Please drink, gamble and fornicate responsibly

Monday, December 31, 2007

Small is beautiful

J R Nyquist argues that internationalism is used as a cover for expansion by aggressive states, and the nation-state is our stoutest defence.

I think this links in with our domestic EU in-or-out debate, on which the allegedly Conservative British MP David Cameron has recently been making flirty noises. I say "flirty" because although the headline talks boldly of tearing up the un-referendum-ed Constitution, the leader of the Opposition says "We think the treaty is wrong because it passes too much power from Westminster to Brussels." How much is enough?

Perhaps some will say mine is a typical reaction from a little Englander, but originally that term meant an opponent of imperialism. Well, I'm used to ignorant brickbats. It was Philip Toynbee who - his son told me - called me a Colonel Blimp while I was still at school, I think because I had dared to ask him about the significance of colour in Lorca's poetry. What I gathered from this experience was: never ask a posh leftie for an explanation, he'll only look down his egalitarian nose at you. (I haven't met his daughter Polly, though.) Intriguingly, though the term "little Englander" is said to date from the 1899-1901 Second Boer War, there is an 1833 German dictionary-cum-phrasebook (published in Grunsberg) called "Der kleine Englander ober Sammlung". I do hope the title wasn't intended to have a pejorative tinge, but you can never be sure with the Germans - they do have a wry sense of humour.

The relevance of all this, aside from the asides? I think the themes of diversity, dispersion and disconnection will grow in importance over the coming years, in politics and economics. As with some mutually dependent Amazonian flowers and insects, efficiency and specialisation will have to be balanced against flexibility and long-term survival.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Recession QED

In an educational (and mercifully profanity-free) essay, Karl Denninger builds up his case from first principles, explaining the processes of creating and destroying money. He expects house prices to fall back by 30 - 50% and notes that in a recession, equities typically lose 30%.

He says the media is not reporting the truth. I tend to agree: I now throw away the Sunday football and financial supplements at the same time. If you want to know what's really happening, he says, watch what is going on at the banks, the Federal Reserve and Goldman Sachs, all of whom are battening the hatches, while CNBS (also castigated by Jim Willie) plays a cheerful tune to the proles.

I've written before how in 1999, as a financial adviser, I sat through a presentation from a leading UK investment house about tech stocks, which were supposedly about to start a second and bigger boom. I suspected then, and even more so now, that they were looking for the fabled "bigger fool" to offload their more favoured clients' holdings. Denninger intimates the same:

Are these shows, newspapers, and others reporters on the financial markets, entertainers, or worse, puppets of those who know and who need someone – anyone – to unload their shares to before the markets take a huge plunge, lest they get stuck with them?

Then he gives his predictions - which are grim, but not apocalyptic. It's the fools who will get roasted, not everybody. (By the way, Denninger is another Kondratieff cycle follower.)

What to hold, in his opinion? Cash, definitely; anything else, check the soundness of the deposit-taker. If you want to gamble on hyperinflation, he thinks call options on the stockmarket index are likely to yield more than gains on gold, even if the gold bugs are right.

This is where I thought we were in 1999. Thanks to criminally reckless credit expansion in the interim, we're still there, only the results may be worse than I feared then.

Oh, and he thinks the dollar will recover to some extent, because the rest of the world is going to get it just as bad, and probably worse. (Interesting that the pound is now back under $2.)

Saturday, December 29, 2007

The answer to Olduvai?

I am most grateful for a comment by "APL" on the heroic "Burning Our Money" blog, which directs us to an article on the potential of radiation-free fusion energy.

There is an international project (ITER) in the south of France to develop this, and if it works...

UPDATE

Thanks to GMG for a link to this discussion of fusion power, which tends to the conclusion that a successful and economically viable fusion system is a very long way off, if feasible at all, and we'd do better to concentrate on fission, i.e. the present type of nuclear power station.

Spot the trends

The CIA World Factbook gives global GDP per capita as $10,200 (in purchasing power parity terms). This puts the average standard of living somewhere between Kazakhstan and Mexico. On the same basis, per capita income is $43,800 in the USA and $31,800 in the UK .

