Friday, July 18, 2014

Malaysia Airlines Flight MH 17: Putin's Money Problem

Inevitably, lawsuits will be filed over the shoot down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 in eastern Ukraine.  Typically, the plaintiffs' attorneys will name as defendants just about everyone who had any connection with the shoot down and his uncle.  The airline itself will surely be a defendant.  But we know that.  What's interesting is that Vladimir Putin might, depending on circumstances, be a defendant.

In a civil lawsuit, such as those that will be filed, legal liability does not necessarily depend on proving that the defendant deliberately pulled the trigger or ordered the downing.  A person who was negligent or reckless with respect to supporting and arming the rebels in eastern Ukraine (assuming they're the ones who actually fired the missile) might have civil liability.  Information reported indicates that Flight MH 17 was following a well-established international route at a cruising altitude of 33,000 feet, which is typical of commercial airliners.  Just what do you think might happen if you give a bunch of Ukrainian rebels under air attack from the Ukrainian air force a missile system capable of reaching that high?

Since the Ukrainian separatists might not have the expertise to operate a missile system such as the one that evidently downed Flight MH 17, Russian personnel may have had their eyes on the radar screen and fingers on the trigger.  If so, the link to Putin may be strengthened, and his potential for personal liability increased.

If Vlad faces potential personal liability to the Flight MH 17 plaintiffs, he could have a serious money problem.  Although he denies having money stashed in the West, news reports have suggested he may control tens of billions of dollars of assets, maybe as much as $50 billion.  The plaintiffs' attorneys and the insurance companies that make payouts to MH 17 claimants have a powerful incentive to hunt down that money, if it exists.  And who knows?  Maybe they'll succeed.  In that case, Vlad could lose some or all of his hell or high water fund.

The nation of Russia, too, might be liable if it is shown to have provided the missile system.  And it's potential for liability would be heightened if Russian personnel actually operated the missile system.

There is historical precedent for holding bad actors on the international scene liable for civil liabilities.  In 1988, Libyan agents bombed Pan American Airlines Flight 103.  The next year, Libyan agents bombed a commercial airliner flown by UTA, a French airline (UTA Flight 772).  In both cases, the nation of Libya ultimately paid substantial sums of money (totaling billions of dollars) to settle civil claims. 

One big problem for Vlad is that the toothpaste is out of the tube and he can't put it back.  With the plane already shot down, all he can do is scramble to cover his butt.  Current news reports indicate that heavily armed men of uncertain identity are blocking international investigators from getting to the crash site.  Perhaps other men of uncertain identity have recovered the black box and . . . well, maybe the black box will be another victim in this tragedy.  Possibly, many bankers in Western nations are working day and night to shift assets of shadowy Russian entities to new and more obscure locations that are likely to entangle the curious in a briar patch of banking secrecy laws.  But Russia itself can't disappear, nor can it conceal all of its assets. 

The Obama administration has been accused of taking a tepid tack on sanctions over the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  European nations have been criticized for being even more equivocal.  But, to make a living as a plaintiff's attorney, you have to be as shy as a great white shark.  And, unless they have accidents with poison-tipped umbrellas, plaintiffs' counsel for Flight MH 17 claimants may be relentlessly pursuing Vlad and Russia for years.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The EU Bubble

Today's kerfluffle in the stock markets over the debt default of an entity affiliated with Portugal's largest bank reminds us that if there is a financial bubble anywhere, it's in EU sovereign and bank debt.  EU sovereign debt and the debt of EU banks have become almost synonymous.  That's because they are linked by a problematic circularity.  EU banks have invested heavily in EU sovereign debt.  EU nations, in turn, have pretty much become the guarantors of the debts of their banks.  Thus, the banks borrow to invest in sovereign debt, and the sovereigns in turn guarantee the banks' debt that funds the sovereigns.  It's rather clever, as long as nothing goes wrong.

However, one could note that EU banks and sovereign nations appear to be burdened with each others' liabilities, and that the guarantees of EU nations accordingly have limited efficacy.  Given that the EU and its banks, in toto, can be reasonably described as overleveraged, this circularity can become a circular firing squad if there is a run on a major EU bank or an EU sovereign member nation.  This is particularly so since no EU nation can issue its own currency and pay its or its banks' debts with printed money.

