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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  • 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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  • Signs of the Top

    The investment media seems obsessed with the question of whether the Fed will taper. The real question should be not about "tapering" but about credibility. What happens when fundamentals become the narrative as opposed to what the central bank is doing? What happens if the Federal Reserve throws a liquidity party and nobody comes? Today we look at some of the fundamentals. The market is in fact overvalued, but that doesn't mean it can't become more overvalued. Is this August 1987 or August 1999?

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  • We Can’t Take the Chance

    What would it have been like to be in the decision-maker's seat at a central bank in the midst of the crisis in 2008-09? You'd know that you won't have the luxury of going back and making better decisions five years later. Instead, you have to act on the torrent of information that's coming at you from every quarter, and none of it is good. Major banks are literally collapsing, the interbank market is almost nonexistent, and there is panic in the air. Perhaps you feel that panic in the pit of your stomach. This week we'll perform a little thought experiment to see if we can extrapolate what is likely to happen in when the next crisis kicks in.

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  • Can It Get Any Better Than This?

    What in the world is going on?! As I write this letter from the Maine woods, the S&P 500 has just cleared 1,700 for the first time. The German DAX continues to set all-time highs above 8,400. The United Kingdom’s FTSE 100 is quickly approaching its 1999 record high of 6,930, and its mid-cap cousin, the FTSE 250, just broke through to its all-time level above 15,000. And last but not least, Japan’s Nikkei 225 is extending its gains once more, toward 14,500. This weekend I am sitting around with some of the smartest economic and trading minds in the country. At Leen's Lodge, where we're fishing and eating where our phones don’t work, the question on our minds is, how long can this run go on? The debates can get intense in a room full of strong opinions.

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  • A Lost Generation

    It is pretty well established that a tax increase, especially an income tax increase, will have an immediate negative effect on the economy, with a multiplier of between 1 and 3 depending upon whose research you accept. As far as I am aware, no peer-reviewed study exists that concludes there will be no negative effects. The US economy is soft; employment growth is weak – and yet we are about to see a significant middle-class tax increase, albeit a stealth one, passed by the current administration. I will acknowledge that dealing a blow to the economy was not the actual plan, but that is what is happening in the real world where you and I live. This week we will briefly look at why weak consumer spending is going to become an even greater problem in the coming years, and we will continue to look at some disturbing trends in employment.

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  • Any Bonds Today?

    By a continuing process of inflation, governments can confiscate, secretly and unobserved, an important part of the wealth of their citizens. By this method, they not only confiscate, but they confiscate arbitrarily; and, while the process impoverishes many, it actually enriches some. The sight of this arbitrary rearrangement of riches strikes not only at security, but at confidence in the equity of the existing distribution of wealth. Those to whom the system brings windfalls . . . become 'profiteers', who are the object of the hatred of the bourgeoisie, whom the inflationism has impoverished not less than the proletariat. As the inflation proceeds . . . all permanent relations between debtors and creditors, which form the ultimate foundation of capitalism, become so utterly disordered as to be almost meaningless….

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  • The Bang! Moment Shock

    What is it about humans that we fail to see a crisis in advance, yet when we look back, its likelihood or inevitability so often seems blindingly obvious? Rather than a flaw, our under-reliance on foresight as opposed to hindsight is perhaps a necessary evolutionary design feature that has allowed us to make rapid progress as a species (especially over the last few thousand years), but in a complex modern society it can really create quite the crisis for individuals. This week we resume our musings about Cyprus, to see what that tiny island can teach us about our own personal need to engage in ongoing critical analysis of our lives and investment portfolios. Cyprus is not Greece or France or Spain or Japan or the US or … (pick a country). I get that. No two situations are the same, but there may be a rhyme or two here that is instructive.

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  • A Venture Investor from Bell Labs Channels the Noise and the Knowledge

    Investors seek that elusive substance called alpha. It is too often remains hidden from them, and instead they find some form of beta, or simply what the market gives everyone. Sometimes, in secular bull markets, that can be plenty and investors feel secure. But in the secular bear cycles investing is a difficult task and one that at the end of the day may find you distressingly close to where you started.

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  • “This Country Is Different”

    I find myself finishing this letter on an island off the coast of Croatia, on the backside of the middle of nowhere. But it is the perfect place to contemplate my recent experience in Cyprus. Through the efforts of your fellow readers, I was able to meet a wide variety of people and have some in-depth discussions on the crisis that has enveloped Cyprus. And while the details are different, of course, there is a pattern to the weave, so to speak, that calls to mind various aspects of the crisis that began in 2008. And perhaps that pattern will give us a glimpse of what else may be coming our way.

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  • Austerity is a Four-Letter French Word

    The France that I see as I look out from the bullet train today is far different from the France I see when I survey the economic data. Going from Marseilles to Paris, the countryside is magnificent. The farms are laid out as if by a landscape artist – this is not the hurly-burly no-nonsense look of the Texas landscape. The mountains and forests that we glide through are glorious. It is a weekend of special music all over France, and last night in Marseilles the stages were alive and the crowds out in force. The French people smile and graciously correct my pidgin attempts at speaking French. I have found it diplomatic not to mention that I think France is in for a very difficult future. Why spoil the party?

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  • Economists Are (Still) Clueless

    US GDP has been slowly ramping up, only to fall back and then try once more to bring us back to the '90s. Stocks markets are volatile but seemingly moving higher in most of the developed world, except for Japan, where the current 20% drop comes hard on the heels of one of their frequent "end of the bear market forever" rallies of almost 90% – how many of those have we seen over the last 24 years? Europe is mostly in recession or Muddling Through with very slow growth. I continue to read from those who know China intimately that there is a real crisis brewing there. And over the last four weeks I have highlighted how desperate the situation is in Japan.

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  • Banzai! Banzai! Banzai!

    As kids, not knowing that we were being politically incorrect on so many levels, we would shout “Geronimo!” when we were playing war or getting ready to do something reckless. (For those not familiar, Geronimo was a rather fearsome Apache chief who plagued Mexico and the American cavalry.) Sam Houston and his fellows cried, “Remember the Alamo!” as they rode down upon Santa Ana at San Jacinto. The British went to battle with “God Save the Queen [or King]!” Confederate soldiers took up the rebel yell as they charged live bullets and fixed bayonets. Every good war movie has its own memorable moment of the battle charge.

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  • Central Bankers Gone Wild

    When Jonathan Tepper and I wrote Endgame some two years ago, the focus was on Europe, but we clearly detailed how Japan would be the true source of global volatility and instability in just a few years. “A Bug in Search of a Windshield” was the title of the chapter on Japan. This year, I wrote in my forecast issue that 2013 would be “The Year of the Windshield.” For the last two weeks we have focused on the problems facing Japan, and such is the importance of Japan to the world economy that this week we will once again turn to the Land of the Rising Sun. I will try to summarize the situation facing the Japanese. This is critical to understand, because they are determined to share their problems with the world, and we will have no choice but to deal with them. Japan is going to affect your economy and your investments, no matter where you live; Japan is that important.

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