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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  • 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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  • The Mother of All Painted-In Corners

    I wrote several years ago that Japan is a bug in search of a windshield. And in January I wrote that 2013 is the Year of the Windshield. The recent volatility in Japanese markets is breathtaking but characteristic of what one should come to expect from a country that is on the brink of fiscal and economic disaster. I don't mean to be trite, from a global perspective; Japan is not Greece: Japan is the third-largest economy in the world. Its biggest banks are on a par with those of the US. It is a global power in trade and trade finance. Its currency has reserve status. It has two of the world’s six largest corporations and 71 of the largest 500, surpassed only by the US and comfortably ahead of China, with 46. Even with the rest of Asia's big companies combined with China's, the total barely surpasses Japan's (CNN). In short, when Japan embarks on a very risky fiscal and monetary strategy, it delivers a serious impact on the rest of the world. And doubly so because global growth is now driven by Asia.

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  • Skills, Education, and Employment

    It is graduation time, and this morning finds me swimming in a sea of fresh young faces as a young friend graduates, along with a thousand classmates. But to what? I concluded my final formal education efforts in late 1974, in the midst of a stagflationary recession, so it was not the best of times to be looking for work. It turned out that I had a far different future ahead of me than I envisioned then. But I would trade places with any of those kids who graduated today, as my vision of the next 40 years is actually very optimistic. With all the advances in healthcare, technology, and communications that have come and will come, they will get to embrace a world full of opportunity; and yet, this generation is starting out with more than just a minor economic handicap.

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  • The QE Sandpile

    Sell in May and go away? What about "risk off?" And ever more QE? Today's letter is a quick note and a reprise of a popular letter from yesteryear (with a bit of new slant), as I am at my conference in Carlsbad.

    But first, I thought I would shoot you a few quick, interesting notes that crossed my desk in the last week. It is almost a ritual for me to mention at this time of year the old investment saw, "Sell in May and go away." It has been surprisingly good advice in most years. My good friend Art Cashin is a curator (and prodigious progenitor) of investment wisdom. He offers these two insights from his research:

    Tomorrow is the beginning of May, so a "Sell in May" review is in order. To avoid reinventing the wheel, let me plagiarize the veteran Jim Brown's synopsis yesterday.

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  • The Cashless Society

    It is a common trope in science fiction novels. Economic transactions are handled seamlessly with a wave of a card or a physically imbedded chip, and whatever the author imagines money to be is transferred, far removed from the archaic confines of ancient physical monies. If you Google "cashless society" you get about 600,000 references in under a second, and 20 pages into the references there are still articles on a future world where physical cash is no longer needed. Some see it as a sign of the "end times," some as a capitalist plot, some as a frightening vision of socialists and ever-bigger governments, and some as a logical step in the evolution of a technologically driven international commerce.

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  • Austerity is a Consequence, not a Punishment

    Two seemingly different questions and comments from readers and friends crossed my path the last few days, but I saw a definite connection between them. The first question was, Why do we pursue austerity when it seems not to work? And then many readers wrote to ask this week, What do I think about the real problems that are surfacing in the Rogoff and Reinhart assertion that debt above a ratio of 90% debt to GDP seems to slow economic growth by 1% (especially since I have quoted that data more than a few times)? We'll deal with each question separately and then see if we can connect the dots.

    The first question comes from correspondence I have had with Ms. Aga Barberini, who works in the investment world in Milan, Italy. She came there from Poland some 20 years ago. The first part of her note contains the question on austerity, but I'll pass along more of her letter, as I think it will give us all some insight into the seeming chaos that voters are facing in choosing a path for Italy. (And I hope my editors leave some of the charming grammar in her letter. You can almost hear the musical tones of her Italian English.)

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  • Assume a Perfect World

    An engineer, a chemist, and an economist are stranded on a deserted island. They are starving, when miraculously they find a box filled with canned food. What to do? They consider the problem, bringing their collective lifetimes of study and discipline to the task.

    Being the practical, straightforward sort, the engineer suggests that they simply find a rock and hit the cans until they break open. “No, no!” cry the chemist and economist, “we would spill too much food and the birds would get it!”

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  • You Can’t Be Serious

    I admit to being surprised by Cyprus. Oh, not the banking crisis or the sovereign debt crisis or the fact that its banks were eight times larger than the country itself or even the fact that the banks were bloated with Greek debt that had been written down. I wrote about all that a long time ago. What surprised me was that all the above was apparently a surprise to European leaders.

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  • Will the Real Unemployed Please Raise Your Hands?

    This week’s letter will be a very short part of a book I am writing with Bill Dunkelberg (the Chief Economist of the National Federation of Independent Businesses) on the future of employment. It has taken longer to write than I initially anticipated, for a host of reasons, chief among which is that the future is not as obvious as I originally thought. Diving into the data has brought a few surprises. It doesn’t help that I have (probably to the frustration of Dunk, although he is way too polite to say it) changed the focus from “merely” what we need to do to create jobs (which is still an important part of the book) to what kinds of jobs will the future bring and who will get them.

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  • Argentina on Sale

    (From Cafayate, Argentina) There are some who worry whether the path that Argentina has taken to monetary ruin on multiple occasions (and that it seems intent on taking again) is one that the US may also find itself on. That worry has crossed my mind a few times, I must confess. Today we will look at Argentina more in depth. From a monetary perspective, it deserves attention. And once again there will be opportunity.

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  • An Infinite Amount of Money

    This week we will look at the mindset that ignores warning signs, and reflect on a hard-to-believe comment from Mayor Bloomberg of New York. It is a teaching moment that does not bode well for my hopeful outcome in the US. Meanwhile in Europe, the risks have been heightened with the recent vote in Italy. We must remember that Italy is the world’s third-largest issuer of bonds – its problems matter on the world stage. While it may all be molto divertente for those of us sitting on the sidelines, the potential consequences are anything but amusing.

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  • The Healthcare Blues

    It has been some time since we peeked into my worry closet. A few questions this weekend prompted me to think about things I am paying attention to but have not written about, and one thing that I am not worried about at all, despite the apparent media hysteria.

    But first, a quick note. My tenth annual Strategic Investment Conference (May 1-3 in Carlsbad, California) seems to be filling up nicely. The speaker lineup is exceptional: Kyle Bass; Ian Bremmer; Mohamed El-Erian; Niall Ferguson and his wife, Ayaan Hirsi Ali; Lacy Hunt; Charles and Louis Gave; Jeff Gundlach; Anatole Kaletsky; David Rosenberg; Nouriel Roubini; and Gary Shilling.

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  • Whatever It Takes

    Was it only a few years ago I visited the Emerald Isle of Ireland? So recently had this fair land come to such a sad state. The collapse of its largest banks foreshadowed the demise of many other European banks that had borrowed money from British, German, and other European banks to lend against homes and property. The Irish government had to guarantee deposits and bond holders in order to prevent a bank run. I think I am correct when I state that the Central Bank of Ireland was the first central bank to avail itself of large-scale use of the Emergency Liquidity Assistance (ELA) provision of the European Central Bank. This was before we became so familiar with the process in Greece.

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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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  • The Good, the Bad, and the Greek (Risks)

    "It seems to me that Europe, especially with the addition of more countries, is becoming ever-more susceptible to any asymmetric shock. Sooner or later, when the global economy hits a real bump, Europe's internal contradictions will tear it apart." – Milton Friedman, 1999

    "… there will be asymmetric shocks hitting the different countries. That will mean that the only adjustment mechanism they have to meet that with is fiscal and unemployment: pressure on wages, pressure on prices." – Milton Friedman, 1998

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