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  • Sometimes They Ring a Bell

    After last week's discussion of the Affordable Care Act, it would be easy to drift off into all of the negative consequences of the current problems in Washington DC. There's just so much negative energy every time you turn on the TV that it simply drains you. I am well aware of what's happening and why, and yet I still find myself weary simply from the process of trying to follow what's happening. If I feel that way, it's no wonder the polls show that the general public's attitude is "a plague on all your houses." Of course, the snafus always seem to get resolved, but you just wonder how worthwhile all the drama is.

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  • Peak Oil or Peak Energy? – A Happy Solution

    A consistent theme in this letter has been the connections between items that may seem to be far removed from each other but are actually linked at the very core. If you push on one end you get a reaction in what would seem to be the most unlikely spots. Today we explore the connection between the fiscal deficit and energy policy. Everyone in Washington is starting to “get religion” about wanting to fix the deficit, with serious thinkers on all sides acknowledging that there must be reform and a path to a balanced budget. Burgeoning healthcare and Social Security costs are rightly pointed to as the problem, and entitlement reform will soon be front and center.

    But the fiscal (government) deficit in the US cannot go away unless we also deal with the trade deficit. As we will see, it is a simple accounting issue, and one based on 400 years of accepted accounting principles. And dealing with the trade deficit in the US means working with our energy policy.

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  • The Morality of Chinese Growth

    This week I am at a conference in Houston. I must confess that I don't attend many of the sessions at most conferences where I speak. But today, the guys at Streettalk Advisors have such a great lineup that I am there for every session. But it's Friday and I need to write. The solution? This week you get a 'best of' letter. The best ideas I've heard and the best charts I've seen at this conference. Then we close with two short but very thoughtful essays from Charles Gave and Arthur Kroeber of GaveKal on 'The Morality of Chinese Growth.' Lots of charts and something to make you think. Should be a good letter.

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  • The Gulf Oil Spill Disaster

    As I mentioned last Monday night in my Outside the Box, I did not make it to Turks and Caicos, but did end up in Baton Rouge for a special seminar on the Deepwater Horizon Gulf oil spill. I have both good news (or maybe more like less-bad news) and bad news. Today's letter is a report on what I learned.

    The conference was sponsored by the Global Interdependence Center (GIC - http://www.interdependence.org/). David Kotok of Cumberland Advisors organized the event with help from people from Louisiana State University. The quality of the speakers was outstanding. They were extremely knowledgeable and well-connected. The meeting was conducted under the Chatham House Rule, which means all the speakers spoke off the record, unless they indicated otherwise. This allows for a more frank discussion. So, much of what you will read from me is my impressions of what I heard, which I cannot attribute to specific speakers. Indeed, some would be at some occupational risk if I did so.

    Some of what I write today will be controversial to some readers. That is a risk I will take, as the large majority will find this interesting, or at least I hope so.

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  • There’s a Slow Train coming

    The question before the jury is a simple one, but the answer is complex. Is the US in a 'V' shaped recovery? Are we returning to the old normal? A great deal hinges on the answer, and this week we look at some of the evidence before us.

    But first, a follow-up thought to last week's letter. I wrote about why countries can reduce their private debt, reduce their public debt or run a trade deficit, but not all three at the same time. If a country wants to see its government run a fiscal surplus (or small deficit) and at the same time its private citizens want to reduce their leverage (common desires throughout the developed world), it must run a trade surplus. That's a simple accounting statement.

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  • 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....
  • Some Things That Just Should Not Be

    There are things in today's markets that are simply astounding. They should not exist, yet they do. Why should US bills trade at negative interest? How can oil be trading at all-time highs in terms of spreads over the next year? Bank debt and bonds are trading at discounts not to be believed. Want some free money? I show you a trade that gives you (almost) just that. Fed funds at zero? Are we starting to push on a string? We'll cover all this and more in this week's letter. But first a quick commercial. Not all money managers and funds have had losses this year, even though it may seem like it. My partners around the world can introduce you to some alternative funds, commodity funds, and managers which you might find of interest as you rebalance your portfolio at the end of this year. You owe it to yourself to check them out....
  • The Financial Fire Trucks Are Gathering Again