Generally, the poorer the country, the higher the income inequality as measured by the Gini Index (except for Azerbaijan, according to this from the ESRC).

The Factbook estimates 30% combined unemployment and underemployment in many non-industrialized countries; developed countries typically 4%-12% unemployment.

There are enormous fortunes to be made (by some) arbitraging the economic differences between countries.

In the USA and the UK, we are relentlessly spending more than we are earning.

What are our governments' plans for us to remain rich? And given the correlation between income and equality, do our business, media and political elites have much incentive to make and seek support for such plans?

Contradicting the contrarians

Cash is king for now, but later next year it'll be equities up, dollar up, bonds down, according to the round table on Safe Haven.

UPDATE

But Tim Wood expects the market to hit a low - "The straw that finally breaks the camel’s back may be closer than you think."

Friday, December 28, 2007

Desperate hope

"Desperate hope" is an oxymoron, which sounds like a dumb bull: mine is that we will have a tough landing rather than a complete crash. Goading the dumb bulls is The Mogambo Guru (Richard Daughty), who delivers another comical end-of-the-world sermon on inflation. He thinks dropping interest rates will encourage borrowers to take on still more debt.

However, many have already pointed out that (a) lending criteria are tightening and (b) not all of the interest rate cut is being passed on to the borrower. So lenders are trying to reduce their exposure and are also being paid more for the risk they have already assumed. And we see from this Christmas shopping season that (c) the consumer is becoming more reluctant to spend.

That's not to say that we won't get inflation (in some sectors, not housing), since falling interest rates tend to depreciate the currencies of debtor countries relative to their cash-rich trading partners. On the other hand, the latter will continue trying to hold down their currencies, in an attempt to keep the show on the road - the show being the osmosis of wealth from the lazy, spendthrift West to the hard-working, hard-saving developing world.

We're going to be buying less, but I don't know how fast the Eastern co-prosperity sphere will take up the slack. In his book "The Dollar Crisis", Richard Duncan argues for a worldwide minimum wage to stimulate demand; but maybe events have overtaken him. Certainly, China aims to expand its middle class, rapidly.

But there's another way for China to stave off depression while waiting for the sun to rise in the East. According to James Kynge, manufacturing and transportation costs account for only about 15% of the end-price of Chinese exports to the US. Some of the expanding Chinese middle class will surely go into advertising, marketing, sales, distribution and finance. As China develops its own version of Wal-Mart, Omnicom and banking, credit card and financing operations, it'll own more of the total profit in the supply chain - some of which it can sacrifice to retain market share. And they're motivated to do so by the fact that domestic consumption yields very little profit for their companies: the money's in exports. The longer this game goes on, the more the decline of capital and skilled labour at our end.

So let's worry about the effects at home first. Yes, for investors inflation may be a worry, but perhaps they should extend their concern to include the stability of the society in which they live, as unemployment and insolvency stalk through the West. The issues are no longer financial, but political and social.

And we'd better hope that we don't go for the wrong solutions. Daughty quotes Ambrose Evans-Pritchard's 12 December article in The Daily Telegraph, which concludes (amazingly), "... it may now take a strong draught of socialism to save the Western democracies." I do not think Mr Evans-Pritchard is very old. Or maybe he's just saying that to bug the squares, an expression I'll wager he's too young to remember.

Anatomy of a CDO

The Wall Street Journal provides a grisly visual dissection of a subprime mortgage package - thanks to The Contrarian Investor for the lead.

If I follow correctly, the trickery seems to come in step 4, where a CDO largely composed of middling-rated mortgage risk sells bits of itself with unreasonably optimistic ratings attached. "Skimmed milk masquerades as cream".

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Some interesting correlations

Greg Silberman reveals the results of some interesting research:

1. Since 2003, if the dollar falls, all other asset classes rise; and conversely, if the dollar rises, the rest drops.

2. The "real" (adjusted for the price of gold) interest rate on 3-month Treasury bills predicts movements in the exchange rate of the dollar a year later.

