Before we get to this week's Outside the Box, a quick note about my writing on Greece in last Saturday's letter. I made the point that if Greece defaults it does not necessarily mean they have to leave the EU, any more than if Illinois defaulted they would have to leave the United States. Greece could still use the euro and life could go on. EXCEPT. The markets would no longer lend the Greek government money at anything close to a livable rate. Greece would be forced to balance its budget. Since they are part of the euro, devaluing the currency is not an option. The results of controlling their fiscal deficit would not initially be pretty and would almost insure a serious prolonged recession or depression in the Greek area, with fall out in the region. It would be a sad decade for Greece. But in the long run, it is a better option than default.
Further, and more important to the rest of Europe and the world, the results of a Greek default would be financial turmoil. 250 billion euros (and maybe 300!) of Greek debt is in international bond funds, pension and insurance companies, and above all at banks. Think German banks. Already undercapitalized banks. Also, think of all the investment banks who have been selling relatively cheap (given the apparent risk) credit default swaps on Greece, in an unregulated market, exposing their balance sheets. What should be a simple, if sad, matter for the Greeks, becomes a problem for the world, just as subprime debt in the US caused a world credit crisis. And the risk of contagion from Portugal, Spain, et al is serious. 2 trillion euros of debt could get downgraded by the bond market in very short order. It could be a replay of the last credit crisis, just with new actors as the prime problem.
Bailing out Greece without serious and credible deficit reductions by their government over the next few years would simply delay the problem, and it is not altogether clear the bond markets would go along for very long. At the end of the day, it may be the bond market which forces the Greek government and its people to take some very bitter medicine. Stay tuned. This is just the beginning of what will be a series of sovereign debt crises over the coming decade. It is important for the world that we get this one solved right, or the consequences will be quite severe.
Now, this week's Outside the Box is from my friend Simon Hunt, based in London. Simon travels to China many times a year, is an authority on copper and the Long Wave theory of cycles. When we are together, and often over emails, we have some fairly interesting debates. I generally don't follow Long Wave analysis, but Simon does make me think and check my own views carefully. And as I often write, the point of Outside the Box is not to send you material that I agree with, but ideas from smart people which make us think. So, enjoy my friend Simon's latest forecast and ideas.
"Why" many ask, "is the stock market going up when the bond market is telling us the recovery will be tepid? Isn't there a disconnect?" And the answer is that there is, and this week good friend and fishing buddy Paul McCulley of PIMCO fame discusses that very topic with his usual insight and wit. He poses the conundrum that those expecting a "V" shaped recovery have pushed risk assets up quite high, and that the real risk to their position is that they in fact get a "V" shaped recovery. And yet, they could go higher and into bubble territory.
For the policy wonks among you, I offer a link to a recent paper by the Cleveland Fed, which suggests that the Fed could hold rates lower for far longer than we would think normal. Which makes What Paul writes even more important to understand. http://www.clevelandfed.org/research/commentary/2009/0809.cfm
I think you will find this a very interesting read. Meanwhile, I am off to Philadelphia where a team from Dallas was treated very well last night. I hope I get the same warm reception. And then to Orlando and back to Dallas. Have a great week.
Your just trying to puzzle it all out analyst,
There is a reason I call this column Outside the Box. I try to get material that forces us to think outside our normal comfort zones and challenges our common assumptions. I have made the comment more than once that is it unusual for two major bubbles to burst and for the conversation to be all about rising inflation and not a serious problem with deflation.
As Niels Jensen pointed out last week, the most important question that an investor can ask is whether we are in for deflation or inflation. And this week we read a well reasoned piece on deflation. This is one of the more important essays I have sent out. You need to set aside some time to absorb this one.
Van Hoisington and Dr. Lacy Hunt give us a few thoughts on why they think it is deflation that will ultimately be the problem and not inflation we are dealing with today. This week's letter requires you to think, but it will be worth the effort.
And let me quote a few sentences in the middle of this letter about taxes which you need to think about.
"Thus Barro and Perotti are saying that each $1 increase in government spending reduces private spending by about $1, with no net benefit to GDP. All that is left is a higher level of government debt creating slower economic growth."
