This week we look over the Pacific pond to China and Japan, in an interview with my friend Vitaliy Katsenelson by David Galland, who is the managing editor of The Casey Report. Vitaliy is the chief investment officer of Investment Management Associates, Inc., and author of Active Value Investing. Profiled in Barron’s in September 2009, Vitaliy, who was born in Murmansk, Russia, and moved to the U.S. in 1991, is an adjunct faculty member at the University of Colorado at Denver’s Graduate School of Business.
Long time readers know that I just don’t get China or Japan. I think both are bubbles, but as Vitaliy notes, many bubbles can outlast the reputations of those predicting their demise. Timing is everything.
For those interested in subscribing to the Casey Report, which focuses on special situations and natural resources, you can get a risk-free trial subscription by going to the following link. (http://www.caseyresearch.com/crpmkt/crpSolo.php?id=175&ppref=JMD175ED1110A) It is one of my favorite reads.
Have a great Thanksgiving week!
This is a special Outside the Box. I got this letter from my good friend Greg Weldon last night and got permission to pass it on to you. I think it illustrates the problems that the world is facing from the sovereign debt crisis that is building in Europe.
There are no good solutions here, only very difficult ones. In order to get financing, Greece must willingly put itself into a multi-year depression. And borrowing more money when it cannot afford to pay back what it has will not solve the problem. 61% of Greeks now favor leaving the euro. How has Greece responded? By banning short selling on its stock market for the next two months. That should make things better. Greeks are responding by rioting and going on strike. But you truly know when a country is dysfunctional when its AIR FORCE goes on strike. Yesterday Reuters reported that hundreds of Greek pilots called in sick in protest. The response from government? The Minister of Defense said he was "profoundly disappointed." Now that had to make the pilots feel bad.
Money is flying from Greek banks, which makes sense, as how can a bankrupt Greek government guarantee Greek bank deposits? I know that Greek bankers may have a different view, but Greek depositors are voting with their feet. And Greg shows us it is not just Greece. It is fast becoming Portugal. And Spain is not far behind in my opinion.
I can well imagine there are private meetings among Greek government officials, banks and other leaders as to what must now be done. Those meetings I am sure can be tense. These things matter, as European banks hold a lot of Greek debt, as well as Portuguese and Spanish debt. European banks have not come close to dealing with their problems and are seriously over-leveraged. There is the potential for yet another banking and credit crisis stemming from European banks. Will world banks see their trust for each other (and especially European banks with large amounts of Club Med bonds) devolve as it did on August of 2008? It is something we must think about. It is possible, in my opinion. I sincerely hope it does not happen, but we must think about it. (Note, this is not something that will happen for awhile, but we should be aware of the problem.)
I want to thank Greg for letting me send this on to you. His website is www.weldononline.com. This letter is typical of his work – thorough and detailed and full of charts. He is the best slicer and dicer of data that I know.
Today I'm sending you a piece on Ecuador's recent move to change the terms of its contracts with oil investors to keep more of the returns in the state. As we watch the world's energy market, political details like this are essential to know. The article explores the geopolitical implications of the move and the how key investors are likely to react.
This is nothing short of the real world with real consequences on the amount the meter reads to fill up your gasoline tank, your investments abroad and the overall worth of those dollar bills in your wallet right now. You don't get this kind of information on your typical media news networks. The truth is, this event is one you may not have heard about - not only do you have to keep your ears to the ground, you've got to know where to look.
For all things under the radar and overly important, my source is STRATFOR. They provide in-depth intelligence for those that need to know. Read their article, and join their email list to get weekly reports and special discounts on memberships.
With the establishment of the euro in the 1990s, speculation was abundant on how things would play out. In the last fews months we've seen that cheap credit for the Club Med countries came at a price, and now it's time to look at who will come out on top after the current economic crisis. There is a term for this type of global analysis: geopolitical intelligence. STRATFOR, a global intelligence company, uses geography, open source data, HUMINT, and a deep understanding of global affairs to produce analysis with a geopolitical perspective.