Since the "real" interest rate has fallen sharply, he therefore expects a strengthening in other assets next year.

Modestly, Silberman adds, "Correlations are never perfect and tend to fail just when you need them most."

I think he's right there. To me, there seems to be a lot of jiggery-pokery in the gold market (speculators vs. central banks), and the predominance of "fiduciary money" (credit) in the economy means that we're measuring sizes with elastic bands.

In times of stress, the normal predictors don't hold, so currently I view all investments as speculative. My first priority is to reduce my vulnerability with respect to creditors, and my second is building cash to take advantage of emerging opportunities.

Defensive investing

Michael Panzner's latest is lucidly entitled "Today's Lesson: Bad Economy = Bad Stock Market". At last, financial analysis I can understand.

I've never understood why the stockmarket seems serenely unrelated to the dire state of the economy. Supposedly the market "looks ahead" around a year, but it can't be seeing what I'm looking at.

Anyhow, Panzner reproduces Dan Dorfman's article in the New York Sun, which reviews what's happened to the market in past recessions and gives tips on strong defensive areas - booze, cigs and "household products". I can understand that, too - or the first two, at least.

Jim Willie goes bowling

Bowling is fun - some would say, too much fun. Apparently, Connecticut passed a law in 1841 banning "ninepin lanes" and so fostered the invention of tenpin. In the old game, still played in England, you set them up manually - it gives you something to do while downing your beer and waiting your turn. The uneven boards of the alley add a pleasantly unpredictable element, too.

Jim Willie stands up nine reassuring statements about the US economy and smashes the lot down. He goes to the back of his mule for material to throw at Greenspan, Wall Street, CNBC etc and concludes that nothing is going to stop the financial melt. So he recommends gold.

He may be right, since on both sides of the Atlantic the authorities have decided to bail out lenders, instead of following Marc Faber's advice to let some of the players be taken out of the game.

However, as Faber has also pointed out recently, gold is an item everyone thinks everyone else supports, without committing themselves (elections have been lost that way). Is it not possible that we could see a continuing uptrend in the (relatively small) gold market, simply because of increased demand from existing fans? In which case, don't come late to the party - you'll have brought fresh beer but missed the fun.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Uncertainty

A trio of articles from Safe Haven: Paul Tustain thinks that inflation, and even hyperinflation are indeed possible, because of support operations for the banking system; Michael Swanson reads the charts and thinks the stockmarket could be teetering on the edge; Adam Oliensis of The Agile Trader is man enough to admit he's baffled:

A couple of things seem pretty clear to me: first, that I haven't lived long enough to have enough experience to know whether the bulls or bears are right about just how far the ripples will spread from the credit market problem; second, that there's never been an economic cycle just like this one, so even the people who have lived long enough to know who's right are speculating at best. (highlight mine.)

So it's not just me that's confused. And we're in distinguished company: Marc Faber also says we are in a new situation, with the possibility of a first-time-ever worldwide bust.

If we're into guesswork, then mine is that for a while, the monetary inflation will offset the credit (or "fiduciary money", as I'm learning to call it) deflation.

And then? Here's what worries me, in my amateurish, hunchy fashion: balance can be achieved in different ways (an empty seesaw is not the same as one with an elephant at each end). There's been a massive buildup of energy within the system, and the question is, can the Xbox take it?

Can democracy resist the hyperinflation route?

The Contrarian Investor thinks that rather than face economic depression, voters will force the US government to destroy wealth by hyperinflation. The arguments are therefore not economic but political.

I'm not so pessimistic; and if I were, investing in gold would be of less concern than physical survival.

Marc Faber: profile and views

Here's a profile of Marc Faber from 18 months ago, describing him as an ace, though I'd say he's a wild card: a hedonist whose philosophy is non-attachment, a lover of life who festoons his website with images of mortality. It's a cavalier, death-spiced duality that women tend to find very seductive.

