Are you sure you should be doing that?

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Panzner: data opacity - fear of the financial truth?

The Federal Reserve stopped publishing its M3 data (the widest definition of the money supply) from 23 March 2006, and this occasioned much suspicious comment.

Now, in two posts on his Financial Armageddon website (27 and 29 June), Michael Panzner writes about the lack of transparency in the Bear Stearns sub-prime mortgage debacle, and the failure of credit rating agencies to downgrade Bear Stearns bonds.

It always looks bad if the doctor won't tell you how you're doing.

A weakening dollar means lower US living standards

Addison Wiggin in yesterday's The Daily Reckoning Australia spells out how the dollar, US debt and declining American living standards are related. Some will contest this proposition fiercely - have a look at the recent globalization thread on Cafe Hayek, for example.

For those who read the bruising commentaries (this seems to be typical of blog-related correspondence), I did look at the articles to which LowCountryJoe referred me, but the first only makes clear what a fiat currency is, and the second theorized that all currencies must originally have had some intrinsic value. Neither of these articles disproves the bears' contention that there is a horrible temptation to inflate fiat currencies for temporary advantage, and that the end result is a flight from those currencies. We shall have to see.

It's an ill wind...

A funny piece by Tim Hanson in The Motley Fool for June 26. He makes the point that travelling to a place may not change the facts, but can change your perspective, and he is bullish on some sectors of China stocks.

As you might expect, given that the outgoing tide of wealth from the West is rising in the East and floating Chinese boats. They will bob up and down, and some may tip over, but that seems to be the trend.

Richard Duncan's worry is that the ever-inflating dollar is causing the markets to operate inefficiently, so that China's rise may be preceded by a crisis that creates a long and deep global slump. I really must post a summary of his book soon.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Richard Daughty becomes spotty

Another entertaining rant from Richard Daughty, aka The Mogambo Guru. He passes on to us a sighting of Hindenburg Omens (see Investopedia definition here), raves about credit creation, and finally breaks out in sunspots...

Apparently several different sunspot cycles can be correlated with variations in marine life productivity, and the biggest threat to the environment since 200 years ago is a predicted global cooling, starting in 2020. Read the Financial Post article here and Melanie Phillips' related eco-contrarian article here.

More on railroads, Buffett, Soros

Further to the last post, the Santa Fe railway is now owned by Burlington Northern (BNI), in which Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway has recently increased its stake to over 10%; and this 2002 article in the Observer reveals that George Soros worked as a railway porter. I expect Soros has his hard-headed reasons for his own investment, but it's hard to rid yourself of the love of choo-choos.

Soros' views as summarised in the Observer article resonate today:

His basic arguments remain the same - that centralised institutions need strengthening as a political counterweight to economic globalisation; financial markets are inherently unstable; and there is an inbuilt inequity, or centre-periphery, problem.

...he is examining the minutiae of the workings of the World Trade Organisation, and statistics on capital flows to developing countries.

...there is no level playing field in the world economy. The rules of the game favour the rich, or 'centre', countries. 'Within the well-developed global markets, the centre has a considerable advantage over the periphery because the centre is in charge. And contrary to the false ideology of market fundamentalism, financial markets do not tend towards equilibrium, they need to be managed. So whoever is in charge has a distinct advantage,' he says.

He says conditions set by the IMF during financial crises tend to reinforce boom-and-bust cycles. 'They push countries into recessions by forcing them to raise interest rates and cut budgets - exactly the opposite of what the US is doing in similar circumstances,' he writes in the new book. [i.e. "On Globalization"]

He is also critical of the US obsession with 'moral hazard' - that intervening in financial crises rewards incompetent investors. Bailing-in private investors has replaced bailing-out crisis-ridden countries, he argues. Such policies are building a 'new Maginot line', fighting yesterday's war against credit crises rather than focusing on the real problem of the calamitous collapse in investment flows to developing countries.

Buffett, Soros, railways - a thought

Many years ago, I read a series of books by a financial expert calling himself "Adam Smith". In one, he spoke to an investment manager who had bought a holding in a railway, I think the Santa Fe, and asked him why so, since the company was somewhere around bankrupt. The manager replied that he was looking at the value of the tangible assets still owned by the company - land, rolling stock etc.

Railways tend to own a lot more land than the bit the rails run on. Is this a reason for Buffett and Soros to have gotten into that kind of business?

Not yet, the crash - Puru Saxena

Puru Saxena submits "The Solitary Bear" in today's Daily Reckoning Australia. He agrees with Marc Faber that there's bubbles in equities and commodities, but thinks we have some years yet before the crisis hits.

This is because he can't see central bankers having the virility to raise interest rates sufficiently to curb inflation, which is rotting savers' money (the "solitary bear" market being cash). Why the reluctance? "The central banks know full well that with debt at its current level, such drastic measures would probably cause a global depression, widespread unemployment and social unrest. So, they will try and avoid or delay this outcome as much as possible..."

We're practically forced to invest in something. The danger, particularly for small guys, is not knowing when to head for the exit, ahead of the rest of the panicky crowd. It's a tough one:

"...investors will have to become more selective when making decisions and deploying their capital. For maximum success and safety, I would urge you to invest your capital during pullbacks whilst avoiding overstretched markets. Despite all the talk of "doom and gloom", this strategy should continue to deliver reasonable returns in the period ahead."

I wonder whether the "gloom and doom" is in part an oblique reference to Marc Faber, whose website is self-deprecatingly named gloomboomdoom.com. See Faber's comments in the Market Oracle round-table discussion yesterday (previous post) - he, too, admits he can't call the turn but forecasts a continuing rise in equities (except maybe emerging markets) relative to cash - but not a rise in real terms. Faber is looking, I suspect, for quiet bargains in commodities and resources, e.g. low-priced agricultural land.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Marc Faber: bonds turning bearish, stocks to lose real value

Marc Faber and others give their investment views today on The Market Oracle. A quote from Faber:

We are now at the onset of a major bear market in bonds worldwide that should bring interest rates above the level in 1981 when US Treasuries were yielding over 15 per cent. But this process will take at least 10 years. In this environment stocks will not do well in real terms but will rise in nominal terms. How high will depend on (US Federal Reserve chairman Ben) Bernanke's money printing presses.

