Was it only last week I was expressing outrage that US taxpayers would have to pick up the check for Greek profligacy in the form of IMF guarantees? This morning we wake to up the sound of $250 BILLION in IMF guarantees for a European rescue fund, most of which will go to countries that are eventually (in my opinion) going to default. That is $50 billion in US taxpayer guarantees. Not sure what that translates into for Britain or Canada or Australia.
I can swallow the Fed dollar swaps to the ECB. Don't really like it, but I can deal with it, as I don't think it will ultimately put US tax-payers at risk, as long as the swaps are in dollar terms. But the IMF bailout is just wrong.
Interestingly, the euro shot up on the announcement in what was now clearly short covering. As I write this, it is almost back down to where it started. That seems to me to be a vote of "I don't believe you." We will see. But if the ECB actually goes ahead and floods the market with liquidity, that will be very good for all types of risk assets.
Note that in last Friday's letter I quoted Trichet where he said we would not do what he agreed to do over the weekend. What a turn-about. So much for ECB independence. The European leadership must have realized the wheels were coming off and brought out the nuclear option in order to stave off a very serious crisis. In my opinion, this buys time but does not solve the problem.
The eurozone leaders assume that this is a liquidity problem. It is not. It is a solvency and balance sheet problem. You do not solve a debt problem with more debt. This only shoves the football a few yards (or maybe I should say meters) down the field. And it is going to cause a MASSIVE misallocation of capital once again which will create more imbalances that will have to be dealt with. Ugh.
Now, with that off my chest, let's turn to this week's Outside the Box, which is an essay by a name that is familiar to readers, Michael Lewitt. He has written a brilliant book, the Death of Capital, which should be on your short reading list. I asked him to give us a note for Outside the Box and he graciously complied. It is a thoughtful and fun read with wonderful lines you will want to read again peppered all the way through this all-too-short piece. The book is a ringing indictment of both the regulatory and money management worlds. Get it at Amazon.com.
Your how can I get even more outraged analyst,
I have been writing about sovereign debt risk for some time. Japan, Spain, Italy and Portugal are all facing serious fiscal deficits and funding problems within a few years. But Greece may be the first country to hit the wall. In today's Outside the Box, we look at a short column by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard of the London Telegraph on the problems facing Greece. Greece will soon be faced with deciding which bad choice to make among a very small set of really bad, difficult choices.
And then we turn to a piece by Edmund Andrews in the New York Times about the funding problem facing the US. The US is going to have to borrow at a minimum $3.5 trillion in the next three years according to Obama administration officials, and it is likely to be much higher. And rates are likely to be rising. As Andrews notes "Even a small increase in interest rates has a big impact. An increase of one percentage point in the Treasury's average cost of borrowing would cost American taxpayers an extra $80 billion this year." If interest rates were at the same level as a few years ago, interest costs on the debt this year would be $221 billion more than they actually were.
We are not yet Greece or Japan. But we are working on it given the current direction. At some point the bond market is not going to "go along" for the ride. Read these pieces and think about them.
As I often write, if something cannot happen then it won't. Greece cannot go along the same path they are on. While today we are blithely ignoring the debt problem, the US cannot continue with massive deficits without serious consequences.
With that being said, for those in the US, I wish you a very Happy Thanksgiving. My intention is to write a letter this Friday as usual, assuming I can roll out of bed after the feasting. I am told by very reliable sources that thanksgiving calories do not count, and I intend to take advantage of that.
Your still hopeful we will find a way to Muddle Through analyst,
My long time readers are familiar with Jeremy Grantham of GMO as I quote him a lot. He is one of the more brilliant and talented value managers (and I should mention very successful on behalf of his clients). He writes a quarterly letter which I regard as a must read. I have excerpted parts of his recent letter, where the chief investment strategist really takes the current financial system follies to task. Typical of his great writing and thinking is the quote from this week's Outside the Box selection:
"I can imagine the company representatives on the Titanic II design committee repeatedly pointing out that the Titanic I tragedy was a black swan event: utterly unpredictable and completely, emphatically, not caused by any failures of the ship's construction, of the company's policy, or of the captain's competence. "No one could have seen this coming," would have been their constant refrain. Their response would have been to spend their time pushing for more and improved lifeboats. In itself this is a good idea, and that is the trap: by working to mitigate the pain of the next catastrophe, we allow ourselves to downplay the real causes of the disaster and thereby invite another one. And so it is today with our efforts to redesign the financial system in order to reduce the number and severity of future crises."
You can get the full letter at www.gmo.com (You will have to register).
Your glad to be back home at least for a week,
Nearly everyone I talk with has the sense that we are at some critical point in our economic and national paths, not just in the US but in the world. One path will lead us back to relative growth and another set of choices leads us down a path which will put a very real drag on economic growth and recovery. For most of us, there is very little we can do (besides vote and lobby) about the actual choices. What we can do is adjust our personal portfolios to be synchronized with the direction of the economy. The question is "What will that direction be?"
Today we are going to look at what I think is a very clear roadmap given to us by Dr. Woody Brock, the head of Strategic Economic Decisions and one of the smartest analysts I have come in contact with over the years. This week's Outside the Box is his recent essay, "The End Games Draws Nigh." For those who have the contacts in government, I urge you to put this piece into the correct hands so that Woody's very distinct message gets out. I think this is one of the most important Outside the Box letters I have sent out.
Woody normally does not allow his work to go beyond the circles of his clients, but I suggested to him that this piece was quite macro in cope and important for both individuals and policy makers everywhere to understand. In my own simple terms, trees cannot grow in some unlimited manner to the sky. Families cannot grow debt without limit beyond the growth of their incomes. And countries have the same constraints. While growth of debt in the short term is viable, growth of debt faster than the growth of GDP is not viable over the long run. This is not debatable. It is a simple fact. Therefore, as Woody says, it is important that you get the growth side of the equation right as you increase the debt side. Without the proper balance, you are heading for disaster.