And here's an interview he gave to Resource Investor 5 days ago. Some snippets:

it’s clear that in the U.S. we are already at some kind of a stage of stagflation where say retail sales are strong because grocery prices are rising very strongly. So that boosts essentially grocery sales whereas sales of discretionary items are sluggish...

the whole credit bubble that we’ve built over the last 25 years, I have to point it out, has now basically come to an end. We will have lower credit growth... that leads to poor economic conditions... the Fed will eventually win because they can print an unlimited amount of money, and they can essentially expand their balance sheet by not only acquiring treasury securities, but also lower quality paper... at that point I suppose that inflation will become a problem. And so in real terms you will have no economic growth, and you have a real kind of stagflationary environment...

whenever ... you have relative tightening of international liquidity ... you have a period of dollar strength... I think that we may have for the next three months at least a rebound in the U.S. dollar... I think long-term the dollar is a doomed currency because you have a money printer at the Fed and you have basically Hank Paulson at the Treasury who comes straight out of Wall Street and who has more interest in stabilizing the price of Goldman-Sachs stock than of having a strong dollar...

the global economy will slow down very considerably over the next six to 12 months...

I’m not very bullish about commodities right now. I think the price of gold will also come under some pressure... But long-term I think that having Mr. Bernanke at the Fed, you have essentially a friend of gold at the Federal Reserve because he will print money...

I would like to add to your comments that so many people are bullish about gold... people have actually very little gold in their portfolio... the gold bugs are bullish about gold, but the other 95% of the world, they have no gold exposure at all.

If he's right, my guesses (23 December) aren't too far off the mark.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Liberty Dollar Update

A news item here about a bill introduced by Ron Paul, to stop the government misusing its power to kill-off rival currencies.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Visions of 2008

Following Dearieme's comment on the previous post*, I'm going to try to visualise a chain of events over the next year - guesswork, of course, with plenty of obvious ones:

USA

a marked deflation in property prices
a reduced demand for luxury goods and services
reduced imports of the above
consequent recession abroad
further interest rate cuts
higher unemployment
higher taxes
higher State and Federal budget deficits
a sell-off in equities
increased demand for bonds
a weakening currency
higher prices for food, fuel and clothing

increase in the price of good-quality agricultural land
consumer price inflation indices will not be able to continue to mask the real increases in costs of living, and this will have further consequences for public finances
public enquiries, leading eventually to a thorough reform of the financial system

UK

much the same as above, except I don't think our house prices will fall so far - the US subprime mess will hit investments, but we will drop our interest rates to devalue the pound to maintain stability against the dollar

Gold

will continue to fluctuate interestingly, but although some smart money is after it, there will be less spare money around generally, and other commodities will offer interesting opportunities for inflation-beaters. It's already above its inflation-adjusted long-term trend, and lenders will make sure that the real value of their loans is not destroyed by hyperinflation

... in short, slumpflation.

UPDATE

*and, by way of comparison, here is Karl Denninger's outlook in his Dec 24 post.
... plus a more sanguine assessment by Nadeem Walayat.

A Merry Christmas to all, and thanks for your visits and comments.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

IN, not DE

Peter Schiff argues the opposite way to Karl Denninger, pointing to the large amounts of US currency held abroad. In paper-money terms, he foresees continuing consumer price inflation, faster than for the assets you hold, so you're going to get poorer. If assets also inflate, we're into hyperinflation. Reasoning this way, he is, of course, a gold supporter.

Righteous wrath

Karl Denninger comments angrily on the failure of authorities to grasp the nettle - issuing warnings instead of downgrading credit ratings, holding back from forcing off-book liabilities back onto the balance sheet.

I've been looking for one of those famous photographs from China's "Great Leap Forward", showing children standing on a field of wheat, such is the success of the Party's new agricultural techniques. Can anyone help me find it on the Net?

For it's certainly a bit like the official-fudged miracle economy we've got now. Except even the peasants have stopped believing in it, to judge by what's happening in the retail outlets.

Green screens

The traders seem to be filling their boots with annual bonuses, as I guessed on 20 November (Red Screens) - or is it just the cyclical winter upswing in the market, as Joseph Dancy shows?

