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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  • Arsonists Running the Fire Brigade

    Six years ago I hosted my first Thanksgiving in a Dallas high-rise, and my then-90-year-old mother came to celebrate, along with about 25 other family members and friends. We were ensconced in the 21st floor penthouse, carousing merrily, when the fire alarms went off and fire trucks began to descend on the building. There was indeed a fire, and we had to carry my poor mother down 21 flights of stairs through smoke and chaos as the firemen rushed to put out the fire. So much for the advanced fire-sprinkler system, which failed to work correctly.

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  • Game of Thrones – European Style

    In 2009-10 it seemed like this letter was all Europe all the time. There was a never-ending crisis from one corner of the Continent to the other. That time seems to have slowly faded from our collective consciousness, but the Eurozone crisis is not over, and it will not end quickly or soon. Even if it seems to unfold in slow motion – like the slow build-up in a Game of Thrones storyline to violent internecine clashes followed by more slow plot developments but never any real resolution, the Eurozone debacle has never really gone away. The structural imbalances have still not been fixed; politicians and central bankers have still not agreed to solve major fiscal problems; the overall economy still disintegrates; unemployment is staggeringly high in some countries and still rising; and the people are growing restless.

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  • The Unintended Consequences of ZIRP

    Yellen's coronation was this week. Art Cashin mused that it was a wonder some senator did not bring her a corsage: it was that type of confirmation hearing. There were a few interesting questions and answers, but by and large we heard what we already knew. And what we know is that monetary policy is going to be aggressively biased to the easy side for years, or at least that is the current plan. Far more revealing than the testimony we heard on Thursday were the two very important papers that were released last week by the two most senior and respected Federal Reserve staff economists. As Jan Hatzius at Goldman Sachs reasoned, it is not credible to believe that these papers and the thinking that went into them were not broadly approved by both Ben Bernanke and Janet Yellen.

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  • What Would Yellen Do?

    The US Senate Banking Committee will hold hearings on Thursday, November 14, on the nomination of Janet Yellen for Federal Reserve chair. There will be the usual softball questions, for example, "Do you think high unemployment is a problem in the United States and if so what do you intend to do about it?" (which allows a senator to express his concern over unemployment and for the nominee to agree that it's a problem). Or the always popular question, "What is the basis under which you would continue to hold interest rates at their current low level?" – as if she would answer anything other than, "Any future policy decision is of course data-dependent" or some variation on that response. Boring.

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  • Bubbles, Bubbles Everywhere

    You can almost feel it in the fall air (unless you are in the Southern Hemisphere). The froth and foam on markets of all shapes and sizes all over the world. It is an exhilarating feeling, and the pundits who populate the media outlets are bubbling over with it. There is nothing like a rising market to help lift our mood. Unless of course, as Prof. Kindleberger famously cautioned (see below), we are not participating in that rising market. Then we feel like losers. But what if the rising market is … a bubble? Are we smart enough to ride and then step aside before it bursts? Research says we all think that we are, yet we rarely demonstrate the actual ability.

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  • A Code Red World

    I wasn't the only person coming out with a book this week (much more on that at the end of the letter). Alan Greenspan hit the street with The Map and the Territory. Greenspan left Bernanke and Yellen a map, all right, but in many ways the Fed (along with central banks worldwide) proceeded to throw the map away and march off into totally unexplored territory. Under pressure since the Great Recession hit in 2007, they abandoned traditional monetary policy principles in favor of a new direction: print, buy, and hope that growth will follow. If aggressive asset purchases fail to promote growth, Chairman Bernanke and his disciples (soon to be Janet Yellen and the boys) respond by upping the pace. That was appropriate in 2008 and 2009 and maybe even in 2010, but not today.

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  • The Damage to the US Brand

    There is no doubt that the image – what I will refer to in this letter as the "brand" – of the United States has been damaged in the past month. But what are the actual costs? And what does it matter to the average citizen? Can the US recover its tarnished image and go on about business as usual? Is the recent dysfunction in Washington DC now behind us, or is it destined to become part of a bleaker landscape? In this week's letter we try to answer those questions and more, as I step firmly into politically incorrect territory and offer a little advice to my junior senator from Texas. If nothing else, we will look at the problems we face in a different light.

