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  • How Not to Run a Pension

    For all the focus on the unfunded liabilities of Social Security and Medicare, there is another unfunded crisis brewing, and this one is in your own back yard. It’s coming to you even if you live outside of the US; it just might take a little longer to get there. I wrote ten years ago that state and local pension funds might be underfunded by as much as $2 trillion. It turns out that I was being overly optimistic. New government research suggests that the figure might be as high as $3 trillion. But what if you take into account that retirees are living longer? An IMF study that we’ll look at in a few minutes does just that. And if we live a lot longer? Oh my. The problems are not universal – some cities and states will do fine, while others are already in deep kimchee – but it’s a big problem and getting worse.

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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 Subprime Debacle: Act 2, Part 2

    At the end of last week's letter on the whole mortgage foreclosure mess, I wrote:

    'All those subprime and Alt-A mortgages written in the middle of the last decade? They were packaged and sold in securities. They have had huge losses. But those securities had representations and warranties about what was in them. And guess what, the investment banks may have stretched credibility about those warranties. There is the real probability that the investment banks that sold them are going to have to buy them back. We are talking the potential for multiple hundreds of billions of dollars in losses that will have to be eaten by the large investment banks. We will get into details, but it could create the potential for some banks to have real problems.'

    Real problems indeed. Seems the Fed, PIMCO, and others are suing Countrywide over this very topic. We will go into detail later in this week's letter, covering the massive fraud involved in the sale of mortgage-backed securities. Frankly, this is scandalous. It is almost too much to contemplate, but I will make an effort.

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  • The Subprime Debacle: Act 2

    Quick last-minute note: I think this (and next week's) is/will be one of the more important letters I have written in the last ten years. Take the time to read, and if you agree send it on to friends and responsible parties.

    There's trouble, my friends, and it is does indeed involve pool(s), but not in the pool hall. The real monster is hidden in those pools of subprime debt that have not gone away. When I first began writing and speaking about the coming subprime disaster, it was in late 2007 and early 2008. The subject was being dismissed in most polite circles. 'The subprime problem,' testified Ben Bernanke, 'will be contained.'

    My early take? It would be a disaster for investors. I admit I did not see in January that it would bring down Lehman and trigger the worst banking crisis in 80 years, less than 18 months later. But it was clear that it would not be 'contained.' We had no idea.

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  • Pushing on a String

    This week the Fed altered their end-of-meeting statement by just a few words, but those words have a lot of meaning. It seems they are paving the way to a new round of quantitative easing (QE2), if in their opinion the situation warrants it. A trillion dollars of new money could soon be injected into the system. Tonight we explore some of the implications of a new round of QE. Let's put our speculation hats on, gentle reader, as we are moving into uncharted territory. There are no maps, just theories, and they don't all agree. (Note: this letter may print a little long, as there are a lot of charts.)

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  • The Chances of a Double Dip

    I am on a plane (yet again) from Zurich to Mallorca, where I will meet with my European and South American partners, have some fun, and relax before heading to Denmark and London. With the mad rush to finish my book (more on that later) and a hectic schedule this week, I have not had time to write a letter. But never fear, I leave you in the best of hands. Dr. Gary Shilling graciously agreed to condense his September letter, where he looks at the risk of another recession in the US.

    I look forward at the beginning of each month to getting Gary's latest letter. I often print it out and walk away from my desk to spend some quality time reading his thoughts. He is one of my "must-read" analysts. I always learn something quite useful and insightful. I am grateful that he has let me share this with you.

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  • The Multiplication of Money

    The economy grew in the fourth quarter by 5.9%, the most in years. The adjusted monetary base is exploding. Bank reserves are literally through the roof. The Fed is flooding money into the system in an effort to get banks to lend. An historically normal response by banks (to increase lending) would have been massively inflationary, causing the Fed to stomp on the brakes. Despite raising the almost meaningless discount rate (as who uses it?), this week Ben Bernanke assured Congress of an easy monetary policy, with rates remaining low for a long time. Many ask, how can this not be inflationary?

    This week we look at some fundamentals of money supply and the economy. If you understand this, you won't get misled by people selling investments, telling you to buy this or that based on some chart that shows whatever they are selling to be what you absolutely have to have to protect your portfolio and/or make massive profits. And we touch on a few odds and ends. And yes, I can't resist, a few more thoughts on Greece. It will make for an interesting letter, as I'm writing on a plane to San Jose. And it will print a bit longer than usual, because there are a lot of charts.

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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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  • This Way There Be Dragons

    In fantasy novels the intrepid heroes come across a sign saying 'This Way Be Dragons.' Of course, they venture on, facing calamity and death, but such is the nature of fantasy novels. We live in a very real world, and if we don't turn around there will be some very nasty dragons in our future. This week we look at three possible paths we can lead the world down. We then review a number of charts and data on the housing market.

