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John Mauldin's Outside the Box

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  • February Economic Report

    Before we get to this week's Outside the Box, a quick note about my writing on Greece in last Saturday's letter. I made the point that if Greece defaults it does not necessarily mean they have to leave the EU, any more than if Illinois defaulted they would have to leave the United States. Greece could still use the euro and life could go on. EXCEPT. The markets would no longer lend the Greek government money at anything close to a livable rate. Greece would be forced to balance its budget. Since they are part of the euro, devaluing the currency is not an option. The results of controlling their fiscal deficit would not initially be pretty and would almost insure a serious prolonged recession or depression in the Greek area, with fall out in the region. It would be a sad decade for Greece. But in the long run, it is a better option than default.

    Further, and more important to the rest of Europe and the world, the results of a Greek default would be financial turmoil. 250 billion euros (and maybe 300!) of Greek debt is in international bond funds, pension and insurance companies, and above all at banks. Think German banks. Already undercapitalized banks. Also, think of all the investment banks who have been selling relatively cheap (given the apparent risk) credit default swaps on Greece, in an unregulated market, exposing their balance sheets. What should be a simple, if sad, matter for the Greeks, becomes a problem for the world, just as subprime debt in the US caused a world credit crisis. And the risk of contagion from Portugal, Spain, et al is serious. 2 trillion euros of debt could get downgraded by the bond market in very short order. It could be a replay of the last credit crisis, just with new actors as the prime problem....
  • The Uncomfortable Dance Between V'ers and U'ers

    'Why' many ask, 'is the stock market going up when the bond market is telling us the recovery will be tepid? Isn't there a disconnect?' And the answer is that there is, and this week good friend and fishing buddy Paul McCulley of PIMCO fame discusses that very topic with his usual insight and wit. He poses the conundrum that those expecting a 'V' shaped recovery have pushed risk assets up quite high, and that the real risk to their position is that they in fact get a 'V' shaped recovery. And yet, they could go higher and into bubble territory....
  • Debt and Deflation

    There is a reason I call this column Outside the Box. I try to get material that forces us to think outside our normal comfort zones and challenges our common assumptions. I have made the comment more than once that is it unusual for two major bubbles to burst and for the conversation to be all about rising inflation and not a serious problem with deflation.

    As Niels Jensen pointed out last week, the most important question that an investor can ask is whether we are in for deflation or inflation. And this week we read a well reasoned piece on deflation. This is one of the more important essays I have sent out. You need to set aside some time to absorb this one.

    Van Hoisington and Dr. Lacy Hunt give us a few thoughts on why they think it is deflation that will ultimately be the problem and not inflation we are dealing with today. This week's letter requires you to think, but it will be worth the effort....
  • Thoughts on the Market Rebound

    This week we will look at two shorter essays for this edition of Outside the Box. The first is some thoughtful words by Tom Au on whether or not we have put in a true bottom for the market. I particularly want you to read his thoughts on what earnings will look like going forward, and whether we can get back to the highs in corporate earnings we saw in 2006.

    Tom is the executive vice-president of R. W. Wentworth, a contributor to Real Money at TheStreet.com and the author of 'A Modern Approach to Graham and Dodd Investing'

    In last Friday's letter I mentioned an article by William Hester, CFA, who is the Senior Financial Analyst at the Hussman Funds. While I quoted a few paragraphs from his essay, on reflection I think I will re-produce it below, as this is a very important concept. I have written in past letters and in Bull's Eye Investing about how powerful a driver earnings surprises can be (both positive and negative). Powerful bear and bull markets develop when there are numerous surprises in the same direction, re-enforcing market psychology.

    So, read Hester's essay with the knowledge of what Au writes about earnings. I think the two make a very powerful, thought-provoking concept. And I am off to Europe....
  • Foundations of Crisis

    This week I have a special Outside the Box for you. My long-time friend Doug Casey wrote a very prescient piece back in 1997. He has updated it somewhat for today's times. The critical part is a summary of the work of Richard Strauss and (friend) John Howe and their book The Fourth Turning, which I consider one of the more important and prescient (that word again) books of the last 25 years. It should still be read today. It is seminal to understanding the times we live in. Doug summarized the book and makes some observations based on that understanding, many of which turned out to be true and some of which may well be in out future. I think you will find this to be very useful and enlightening if you are not familiar with their work, and a great review if you are....
  • Dow 5,000 Redux

