Long time Outside of the Box readers are familiar with John Hussman of the eponymous Hussman Funds. And once again he is my selection for this week's OTB.
This week he touches on several topics, all of which I find interesting. As he notes:
"We face two possible states of the world. One is a world in which our economic problems are largely solved, profits are on the mend, and things will soon be back to normal, except for a lot of unemployed people whose fate is, let's face it, of no concern to Wall Street. The other is a world that has enjoyed a brief intermission prior to a terrific second act in which an even larger share of credit losses will be taken, and in which the range of policy choices will be more restricted because we've already issued more government liabilities than a banana republic, and will steeply debase our currency if we do it again. It is not at all clear that the recent data have removed any uncertainty as to which world we are in."
Have a good week.
We all know that a large wave of Baby Boomers in the US are approaching retirement. But what about the rest of the world? And what happens when those retirees need to spend out of savings? There is more than just a credit crisis and a government deficit crisis in our future. A rising level of retirrees to workers is happening even as I write. And the US is not, for once, the center of the problem. As this week's writer of your Outside the Box Niels Jensen explains, we cannot all export our way out of the problem. There is a global adjustment that must happen and when it does, it will have serious consequences for all. This week's letter is guaranteed to make you think. Set aside a few minutes to do so.
Niels Jensen is the Senior Partner of Absolute Return Partners based in London. I have worked closely with Niels for years and have found him to be one of the more savvy observers of the markets I know. You can see more of his work at www.arpllp.com and contact them at email@example.com.
This week we look at a number of charts of various parts of the credit markets to see what kind of progress is being made on getting back to "normal" or to a "new normal." And my friend Prieur du Plessis shows us there is reason to believe that we have seen the worst.
"This too shall pass" are words we should all take to heart. Things will neither stay on permanently high or low plateaus. Those doom and gloomers who expect the world to keep devolving back to some pastoral age of scarcity where we will all need those guns and freeze dried food will be disappointed. We are simply hitting the re-set button on many of our institutions and businesses, and while the adjustment is painful, we will eventually get through it. Today's Outside the Box is a kind of map that tells us where we are in the process.
Dr Prieur du Plessis is chairman of Plexus Asset Management and writes the Investment Postcards from Cape Town blog (www.investmentpostcards.com). Click here to subscribe to e-mail updates to the blog.
This week I am really delighted to be able to give you a condensed version of Gary Shilling's latest INSIGHT newsletter for your Outside the Box. Each month I really look forward to getting Gary's latest thoughts on the economy and investing. Last year in his forecast issue he suggested 13 investment ideas, all of which were profitable by the end of the year. It is not unusual for Gary to give us over 75 charts and tables in his monthly letters along with his commentary, which makes his thinking unusually clear and accessible. Gary was among the first to point out the problems with the subprime market and predict the housing and credit crises. You can learn more about his letter at http://www.agaryshilling.com. If you want to subscribe (for $275), you can call 888-346-7444. Tell them that you read about it in Outside the Box and you will get not only his recent 2009 forecast issue with the year's investment themes, but an extra issue with his 2010 forecast (of course, that one will not come out for a year. Gary is good but not that good!) I trust you are enjoying your week. And enjoy this week's Outside the Box....
And if you have cable and get Fox Business News, I will be on Happy Hour tomorrow Tuesday the 17th at 5 pm Eastern. Have a great week.
This week's writer of the Outside the Box is no stranger to long time readers. Michael Lewitt writes the HCM Market Letter and is one of my favorite writers and truly deep thinkers. He has recently decided to turn his letter into a subscription based model and is meeting with some success, as he should. So, sadly, he will no longer be a regular feature of OTB, but he did allow me to use the current letter, as I think it is one of his more provocative letters.
This is a piece you want to think through. Michael discusses the continuing series of bailouts, the consequences of the stimulus package, the various policy options and the likely response of the economy to all of the above. Plus he makes a few market calls and some interesting observations. I am truly pleased to be able to send this to you.