Of course, the European Central Bank has in recent years made a show of pointing to shining armor it could don and white horses it could mount to ride to the rescue if there is another European financial crisis.  And it has adopted accommodative, money printing-like maneuvers when the going got tough (like letting EU banks use sovereign debt as collateral for borrowings at the ECB without any discounting of their face value).  If the dustup across the pond is limited to Portugal, the ECB should be able to find one way or another to keep the cookie from crumbling.  But if other EU nations, particularly larger ones like France, begin to waver, the EU financial bubble could burst in a nasty way.  The economic consequences could be bad.  Given the growing extremism in Europe, the political consequences could be worse.

There are some asset classes in the U.S. that may be getting bubbly.  Many Internet stocks are suspect. Housing except for the $1 million and up price range seems to be struggling.  In addition, small cap stocks haven't been doing well recently and may turn out to be a bubble bursting.  But it's unlikely that the frothiness of these asset classes could re-trigger the Great Recession.   On the other hand, if the EU sovereign nations can't keep their banking systems on an even keel, then all bets are off. 

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Guinea Pigs On Facebook

There's a bunch of guinea pigs on Facebook, around 689,000 of them.  You wouldn't recognize them as rodents if you just looked at their Facebook pages.  Instead, you'd probably think they were people, some younger than the age of 18.  But guinea pigs they are, used by Facebook in an experiment to manipulate users' emotions by making the news feeds these users received either more negative or positive, and then measuring the effect on posts written by the g-pigs.  Evidently, g-pigs' emotions could be changed positively or negatively by the content of the posts they received.  In other words, emotion manipulation by Facebook seems possible.

Facebook claims that its terms of service allow this kind of experimentation.  If you didn't read the terms of service, then bear in mind that the possibility of this kind of horseship (sp) is exactly is the reason why you should read them.  But it may also be the case that Facebook's terms of service were kind of general, and written in that uniquely obtuse and obstructive language called legalese.   We would guess they didn't include a guinea pig clause, which explicitly informed users that they might be selected to be subjects in experiments in emotional manipulation where they wouldn't be informed of their selection and the emotional manipulation would be conducted in quite a non-obvious way.  So even if you were among the assiduous 0.01% who actually read the terms of service, you still might not have realized that you had just registered for the guinea pig draft and could be called up for service at any time.

Of course, one suspects that Facebook might not have wanted to let the g-pigs know what was going on.  Unknowing g-pigs would likely produce more meaningful experimental results than users who knew what was going on.  And if one considers Facebook's corporate interests to be more important than the interests and dignity of its users, then all this might make sense.  But if users are thought to be deserving of fair treatment--radical notion, that--then you'd have to conclude that Facebook really stinks for having done this.

The world is full of emotional manipulation: advertisements, political campaigning, editorials, op-ed pages, robo-calls from every manner of charity you never heard of, etc.  And when it's clear that the game is to manipulate your emotions, that's okay (at least when it's directed at adults).  But when emotions are manipulated sneakily, and your participation isn't made known to you, then that's a reason to avoid Facebook and any other social networking websites that pull similar carp (sp). 

You have to wonder if the emotion manipulation experiment signals that Facebook has reached its zenith and is in decline.  Has Facebook run out of bona fide, valuable services to provide to users?  Is it now stooping to emotional manipulation to keep existing users and bring in new ones?  Do we really need Facebook, or have we been manipulated into thinking we need Facebook?

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Partition Iraq

Joe Biden, while a Senator, got it right.  Iraq should be partitioned.  Not that prescriptive advice like this really matters any more because the partitioning has already happened and there really isn't any way to undo it.

ISIS, the Sunni extremists, already control northwestern Iraq, along with a good chunk of northeastern Syria.  No one will be able to dislodge them.  The Iraqi government's army is too busy surrendering territory and weapons to retake lost ground.  The Assad regime in Syria no longer has the ability to defeat a force as powerful as ISIS.  And the U.S. isn't sending in ground troops, without which you can't take or hold territory.

The Kurds have carved out a homeland for themselves, anchored by the city of Kirkuk, and they won't give it up, not after centuries of subjugation.  Certainly, the Iraqi army can't retake the Kurdish territory, and the Kurdish paramilitary Pesh Merga appears more formidable than ISIS. 

The Shiites in Iraq hold the southern and southeastern portions of the country, which contains most of Iraq's oil wealth.  Why fight for the less valuable land farther north when they already hold the jackpot?