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Hark what discord follows

David Galland rehearses the argument for gold. He points out that, relative to stocks, the gold market is so small that a small shift into it from stocks would massively inflate demand. Against that is the fact that it hasn't happened yet, and that a small market can also be manipulated downwards by suppliers, particularly the central banks. Besides, in a real panic, Joe Average isn't looking to make a killing in commodities, he's trying to pay bills in cash and buy food and fuel ditto. Nice area for speculators with quick reflexes, though.

What is inflation, anyway? Ronald Cooke looks at the damned lies and self-serving statistics that underpin the official Consumer Price Index.

Jim Patterson reads the stockmarket runes and concludes:

Sub-Prime issues have been discounted. With overall market returns compressed the downside is limited. We expect a better market in the weeks and months ahead.

In his slightly starchy prose, The Contrarian Investor agrees with Patterson, up to a point, but also gives a serious warning:

1. In today’s market, the probability of the market going up is higher than the probability of it coming down. Hence, it is rightly called a bull market.

2. But should it come down (which is unlikely), it can collapse at extremely great speed and magnitude.

Hence, the stronger and longer this uptrend continues, the greater in magnitude and speed (as in volatility, not timing) the Great Crash III will be. Hence, the coming Great Crash III is a Black Swan event—an improbable but colossal impact event.

The importance of a particular event is the likelihood of it multiplied by its consequences. Black Swan events are events that are (1) highly unlikely and (2) colossal impact/consequences. One common mistake investors (and many professionals) make is to look at the former and forget about the latter i.e. ignore highly unlikely but impactful events.

Therefore, when contrarians are preparing for a crash, it does not necessary mean that they are predicting doom and gloom. Rather, they see the vulnerability of Black Swans and prepare for them.

Credit default swaps - a line of dominoes, one falls

Karl Denninger reports on the savage downgrading of a credit default insurer from "A" to "CCC" (junk) in one move - essentially a collapse in creditworthiness - and explains the implications for credit and investment markets. His conclusion is crystal clear:

If you're long stocks, bail now.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Stockmarket crash on the way?

Clearly, The Contrarian Investor (2 Dec) thinks it's a possibility. So does Frank Barbera, who looks at the jaded market response to interest rate cuts and says:

All investors take heed, you are staring at a market that is NOT responding well to “Good News.” Markets that cannot rally on Good News tend to accelerate downward on any type of bad news, and that is the kind of market which appears to be taking shape.

Here we go

California's 2004-enacted Proposition 58 requires the State to balance its budget. Revolutionary - how about something like this for the US Federal Government, the UK and its regions?

Now Governor Schwarzenegger is looking for a 10% cut in expenditures across the board, as the San Diego Union-Tribune reports.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

What goes around, comes around

Rob Kirby quotes the Privateer newsletter's report that the European Central Bank is furious with Britain, for borrowing vast sums of Euros and forcing the stock of Euros to inflate.

Interestingly for me, he relates this action in part to the UK's having taken on so much of US Treasury debt, a matter on which I commented repeatedly some time ago.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Snippets, straws in the wind

Randy's Credit Crunch Update pictures a cycle of emotions in relation to the markets, and forecasts first deflation, then inflation;

Nadeem Walayat predicts another brightening of the FTSE's candle flame, before it flutters again;

Jas Jain says "total household debt growth below $300B annual rate will lead to outright deflation within months" and this is why the Fed has to keep trying to stimulate lending, with ever-diminishing responses;

Ghassan Abdallah counsels against trying to short the market, what with many forces attempting to support it - best to sit out the dance;

AFP interprets the slide in world stocks as a disappointed response to the Fed's limited interest rate cut, and a sign of fear of inflation - something Alex Wallenwein predicted recently;

Finally, Captain Hook plays with ideas that have occupied me for some time (rubric mine):

... If what we are witnessing is at a minimum a Grand Super-Cycle Degree event, then a total collapse of stock, bond, and currency markets world-wide could be in store as the globe reverts back to more regionalized economies, and localized currencies...

