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John Mauldin's Outside the Box

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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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  • 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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  • Fear for a Lost Decade

    Before we get into this week's Outside the Box, let me give you a few pieces of data that came across my desk this morning, which will help set the stage for the OTB offering.

    Fitch (the ratings agency), in a downgrade of yet another 543 mortgage-backed securities of 2005-07 vintage, gives us the following side notes: 'The home price declines to date have resulted in negative equity for approximately 50% of the remaining performing borrowers in the 2005-2007 vintages. In addition to continued home price deterioration, unemployment has risen significantly since the third quarter of last year, particularly in California where the unemployment rate has jumped from 7.8% to 11%... The projected losses also reflect an assumption that from the first quarter of 2009, home prices will fall an additional 12.5% nationally and 36% in California, with home prices not exhibiting stability until the second half of 2010. To date, national home prices have declined by 27%. Fitch Rating's revised peak-to-trough expectation is for prices to decline by 36% from the peak price achieved in mid-2006. The additional 9% decline represents a 12.5% decline from today's levels.'...
  • The Geography of Recession

    One of the first things you learn about analyzing a company is how to dissect a balance sheet. What assets and liabilities can be deployed by a company to create equity over time? I've enclosed a fascinating variant on this process. Take a look at how STRATFOR has analyzed the "geographic balance sheets" of the US, Russia, China, and Europe to understand why different countries' economies have suffered to varying degrees from the current economic crisis.

    As investors, it's precisely this type of outside-the-box thinking that can provide us profitable opportunities, and it's precisely this type of outside-the-box thinking that makes STRATFOR such an important part of my investment decision making. The key to investment profits is thinking differently and thinking earlier than the next guy. STRATFOR's work exemplifies both these traits....
  • When the Chickens Come Home to Roost

    Can the credit crisis get any worse? In this week's Outside the Box my London partner Niels Jensen shows that it indeed can. Banks, and mainly European banks, have large exposure to emerging market debt of all types through both sovereign, corporate and individual loans. Just as banks have had to write down large losses from the subprime crisis and other related problems, next will come a wave of potential losses from yet another source. Niels then goes on to give us a look the size and problems with hedge fund deleveraging. Altogether, this is a very interesting letter and one that is written from a non-US point of view that I think you will find instructive....
  • 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....