I think I have already suggested that, adjusted for inflation, stockmarkets have already fallen far below their 1999 positions, and this looks like confirmation that more of the same is expected.

Is gold a bargain?

In Monday's The Daily Reckoning, Richard Daughty notes that annually, the US is creating 24 times more new money than the world is producing in new gold at current prices, and he comes to the obvious conclusion: "Planetary Super Bargain".

But there are other ways to do the figures. The same edition of TDR reveals that we already have 150,000 tonnes of gold above ground, so 2,500 new-mined tonnes per year represents 1.67% p.a., compared with the 12% increase in the US M3 money supply. Okay, that looks like a mismatch of supply and potential demand, but this particular ratio is 7.2 times, rather than 24.

Another thought: gold and paper notes are not the only two things in the economy. People have other things to spend their money on, such as their rapidly-growing debts. And if we accept the worst-case future scenario, maybe tins of baked beans and boxes of ammunition will be in even greater demand.

Also, how far has the gold price already factored-in inflation? Using figures from Kitco.com's website, I've compared the average London PM fix in June 2002 with today's New York spot price. Per ounce, gold has gone from $356.53 to $642.50 in 5 years, a rise of around 80% overall. This equates to some 12.5% compound per annum - rather similar to the M3 figure previously quoted. So maybe gold is doing its traditional thing of storing value, more or less, rather than being a sort of asset Cinderella about to hit the big time.

But then again, I could be wrong.

Making money out of disaster?

The Contrarian Investors' Journal concludes its series on exploiting the possibility of a crash, by suggesting a series of short-term bets on the drop. It's a gamble, of course, but appeals to the Black Swan types who look for an "asymmetric outcome" - a disproportionately large payoff if the unlikely event happens. In other words, if the event has 100-1 odds against occurring, but the bet is offering 500-1, it seems worth taking - if you're a gambler.

But there's another risk involved: the "bookie" may not be willing, or able, to pay out. A prudent investor should consider counterparty risk.

More credible warnings

The Bank for International Settlements is joining its voice to the chorus, warning of excesses and a Thirties-style crash, as reported in the Wall Street Journal for 25 June.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Double indemnity

Dan Atkinson in the Mail on Sunday begins with what seems to be praise for the Chancellor's control of the economy, but goes on to note our growing indebtedness. The Bank of England figures he cites, comparing January 2000 with April 2007, show an increase in combined mortgage and consumer debt of around 116%; earnings rose only 31.7% over the same period.

To put it another way, as I calculate it, average indebtedness, adjusted for earnings, has increased by 63.9%. That's an awful lot of future spending power thrown away. The UK appears to have similar problems to the USA.

Crisis report from a very credible source

I looked up an important official today, of whom most of us may not have heard. His job is to review on government spending and report to Parliament. His name is Sir John Bourn and his title is the Comptroller and Auditor General, at the National Audit Office.

Now imagine that this person was so worried about the unravelling of the country's finances that he began touring the country, warning the general public and trying to get the issue onto the agenda for the General Election. I think you'd start to worry, too.

This is exactly what's been happening in the USA, as commented on by Michael Panzner in his website. David M Walker, the Comptroller General, has been playing Cassandra for months. To see the 60 Minutes video about this man, click here.

Could someone tell me the situation here in the UK? We don't seem to have such frank and authoritative public discussion as in the US.

UPDATE

In the CBS video, David Walker notes not only the expense of US medical care, but how many people are uninsured, and the rate of medical error. If you'll also read some of my comments in the globalization thread on Cafe Hayek, you'll see I'm of the view that we should start taking better care of ourselves, rather than trust to Dr Kilpatient.

Planning for the crash

The Contrarian Investor's Journal reveals Part 3 of its thoughts on the crash-to-come, and addresses the dilemma of whether we are to prepare for inflation, or deflation.

I think I agree with the writer's analysis that it may play out as follows:

1. The current inflation will continue until some big scare or crisis starts the run
2. Then there will be deflation, but governments will try to get out of it by printing even more money
3. Printing more money won't work, because people will have lost faith in the currency, so (if you follow the link provided by the writer) we will eventually get to a surge in the price of gold

But we don't know when stage 1 will end, and holding cash may reduce your wealth relative to other assets. So where do you invest?

Buying gold now may mean a long wait before the market comes round to your point of view (if it ever does) and as some (e.g. Peter Schiff) have pointed out, even if you're right, you may find the government forces you to give up your gold, as it did before.

Houses are overpriced, but rather than a general sell-off of real estate I could imagine a long period of house price stagnation, with people staying put if possible. You haven't lost money till you've sold, or the bank has forced you to sell. If you really have nerve, you might sell, live in a tent and buy a bargain when (if!) the housing market tanks - but would your partner agree? Christopher Fildes was suggesting (in the Spectator magazine) moving into a hotel, some years ago - but look at what's happened to London house prices since then.

Some businesses continue even during a depression, if they provide essential services. It's interesting that Warren Buffett and George Soros have both bought into railways recently.

I can't call the play - personally, I am looking to reduce debt and trim personal expenditure, increase cash savings, and otherwise invest with a weather eye on the macroeconomic situation.

Globalisation - is it having an impact on our wealth?

Please see this article on wages and fringe benefits in the US, in which the free-marketers try to show that free trade has not made American wage-earners worse off. I put in a few comments to suggest that healthcare is not a benefit in the same way as cash. I also try to disturb the free-traders' complacency about globalisation.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

On the bright side

Time to count our blessings. Here's an essay by Don Boudreaux of the "Cafe Hayek" blog, showing how much wealthier we are than we used to be. And that was 7 years ago.

Nassim Taleb on "Black Swans"

A very interesting article today in The Daily Reckoning Australia by Nassim Taleb, on asymmetric outcomes.

