Thoughts from the Frontline: The Monster That Is Europe

Thoughts from the Frontline: The Monster That Is Europe

By: John Mauldin

This week, Geert Wilders and his Party for Freedom in the Netherlands and Marine Le Pen of the Front National (FN) of France held a press conference in The Hague to announce that they will be cooperating in the elections for the European Parliament next spring and hope to form a new eurosceptic bloc. Their aim, as Mr. Wilders put it, is to "fight this monster called Europe," while Ms. Le Pen spoke of a system that "has enslaved our various peoples." They want to end the common currency, remove the authority of Brussels over national budgets, and undo the project of integration driven with so much idealism by two generations of European politicians. (My thought about Marine Le Pen after looking at her policies is that if Marine Le Pen is the answer for France, they are asking the wrong question.)

For now, Le Pen and Wilders are in a decided, if growing, minority (think Beppe Grillo, who got 25% in Italy in the last election). But as the graphic below suggests, the stitching that is holding the Frankenstein of Europe together seems to be getting a little frayed. And my new worry is that the real monster, one likely to pop many more of the tenuous stitches that hold things together, could be lurking in German banks. This week's letter explores a problem as "hidden" as subprime was back in 2006. Not as big, to be sure, but it might not need to be big to tug too hard the frayed threads that hold Europe together. (Note: this week's letter will print out longer than usual due to the large number of graphs and pictures.)

But first and quickly, we have finalized the dates for next year's Strategic Investment Conference. Mark your calendar for May 13-16. We are adding half a day so we can bring you a few more must-hear speakers. In addition to our always killer lineup of investment and economics thought leaders, I want to add some technology and politics. The significant difference about this conference is that there are no "B list" speakers. Everyone is a headliner. No one pays to get to speak or promote their deal. When we started the conference 11 years ago, my one rule was that we would invite speakers that I wanted to hear and create a conference that I would want to go to.

With my co-hosts Altegris Investments, we have done that and more. Attendees typically rate this conference as the best they attend. This year we have moved to San Diego, where we can have more space. We will still keep it small enough so that you can meet the speakers, as well as a room full of extremely interesting fellow attendees. You can sign up now and book your rooms by going to Don't procrastinate. Mark down the dates and plan your time accordingly.

The Complacency of Consensus

"But where are you out of consensus?" came the question. I had just spent a few minutes outlining my view of the world to a group of serious money managers here in Geneva, highlighting some of the risks and opportunities I see. The gentleman's question made me realize that for the short-term, at least, I am all too sanguine for my personal taste. I have never thought of myself as one of those consensus guys. But when you consider that Japan is continuing down its path to starting a global currency war, with a currency that will drop at least in half from where it is now (plunging Japan into Abe-geddon); that China is launching its most serious economic overhaul in 20-30 years; that the US is still careening toward its day of reckoning with entitlement spending while dealing with the fall-out from taper tantrums in emerging markets; and that Europe is steering a course straight into deflation – the lot leaving us with Disaster A, Disaster B, or Disaster C as the consensus choice; then yes, I suppose I am a consensus guy, of sorts. But those are all worries that will come to a head later next year or the year after, not in the next few months or weeks, which is where most traders live. The trader who quizzed me wanted to know what was going to affect his book this week!

We seem to occupy a world where we are all somewhat uncomfortable. The problems are all so apparent; but somehow we are compelled to take risks anyway, hoping that the risks we take are properly managed or that we can exit at the propitious moment. The game seems to be moving along, absent another major shock to the system. It's not quite party like it's 2006, because the level of complacency is nowhere near the same; but we do seem headed down the same risk path, even though it scares us. Which means that it might take somewhat less than a subprime debacle and banking shock to trigger a crisis, since no one wants to be exposed when the next crisis happens. The majority of market players appear to believe that another crisis might materialize, but in the meantime you have to dance while the music is playing. Fifty Shades of Chuck Prince.

So, as investors and money managers, we must be on shock alert. Where will the next one come from? By definition, a shock is a surprise to the markets, something that few people recognize until it becomes too big to ignore. Ben Bernanke achieved a degree of infamy for saying that the subprime crisis would be contained, even as some of us were shouting that losses would be in the hundreds of billions (what optimists we were!). And then came the shock that created the biggest global economic crisis since the Great Depression. 

But an almost desperate reach for yield and shouldering of risk are clearly in evidence. Junk bond issuance is over 2.5 times what it was in 2006 and twice as high as a percentage of total corporate bond issuance. Leveraged loans are back to all-time highs, even as credit spreads continue to fall (see graph).

Collateralized loan obligations (CLOs) are close to all-time highs after almost disappearing in 2009. And subprime auto-asset-backed paper is projected to set a new record in 2014. Party on, Garth!

But if you ask the participants in those very markets, and I do, if there is any sign that the reach for yield is easing, the answer is generally "Not yet." After 2008, everyone remains nervous; but when the analysis is done, enough buyers conclude that the future will be somewhat like the recent past. Although no one I talk to believes that in 2014 we will see another year in the stock market like the current one, still, the consensus outlook is rather sanguine. But I talk to more bulls than you might think. Last night in Geneva David Zervos was arguing (till rather late in the night, for me at least) his familiar spoos and blues with me (long S&P 500, long eurodollar). He is ready to double down on QE. Our hosts bought an excellent if outrageously expensive dinner (for the record, there is no other kind of meal in Geneva – can you believe $12 Diet Cokes?), and it was only polite to listen. And the trade has been right.

