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  • The Lions in the Grass, Revisited

    I’ve come to South Africa a little bit ahead of my speaking tour next week to spend a few days “on safari.” Which is another way to say that I am comfortably ensconced in a game lodge next to Kruger Park, relaxing and trying to get some time to think. We’ve been reasonably lucky on the game runs: besides the usual lions, rhinoceri, water buffalo, etc., we’ve seen both cheetah and leopard, two animals that avoided my vicinity on every other trip to Africa. I’m here at the end of the rainy season, so everything is lush and green, and you have to get a little lucky to find the animals in the dense bush.

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  • The Economic Singularity

    I fully intended to write today about a recently released academic paper that illustrates nearly every bad idea currently being bandied about in the field of economics. The insidious part is that the paper is considered mainstream and noncontroversial. Simply reading it required me to up my blood pressure medicine dosage. It is going to take me a little longer to finish that letter, and I realized that it needs a certain setup – one that coauthor Jonathan Tepper and I conveniently wrote a few months ago and included in the book Code Red.

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  • The Monster That Is Europe

    The Complacency of Consensus
    The Sick (German) Banks of Europe
    Where There Is One Cockroach…
    It’s Quiet Out There. Maybe Too Quiet…
    A Few Gift Ideas
    Southern Cal, Dubai, Riyadh, and Western Canada

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  • Arsonists Running the Fire Brigade

    Six years ago I hosted my first Thanksgiving in a Dallas high-rise, and my then-90-year-old mother came to celebrate, along with about 25 other family members and friends. We were ensconced in the 21st floor penthouse, carousing merrily, when the fire alarms went off and fire trucks began to descend on the building. There was indeed a fire, and we had to carry my poor mother down 21 flights of stairs through smoke and chaos as the firemen rushed to put out the fire. So much for the advanced fire-sprinkler system, which failed to work correctly.

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  • The Damage to the US Brand

    There is no doubt that the image – what I will refer to in this letter as the "brand" – of the United States has been damaged in the past month. But what are the actual costs? And what does it matter to the average citizen? Can the US recover its tarnished image and go on about business as usual? Is the recent dysfunction in Washington DC now behind us, or is it destined to become part of a bleaker landscape? In this week's letter we try to answer those questions and more, as I step firmly into politically incorrect territory and offer a little advice to my junior senator from Texas. If nothing else, we will look at the problems we face in a different light.

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  • Sometimes They Ring a Bell

    After last week's discussion of the Affordable Care Act, it would be easy to drift off into all of the negative consequences of the current problems in Washington DC. There's just so much negative energy every time you turn on the TV that it simply drains you. I am well aware of what's happening and why, and yet I still find myself weary simply from the process of trying to follow what's happening. If I feel that way, it's no wonder the polls show that the general public's attitude is "a plague on all your houses." Of course, the snafus always seem to get resolved, but you just wonder how worthwhile all the drama is.

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  • Nothing But Bad Choices

    With a few exceptions here and there, crises in government funding don't simply arrive on the doorstep unannounced. Their progress toward the eventual Bang! moment is there for all the world to see. What final misdeed triggers the ultimate phase of the crisis is less predictable, but the root cause is almost always the same: debt. And whether that debt is actually borrowed or is merely promised to the populace, when the market becomes worried that the ability of the government to fund its promises is suspect, then the end is near. Last week we began a series on what I think is an impending crisis in the unfunded pension liabilities of state and local governments in the United States.

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  • Unrealistic Expectations

    Way back in the Paleozoic era (as far as markets are concerned), circa 2003, I wrote in this letter and in Bull's Eye Investing that the pension liabilities of state and municipal plans would soon top $2 trillion. This was of course far above the stated actuarial claims at the time, and I was seen as such a pessimist. Everyone knew that the market would compound at 9%, so any problems were just a rounding error.