Trying to keep Iraq together is guaranteed to produce unmanageable friction and endless warfare.  The Iranians now have their claws into the Baghdad government, and won't give that up.  America's Sunni allies on the Arabian Peninsula--Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, etc.--have many secret supporters of ISIS, who will be royally p.o.'d if the Shiite government in Baghdad is able, with American assistance, to repress Sunni tribes in Iraq.  The Kurds have quietly allied themselves with Israel and sometimes with America, and pissing them off could weaken America's influence in the region.

America's power in the region might increase if Iraq were partitioned.  Even though once betrayed by the CIA, the Kurds would still ally themselves with the U.S., and offer American personnel a centrally located place from which to operate.  The Shiite Baghdad government might want to maintain friendly ties with America in order to counterbalance the Iranians.  Yes, the Baghdad government has cozied up to Iran.  But the Iranians are Persian, and the people in Baghdad are Arabs.  Iraq and Iran fought a bitter war with over a million dead in the 1980s, and the Baghdad government won't want its territory to become a province of a new Persian empire.

As for the Sunni area now controlled by ISIS, the U.S. could do what it did during the 2007 surge:  buy off the indigenous Iraqi Sunni tribes.  That's how the U.S. defeated al-Qaeda once before, and it's a way to undermine ISIS now.  The whack jobs that control ISIS impose an extremely harsh form of Islam--even al-Qaeda gave ISIS the boot because it thought ISIS unduly brutal (imagine that!).  The indigenous Sunni tribes in Iraq tend toward moderation, and won't be happy with the beheadings, stonings, non-medical amputations, and other barbarism that ISIS will inflict.  It's a safe assumption that U.S. Special Forces personnel and CIA agents have already started slipping into ISIS controlled areas.  Money talks, and thoughtfully large sums of money placed in the hands of the right Sunni chieftains might well lead to an ousting of ISIS.  The Sunnis might well want to carve out their own independent state, and the U.S. shouldn't get in the way.  A stable, moderate Sunni state in northern Iraq is far less likely than an ISIS caliphate to serve as an incubator of Islamic extremists who would target the U.S.  Especially if American aid flows generously to such a nation.  And America's allies in the Arabian peninsula might look favorably upon such a sanctuary for their religious brethren.

Partitioning has flaws, but not as many as the alternatives.  Yugoslavia no longer exists, but its constituent parts have learned with assistance from NATO how to refrain from ethnic cleansing.  The borders of the Near East (Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Syria and Egypt) are the result of partitioning.  Yes, there's a lot of tension and some low level warfare in the Near East.  But the utter chaos of today's Iraq isn't present.  And South Asia is functional, if not entirely peaceful.

Re-uniting Iraq will involve combat and civilian deaths, probably a lot of them.  All of America's elites, war hawks, chicken hawks, experts, pundits, and bombasts don't have an effective way to put Iraq back together again, not unless hundreds of thousands of American troops are reintroduced to re-fight the ground war.  And that ain't happening.  It's better to leverage the new status quo, which we can't change anyway, to our advantage. 

Thursday, June 12, 2014

How To Reduce Volatility in Your Retirement Income

The S&P 500 has dropped three days in a row, and after all the market calm of recent months, many investors must be thinking that the apocalypse looms.  There are understandable explanations for the recent downdrafts.  Islamic radicals of the Sunni variety have rapidly seized several towns and cities in Iraq, along with American weapons and vehicles provided to the Iraqi government (and the administration worries about giving small arms to moderate Syrian rebels?).  Iranian paramilitary troops, who are Shiites, supposedly are fighting alongside Iraqi government troops to retake territory seized by the Sunni radicals. Is Iran now a more important ally of the Iraqi government than the U.S.?

Russian tanks have reportedly rolled into Ukraine, where the fighting is escalating.  Bashir Assad is winning in Syria, and the moderate rebels that the U.S. supports seem to be almost inconsequential.  Most of East Asia is squabbling over this island or that, with contending nations issuing many a proclamation declaiming a neighbor as a ratfink, a double ratfink or even a triple ratfink. 

Domestic politics also create uncertainty for the markets.  Eric Cantor, House Majority Leader, was just defenestrated in a primary election by a guy from far right field whose name, even if we mentioned it now, you probably wouldn't recognize.  (But we're going to, because it's Dave Brat, a marvelously fitting name for a guy who ousted the Majority Leader.)  Cantor, who outspent his opponent's six-figure campaign by $5 million, convincingly proved that money isn't everything.  Not even in politics.  The Koch brothers must be scratching their heads about what checks to write next.

