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  • Geopolitical Journey, Part I: The Traveler

    My friend and fishing buddy George Friedman travels as much as I do. Yet even when we visit the same place, it's like we're in two different countries. I see a river and think about fishing. George sees a river and explains a geographical reality that's shaped that nation's history. I read the menu at a gourmet restaurant and draw conclusions about my appetite; George observes what kind of shoes the children wear and draws conclusions about the country's future. No joke.

    George has developed a way to wield a geopolitical eye in worldly travels - and learn from it. He's currently traveling through key, but less-mentioned, countries of Eastern Europe, on a quest to understand how they see the Russian resurgence and what that means for America's options. He's using his travels to write a series for STRATFOR, a global intelligence company he founded. I've included the first piece of the series below.

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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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  • GaveKal Five Corners

    This week we look at some mostly bullish analysis from my friends at GaveKal for the Outside the Box. Much of the letter is devoted to looking at why Europe may fare better than many think (which will make uber-European bull David Kotok happy to read!). But be very sure to read the last page as Steve Vannelli analyzes the latest speculation about the Fed and quantitative easing. All those calling for QE2 may not actually do what they think it will. His conclusion?

    "Once again, if there is no growth in broad money, no increase in velocity and no increase in Fed credit (hybrid money), then the only source to finance growth in the real economy will remain the sale of risky assets. When confidence seems to be stuck in a low plateau and talk of reigning in fiscal deficits is growing louder, a policy of undermining the value of risky assets couldn't be more counterproductive to growth."

    I find myself in New York this morning (I once again did Yahoo Tech Ticker) leaving for DC later. Then sadly will have to forego Turks and Caicos, but that does allow for me to go to Baton Rouge for a one day course on the affects of the gulf oil spill on the regional economy, helicopter flyovers, etc. I will report back in this week's letter what I learn.

    Have a great week.

    Your wishing he was still fishing in Maine analyst,

    John Mauldin, Editor
    Outside the Box

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  • Running through a minefield, backwards

    Before we get into today's Outside the Box I want to clear up a few ideas from this weekend's letter. There have been posts on various websites equating my piece on deflation with Paul Krugman. They say I am advocating kicking the can down the road and not reducing the deficit.

    Wrong. What I have been trying to point out for several years is that we have no good choices. We are down to bad and very bad choices. The very bad choice (leading to disastrous - think Greece) is to continue to run massive deficits. The merely bad choice is to reduce the deficits gradually over time. As I try to point out, reducing the deficits has consequences in the short term. It WILL affect GDP in the short term. Krugman and the neo-Keynesians are right about that. To deny that is to ignore basic arithmetic.

    I am not for kicking the can down the road. Not to begin to deal with the deficits, and soon, risks an even worse problem. But - and this is a big but - I don't want to stomp on the can, either.

    Now, let's get into this week's Outside the Box. I offer you a very intriguing essay by those friendly guys from Bedlam Asset Management in London. They argue that Belgium's sovereign debt should be suspect, and is the country that could be a 'sleeper' problem. This is a very interesting read, with a lot of history. It is not too long and very interesting. Enjoy....
  • Europe: The State of the Banking System

    In the last six months, the eurozone has faced its biggest economic challenge to date - one sparked by the Greek debt crisis which has migrated to the rest of the monetary union. But well before the sovereign debt crisis, Europe was facing a full-blown banking crisis that did not seem any closer to being resolved than when it began in late 2008. With investors and markets focused on European governments' debt problems, the banking issues have largely been ignored. However, the sovereign debt crisis and banking crisis have become intertwined and could feed off each other in the near future.

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  • Print baby, print ... emerging value and the quest to buy inflation

    This week I thought I would give you an Outside the Box with a more European flavor, as I am in Tuscany at the moment and on to Paris later this week and then back here for a working weekend with partners. Life is tough. :-)

    Dylan Grice of Societe Generale (based in London) is fast becoming one of my favorite writers. This thought-provoking piece makes us meditate on whether central banks will print money in response to the fiscal crisis in the developed world countries. I am not certain that all central banks will print with abandon, BUT we need to think about what happens if they do.

    I need to hit the send button now, as we are off to watch Italy in the World Cup in a little village (Montisi) where they have set up screens in the town square. My first connection with European football live with crazy fans and all! Should be fun!

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  • Germany, Greece and Exiting the Eurozone

    The cause célèbre these days is the potential reconstitution of the eurozone: ie, Germany leaving it, or Greece getting kicked out. To look a little deeper, today I'm sending you STRATFOR's take on these two scenarios. STRATFOR explores the geography of the continent and the historical context of the EU to understand what a German exit or a Greek expulsion might mean for the rest of the region....
  • The Death of Capital

    Was it only last week I was expressing outrage that US taxpayers would have to pick up the check for Greek profligacy in the form of IMF guarantees? This morning we wake to up the sound of $250 BILLION in IMF guarantees for a European rescue fund, most of which will go to countries that are eventually (in my opinion) going to default. That is $50 billion in US taxpayer guarantees. Not sure what that translates into for Britain or Canada or Australia.