Today I'm including their take on Germany's changing role in the EU. But it is only a small sample of all they provide, so I encourage you to sign up for their free mailing list or become a member for greater access to features including Quarterly and Annual Forecasts that will put you ahead of the game.
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.
Let me welcome you to a new year of Outside the Box. I doubt we will have trouble finding interesting commentary this year, as there are many things that could happen that demand our attention. We start with a short column by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard of the London Telegraph giving us a quick run down of the problems faced around the globe. He thinks the #1 problem is Japan, and I more or less agree. I have written about Japan many times in the past few years. In my speeches I refer to Japan as a bug in search of a windshield. I am not so sure about the timing, however, as the economic and fiscal insanity that is Japan may be able to go on for longer than many think possible. But to me it is not a question of whether there will be a crisis, but when there will be one. This year? 2011? 2012? I doubt Japan makes it to the middle of the decade with a very serious and sad day of reckoning.
The downside to the continuation of running massive deficits is that when the break does come, it will be all the more painful and difficult to deal with as the debt mounts. If there is an upside, it is for the rest of the world to see what can happen to a developed country like Japan when massive deficits are allowed to pile up one after another. It will be a morality play writ large upon the walls, which cannot be dismissed.
But as Ambrose points out, it is not just Japan. There are problems all over the developed world. He does end on the encouraging note that at some point we hit bottom and will find the buying opportunity of our lives.
This is a little darker than most of the cheery forecasts of late, but we need to think of the world at large and how we are all connected.
This Friday I write my annual forecast letter. It will be more upbeat than last year's. Until then, have a great week.
Today I offer you an insightful look at China's real estate market - a "burgeoning bubble" that deserves a close eye as the possibility for breaking increases. Remember the chaos in Japan after their own housing dreamscape got violently yanked back to earth? As investors, we have to recognize opportunities - and know what to avoid. With a global economic crisis - and now surging housing prices in China - investors in any global market need to keep watch on political and economic developments around the world.
Today's analysis comes courtesy my friends at STRATFOR, a global intelligence company. They provide unique and on-the-money analysis and forecasts on all things global, essential for any alternative investment strategy. They've got a free newsletter as well, for which I encourage you to sign up by clicking here - so you're not limited to my caprice.
This week I'd like to address the topic of currency. Flip through any business journal and speculation runs deep, though the ups and downs are far from predictable. A year ago everyone who thought they had half a brain and a pile of money comparable to Uncle Scrooge was threatening to transform all of their wealth into the seemingly unstoppable Yuan. Travel agents were pushing dirt-cheap excursions taking advantage of the near-worthless Icelandic krona to suburbanites with inquiries about sunny beaches and palm trees. And this year, if you're looking for a destination that won't hurt your pocket book, one might suggest Central Europe for that romantic second honeymoon.
In the long run though, currency speculation is a serious business that takes patience and an overall understanding of a nation, country or union. IMF reports and debt calculators are a good indicator, but they can be flawed and don't take into account the grand scheme of things. I've said it before and I'll say it again, the bigger picture is the one you want, and nothing prepares you for this kind of commitment than the intelligence you get from my friend George Friedman at STRATFOR. I'm sending you a piece that considers the recession in Central Europe, country by country. I encourage you to read and consider it in your portfolios. Click here to check out STRATFOR as well, as my readers get a special offer.
This week saw a 2-day summit between the United States and Russia that looks to be the first in a trend of subtle push and pull that will shape economic agendas for both states. Just as at the height of the Cold War, these two superpowers are jockeying for global attention and prospective untapped markets. But while the communication between the two is at the same volume and frequency as it was back in the days of Kennedy and Khrushchev, the tone has taken on a different level - as Obama flexes his newly appointed muscle and plants a possible seed of discontent between Medvedev and Putin concerning the future of the former USSR.
Hands-down the most important thing in Russia is energy. It's not the headline on CNN these days, but come less than 6 months from now the cold European winters will make natural gas supply lines and shipping an unavoidable talking point. Today's U.S./Russia relationship lays the groundwork for the future of global energy markets.
