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.
John Mauldin, Editor
Outside the Box
Global bear rally of 2009 will end as Japan's hyperinflation rips economy to pieces
The contraction of M3 money in the US and Europe over the last six months will slowly puncture economic recovery as 2010 unfolds, with the time-honoured lag of a year or so. Ben Bernanke will be caught off guard, just as he was in mid-2008 when the Fed drove straight through a red warning light with talk of imminent rate rises – the final error that triggered the implosion of Lehman, AIG, and the Western banking system.
As the great bear rally of 2009 runs into the greater Chinese Wall of excess global capacity, it will become clear that we are in the grip of a 21st Century Depression – more akin to Japan's Lost Decade than the 1840s or 1930s, but nothing like the normal cycles of the post-War era. The surplus regions (China, Japan, Germania, Gulf ) have not increased demand enough to compensate for belt-tightening in the deficit bloc (Anglo-sphere, Club Med, East Europe), and fiscal adrenalin is already fading in Europe. The vast East-West imbalances that caused the credit crisis are no better a year later, and perhaps worse. Household debt as a share of GDP sits near record levels in two-fifths of the world economy. Our long purge has barely begun. That is the elephant in the global tent.
We will be reminded too that the West's fiscal blitz – while vital to halt a self-feeding crash last year – has merely shifted the debt burden onto sovereign shoulders, where it may do more harm in the end if handled with the sort of insouciance now on display in Britain.
Yields on AAA German, French, US, and Canadian bonds will slither back down for a while in a fresh deflation scare. Exit strategies will go back into the deep freeze. Far from ending QE, the Fed will step up bond purchases. Bernanke will get religion again and ram down 10-year Treasury yields, quietly targeting 2.5pc. The funds will try to play the liquidity game yet again, piling into crude, gold, and Russian equities, but this time returns will be meagre. They will learn to respect secular deflation.
Weak sovereigns will buckle. The shocker will be Japan, our Weimar-in-waiting. This is the year when Tokyo finds it can no longer borrow at 1pc from a captive bond market, and when it must foot the bill for all those fiscal packages that seemed such a good idea at the time. Every auction of JGBs will be a news event as the public debt punches above 225pc of GDP. Finance Minister Hirohisa Fujii will become as familiar as a rock star.
The European Central Bank will stick to its Wagnerian course, standing aloof as ugly loan books set off wave two of Europe's banking woes. The Bundesbank will veto proper QE until it is too late, deeming it an implicit German bail-out for Club Med.
More hedge funds will join the EMU divergence play, betting that the North-South split has gone beyond the point of no return for a currency union. This will enrage the Eurogroup. Brussels will dust down its paper exploring the legal basis for capital controls. Italy's Giulio Tremonti will suggest using EU terror legislation against "speculators".
Wage cuts will prove a self-defeating policy for Club Med, trapping them in textbook debt-deflation. The victims will start to notice this. Articles will appear in the Greek, Spanish, and Portuguese press airing doubts about EMU. Eurosceptic professors will be ungagged. Heresy will spread into mainstream parties.
Greece's Prime Minister Papandréou will balk at EMU immolation . The Hellenic Socialists will call Europe's bluff, extracting loans that gain time but solve nothing. Berlin will climb down and pay, but only once: thereafter, Zum Teufel. [which roughly means your on your own or the devil with you. Not quite sure that's polite German.]
In the end, the Euro's fate will be decided by strikes, street protest, and car bombs as the primacy of politics returns. I doubt that 2010 will see the denouement, but the mood music will be bad enough to knock the euro off its stilts.
The dollar rally will gather pace. America's economy – though sick – will shine within the even sicker OECD club. The British will need the shock of a gilts crisis to shatter their complacency. In time, the Dunkirk spirit will rise again. Mervyn King's pre-emptive QE and timely devaluation will bear fruit this year, sparing us the worst.
By mid to late 2010, we will have lanced the biggest boils of the global system. Only then, amid fear and investor revulsion, will we touch bottom. That will be the buying opportunity of our lives.