In today's Outside the Box, the ever-philosophical Grant Williams introduces us to the ancient and profound art and science of alchemy – "the original 12-step program," as he calls it, the avid pursuit of übernerds from Hermes Trismegistus to Isaac Newton to (believe it or not) John Maynard Keynes, who referred to certain early works of econometrics as statistical alchemy (and some still are!). And we should not forget Carl Jung, who wrote the seminal work Psychology and Alchemy (for those who do not sleep or are looking for something to put you to sleep: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychology_and_Alchemy).
Grant notes that, in contrast to the mechanically and spiritually laborious (not to mention ultimately futile) process of transmuting lead into gold, the steps to convert paper into money are only two: (1) Plugging and (2) Pushing. Nevertheless, he says, the fervid attempts by latter-day magi to concoct a successful outcome to our present economic crisis are proving no more successful than the Alchemical Work. Where alchemists got hung up, says Grant, was in the final, climactic step of the process, Projection.
Projection "was the moment when, despite all the work that went into getting to that last point in the program, hope and faith took over as the alchemist found himself having to rely on just a little bit of magic in order to get the outcome he so desperately wished for."
And Projection has much in common with Pushing. Whether it is Ben Bernanke pushing the outlandish assertion that "subprime is contained" or Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy hopefully projecting that Spain would "... stop being a problem and instead form part of the solution [to the debt crisis]," the economic alchemists have struggled. (I have a mental image of Ben Bernanke as the Sorcerer's Apprentice, with about the same results – forced to try and clean up the mess he made and ultimately being swept away in it!)
Grant wishes to speed the economic magicians in their arduous task by offering a new, slimmed-down transformational schema – it only has seven steps: Greecification, Backtrackification, Transmission, Restatigence, Bullyfication, Renegotiation, Realization. The outcome might not be any more satisfactory than it was for the conjurers of old, but at least they may learn something as they kick the Holy Economic Vessel down the road.
(See, I don't call this letter Outside the Box for nothing.)
Grant, by the way, is the best "new" wordsmith/storyteller I have seen in a dozen years. I am a huge fan. (If you want to be a Hmmm…’er too, you can subscribe for free at http://ethreemail.com/subscribe?g=bdc736be.) And I get to see him tomorrow in Singapore, where he works at Vulpes with master hedge fund manager Steven Diggle, who was with us in Tuscany for a few nights. (I am not supposed to mention how much he lost on Italian soccer, betting against Newt Gingrich, so I won't. But then, Newt has to fund his campaigns somehow. Might as well take it from a hedge fund guy who thinks he understands soccer.)
I have been in New York today (I'm writing this note from the Virgin Lounge at JFK) and did media hits all morning. Two hours of air time and never had to repeat myself. A great deal of fun. We started off at 7 a.m. with two segments with the super-serious and wicked-smart Tom Keene and crew at Bloomberg, then three segments with Matt Nesto at Yahoo Breakout (where I surprised him by agreeing with President Obama, kind of), and then finished off the trifecta with old fishing buddy and always-fun (where does he get all those obscure facts?) Mike McKee for an hour on Bloomberg Radio. You can listen on or watch at:
(Bloomberg Radio has not posted yet, but I assume it will be there when you get this. Look for the Bloomberg Radio 10 a.m. show with Mike McKee.)
They will call the first leg of my 24 hours to Singapore in a minute, so time to sign off. The next letter will come from Singapore. Have a great week.
Your still seeing Mickey Mouse and Ben Bernanke in my head analyst,
For your Outside the Box today I treat you to another big, juicy slab of Grant Williams' Things That Make You Go Hmmm… I don't want to be all Grant all the time, but this is just so good I couldn't resist. This week, Grant is digging deep into the history and mystery of the European Union, taking us all the way back to the first inter-country treaty in April 1951 and then following the rather tortuous bureaucratic proceedings that led, by hook and by crook, to today's increasingly problematic eurozone.
Grant then zeroes in on the ever-stalwart Dutch, who, it now appears, are in something of a pickle. He notes that the Dutch "were signatories to the Treaties of Paris and Rome and to every major European Treaty since and are staunch supporters of a unified Europe as well as having a reputation for being amongst the more fiscally disciplined members of the EU." And in September of last year, the Dutch prime minister and his finance minister penned a rather incendiary little diatribe on eurozone behavior that built, with eminently sensible Dutch logic, to the conclusion that "Countries that do not want to submit to this [new, rigorous fiscal] regime can choose to leave the eurozone. Whoever wants to be part of the eurozone must adhere to the agreements and cannot systematically ignore the rules. In the future, the ultimate sanction can be to force countries to leave the euro."
