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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  • Bubbles, Bubbles Everywhere

    You can almost feel it in the air. The froth and foam on markets of all shapes and sizes all over the world. It’s exhilarating, and the pundits who populate the media outlets are bubbling over. There’s nothing like a rising market to lift our moods. 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 it high and then bail out before it bursts? Research says we all think that we are, yet we rarely demonstrate the actual ability.

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  • Transformation or Bust

    China continues to be front and center on my list of concerns, even moreso than the latest Federal Reserve press release or fluctuation in the Dow (although you should pay attention). I believe China is the single biggest risk to world economic equilibrium, even larger than Japan or Europe. This week my young associate Worth Wray provides us with a keenly insightful essay on what is currently happening in China. I will admit to not having written about China very much in the past five years, primarily because, prior to Worth’s coming to work with me I really had no secure understanding of what was happening there. I know some readers may be surprised, but I really don’t like to write about things I have no understanding of. Worth has helped me focus. (It helps that he studied Mandarin and lived in China for a while, and is obsessed with China.)

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  • Time to Put a New Economic Tool in the Box

    Last week we took a deep dive into how the concept of GDP (gross domestic product) came about. We looked at some of the controversies surrounding GDP statistics that we use to measure the growth of the economy, and we noted that the GDP tool seems designed to reflect and serve an economic theory (Keynesianism) that prefers to focus on the demand side of economic activity. If your measurement of the growth of the economy is entirely defined by final consumption (that is, consumer spending) and government spending, then if you want to try to improve growth you are left with just two policy dials to adjust..

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  • Central Bank Smackdown

    The term “smackdown” was first used by professional wrestler Dwayne Johnson (AKA The Rock) in 1997. Ten years later its use had become so ubiquitous that Merriam-Webster felt compelled to add it to their lexicon. It may be Dwayne Johnson’s enduring contribution to Western civilization, notwithstanding and apart from his roles in The Fast and The Furious movie series. All that said, it is quite the useful word for talking about confrontations that are more for show than actual physical altercations.

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  • The New Normal of Healthcare Spending

    Last year I was one of the very few who suggested that the implementation of Obamacare could cause a recession (see more below). Such a suggestion was universally dismissed by all right-thinking economists, and for very good reasons based in sound economic theory, I might add. But sometimes the real world neglects to adhere to our models and theories, and that was my concern.

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  • Italy: When Hope Is a Strategy

    I came back from Italy this week, and one of my guilty pleasures was being able to sit down and watch the last three episodes, including the season finale, of Game of Thrones. For those readers who are not enthralled with the fantasy epic from HBO or have not read the first five books (will he ever finish?), author George R.R. Martin has written one of the most complex fantasy series ever, about a world where everyone is occupied with who will sit on the Iron Throne.

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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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