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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  • Prisoner of the Bureaucracy

    I wrote some time ago that Greece had a choice between Disaster A: staying in the euro; and Disaster B: leaving the euro. I have recently come back from four days in Greece, meeting with lots of people at all levels of society, and will share with you in this letter my analysis of their choices and the results. I'll also have a few things to say about what the developments in Greece might mean for the rest of Europe and the developed world.

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  • Forecast 2013: Unsustainability and Transition

    As we begin a new year, we again indulge ourselves in the annual (if somewhat futile) rite of forecasting the year ahead. This year I want to look out a little further than just one year in order to think about the changes that are soon going to be forced on the developed world. We are all going to have to make a very agile adaptation to a new economic environment (and it is one that I will welcome). The transition will offer both crisis and loss for those mired in the current system, which must evolve or perish, and opportunity for those who can see the necessity for change and take advantage of the evolution.

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  • Somewhere Over the Rainbow

    We are 13 years into a secular bear market in the United States. The Nasdaq is still down 40% from its high, and the Dow and S&P 500 are essentially flat. European and Japanese equities have generally fared worse.

    The average secular bear market in the US has been about 11 years, with the shortest to date being four years and the longest 20. Are we at the beginning of a new bull market or another seven years of famine? What sorts of returns should we expect over the coming years from US equities?

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  • Looking on the Bright Side

    It is Christmas Eve and not the time for long letters – just a brief note on why the fiscal cliff is not the End of All Things, and to point out a worthy cause led by some good friends of mine who are helping people who truly have no options in life. And we’ll start things off with a movie review of sorts to launch us into a positive take on the year behind and the year ahead.

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  • Central Bank Insurance

    Possibly, the question I am asked the most is, "What do you think about gold?" While I have written brief bits about the yellow metal, I cannot remember the last time I devoted a full e-letter to the subject of gold. Longtime readers know that I am a steady buyer of gold, but to my mind that is different from being bullish on gold. In this week's letter we will look at some recent research on gold and try to separate some of the myths surrounding gold from the rationale as to why you might want to own some of the "barbarous relic," as Keynes called it. My personal reasons for owning gold have evolved over the years. I will tell you the story of my own journey, and you can decide for yourself whether to think about coming along.

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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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  • Capital Formation and the Fiscal Cliff

    In today's economic environment, we often complain about volatility and uncertainty, but there is one thing I think we can be fairly certain of: taxes are going up. I constantly try to impress upon my kids, most of whom are now adults, that ideas and actions have consequences. In today's letter we will look at some of the consequences of an increase in taxes. Please note that this is different from arguing whether taxes should rise or fall. For all intents and purposes that debate is over. As investors, our job is to deal with reality. We must play the hand we are dealt. Taxation is a complex issue, but let's see if a few word pictures can help us understand what we face.

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  • Where Will the Jobs Come From?

    For the last year, as I travel around, it seems a main topic of conversation is “Where will my kids find jobs?” It is a topic I am all too familiar with. Where indeed? Youth unemployment in the US is 17.1%. If you are in Europe the problem is even more pronounced. The basket case that is Greece has youth unemployment of 58%, and Spain is close at 55%. Portugal is at 36% and in Italy it’s 35%. France is over 25%. Is this just a cyclical symptom of the credit crisis? Much of it clearly is, but I think there is something deeper at work here, an underlying tectonic shift in the foundation of employment. And that means that before we see a true recovery in the unemployment rate, there must be a shift in how we think about work and training for the future of employment. This week is the first of what will be occasional letters over the coming months with an emphasis on employment. (This letter will print a little longer, as there are a lot of charts.)

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  • Central Bank Insurance

    Some argue that the economic and political crisis was worse than before the peg was put in place. By the end of 2002, the economy had contracted by 20% since 1998. Over the course of two years, output fell by more than 15%, the Argentine peso lost three-quarters of its value, and registered unemployment exceeded 25%. Income poverty in Argentina grew from an already high 35.4% in October 2001 to a peak of 54.3% in October 2002. To say things were volatile is an understatement: Argentina had five presidents in two weeks.

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  • Three Men Make a Tiger

    In a few hours we will know the outcome of the US elections (hopefully without a repeat of 2000!). So, given that eventuality, why should we bother to explore the rather significant disparity in the models being used to create the polls to predict the outcome of the elections? Because doing so will help us understand why the models we use to predict the effects on our investments of market behavior and macroeconomics so often fail us, and why we should approach the use of such models with a full measure of wariness and skepticism. Yet, at the same time, we should understand when the models may actually be useful, and how to use them.

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  • The Quest for Certainty

    The last two weeks we have been looking at the problems with models. First we touched on what I called the Economic Singularity. In physics a singularity is where the mathematical models no longer work. For example, models based on the physics of relativity no longer work if one gets too close to a black hole. If we think of too much debt as a black hole of sorts, we may understand why economic models no longer work. Last week, in “The Perils of Fiscal Cliff,” we looked at the use of fiscal multipliers by economists in order to argue for or against governmental economic policies. Do you argue for austerity, or against it? There is a model that will support your case, most likely using the same data that your adversary uses.

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  • The Perils of the Fiscal Cliff

    Having been to all the countries listed above, with the exception of Uganda (although I have been to 15 countries in Africa, several bordering Uganda), I am most happy to confirm that they are all different. Just as you would grant me the fact that the US is not the UK and that France is not Argentina. To paraphrase Tolstoy, dysfunctional countries come by their unhappy sets of circumstances in their own individual ways.

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  • Economic Singularity

    "Concern about politics and the processes of international co-operation is warranted but the best one can hope for from politics in any country is that it will drive rational responses to serious problems. If there is no consensus on the causes or solutions to serious problems, it is unreasonable to ask a political system to implement forceful actions in a sustained way. Unfortunately, this is to an important extent the case with respect to current economic difficulties, especially in the industrial world.

    "While there is agreement on the need for more growth and job creation in the short run and on containing the accumulation of debt in the long run, there are deep differences of opinion both within and across countries as to how this can be accomplished. What might be labelled the 'orthodox view' attributes much of our current difficulty to excess borrowing by the public and private sectors, emphasises the need to contain debt, puts a premium on credibly austere fiscal and monetary policies, and stresses the need for long-term structural measures rather than short-term demand-oriented steps to promote growth.

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  • The Unemployment Surprise

    The unemployment number surprisingly dropped to 7.8% last Friday, and the shoot-from-the-hip crowd came out in force. To say that the jobs report was met with skepticism would be a serious understatement. The response that got the most immediate airplay was ex-GE CEO Jack Welch (who knows a few things about making a number say what you want it to say) tweeting, "Unbelievable job numbers ... these Chicago guys will do anything ... can't debate so change numbers."

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  • Uncertainty and Risk in the Suicide Pool

    For the past 80 years, we have created ever more sophisticated models of risk in the economic and investment worlds. With each new tool we create to measure risk, we seem to think we have somehow gained more control over our future. Paradoxically, we appear to believe that the more we understand risk, the more we can somehow control our exposure to it. The more we build elaborate models and see correlations between events and the performance of our investments and the economy, the more confident we become.

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