But for how long? Central banks are still going to be easy. But markets can be characterized as fully valued, at best, especially since there have been more earnings warnings this last quarter than at any time in the recent past. While the conditions are not quite the same as in 2006-07, we are getting a little frothy. So is it 2005, so that we can enjoy the ride into late 2006 and then look for an exit strategy? I would argue that the markets actually need a "shock" of some kind. And in addition to the "consensus-view" shocks mentioned above, I see one especially big, nasty lion lurking in the grass. In the form of German banks.

The Sick (German) Banks of Europe

Quick: I say "German banks," and what's the first thing that comes to your mind? The Bundesbank? Staid, no-nonsense central banking? The Bundesbank is all about maintaining the price of money – forget QE. Deutschebank? Big, German – must be stable and low-risk. The fact that southern Europeans are opening accounts left and right in DB must mean that DB is lower-risk than the local wild guys. Except that they have the largest derivatives portfolio, at $70 trillion (but don't worry because it all nets out, sort of, and of course there is no counter-party risk!), and they are the most highly leveraged bank in Europe (at 60:1 in the last tests – not a misprint), which might give you pause. Although their CEO argues that their leverage doesn't matter. And keeps a straight face. Just saying…

If something happens to DB, they are, in all likelihood, Too Big To Save, even for Germany. But Deutschebank is not my focus here today. It is their much smaller brethren, Too small to be called siblings, actually. More like first cousins twice removed. But there are a lot of them, and they all piled into some very interesting and, as it turns out, very questionable trades. And the story begins with the American consumer.

This Christmas, we will all engage, as will much of the world, in an orgy of gift giving. (I helpfully offer a few ideas of my own at the end of the letter.) The iPads and Xbox Ones and GI Joes with the Kung-Fu Grip (gratuitous esoteric movie reference) will be flying off the shelves. But the one thing that ties all those gifts together is The Box, the humble container unit, the TEU, which allows the world to transport all those items ever more cheaply. That story is resoundingly told in a book that Bill Gates featured in his Best Reads for 2013, simply entitled The Box. You can read a great review here. It turns out that the shipping container was created in the '50s by a force-of-nature entrepreneur who fought governments and regulators (who typically tried to protect unions rather than help consumers) to bring the idea to market. It finally took off when the military decided it was the best way to ship material to the troops in Vietnam. It is one of those things that make sense and would have happened anyway, but as often happens, military spending drove the ramp-up.

The container was not without controversy. Longshoreman unions fought it aggressively, as containers meant fewer high-paying jobs. But The Box also meant far cheaper transportation of goods, and so it helped boost international trade. Now it is hard to imagine a world without containers. And even though the container business started in the US, there is not one US firm in the top 18 container shipping companies. The business is dominated by European and Asian firms.

And container ships were profitable. Oh my, fortunes were built. And they were so successful that a few German bankers looked at the easy money made by US bankers securitizing and packaging mortgages and decided they could do the same with ship financing. I know it is hard to believe, but the German government decided to create pass-through tax vehicles that gave serious tax preference to high-tax-rate investors for all sorts of things, including movies (such cinematic monuments as Terminator 3, I Robot, and the forgettable Stallone flick Get Carter were financed with German "tax shelters"); but my research has so far unearthed nothing to equal the German passion for financing ships. Seriously, would any US government entity give tax breaks to a favored industry? Would a Canadian or Australian or [insert your favorite country here] government? Such things are done by many governements, of course. Here we may apply Mauldin's Rule (stolen from someone else, I am sure): Any seriously out-of-whack financial transaction requires government involvement (generally in the form of some market-distorting law).

Cargo ships, especially container ships, were serious cash machines for long-term money. Buy the ship with some leverage, put it to work, and watch the cash roll in. The Greeks were especially good at this, but the Germans and Scandinavians caught on quick. The Germans went everyone one better and allowed small high-net-worth investors to put their money into funds that financed these ships. At one point, I am told, German banks might have been financing 50% of the world's cargo ships. (They control at least 40% of the world's container ship market today.) Anyone familiar with limited partnerships in the US in the late '70s and early '80s knows how this story ends for the investors.

I came across this story from the inside, as a business partner of mine is in the shipping business; but he owns and operates a special type of ship: massive tugboats that move ocean drilling-rig platforms, and those are still in healthy demand. But his original financing many years ago was from Germany.

It turns out that if a little leverage makes a deal look good, then a lot makes it look even better. In 2007, ships were financed at 75% leverage (on average). It looks like 2008 vintages were financed in the 90% range! (Data is from a presentation I was sent, done by Dr. Klaus Stoltenberg of NordLB.)

To continue reading this article from Thoughts from the Frontline – a free weekly publication by John Mauldin, renowned financial expert, best-selling author, and Chairman of Mauldin Economics – please click here.

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