    I can swallow the Fed dollar swaps to the ECB. Don't really like it, but I can deal with it, as I don't think it will ultimately put US tax-payers at risk, as long as the swaps are in dollar terms. But the IMF bailout is just wrong.

    Interestingly, the euro shot up on the announcement in what was now clearly short covering. As I write this, it is almost back down to where it started. That seems to me to be a vote of 'I don't believe you.' We will see. But if the ECB actually goes ahead and floods the market with liquidity, that will be very good for all types of risk assets....
  • The Global Crisis of Legitimacy

    From my friend George Friedman, founder & CEO of STRATFOR, here's my newest favorite quote concerning economic recessions: 'Like forest fires, they are painful when they occur, yet without them, the forest could not survive. They impose discipline, punishing the reckless, rewarding the cautious.' The thin line of where risky becomes reckless is something I'd like to focus us on today. No matter the risk-level of your portfolio, if you are reading this you are probably smart enough to know that when you play with fire you may get burned. You have to know how to look for smoke, or signs of a potential catastrophe, so you know not to grab the doorknob with both hands.

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  • Was the Demise of the USSR a Negative Event?

    Let's have a thought game. What if the Eurozone breaks up? My friend and very serious philosophical thinker Charles Gave (of GaveKal) thinks that would be a positive event. To quote his conclusion:

    'But we return to the most simple of questions, namely: Was the end of the USSR a negative event? When Americans stopped wasting capital building empty condos in Florida or Arizona, was that bad news? If, like us, our reader answers 'no' to the above questions, then the Greek crisis should be seen as a reason for hope, rather than despair.'

    Now, that is a truly Outside the Box proposition and one which I found very compelling. His partner, Anatole Kaletsky, elsewhere argues that the ECB will enlarge their mandate to try and save the day by printing enormous sums of money, ultimately making things worse....
  • The Great Reflation

    Let me start this week's Outside the Box by venting a little anger. It now looks like almost 30% of the Greek financing will come from the IMF, rather than just a small portion. And since 40% of the IMF is funded by US taxpayers, and that debt will be JUNIOR to current bond holders (if the rumors are true) I can't tell you how outraged that makes me.

    What that means is that US (and Canadian and British, etc.) tax payers will be giving money to Greece who will use a lot of it to roll over old bonds, letting European banks and funds reduce their exposure to Greece while tax-payers all over the world who fund the IMF assume that risk. And does anyone really think that Greece will pay that debt back? IMF debt should be senior and no bank should be allowed to roll over debt and reduce their exposure to Greek debt on the back of foreign tax-payers.

    I don't think I signed on for that duty. Why should my tax money go to help European banks? This is just wrong on so many levels and there is nothing seemingly we can do. Oh, well. Thanks for listening.

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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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  • The Making of a Greek Tragedy

    Back and recovering from my Strategic Investment Conference this weekend (where I decided to give myself permission not to write my usual letter, but I promise I will be back at it this next Friday!) I have spent some time pondering what we learned. It was a fabulous conference. Lacy Hunt, Dr. Gary Shilling, David Rosenberg, Niall Ferguson, Paul McCulley, George Friedman, former Fed Senior Economist Jason Cummins (who is now Chief Economist for Brevan Howard, the largest European hedge fund, and who was quite impressive), Jon Sundt of Altegris, and your humble analyst were all in top form. I must admit with a little pride that I think this is the finest speaker lineup for ANY investment conference anywhere. We were given a lot to think about.

    Let me give you a few key points as an intro to this week's Outside the Box. First, there is a bubble building and it is in sovereign debt. It threatens to be a worse bubble than subprime or the credit crisis. Second, at one panel where we were asked what is our main worry, Paul McCulley said 'Europe,' which triggered an intense discussion, both in the panel and later that night over dinner. I agreed, of course, as I have written that very thing.

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  • Has Germany just killed the dream of a European superstate?

    While the US was focused on the health care drama over the weekend, over across the pond events are rapidly deteriorating in euro land. For this week's Outside the Box I offer two columns, one from the Financial Times and another from the London Telegraph. Both describe the problems that the eurozone faces. It is not pretty.

    I was sent this note from a Steve Stough who translated this from a German TV news show' It is a nice set-up for the two short columns.

    I was reading an interview with Germany's most-quoted economist and then, all of a sudden, his face pops up on a TV show (a panel discussion on Germany's version of Fox Business News) at the same time, so I paid close attention. Hans-Werner Sinn's remarks are apparently listened to as closely as are the Federal Reserve Chairman's remarks in the US.

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  • The European Union Trap

    Let me state upfront that this is not the easiest to grasp Outside the Box that I have sent you. But if you can get what Rob is saying, you will understand why the problems facing the world, and especially Europe, are so difficult. Everyone cannot export their way out of this crisis. Someone has to actually run a current account (trade) deficit.

    My suggestion is that you read this once through, and then read it again. If you see where Rob is going, it makes it easier to understand the second time. Warning: Rob Parenteau is an Austrian economist. In many circles, what he is saying is controversial, if not at least counter-intuitive. But it makes us think, which is the purpose of Outside the Box. If I get a response that is robust and thoughtful, I will run it in the future. The problem that Rob articulates is the center of the problems we face. There are no good or easy choices, as I have been writing for a log time.

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