This week we look at the European bank markets through the eyes of my London partner Niels Jensen, head of Absolute Return Partners. I continue to believe that this is a brewing crisis which could have far more significant implications for the global economy than the Asian Crisis of 1998. In this week's Outside the Box, Niels has compiled a sobering set of data that suggests that only massive government involvement in Europe on a scale that is unprecedented will keep the wheels from coming off in Europe and the global economy.
I have worked closely with Niels for years and have found him to be one of the more savvy observers of the markets I know. You can see more of his work at www.arpllp.com and contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I get a lot of newsletters from money managers around the country, which I try and read as they are written by people who are —in the trenches,— actually making decisions on behalf of their clients. It broadens my perspective. Frankly, most are not all that well written and unimaginative, but who ever said writing was easy? But some really strike a chord with me. Today's Outside the Box I have read twice, which is unusual for me. Cliff Draughn is a wealth manager in Savannah, Georgia (Draughn Partners) and a good friend. His letter is a wide ranging tome on a variety of topics, but is full of common sense and one that I think will resonate with readers. I trust you will enjoy this.
This week I am really delighted to be able to give you a condensed version of Gary Shilling's latest INSIGHT newsletter for your Outside the Box. Each month I really look forward to getting Gary's latest thoughts on the economy and investing. Last year in his forecast issue he suggested 13 investment ideas, all of which were profitable by the end of the year. It is not unusual for Gary to give us over 75 charts and tables in his monthly letters along with his commentary, which makes his thinking unusually clear and accessible.
Gary was among the first to point out the problems with the subprime market and predict the housing and credit crises. You can learn more about his letter at http://www.agaryshilling.com. If you want to subscribe, you can call 888-346-7444. Tell them that you read about it in Outside the Box and you will get not only his 2009 forecast issue but an extra issue with his 2010 forecast (of course, that one will not come out for a year. Gary is good but not that good!)
I trust you are enjoying the holidays. And enjoy this week's Outside the Box.
Can the credit crisis get any worse? In this week's Outside the Box my London partner Niels Jensen shows that it indeed can. Banks, and mainly European banks, have large exposure to emerging market debt of all types through both sovereign, corporate and individual loans. Just as banks have had to write down large losses from the subprime crisis and other related problems, next will come a wave of potential losses from yet another source. Niels then goes on to give us a look the size and problems with hedge fund deleveraging. Altogether, this is a very interesting letter and one that is written from a non-US point of view that I think you will find instructive.
Exhale for a moment, forget your losses for the time being, and try to appreciate the fact that you're living through the single most important development in global finance since Bretton Woods. This is a "tell the grandkids about it" moment, when governments all around the world have essentially decided in unison that it's time to rewrite the rules, the very framework, in which financial transactions take place. Stock trading, interbank lending, commercial paper, the very concept of private sector ownership are all up in the air right now.
The only thing I can tell you with certainty is that if you try to evaluate your investments using the same metrics you've always relied on - P/E ratios, market share, interest rates, etc. - you're going to be as successful as a football-turned-baseball coach evaluating a pitcher by the number of touchdowns he throws. The rules are changing, gentle reader, changing at least for awhile from market-driven inputs to government-driven inputs. If you try to apply what you know from the "old game" without understanding that you're playing a "new game," the rules might not make sense.
I'm sending you today a piece from my friend George Friedman on how his company Stratfor looks at economics. More precisely, this piece explains how they look at Political Economy. And from here on out, it's political economy that's going to be driving markets. If the old rule was "Never fight the Fed." It's now, "Never fight the Fed. And the Treasury. And the ECB. And the Bank of England. And the Bank of Japan...." You get my point.
George has very kindly arranged for a special offer on a Stratfor Membership for my readers. I strongly encourage you to click here to take advantage of this offer. Now more than ever, you need the kinds of insights that you can't get from traditional finance sources. You need a wider lens, and there's no one better than George and his team at Stratfor at this kind of analysis. I know you'll find them as valuable as I do.