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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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  • The Road to a New Medical Order

    There is no doubt that the single most contentious topic I can bring up in a small group discussion or speech is the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare. You can feel the tension rise, as everyone has an opinion they want to express – most of them based essentially on preconceived philosophical positions, nearly all of which can be can seen through their own eyes as reasonable and consistent with civilized behavior. And the facts that can be trotted out to support their positions, pro and con, could fill up a document almost as long as the original 2,300+ page bill. I have avoided writing about the Affordable Care Act (ACA) for a variety of reasons but primarily because it is so difficult for us to get our heads around the economic implications.

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  • The Renminbi: Soon to Be a Reserve Currency?

    I get the question all the time: when will the Chinese renminbi (RMB) replace the US dollar as the major world reserve currency? The assumption behind such questions is almost always that the coming crisis in US entitlement programs will force the Fed to monetize even more debt, thereby killing the dollar. Or some derivative line of that thought. Contrary to the thinking of fretful dollar skeptics, my firm belief is that the US dollar is going to become even stronger and will at some point actually deserve to be the reserve currency of choice rather than merely the prettiest girl in the ugly contest – the last currency standing, so to speak.

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  • Rich City, Poor City

    For the past two weeks we've been exploring the problems of state pension funds. This week we will conclude our look at pension plans for the nonce with a 30,000-foot overview of the states and then take a deeper dive into one city: mine. This will give you at least one version of how to do your own homework about your own hometown. But fair warning, depending on your locale, you may need medical help or significant quantities of an adult beverage after you finish your research. Then again you may be pleasantly surprised and congratulate yourself on choosing a particularly adept hometown. And be on notice that, no matter what your personal conclusion and how well-grounded your analysis is, there will be people who live in your neighborhood who think you are utterly full of, well, let's just say "nonsensical matter" and leave it at that. This is a family letter.

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  • Nothing But Bad Choices

    With a few exceptions here and there, crises in government funding don't simply arrive on the doorstep unannounced. Their progress toward the eventual Bang! moment is there for all the world to see. What final misdeed triggers the ultimate phase of the crisis is less predictable, but the root cause is almost always the same: debt. And whether that debt is actually borrowed or is merely promised to the populace, when the market becomes worried that the ability of the government to fund its promises is suspect, then the end is near. Last week we began a series on what I think is an impending crisis in the unfunded pension liabilities of state and local governments in the United States.

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  • Unrealistic Expectations

    Way back in the Paleozoic era (as far as markets are concerned), circa 2003, I wrote in this letter and in Bull's Eye Investing that the pension liabilities of state and municipal plans would soon top $2 trillion. This was of course far above the stated actuarial claims at the time, and I was seen as such a pessimist. Everyone knew that the market would compound at 9%, so any problems were just a rounding error.

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  • How Do I Hate Thee?

    When I was growing up, Labor Day always marked the official end of summer, since we started school the next day. These days everyone seems to start school sometime in August, but for those of us of a certain age, the natural annual rhythm is still to see the last few days of August as the end of a carefree summer. So with a nod to your need for a little more summer relaxation, I will try to keep this letter shorter than usual. And with apologies to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, I will list a number of reasons why I hate this market and then suggest a few reasons why that should get you excited. We will look at some charts, and I'll briefly comment on them. No deep dives this week, just a survey of the general landscape.

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  • France: On the Edge of the Periphery

    Recently there have been a spate of horrific train wrecks in the news. Almost inevitably we find out there was human error involved. Almost four years ago I began writing about the coming train wreck that was Europe and specifically Greece. It was clear from the numbers that Greece would have to default, and I thought at the time that Portugal would not be too far behind. Spain and Italy clearly needed massive restructuring. Part of the problem I highlighted was the significant imbalance between exports and imports in all of the above countries.

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