As the Daily Reckoning put it on May 14th, "...the importance of any event is equal to the likelihood TIMES the consequences." Most people underestimate the impact of rare events and so their risk calculations are skewed.

They may also miscalculate the probability of such an event occurring. I believe this was a factor in the 1986 Space Shuttle disaster. As Wikipedia puts it:

...NASA's organizational culture and decision-making processes had been a key contributing factor to the accident. NASA managers had known that [the] design of the [booster rockets] contained a potentially catastrophic flaw, but they failed to address it properly. They also ignored warnings from engineers about the dangers of launching on such a cold day and had failed to adequately report these technical concerns to their superiors.

We could use this a metaphor for the economic system and its technical risks, of which some of our bears continue to warn.

Further concern re derivatives

The Contrarian Investor's Journal continues its series on crash preparation. Part 1 showed how you could lose your shirt on shorts; now part 2 sounds a warning on derivatives - like Peter Schiff, Michael Panzner and Richard Bookstaber.

Michael Panzner: risky lending and expert complacency

Michael Panzner usefully quotes and comments on an article in the Wall Street Journal (the WSJ online edition charges a fee). The piece is by Steven Rattner, a private equity investment manager, and its theme is risky lending. Here are a couple of snippets:

In 2006, a record 20.9% of new high-yield lending was to particularly credit-challenged borrowers, those with at least one rating starting with a "C." So far this year, that figure is at 33%... money is available today in quantities, at prices and on terms never before seen in the 100-plus years since U.S. financial markets reached full flower...

...The surge in junk loans has also been fueled by a worldwide glut of liquidity that has descended more forcefully on lending than on equity investing. Curiously, investors seem quite content these days to receive de minimis compensation for financing edgy companies, while simultaneously fearing equity markets. The price-to-earnings ratio for the S&P 500 index is currently hovering right around its 20-year average of 16.4, leagues below the 29.3 times it reached at the height of the last great equity bubble in 2000.

Some portion of this phenomenon seems to reflect tastes in Asia and elsewhere, where much of the excess liquidity resides: Foreign investors own only about 13% of U.S. equities but 43% of Treasury debt.

I think this tends to support what I suggested yesterday. The tide of money has not risen evenly on all shores - in real terms, equities have failed to keep up. Some bearishness is now already built into the price of shares.

But not, perhaps, sufficient bearishness, so the market is not an accurate measure of the health of the economy. Much investment wealth is in the hands of the over-50s, the golden generation who had good pensions and in many cases got early retirement. They also rode the inflation train on their houses and have paid off their mortgages. At least in my country, many of that generation don't bother to keep a close eye on their investments, because they don't depend on them much. For them, ignorance is bliss.

For institutional investors, ignorance is well-paid. That's putting it a little harshly, but Panzner's piece, and his most recent post, comment on the complacency of analysts and investment managers, suggesting that it may be self-serving (when do they tell you to cash-in?). Besides, many are relatively young, so their optimism is supported by a lack of direct experience of truly dark days, and by the general health and strength of youth. When the market drops, they will look for what they think are support levels and buy-in for the long term. Bad markets often see a transfer of investments from private to institutional investors, I believe; it's a kind of vampirism. The average private investor sells too late, and buys too late.

But institutional support may explain why a major equity descent takes years: it's the jerky learning curve of the naturally upbeat investment manager.

And in any case, the equity market is more often the vic than the perp, to put it in police jargon. The Wall Street Crash was, I understand, the consequence of a banking crisis, itself created by years of monetary inflation, according to Richard Duncan.

So now it's the banks and the money supply we have to watch. And that's why we need to listen to the analysts of the money system, before the investment analysts.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

China: a winner you shouldn't back?

This 14 June article by Doug McIntyre for Investopedia explains some of the pitfalls and concerns for those who would like to invest in China.

Another thing to remember is that many Chinese companies make scarcely any profit, which is why their banking system is carrying a lot of poor-quality debt.

The real profit appears to be, not in China's factories, but in transporting their goods worldwide, and selling them: not sheds, but ships and shops. The traders are surfing the wave of wealth out of the West.

How far could the Dow (and FTSE) fall?

Some (e.g. a commenter on one of my May 12 posts) think the Dow couldn't possibly fall 50%, but there is no objective support level for a falling market, it's just a balance between buyers and sellers.

The Wall Street Crash started dramatically, but took about 3 years to complete its decline. On September 3, 1929 the Dow reached a peak at 381.17; by July 8, 1932 it stood at 41.22.

Serious, experienced analysts like Michael Panzner and Peter Schiff tell us that in some respects, the systemic financial problems we now face are indeed comparable to those times. Our advantage is that we have that history to warn us.

UPDATE

More recently, the FTSE 100 reached a peak of 6,930 on December 31, 1999 and a low of 3,287 in March 2003, as shown here. That's a drop of over 52%.

At the time of writing (5:42 pm GMT) it stands at 6,649, but you have to see this in the context of massive monetary inflation; compared with the end of 1999 in real terms, it's lost a lot of ground already. That's why I've suggested that we may already be in a bear market that is disguised by inflation. As in Alice in Wonderland, it has to run quite hard just to stay in the same place.

Chinese billionaires

Forbes China rich list shows that there are already 10 billionaires. Shen Wenrong, who imported the ThyssenKrupp steelworks from Dortmund, is 18th on the list.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

James Kynge on China in 2014

If you've read James Kynge's very worrying book "China shakes the world" (2006), you may be interested in an article he published before then, in November 2004. It's in "The Alchemist", which is the quarterly journal of the London Bullion Market Association. Some salient points (though I can't say whether Kynge would say exactly the same things now):