Your Taking-It-All-In Analyst,
The credit crisis is global. Interestingly, some of the more creative and straight forward solutions are coming from England. This week in Outside the Box I am presenting you with a very well written (even entertaining) letter from Bedlam Asset Management from London www.bedlamplc.com on their view of the crisis. It is always instructive to look at your problems from the point of view of another party, and even more some when they give you some thoughtful and cogent analysis.
I have to admit, seeing green on my screen feels good, but we are in a recession that is global and is likely to get worse. What we need to do now is assess what our response will be. First, we need to avoid the pitfalls and then look around for the opportunities which will be presented us. I think this week's Outside the Box will help you think through your personal situation.
Many of us in the US are focused on our own woes. But this is a global credit crisis. In today's Outside the Box, we take a look at the currency markets, which are in an historic upheaval and also look at what is going on in Europe. I suspect that Europe is in for a period of much distress, as the world begins to deleverage That is why one government after another will back the deposits of banks within their countries, for otherwise capital will flee to countries like Ireland and Germany which ARE guaranteeing the deposits for all banks in their borders. Many European banks are leveraged 50 to 1 (not a misprint). I suspect that more government will do like Belgium and the Netherlands and inject capital directly into their local banks deemed too big to fail.
I am going to give you three brief pieces which all look at a different part of the crisis, but looking at the crisis from a more international perspective. The first is from Dennis Gartman's letter (www.thegartmanletter.com) with his views on the overnight currency markets. (Note: the yen has risen even more since he wrote!)
The second piece is a short note from my friends at GaveKal (www.gavekal.com) in which they ask can the euro survive and if so, what will it look like? Very provocative, but in line with my thoughts that the euro will one day be once again at par against the dollar.
The last piece is a column by Wolfgang Munchau writing in today's Financial Times. Munchau argues that the fact that EU member nations managed to survive their first series of bank failures does not mean it can afford to take the risk of defaulting to continued improvisation. Munchau comes out squarely in favor of a coordinated, funded rescue program. Again, thought provoking, and as I noted in this week's letter, something that the US could face within a few weeks as well.
Fascinating markets and times we live in. Let's hope for a rally tomorrow.
Do government bailouts in times of banking crises work? Philippa Dunne & Doug Henwood of The Liscio Report highlight a major study of 42 fairly recent banking crises around the world. Result? Some types of government intervention works and some don't. One characteristic that is needed though is speed. Dithering, a la Japan, is a recipe for disaster. This is a brief summary of the report (to which they provide a link) and their conclusions as to the basic outlines of what the US should do. Given that Europe is already in the throws of its own bank crisis, and the rest of the world could experience problems, this should be useful reading. They also provide graphs of banking crises and comparisons with developed countries and the resulting market experience.
One major point? This is like the old Fram oil filter commercial line "Pay me now or pay me later." As this study points out, the tax payers and citizens of the US (and the world) are going to pay for this crisis in one way or another. Either a major recession (with high and persistent unemployment), reduced incomes and tax collections or a collective efforts to stabilize the banking system. The costs of inaction are much higher. It is not a matter of cost or no cost. We are going to have to pay in one form or another.
We cannot avoid the costs given where we are today. The time to avoid cost was years ago reigning in Freddie and Fannie and proper oversight of the mortgage industry. We (Congress) missed that opportunity. (Sadly, we are going to re-elect the very leadership to both parties largely responsible for the neglect. There is plenty of blame to go around. No amount of partisan finger pointing by Speaker Pelosi shifts that blame.) However, we can choose the form of the cost will be paid in. Personally, I prefer collective efforts to 10% or more unemployment and the risk of an extended recession and its costs. I know this is not pure free market theory, and sticks in the craw of many of my readers, but when many of my neighbors and friends will be unemployed and businesses are suffering theory will not make a very good meal. Congress must act now. This report is a good reminder of what has worked in the past.