How unfortunate, then, that a mere six months later – and just days after Spain's unilateral decision to favor its own budget projections over those dictated by Brussels, who did we find but the Dutch confessing that they too would violate, by a mile, the fiscal deficit limit imposed by the EU's new treaty. And to make matters worse, Geert Wilders, head of the far-right-wing Freedom Party and a key player in the right-of-center coalition that now governs Holland, has been making noises about a Dutch referendum on continued eurozone membership.
Grant then jumps right across the Channel to catch us up on the antics of the English government, whose much-ballyhooed austerity program appears to be anything but, depending as it does on some rather figmentary revenue assumptions and other fiscal legerdemain. I haven't included that portion of this issue of Hmmm…, because I want to keep the focus this week on eurozone woes (England is not in the euro and didn't sign the new EU treaty, arousing much Continental ire), and to mention that I'm in Paris, attending a very powerful conference on central-bank monetary policy and strategies for dealing with sovereign debt. Organized by the Global Interdependence Center (GIC), the conference could hardly be more timely. I'm here with good friend (and long-time GIC supporter) David Kotok, who mentions today in his own commentary that:
"Our private meetings here involve bankers, central bankers, investors, and money managers – the gamut of those interested in financial markets and economics. We find that one theme persists. All of them are watching the credit spreads involving Portugal and Spain. They realize the market is sending a message of concern. The market is saying that the episode with Greece is not over, and the contagion is spreading in spite of the massive liquidity injections of the European Central Bank. They observe and discuss the use of collective action clauses and how they have to adjust their portfolios now that a government has inserted itself in a retroactive forced alteration of a debt structure. In public, they are polite, but they dissect the risks strenuously. In private, the debates become fierce." (You can read David's whole piece on the Cumberland Advisors website.)
He's right: the tension here, both behind closed doors where the "players" assemble and in public, between the European leadership and their increasingly disgruntled constituencies, is palpable.
And yet, after a tough winter, Paris is bursting with the hopeful energy of spring, and I'm very glad to be here.
Your learning a lot and loving it analyst,
Today's Outside the Box comes to us from Grant Williams, who covers the world from his perch in Singapore, in his always instructive and always entertaining Things That Make You Go Hmmm... I felt for him right at the outset today, because (like yours truly) he was trying really hard ... not to talk about Greece. And so, he announced, he was going to talk about Spain and about oil; but then, before he even made it through his opening paragraph, there was this:
"... ahhhh NUTS! They did it AGAIN.... ok... the Greek restructuring. It's not as though I could ignore it, now, is it? ... Oil can wait until next time.... no doubt it'll be an issue then too."
But he's determined to talk about Spain ... so let's talk about Spain. But ... (What is this? Why is Greece such a strange attractor?) on his way to the pain that falls mostly on the plain in Spain, Grant just can't help sharing with us this wry factoid:
"... some 2,400 years after 10 Greek municipalities became the first sovereign entities to default when they stiffed the temple of Delos, birthplace of Apollo."
But Spain, Grant! Yes:
"Spain's GDP of $1.4 trillion, somewhat surprisingly perhaps, puts it just behind oil-rich Russia and Canada and people-rich India. Spain is a big country. Spain matters.
"Spain is now about to become the country everyone cares about all over again and, when the world's focus returns to the Iberian Peninsula, it will realise that the large, grey shape in the corner of the room was a Spanish elephant."
Spain's public debt-to-GDP ratio is a relatively appealing 68%, Grant notes (that's just a little over half of Italy's, at 120%), but here's the rub:
"As manageable as Spain's public debt would appear to be at face value, her private debt is an altogether different story – standing at a staggering 227% of GDP and, according to McKinsey, Spanish corporations hold twice as much debt relative to their output as US companies and, in comparison to Germany, that number goes up to six times....
"As Spain reduced its deficit in accordance with the EU's Growth & Stability Pact, it meant an increasing reliance on private debt was needed in order to prolong the enormous construction boom that had been ongoing in Spain since the 1970s but which really picked up steam in the 90s and 00s. The outcome of that reliance? A tripling of average household debt."
Throw in the part about the Spanish unemployment rate skyrocketing toward the 25% mark this year (and twice that for those under 25) and the bit where the new Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, draws a line in the sand by unexpectedly announcing that his government's budget deficit would be 5.8% of GDP in 2012, more than 30 percent higher than the 4.4% agreed on with his supposed masters in Brussels, and we have all the makings for quite a spicy little paella.
But stop reading at about the middle of page 10 if you just don't think you can stomach another helping of spanakopita.