"The most extensive research on tax multipliers is found in a paper written at the University of California Berkeley entitled The Macroeconomic Effects of Tax Changes: Estimates Based on a new Measure of Fiscal Shocks, by Christina D. and David H. Romer (March 2007). (Christina Romer now chairs the president's Council of Economic Advisors). This study found that the tax multiplier is 3, meaning that each dollar rise in taxes will reduce private spending by $3."
Now, if you put all of the various inputs together, Hoisington and Hunt show that theory suggests we will soon be dealing with deflation. It's counter-intuitive to what we hear today, which is why the Bank for International Settlements used the stagflation word in a recent report. The transition that is coming will not be comfortable....
This week we will look at two shorter essays for this edition of Outside the Box. The first is some thoughtful words by Tom Au on whether or not we have put in a true bottom for the market. I particularly want you to read his thoughts on what earnings will look like going forward, and whether we can get back to the highs in corporate earnings we saw in 2006.
In last Friday's letter I mentioned an article by William Hester, CFA, who is the Senior Financial Analyst at the Hussman Funds. (www.hussmanfunds.com) While I quoted a few paragraphs from his essay, on reflection I think I will re-produce it below, as this is a very important concept. I have written in past letters and in Bull's Eye Investing about how powerful a driver earnings surprises can be (both positive and negative). Powerful bear and bull markets develop when there are numerous surprises in the same direction, re-enforcing market psychology.
So, read Hester's essay with the knowledge of what Au writes about earnings. I think the two make a very powerful, thought-provoking concept. And I am off to Europe.
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.
What is fair value for stocks? Are they now cheap? You can certainly make that argument by comparing valuations based on past performance. But repeat after me, "Past performance is not indicative of future returns." The investment climate of today is almost certainly going to be quite different than that of the 80's and 90's. Thus, to expect stocks to repeat the performance of the last bull market in a climate of government intervention, deleveraging and increased regulations may not be realistic?
This week Bill Gross, the Managing Director of PIMCO (and one of my favorite analysts) moves away from his familiar neighborhood of bonds and offers a few thoughts on stock market valuations. This is not a lengthy read, but it is one you might want to read twice, as the concepts are important. And not just for stocks but for investments of all types. I trust you will 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 I have a very special Outside the Box for you. Peter Bernstein is recognized as one of the more brilliant and insightful analysts of our times. At 89, he has been writing prescient material longer than most of us "young guys" (I am 59, and hope I am still writing at 89, or even able to write!) have been even marginally in the markets. His Economics and Portfolio Strategy Letter is read by the true cognoscenti of the investment world.
He has given me permission to reproduce his latest letter in which he offers two insights. Rather than give you some teaser copy, why don't you just jump in a read. And trust me, anything that Peter writes is worth reading more than a few times.
For those interested, you can learn more about Peter and subscribe to his letter at www.peterlbernsteininc.com.
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.
The purpose of Outside the Box is to present views which cause us to think through our basic assumptions. This week our old friend Michael Lewitt of Hegemony Capital Management gives us a view as to why the bailout bill going down may not be as bad as I think it might. There is much we agree on, however. And part of our agreement is that a deeper recession is in our future. Let me be clear. Muddle Through is now at risk.
I have talked with my publisher, and for the next few weeks of The continuing Crisis, we are going to send more than one OTB per week, and I may also add some short commentary. These are extraordinary times, and I know a lot of you (as I can tell from phone and emails) are worried and are interested in analysis that is not biased with either a perma-bull or perma-bear stance. I will call it as I see it, as always, and forward you material from my best sources.
That being said, we will get through this, one way or another. Sanity and clarity will return, as it always does after times of crisis. I wish you the best in your situation.
