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  • The Best of Times

    What's a Fed to do? We get talk about tightening and taking away the easy credit, but we got the fourth largest monetization on record last week. This week we examine the elements of deflation, look at some banking statistics that are not optimistic, and then I write a reply to my great friend Bill Bonner about why it's the best of times to be young. I think you will get a few thought-provoking ideas here and there.

    But before we get to the main letter, I want to recommend a book to you. I am on a 17-day, 12-city speaking tour. It is rather brutal, but I did it to myself. However, one of the upsides of traveling is that I get quiet time on airplanes to read books. I am working my way through a very large stack of books on my desk. One that caught my eye - and I'm glad it did - is a book by Tom Hayes called Jump Point: How Network Culture is Revolutionizing Business. Hayes writes about how we are getting ready to experience a cultural change every bit as profound as the Industrial Revolution. He argues that as the 3 billionth person gets online sometime in 2011, it will shift the dynamic of how we interact as businesses and consumers. We get to 5 billion by 2015. The mind boggles.

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  • Muddle Through, R.I.P?

    I first wrote about the Muddle Through Economy in 2002, and the term has more or less become a theme we have returned to from time to time. In 2007 I wrote that we would indeed get back to a Muddle Through Economy after the end of the coming recession. If you Google the term, at least for the first four pages more than half the references are to this e-letter. I get a lot of flak from both bulls and bears about being either too optimistic or too pessimistic. Being in the muddle through middle is comfortable to me.

    Last week I expressed my concern that we as a country are taking actions that could indeed 'Kill the Goose' of our free-market economy. I rightly got letters asking me how I could maintain Muddle Through in the face of that letter. I have given it a lot of thought and research. How likely are we to muddle through in the face of $1.5 trillion and larger deficits? Today we take another look at Muddle Through. It should be interesting.

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  • Killing the Goose

    Peggy Noonan, maybe the most gifted essayist of our time, wrote a few weeks ago about the vague concern that many of us have that the current path we are on has the potential (my interpretation) for not just plucking a few feathers from the goose that lays the golden egg (the US free market economy), or taking a few more of the valuable eggs but of actually killing the goose. Today we look at the possibility that the fiscal path of the enormous US government deficits we are on could indeed kill the goose, or harm it so that it will make the lost decades that Japan has suffered seem like a walk in the park.

    And while I do not think we will get to that point (although I can’t deny the possibility) , for reasons I will go into, there is the very real prospect that the upheavals created by not dealing proactively with the problems (or denying they exist) will be as bad as or worse than the credit crisis we have gone through. This is not going to be something that happens overnight, and the seeming return to normalcy that so many predict has the rather alarming aspect of creating a sense of complacency that will only serve to 'kick the can' down the road.

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  • An Uncomfortable Choice

    We have arrived at this particular economic moment in time by the choices we have made, which now leave us with choices in our future that will be neither easy, convenient, nor comfortable. Sometimes there are just no good choices, only less-bad ones. In this week's letter we look at what some of those choices might be, and ponder their possible consequences. Are we headed for a double-dip recession? Read on.

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  • The Great Reflation Experiment

    The question we have been focused on for some time now is whether we end up with inflation, or deflation, and what that endgame looks like. It is one of the most important questions an investor must ask today, and getting the answer right is critical. This week, we have a guest writer who takes on the topic of the great experiment the Fed is now waging, which he calls The Great Reflation Experiment.

    One of my favorite sources of information for decades has been and remains the Bank Credit Analyst. It has a long and storied reputation. One of their enduring themes has been the debt super cycle. Investors who have paid attention to it have been served well. I am taking a little R&R this weekend, but I have arranged for my friend Tony Boeckh to stand in for me. Tony was chairman, chief executive, and editor-in-chief of Montreal-based BCA Research, publisher of the highly regarded Bank Credit Analyst up until he retired in 2002. He still likes to write from time to time, and we are lucky enough to have him give us his views on where we are in the economic cycles. Gentle reader, we are all graced to learn from one of the great economists and analysts of our times. Pay attention. Central bankers do. You can read his extensive bio at www.boeckhinvestmentletter.com and I will tell you how to get his letter free of charge at the end of this letter. And, he told me to mention that his son Rob is now helping him write, so there is a double byline here. Now, let's just jump in.

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  • Buddy, Can You Spare $5 Trillion?

    There is no doubt that the US is in financial trouble. Those talking of a strong recovery are just not dealing with reality. But the US is in better shape than a lot of countries. This week, we begin by looking at Japan. I have written for years about how large their debt-to-GDP ratio is, yet they keep on issuing more debt and seemingly getting away with it. But now, several factors are conspiring to create real problems for the Land of the Rising Sun. They may soon run into a very serious-sized wall. And it is not just Japan. Where will the world find $5 trillion to finance government debt? We look at some very worrisome graphs. Those in the US who think that what happens in the rest of the world doesn't matter just don't get it. There is a lot to cover in what will be a very interesting letter. I suggest removing sharp objects or pouring yourself a nice adult beverage....
  • The New, New Normal

    We are coming to a critical inflection point, perhaps the most critical point that we have had in 70 years for the US and to a great extent the global economy. The choices we make (or that Congress and the Fed make for us) will affect not just our investment portfolios but business and our jobs for a very long time. Last week I talked about the three paths we face as a nation. I want to go back to that theme and expand upon it. You need to clearly understand what the risks are so that you can interpret the actions and data that will be coming at us in the next few quarters. I am feeling a little tired today, so I am going to take the liberty to reproduce Bill Gross's latest comments as well, which are somewhat in line with my own....
  • The Paradox of Deficits

    There is something that is bumping around in my worry closet. The bond market is not behaving as if there is deflation in our future, and the dollar is getting weaker. Unemployment keeps rising, but most of all, the US government deficit looks to be spinning out of control. This week we look at all of this and take a tour around the world to see what is happening. There is a lot of interesting material to cover.