1. The housing market has soared in China, creating massive wealth.
2. "The economy does not look terribly overheated or overbuilt."
3. "Consumer spending - especially on services - is quite a bit higher than official statistics show." (Perhaps this will answer Richard Duncan's recommendation to stimulate demand in developing economies.)
4. Property prices are so high (in 2004) that the rate of appreciation must slow down, which in turn will reduce the demand for steel, aluminium and cement; "a GDP slowdown is in prospect."
5. In 2003, China was responsible for nearly all the increased demand for copper, nickel and steel, but its appetite will endure: "When, and if, China overtakes the US as the world's largest economy, its people on a per capita basis will only be one sixth as wealthy as Americans. They will still be hungry, still cost competitive."
6. The middle class will grow more quickly than GDP; high-tech industrial wage rates will increase; low-tech factories are being forced inland, away from the trading seaboard.
7. China will move from manufacturing (at that time 60% of GDP, versus 30% in the US) towards services and a knowledge economy.
8. China will not collapse, but environmental problems will slow its industrial growth. Land is already intensively used, the north is short of water; air pollution is increasing the burden of health care to the point where the cost may exceed the value of extra factory output.
9. Demographics will also slow China - the over-60s are expected to rise from 11% of the population in 2004 to 28% by 2040. "China may grow old before it grows rich."
10. "China already has too much stuff" - the oversupply of manufactured goods has wiped out profit margins and the banking system is full of debt.

Going back to point 5 for a moment, Kynge doesn't see an end to the trading imbalance. China may decelerate, but it's still going to suck wealth out of the West for a long time.

Marc Faber: consumer spending to decrease

Seeking Alpha's Sunday review of fund manager stock suggestions reveals that Marc Faber expects consumer discretionary spending to decrease:

"He calls for a 10% correction by year-end, with emerging markets down 20%."

That may reduce the monthly trade deficit for a while, but won't turn it into a surplus. China's ultra-low wage costs, combined with what seems to be very loose enforcement of intellectual property rights, are still set to hollow out Western industrial production of all kinds, as James Kynge's book makes abundantly and frighteningly clear.

It's all very well finding ways for individual investors to benefit, but if you haven't got spare money to invest, you can't back the winner in this unequal contest. Without some degree of prosperity, what real peace will our countries have? I'd like to see a credible national economic plan from our politicians.

Pay your bills, or lose your assets

You can rely on Richard Daughty to carry on fighting the brave fight - I really think it's pro bono publico, as I don't see any attempt to turn his work into sales leads for him.

Yesterday's essay continues with the theme of global credit expansion to keep up with the seemingly unstoppable increase of dollars. I suppose that wouldn't be so bad, if it weren't for two considerations:

1. Inflation is unevenly spread, and the 10+ % money supply increase is inadequately reflected in your bank savings interest, so your money is rotting away there. You then have the unenviable task of deciding where else to store your wealth to stop it shrinking.

2. While our governments continue to turn the currency into used bus tickets, the trade imbalances deteriorate, and the international wealth transfers and the world's economic instability worsen.

Will America always be able to make the interest payments on its rapidly-swelling debt? Or is she prepared to see the debt turn into foreign ownership of the economy?

There's a century-old Punch cartoon that shows a plumber sitting on the step of a middle-class house. A passing colleague asks him how the job is going, and he replies that he's taken the house in payment for his work.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Mr Buffett takes a train

Seeking Alpha reports today that Warren Buffett now shares George Soros' recently-discovered liking for railways - perhaps this illustrates a transport energy-efficiency theme.

A contrarian's advice on crash-proofing

The Contrarian Investors' Journal is also waiting for a crash and considering strategies.

More on Marc Faber

I missed this article from May 23 about Faber's recent recommendations - some on currency, but also some on commodities, e.g. gold versus oil.

Contrarian update

Let's take a look at the 6 contrarians favoured by Investment U:

Jim Rogers reportedly (today) likes farmland in Latin America, because of the water supply (I think Bill Bonner has gotten into this, too)

Marc Faber is sounding very cautious and cash-oriented at the moment, though I have previously quoted a report of his investments

John Templeton is quoted as stating the principle “invest at the point of absolute pessimism,” a point which surely hasn't yet been reached

Sam Zell has sold a real estate business (Equity Office Partners) to Blackstone - which makes the Chinese a part owner of New York, and the Daily Reckoning thinks Zell did rather better out of the deal than Blackstone. Zell is reportedly buying the Tribune media group

Eduardo Elsztain is in Argentine real estate

George Soros' recent portfolio is reported here and the same source reports his purchase of rail companies recently - an indication of moving towards more conservative value investing?

... and Steve Sjuggerud, also mentioned in the Investment U article that named the above, is tipping shares in a gold mining venture.

Bulls AND bears buy bargains

If you read the IU article linked to the end of the previous post, you'll see one of the fabulously successful contrarian investors is John Templeton. You'll also see that the foundation of his fortune was investing in low-priced shares in 1939. The macro view DOES have a bearing on investment decisions.

Earlier, I quoted the new Chinese owner of the ThyssenKrupp steelworks, who expects the steel market to collapse again sometime and this is one reason why he bought the works at bargain cost - to survive when others go under because of debt.

Speaking of debt, Bill Bonner opined this week:

A credit expansion is always followed by a credit contraction. And this credit expansion has led to the world’s first, and biggest, planetary bubble. When it corrects, it will be the world’s first, and biggest, planetary bust. So keep your eyes on our Crash Alert flag, dear reader. We may be early. But we won’t be wrong.

Ignore the bulls AND the bears?

A stimulating article from Investment U about how some of the greatest investors admit they can never predict what the market will do. Their strategy is to buy businesses whose shares are worth much less than the assets, then sell when the share price catches up with the asset value.

I suggest you add Investment U to your favourites, for a good read round. And have a look at today's IU article on 6 top contrarian investors.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

A cheerfully dissenting view

Rachel Beck of the Associated Press is determined to see the sunny side, quoting past history to show that interest rate hikes don't need to mean stock drops. And if investors' mood is less bullish, that means buying opportunities come up. And as long as the average yield on the S&P 500 is higher than that on Treasuries, etc.

However, what will the average yield on stocks be, when consumers buy fewer goods and services? And shouldn't the yield be significantly higher, to compensate for investor risk? And how long does it take for a less bullish mood to end? These soothing words don't quite reassure me, somehow.

