I debated with myself about what to send as this week's Outside the Box. I have decided on a recent short but important post from my friend David Kotok, Chairman and Chief Investment Officer of Cumberland Advisors. He calls it "I'm Worried." There are some very thought-provoking ideas here, but what makes it particularly interesting is that I'm running into this sentiment more and more as I travel around the US; and when I'm abroad I also hear from people who are worried about the US. These are folks who rightly realize the world needs a strong US, both as an economic engine and as a leader – a chairman of the board, if you will – of a growing world. (Can the world grow and prosper without us? Of course, but not as easily, and the transition will not be pretty.)
So this "worried" theme is one I hear, read, and see firsthand more and more each passing week. It's that gnawing feeling that things are just not going right and that our leaders are simply not up to the task of setting the ship on a steady course, even as they almost universally acknowledge we are on the wrong course and assert that the deficit must be dealt with. As with David, this concern is most vivid for me at the close of the day as I review my own thoughts and think on the future of my family and friends.
This deficit of ours is the single most important political and economic question of our time. How we address it, or fail to address it, will set an economic course that can once again turn vibrant and hopeful, or one in which we find ourselves sideways to some monster waves, and capsize. We watch Greece and Spain and worry as we look askance at our own fiscal situation and wonder whether we will be able to kick the can around the deck for "just one more year," before our ship is on the rocks. There is a growing sense that the last one more year may be fast approaching, through the fog. Europe is already there. Can our own denouement lie very far ahead?
I have known Kotok for the better part of a decade now. Mostly, he is a quite bullish and optimistic fellow; and, as he notes, he is fully invested in his client accounts and has caught the latest ride. He organizes the annual Maine fishing trip that has become quite the gathering of economists and writers. There, he has often chided me in the wonderful Maine evenings for what he perceives as my bearish views, although last year with Nouriel Roubini there I was at least not the most bearish of the group.
My main view, say a 60% probability, is that we do in fact deal with the deficit here in the US in 2013. I will enjoy becoming bullish once again and telling my kids to look to the future with hope. But like David I am worried. What should be just a bump in the road for the US and the free-market world can become mountainous if we do not face the real problems before us, if we do not recognize that "We have met the enemy, and he is us."
I choose to remember that David, in his brighter moments, is not quite so brooding. A good night's sleep may help. And yet, he voices a concern that is moving from the backs of our minds to the forefront with increasing urgency, across the full political and social spectrum. The drumbeat is becoming insistent that something must be done, and soon.
(You can read more of David's commentaries at www.cumber.com.)
I was in New York last Wednesday, and Tom Keene of Bloomberg TV was kind enough to invite me on his show for an extended interview and thoughtful exchange, not the usual two-minute drill. You can see that interview on johnmauldin.com. The link is on the left side of the page.
Have a great week. I think I will write to my friend Louis Gave and tell him to send me something bullish for next week's Outside the Box. I can usually count on him to find the silver lining. And now if someone can just arrange for some sun in San Francisco this weekend, I am sure I will get more positive about the world. David, maybe we should invite Louis to Maine to perk us up?!
Your really believing we Muddle Through analyst,
For your Outside the Box today I treat you to another big, juicy slab of Grant Williams' Things That Make You Go Hmmm… I don't want to be all Grant all the time, but this is just so good I couldn't resist. This week, Grant is digging deep into the history and mystery of the European Union, taking us all the way back to the first inter-country treaty in April 1951 and then following the rather tortuous bureaucratic proceedings that led, by hook and by crook, to today's increasingly problematic eurozone.
Grant then zeroes in on the ever-stalwart Dutch, who, it now appears, are in something of a pickle. He notes that the Dutch "were signatories to the Treaties of Paris and Rome and to every major European Treaty since and are staunch supporters of a unified Europe as well as having a reputation for being amongst the more fiscally disciplined members of the EU." And in September of last year, the Dutch prime minister and his finance minister penned a rather incendiary little diatribe on eurozone behavior that built, with eminently sensible Dutch logic, to the conclusion that "Countries that do not want to submit to this [new, rigorous fiscal] regime can choose to leave the eurozone. Whoever wants to be part of the eurozone must adhere to the agreements and cannot systematically ignore the rules. In the future, the ultimate sanction can be to force countries to leave the euro."
How unfortunate, then, that a mere six months later – and just days after Spain's unilateral decision to favor its own budget projections over those dictated by Brussels, who did we find but the Dutch confessing that they too would violate, by a mile, the fiscal deficit limit imposed by the EU's new treaty. And to make matters worse, Geert Wilders, head of the far-right-wing Freedom Party and a key player in the right-of-center coalition that now governs Holland, has been making noises about a Dutch referendum on continued eurozone membership.
Grant then jumps right across the Channel to catch us up on the antics of the English government, whose much-ballyhooed austerity program appears to be anything but, depending as it does on some rather figmentary revenue assumptions and other fiscal legerdemain. I haven't included that portion of this issue of Hmmm…, because I want to keep the focus this week on eurozone woes (England is not in the euro and didn't sign the new EU treaty, arousing much Continental ire), and to mention that I'm in Paris, attending a very powerful conference on central-bank monetary policy and strategies for dealing with sovereign debt. Organized by the Global Interdependence Center (GIC), the conference could hardly be more timely. I'm here with good friend (and long-time GIC supporter) David Kotok, who mentions today in his own commentary that:
"Our private meetings here involve bankers, central bankers, investors, and money managers – the gamut of those interested in financial markets and economics. We find that one theme persists. All of them are watching the credit spreads involving Portugal and Spain. They realize the market is sending a message of concern. The market is saying that the episode with Greece is not over, and the contagion is spreading in spite of the massive liquidity injections of the European Central Bank. They observe and discuss the use of collective action clauses and how they have to adjust their portfolios now that a government has inserted itself in a retroactive forced alteration of a debt structure. In public, they are polite, but they dissect the risks strenuously. In private, the debates become fierce." (You can read David's whole piece on the Cumberland Advisors website.)
