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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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  • The Mother of All Painted-In Corners

    I wrote several years ago that Japan is a bug in search of a windshield. And in January I wrote that 2013 is the Year of the Windshield. The recent volatility in Japanese markets is breathtaking but characteristic of what one should come to expect from a country that is on the brink of fiscal and economic disaster. I don't mean to be trite, from a global perspective; Japan is not Greece: Japan is the third-largest economy in the world. Its biggest banks are on a par with those of the US. It is a global power in trade and trade finance. Its currency has reserve status. It has two of the world’s six largest corporations and 71 of the largest 500, surpassed only by the US and comfortably ahead of China, with 46. Even with the rest of Asia's big companies combined with China's, the total barely surpasses Japan's (CNN). In short, when Japan embarks on a very risky fiscal and monetary strategy, it delivers a serious impact on the rest of the world. And doubly so because global growth is now driven by Asia.

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  • The QE Sandpile

    Sell in May and go away? What about "risk off?" And ever more QE? Today's letter is a quick note and a reprise of a popular letter from yesteryear (with a bit of new slant), as I am at my conference in Carlsbad.

    But first, I thought I would shoot you a few quick, interesting notes that crossed my desk in the last week. It is almost a ritual for me to mention at this time of year the old investment saw, "Sell in May and go away." It has been surprisingly good advice in most years. My good friend Art Cashin is a curator (and prodigious progenitor) of investment wisdom. He offers these two insights from his research:

    Tomorrow is the beginning of May, so a "Sell in May" review is in order. To avoid reinventing the wheel, let me plagiarize the veteran Jim Brown's synopsis yesterday.

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  • The Cashless Society

    It is a common trope in science fiction novels. Economic transactions are handled seamlessly with a wave of a card or a physically imbedded chip, and whatever the author imagines money to be is transferred, far removed from the archaic confines of ancient physical monies. If you Google "cashless society" you get about 600,000 references in under a second, and 20 pages into the references there are still articles on a future world where physical cash is no longer needed. Some see it as a sign of the "end times," some as a capitalist plot, some as a frightening vision of socialists and ever-bigger governments, and some as a logical step in the evolution of a technologically driven international commerce.

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  • You Can’t Be Serious

    I admit to being surprised by Cyprus. Oh, not the banking crisis or the sovereign debt crisis or the fact that its banks were eight times larger than the country itself or even the fact that the banks were bloated with Greek debt that had been written down. I wrote about all that a long time ago. What surprised me was that all the above was apparently a surprise to European leaders.

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  • Capital Formation and the Fiscal Cliff

    In today's economic environment, we often complain about volatility and uncertainty, but there is one thing I think we can be fairly certain of: taxes are going up. I constantly try to impress upon my kids, most of whom are now adults, that ideas and actions have consequences. In today's letter we will look at some of the consequences of an increase in taxes. Please note that this is different from arguing whether taxes should rise or fall. For all intents and purposes that debate is over. As investors, our job is to deal with reality. We must play the hand we are dealt. Taxation is a complex issue, but let's see if a few word pictures can help us understand what we face.

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  • Where Will the Jobs Come From?

    For the last year, as I travel around, it seems a main topic of conversation is “Where will my kids find jobs?” It is a topic I am all too familiar with. Where indeed? Youth unemployment in the US is 17.1%. If you are in Europe the problem is even more pronounced. The basket case that is Greece has youth unemployment of 58%, and Spain is close at 55%. Portugal is at 36% and in Italy it’s 35%. France is over 25%. Is this just a cyclical symptom of the credit crisis? Much of it clearly is, but I think there is something deeper at work here, an underlying tectonic shift in the foundation of employment. And that means that before we see a true recovery in the unemployment rate, there must be a shift in how we think about work and training for the future of employment. This week is the first of what will be occasional letters over the coming months with an emphasis on employment. (This letter will print a little longer, as there are a lot of charts.)

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  • Central Bank Insurance

    Some argue that the economic and political crisis was worse than before the peg was put in place. By the end of 2002, the economy had contracted by 20% since 1998. Over the course of two years, output fell by more than 15%, the Argentine peso lost three-quarters of its value, and registered unemployment exceeded 25%. Income poverty in Argentina grew from an already high 35.4% in October 2001 to a peak of 54.3% in October 2002. To say things were volatile is an understatement: Argentina had five presidents in two weeks.

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  • The Quest for Certainty

    The last two weeks we have been looking at the problems with models. First we touched on what I called the Economic Singularity. In physics a singularity is where the mathematical models no longer work. For example, models based on the physics of relativity no longer work if one gets too close to a black hole. If we think of too much debt as a black hole of sorts, we may understand why economic models no longer work. Last week, in “The Perils of Fiscal Cliff,” we looked at the use of fiscal multipliers by economists in order to argue for or against governmental economic policies. Do you argue for austerity, or against it? There is a model that will support your case, most likely using the same data that your adversary uses.

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  • The Perils of the Fiscal Cliff

    Having been to all the countries listed above, with the exception of Uganda (although I have been to 15 countries in Africa, several bordering Uganda), I am most happy to confirm that they are all different. Just as you would grant me the fact that the US is not the UK and that France is not Argentina. To paraphrase Tolstoy, dysfunctional countries come by their unhappy sets of circumstances in their own individual ways.

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