on Black Friday. We didn’t see it, as you mentioned, on Monday. But I think the demand is there. When I hear Chairman Powell admit that they need to speed up the end of tapering, it basically means that I think he’s now been converted to moving more quickly. We have to remember the famous statement of one of the great heads of the Fed who preceded my friend, Paul Volcker, which was McChesney Martin. He always talked about you need to take the punch bowl away before the party really gets too carried away with itself. I think that’s what we need to do, and we need to do it rapidly, or I am concerned of where we’re going to be at this time next year.
Trish Regan: Glad you brought him up because one of the things, in looking through my Fed history – and you were there on the frontlines, so you have a better perspective – but it seems to me there was an effort in this sort of Great Society moment to focus less on inflation in the mid-to-late ’60s and more on employment which, actually, it’s like déjà vu, right, because we’ve seen this Fed, in particular, focus more on employment than on inflation. So, they did this, and Martin did this to a certain extent before, and then Volcker had to come in and kind of re-right the ship, if you would. Was that a mistake to focus on employment as opposed to inflation or the two of them simultaneously? In your view, is that happening, or did it happen, again, with this Federal Reserve?
Bill Rhodes: This is certainly a possibility. I mean, the Fed mandate is to do both, their official mandate. But also, they have an unofficial third mandate, which is the supervisory role, which was not followed properly and helped get us into the Great Recession. So, in a sense, the Fed has those three roles: two in writing and one understood. I think the moment has arrived where the Fed needs to move more rapidly.
As I said earlier, hearing Chairman Powell, now that he’s been reappointed, acknowledging the fact that they have to move faster. The question is, “Will they move fast enough?” If you ask me what they’re going to do, they’re going to wind up this program in the next couple of months, the bond-buying program, and they’ll raise interest rates at least twice next year, maybe even more.
Trish Regan: Well, that’s kind of going to be a shock to the system, if you would, for Wall Street. I think everybody’s gotten really used to these low interest rates. But you run the risk that you’re going to create a whole other crisis. You know, Bill, I’ve been talking about this amazing, fascinating background you had. You knew Paul Volcker really, really well. I mean, you had worked with him in some capacities. I know he was a longtime friend of yours. He was also your office mate, as I understand it.
Bill Rhodes: Paul passed away, unfortunately, two years ago, in December. I was the last person to share offices with him. We used to talk almost every day about his concerns that the public had forgotten the tough lessons of the late ’70s and early ’80s when he had to raise interest rates up to 20% because inflation had just gone through the roof. I think he is more appreciated day by day than he had been because, of course, this through the world and to recession, and that was the beginnings of the Latin American debt crisis. But the reason we got there was that past treasury secretaries and heads of the Fed allowed all of this to get out of hand. That’s my concern now, that unless Chairman Powell moves quickly to re-right what’s happened here and learn from history, we could end up with a similar problem.
Trish Regan: Did Paul Volcker think that he had the political support? For example, did he believe that you needed the political support of the president to actively raise like that? Because, you know, I think we both know, politically speaking, every president kind of wants the spigot on… because, “Hey, why not?” Right? I mean if you have all this money printing, it can be somebody else’s problem down the road. They can deal with the aftereffects of the inflation, but at least you can point and say, “Hey, look, we had this growth.” Whether it’s real or not is an entirely different thing. But I just wonder, did he ever give you any insight into how President Reagan was responding to him raising rates?
Bill Rhodes: Well, actually you need to go back to Jimmy Carter because Jimmy Carter appointed him in the job. He states in his book – it’s very worthwhile for all your listeners to pick up Paul’s book which was published about his experiences just before he passed away. He mentions in the book when Jimmy Carter called him in and appointed him, he said, “Look,” he said, “You take care of the economics. I’ll take the heat on the politics.”
Of course, as you know, Jimmy Carter was a one-term president. But many people feel it wasn’t just because of the tough economic policies at the Fed that Paul had to put in to slay the dragon of inflation, but really more the failed attempt to rescue the members of the U.S. Embassy in Iran that really caused him to lose the election to Ronald Reagan. So, he had already began all of his work under Jimmy Carter. That was Jimmy Carter’s basic philosophy, and I give him a lot of credit for that. I think a lot of people don’t really recognize the brave action he took. Then, he was reappointed by – one more term, by Reagan. He did two terms.
Trish Regan: That’s an important thing to remember, too. I think that, look, we all think of Jimmy Carter, in the ’70s, as being a tough time and inflation being as awful as it was. It wasn’t until Volcker and Reagan that it was brought under control. But that’s an important distinction you make, that it was Carter that brought him in. How do you think the market will react to J. Powell taking that monetary punch bowl – to use that phrase – away?
Bill Rhodes: Well, I think, depending on how it’s handled, it could have a positive effect if they believe that he’s not going to let inflation get out of control. If it’s not done correctly, then we could have some sort of really negative reaction. A lot of people are talking now about stagflation, putting together your comment about the poor buying on Cyber Monday, along with inflation. So, we’re not only risking the difficulties and problems of inflation, but also the possibility of stagflation next year at some point. So, I think that the Fed needs to move rapidly but in an organized fashion to reassure the markets.