The markets will always be plagued by volatility.  And it tends to pop up when you least expect it.  That might be inherent in the definition of volatility, but you know what we mean.  Yogurt happens, but you don't want your retirement finances smeared with yogurt.  While there are no complete protections against the ups and downs of life, here are a few ideas for calming the financial waves.

Build Up Social Security Benefits.  Disregard the hyperbole.  Social Security will be there when you retire.  Maybe not exactly as it is now, but nevertheless in a meaningful form.  Any politician who votes to eliminate or sharply reduce Social Security retirement benefits will end up doing an Eric Cantor faster than Eric Cantor as voters reject the idea that they should have to eat dog food in their old age.  Work as long as you can to build up your benefits.

Get a Pension.  If you're lucky enough to get a pension, stick out it long enough in that job to qualify.  Although classic defined benefits pensions are usually found these days only alongside the remains of diplodocus, lasso one if you can.  Other pension arrangements, like cash balance plans, are a lot better than no pension. 

Save More.  Saving more is a salve for portfolio instability and financial insecurity.  Those that have the saving jones won't have to get loans.

Use Retirement Accounts.  Retirement accounts like 401(k)s, IRAs and so on offer tax advantages that let you leverage your retirement savings, while limiting your ability to prematurely spend your savings.  A particular advantage to a 401(k) account comes if your employer provides a matching contribution, which is the freest money most people can get.  Use these accounts as much as you can.

Diversity Your Investments.  The values of all assets wax and wane.  But they usually don't wax and wane in unison.  More commonly, some assets get yeasty while others do the fallen souffle thing.  And vice versa.  So a diversified portfolio is usually kind to your antacid budget.  There are moments, like the 2008-09 financial crisis, when it seems like almost all assets belly flop.  But these cognitively dissonant interludes are the exception and not the rule. 

Consider an Annuity.  A fixed annuity (one that pays a specified dollar amount per month) or a fixed annuity adjusted for inflation can be a reasonable way to provide a steady income.  Annuities aren't cheap, and you should buy only from an insurance company with a strong credit rating. Don't put more than about one-third to one-half of your portfolio into an annuity because cash needs in old age can be unpredictable and it helps to have a nice pool of cash or cash equivalents.  Be very cautious about variable annuities--they often have high expenses, and the point here is to reduce volatility, not subject yourself to it in another form. 

Health Insurance and Long Term Care Insurance.  Financial volatility can sometimes come from sudden increases in expenses, and not just decreases in portfolio values.  Health care and long term care needs are the biggest landmines in the journey through retirement.  Most retirees are covered by Medicare, but if you're not, then buy something else.  The Affordable Care Act, despite all the teeth-gnashing on the right, is likely to be a good option if you don't have anything else.  If you have a significant net worth, consider buying long term care insurance, especially if you have a spouse who may depend on that net worth after you've gone to the great Dance Party in the sky.  It's expensive, but so is long term care.  If you want more than the quality of care given to Medicaid patients, long term care insurance may be a good choice.

Part-time Work.  Okay, you want to hear about retirement, not employment.  But part-time employment reduces the extent you need to draw down your savings, so you can keep more powder dry for later.  It also lessens your risk of dying from the boredom of day time TV.  It may boost your Social Security benefits (depending on your work history).  And the dignity of work is better than the indignity of looking for sales on dog food.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Going Negative in Europe

"Going negative" is a political term of art, usually meaning that one candidate campaigns primarily by throwing mud at the other candidate(s).  In our jaded times, going negative has come to predominate.  Trash talking, if nothing else, captures attention.

These days, Europe is going negative for political reasons, although not in the usual sense.  The European Central Bank announced recently that it was cutting the interest rate it pays on deposits from banks to -0.1%.  In other words, banks that deposit funds with the ECB will pay a 0.1% fee for the privilege of having the ECB hold their money.  The ECB claims to be concerned with a low nominal interest rate of 0.5%, and supposedly cut rates below zero to spur bank lending.  Whether more lending will be done is unclear, as banks in the EU have been awfully finicky about extending credit in recent years (except to sovereign nations that sometimes aren't creditworthy).  Banks could cover the costs of the ECB's negative move by lowering interest rates paid on deposits (i.e., on longer term deposits that still have a positive rate) and increasing lending rates for existing borrowers. There's no necessary reason for them to make new loans.