I did something rather fun this morning. The wonderful people at the Commonfund were kind enough to invite me and my co-author of Endgame, Jonathan Tepper, who lives in London, to update their attendees on the sovereign-debt crisis we predicted in our book. This was the first time we had done a full-on presentation together. It was fun and came off rather well, and I think the attendees appreciated our combined views. We both agreed we need to do it more. Jonathan is a very brilliant young man. He makes me look good (I will take whatever help I can get). Enjoy the week!
Your losing my taste for Continental cui$ine analyst,
For whatever deeply embedded psychological reason – and your humble analyst is profoundly guilty – we humans seem prone to picking out a particular point in our space-time continuum (read: the New Year) to think about the future and new beginnings, rather than running the exercise every week or month. Maybe so much introspection and thinking is just too exhausting, so we only do it on an annual basis. I am deep in my reading as I research my annual forecast issue, which I will write Friday. I am thinking of being especially foolish (and anyone who makes predictions is foolish) and going out to a five-year time frame. It should be challenging.
But back to today. One of the most fun things I have read recently is from Grant Williams, who writes Things That Make You Go Hmmm... from Singapore. This year he has somehow managed to leap ahead on his own space-time continuum to share with us his December 2012 letter, where he looks back and discusses the year that was. While I will draw some different conclusions this Friday, Grant does make me think, and he is a fun read. I look forward to meeting him in a few weeks in Singapore.
Quick housekeeping note. Last week's letter had a link at the end to a page where the team from Boston Consulting Group gave their thoughts on how businesses should plan for various contingencies in 2012. The response was so large it blew up our server (!); so we have added bandwidth, and I'm ready to give you the link to "The Year(s) Ahead Report" again. It's http://www.johnmauldin.com/frontlinethoughts/the-years-ahead-report-0112 .
I am hard at work trying to clear the decks for 2012, as I do at the beginning of each year. I really should consider doing it more often, as it does help in organizing things; but then again, maybe we can only deal with so organization...? We humans are such complicated creatures.
In any event, let me wish you a wonderful start to 2012 (and if you are reading this in the Chinese translation, then here are early New Year's wishes for you! For my Western readers, Chinese New Year is January 23rd this year, and it's the Year of the Dragon.)
Your thinking of the paths to our future analyst,
What do the “Big Fitz,” the largest ship ever to sail the Great Lakes, and the Eurozone have in common? Hint: the former sank without a trace. Or, as Grant Williams so eloquently puts it, in his Things That Make You Go Hmmm… for Nov. 13 (this week’s Outside the Box), “One can’t help but think … that this week may well have brought us to the wall at the end of the road down which Europe has been kicking the can for quite some time now.”
Grant inspects the SS Europe from bow to stern and concludes: “The smoke has pretty much cleared now and those in charge of the SS Europe are left with a stark choice – print money or allow the break-up of the Eurozone and the end of the common currency known as the Euro. At this point it really IS that simple.”
So come on along as Grant takes us on an eye-opening and at times jaw-dropping ride – there are some real insights here. From his perch in Singapore he sees the same problems I do, just from the other side of the globe. And that perspective is worth your time.
As you read this, I am on my way to Capitol Hill to meet with a member of the Super-Committee. If there is anything I can report, you will get it this weekend. I hope I can bring good news at some point. Then it’s back to the UBS Wealth Management Conference in time to hear Ken Rogoff (and Alan Greenspan) on a panel. I am looking forward to that. Tomorrow night in my own bed again. And be looking for a special note from me on Thursday.
Your trying to figure out how we get out of this mess analyst,
Do we need a law that makes it illegal to push a moose out of a moving aircraft? In baseball, what are the odds of a perfect game? How difficult will it be to solve the problems of the Eurozone? These and other issues are meditated upon by Grant Williams in his Things That Make You Go Hmmm… letter, which is this week’s Outside the Box. Maybe it was the baseball set-up (as my Rangers battle the Cardinals in the World Series) or that I keep getting asked about Europe here in New Orleans at the 2011 Oppenheimer Wealth Management Roundtable, but Grant really pulled me through his weekly missive when I got started, and I believe you will enjoy it as well. Long and short, Grant lays out the problems that we face in a very realistic assessment. I will also point out that he makes me look like a euro-optimist.
I am working on recovering from this past weekend, as this was the first time in 12 years I missed a letter due to simply not feeling well. But I guess that means I should be grateful I am not sick all that often. I hated to not write. The spirit was willing but the flesh was weak. It seems like I was “gifted” by my granddaughter with a nasty bug, which decided to show itself while I was in South Africa. Aaah, the joys of being a grandfather. Another round of catching nasty stuff from your progeny.
Your ready for some rest and baseball on TV analyst,