... the swings in the markets are enough to curl one's spine these days, so speculator exhaustion could play a role in curbing interest in speculation. This is a natural considering the aging western populations at this point and will play a big role in curbing the demand for financial assets moving forward as retirees attempt to spend their savings.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

What is long-term investment?

Jeff Prestridge, in today's UK "Mail on Sunday" finance section, reports that the Personal Assets trust, controlling £188 million, has changed its weighting from 60% cash earlier this year to 100% cash now. He's sniffy about their performance over the last 5 years, contrasting them with the likes of Baillie Gifford.

Well, I'm not a respected Fleet Street money journalist, merely a no-account bearish personal financial adviser, but I'd suggest that in the exciting investment world of today, maybe a five-year period is not a good basis for comparing long-term results, or conditioning expectations for the future.

I had a client ask my opinion about investments a couple of years ago, because his bank had been showing him their fund's marvellous growth over a three-year period. I took time to explain to my client that over the five years to date (then), the graph (as for the FTSE 100) described a kind of bowl shape, and the period chosen by his bank just happened to draw a line from the bottom of the bowl to the lip.

I then showed him the five-year line in all its loveliness:

I think it's fair to say that these are not ordinary times. There has been a steady build-up of electrical charge, so to speak, over something like a decade (some would say, much longer), and there may well be some powerful bolts unleashed as a result. Where will the lightning will strike next: a steeple, an oak tree, a cap badge - who can tell?

Massive debt; changes in the balance of international trade; demographic weakening of future public finances; sneaky currency devaluation; wild financial speculation; wars and the rumours of wars; imprecisely known ecological limits to growth; declining energy resources; the desperation of the world's poor to join our fantastic lifestyle; our fear that we may lose the comfortable living we used to imagine was our birthright; the corruption, abuse and neglect of the young; the selfishness of their parents and the middle-aged; the increasing burden and growing neglect and abuse of the old.

In all this turmoil, making five-year investment performance comparisons has an air of unreality, like planning tomorrow's menu on a mortally-wounded ocean liner.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Lead, kindly light

A glimmer of hope: Citibank's new boss has opted to put liabilities back onto the balance sheet, much to Karl Denninger's satisfaction.

Perhaps, after the next election, a new US President, with the strength of a fresh mandate, will be also able to act so decisively.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Denninger: depression, but when?

Karl Denninger offers two options for the US financial regulators. The first is to get banks to put all their potential liabilities on their balance sheets - financial suicide for some.

The other is to keep the door closed until the smell is too bad, and then we have far worse problems - but it could take years. End result: deflationary depression.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Collectivized security leads to riskier behaviour

A most interesting piece by John Mauldin (Safe Haven, 8 December), relating mathematical and scientific discoveries in other fields, to the economic system.

Research into piles of sand grains showed that the timing of sudden collapses is quite unpredictable, but there is an inverse correlation between their magnitude and likelihood. As the sand piles up, "threads" of instability form, that can be triggered by the fall of a single grain in the wrong place. This is akin to the "Butterfly Effect" in catastrophe theory, I suppose.

Mauldin connects this up with a paper published last year, about uncertainty created by humans in the development of their economic structures:

...the greater the number of connections within any given economic network, the greater the system is at risk.

This underscore the concerns I hinted at in an earlier post. The potential for catastrophic change is building up, and we can't predict what will be the trigger. Therefore, all the connections we are forming with each other need to be balanced by provisions for disconnecting, or for insulating one region from changes occurring in another.

To use an analogy, the supertankers that take oil around the world's oceans are internally divided into compartments. It would be cheaper, and so more profitable, not to install the internal compartments. But without them, a large wave hitting the ship could cause a movement in the liquid cargo that would shift the balance and quite possibly sink the vessel altogether.

So there is a trade-off between efficiency and survival.

Another aspect is how human behaviour changes in relation to risk perception. For example, research shows that when road junctions are widened and vision-obscuring vegetation cleared, drivers compensate for the extra security by going faster and less carefully. I understand that each of us has his/her our own preset level of risk tolerance, and when circumstances change, will seek to bring things back to that level .