My thanks to Philippa and Doug for allowing me to send this as a Special Outside the Box. You can see their work and blog at http://www.theliscioreport.com.
In this weekend's Thoughts from the Frontlines, I quoted from part of a very thoughtful, right-on-target analysis by David A. Rosenberg entitled "The Elusive Bottom." Over the weekend, I decided that you should read the whole piece, as Rosenberg makes some very solid points about how the markets and the economy may play out over the next few years. He has a non-consensus viewpoint, but that is what I like for Outside the Box. In fact, I think this is one of the more thought-provoking pieces I have used in OTB for some time.
Rosenberg is the North American Economist for Merrill Lynch. They were gracious to give me permission to send this letter out on such a short notice, and I believe you will well served to take the time to think through his analysis. And rather than try and give you a quick summary, let's just jump right in.
It is indeed a very interesting time in which to live, especially watching the financial markets. The disconnect among authorities, regulators, companies and investors is almost too much to comprehend. There are no precedents for the turmoil we are in. This week we read an essay by a name familiar to readers of Outside Box, Michael Lewitt of Hegemony Capital Management (www.hegcap.com). As usual he offers us some very cogent comments on the continuing efforts by those in authority to bail out the system, along with insights on the deal by Merrill and the woes at GM. It is a very interesting letter, so I will stand aside and let Michael jump in.
This week in Outside the Box we take up a topic that should be on the top of the agenda of every regulatory authority, executives at financial services firms of all types, and average investors: How do we fix the credit markets to make sure we do not have such a crisis again? Good friend Michael Lewitt of Hegemony Capital Management gives us his observations, some of which go further than I would personally like to see us go. But this is the conversation that must happen if we are to steer clear of future crises. It is clear to me now that a laissez faire approach to regulating certain financial instruments exposes the entire economy to risks much larger than the loss of a business here or there. While better disclosure is certainly appropriate, it is not enough.
I think that we should seriously consider having an exchange for credit default swaps and other similar OTC derivatives. If Bear Stearns is deemed too big to fail because of the extent of its CDS book, and taxpayers are put at risk in a bailout, which I agree was necessary, then rules must limit taxpayer exposure. Having futures and options trade on an exchange certainly hasn't limited commerce or restrained business, and with instantaneous execution and inexpensive transactions there is little friction from using an exchange.
Getting the rules right in the future is going to be difficult and contentious. But it is something we must begin to do as soon as possible. The footnotes that Michael uses are at the end.
This week's Outside the Box is from my friends at Hoisington Management. While somewhat technical, they make the case that a slowdown in consumer spending is inevitable. This is worth taking some time and thinking about. Quoting: "This means that consumer spending increases should be approximately zero for the next three years. Further exacerbating the problem is the personal saving rate which declined from 5.2% in the decade of the 1990s to average 1.3% in the last seven years, and now stands at 0.3%. Should declining wealth, rising unemployment and poor economic conditions cause consumers to begin to save and lift the rate back to the 1.3% average of the past seven years, real consumer spending would experience a multi-year contraction."
If they are right, and the evidence of their research is compelling, then we are in for a much tougher time than the recent stock market rallies suggest. The stock market is not always a leading indicator. This week's letter suggests that businesses that depend on the US consumer for growth may be in trouble.
This week's Outside the Box is going to be a little different. I am going to write about the extraordinary action by the NY Fed to foster the Bear Stearns deal with JP Morgan, and give you three brief notes from Michael Lewitt of Harch Capital Management and Bob Eisenbeis (former executive vice-president of the Federal Reserve of Atlanta) of Cumberland Advisors.
This week look at a short but very important piece by Bill Gross. He has my same concern about credit default swaps, but he puts a number to it. He thinks the cost to the world economic system could be in the $250 billion dollar range. Add that to the $250 billion in losses due to the subprime markets, and you are starting to talk real money. The Shadow Banking System is at the center of the problem. I trust you will find this of interest.