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  • France: On the Edge of the Periphery

    Recently there have been a spate of horrific train wrecks in the news. Almost inevitably we find out there was human error involved. Almost four years ago I began writing about the coming train wreck that was Europe and specifically Greece. It was clear from the numbers that Greece would have to default, and I thought at the time that Portugal would not be too far behind. Spain and Italy clearly needed massive restructuring. Part of the problem I highlighted was the significant imbalance between exports and imports in all of the above countries.

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  • We Can’t Take the Chance

    What would it have been like to be in the decision-maker's seat at a central bank in the midst of the crisis in 2008-09? You'd know that you won't have the luxury of going back and making better decisions five years later. Instead, you have to act on the torrent of information that's coming at you from every quarter, and none of it is good. Major banks are literally collapsing, the interbank market is almost nonexistent, and there is panic in the air. Perhaps you feel that panic in the pit of your stomach. This week we'll perform a little thought experiment to see if we can extrapolate what is likely to happen in when the next crisis kicks in.

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  • Can It Get Any Better Than This?

    What in the world is going on?! As I write this letter from the Maine woods, the S&P 500 has just cleared 1,700 for the first time. The German DAX continues to set all-time highs above 8,400. The United Kingdom’s FTSE 100 is quickly approaching its 1999 record high of 6,930, and its mid-cap cousin, the FTSE 250, just broke through to its all-time level above 15,000. And last but not least, Japan’s Nikkei 225 is extending its gains once more, toward 14,500. This weekend I am sitting around with some of the smartest economic and trading minds in the country. At Leen's Lodge, where we're fishing and eating where our phones don’t work, the question on our minds is, how long can this run go on? The debates can get intense in a room full of strong opinions.

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  • Any Bonds Today?

    By a continuing process of inflation, governments can confiscate, secretly and unobserved, an important part of the wealth of their citizens. By this method, they not only confiscate, but they confiscate arbitrarily; and, while the process impoverishes many, it actually enriches some. The sight of this arbitrary rearrangement of riches strikes not only at security, but at confidence in the equity of the existing distribution of wealth. Those to whom the system brings windfalls . . . become 'profiteers', who are the object of the hatred of the bourgeoisie, whom the inflationism has impoverished not less than the proletariat. As the inflation proceeds . . . all permanent relations between debtors and creditors, which form the ultimate foundation of capitalism, become so utterly disordered as to be almost meaningless….

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  • “This Country Is Different”

    I find myself finishing this letter on an island off the coast of Croatia, on the backside of the middle of nowhere. But it is the perfect place to contemplate my recent experience in Cyprus. Through the efforts of your fellow readers, I was able to meet a wide variety of people and have some in-depth discussions on the crisis that has enveloped Cyprus. And while the details are different, of course, there is a pattern to the weave, so to speak, that calls to mind various aspects of the crisis that began in 2008. And perhaps that pattern will give us a glimpse of what else may be coming our way.

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  • Economists Are (Still) Clueless

    US GDP has been slowly ramping up, only to fall back and then try once more to bring us back to the '90s. Stocks markets are volatile but seemingly moving higher in most of the developed world, except for Japan, where the current 20% drop comes hard on the heels of one of their frequent "end of the bear market forever" rallies of almost 90% – how many of those have we seen over the last 24 years? Europe is mostly in recession or Muddling Through with very slow growth. I continue to read from those who know China intimately that there is a real crisis brewing there. And over the last four weeks I have highlighted how desperate the situation is in Japan.

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  • Banzai! Banzai! Banzai!

    As kids, not knowing that we were being politically incorrect on so many levels, we would shout “Geronimo!” when we were playing war or getting ready to do something reckless. (For those not familiar, Geronimo was a rather fearsome Apache chief who plagued Mexico and the American cavalry.) Sam Houston and his fellows cried, “Remember the Alamo!” as they rode down upon Santa Ana at San Jacinto. The British went to battle with “God Save the Queen [or King]!” Confederate soldiers took up the rebel yell as they charged live bullets and fixed bayonets. Every good war movie has its own memorable moment of the battle charge.

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