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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 Hole in FDIC

    This week we continue to look at what powers the forces of deflation. As I continue to stress, getting the fundamental question answered correctly is the most important issue we face going forward. And the problem is that we cannot use the usual historical comparisons. This week we look at one more factor: bank lending. I give you a sneak preview of what will be an explosive report from Institutional Risk Analytics about the problems in the banking sector. Are you ready for the FDIC to be down as much as $400 billion? This should be an interesting, if sobering, letter.

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  • Elements of Deflation, Part 2

    Just as water is formed by the basic elements hydrogen and oxygen, deflation has its own fundamental components. Last week we started exploring those elements, and this week we continue. I feel that the most fundamental of decisions we face in building investment portfolios is correctly deciding whether we are faced with inflation or deflation in our future. (And I tell you later on when to worry about inflation.) Most investments behave quite differently depending on whether we are in a deflationary or inflationary environment. Get this answer wrong and it could rise up to bite you.

    The problem is that there is not an easy answer. In fact, the answer is that it could be both. Today I got another letter from Peter Schiff, who seems to be ubiquitous. He says the rise in gold is because of rising inflation expectations among investors. Gold is predicting inflation. Maybe, but the correlation between gold and inflation for the last 25-plus years has been zero. I rather think that gold is rising in terms of value against most major fiat (paper) currencies because it is seen as a neutral currency. The Fed and the Obama administration seem to be pursuing policies that are dollar-negative, and they give no hint of letting up. The rise in gold above $1,000 does not really tell us anything about the future of inflation.

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  • The Elements of Deflation

    As every school child knows, water is formed by the two elements of hydrogen and oxygen in a very simple formula we all know as H2O. Today we start a series that starts with the question, What are the elements that comprise deflation? Far from being simple, the "equation" for deflation is as complex as that of DNA. And sadly, while the genome project has helped us with great insights into how DNA works, economic analysis is still back in the 1950s when it comes to decoding deflation. Notwithstanding the paucity of understanding we can glean from the dismal science, in this week's letter we will start thinking about the most fundamentally important question of the day: is inflation, or deflation, in our future?

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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 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....
  • Forecast 2009: Deflation and Recession

    Where are we headed in 2009? We will explore that in detail over the next few issues of Thoughts from the Frontline, but today we will start with some of the larger forces which will have a major impact on the economies of the world, and I will end with my usual attempt to forecast the various markets. We will look at deflation, deleveraging, the fallout from the stimulus plans (note plural), housing, consumer spending, unemployment, and a lot more. There is a lot to cover. But first two quick announcements....
  • The Velocity Factor

    A severe global recession will lead to deflationary pressures. Falling demand will lead to lower inflation as companies cut prices to reduce excess inventory. Slack in labour markets from rising unemployment will control labor costs and wage growth. Further slack in commodity markets as prices fall will lead to sharply lower inflation. Thus inflation in advanced economies will fall towards the 1 per cent level that leads to concerns about deflation. Deflation is dangerous as it leads to a liquidity trap, a deflation trap and a debt deflation trap: nominal policy rates cannot fall below zero and thus monetary policy becomes ineffective. We are already in this liquidity trap since the Fed funds target rate is still 1 per cent but the effective one is close to zero as the Federal Reserve has flooded the financial system with liquidity; and by early 2009 the target Fed funds rate will formally hit 0 per cent. Also, in deflation the fall in prices means the real cost of capital is high - despite policy rates close to zero - leading to further falls in consumption and investment....
  • Leverage Is an 8 Letter Word

    Leverage is an eight-letter word, which the markets now regard as twice as bad as the two four-letter words debt and pain (or fill in your own four-letter words). This week I try to give some insight into what is happening in the credit markets, some of it below the radar screen of most analysts. We will look at the potential for deflation and the Fed's response. There is a lot to cover, so let's jump right in. I talked with a friend who runs a collateralized loan obligation fund, or CLO. There are a lot of these funds in the Shadow Banking System. Typically they buy certain types of debt, with a lot of it in the bank loan space. In the old days of the last few years, banks would make loans to corporations and then sell them to CLOs and other institutions, making a spread on the loan and a profit on the servicing business. Some funds would typically leverage up somewhat and make a decent return....
  • The Slow Motion Recession Re-visited

    It was only five years ago that the central bankers of the world, and especially the Fed, was worried about deflation. Ben Bernanke was introduced to the world at large with his famous helicopter speech about how the Fed could deal with a deflationary environment. Who would have thought that what passed as humor to a group of economists would be taken so seriously by the rest of the world? Today the worry on the mind of investors and central bankers is inflation. It is causing havoc with the markets. In this week's letter, we look at whether we should be worried about inflation, take a mid-year check on the economy, muse on the malaise in the stock market and offer a very contrarian possibility for a positive shock to the world. It should make for a thought-provoking letter....