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  • Recession Watch

    I think it’s pretty much a given that we’re in for a cyclical bear market in the coming quarters. The question is, will it be 1998 or 2001/2007? Will the recovery look V-shaped, or will it drag out? Remember, there is always a recovery. But at the same time, there is always a recession out in front of us; and that fact of life is what makes for long and difficult recoveries, not to mention very deep bear markets.

    The problem is that our most reliable indicator for a recession is no longer available to us. The Federal Reserve did a study, which has been replicated. They looked at 26 indicators with regard to their reliability in predicting a recession. There was only one that was accurate all the time, and that was an inverted yield curve of a particular length and depth. Interestingly, it worked almost a year in advance. The inverted yield curve indicator worked very well the last two recessions; but now, with the Federal Reserve holding interest rates at the zero bound, it is simply impossible to get a negative yield curve.

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  • Recessions are on the Margin

    And the data out over the last few weeks tells us it is getting better. Does this take us out of the double-dip woods, even as the Fed is lowering its forecast? And what is a recession? Yes, we all know it's when the economy doesn't grow, but we are in a rather unique economic environment, this time. Maybe things are getting better, but is it enough to get us back on the road to full employment?

    Let's start off with what is going right. We had a slate of news over the past few weeks that was good. The ECRI weekly Leading Index, after some ugly downtrends, is showing signs of turning around. We have had small increases each week since October 15, and the annualized growth rate of the index is now only -3.1%, having increased for 12 weeks. Its recent low was in July. Yes, I know that a large part of that growth is in the financial sector, as the stock market is up and interest rates are low, but it does suggest that 2011 should not be a recession year.

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  • How We Get Through This Mess

    The group was a Vistage group in which my daughter Tiffani participates. This is an organization of 12 businesspeople (in this case all CEOs of small businesses) who meet once a month to share and learn about better business practices, accountability, planning, and all the aspects of running a business. Every person I have ever met who has been involved in Vistage has had good things to say about it. I have watched it help Tiffani a lot. She truly runs our business now, allowing me to read and write and travel and speak. I am a very lucky man and proud Dad.

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  • The Risk of Recession

    We are halfway through the year (where did the time go?) and it is time to make some predictions about the last half of the year. This week we look at what the leading indicators are telling us, size up a new indicator, drop in on banking data, and do a whole lot more.

    Quickly, I will be on Larry Kudlow's show next Tuesday, which is at 7 pm Eastern. Larry has promised that we will spend some quality time on some of the current issues facing us. See you there! And now, let's jump in.

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  • 2010 Forecast: The Year of Uncertainty

    This will be my tenth annual forecast issue. Time has flown by as I enter a new decade of writing Thoughts from the Frontline. And even as I write about the high level of uncertainty of the current times, I am optimistic that at the beginning of the next decade we will look back and realize that there has been an enormous amount of progress made. None of us will want to revisit the pleasures of the past ten aught years in some nostalgic dream. I am so ready for a new decade.

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  • If This Is Recovery…

    No one goes into Wal-Mart and asks to pay extra sales tax. Thus sales taxes are reasonable barometers for retail sales. This week we look at how taxes are doing in a period of economic recovery. Then we turn our eyes to a very interesting (and sobering) analysis of possible future unemployment rates. This is an anecdote to the happy-face analysis of employment numbers you get from establishment economists. There will be a lot of charts and tables, so this letter may print a little longer, but I think you will find it very interesting.

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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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  • The Statistical Recovery, Part 2

    A few weeks ago I first used the term 'statistical recovery' to describe the nature of today's economic environment. Today we are going to further explore that concept, as it is important to have a real understanding of what is happening. This coming 'recovery' is not going to feel like a typical one, and those expecting a 'V'-shaped recovery are simply making projections from previous economic recoveries, which, based on the fundamentals, are not warranted. And of course, a few thoughts coming back from Maine are in order. There is a lot to cover, and this may take more than one letter.

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  • The Statistical Recovery

    A lot of bullish commentators are talking about a recovery being in the works, and they may very well be right. But it is not going to look like any recovery worthy of the name. This week we look at what I will call The Statistical Recovery. But first, we take a look at what China is doing, as we continue our look at the rest of the world and ponder if it is time to brace ourselves for an extended bout of the Muddle Through Economy*. (And yes, there is an asterisk.)

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  • The End of the Recession?

    Last week we began a series on data abuse, about how various commentators twist and torture data to make it say what they want, or fail to look at the details underneath the headlines. Predictably, there is a lot of fodder this week as we forge ahead into this ripe territory. The headlines screamed that US income data went up unexpectedly. Green shoots were everywhere. But if you look at the actual data, you find something much different. And, I keep hearing the insistent refrain that the market is telling us that the recovery is around the corner. Well, the recovery may be, but can the market really tell us that? I have about 25 windows open in my computer, with tons of misleading data. Let's see how much we can cover in this week's letter....
  • This Time its Different*

    I have often written that the four most dangerous words in the investment world are 'This Time its Different.' If memory serves me, I have written several e-letters disparaging various personages who have uttered those very words, only to find out later that it wasn't different. It almost never is. And yet - and yet! - I am going to make the case over the next few weeks that it really is different this time, with only a lonely asterisk as a caveat. What prompts my probable foolishness to tempt the investing gods in going so far out on a limb is the rather large amount of bad analysis based on unreasonable (dare I say lazy or surface?) readings of statistics that is coming from the main stream investment media and investment types with a built in bias for bullish analysis. Normally, gentle reader, your humble analyst is a paragon of moderate sensibilities, but I have been pushed over a mental edge and need to restore balance. I anticipate that this topic will take several weeks, as trying to cover it all in one sitting would exhaust both of us. It should be fun. But first...

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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.)...
  • Faith-Based Economics

    Why does government data need to be revised so often? Is it conspiracy, as some claim, or is it methodology? And if it is methodology that leads to faulty data, then why not change the methodology? Is unemployment a lagging indicator, as conventional wisdom suggests? We look again at the underlying assumptions to suggest that things are not always the same. And finally, we look at unsustainable trends, fiscal deficits, and health care -- there is a connection.

    But first, a quick note about the latest 'Conversations with John Mauldin' that I just did with Don Coxe and Gary Shilling. These two esteemed analysts have different views on whether commodity prices will rise or fall, and are not afraid to make their views known. I edited the final transcript today, and I can tell you that even though I was 'at the table' I learned a lot reading it the second time. If you want to understand the nature of what is a very central debate, this is a must-read. This was a VERY lively debate. Most of my friends know that I am not shy, but it was hard to get a word in edgewise as these guys went at it. It was great fun to watch....
  • Green Shoots or Dandelion Weeds?

    Go to Google. Type in 'green shoots.' In about a 10th of a second you will find 28,900,000 references. Scrolling through a few pages, you find a lot of references to the beginning of the end of the recession. Today we look at some data to see if we can indeed see the end. Most readers will be surprised to know that the number of people employed in the US went up (!) in April. Yet so did the unemployment rate. Is that green shoot just another dandelion weed in our economic garden?

    We'll jump into that and more, but first let me quickly mention the new subscription service that we began offering this year, called 'Conversations with John Mauldin.' One of my 'secrets' is that I have a very powerful rolodex (or, for the younger crowd, my contacts list). In this new project, each month I call up one or two of my special contacts in the investment and economic world and hold a conversation with them about the important topics of the day -- where the US and global economies are going, how we should be investing, what opportunities and pitfalls are out there, etc. Some will be names you recognize, and others will be names you will want to know. You get to listen in, download to your computer, or read a transcript -- whichever you prefer....
  • 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....