Leo Haviland provides clients with original, provocative, cutting-edge fundamental supply/demand and technical research on major financial marketplaces and trends. He also offers independent consulting and risk management advice.

Haviland’s expertise is macro. He focuses on the intertwining of equity, debt, currency, and commodity arenas, including the political players, regulatory approaches, social factors, and rhetoric that affect them. In a changing and dynamic global economy, Haviland’s mission remains constant – to give timely, value-added marketplace insights and foresights.

Leo Haviland has three decades of experience in the Wall Street trading environment. He has worked for Goldman Sachs, Sempra Energy Trading, and other institutions. In his research and sales career in stock, interest rate, foreign exchange, and commodity battlefields, he has dealt with numerous and diverse financial institutions and individuals. Haviland is a graduate of the University of Chicago (Phi Beta Kappa) and the Cornell Law School.


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AMERICA’S DEBT CULTURE © Leo Haviland April 6, 2015

America continues to have a love affair with debt. The nation has achieved remarkably little progress in improving its comprehensive (all-inclusive) debt situation since 2009’s very elevated debt relative to nominal GDP percentage. Increasing federal indebtedness has substantially though not entirely outweighed modest improvements in the consumer and state and local government domains. As the national government is a representative (democratic; “We, the People”) one, the country has not significantly mended its troubling overall debt problem.

A review of total American credit marketplace debt portrays the development and entrenchment of a national culture of debt. The long run trend toward greater debt holdings (and tolerance of debt) probably indicates and intertwines with a growing bias toward consumption and spending rather than saving. The increasing borrowing and massive debt accumulation arguably in part also probably reflect an increasingly widespread sense of entitlement to American Dream goals of the “good life” and a “better life”.

Total United States credit marketplace debt at end 2014 stood at about $58.7 trillion (Federal Reserve Board, “Financial Accounts of the United States”, Z.1 data; 3/12/15). The total includes US household, financial and non-financial business, and government debt, plus the relatively small foreign/rest of the world category. Compare 2001’s $29.2tr. Thus America’s credit marketplace debt has doubled in roughly a dozen years, and there has been no yearly fall in the sum since 2001.

What does a long run examination of total United States credit marketplace debt as a percent of nominal GDP reveal? Review the post-World War Two landscape. For over five decades, from the early 1950s up through the glorious Goldilocks Era that ended in 2007, and for a couple of years thereafter, total US indebtedness as a percentage of nominal GDP climbed steadily and substantially.

The bottom in overall US credit marketplace debt as a percent of GDP was 1951’s 129.5 percent. It inexorably edged up for about thirty years. It then started to accelerate from 1981’s 164.1pc. In 1985, it reached 200.3pc, with 1998’s 257.4pc, and 2001’s 275.1pc. In 2003, that measure attained 298.2pc. As debt became increasingly popular, it joyously soared during the blissful Goldilocks period to 346.1pc in 2007. As the gloomy American (and global) financial crisis emerged and proceeded, total US credit marketplace debt peaked at 362.0pc in 2009.

Despite pillow talk from many pundits about improving American debt conditions, that gigantic percentage has fallen only modestly since 2009. It slipped to 349.7pc of nominal GDP in 2010, and 340.6pc in 2012. However, it has diminished very little since then, with 2013 at 338.0pc and 2014 at 337.1pc. Significantly, 2014’s percentage remains not far from the heavenly Goldilocks Era 346.1pc height of 2007.

Another statistic further underscores the growth and persistence of America’s debt culture. Not only is the current credit marketplace debt as a percent of GDP level still historically high and close to the Goldilocks plateau. The arithmetic drop of 24.9 percentage points from the five years 2009 to 2014 (362.0pc less 337.1pc) is only about half the 47.9 point increase over the four years from 2003-07 (298.2 versus 346.1).

The Federal Reserve’s long-running extraordinary and very easy monetary policy (notably money printing/quantitative easing and interest rate yield repression) seek not only to ignite and sustain economic recovery and buy time for serious action in the federal and other debt realms. The Fed has battled to boost inflation to a supposedly sufficient level, while it has simultaneously repressed debt securities yields. Its artful strategies reflect the central bank’s ardent devotion on behalf of the constituency of debtors (borrowers) relative to the one of savers (creditors).

