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  • The European Banking Crisis: Assessing the Damage and a Look Ahead

    In my letter earlier this week, our guest writer, Grant Williams, gave Europe about the same odds of escaping crisis as a pitcher throwing a perfect game in baseball. That's 40,000 to 1. Take a look at this decision tree on Europe (below) from STRATFOR, a private intelligence company. Looks like they give Europe something more like the odds of a major-league pitcher leading in home runs. Not gonna happen.

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  • The Stark Choice for Europe

    This will be one of the more controversial Outside the Box posts in a great long time. Indeed, I debated with myself at some length. It will make some readers mad, but I decided it is more important to make most readers think. And, as it happens, there are parts of this week’s essay that I rather aggressively disagree with. That being said, there is a great deal of truth here. This represents a serious body of thought that is being debated, and we need to hear all sides, rather than just the ones we like.

    Michael Hudson is a research professor of economics at the University of Missouri, Kansas City and a research associate at the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College, which is a serious place, so this is no ill-informed screed. I generally like their stuff.

    Hudson first lays the European crisis at the feet of banks and the institutions (ECB, IMF, and the EU) that are taking the Greek (and other) bank debt and putting it into public hands. He has a very real point. Then he points out that Greece is far better off just walking away, a la Iceland (at least read the last part of this post, on Iceland). And in polls he cites, 85% of the Greek people are against taking on the debt and paying the banks.

    As I wrote last week, there is a revolution going on all over Europe, slowly building up as people realize that the “solution” being offered benefits banks and not German taxpayers or Greek creditors. Ireland will be watching. There is no easy way out. If there is a referendum on this new “troika” proposal, it is likely to lose. This is not over.

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  • The $33,000,000,000,000 Question

    It has long been my contention that we are entering an extraordinary period of time in which using historical analogies to plot market behavior is going to become increasingly problematical. In short, the analogies, the past performance if you will, all break down because the underlying economic backdrop is unlike anything we have ever seen. It makes managing money and portfolio planning particularly challenging. Traditional asset management techniques just simply may not work. Buy and hope strategies may be particularly difficult to navigate.

    Part of the reason we are co challenged in our outlook is that we are experiencing a deleveraging on a scale in the world that is absolutely breath-taking in its scope. And to balance that, governments are going to have to issue massive amounts of sovereign debt to deal with their deficits. But who will buy it, and at what price? And in which currency? This week's Outside the Box gives us some very basic data points that illustrate the challenge very well. But the problem is that even though we can see the challenge, it is not clear what the final outcome will be, other than stressful volatility as the market reacts....
  • Saving Capitalist Banking and a Speech by Paul Volker

    This week I came across two items that I think are worthy of being in Outside the Box, so I am going to give you both. The first is an essay by good friend Paul McCulley, Managing Director of PIMCO, called 'Saving Capitalist Banking from Itself.' The second is a recent speech by Paul Volker, former Fed Chairman and a (hopefully very) influential member of President Obama's economic advisory team. This speech is a must read. Taken together they provide a cautionary tale of what the world of banking will need to look like when we get to the end of the process. This OTB is a little longer than most, but I think it is important reading. If you don't know where we are headed, it is hard to imagine the journey....
  • Market Vertigo

    I get a lot of newsletters from money managers around the country, which I try and read as they are written by people who are “in the trenches,” actually making decisions on behalf of their clients. It broadens my perspective. Frankly, most are not all that well written and unimaginative, but who ever said writing was easy? But some really strike a chord with me. Today’s Outside the Box I have read twice, which is unusual for me. Cliff Draughn is a wealth manager in Savannah, Georgia (Draughn Partners) and a good friend. His letter is a wide ranging tome on a variety of topics, but is full of common sense and one that I think will resonate with readers. I trust you will enjoy this....
  • Setting the Bull Trap

    Yesterday I sent you an Outside the Box from Paul McCulley who supports the government and Fed activity (in general) in the current economic crisis. Today we look at an opposing view from Bennet Sedacca of Atlantic Advisors. He asks some very interesting questions like: Shouldn't the consumer, after decades of over-consumption, be allowed to digest the over-indebtedness and save, rather than be encouraged to take risk? Shouldn't companies, no matter what of view, if run poorly, be allowed to fail or forced to restructure? Should taxpayer money be used to make up for the mishaps at financial institutions or should we allow them to wallow in their own mistakes? I think you will find this a very thought-provoking Outside the Box....
  • All In

    There is an ongoing debate on the current nature of the economic environment and what should the response be by government. Today's Outside the Box by Paul McCulley takes up one view, arguing that we need a federal response and stimulus package to protect the overall economy and save capitalism from itself. Tomorrow, I am going to send yet another view arguing that by doing so we are hurting the prudent investor and businesses that did not over-leverage and behaved responsibly. Both are important to understand. And as I will argue on Friday in my 2009 Forecast Issue, both are right. And that is one of the great economic paradoxes that we are faced with today. Navigating through this period is particularly challenging, but I think it is critical that you understand what Paul says today and what Bennet Sedacca will say tomorrow. Understanding what is going to happen, whether or not we agree with the philosophy behind it should be our goal, as it will make us better able to respond with our own portfolio and business decisions....
  • Semi-Annual U.S. Economic Outlook: Collapsing On Schedule

    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....
  • On G-20 and GM: Economics, Politics and Social Stability

    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....
  • The International Economic Crisis and Stratfor's Methodology

    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....
  • Banking Crises Around The World

    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....
  • Haste Makes Waste

    The purpose of Outside the Box is to present views which cause us to think through our basic assumptions. This week our old friend Michael Lewitt of Hegemony Capital Management gives us a view as to why the bailout bill going down may not be as bad as I think it might. There is much we agree on, however. And part of our agreement is that a deeper recession is in our future. Let me be clear. Muddle Through is now at risk. I have talked with my publisher, and for the next few weeks of The continuing Crisis, we are going to send more than one OTB per week, and I may also add some short commentary. These are extraordinary times, and I know a lot of you (as I can tell from phone and emails) are worried and are interested in analysis that is not biased with either a perma-bull or perma-bear stance. I will call it as I see it, as always, and forward you material from my best sources. That being said, we will get through this, one way or another. Sanity and clarity will return, as it always does after times of crisis. I wish you the best in your situation....
  • The Fall of Lehman and The Terrible Lessons of Bear Stearns

    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....