This week we look at a very solid piece of analysis on the world economy from my friends and London business partners Niels Jensen and Jan Wilhelmsen of Absolute Return Partners (www.arpllp.com). I find it is quite useful to read the considered opinions of those from outside the US and particularly from people who have developed keen insight from years in the trenches. Niels and Jan are certainly in that category. The world economy is clearly out of balance and they point out where some of the opportunities and problems lie. I think you will find this edition of Outside the Box quite useful. If you care to, you can write them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
From South Africa,
The weekend has brought us events that can only be described in large, over-the-top terms. The Fed agreeing to take equity on its balance sheet? How bad can things really be? Clearly much worse than most people thought last Friday. Moral Hazard has been re-introduced as Lehman is allowed to go down. I will admit to being surprised. I thought Paulson and Bernanke would put it in the too big too fail category. I think they did the right thing by refusing taxpayer money for a bailout, but it is clearly going to roil the credit markets for weeks and months. It will be interesting to see how long it lasts.
I am in La Jolla today, working with my partners at Altegris, and looking over their shoulders while they monitor the performance of some of our managers. Interesting times. But I have had the time to read two short but very interesting commentaries on the current crisis. I will have more to say on Friday, but for now let's read old friends (to Outside the Box readers) Michael Lewitt of Hegemony Capital Management (www.hcmmarketletter.com) and Barry Ritholtz of Fusion IQ (www.fusioniqrank.com).
As I send this, credit default swaps spreads are simply blowing out. I have been writing about how we would see significant problems in the CDS markets for almost two years. This is something that you could see coming yet nothing was done. I know we are now in crisis, but let's hope that the authorities learn some lessons and put in place some sensible regulations of the CDS market soon. And for the love of Pete (insert your favorite expletive here) put these (more expletives) things on a regulated exchange.
And I agree with Michael below. This is not a time to try and catch a falling knife. That time will come, but not yet. And remember things will get better and we will get through this. As I just said to Barry, "We do live in interesting times."
Last Friday's letter was about the fact that it is not just Freddie and Fannie. There are other problems. The Weekend Edition and today's Wall Street Journal are filled with stories about the problems with Freddie and Fannie. The assumption in so many quarters is that they will soon need government assistance. The only questions seem to be when and in what form? Can this wait until a new president is in place? Congress is leaving town soon. Can it wait until the lame duck session?
As I have been writing for well over a year, the credit crisis is going to be deeper and take longer to correct than the main stream media and economists think. Losses at banks are going to be much larger, and they are going to bleed for a long time. That means we are going to see more banks failing.
Bennet Sedacca, who I quoted in last week's letter, sent out a new letter this morning, providing a list of stocks he thinks may also be in trouble, his "Dead Men Walking" list. He also notes several banks that will be the beneficiaries of the crisis as they gobble up weak competitors.
Caveat: I am not a stock guy, and can't comment on any of the specifics of what Bennet writes about, but I thought it is important for my readers to understand that this crisis is not going to be over when Freddie and Fannie are nationalized. There are still some whales out there left which are coming to the surface. Warning: this is not pleasant reading.
Bennet is the president of Atlantic Advisors in Winter Park, Florida.
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.
This week we are going to do something unusual for Outside the Box. Normally I take an essay and send it to you to read. Today I am going to give you a link and strongly suggest you click to it. Long time readers are familiar with friend and comrade James Montier, who along with Albert Edwards, migrated to Societe Generale earlier this year. They are co-heads of Global Cross Asset Strategy and based in London.
Kate Welling does some of the best interviews anywhere in her Welling@Weeden letter, and this one of Montier and Edwards is typical of her immensely enjoyable style. She gave my good friend Prieur du Plessis permission to reprint the letter, and I provide you with a link to his blog and if you scroll down 6 short paragraphs you get the link to the letter, which includes the graphics and is much more fun than just me cutting and pasting. You can also subscribe to Prieur's blog if you wish. Once a week he provides a very useful review of what was written the previous week.
Montier and Edwards speak quite forcefully about the problems they see in the market today, and they are truly Outside the Box thinkers.
"They are, in a word, skeptics, and at this juncture most deeply skeptical of any and all notions that 'the worst is over.' The recession, which has barely begun, is more likely to be deep than shallow, market valuations are hideously expensive and the -flation policymakers should be worried about starts with de-, not in-. For their reasons, keep reading, if you dare."
And no, despite the picture, they are not twins separated at birth.