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America's Debt Culture (4-6-15)

FORWARD GUIDANCE AND THE US DOLLAR © Leo Haviland September 23, 2013

The broad real trade-weighted United States dollar probably will remain weak. Continuing its major long run bear trend from its March 2009 high, it probably will challenge its record low of July 2011. Why?

Among assorted bearish factors, focus on two which are becoming increasingly significant. First, the Federal Reserve Board in its September 2013 meeting displayed its absence of a genuine forward guidance plan and a lack of an authentic comprehensive exit strategy. Thus marketplace faith in the Fed has declined and will do so further in the aftermath of that September gathering. Keep in mind that feeble (vague) Fed guidance and decreased confidence in the Fed occurs amidst ongoing (and long-running) gigantic money printing and interest rate repression. The central bank is doggedly determined to keep pinning the Federal Funds rate near the floor (and thus below current inflation rates and announced Fed inflation targets) for some time. So how attractive are and will be United States Treasury yields for much over much of the government yield curve? Second, America’s national political players currently display weak fiscal (economic) leadership, especially as the debt ceiling limit beckons.

The Federal Reserve Board’s overall exit strategy for its extraordinary sustained accommodative policy remains far more a sketch than a complete design or coherent practical plan. Prior to its September 2013 assembly, central bank communicators strongly hinted the Fed soon would reduce its massive money printing campaign. Yet the illustrious Federal Reserve Board generals surprised the great majority of observers by not cutting back on quantitative easing. Moreover, these Fed luminaries also underlined their flexible attentiveness to a wide array of intertwining variables which will influence their tapering and other decisions. The ever-watchful Fed thus implicitly demonstrated that its loudly-proclaimed forward guidance wordplay offers Fed watchers at best only modest enlightenment and direction. America’s central bank consequently did more than increase marketplace uncertainty. The Fed wounded its own marketplace credibility. By damaging its credibility, the Fed reduces the widespread belief that it can engineer or at least significantly influence “good” economic outcomes.

Unfortunately, the significant shortfall in forward guidance from the guiding lights at the Federal Reserve currently coincides with a badly fractured American national political scene. Of course politicians and parties disagree and compete vigorously. Yet in the United States in recent years, significant philosophical divisions, diverse and often well-entrenched interests, and quests by political players to capture attention and win elections have combined to create ongoing “overall” feeble national political leadership. Strong political individuals in combination do not necessary make a strong collective group.

Failing to satisfactorily resolve the funding and (especially) the debt ceiling issues (and related deficit spending questions) will call in question America’s political leadership as a whole. All else equal, growing doubts about the quality of that leadership (and related fiscal policies) tend to undermine confidence in the US dollar. Besides these current feuds, America’s national political leaders continue to make no progress in resolving or even significantly mitigating the country’s looming long run fiscal deficit problem. Debt crises do not occur only in emerging or developing nations or in countries on the European “periphery”.

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Forward Guidance and the US Dollar (9-23-13)


America’s substantial federal deficit problem, both for the near term and over the looming long run, captures headlines. A long march through a thicket of forecasts and fixes reveals the immensity of the deficit and the complexity of the intertwined factors and policies creating the deep fiscal hole. However, advancing through the repair proposals of leading legislators unveils the substantial disagreements in outlook regarding a solution. Even in Washington, differences in political perspectives on “economic” matters sometimes represent really serious sharp splits.

Called to action by the need to seriously attack the issue, confronted by the imminent August 2 deadline for boosting the deficit ceiling, the President, Democrats, and Republicans squawk, squeak, and squirm. Few budget combatants want a default, or even a reduction in America’s credit rating. Matters of principle and 2012 election politics will interrelate both to avoid debt default and to defer any noteworthy substantive resolution of the fiscal challenge. Since such a temporary compromise is not a genuine solution, the United States fiscal disaster will continue to beleaguer financial marketplaces.

In the Civil War, so-called neutral nations such as Great Britain and France were quite interested in the war’s outcome. America is not divided or cut off from the rest of the world, especially these days. In regard to the US’s current budget battles, not only its citizens but also countries around the world closely monitor events and trends. Like sovereign debt problems on the European periphery, America’s fiscal issues have global implications. Plus what occurs in debt and interest rate theaters has implications for stocks, currencies, and commodities. For example, if the American deficit crisis worsens significantly, what will the collateral damage be? Will stocks in the US as well as overseas nosedive? Will there be a renewed assault on the dollar?

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A House Divided- American Budget Battles