The Sunday Telegraph gets bearish

Looking at the recent fortunes of US Treasury bonds, "Sunday Business" Editor Dan Roberts thinks the turning point has come:

I'm sticking my neck out and saying that the time has come. The writing is on the wall...What follows next may turn out to be mild turbulence or the start of a steeper nosedive. Either way, it seems a prudent time to adopt the brace position...

How will China dump the dollar?

Peter Schiff says in Friday's Market Oracle that although Alan Greenspan thinks the Chinese must continue to hold US bonds since there is no-one else to sell them to...

...the Chinese do not have to sell, they only need to stop buying and let their existing bonds mature. Then the U.S. government, not the Chinese, will be the ones forced to find new buyers for its debt.

Most of the debt that the Chinese own is short-term. Therefore all the Chinese need to do is simply not re-purchase new Treasuries when the U.S. pays them for their existing notes. Perhaps Greenspan should rent a copy of the 1981 Kris Kristofferson movie “Rollover,” where the fear that Arab countries would not rollover maturing treasuries sent gold prices soaring.

Of course, even if the Chinese decide to cash out, they will be repaid in dollars, for which they will actually have to find buyers.

[...] To expect 1.3 billion hard-working, underpaid Chinese to indefinitely subsidize 300 million wealthy, over-consuming Americans is absurd. [...] When the Chinese finally wake up the American dream will disappear.

Finding someone to accept the dollars sounds a bit easier, especially if you are prepared to be a bit generous in the exchange. If you were the Chinese, what would you do?

Following this line of argument, if there is less demand for US Treasuries, their price drops and therefore their yield (the ratio of interest to purchase price) increases, which means higher interest rates. Which will make many debtors very uncomfortable or insolvent, and which will also force consumers to cut back on discretionary spending.

Lower demand means more unemployment, I guess, and a falling dollar means imports will cost more; also, exports will be cheaper to foreigners, who can therefore afford to pay more, so rasing the cost of those items in dollars. So, slumpflation for Americans?

But if countries across the world have been inflating their money supply to keep pace with the USA, maybe they will deflate in concert, too. So, maybe simply a deflationary slump, a worldwide bust?

I look forward to reading some expert who can explain the least painful way out of this. Breaking up factories to reduce oversupply?

No wonder no-one wants to be the first to burst the balloon.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

European sclerosis and a Chinese freebooter

I have just begun reading James Kynge's book, "China shakes the world". He takes as his starting-point the move of the enormous ThyssenKrupp steelworks from the German Ruhr to China in 2002. Lessons are leaping off the page immediately:

1. German steelworkers expected a 30-odd hour working week; the Chinese demolition team worked 12-hour shifts, seven days a week and unmade the factory in a third of the estimated time. The Chinese didn't use safety harnesses and looked like acrobats.

2. The political project of a united Germany had incurred costs that led to higher taxes, which slowed the economy at an already critical time, the late 90s.

3. The Germans were willing to sell the steel plant for its scrap value, because the market for that commodity was in a slump in 2000. But the Chinese man (Shen Wenrong) who bought it could see several things: the slump would eventually come to an end; the plant produced high-quality steel that emerging Chinese car factories would need; buying a second-hand factory meant he could get into production faster and more cheaply.

The writer points out that if the Germans had waited until 2004, the market in steel would have recovered so far that the plant would have been profitable again, in Dortmund, where iron had been made for nearly 200 years.

Doubtless Kynge intends us to see this as a symbolic example: a Europe more concerned with unification and workers' rights, than with global competitiveness; regulation and taxation hobbling the economy; stupid, short-sighted management. (This, by the way, is the Europe that my country seems determined to marry, sans pre-nuptial contract.)

Shen not only foresaw the resurgence of steel, but expects it to collapse again. In 2004 he said:

When the next crash in world steel prices comes, and it will certainly come in the next few years, a lot of our competitors who have bought expensive new equipment from abroad will go bust or be so weighed down by debt that they will not be able to move. At that time you will see that this purchase was good.

Industry and thrift, as per Benjamin Franklin (or indeed any late eighteenth-century enterpreneur). And long-sighted strategy, without the benefit of an MBA. Shen has a tiny desk, takes information by word of mouth and on A4 paper (not plasma screens), and makes fast, one-man decisions all day.

Yet what he does, is no more than what our people once did here.

Post #100: Hang onto your kettle!

There's a heartening anecdote from the Depression, and an old (2002) article from ThisIsMoney repeats it. 2002, you may remember, was gloomy for investors, and the article looks back to 70 years earlier. Following the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the market took three years to hit bottom, and in 1932 investors were losing hope:

...In New York's patrician Union League Club, members amused themselves by wallpapering an entire room with now 'worthless' stock certificates.

...Bear markets usually end when people have given up all interest in the market. By the later 1930s, members of new York's Union League club were holding kettles to the wall to steam off their stock certificates. They had become valuable again.

Some would say that a bear market has already recommenced, but it's disguised by monetary inflation. The dollar and pound figures distract us from the loss of real value, and the world economy continues to be mismanaged while the temporary fixes hold. Financial history suggests we should prepare for crisis, but also for eventual recovery.

UPDATE:

ThisIsMoney seems to have got the first date wrong (it was March 1934), also the city (Chicago, not NY) and missed out a very vivid follow-up! See the contemporary Time article here.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Modern Portfolio Theory: what mix of assets should I have?

Many financial advice firms are now fans of Modern Portfolio Theory, which earned Dr Harold Markowitz the Nobel prize in Economics. Explanations can get highly mathematical - the one I've linked to here is a bit more layman-friendly.

But the underlying principle is quite understandable: you can achieve similar investment returns with less risk, by diversifying your assets.

Even within one asset class, such as shares, some items rise and fall together, others move in opposite directions, still others seem to have no particular relationship. If all your shares are in different banking companies, that is still a bet limited to one sector, so it's a relatively risky position in equities.

Risk reduction also means a mix of asset types. A cautious investor may think cash is best, but in effect that is betting on only one horse in the race. Adding some "risky" assets can reduce the risk of the overall portfolio. "Playing safe" is therefore not necessarily the safest way to play it.