Bill Gross was just named Fixed Income Manager of the Year by Morningstar. He sits on the largest pile of bonds in the world at PIMCO and is their Managing Director.
But before we get to Gross's piece, let's look at these few paragraphs which set the scene for the problem in the CDS market from good friend Michael Lewitt of HCM:
"This brings us to the second and, in our view, greater concern raised by Mr. Seides, which is the financial strength (or weakness) of counterparties and their ability to post additional collateral when their positions move against them. This is undoubtedly going to be a growing concern as mortgage and other credit losses swell in 2008. The dirty little secret in the leveraged finance market is that many participants, including many CDS counterparties, are "weak hands." A "weak hand" is an investor whose capital base is subject to erosion due to losses or investor redemptions, such as a hedge fund. "Weak hands" are usually significant employers of leverage as well.
"It is a widely acknowledged fact that many of the participants in the CDS market are hedge funds whose capital is subject to the whims of performance-chasing investors. As the disappointing performance of some previous top performing hedge funds demonstrated last year, investment banks and other financial institutions that are counting on these counterparties to fulfill their part of the bargain in CDS contracts could be left holding the bag if the current credit environment continues to deteriorate, as many of us expect.
"A case in point was the collapse of Dublin-based Structured Credit Company (SCC) in December 2007, which is seeing its 12 trading partners lose about 95 percent of what they are owed, according to the Financial Times. SCC was just a couple of years old and was one of a new brand of Credit Derivative Product Companies (observation: these companies should use a "skull and crossbones" as their corporate logo). It had no credit rating (although HCM would not have been surprised to see it obtain one since the rating agencies were handing out ratings left and right during this period) and $200 million of capital on top of which it wrote $5 billion of credit default swaps. We will save our readers from doing the math ? that is 25-to-1 leverage (significantly less than many Structured Investment Vehicles, just to place this insanity in some kind of context). Low and behold, when the credit markets collapsed last summer and SCC was required to post additional collateral on its trades, there was ? to quote Gertrude Stein ? "no there there."
"Court documents show that collateral demands rose from $55 million to $438 million, but SCC ran out of funds after managing to post $175 million, and the game was up. Was such an outcome unforeseeable? Only for someone completely ignorant of the last 500 years of economic history, HCM supposes. SCC boasted, of course, that "we have stress-tested our capital to the ?nth' degree and believe that the platform we have is the most flexible and comprehensive you could have." Right. HCM would respectfully suggest that the only ones more misinformed than SCC itself were those who were lured into taking the other side of their trades and are now nursing $250 million of losses (and frankly it's shocking that the losses aren't much larger). Of course, these firms included some of the largest financial institutions in the world, so once again HCM finds itself scratching its head in amazement at the madness of crowds."
25 to 1 leverage and stress testing do not belong in the same sentence or marketing pitch. This type of ending for various funds is going to become all too common.
The subprime problem, we were told, would not spread to other markets. It would be "contained." And it has, according to Jim Grant. He quipped last week that it has been contained on planet Earth. The risks coming from rising defaults in the US (now above 600,000 and rising from just 200,000 a few years ago) are clearly spreading to markets far beyond the subprime world.
This week's Outside the Box talks about the next two dominoes that could fall: junk bonds and counterparty risk in the various credit default swap markets. Ted Seides is the Director of Investments at Protégé Partners, LLC, a hybrid fund of funds that invests in and seeds small, specialized hedge funds. He writes this week's piece in Peter Bernstein's Economic and Portfolio Strategy, one of the most respected of market analysis letters. You can learn more about the letter at www.peterlbernsteininc.com.
This piece is a little longer than most letters, but it is one of the more important editions of Outside the Box this year. This is a must read. You absolutely need to understand the nature of the systemic risk we are facing, and Ted does a great job of explaining in very clear terms the nature of the risks that we have created din our modern markets. I have left the footnotes in, and they are at the end of the letter.