I am in Minnesota this morning doing a speech, but do have a very good candidate for this week’s Outside the Box. Tony Boeckh just published a piece by George Magnus on demographics and the markets that I think is very thought-provoking. Demographics is something I think about a lot and you should too. I will let Tony do the introduction of George.
Have a good week. My goal is to write this Friday’s letter a little early so that I can get in some fishing time. And when you look at today’s ISM number, look past the headline number, which is just fine, and look at the weakness in the leading indicators. New orders declined by 5 points to 53.5, its lowest level since June 2009. Also, imports slowed noticeably, which is a bad omen for domestic demand. Overall, the ISM index suggests that real GDP and factory output slowed early this quarter.
Your concerned about the lack of growth analyst,
This week we visit an essay from an old friend of Outside the Box, Paul McCulley, the Managing Directpr of PIMCO. This is a speech he did at the Minsky Conference sponsored (I believe) by the Levy Institute. It was also the same speech he gave at my conference mid-April that was quite well received.
Essentially Paul argues that the cause of the recent crisis was the creation of the Shadow Banking System outside the purview of regulation. And while he did not use the line in this speech, he did at my conference, which is one of the truly great lines I have heard this year.
"The rating agencies were like the man who went to an under-age drinking party and handed out fake IDs (identification cards). They were the necessary enablers as Paul shows. This is a think piece and one you should take some time to read as when you "get it," you will have some understanding of what must be done all over the world to prevent the next crisis. Let me offer two paragraphs as teaser copy"
"And I think the first principle is that if what you're doing is banking, de jure or de facto, then you are in a joint venture with the public sector. Period. If you're issuing liabilities that are intended to be just as good as a bank deposit, then you will be considered functionally a bank, regardless of the name on your door. That's the first principle.
"Number two, if you engage in these types of activities – call it banking, without making a big distinction here between conventional banking and shadow banking, as Paul Krugman intoned this morning – in such size that you pose systemic risk, you will have higher mandated capital requirements and you will be supervised by the Federal Reserve. Yes, I just told you who I think the top-dog supervisor should be. You will have tighter leverage and liquidity restrictions: You will have to live by civilized norms. In fact, a great deal of what is on the regulatory reform table right now proceeds precisely along those lines. If you're going to act like a bank, you're going to be regulated like a bank. That simple. And maybe you just might find the time to go back to working on your golf game at 3. That is the core principle.
(Note: Paul uses the following Latin terms a lot. For those not familiar with them, Ex-post is Latin for "after the fact." Ex-ante is Latin for "before the event or beforehand".)
Have a great week!
Your rushing to yet another plane analyst,
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.
Milton Friedman famously predicted that the euro would not last past their first economic crisis. This week we look at commentary by Niels Jensen that explores the news from Euroland. Can the euro survive? He explores a number of options which are most definitely not on the radar screen for most investors. It is good to get a perspective from those outside of our own back yard. Note that when he says "our country" he is referring to Great Britain.
Niels is the Managing Partner of Absolute Return Partners based in London (which is my European partner). I work 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. The numbered footnotes are at the end of the letter.
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 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.
As various companies go hat in hand to Washington for a bailout, a recurring topic is what guaranty do the taxpayers get that they're not just throwing more money down a hole. Good question. Who wants warrants or preferred shares if the company is doomed anyway? What you're seeing take place are negotiated backstops between the US Government and pools of capital. A couple of examples:
The Big 3 may get a bailout. Financially the US taxpayer will get a stake - in what will surely be radically reshaped companies. Citibank just got a large infusion from Saudi Arabia's Prince al-Waleed bin Talal al-Saud - just days before a US government orchestrated rescue helped rocket the share price. Maybe these are just coincidental moves. Maybe not.
What we're witnessing isn't finance or investment as usual. We're watching a shift to a managed economic structure, where government officials determine who will live and who will die. It's a shift from investments to agreements, where having access to large pools of ready cash is the ultimately persuasive argument. And lacking access means doing whatever you're told.
I've long been encouraging you to read George Friedman's work at Stratfor, but it becomes more important every day. Stratfor is producing a series on Countries in Crisis, and I've enclosed the latest piece which is the exception to the rule, the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. This series is a fascinating look at how those with the gold get to make the rules. Unless you've got your own sovereign wealth fund, you'll probably want to read it...
As you're structuring your own portfolios, understanding the geopolitical drivers behind where the markets are going is now more important than ever. Because these insights are so important, I've arranged a special deal for you on a Stratfor Membership which also includes a free copy of George's new book, The Next 100 Years. Click here to take advantage of this offer today. These are the drivers for the coming year, and I encourage you to factor them in today.
We are clearly not having as much fun taking off leverage as we had putting it on, or at least the vast majority are not. This week in Outside the Box we look at some very thought-provoking insights from my good friend Paul McCulley, who helps us think about how we got here and what will be the end point. From the letter:
"But what ailed Lehman was but a manifestation of what ailed, and ails the global financial intermediary system: the presumption that grossly levered positions in illiquid assets can always be funded, because those doing the funding will always assume the borrower is a going concern."
You need to read this when you have the time to think. The quotes from Keynes are important.
Paul is a managing director, generalist portfolio manager, and member of the investment committee in the Newport Beach office of PIMCO. In addition, he heads PIMCO's short-term bond desk. And is an avid fisherman
The Big Three have a new customer, and it isn't you. As Detroit's former heavyweights fight for a slice of a $25 billion bailout package, more than humble pie is being eaten. If the automakers fail and take their companies into bankruptcy, Michigan as we know it ceases to exist economically. The trickle-down impact could rapidly become a waterfall: the seat supplier in Georgia loses three major customers. The factory worker who makes seats is out of a job. The bank who holds his mortgage takes another hickey. Commercial lending at that bank dries up. Ad nauseum. In the best of economic times, this would be a troublesome scenario. In today's economy, it's easy to see how policymakers are as worried about social stability as they are economics.
No astute person thinks that the Big Three will be able to return to the business practices of last year. And no intelligent investor should be trying to evaluate portfolio decisions the same way this year either. We have moved from the realm of finance to political economy, and for that you need a different set of tools and a different mindset.
I've enclosed an article by my friend George Friedman, the founder of global intelligence firm Stratfor. This is a fascinating, must-read piece that examines US policy options by looking at the Chinese as an example. The parallels are illuminating. I've stressed before the importance of reading Stratfor's intelligence in order to gain a clear understanding of the political and economic landscape you're investing in, but you need it now more than ever.
George has arranged a special offer just for my readers. And I'm excited to tell you that in addition to a Stratfor Membership, you'll also get a copy of his new book, The Next 100 Years.
Click here to take advantage of this special offer. You'll find George's new book as fascinating and insightful as Stratfor's daily work.
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,
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 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."
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 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.