This week's Outside the box looks at some very interesting research done by two economic historians, Barry Eichengreen of the University of California at Berkeley and Kevin O'Rourke of Trinity College, Dublin They give us comparisons between the Great Depression and today's downturn. They continue to update their data from time to time, the link to their work is at http://www.voxeu.org/index.php?q=node/3421. I have not previously heard of www.voxeu.org, but it is a collection of the work of well regarded international economists that seems quite interesting for those who enjoy readings in the dismal science.
This week's OTB will print long, but it is primarily charts. Please note that I have re-arranged some of the new charts to cut down on space because of some duplications. Word count is not all that much and it reads well. I will be referring to their work in future letters as well. Have a great week!
There is a debate in academic circles on the lessons of the current economic crisis. While most ivory tower debates are of little concern to our daily affairs, this debate should concern you, as it will inform those who hold central bank and political power. Remember, there is no playbook of rules for what to do in deflationary, deleveraging recessions. They are making it up as they go along.
Today we have a short essay by Niall Ferguson published last week in the Financial Times. It speaks for itself, and you should take a few minutes to read it.
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.
One of my most significant learning experiences came from a basic forecasting mistake. Back in 1998, I looked at 40 years of documented evidence that 50% of all large programming projects ended up coming in late. That set of data was consistent over all industries and over decades. I checked it out with industry experts. I really did my homework. And thus I said that the Y2K bug would be a problem, as a sufficient number of corporations around the world would have bugs that would create supply and management problems, which would slow the economy down. I did not suggest that we would see blackouts or major problems, just enough to slow things down and, when coupled with other macro issues (like the tech bubble), could trigger a recession. We had the recession, so my investment advice actually turned out to be right (lucky?), but it was not caused by Y2K.
Almost 100% of the Y2K fixes came in on time. From a metric that said 50% was the norm, we went straight to 100%. What caused the change? I had a debate with (my good friend) the late Harry Browne, who many of you will remember as a very wise investment counselor, multi-book best-selling author, two-time presidential nominee of the Libertarian Party, gold bug, and from the school of Austrian economics. He said that Y2K would be a non-event. When presented with my marshaled facts, he said, "John, each company will figure out what it has to do to survive. That is the way markets work." And sure enough, faced with extinction if they failed, it seems that CEOs found ways to get the programmers to meet a very clear deadline. Besides knowing they fudged deadlines in the past, we now know if you hold a gun to their heads and give them resources, they can in fact perform.
Why this comment to open today's Outside the Box? Today we read a piece sent to me by my friend Louis Gave of GaveKal (and who will be at my conference in April). It is entitled "Where Will the Growth Come From?" It reminds us of the lessons that Harry gave me. Each person and company is responsible for their own part of the recovery. You can't rely on mass statistics, or you miss the important lesson in individual responsibility.
I don't think anyone can accuse me of being bullish the past few years. Interestingly, I get a lot of emails from people telling me the end of the world is coming, and deriding my longer-term optimism. They are convinced we are going into some deep national morass worse than the Great Depression (and such deflationary times will somehow make their gold go to $3,000!?!?). Yet they are working to make sure their own personal worlds are covered. I get no letters from people who are simply giving up. What company will keep a CEO who does not work hard to figure out how to keep the company alive? If you lose your job, do you not try and get another one or figure out how to make ends meet? Do you not put in extra hours to try and make your personal life or business or job better? Even if it is terribly difficult, the very large majority of people don't throw in the towel. Each of us, in our own way, gets up every morning to fight the good fight, even when the swamp is full of more alligators than we ever counted on. We just pick up a baseball bat, wade into the swamp, kill as many alligators as we can in one day, and then go home to get ready to fight the next day.
The lesson from Harry is the same as it was in 1998: It is the individual working to get his or her own house in order that will help us all collectively get our national house in order. This is not to diminish the Herculean tasks we have in front of us, collectively. We have dug ourselves into a very deep hole of credit and leverage. It is going to take lots of time. The way back is not entirely clear at this point. This is not an ordinary business-cycle recession. But each of us will do what we can to make our small corner of the world better. And in the fullness of time, we will collectively get back to trend growth and a rational market.
Of course, we will then find we have other problems to face. There is no nirvana. There will always be more problems. But that's what a free-market collection of motivated individuals does: We face problems and solve them to the best of our ability. And as a group, the clear path for centuries is one of growth and progress. Cautious optimism is the proper long-term stance.
So, today Louis speculates about what sectors might come back first, and offers a good lesson in economics along the way. I think you will enjoy this Outside the Box, unless you just want to believe in the end of the world.
Have you done your Christmas shopping yet? Research shows that more of us are putting it off in expectations of better prices. In other words deflationary expectations! The prices I have seen while out shopping the past few weeks are simply amazing. I have to admit to have made a few purchases for some items that I was not planning to buy just yet because prices were off by 60% or more. A few days ago a friend came in sporting a new black cashmere sweater top with jeweled embroidery and quite fancy. She said she got it at Saks. But the real story is that when she walked into Saks looking for a present for her kids they handed her a coupon with a 30% off any one item from whatever price it was already marked down. That top? At one point it was almost $500. She bought it for $75. I have to confess that made me worry about retail sales and future unemployment. I like low prices, but I like profitable companies and employment. I went and talked to a Saks salesperson a few weeks ago who had been there 25 years and asked if they had ever discounted like that before Christmas and he said never. It was Saturday in New York and the place looked busy. I asked why? And he said, "The store is empty during the week." And I bought a few sweaters at 60% off. Tiffani just got some presents from J Crew at over 60% off. Before Christmas! How many readers have seen the same sales? And yet shopping is down?
As a side note, this year most of the kids and in-laws are all going to get a Visa gift cards so they can take advantage of what I think are going to be even better sales after Christmas. It is not that Dad put off his shopping to the last minute (which I did) but the kids are really looking forward to finding their special items on sale. I wonder how many more are doing that?
This week we look at David Rosenberg's latest missive. While listing a number of negative data points, the thing to watch for is all the deflationary news. I have been pounding the table for YEARS that deflation is going to be the problem, and there would be massive stimulus from the Fed to fight it. We are now coming to that inflection point. Rosenberg is one of my favorite main stream economists and the North American Economist for Merrill Lynch. I would say enjoy this week's Outside the Box, but it is not enjoyable reading, but you should read it anyway.
Have a Merry Christmas. And enjoy the after Christmas sales! All the best,
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.
This week we visit some very thoughtful analysis by an old friend of Outside the Box, Dr. John Hussman of the Hussman Funds (http://www.hussmanfunds.com/index.html). Is it 1932? Are we in a Depression? Where is the bottom? John gives us a very balanced view and actually offers some positive insight on the markets. There may be light ahead.
(Note: there is a chart from Ned Davis Research that is, as John notes, not to be distributed further. I did call Ned Davis Research and they graciously gave me permission to use it as well.) Have a great week, and enjoy some positive thoughts below.
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.