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  • Three Competing Theories

    Long-time readers are familiar with the wisdom of Lacy Hunt. He is a regular feature of Outside the Box. He writes a quarterly piece for Hoisington Asset Management in Austin, and this is one of his better ones. Read it twice.

    “While the massive budget deficits and the buildup of federal debt, if not addressed, may someday result in a substantial increase in interest rates, that day is not at hand. The U.S. economy is too fragile to sustain higher interest rates except for interim, transitory periods that have been recurring in recent years. As it stands, deflation is our largest concern …”

    As I write, Europe is starting to unravel. This is going to be much worse than 2008, at least as far as Europe is concerned, and odds are high that it will be very bad for the US. And the markets are still acting as if the problems in Europe can be resolved. The recent bank stress tests were a joke, as they assumed no Greek or Irish defaults. This simply can’t be. There is a banking crisis of massive proportions in our future.

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  • The 3-D Hurricane and the New Normal*

    Today’s Outside the Box is from an old friend, but one who is new to my readers. Jason Hsu is a partner at Research Affiliates and helped create the Fundamental Indexes with Rob Arnott. Starting at Cal Tech, he went on to a PhD in economics, and is now a professor at UCLA and teaches in China and Taiwan. Wins all sorts of awards and has won the Rising Star of Hedge Funds award. In short, he is really smart.

    He sent me this piece last week, and I asked if I could use it. He graciously acceded. It is on what Jason and Rob call “the 3-D Hurricane of Debt, Deficits and Demographics.”

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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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  • Macro E.U. — D.O.A.

    I am attending the Global Interdependence Center’s latest conference here in Philadelphia, writing you from the Admiral’s Club on my way to Boston. The chatter last night at dinner and between sessions was focused on the risks in Europe. I did an interview with Aaron Task on Yahoo’s Daily Ticker, where I noted that European leaders are starting to use the word containedwhen they talk about Greece. Shades of Bernanke and subprime. This too will not be contained.

    And that brings us to this week’s Outside the Box. Greg Weldon has graciously allowed me to use his latest missive on Europe’s woes. A teaser:

    “The EU, like the US, suffers from what we might call the 'Cyrenaic Syndrome', a dynamic linked to the ancient Greek philosophers Aristippus and Hegesias of Cyrene, who, in 3rd and 4th Centuries BC, hypothesized that the goal of life was the avoidance of pain and suffering. Addicts accomplish this thru substance abuse. The EU is trying to accomplish this thru pure denial, and an outright refusal to accept that austerity, like sobriety, is the ONLY way to actually deal with the problems it faces.”

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  • Time Loves a Hero

    As long time readers know, I am a big fan of Greg Weldon. This week he has very graciously allowed me to reproduce his client letter from last Thursday on some of the issues of Bernanke and Quantitative Easing 2. It prints a little longer than usual because of his format and all the charts, but this is one letter you should take the time to read.

    You can get a free trial (his service is not cheap but if you are a global macro fund or trader, you really should have it!) by going to www.weldononline.com.

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  • Insolvency Too

    As readers know, I was in Europe a few weeks ago, making a LOT of presentations. My London-based partners seem to feel that an hour or two of down time is wasted and only for sissies. I learn as much as I impart, and come away with lots of interesting information. Every now and then I learn something that gets into the category of what in the wide, wide world of (multiple expletives deleted) economics is going on? Subprime was like that when I first read about it. Could you really design CDOs that were so patently absurd and then sell them to the Europeans and Asians? Turns out you could.

    Last week, Niels Jensen (head of Absolute Return Partners) and I were talking with a variety of pension funds. They started telling us about this thing called Solvency II. Outside the arcane world of European pension funds and insurance companies, it is not on the radar screen of most people. But it may be one of the more explosive problems in our future. Cutting to the chase, the new rules require insurance companies and pension funds to buy more bonds to match their liabilities. But as yields go down they are required to buy yet MORE bonds and then yields go down some more. And so on. The possibility of serious defaults by these same pension funds in the wake of these new rules (setting aside whether it makes sense to actually require pension funds to set aside enough assets to pay their obligations) is all too real. And more pervasive than we now think.

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  • Sovereign Subjects: Ask Not Whether Governments Will Default, but How

    As I am traveling in Europe for a few more days, it seems appropriate to review the very fascinating work of Arnuad Mares of Morgan Stanley in London. He poses the very provocative question: “Ask Not Whether Governments Will Default, but How?” and comes up with some very interesting statistics. He suggests that simply looking at debt to GDP misses the point and offers four other ways we should also evaluate sovereign debt risk. This is a very worthy contribution to Outside the Box.

    The question I get over and over as I travel and present my thoughts is “When is the US going to get real about its fiscal deficits?” There is little sympathy for the massive deficits we are running. We are making Europe, or at least the part of Europe I am visiting, very nervous. Let us hope after the next elections we can say we are getting a handle on the deficits, and from both sides of the aisle and not just the Republicans. This is going to require cooperation.