As we begin the new quarter, now is an excellent time to take stock of your basic investment thesis. Ask yourself if your allocations still reflect what you think the world is going to look like over the next several months. And as part of that process, I'm here to tell you that making "financial" decisions based solely on "financial" inputs grossly oversimplifies the way the world really works. As I've said before, investing in debt, equity, or commodity markets without geopolitical intelligence is like trading juice futures without getting a weather forecast. You can do it, but good luck to you.
I get my geopolitical intelligence from Stratfor. My friend George Friedman and his team have just published their 3rd Quarter Forecast. I got George to give me a copy I can share with you in this Special Edition of Outside the Box. As a Stratfor Member, you can get the 3Q Forecast - as well as their other forecasts and daily analyses - at a preferential rate available to my readers by clicking here. I strongly encourage you to add this valuable weapon to your investing arsenal.
Here are just some quick examples of how I use Stratfor to guide my thinking, in these cases on energy prices:
- Just living in Dallas, I'm pretty familiar with rig counts and EIA inventory numbers, but I confess that the power-sharing negotiations between the Nigerian government and the Ijaw tribe aren't the most common lunchtime talk.... What will those talks mean for Nigerian supply figures?
- At first glance it's not obvious that the Olympics is supporting oil prices. But then you dig down and realize that China's showcase for global credibility requires lots and lots of smiling citizens. Lots and lots of smiling citizens requires plentiful and cheap fuel. Plentiful and cheap fuel requires government purchases/subsidies - at prices that may not be sustainable. So when the TV cameras go home, how much will the communist government keep paying out to maintain those smiles?
- And those Iranian missile tests that just spiked crude prices? Do those mean war is really coming, or are these the last-round raises, before the US and Iran reach a settlement on Iraq?
There are no simple answers here. No price targets or earnings estimates to the penny. But gentle reader, that's the real world. Today's markets require hard thinking on a whole range of fronts, with geopolitics being right at the top of the list. Join Stratfor today, and you'll get the same intelligence I use to map out where I think the markets are going. And enjoy this Forecast...
There is a reason I call this column Outside the Box. I try to get material that forces us to think outside our normal comfort zones and challenges our common assumptions. And this week's letter does just that. I have made the comment more than once that is it unusual for two major bubbles to burst and for the conversation and our experience to be rising inflation and not a serious problem with deflation.
Van Hoisington and Dr. Lacy Hunt give us a seminar on why it will be deflation that will ultimately be the problem and not the current inflation we are dealing with today. This week's letter requires you to think, but it will be worth the effort. Remember our lesson from Economics 101. If you raise the supply of something, in normal markets the price goes down. And if you increase the price, suppliers will respond by producing more.
Now, if you put all of the various inputs together, Hoisington and Hunt show that theory suggests we will soon be dealing with deflation. It's counter-intuitive to what we see in the stores today, which is why the Bank for International Settlements used the stagflation word in a recent report. The transition that is coming will not be comfortable.
Hoisington Investment Management Company (www.hoisingtonmgt.com) is a registered investment advisor specializing in fixed income portfolios for large institutional clients. Located in Austin, Texas, the firm has over $4-billion under management, composed of corporate and public funds, foundations, endowments, Taft-Hartley funds, and insurance companies. And now let's jump right in to the essay.
Regular readers of Outside the Box will be familiar with Michael Lewitt's thoughtful commentary. Today, he reminds us that much of the turmoil we are in could have been avoided with proper regulatory structures and then does a very poignant analysis of various sectors of the economy. I agree with him that we have not seen the worst and that we will continue to see this mild recession/slow recovery for longer than we should without true structural reform.
On a side note, I will be on CNBC Tuesday morning at around 10:00 or 10:30 with Mark Haines and Erin Burnett, talking about commodity prices and regulation.
So without further ado, let's jump into today's Outside the Box.
For the last few months in my regular letter I have been pounding the table that corporate earnings are going to decline this year, which is always a negative atmosphere for stocks. Since today is the beginning of the earnings season for the first quarter, I thought it would be helpful to look at this piece from our old friend James Montier, head of equity research at Societe Generale based in London. It seems that analysts are behind the curve when it comes to predicting future earnings. James shows us why and then goes on to demonstrate that even the meager earnings reductions that are projected are not priced into the market as many bullish commentators suggest. This should make for an interesting Outside the Box.
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.