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  • This Time is Different

    When does a potential crisis become an actual crisis, and how and why does it happen? Why did most everyone believe that there were no problems in the US (or Japanese or European or British) economies in 2006 and now we are mired in a very difficult situation. 'The subprime problem will be contained,' said now controversially confirmed Fed Chairman Bernanke, just months before the implosion and significant Fed intervention. I have just returned from Europe, and the discussion often turned to the potential of a crisis in the Eurozone if Greece defaults. Plus we take a look at the very positive US GDP numbers released this morning. Are we finally back to the Old Normal? There's just so much to talk about.

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  • Thoughts on the End Game

    When I was at Rice University, so many decades ago, I played a lot of bridge. I was only mediocre but enjoyed it. We had a professor, Dr. Culbertson, who was a bridge Life Master at an early age. He was single and lived in our college, playing bridge with us almost every night. He was a master of the 'end game.' He had an uncanny ability to seemingly force his opponents into no win situations, understanding where the cards had to lie and taking advantage.

    Traveling in London and on into Europe, I have some time to think away from the tyranny of the computer. Over the last year, and especially the last few months, I have written in depth about the problems we face all across the developed world. We have no good choices left, only hopefully choosing the correct unpleasant choice is now our option.

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  • When the Fed Stops the Music

    Last week we delved into the problems of uncertainty that face us, and make forecasting for 2010 problematical. Will the government actually increase taxes as much as they say with unemployment still likely to be at 10%? Or will cooler heads prevail? Will such an increase cause a recession? Will the markets anticipate the affect of such a major increase in advance? How will the mortgage market react when the Fed stops buying mortgage securities at the end of March? There are so many things in the air, and today we explore more of them, as I continue to (perhaps foolishly) try and peer into what is a very cloudy crystal ball.

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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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  • The Glide Path Option

    The present contains all possible futures. But not all futures are good ones. Some can be quite cruel. The one we actually get is dictated by the choices we make. For the last few months I have been addressing the choices in front of us, economically speaking. Today I am going to summarize them, and maybe we can look for some signposts that will tell us which way we are headed as we walk down the path. For those who are new readers and who would like a more in depth analysis, you can go to the archives and search for terms I am writing about. And I will start out briefly touching on today’s ugly unemployment numbers with data you did not get in the mainstream media.

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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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  • Muddle Through, R.I.P?

    I first wrote about the Muddle Through Economy in 2002, and the term has more or less become a theme we have returned to from time to time. In 2007 I wrote that we would indeed get back to a Muddle Through Economy after the end of the coming recession. If you Google the term, at least for the first four pages more than half the references are to this e-letter. I get a lot of flak from both bulls and bears about being either too optimistic or too pessimistic. Being in the muddle through middle is comfortable to me.

    Last week I expressed my concern that we as a country are taking actions that could indeed 'Kill the Goose' of our free-market economy. I rightly got letters asking me how I could maintain Muddle Through in the face of that letter. I have given it a lot of thought and research. How likely are we to muddle through in the face of $1.5 trillion and larger deficits? Today we take another look at Muddle Through. It should be interesting.

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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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  • 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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  • The Statistical Recovery, Part Three

    This week we further explore why this recovery will be a Statistical Recovery, or one that, as someone said, is a recovery only a statistician could love. We look at capacity utilization, more on housing, some thoughts on debt and deflation, and some intriguing charts on volatility in the last secular bear-market cycle. This letter will print a little longer, but there are lots of charts. I have written this during the week, and I finish it here in Tulsa, where Amanda gets married tomorrow. (There is no deflation in weddings costs!)

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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 Great Reflation Experiment

    The question we have been focused on for some time now is whether we end up with inflation, or deflation, and what that endgame looks like. It is one of the most important questions an investor must ask today, and getting the answer right is critical. This week, we have a guest writer who takes on the topic of the great experiment the Fed is now waging, which he calls The Great Reflation Experiment.

    One of my favorite sources of information for decades has been and remains the Bank Credit Analyst. It has a long and storied reputation. One of their enduring themes has been the debt super cycle. Investors who have paid attention to it have been served well. I am taking a little R&R this weekend, but I have arranged for my friend Tony Boeckh to stand in for me. Tony was chairman, chief executive, and editor-in-chief of Montreal-based BCA Research, publisher of the highly regarded Bank Credit Analyst up until he retired in 2002. He still likes to write from time to time, and we are lucky enough to have him give us his views on where we are in the economic cycles. Gentle reader, we are all graced to learn from one of the great economists and analysts of our times. Pay attention. Central bankers do. You can read his extensive bio at www.boeckhinvestmentletter.com and I will tell you how to get his letter free of charge at the end of this letter. And, he told me to mention that his son Rob is now helping him write, so there is a double byline here. Now, let's just jump in.

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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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