The 0.5% inflation rate that supposedly led the ECB to go negative isn't strikingly different from the low inflation that already prevailed in Europe. One can't help wondering how much the EU was motivated by politics, as opposed to monetary policy.  The EU's badly conceived structure--a monetary union without true fiscal controls--encouraged overly enthusiastic borrowing by sovereign members, particularly those that were economically weaker.  The resulting debt crisis was met with the EU's BYOB (bring your own bailout) policy that meant austerity for those least able to cope, and economic recession (or, in some EU member nations, depression).  It's hardly surprising that political extremism flourished.
 
Nationalistic parties in Europe have recently made striking gains in EU parliamentary elections (yes, in the election of delegates to the EU Parliament, a quarter of whom now would favor the dissolution of the EU).  It must scare the mudcakes out of the ECB's bureaucrats that a quarter of the EU's governing body would be pleased to defenestrate the ECB.

Moreover, nationalistic impulses in Russia led to its seizure of Crimea from Ukraine.  Even though Russia formally transferred Crimea in political marriage to Ukraine in the 1950s, Vladimir Putin (Vlad the Invader, one might call him) seems to believe that Russia nevertheless holds a droit du seigneur to take Crimea for itself. In addition, Russian nationalism (plus surreptitious Russian military intervention) has fueled unrest in eastern Ukraine, leading to civil warfare.  It now looks like Ukraine may go the way of Syria.  Neither side is strong enough to win, and both sides are supported by outside interests that cannot afford to lose.  Russia can protect its interests by keeping the insurgency going at a low boil, just enough that Ukraine is afraid to cozy up too closely to NATO.  America has to do something to help Ukraine, but can't offer enough military assistance to decisively defeat the insurgents.  (Given the pathetic performance of the Ukrainian military, the only way the insurgents can be defeated is if we send in the Marines, and that ain't happening).  So, the nastiness of irregular warfare and flight of civilians from war zones, so familiar to observers of the Syrian civil war, is now being replayed in Ukraine.

Policy makers at the ECB undoubtedly noticed the rising manifestations of nationalism around them, and surely understand that the fiscal austerity imposed by the doyennes of the EU isn't doing a bang up job of fostering economic growth.  That leaves the central bank as the only actor in this drama who can administer the antidote to extremism:  the promotion of economic prosperity.  So, the ECB surely is going negative for political reasons.  And that's a problem.  Central banks were created to foster financial stability, not political stability.  But, with political processes in Europe (as well as in America) moribund on their best days, the ECB is trying to bail out a life raft with a tea cup.  And it's not hard to figure out its chances of success.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Lucky, Lucky Fed

Soldiers want their generals to be lucky.  As capable and knowledgeable as generals may be, they still need luck to win.  And citizens want their central banks to be lucky, because central bankers often fail even if they are capable and knowledgeable.

The Federal Reserve has been very, very lucky.  Unrest in Ukraine, territorial disputes in East Asia, the usual morass in the Middle East, and now nationalist parties winning European elections, have all combined to push U.S. Treasury yields down even as the Fed steadily withdraws its quantitative easing.  Financial markets mavens who confidently predicted that this would be the year of rising interest rates and falling stock prices have had to substitute excuses and explanations for predictions. 

Some still persist in forecasting rising rates and falling stocks.  Perhaps they will be proven correct.  But if you're betting your money on these predictions, remember that you're, at least in part, betting on the Fed's luck running out.  A bet on bad luck is still a bet on luck.  If you wouldn't play the lottery or patronize a casino, why bet on (or against) the central bank's luck?  The smart thing to do is stay diversified, and be patient.  (See http://blogger.uncleleosden.com/2014/05/why-you-should-invest-like-smart-money.html.)  The tortoise tends to be a better investor than the hare.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Why You Should Invest Like the Smart Money

One characteristic of the investing strategies of the wealthy is to diversify.  Stocks, bonds, money markets, real estate, alternative investments, collectibles, precious metals, jewelry, and so on are frequently found in the portfolios of the high net worth crowd.  Diversifying is a way to win no matter what's going on with asset values, and the wealthy want to stay wealthy.

The 99% should do no different, and recent market activity illustrates why.  Bond values have improbably risen in recent weeks, while stocks are stuck in a trading range right about where they started the year.  Gold and silver went up earlier this year, but have slid back.  Real estate ended 2013 with a roaring comeback, but now seems to have stalled out in many markets.  International markets have delinked, with Asian markets generally falling over the past six months, while European markets have moved up slightly (Ukraine crisis notwithstanding).  It would not have been easy to predict this mix of events.  Indeed, it's rare to find financial analysts who predict much of anything right.  Few predicted the 2007-08 financial crisis.  Few predicted the 30% jump in stocks in 2013.  Few predicted that bonds would rise this year.