I'm sending you an article by my friend George Friedman at STRATFOR, a global intelligence firm, discussing what's really going on between the U.S. and Russia - at the summit and in the coming months. If energy markets matter to you - and they do, regardless of how you're invested - then you need to understand this pivotal global relationship. Also, STRATFOR is offering special rates to Outside the Box readers. Click here to read more and be sure to take advantage of these low rates for priceless intelligence to help you in your future financial planning.
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!
Before we get into this week's Outside the Box, let me give you a few pieces of data that came across my desk this morning, which will help set the stage for the OTB offering.
Fitch (the ratings agency), in a downgrade of yet another 543 mortgage-backed securities of 2005-07 vintage, gives us the following side notes: "The home price declines to date have resulted in negative equity for approximately 50% of the remaining performing borrowers in the 2005-2007 vintages. In addition to continued home price deterioration, unemployment has risen significantly since the third quarter of last year, particularly in California where the unemployment rate has jumped from 7.8% to 11%... The projected losses also reflect an assumption that from the first quarter of 2009, home prices will fall an additional 12.5% nationally and 36% in California, with home prices not exhibiting stability until the second half of 2010. To date, national home prices have declined by 27%. Fitch Rating's revised peak-to-trough expectation is for prices to decline by 36% from the peak price achieved in mid-2006. The additional 9% decline represents a 12.5% decline from today's levels."
So, what does an aging population do that has seen its retirement nest egg in the form of housing and stocks go literally nowhere for 12 years? You go back to work! David Rosenberg, now with Gluskin Sheff, offers us this insight:
"What really struck us in the employment report of a few weeks ago was the fact that the only segment of the population that is gaining jobs is the 55+ age category. This group gained 224,000 net new jobs in May while the rest of the population lost 661,000. In fact, over the last year, those folks 55 and up garnered 630,000 jobs whereas the other age categories collectively lost over six million positions. This is epic." [See chart below.]
"Moreover, the number of 55 year olds and up who have two jobs or more has risen 1.1% in the last year, the only age cohort to have managed to gain any multiple jobs at all. Remarkable. These folks have seen their wealth get destroyed by two bubble-busts less than seven years apart — the Nasdaq nest egg back in 2001 and the 5,000 square foot McMansion in 2007. Both bubbles ended in tears ... and so close together."
With that as backdrop, what are we to make of the prospects for recovery over the next decade? Not much, if we listen to Professor Paul Krugman of Princeton. He suggests that the developed world could be entering a lost decade, just like Japan after their crash. Let me quickly point out that I routinely disagree with Krugman on a large number of issues. And I usually know why I disagree and believe his policy suggestions are wrong.
That being said, one purpose of Outside the Box is to look at ideas and thinkers that we may not always agree with. Krugman certainly qualifies on that front for me. However, it must be admitted that he is a very smart man. Further, his thinking is important, because it somewhat reflects the thinking of that part of the establishment that is in charge of the Fed and the Treasury. And while we are not getting gloomy long-term forecasts from either the Fed or the Treasury, I find it remarkable that Krugman is less sanguine than his peers. And there is much (certainly not all!) within this interview that I find myself in surprising agreement with. This one made me think as I read and reread it.
If he is correct, the rosy recovery assumptions built into the already bloated budget projections are going to be far too optimistic, not just for the US, but throughout Europe as well. Krugman is interviewed very capably by Will Hutton, a veteran writer and economist for the UK Guardian (a bastion of liberal politics). The direct link is http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2009/jun/14/economics-globalrecession.
Green shoots? Really? I invite you to read and think about what this interview means for the road to recovery. I will take this up more in next Friday's missive. (Note, I did not write a letter last week. There was a new Mauldin grandchild on Friday, and I decided that some things just take precedence.) Have a great week.
One of the first things you learn about analyzing a company is how to dissect a balance sheet. What assets and liabilities can be deployed by a company to create equity over time? I've enclosed a fascinating variant on this process. Take a look at how STRATFOR has analyzed the "geographic balance sheets" of the US, Russia, China, and Europe to understand why different countries' economies have suffered to varying degrees from the current economic crisis.