    If you just read the headlines on this week's data, you could be forgiven for assuming the worst is over -- not. And then finally we look at some rather stark comparative data on the health-care systems of the US, Canada, and Great Britain. Everyone knows the US pays way more in terms of GDP than the latter two countries. Are we getting our money's worth? There is a lot to cover, and I hope to finish this on a flight to Naples, so let's jump right in....
  • Is That Recovery We See?

    The market, we keep hearing and reading, is telling us that there is recovery around the corner. And pundits point to data that seems to suggest the worst is behind us. The leading economic indicators, while still down significantly, seem to be in the process of bottoming. There is a large amount of stimulus in the pipeline. Mark-to-market has been modified. Housing seems to be finding a bottom, if you look at the rise in sales from January. And so on.
    In this week's letter, we look at what past recoveries have looked like in terms of corporate earnings; and we look at the continued slide in earnings on the S&P 500, which has a negative price-to-earnings ratio looming in future months (yes, that is not a typo, we have an unprecedented earnings multiple). We take a peek at housing and foreclosures. There is just so much bad news out there (like continued unemployment) that it just has to get better, doesn't it? This should make for an interesting letter....
  • Why Bother With Bonds?

    Investors, we are told, demand a risk premium for investing in stocks rather than bonds. Without that extra return, why invest in risky stocks if you can get guaranteed returns in bonds? This week we look at a brilliantly done paper examining whether or not investors have gotten better returns from stocks over the really long run and not just the last ten years, when stocks have wandered in the wilderness. This will not sit well with the buy and hope crowd, but the data is what the data is. Then we look at how bulls are spinning bad news into good and, if we have time, look at how you should analyze GDP numbers. Are we really down 6%? (Short answer: no.) It should make for a very interesting letter....
  • Solving the Housing Crisis

    This last Tuesday the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by my friend Gary Shilling and Richard LeFrak. They offer a simple solution for the housing crisis: give foreigners who will come to the US and buy a home resident status (green cards). This is a very important proposal and one that deserves national attention and action. Gary was kind enough to send me two lengthier white papers offering more facts. In this week's letter we are going to look at this proposal in more detail than the small space that an op-ed can offer. And while this letter will be somewhat controversial in some circles, I ask that you read it through, giving me the time to make the case. I will also add a few thoughts as to why this could not only help solve the housing crisis, but help put the nation back into growth mode.

    Long-time readers know that I have been growing more and more bearish of late. I have been writing for a long time that we are in for a long period of slow Muddle Through growth as the twin crises of the housing bubble and credit bubbles require time to heal. Today we look at a serious proposal for cutting the time to healing for at least one of those bubbles (housing), and at least keep the other (credit) from getting worse. This is the most serious idea I have seen that could actually make a real positive contribution to the economy and help put us back on a growth path....
  • Forecast 2009: Deflation and Recession

    Where are we headed in 2009? We will explore that in detail over the next few issues of Thoughts from the Frontline, but today we will start with some of the larger forces which will have a major impact on the economies of the world, and I will end with my usual attempt to forecast the various markets. We will look at deflation, deleveraging, the fallout from the stimulus plans (note plural), housing, consumer spending, unemployment, and a lot more. There is a lot to cover. But first two quick announcements....
  • The Rise of A New Asset Class

    This week I am in Maine on vacation with my son, and next week is my daughter Tiffani's wedding, so for the next two weeks I am going to send an updated version of a speech I have been giving the past few months on what I think is the likely potential for the rise of a brand new asset class. It is too long to be sent as one letter, so we will start with the first part today and finish with the second part next week. This first part can be read as a standalone letter. I think we're at a watershed moment, what Peter Bernstein defines as an "epochal event," with the very order of the investment world changing as it did in 1929, in '50, in 1981, where a number of things came together - it wasn't just one thing but a number of events happening that conspired to change the nature of what worked in the investment world for the next period of time. It took most people a decade after 1981-2 to recognize that we were in a different period, because we make our future expectations out of past experience. It's very hard for us to recognize a watershed moment in the process. We're going to look back in five or ten years and go, "Wow, things changed." As we will see, it's going to be a change that's going to cost people in their portfolios and in their retirement habits....
  • The World Will Not End

    Housing starts rose 9% and the market cheerleaders proclaimed that we have seen a bottom. But not if you look at the actual numbers. New unemployment claims were OK, but not if you look at the actual numbers. And inflation was simply ugly, no matter what numbers you look at. However, oil is down and there is reason to think it may have further to go on the downside. We cover all this and more, as we first look at why the world is not going to end....
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