Thoughts From The Frontline

This highly acclaimed blog is primarily focused on private money management, financial services, and investments. John Mauldin demonstrates an unusual breadth of expertise, as illustrated by the wide variety of issues addressed in-depth in his writings.

Thoughts From The Frontline

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  • The Age of Transformation

    One of the many luxuries that my readers have afforded me over the years is their willingness to allow me to explore a wide variety of topics. Not all writers are so blessed, and their output and responses to it tend to stay focused on specific, often quite narrow topics. While this approach allows them to dig very deep into particular subject matter, it can reduce the total scope of their research, vision, and advice. But don’t get me wrong; these types of letters are very important. I benefit greatly from being a subscriber to a number of letters that give me detailed analysis for which I simply don’t have the time to do the research. There’s just too much going on in the world today for any of us to be an expert in more than a few areas.

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  • Can Central Planners Revive China’s Economic Miracle?

    For years, when asked whether I thought China would experience a hard landing, I would simply answer, “I don't understand China. Making a prediction would be pretending that I did, so I can’t.” The problem is that today China is the most significant macroeconomic wildcard in the global economy. To understand both the risks and the potentials for the future you have to reach some understanding of what is happening in China today. Last week we started a two-part series on what my young associate Worth Wray and I feel is the significant systemic risk that China poses to global growth.

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  • Looking at the Middle Kingdom with Fresh Eyes

    One of the few consensus ideas that I took away from the Strategic Investment Conference is that China has the potential to become a real problem. It seemed to me that almost everyone who addressed the topic was either seriously alarmed at the extent of China’s troubles or merely very worried. Perhaps it was the particular group of speakers we had, but no one was sanguine. If you recall, a few weeks back I introduced my young colleague and protégé Worth Wray to you; and his inaugural Thoughts from the Frontline focused on China, a topic on which he is well-versed, having lived and studied there. Our conversations often center on China and emerging markets (and we tend to talk and write to each other a lot). While I’m on the road, Worth is once again visiting China in this week’s letter, summing up our research and contributing his own unique style and passion. I think regular TFTF readers are going to enjoy Worth’s occasional missives and will want to see more of them over time. Now, let’s turn it over to my able young Cajun friend.

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  • A Bubble In Complacency

    I and many others are still trying to digest the massive amount of useful and original information that was offered at last week’s Strategic Investment Conference. In this week’s letter I want to recap some of what I learned but do so in a little different manner. I find it quite instructive to listen to and read what other people have to say about their takeaways from the conference. I have come across several very good summaries and reviews that I am going to excerpt rather liberally, along with sharing some of my own thoughts.

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  • Special Updates from the Strategic Investment Conference

    Day 1 started off with the king of modern-day economists, David Rosenberg, who goes on ruffling a lot of feathers. Rather than obsessing over whether the state of the global economy is good or bad, Dave challenged us to see beyond the deflationary headwinds and focus on how things are changing at the margin. Markets move as things get better or worse; and at the margin, Dave argues, inflation pressures are building. I know this sounds odd to a lot of us who are still worried about deflation; but Dave notes that out of 140MM workers in the large, insulated US economy, roughly 40MM higher-skilled workers have the bargaining power to push wages higher and turn the inflationary dial… even as low- and medium-skilled workers see their wages decline.

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  • Are Valuations Really Too High?

    The older I get and the more I research and study, the more convinced I become that one of the more important traits of a good investor or businessman is not simply to come up with the right answer but to be able to ask the right question. The questions we ask often reveal the biases in our thinking, and we are all prone to what behavioral psychologists call confirmation bias: we tend to look for (and thus to see, and to ask about) things that confirm our current thinking.

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  • A Yen for a Mortgage

    For some time I have been saying that I was going to close the mortgage on my new apartment and then hedge it in yen. I promised to tell you the story, including what type of loan I got and how I am doing the hedge. This week I was finally able to pull the trigger. This topic will also let us re-examine why I think the Japanese yen is a screaming short. I am going to make this a shorter letter, as Amsterdam is calling, and it is a beautiful day. This is not a big think piece, but I think many of you will find it interesting. It outlines how I put my economic thinking into actual practice, and names names, if you will, of those who helped me do it.