I think one of the things – yeah, one of the things that we have to take into account is you also have to work on the fiscal side. It’s not just the monetary side. I mean Powell controls that, but he doesn’t control the fiscal side. You really have to ask yourself whether the nation, in addition to the 1.2 trillion – 1 trillion, 200 billion – infrastructure bill, which I think was supported by a number of Republicans, including Mitch McConnell, which I think is very necessary because our roads are really in – railroads are really in bad shape.
The question is, “What happens if, for some reason or other, the Senate decides to pass this trillion-850-billion-dollar package that Biden wants to put through on social spending?” I don’t think it’ll happen to that amount because I think you’ve got senators, Manchin and Sinema, West Virginia and Arizona, who object to the amount of spending because they are concerned about inflation. So, I think we need to look both not only at the monetary side but the fiscal side. Of course, Powell has no control over the fiscal side.
Trish Regan: No. Sure. It’s an important sort of tag-team effort. If you’re concerned about inflation, it’s logical, right, to pull back on all the stimulus from both sides. We’re speaking with William Rhodes. He’s the president of William R. Rhodes Global Advisors. He’s the former chairman and chief executive of Citibank and has just had an incredible career in financial markets. I think of you… you mentioned my experience with Latin America. I mean you’re sort of the godfather of all of that. With the Latin American debt crisis, you were the one who people turned to, to manage our way out of that. I want to turn to that in a moment.
But first, as we consider everything that’s happening right now, you mention that they need to all be on the same page. I don’t know that that’s going to happen, unfortunately, because of the sort of breakdown, politically, right now that we’re struggling with. But simultaneously, explain how it works that even if prices keep going up, don’t you have to have that kind of demand to support it? At some point, Bill, wouldn’t it be that, “You know what? They’re charging way too much for those widgets that can’t get here because there’s a line at the port on the West Coast, and the ships are coming in and they can’t – whatever the reason, supply chain, whatever it is?” Things just get too expensive.
At some point, don’t people just say, “You know what? I don’t really need that new widget. I’m going to pass.” Then the price should level out on a market level. Explain why that might not happen.
Bill Rhodes: Well, that goes into the view that all of this is transitory. But if you really have a drop-off in demand, you also then have a drop-off in GDP and growth. That’s where you get this concern about stagflation. I should also mention that this is not just a U.S. problem. The European Central Bank is facing this problem, and the Bank of England, as an example. You had the highest level of inflation that Germany has seen since the unification of Germany. Last month, it was 6.3%. The head of the Deutsche Bundesbank, which is their central bank, Weidmann, is very concerned that this could get out of line.
Of course, the Germans remember the hyperinflation of the 1920s, and actually of the 1940s after World War II. So, you really have concern in Europe. That’s a battle going on between Lagarde, who says it’s all transitory, and the Germans. Also, even in Spain – which is a country I know you know well because you lived there – they had the highest inflation rates since 1992 of 5.6%. So, this is also a problem in continental Europe.
Then Andrew Bailey has signaled very strongly, the governor of the Bank of England, that he is going to raise rates within the next 90 days. So, I think you have this phenomenon, certainly in the Western world, and Canada already is taking actions in this regard. So, I think this is not just an isolated U.S. situation that we’re facing. People are concerned that, if not handled properly, we could get into stagflation or get some sort of bust at the end of the day.
Trish Regan: Let’s talk about that for a moment because it’s one thing for the market to deal with, it gets overexcited and overheated and then it sort of blows up and we start over. It’s another – like the tech bubble in 2000. It’s another thing for us to look at some kind of systemic-style problem, such as what we saw in 2008, which you know and I know lots of different reasons went into that. But some have faulted the Federal Reserve for sort of allowing that spigot, again, to be on which then encouraged perhaps unnecessary risk with banks securitizing all these crazy instruments, right, mortgages, subprime mortgages. So, I guess I would ask, is there anything in your view, when you start talking about sort of an international problem with inflation and just too much money in the system, does that run the risk of leading to some kind of systemic crisis in your view?
Bill Rhodes: Well, that’s what I’m concerned about because, I mean, when you take a look at what’s going on with cryptocurrencies, as an example, people hedging themselves with the art markets at record levels, all of these things are reminiscent of problems we saw in the past when you did have a big bust. So, I think it’s something that we need to really think about. So, I think what you need is some more discipline on both the Fed and also on the fiscal side, on the administration. Whether that’s there or not, we will have to see. But you have a lot of instruments that are out there, also, in the market that are reminiscent of what you’re talking about that occurred before the Great Recession. So, I would mention that to you as possibilities, also.
Then you have the Special Purpose Acquisition Vehicles, SPACs, which also have gotten out of line in many ways. So, all of these are indications that it’s the time to raise the danger signal, move on to a more coordinated policy of reducing both on the fiscal and monetary side the stimulus because, as I’ve said, I’ve seen this movie too many times, not only in the United States but in the emerging markets.
