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  • Uncertainty and Risk in the Suicide Pool

    For the past 80 years, we have created ever more sophisticated models of risk in the economic and investment worlds. With each new tool we create to measure risk, we seem to think we have somehow gained more control over our future. Paradoxically, we appear to believe that the more we understand risk, the more we can somehow control our exposure to it. The more we build elaborate models and see correlations between events and the performance of our investments and the economy, the more confident we become.

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  • Gambling in the House?

    The latest scandal du jour seems to be about what is now called LIBORgate. But is it a scandal or is it really just business as usual? And if we don’t know which it is, what does that say about how we organize the financial world, in which $300-800 trillion, give or take, is based on LIBOR? This is actually just the second verse of the old song about derivatives, which is a much larger market. Which of course is a problem that was not solved by Dodd-Frank and that has the potential to once again create true havoc with the markets, whereas LIBOR can only cost a few billion here and there. (Sarcasm intended.)

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  • All Spain All the Time

    Last Monday I was in Paris and was asked to do a spot on CNBC London. I arrived at the studios an hour early due to a misunderstanding of the time zones, so while trying to catch up on the news I listened to CNBC. I had just written about Spain in last week's letter and guessed that was what they wanted to talk to me about, but for the full hour before I got on it seemed like every guest wanted to talk about Spain. When I had my turn and indeed got the Spain question, I smiled and noted that we were now in a period when it would be "All Spain All the Time," for at least the next year. I should have noted that there would be brief interruptions where we glanced at Portugal and perhaps Ireland, but the real focus would be on Spain.

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  • 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.)...