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  • The Cost of Code Red

    Too often we as investors (and economists) are like the generals who are always fighting the last war. We look at bank balance sheets (except those of Europe and China), corporate balance sheets, sovereign bond spreads and yields, and say it isn’t likely that we will repeat this mistakes which led to 2008. And I smile and say, “You are absolutely right; we are not going to repeat those mistakes. We learned our lessons. Now we are going to make entirely new mistakes.” And while the root cause of the problems, then and now, may be the same – central bank policy – the outcome will be somewhat different. But a crisis by any other name will still be uncomfortable.

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  • Every Central Bank for Itself

    For the last 25 days I’ve been traveling in Argentina and South Africa, two countries whose economies can only be described as fragile, though for very different reasons. Emerging-market countries face a significantly different set of challenges than the developed world does. These challenges are compounded by the rather indifferent policies of developed-world central banks, which are (even if somewhat understandably) entirely self-centered. Argentina has brought its problems upon itself, but South Africa can somewhat justifiably express frustration at the developed world, which, as one emerging-market central bank leader suggests, is engaged in a covert currency war, one where the casualties are the result of unintended consequences. But the effects are nonetheless real if you’re an emerging-market country.

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  • The Lions in the Grass, Revisited

    I’ve come to South Africa a little bit ahead of my speaking tour next week to spend a few days “on safari.” Which is another way to say that I am comfortably ensconced in a game lodge next to Kruger Park, relaxing and trying to get some time to think. We’ve been reasonably lucky on the game runs: besides the usual lions, rhinoceri, water buffalo, etc., we’ve seen both cheetah and leopard, two animals that avoided my vicinity on every other trip to Africa. I’m here at the end of the rainy season, so everything is lush and green, and you have to get a little lucky to find the animals in the dense bush.

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  • When Inequality Isn’t

    Plutarch argued over 1900 years ago that it was income inequality that lay at the heart of the failure of the Greek republics. Other writings of that period demonstrate that the leaders were worried about the distribution of wealth in society. The causes of unequal distribution have certainly changed over time, but it seems to be built into our DNA to obsess over what we have relative to what others have.

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  • China’s Minsky Moment?

    In speeches and presentations since the end of last year, I have been saying that I think the biggest macro problem in the world today is China. China has run up a huge debt, and the payments are coming due. They seem to be proactive, but will it be enough? How much risk do they pose for the global system?

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  • Inequality and Opportunity

    Income inequality is going to be a central theme in political campaigns for the rest of the decade, so what I want to try to do is simply get some facts on the table so that at least we know what the research says and doesn’t say. A lot of emotional content is offered under the guise of economic research in order to support various political positions. The data suggest that the problem is both worse than we might think when viewed through one lens, and not that big a problem – or at least a very different problem – when viewed through another. I suggest that we look as objectively as possible at all of the data and not just cherry-pick the data that supports our views.

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  • The Problem with Keynesianism

    I think Lord Keynes himself would appreciate the irony that he has become the defunct economist under whose influence the academic and bureaucratic classes now toil, slaves to what has become as much a religious belief system as it is an economic theory. Men and women who display an appropriate amount of skepticism on all manner of other topics indiscriminately funnel a wide assortment of facts and data through the filter of Keynesianism without ever questioning its basic assumptions. And then some of them go on to prescribe government policies that have profound effects upon the citizens of their nations.

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  • Black Swans and Endogenous Uncertainty

    John is in Florida and feeling a bit under the weather, so this week we’re bringing back one of his most popular letters, from December 2007. In the letter he discusses the work of Professor Graciela Chichilnisky of Columbia University, one of whose key insights is that the greater the number of connections within an economic network, the more the system is at risk. Given the current macroeconomic environment, it is important to remind ourselves of how complacent we were back in 2007 and how it all fell apart so quickly, just as John outlined in this rather prescient piece.

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