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  • The Center Cannot Hold

    This coming week we shall likely see Congress pass an extension of the "temporary" payroll tax cut, first enacted as a stimulus to the economy in January of 2011. As I write, the extension is just for two months. We'll leave aside the politics and look at the economic implications of the extension, and then go on to examine the deficit in the US. That will give rise to some thoughts about Europe and what would have to happen for a country to leave the euro. We'll finally close with some thoughts and graphs about the more controversial part of the tax cut extension, the Keystone XL Pipeline. Just how radical is it to build such a pipeline in the US? And what are the implications for the deficit? I think looking at a few maps might surprise some readers. It should all make for a rather controversial letter, but then controversy is my middle name. (Note, this letter will print longer as there are lots of charts.)

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  • The Last Half

    There are a number of economic forces in play in today's world, not all of them working in the same direction, which makes choosing policies particularly difficult. Today we finish what we started last week, the last half of the last chapter I have to write to get a rough draft of my forthcoming book, The End Game. (Right now, though, it appears this will actually be the third chapter.) We will start with a few paragraphs to help you remember where we were (or you can go to www.investorsinsight.com to read the first part of the chapter).

    But first, I recorded two Conversations yesterday, with the CEOs of two biotech firms that are working on some of the most exciting new technologies I have come across. I found them very informative, and we will post them as soon as we get them transcribed.

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  • The Last Chapter

    This week you will get a kind of preview as this week's letter. I am desperately trying to finish the first draft of my book and am one chapter away from having that draft. I have promised my editor (Debra Englander) that she would see a rough draft next week, and the final version will be delivered on the last day of September. More on that process for those interested at the end of the letter. But this week's letter will be part of what will probably be the 4th or 5th chapter, where we look at the rules of economics.

    There is just so little writing time left that I have to focus on that book for a little bit. I am writing this book with co-author Jonathan Tepper of Variant Perception (who is based in London), a young and very gifted Rhodes scholar with a talent for economic analysis and writing. We each write the first draft of a chapter and then go back and forth until the chapter has been much improved. Alas, gentle reader, you will only get my first draft. You will have to wait for the book to get the new, improved version. But this is the last one I have to write. And Jonathan has done all his initial chapters. We are on the home stretch.

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  • You Should Be Careful What You Wish For

    'Everyone' is upset with the level of fiscal deficits being run by nearly every developed country. And with much justification. The levels of fiscal deficits are unsustainable and threaten to bring many countries to the desperate situation that Greece now finds itself in. We must balance the budget is the cry of fiscal conservatives. But there are unseen consequences in moving both too fast or too slow in the effort to get the deficits under control. Today we look at them as we explore what a fine mess we have gotten ourselves into. (I am working without internet today so the letter will be shorter with fewer references than normal.)...
  • Six Impossible Things

    Economists and policy makers seem to want to believe impossible things in regards to the current debt crisis percolating throughout the world. And believing in them, they are adopting policies that will result in, well, tragedy. Today we address what passes for wisdom among the political crowd and see where we are headed, especially in Europe....
  • Is This a Recovery?

    Last week I wrote a letter to my kids trying to explain what Greece meant to them. Reader Ken V wrote: 'Great letter, John. Now you should write one for the adults who are retired and don't have the long future your kids do. If the US becomes Greece, things won't recover in time for much of the rest of my life to be more than one grim, dreary period. What is your investment advice for those with roughly a 10 year horizon, not 30-40-50 years?'

    A very good question Ken, and one that was asked more than a few times. So today, I will touch on that thorny issue, as well as look at the employment numbers for what we see about the potential for an actual recovery.

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  • Thoughts on the End Game

    When I was at Rice University, so many decades ago, I played a lot of bridge. I was only mediocre but enjoyed it. We had a professor, Dr. Culbertson, who was a bridge Life Master at an early age. He was single and lived in our college, playing bridge with us almost every night. He was a master of the 'end game.' He had an uncanny ability to seemingly force his opponents into no win situations, understanding where the cards had to lie and taking advantage.

    Traveling in London and on into Europe, I have some time to think away from the tyranny of the computer. Over the last year, and especially the last few months, I have written in depth about the problems we face all across the developed world. We have no good choices left, only hopefully choosing the correct unpleasant choice is now our option.

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  • The Glide Path Option

    The present contains all possible futures. But not all futures are good ones. Some can be quite cruel. The one we actually get is dictated by the choices we make. For the last few months I have been addressing the choices in front of us, economically speaking. Today I am going to summarize them, and maybe we can look for some signposts that will tell us which way we are headed as we walk down the path. For those who are new readers and who would like a more in depth analysis, you can go to the archives and search for terms I am writing about. And I will start out briefly touching on today’s ugly unemployment numbers with data you did not get in the mainstream media.

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  • Catching Argentinian Disease

    I have been in South America this week, speaking nine times in five days interspersed with lots of meetings. The conversation kept coming back to the prospects for the dollar, but I was just as interested in talking with money managers and business people who had experienced the hyperinflation of Argentina and Brazil. How could such a thing happen? As it turned out, I was reading a rather remarkable book that addressed that question. There are those who believe that the United States is headed for hyperinflation because of our large and growing government fiscal deficit and the massive future liabilities (as much as $56 trillion) for Medicare and Social Security.

    This week, we will look at the Argentinean experience and ask ourselves whether 'it' - hyperinflation - can happen here.

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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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  • 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....
  • This Way There Be Dragons

    In fantasy novels the intrepid heroes come across a sign saying 'This Way Be Dragons.' Of course, they venture on, facing calamity and death, but such is the nature of fantasy novels. We live in a very real world, and if we don't turn around there will be some very nasty dragons in our future. This week we look at three possible paths we can lead the world down. We then review a number of charts and data on the housing market.

    If you just read the headlines on this week's data, you could be forgiven for assuming the worst is over -- not. And then finally we look at some rather stark comparative data on the health-care systems of the US, Canada, and Great Britain. Everyone knows the US pays way more in terms of GDP than the latter two countries. Are we getting our money's worth? There is a lot to cover, and I hope to finish this on a flight to Naples, so let's jump right in....
  • 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.)...
  • Sell in May and Go Away

    The old adage that one should 'sell in May and walk away' has been around for years. I mentioned that bromide about this time last year, urging readers to head for the sidelines if they had not already done so. I was also suggesting a strategic retreat in August of 2006 (after which the markets went up 20% before plummeting). In this week's letter we look at the actual data and offer up a fresh viewpoint. Then we turn our eyes to the recent GDP numbers, which were awful, though many took comfort in the apparent rise in consumer spending. Are Americans back to their old ways? It will make for an interesting letter....
  • Back to the Future Recession

    This week we look at the second half of my speech from a few weeks ago at my annual Strategic Investment Conference in La Jolla. If you have not read the first part, you can review it in the website. The first few paragraphs are a repeat from last week, to give us some context. Please note that this is somewhat edited from the original, and I have added a few ideas. You can also go there to sign up to get this letter sent to you free each week.

    MV=PQ

    Okay, when you become a central banker, you are taken into a back room and they do a DNA change on you. You are henceforth and forever genetically incapable of allowing deflation on your watch. It becomes the first and foremost thought on your mind: deflation, we can't have it....