The investing patterns of the smart money reveal that the smart move is to diversify.  Don't look for a quick buck.  You'll probably get a quick loss.  Don't look to hit a home run with a single investment.  The financial press may glamorize the few who manage to do that, but generally pays little attention to the many who fail.  Don't try to predict the unpredictable.  There are rare situations, like 2008-09, when all asset classes seem to be falling in value.  That's what can happen when vast amounts of debt and other leverage enter the financial system in one-sided bets dependent on rising asset values.  When that debt begins to lose value, the assets it was used to buy are at serious risk.  But more typical is what we have today--a lot of uncertainty, but some of the uncertainty is about the upside and some about the downside.  Most of the time, diversification is the best way to play your cards. 

And if you're still unhappy about your net worth, save more.  Whether the markets are doing well or badly, adding to your pool of capital will pay off in the long run.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Fed Guidance in a Fog

The terrain is getting foggier and foggier for the Federal Reserve.  Most recently, GDP barely grew (at an annual rate of 0.1% for the first quarter of 2014).  But nonfarm employment grew by 288,000 jobs in April, a pretty good pace.  And the unemployment rate dropped to 6.3%.  Not that many Fed Open Market Committee meetings ago, an unemployment level of 6.3% would have been below the point where the Fed's guidance dictated a rise in short term interest rates.  But rising rates would make the stock market pout and sulk.  So the Fed has backed away from firm benchmarks for monetary policy and is electrically sliding its way toward a strictly "data-based" policy.  What does that mean?  Apparently, it means whatever the Fed thinks the data indicates it should do in order to promote full employment. But if the data is becoming less clear, then what?

For more than a decade, the Fed has worked to provide greater transparency.  That's perceived to be a good thing because it tells the financial markets what to expect.  Presumably, investors will make wiser decisions if they better understand the lay of the land.  But transparency also encourages risk-taking.  If you know what the central bank will do, you can layer on more speculative bets because one factor that might blow you up now seems predictable.  This perhaps unintended consequence of transparency tends to lock the Fed into its guidance, and limit its options, because if you do something other than what you say, all the hedge funds, big banks and other speculators might get hosed.  And then the specter of a systemic tummy ache would loom. 

With the data getting murkier as the economy recovery sputters along, the Fed has become less transparent.  Most likely, this isn't accidental, as the Open Market Committee no doubt can see that the data is telling them less and less, and benchmarks don't mean what they used to mean.  The gamblers in the stock markets can't be happy, as the odds have become harder to calculate.  Fed policy now depends on the data, and recent data resembles a pushmi-pullyu.  

The Fed still hums the low interest rate melody even though it doesn't sing the lyrics any more.  That's a pretty good pacifier for the stock market, at least for now.  But with foreign affairs descending into the mosh pit (who wants to bet Vlad the Invader won't strike again?), and the economic recovery constantly shifting back and forth between first and second gears, the data--and consequently the Fed's guidance--will probably get foggier.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Shrinking Deficit: a Plus for the Market

The federal deficit is projected by the Congressional Budget Office to be just under $500 billion this fiscal year (the year ending Sept. 30, 2014). (See http://www.cnbc.com/id/101581648.) That's a lot of money, but only one-third the deficit of five years ago.  In other words, the deficit is lower by a trillion dollars, compared to half a decade ago.  That's a whopping huge drop, which leaves this year's deficit at 2.8% of GDP, below its historical norm of 3%.

When deficits fall, the government competes less in the credit markets against private sector borrowers.  This makes it easier for private interests to secure investment capital, a key predicate to economic growth.

Stocks tend to rise during periods of falling federal deficits.  The late 1940s and the 1950s are one example.  The 1990s are another.  The fact that stocks have risen steadily from their 2009 lows indicates that we are in another period of falling deficits and rising stocks. 

The future direction of the deficit is unclear.  The CBO predicts that it will fall a bit more next year and then begin to rise.  However, five years ago CBO didn't come close to predicting the deficit reduction we now have.  The weird, dysfunctional cognitive dissonance that is today's federal governance somehow managed to produce this beneficial result.  Who knows whether it might stumble its way to more good outcomes.  If the deficit stays moderate (near 3%), the markets will probably benefit.  While there are many other factors fueling volatility today, the federal deficit, improbably, isn't one of them.