    The economic news just continues to be bad. New unemployment claims were over 529,000 on a seasonally adjusted basis. The "real" number was 606,877 lost jobs. New home sales were off by another 5% and down 40% from a year ago, as builders slash inventories. The Chicago Purchasing Manager index came in at 33.8, the weakest number since the serious recession of 1982. The national number due next Monday will be just as ugly, as durable goods were down far more than expected, by a negative 6.2%. But it is Thanksgiving weekend, and not a time for gloom. In this week's letter I am going to talk about why we should be optimistic about the future. Things will turn around. I will also make a few comments about the latest stimulus package....
  • Housing: Are We Near the Bottom?

    This week we look at the housing market in some detail. When can we expect it to turn around? Part of the problem is a new wave of foreclosures is coming due, and this time it is not subprime. And that means more problems for the large financial companies. Also, as predicted here, consumer spending is taking a hit as consumers are finding it increasingly difficult to get credit and a deteriorating labor market hits total spending. There are some very interesting details in the data that was released this week. And we take a quick peek at the outlook for inflation. What is in the pipeline, so to speak? It should make for an interesting letter....
  • Earnings and Mr. Bear

    "The stock market is a voting machine in the short run and a weighing machine in the long run." - Benjamin Graham -- The voting part of the equation is tempered by fear and greed. It is largely emotional, although investors like to think of themselves as rational players. That emotion is driven by views of the future. If you can be confident of large and growing returns, you are less likely to be swayed by the erratic movements of a stock. But as confidence wanes? Well, that is the stuff that bear markets are made of. Because at the end of the day, what the market weighs is earnings and the ability of a company to reliably produce them. This week we look at what earnings are likely to be over the next year and see if we can discern what that suggests for the markets. We also take a look at the energy markets, the possibility of a further drop in the price of oil, and muse on what a sane energy policy for the world would look like. There is a lot to cover, but it should make for an interesting letter....
  • Whip Inflation Now

    President Nixon instated price controls on the 15th of August, 1971. Inflation was a little over 4% at the time. Price controls manifestly did not work (resulting in shortages of all sorts and a deep recession) and were rescinded a few years later. President Ford went to Congress with programs to fight inflation that was running closer to 10% in October of 1974, with a speech entitled "Whip Inflation Now" (WIN). He famously urged Americans to wear "WIN" buttons. That policy too was less than effective, and the buttons, in a history replete with silly gestures by governments, should stand on anyone's top ten list of such silly gestures. This week we look at the cost of what could be a renewed effort to Whip Inflation Now, not just here but in countries worldwide. Will Trichet in Europe raise rates even as the European economy seems to be slowing down? If you think inflation is bad in the US and Europe, take a peek at Asia. And I ask, "What will Ben do?" It should make for an interesting letter....
  • When Bubbles Collide

    Today, we have to look at the unemployment numbers, and the connection between the credit crisis and the rise in oil of about $16 dollars a barrel in just two days! If there is still room, the dollar is certainly being pushed and pulled by central bankers, who are also worried about inflation. And I doubt we will have room to cover what is a very important rise in inflation in Asia. It is all connected....
  • The Problem with the Euro

    Last week I wrote that we could see a drop in the price of oil as speculators seemed to be storing oil in very large tankers and "slow steaming" them to port in a bet that prices would rise. When everyone is on the same side of the trade, the time is right for a reversal. This is especially true when there is a large potential supply sitting on the sidelines....
  • Whither the Price of Oil?

    Why has the price of oil risen so much in the past few months? Is it a supply and demand issue as some believe; or is it because of an out-of-control futures market driven by the proliferation of commodity index funds and rampant speculation, as everyone tries to get in on the rise in commodity prices? This is a very complex issue, with a lot of emotion attached to it....
  • Thoughts on the Continuing Crisis

    Thoughts on the Continuing Crisis Margin Clerks of the World, Unite! Where Do We Find New Sources of Credit? In Defense of Alan Greenspan What Now for Gold, Oil, Etc? Baseball, Mexico, and Travel Costs My essay in Outside the Box last Monday seemed to...