As investors, it's precisely this type of outside-the-box thinking that can provide us profitable opportunities, and it's precisely this type of outside-the-box thinking that makes STRATFOR such an important part of my investment decision making. The key to investment profits is thinking differently and thinking earlier than the next guy. STRATFOR's work exemplifies both these traits.
I've arranged for a special deal on a STRATFOR Membership for my readers, which you can click here to take advantage of. Many of you are invested in alternative strategies, but I want to make sure that you also employ alternative thinking strategies. So take a look at these different "country balance sheets" as you formulate your plans.
Who's afraid of the Russian bear? As Russia makes a grab for power and influence, the rest of the world watches to see how the United States and her still-new president will react. As an investor, it's important that you're aware of global politics, as the ramifications reach beyond diplomatic relations and straight into the markets.
I've included a piece from my friend George Friedman's company, STRATFOR, on The Obama Administration and the Former Soviet Union. It's the seventh in a series that explores how key countries have interacted with the United States in the past, and how their relationships with Washington will likely be defined during the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama. It's a must-read for informed investors.
George has very kindly arranged for a special offer on a STRATFOR Membership just for my readers. I strongly encourage you to take advantage of this offer. Now more than ever, you need a wide lens on the world, as politics shapes the economy. There's no one better than George and his team at Stratfor at telling you what you need to know and why. I know you'll find them as valuable as I do.
When I read the headline, "China: Exports Drop," plastic toys, cheap sneakers and milk scandals come to mind. But the impact of China's financial health is more far-reaching than simply affecting the Wal-Mart consumer; China matters on a global investing stage. So that's why I don't just read headlines; I read STRATFOR. My friend George Friedman's team of analysts will take the numbers and explain to me what they mean and how they impact the country, without bias or partisanship. They don't make value judgments, they outline the full financial picture so I can make my own.
Understanding China is critical to anyone with investments. In the following piece, STRATFOR graphically presents the decline in exports in a historical context, and outlines other critical measurements in the Chinese economy -- giving me the frame of reference I need. I highly recommend that you start reading STRATFOR for this kind of focused analysis. George has kindly arranged a special offer just for my readers: a full year of Membership for just $199. Click here to take advantage of this offer today.
I read STRATFOR because I only want to know what's important and why.
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 we look at the European bank markets through the eyes of my London partner Niels Jensen, head of Absolute Return Partners. I continue to believe that this is a brewing crisis which could have far more significant implications for the global economy than the Asian Crisis of 1998. In this week's Outside the Box, Niels has compiled a sobering set of data that suggests that only massive government involvement in Europe on a scale that is unprecedented will keep the wheels from coming off in Europe and the global economy.
I have worked 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
Much of the world is focused on the next 100 days—what Obama is going to do. That's important. But today in a special Outside the Box from my good friend George Freidman of Stratfor We will look out a bit further George is just about to release his latest book, The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century. (Even pre-release it's already at #11 on Amazon's non-fiction bestseller list!) Here's my quick summary; and to cut to the chase, it's just fascinating.
What reads like a geopolitical thriller gives a thought-provoking glimpse into what the world will look like in the coming century. George's strength is his ability to take geopolitical patterns and use them to forecast future events, sometimes with startling and counterintuitive results.
For example, he forecasts:
- By the middle of this century, Poland and Turkey will be major international players
- Russia will be a regional power - after emerging from a second cold war
- Space-based solar power will completely change the global energy dynamic
- The border areas between the US and Mexico are going to be in play again, like 150 years ago
- Shrinking labor pools will cause countries to compete for immigrants rather than fighting to keep them out
I confess when George first told me about these ideas, I raised an eyebrow. But after reading the book, and going through the analysis, I find myself sometimes nodding in agreement and other times not being sure what I was reading. But like all the analysis reviews I do, I pay as much attention to the methods, the logic, and the arguments as the conclusions. Do that, and what seems hard to believe all of a sudden makes sense.
Don't let short-term fears blind you to long term opportunities. George's company, Stratfor, is my source for this kind of geopolitical analysis on an on-going basis. I've included the full introduction to the book below; and I heartily recommend that you click here for a special offer on a Stratfor Membership that includes a copy of George's upcoming book.
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,
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.