A tip for financial googlers

Some may find this helpful: if you are Googling for recent information about people like Marc Faber and Peter Schiff, you'll find the main search page is wonderful, but its results are arranged in likely order of relevance, not date.

But Google News (two stops along the toolbar) will let you re-order for freshness. Google News tends to omit some things in the cyber universe (e.g. blogs), but it does include online newsfeeds and some comment sites.

Inflation special - and forecast for the dollar drop

Please read practically everything in today's edition of The Daily Reckoning Australia - excellent stuff about inflation and the migration of wealth, worth copying and pasting into a handy Word document for your re-reading. Tom Au expects the dollar to drop against major currencies by 20%.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The natural resources chorus

Doug Casey at "Financial Sense" today reviews asset classes and considers all of them over-valued, excepting natural resources. On Monday, The Mogambo Guru repeated his refrain of "gold, oil and silver", and in an old article of 2005 maintained that even though there may be fluctuations, gold will win against paper. A couple of weeks ago, Antal Fekete noted that physical gold was disappearing fast into private hoards, as it did before the fall of the Roman Empire. Today's Daily Mail article already cited re Diana Choyleva, quotes Julien Garran at Legal & General saying that the "infectious growth environment" of Russia and the Middle East "will, in due course, strain the world's resources and cause inflationary pressure to build."

So how should we bet? Can we beat the mathematics-trained investment gunslingers who are superglued to their computer screens and supported by their massive commercial databases? Perhaps we shouldn't try to get the timing perfect, and instead, work out what asset/s are likely to preserve the value of our savings in the medium to long term. But the answer may not be entirely conventional, in these interesting times.

Diana Choyleva warns of market turmoil, too

Diana Choyleva of Lombard Street Research is reported today warning of inflation and castigating the Bank of England for failing to raise interest rates earlier and faster. Well, actually she has been saying this for a while now, and some of our bears have been warning us for much longer. And this is still news-at-the-back, as though there is anyone in this country that does not stand to be affected!

Mark Skousen warns of market turmoil

I have just received an email from Investment U, featuring an article by Mark Skousen, who says that he recently attended a pre-book launch talk by Alan Greenspan. The Federal Reserve's ex-Chairman's memoir "The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World" is due out in September.

Reportedly, Greenspan spoke of the scary periods in 1987 and 2001, and his surprise at the resilience of the US economy. Skousen notes two important points from the talk: Greenspan's enthusiasm for the future of the European Union under its more conservative economic leadership, and surprise at the low global interest rates that have helped to drive up the markets. Skousen suggests that interest rates may be on the rise, and the recently increased yield on the 10-year US Treasury bond seems to bear the same interpretation.

For investors, Skousen suggests using stop-loss triggers on share holdings (in a real emergency, will they work as intended?), gold and silver coin to pay your way if the worst comes, and a large amount of cash. Definitely a bear, and with a reputation for prescience: if you look at his website, you'll see that Skousen advised his readers to get out of stocks 6 weeks before the crash of October 1987 - "one of the few advisors to anticipate the crash".

I have to say that I expected it too, but I wasn't an adviser at the time; and I also anticipated the Far East slide of 1997 and the falls post-2000. Not because I'm a genius, nor on account of insider whispers: being naturally wary, I looked and listened for warnings from experts. And so, if I may suggest, should you.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Is modernisation good for India?

I am grateful to a respondent to my earlier post, "Have we overlooked India?" and I think the exchange is relevant to India's future generally. The visitor says:

I am wondering where we are heading in so called modern era. Example in textile machinery, one airjet can replace 100 handlooms, this means 100 peolple are displaced by a single machine. I am from Handloom city of Panipat (India). Earlier a person with 20 handlooms was happy and feeded his family well. Now even 50 looms are not enough because of the increased cost of living in so called modern era and people are getting trapped in vicious cycle of high cost, loans and increasing capacity.

My reply:

Yes, I am sure that this is extremely difficult and in fact English weavers suffered the same way nearly 200 years ago, which is why some of them turned to wrecking the machines that were harming their trade. But it didn't succeed in halting the changes. On the other hand, people in Britain are now materially much better off, so in the long run industrialisation is to everyone's advantage.

I suppose that the best thing that can be done is for government to support people who have been affected by modernisation, and help them to re-train in new areas of work. If you look at the post after the one you commented on, I give a link to Cafe Hayek. That writer points out that if saris can be made more cheaply, then sari-buyers will have more money left over to buy other things, so there will be demand for items that they could not have afforded before.

I think you cannot stop change happening, but governments can help manage the transition and far-sighted individuals can take advantage of new business opportunities.

Michael Panzner on bond yields

Michael Panzner commented in Monday's Seeking Alpha on the increased yield of the US Treasury 10-year bond. He sees it as another straw in the wind - "goodbye to the good old days". Ironically, in the ad box next to his article, a message flashed up, promising to double investors' money in the China boom. Fear meets greed.

Naturally, each day that disaster doesn't strike is taken as further confirmation that Panzner is wrong. I shouldn't count on that: exact timing isn't possible, but I haven't seen a refutation of his threat analysis, or a relatively painless solution.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The banks cause market bubbles, too

I plan to review Richard Duncan's book "The Dollar Crisis" soon - it's not just time constraints that are the problem, but trying to condense his arguments.

Essentially, Duncan sees the unlimited creation of credit as the mischief-maker in economics. Since the dollar is not restricted by valuation against gold, the government can print as much money as it wants.

But even when there was a gold standard, credit could still be multiplied, because banks lend out many times more cash than they've been given to look after. Banks only retain whatever fraction they (and the regulators) feel is essential to deal with likely withdrawals by depositors.

Then when bad times come, they multiply the problems by cutting back on credit - remember the old saying, "Banks lend you an umbrella when the sun shines and want it back when it starts raining"? I recall hearing (in the recession of the early 90s) of a businessman with a big turnover and a £3.25 million overdraft facility, who received a payment from a customer for £3 million. Acting on head office orders, the bank manager promptly reduced the overdraft to £250,000 and hurriedly left for the day, while the now-ruined businessman grabbed a shotgun and went looking for him at his office.