    What is fair value for stocks? Are they now cheap? You can certainly make that argument by comparing valuations based on past performance. But repeat after me, 'Past performance is not indicative of future returns.' The investment climate of today is almost certainly going to be quite different than that of the 80's and 90's. Thus, to expect stocks to repeat the performance of the last bull market in a climate of government intervention, deleveraging and increased regulations may not be realistic? This week Bill Gross, the Managing Director of PIMCO (and one of my favorite analysts) moves away from his familiar neighborhood of bonds and offers a few thoughts on stock market valuations. This is not a lengthy read, but it is one you might want to read twice, as the concepts are important. And not just for stocks but for investments of all types. I trust you will enjoy this week's Outside the Box....
  • The Stock Market is Not in Uncharted Territory

    This week we visit some very thoughtful analysis by an old friend of Outside the Box, Dr. John Hussman of the Hussman Funds. Is it 1932? Are we in a Depression? Where is the bottom? John gives us a very balanced view and actually offers some positive insight on the markets. There may be light ahead. (Note: there is a chart from Ned Davis Research that is, as John notes, not to be distributed further. I did call Ned Davis Research and they graciously gave me permission to use it as well.) Have a great week, and enjoy some positive thoughts below....
  • Two Little-Noted Features Of The Markets And The Economy

    This week I have a very special Outside the Box for you. Peter Bernstein is recognized as one of the more brilliant and insightful analysts of our times. At 89, he has been writing prescient material longer than most of us "young guys" (I am 59, and hope I am still writing at 89, or even able to write!) have been even marginally in the markets. His Economics and Portfolio Strategy Letter is read by the true cognoscenti of the investment world. He has given me permission to reproduce his latest letter in which he offers two insights. Rather than give you some teaser copy, why don't you just jump in a read. And trust me, anything that Peter writes is worth reading more than a few times....
  • 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....
  • Observations on a Crisis

    This week we look at a very solid piece of analysis on the world economy from my friends and London business partners Niels Jensen and Jan Wilhelmsen of Absolute Return Partners (www.arpllp.com). I find it is quite useful to read the considered opinions of those from outside the US and particularly from people who have developed keen insight from years in the trenches. Niels and Jan are certainly in that category. The world economy is clearly out of balance and they point out where some of the opportunities and problems lie. I think you will find this edition of Outside the Box quite useful. If you care to, you can write them at info@arpllp.com....
  • 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....
  • Dead Men Walking

    Last Friday's letter was about the fact that it is not just Freddie and Fannie. There are other problems. The Weekend Edition and today's Wall Street Journal are filled with stories about the problems with Freddie and Fannie. The assumption in so many quarters is that they will soon need government assistance. The only questions seem to be when and in what form? Can this wait until a new president is in place? Congress is leaving town soon. Can it wait until the lame duck session? As I have been writing for well over a year, the cr4edit crisis is going to be deeper and take longer to correct than the main stream media and economists think. Losses at banks are going to be much larger, and they are going to bleed for a long time. That means we are going to see more banks failing. Bennet Sedacca, who I quoted in last week's letter, sent out a new letter this morning, providing a list of stocks he thinks may also be in trouble, his "Dead Men Walking" list. He also notes several banks that will be the beneficiaries of the crisis as they gobble up weak competitors....
  • The Elusive Bottom

    In this weekend's Thoughts from the Frontlines, I quoted from part of a very thoughtful, right-on-target analysis by David A. Rosenberg entitled "The Elusive Bottom." Over the weekend, I decided that you should read the whole piece, as Rosenberg makes some very solid points about how the markets and the economy may play out over the next few years. He has a non-consensus viewpoint, but that is what I like for Outside the Box. In fact, I think this is one of the more thought-provoking pieces I have used in OTB for some time. Rosenberg is the North American Economist for Merrill Lynch. They were gracious to give me permission to send this letter out on such a short notice, and I believe you will well served to take the time to think through his analysis. And rather than try and give you a quick summary, let's just jump right in....
  • Inflation Is Not The Problem

    This week we are going to do something unusual for Outside the Box. Normally I take an essay and send it to you to read. Today I am going to give you a link and strongly suggest you click to it. Long time readers are familiar with friend and comrade James Montier, who along with Albert Edwards, migrated to Societe Generale earlier this year. They are co-heads of Global Cross Asset Strategy and based in London. Kate Welling does some of the best interviews anywhere in her Welling@Weeden letter, and this one of Montier and Edwards is typical of her immensely enjoyable style. She gave my good friend Prieur du Plessis permission to reprint the letter, and I provide you with a link to his blog and if you scroll down 6 short paragraphs you get the link to the letter, which includes the graphics and is much more fun than just me cutting and pasting. You can also subscribe to Prieur's blog if you wish. Once a week he provides a very useful review of what was written the previous week....