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  • A Closer Look at the Second Leg Down in Housing

    Quickly, I will be on Larry Kudlow's show tonight (Tuesday, June 28), which is at 7 pm Eastern. Larry has promised that we will spend some quality time on some of the current issues facing us. See you there! And now, let's jump in to this week's Outside the Box.

    Last January 2009, the Outside the Box featured FusionIQ's quant models that blend both fundamental and technical metrics to determine the strength of 8,000 equities as well as the overall markets (Trading With the Big Boys).

    You may recall that CEO Barry Ritholtz, (and good friend and Maine fishing buddy) had been bearish throughout 2008, and was still negative on stocks back in January 2009. Relying mostly on the FusionIQ metrics, Ritholtz flipped bullish on March 2009, and stayed bullish the rest of the year. The firm began raising cash in Q1 of 2010, and by the time the first quarter was over, was only 50% long. They sold more stock in April, and in a bit of good timing that Ritholtz will tell you was 'dumb lucky' went to 100% cash on May 5, 2010 – the day before the 1,000 point flash crash.

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  • The Ultimate Hedge in Economic Crisis

    This week we have a really counter-intuitive Outside the Box. I was talking with the editor of Breakthrough Technology Alert, Patrick Cox about health care costs and he made some very interesting observations from new research about health care. It seems healthy people pay more for health care than sick people. I asked him to do a write-up for us. Despite the new health care bill that passed, health care costs are going to go up, not down. And that's a good thing, as Pat explains. You really want to read this.

    Some of you may not be aware that a few months ago I wrote that I was buying stocks for the first time in 12 years, and specifically smaller, transformational biotech stocks. As I wrote at the time, I think that we could see a real bubble in biotech in the latter part of this decade, and just once, please God, I want to be at the beginning of a bubble.

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  • MACRO-EUROPE: The Titanic is SINKING

    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.

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  • A Five-Step Guide to Contagion

    We were all assured by Ben Bernanke that the subprime problem would be contained. In this week's Outside the Box, my good friend Todd Harrison, founder and CEO of Minyanville (www.minyanville.com) wonders about what contagion from Greece and sovereign debt crisis would look like. Todd is a very thoughtful investor and trader, and someone who I pay attention to. He has created a community of analysts and traders at www.minyanville.com that is quite unique. They graciously post my work each week as well as that of a lot of really interesting people from all over. Plus, they offer running commentary by dozens of analysts on what's happening in the markets real time. There is something for everyone, even a place to help teach your kids about money and finance. Check it out.

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  • Global Bear Rally Of 2009 Will End With Japan

    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.

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  • Government Debt Spirals

    I have been writing about sovereign debt risk for some time. Japan, Spain, Italy and Portugal are all facing serious fiscal deficits and funding problems within a few years. But Greece may be the first country to hit the wall. In today's Outside the Box, we look at a short column by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard of the London Telegraph on the problems facing Greece. Greece will soon be faced with deciding which bad choice to make among a very small set of really bad, difficult choices.

    And then we turn to a piece by Edmund Andrews in the New York Times about the funding problem facing the US. The US is going to have to borrow at a minimum $3.5 trillion in the next three years according to Obama administration officials, and it is likely to be much higher. And rates are likely to be rising. As Andrews notes "Even a small increase in interest rates has a big impact. An increase of one percentage point in the Treasury's average cost of borrowing would cost American taxpayers an extra $80 billion this year." If interest rates were at the same level as a few years ago, interest costs on the debt this year would be $221 billion more than they actually were.

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  • Spain: The Hole In Europe's Balance Sheet

    Today's offering for this week's Outside the Box starts off with a quote from Titus Maccius Plautus: 'I am a rich man as long as I don't pay my creditors.' Even 2200 years ago, it seems that problems of credit were an issue.

    I talked last Friday about the US being faced with a number of bad choices. But it is not just the US. Today we look at a piece from my friends at Variant Perception based on London. They are a relatively new institutional research house. I have been reading their material for some time and have begun to look very much forward to it. They do some very good in-depth analysis. I asked then to shorten a piece they did on Spain and Spanish banks for this week's Outside the Box. Spain will soon be faced with a number of very uncomfortable choices, but for now they appear in denial.

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  • Slow Long-Term Growth, And Government's Response

    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. His web site is down being re-designed, but you can write for more information at insight@agaryshilling.com. If you want to subscribe (for $275), you can call 888-346-7444. Tell them that you read about it in Outside the Box and you will get not only his recent 2009 forecast issue with the year's investment themes, but an extra issue with his 2010 forecast (of course, that one will not come out until the end of the year. Gary is good but not that good!) I trust you are enjoying your week. And enjoy this week's Outside the Box.

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