Have a look at this article by Wladimir Kraus in the archive of the Luwig von Mises Institute, criticising "fractional reserve banking".

Should India move away from hand-made goods?

Speaking of the potential benefits of industrial capital, I note an article today in Cafe Hayek about machine-made saris, balancing the loss to the traditional weaver with the gain to many buyers.

Have we overlooked India?

Indian respondents to Mr Venkatesh's article worry about the movement of the dollar relative to the rupee. But just as America's problem is not the dollar but its national economic fundamentals, so perhaps India should raise her eyes to a more distant prospect. The country has a well-established democracy and an independent judiciary; respect for law, family and property rights; many millions of fluent English speakers (don't worry, the call centres will eventually overcome problems of Western vernacular); and a famously entrepreneurial culture.

India may not be sitting on a vast coalmine, like China, but natural resources aren't everything. It's not natural resources (other than mountain ranges) that preserved Swiss independence, but the history and character of the Swiss. As to commerce, I forget which mega-businessman said he could lose all he had, but so long as he kept his staff he'd get it all back again.

If India avoids over-reliance on its low wage advantage and continues towards more intensively capitalised production, then it too can be a powerhouse in the new world economy. Remember that recently, the British Swan Hunter shipyard has itself been shipped to India.

Planning for the dollar drop

The bear view continues to spread. Greg Peel at Australian financial news site FN Arena today rehashes the article by Mr Venkatesh I covered yesterday.

The IHT article from March 28 last year was significant in that the Asian Development Bank was then urging countries to appreciate their currencies in concert when the dollar falls, so as to minimise the additional disruptive effect of national economic rivalry in the region. I guess that contingency plans are indeed being formulated.

The point of my own coverage is not to add to the gloom-and-doom, but so that readers may make their own plans to survive and thrive in the coming changes. Some will do well. What is your strategy?

Monday, June 11, 2007

To sum up... from India

A chartered accountant from India today summarises the general bear case about USA trade deficits and the future of the dollar. Mr Venkatesh apportions some blame to Asian countries, for choosing to keep their currencies weak in order to sustain their trading advantage.

The article is well worth reading in full, in particular the comments on oil and the threat of trading crude in Euros rather than dollars. It is also worrying that...

On March 28, 2006, the Asian Development Bank is reported to have issued a memo, advising members to be ready for a collapse of the US dollar. [see the International Herald Tribune report here.]

Since end March 2006, the US Federal Reserve has stopped publishing the quantum of broad money [...] This is the worst possible signal that the US Federal Reserve could have sent to the world.

[The rise in commodity prices] has led to inflation across the globe. No wonder countries are forced to increase their interest rates to fight inflation. This has triggered an interest rate hike across continents and the US is finding it extremely difficult to sustain its current borrowing programme: it hardly has any elbow room to manoeuvre.

The author says that the US can neither raise interest rates much further, because of the cost of servicing debt, nor lower them, because that may deny it fresh supplies of credit.

Either we are witnessing a global meltdown of the US dollar, or a controlled US dollar devaluation (read, revaluation of other currencies). If it is a global meltdown the global economy is doomed, if is an orderly devaluation, it is damned.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Dollar's rise only temporary

Chris Gaffney in Friday's Daily Pfennig comments on the recent rise in the dollar and puts it down to a sell-off in emerging market equities and some selling of gold to settle cash calls. He says the money is only "parked" in the dollar and will be off again soon:

The dollar will continue to trend down versus the currencies of economies that are better off.
As investors move away from riskier assets, the countries with strong balance sheets will begin to trade at a premium.


This refocusing on fundamentals suggests a return to sanity is on its way - initially not pleasant.

US Commerce Department figures: the good news is bad news

The US Commerce Department reported on Friday a narrowing of the trade deficit in April.

What is remarkable is the positive spin on the story. When you look at the figures, exports increased by $0.25 billion, but imports fell $3.6 billion. So 94% of the improvement is simply down to reduced demand for imports. This could be interpreted as a sign that Americans are tightening their belts, rather than improving their trade.

And how do we factor the dollar's exchange rate into these import and export figures? How do the numbers actually translate into quantities of physical goods?

Also, it's still a deficit, and at $58.5 billion in one month, divided by the USA's estimated (CIA, July 2007) population of 301 million, that's $194 bucks worse off per head. Or, given the average US household size (2.59), it's $6,037 per household per year. AAA statistics show you could run a small sedan on what you're losing to overseas trade.

Is the bear view becoming more generally accepted?

Friday's CNBC echoes familiar themes: Leburn of Weiss Capital Management tips high-dividend stocks in financially strong companies (as per Peter Schiff's book); David Tice favours cash (see Marc Faber recently), maybe with precious metals to protect against the dollar's decline; the stockmarket looks volatile (maybe kept up for a time by inflation).

US dollar needs to fall; intellectual property needs protection

An interesting report from China Daily yesterday. The American Chamber of Commerce there is asking for less pressure to revalue the renminbi and more for structural reforms in China.

The value of the renminbi is not the answer to everything. If the Chinese yuan rises against the dollar, then Chinese imports will cost more, and America might well cut back; but US industrial exports could be slow to grow because of eroded manufacturing capacity. And a weaker dollar would mean foreigners could bid more for US products (including foodstuffs), so creating price inflation in the US while production lags behind demand.

And there is also the question of just how much the dollar would have to drop to make US products globally competitive anyway. What you could see is Chinese light industrial manufacturers suffer a contraction, losing business to countries that have even lower wage costs, such as Vietnam. When the dust has settled, America's balance of trade crisis could simply have widened from US-China to US-Far East.

So it's not so much the renminbi that has to rise, but the dollar to fall.

Also interesting to see intellectual property rights come to the fore. As America sees her economic strength sapped, she must worry about the scruples of her competitors. If "might makes right", patents and copyright may not be the pension she was hoping for. I did discuss this a while ago (May 23), and think it's an issue to follow.