From his intro:
"We weave these three concepts together so as to make possible an extension and generalization of "macroeconomic policy" as normally understood. Central to this extension is the need for policies that drive down the nation's Debt-to-GDP Ratio over time. Accordingly, we identify 15 policies that jointly reduce the growth of federal debt and increase the growth of GDP over time. Doing so not only points to a new set of policies for exiting today's quagmire, but also permits an appraisal of the Obama administration's current policy proposals. Regrettably these proposals do not fare well with respect to growth. Furthermore, the extension of macroeconomics we propose applies not only to the US economy, but to most all others as well. It should thus be of interest to readers everywhere."
This is longer than the usual Outside the Box, and will require you to put on your thinking cap. But you need to digest this, and especially the conclusions. But it is very important that you understand the principles and concepts Woody discusses. We are at a very critical juncture, and the paths we choose will have profound impacts on our lives and fortunes. I cannot overemphasize the point. If we choose a path of growing debt faster than we can grow GDP, the negative implications for many traditional asset classes are enormous.
Let me again thank Woody for allowing me to send this on to you. And for those who post this letter on various sites, just be sure to include a link to Woody's website, www.sedinc.com. For those interested in his subscription service you can contact Woody at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website.
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 I came across two items that I think are worthy of being in Outside the Box, so I am going to give you both. The first is an essay by good friend Paul McCulley, Managing Director of PIMCO, called "Saving Capitalist Banking from Itself." The second is a recent speech by Paul Volker, former Fed Chairman and a (hopefully very) influential member of President Obama's economic advisory team. This speech is a must read. Taken together they provide a cautionary tale of what the world of banking will need to look like when we get to the end of the process. This OTB is a little longer than most, but I think it is important reading. If you don't know where we are headed, it is hard to imagine the journey.
One of the best gauges of an economy is tax collections. No one pays taxes unless they have to, so collections are a real-world, real-time analysis of the US economy. And the best source I know of for tracking taxes is The Liscio Report, by Philippa Dunne & Doug Henwood.
Tax collections are down. Philippa and Doug give us the actual numbers, which are not pretty. Bottom line? "What does this all mean? It suggests that the consumer retrenchment in this recession will be deep and long, and will probably continue into any recovery. The American consumer is no longer the world consumer of last resort, and that's an enormous change for both this country and the rest of the world to get used to."
You can learn more about the Liscio Report at www.theliscioreport.com. Enjoy your week.
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.
Yesterday I sent you an Outside the Box from Paul McCulley who supports the government and Fed activity (in general) in the current economic crisis. Today we look at an opposing view from Bennet Sedacca of Atlantic Advisors. He asks some very interesting questions like:
- Shouldn't the consumer, after decades of over-consumption, be allowed to digest the over-indebtedness and save, rather than be encouraged to take risk?
- Shouldn't companies, no matter what of view, if run poorly, be allowed to fail or forced to restructure?
- Should taxpayer money be used to make up for the mishaps at financial institutions or should we allow them to wallow in their own mistakes?
I think you will find this a very thought-provoking Outside the Box.
There is an ongoing debate on the current nature of the economic environment and what should the response be by government. Today's Outside the Box by Paul McCulley takes up one view, arguing that we need a federal response and stimulus package to protect the overall economy and save capitalism from itself. Tomorrow, I am going to send yet another view arguing that by doing so we are hurting the prudent investor and businesses that did not over-leverage and behaved responsibly. Both are important to understand. And as I will argue on Friday in my 2009 Forecast Issue, both are right. And that is one of the great economic paradoxes that we are faced with today. Navigating through this period is particularly challenging, but I think it is critical that you understand what Paul says today and what Bennet Sedacca will say tomorrow. Understanding what is going to happen, whether or not we agree with the philosophy behind it should be our goal, as it will make us better able to respond with our own portfolio and business decisions.
By the way, Paul McCulley, the Managing Director of Pimco, always features a "conversation" he has with his pet rabbit at the end of each year. Not only is it instructive, but it can also be downright funny. I think you will enjoy this letter a lot. And sorry about the Outside the Box coming later this week. We lost power for the day yesterday due to a mild ice storm here in Dallas.
This week I have a special Outside the Box for you. My long-time friend Doug Casey wrote a very prescient piece back in 1997. He has updated it somewhat for today's times. The critical part is a summary of the work of Richard Strauss and (friend) John Howe and their book The Fourth Turning, which I consider one of the more important and prescient (that word again) books of the last 25 years. (Amazon.com). It should still be read today. It is seminal to understanding the times we live in.
Doug summarized the book and makes some observations based on that understanding, many of which turned out to be true and some of which may well be in out future. I think you will find this to be very useful and enlightening if you are not familiar with their work, and a great review if you are.
Doug is chairman of Casey Research, author of numerous best-sellers over the last 25 years, raconteur and a certified expert in resources stocks. If you are investing in natural resources stocks, energy or gold without reading Doug and his team at Casey Research, you are missing the boat. They have a special offer for readers of Outside the Box. You can learn more about it here.
Here's wishing you a very happy and prosperous New Year.
One of my favorite economists, Stephen Roach, of Morgan Stanley gives us an insight into what the latest economic shock may mean for the economy. Economic shocks often lead to a fairly predictable slowdown and recovery, but Roach argues that the Fed induced asset bubbles of the last few years may cause this current shock to prick "America's asset economy."
I hope Roach is wrong and that the imbalances in the economy work themselves out slowly rather than popping a bubble, but this makes for a thought provoking Outside the Box.