He's right: the tension here, both behind closed doors where the "players" assemble and in public, between the European leadership and their increasingly disgruntled constituencies, is palpable.
And yet, after a tough winter, Paris is bursting with the hopeful energy of spring, and I'm very glad to be here.
Your learning a lot and loving it analyst,
It is important to understand the thinking of those who are in fact making the decisions at the Fed and Treasury. In today's Outside the Box, Paul McCulley, Managing Director at PIMCO, gives us some insight into the thinking that is driving the massive stimulus and bailout programs. Whether or not you agree, it is important to have a handle on what is actually happening and the thinking behind it.
As a bonus, let me give you a link to David Kotok's excellent and very clear analysis of the Public-Private Investment Program (PPIP). The PIPP is basically a call option financed by the US tax-payer. David shows us why as tax-payers we should be concerned. You can read it for your self http://www.cumber.com/commentary.aspx?file=032909.asp&n=l_mc. Have a great week!
This week I bring you two different articles as an offering for Outside the Box. As a way to introduce the first, let me give you the quote from Merrill Lynch economist David Rosenberg about the rising threat of global trade protectionism:
"The Financial Times weighs in on the rising threat of global trade protectionism in today's Lex Column on page 14 ("Economic Patriotism"). The FT points out that the stimulus packages of many countries include "buy local" provisions. At home, there is a proposed inclusion of a 'Buy American' provision in the economic recovery package and this could set off trade retaliation from importers of US goods. Here is what the FT had to say, 'It was trade protectionism that made the 1930s Depression "Great". Congress would do well to understand that it is in everyone's interest to keep trade open today.'"
I have long written that the one thing that could derail my Muddle Through (at least eventually) view point is a return to trade protectionism. Nothing could be more devastating to the hopes of a recovery. Nothing could more surely turn a recession into a depression, and a global one at that.
David Kotok of Cumberland Advisors notes the very real problem with Tim Geithner's written testimony, threatening China and calling the manipulators, clearly making the point that this is Obama's policy. I did not have time to touch last Friday on the dangerous policy if it is that and not just rhetoric, but David says everything I would want to say and does it shortly and eloquently.
Second, several people requested a chance to look at the actual paper I cited in last week's Thoughts from the Frontline by Nouriel Roubini and Elisa Parisi-Capone of RGE Monitor (www.rgemonitor.com) on how they come up with an estimated potential loss of $3.6 trillion dollars in the US financial system. It makes for rather grim reading, but they go sector by sector to show where the losses are coming from.
Tomorrow I will hold my first "conversation" with Ed Easterling and Dr. Lacy Hunt. To find out more about how to listen in and still get the half price discount for the rest of this week at http://www.johnmauldin.com/conversations. Just enter the code JM44 when asked. Have a great week.
This week in Outside the Box we look at two brief essays which give us different perspective on the Continuing Crisis. The first is by Mohamed El-Erian, the co-chief executive and co-chief investment officer of Pimco. His book, 'When Markets Collide: Investment Strategies for the Age of Global Economic Change', will be published by McGraw Hill in June, and it will be on my summer reading list. El-Erian argues in the thought-provoking piece from the Financial Times that the crisis is still far from finished, and that those who think we are returning to more placid times may be surprised when volatility suddenly becomes even more pervasive.
The second is by good friend and Maine fishing buddy David Kotok, the chief investment officer of Cumberland Asset Managers (www.cumber.com). He was recently in Africa where he met with the head of the central bank of a small country with headline inflation of 10%. The problem is that "core inflation" is 5% and food inflation is 15%, yet accounts for 50% of the GDP. He asked a group of financial thinkers (including your humble analyst) to ponder what that central banker should do. Do you set high rates and target overall inflation or set lower rates and not worry about food inflation.
Why should we worry about inflation in a small African country? Because the principles are the same, and it makes a real difference where the Fed comes down at the end of the day on this very question.
This week's reading should be very helpful and thought-provoking. I hope you enjoy this read as much as I did.
As everyone by now knows, there is chaos in the municipal bond market. This week's Outside the Box is from good friend and Maine fishing buddy David Kotok of Cumberland Advisors (www.cumber.com).
Briefly, he outlines the problems we are seeing in munis, but then he goes on to warn of the possible next shoe to drop in closed end municipal bond funds. David is one of the smarter advisors I know, and when he points out a problem, I would suggest taking action.
Also, as things are getting more dicey in the markets, I may send out more than one issue of Outside the Box in a week when I see something that is worthy of your attention. And remember, we have been through tough markets before, and we always get through them. The key is to make sure you get through them with your capital as intact as possible.
Today's "Outside the Box" will feature an essay by good friend David Kotok of Cumberland Advisors. In his article, David discusses what the development of a global economy means for currencies and the financial markets. He distills the foreign exchange markets into 4 major countries and explains both the policies and risks faced by the central banks of these nations, and how they affect you.
David R. Kotok co-founded Cumberland Advisors (www.cumber.com) in 1973 and has been its Chief Investment Officer since inception. David's articles and financial market comments have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Barron's, and other publications. He has also appeared on CNN, CNBC, and Bloomberg TV. David is also one of the organizer's of the annual Shadow Fed fishing weekend each summer which I am privileged to get to attend.
I hope that you find this article to be both educational and thought provoking.