When gold may not be safe

Marc Faber has commented recently that there are bubbles everywhere, including commodities. Although gold has intrinsic worth, its price is still going to be affected by the laws of supply and demand. It has risen very quickly over the past couple of years, but if you believe those experts who tell us that our inflation has been fuelled by credit, then if and when a "credit crunch" comes, the scramble to disinvest in order to pay creditors and get ready cash may well mean a temporary drop in the gold price, too.

I think gold bugs are looking to the longer future, when governments desperate to get out of a slump may choose to print currency and so devalue it against precious metals, which they can't multiply at will. Meanwhile, if you follow Dr Faber, you may consider waiting with your cash at the station instead of boarding any of the asset trains, as he puts it.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Michael Panzner: government guarantees increase risky behaviour

Michael Panzner returns to one of the four central risks of which he warns, here in Seeking Alpha: the government mortgages the future with potential claims on the taxpayer's money.

Peter Schiff: China will dump the dollar

Peter Schiff predicts China must de-link from the dollar in today's Market Oracle. Because their economy is robust (based on actually making things), they will cope with the disruption and thrive; the USA will face the reckoning for its folly.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

No easy way out for the US economy

Martin Hutchinson at Prudent Bear gave his view on Monday - the way out of the crisis will either be long and difficult, or short and painful:

...the choice is between a short sharp depression, albeit presumably less severe than 1929-33 (unless the forces of protectionism take a hand as well) or a lengthy period of stagflation like the 1970s, probably with a deeper dip than 1973-75. The third possible pattern, a prolonged period of stagflation like Japan in the 1990s, now seems rather unlikely.

Marc Faber: cash may be king

Please read this thoughtful essay by the modest Marc Faber yesterday. He looks at the zooming valuations of the Zimbabwe stockmarket and explains that it's because local investors' money has nowhere else to go if it doesn't want to lose value. He says the rest of us have a similar problem.

Currently, Faber is cautiously bearish about most types of asset:

...it will become increasingly important for investors not only to decide which asset-class train they want to board, but also, and even more importantly, whether they want to board ANY of the asset trains.

...a peculiar feature of the bull market in asset prices since 2002 has been that all asset prices around the world have appreciated in concert, as a result of highly expansionary monetary policies, which has led to excessive credit growth and a credit bubble of historic proportions. Therefore, if my theory of slower credit growth in the future holds, it is conceivable that, for a while at least, all asset markets (with the exception of bonds and cash) could come under pressure, albeit with different intensities.

In fact, asset markets would come under pressure, even if credit growth continued at the present rate and didn't accelerate. In this instance, investors would be better off not boarding any investment train at all and, instead, staying at the station loaded up with cash. (However, they would still have to decide what kind of cash to hold.) U.S. dollars might not be the very best choice.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Ditching of the Dollar begins...

See David Galland's article in the Daily Reckoning Australia here.

Boom or bust? Cash, shares, property, government promises, or commodities?

The latest posting from The Daily Reckoning Australia includes this exchange:

We got this note the other day, "You say in part, "In markets today, to get along, you have to go long. And if you don't, well you're out of luck." Are you no longer worried about a melt down in the short term? How long is long? One year or two? Your past words of imminent doom had me very worried with its effect on my investment actions, (or inaction ) are you now changing your timeline? I am a daily reader of your investment letter and look forward to your response."

We answer that a melt-down must be preceded by a melt-up. Or in economic terms, a deflationary bust characterised by over production and capacity surpluses must be preceded by an inflationary boom.

We are in the boom phase. And like it or not, related to real value or not, prices are going to rise as global money and credit creation booms. If you're in the markets, you've got to make a choice with your money. So we'll be choosing assets with tangible value that are in economic demand as well.

This is the quandary for a cautious investor. During the inflationary period, cash is not a store of value. In a fair world, if the money supply expands by 13%, then the interest rate on deposits should increase to, say, 16% (allowing for tax) - anything less, and your wealth is being sucked out by an irresponsible government. Which it is. Paradoxically, to be cautious about your wealth, you have to get away from exclusive reliance on cash.

This is because inflation is not transmitted evenly throughout the economy. For example, I estimate that in the last 6 or 7 years, the money supply as measured by M4 (bank private lending) has expanded by around 80% in the UK. Deposits have certainly not returned 80%, but house prices have doubled.

However, borrowing must be repaid sometime - with interest. If a crunch comes and everyone has to pay up, then there will be a desperate shortage of ready money. Even houses can fall in value - whatever you treat like an investment will behave like one. So in the long term, it looks as though the saver has had the last laugh. Cash will be king again.

But the paupers have votes. So democratically-elected governments have a very powerful incentive to print money to put into the voters' hands - even if this means stealing the value of other people's accumulated savings.

No-one knows the timetable for all this, except that it's human nature to delay facing unpleasant situations, so we expect more fudging for a while yet.

Speaking of fudging, how does the government calculate inflation? Do its own "inflation-linked" products really store your wealth safely? Should you buy Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS) in the US, or National Savings And Investments Index-Linked Savings Certificates in the UK? If the government gets your taxes and your savings and your investments, it's pretty much got you altogether. Do you trust it that completely?

How about equities? What shares would you buy? If you went into business yourself, how would you try to run it in this very unpredictable situation? Would you borrow cash to expand, risking suddenly having to repay it just as your customers disappeared because of their own money problems? Other than making profits by exporting jobs to low-wage countries (and slowly impoverishing the West), what good business opportunities exist in our wildly gyrating economies?

The Australian bear quoted above is indicating commodities, since the demand for natural resources isn't going to disappear entirely. Intrinsic value is an important consideration for him. If inflation continues, then presumably the price of commodities inflates; if deflation strikes, there will still be some money paid for commodities. Car companies can go bust, but iron and steel will only vary in price.

In a nutshell, it looks as though there's no one type of asset to hold in all conditions. The question instead is, what mix should you have?

Saturday, June 02, 2007

The monstrous scale of the US and UK trade deficits

Have a look at the table in this article from Market Oracle. The figures speak for themselves!

British readers, please consider the fact that we are only two above the US, although our GDP is far smaller.