    As of this week, total US debt is $11.3 trillion and rising rapidly. The Obama Administration projects that to rise another $1.85 trillion in 2009 (13% of GDP) and yet another $1.4 trillion in 2010. The Congressional Budget Office projects almost $10 trillion in additional debt from 2010 through 2019. Just last January the 2009 deficit was estimated at "only" $1.2 trillion. Things have gone downhill fast.

    But there is reason to be concerned about those estimates, too. The CBO assumes a rather robust recovery in 2010, with growth springing back to 3.8% and then up to 4.5% in 2011. Interestingly, they project unemployment of 8.8% for this year (we are already at 8.9% and rising every month) and that it will rise to 9% next year. It will be a strange recovery indeed where the economy is roaring along at 4% and unemployment isn't falling. (You can see their spreadsheets and all the details if you take your blood pressure medicine first, at www.cbo.gov.)...
  • Faith-Based Economics

    Why does government data need to be revised so often? Is it conspiracy, as some claim, or is it methodology? And if it is methodology that leads to faulty data, then why not change the methodology? Is unemployment a lagging indicator, as conventional wisdom suggests? We look again at the underlying assumptions to suggest that things are not always the same. And finally, we look at unsustainable trends, fiscal deficits, and health care -- there is a connection.

    But first, a quick note about the latest 'Conversations with John Mauldin' that I just did with Don Coxe and Gary Shilling. These two esteemed analysts have different views on whether commodity prices will rise or fall, and are not afraid to make their views known. I edited the final transcript today, and I can tell you that even though I was 'at the table' I learned a lot reading it the second time. If you want to understand the nature of what is a very central debate, this is a must-read. This was a VERY lively debate. Most of my friends know that I am not shy, but it was hard to get a word in edgewise as these guys went at it. It was great fun to watch....
  • Time for a Reality Check

    It is not just the US that is in recession. The world is slowing down, and rapidly. This week we quickly survey the rest of the world, and then come back to the US. We follow up with the implications for corporate earnings worldwide, and specifically address my speculations about earnings forecasts for 2009. Let's start with some charts from my friend Simon Hunt, out of London. The following chart shows World Merchandise Export Values and World Industrial Production falling off a cliff. This is the worst such period since the end of World War II. And as the data we will examine next indicates, it is likely to get worse....
  • The Endgame

    Deflation? Stimulus? Deleveraging? Recession? A soft depression? A return to a bull market? With all that is going on, how does it all end up? When we get to where we are going, where will we be? In chess, the endgame refers to the stage of the game when there are few pieces left on the board. The line between middlegame and endgame is often not clear, and may occur gradually or with the quick exchange of a few pairs of pieces. The endgame, however, tends to have different characteristics from the middlegame, and the players have correspondingly different strategic concerns. And in the current economic endgame, your strategy needs to consist of more than hope for a renewed bull market....
  • The Problem With Deleveraging

    In general, we consider it a good thing to save money and to 'owe no man anything save love.' But what happens when a debt-happy society wakes up and decides that saving is a good thing for everybody? What happens when banks and hedge funds decide (or are forced) to reduce their debt? What happens when businesses of all sizes find it harder to get loans to operate? In this week's letter we discuss 'The Great Unwind,' that process of deleveraging that we are now in the midst of. We also explore some recent economic data on the economy. It's a lot of ground to cover, so let's jump right in....
  • $1.6 Trillion in Losses and Counting

    It seems that with each passing month the estimates for losses in the international banking system keep rising. This time last summer the largest estimates (from credible sources), if memory serves me correct, were around $400 billion, give or take a few months. By the end of the year it was in the neighborhood of twice that. Then last quarter we saw estimates approaching $1 trillion. Last week, the number being broached was $1.6 trillion, by Bridgewater Associates, one of the top, and more credible, analytical firms in the world. In this week's letter we look at the implications of that projection, analyze recent lending patterns by banks, briefly touch on the implications of the recent unemployment numbers, and end with a few comments on the bear market. It will make for an interesting letter. Warning: remove sharp objects from your vicinity before reading....
  • Credit Crisis to Credit Crunch

    In this issue: A Confidence Credit Crunch Credit Crisis How Much is That Dog in Your Net Capitalization? King Dollar Faces the Guillotine The Euro-Yen Cross The Consumer is Getting Tired New York, Philadelphia, Switzerland and Phoenix Just when it felt...
  • What Does a Dollar of Debt Get You?

    Introduction This weekend I am in La Jolla at good friend Rob Arnott's conference. Princeton Professor Burton Malkiel, of Random Walk fame, will be one of the luminaries at the annual Research Affiliates Advisory Panel. So, with that thought in mind...