One of the things that we need to remember is every time that the Fed raises interest rates and followed by, let’s say, the ECB and Bank of England, the emerging markets suffer because they have borrowed very heavily, both the public and the private sector, in foreign currency. We’ve seen problems that could happen in Turkey. You’ve seen what’s happened in Argentina, which is probably the worst loan and the largest loan that the International Monetary Fund has made. Of course, it was made under the aegis of Christine Lagarde. So, this is not just a U.S. problem, a developed country problem. It is also a big problem for the emerging markets.
Trish Regan: We’re talking with Bill Rhodes who has just had a legendary career in international financial diplomacy. He wrote a great book called Banker to the World: Leadership Lessons from the Frontlines of Global Finance. He really has been banker to the world. He is the guy that negotiated debt-restructuring agreements for all kinds of places. You name it, Argentina, Brazil, Jamaica, Korea, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Uruguay. I know I’m leaving out a ton of them.
But when you look at what all of those countries have in common – I think to your point, especially on Argentina and Brazil and some of these places that have suffered with so much inflation over the years and they know how hard that can be, they’ve all printed money. But that said, Bill, there’s a difference between Venezuela and what they’re doing with money printing and us. That is that we are still the world’s reserve currency. How much does that protect us from becoming like some of these emerging marketplaces?
Bill Rhodes: One of the differences between the past that we’re talking about, the time of Volcker, and even at the time of the Great Recession, is the emergence of China as the world’s second-largest economy. So, what happens in China affects the rest of the world. They’re having their own problems with the property markets. You saw what happened with Evergrande. People estimate that the property sector is somewhere between 28 and 30% of the total economy in China.
So, the People’s Bank of China, their central bank, and the regulatory authorities have been clamping down. This will slow growth probably in China next year from the traditional 7, 8% to something in the area of 5%. But they are very concerned, also, in China about inflationary pressures. So, we really have a new player that we have to take into account here that we didn’t in the past.
Trish Regan: For sure. No, I mean very much a global problem. Well, we appreciate your time today. I’d love to have you back, and we can talk some more about China. But, again, from Bill Rhodes, we’ve got to pay attention to this. The Federal Reserve needs to watch and be very careful of this inflation which could morph into many bad things, including stagflation. I appreciate your time today, Bill.
Bill Rhodes: Great to be with you on whether it’s TV, a podcast, radio, whatever it is because of your background not only in the markets here in the U.S. but also in the emerging markets. So, it’s good to talk to you, again, Trish.
Trish Regan: My thanks to Bill Rhodes. It’s just wonderful. I’ve talked to him so many times over the years, and he has such a good perspective on everything that’s going on. I think the important thing for all of us to remember here is that these concerns about inflation are very real. He mentioned that everybody laughed at him back when he wrote his viewpoint on breaking views on Reuters about how we might have that Volcker moment. There are a lot of people that got laughed at. Heck, myself as well, when I kept saying, “This is going to lead to inflation. You can’t have this much stimulus from both the fiscal and monetary sides and not get some inflation.”
Larry Summers was just – oh, was he chastised, right, when he came out and said, “Look, this is going to be problematic. You’re going to run the risk of inflation.” Then you get in the situation where the Fed pulls back too quickly. If they pull back too quickly and they completely turn the spigot off, and then they raise rates, then what does that do to the market? So, this is a very, very delicate sort of tightrope kind of walk that our central bankers need to be exercising right now. Whether or not they can actually manage this one, we shall see.
But look, if they can, I predict Jerome Powell will go down as a hero. But that’s if we can get through all this and just manage without getting in a kind of bubble with all this froth. I mean there’s a lot of things to be concerned about right now as Bill just articulated. So, you’ve got to think long and hard about where you’re putting your money, how you’re diversifying.
I mean, I was listening to Ray Dalio the other day, from Bridgewater, making the point that there was a total risk of being in cash. You don’t want to be in cash because your cash can so quickly lose value. That’s a bet that there are better investments than cash because inflation is going to be so darn bad. So, think long and hard about where you’re putting your money. I encourage you to go to americanconsequences.com. We have a lot of ideas, including mine, there. It’s a team of just terrific writers.
So, go to americanconsequences.com. Sign up for our newsletter. Get our daily e-mails. We do have the wealth of research behind us from Stansberry Research. So, you’re going to get a lot of interesting angles that you might not otherwise see. So, it’s up to you to think articulately and conclusively about your portfolio. Diversification is critical, dollar-cost averaging is critical. Just make sure you’re going into the right things.
Thanks so much for listening, as always, everyone. You can make sure that you do me this favor, download the entire podcast. Subscribe to the podcast, the audio version of it, on Spotify or Apple iTunes. I also have the daily podcast, the Trish Regan Show. So, make sure you get that one, too. I’m going to be back with you right here on American Consequences, online, americanconsequences.com, and on this show next week.
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