But what if you don't fully understand the new circumstances? A miscalculation as to the level of security inherent in the situation could lead to your behaving more dangerously than you realise. The complexity and obscurity of CDOs, derivatives and credit default swaps are examples in the world of finance and economics, but surely this applies to other fields, too.

Perhaps conservative instincts are not just laziness, stupidity and timidity, but survival instincts. Have you noticed how those maddeningly slow drivers don't have dents in their old, lovingly-polished cars?

Maybe I'll get a hat, for driving.

The Fed may trigger off a run on Treasury bonds, says Wallenwein

Alex Wallenwein thinks the Fed will curb its impulse to drop interest rates as much as people want, because of its fear of inflation. He expects it will backfire when people figure this out.

Wallenwein suspects that the Fed has been buying longer-term US Treasury bonds to sustain demand and so keep interest rates low, but he thinks that once others scent the Fed's fear, there will be a massive dump that will throw more on the market than the Fed can mop up. This, he thinks, will send longer-term interest rates soaring.

His conclusion is that gold will perform its usual function of a safe haven in times of uncertainty.

As I pointed out this summer, the UK has (fairly recently) become the third-largest holder of US Treasury bonds.

Monday, December 10, 2007

A run on non-banks

The Great Depression of 2006: Cash Only

Jim in San Marcos explains that it's probably not the banks we need to worry about, but the financial entitities that are NOT covered by Federal deposit insurance.

And Karl Denninger also details other areas threatened by financial contraction.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Little boxes

In India, where many people cannot read, you sign for the State pension by thumbprint. This seemed like a secure system, until a man was caught with a tobacco-tin full of thumbs.

It would have made no difference had it been a tin of cloned credit cards. You don't need to know what's in the box, or how it works; you need to know what it does, and who it's for.

Once you start thinking along these lines, things get so much clearer. For example, you don't have to be a "quant" like Richard Bookstaber, to know that derivatives are about risk. More precisely, they're for increasing risk.

Supposedly, a derivative reduces risk; but if you look at its use, it's a box that tells lenders and gamblers how far they can go. Seeing the fortunes that can be made in high finance, there is the strongest temptation to push the boundary.

My old primary school had a lovely little garden behind it, where we played at morning break. One game was "What's the time, Mister Wolf?". You went up to the "wolf" and asked him the time; he'd say nine o' clock; to the next child he'd say ten o'clock and so on, until he'd suddenly shout "Dinner time!" and chase you. Obviously, the game was not about telling the time.

So it is with financial risk models that service the need to maximise profits: always another trembling step forward. There's only one way to find out when you've gone too far.

But what if you could ask the time, and know that someone else would end up being chased? I think that explains the subprime packages currently causing so much trouble.

The bit I don't understand is why banks started buying garbage like this from each other. Maybe it's a case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing, since these organisations are so big. Or maybe it's that everyone has their own personal box.

Then there's credit default swaps, and other attempts to herd together for collective security. They don't work if the reduction in fear leads to an increase in risk-taking. United we fall: no point in tying your dinghy to the Titanic's anchor-chain.

In fact, I think this opens up a much wider field of discussion, about efficiency versus survivability. In business, economics and politics we might eventually find ourselves talking about dispersion, diversity and disconnection.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Liberty update

Bernard Nothaus is retaliating and preparing for his court case.



As Chumbawumba sang:

I get knocked down
But I get up again
You're never going to keep me down
We'll be singing
When we're winning
We'll be singing

... good luck.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Better to be rich and mis?

Elmer, a Filipino living in Hong Kong, comments on insurance group AXA's "Life Outlook Index". He wonders whether being happy and optimistic holds back economic progress in the Philippines. For, of eight Asian countries surveyed, the Singaporeans had most insurance and were the most miserable.

So I'd ask whether economic progress is more important than being happy and optimistic. Read "Insurance - The White Man's Burden" and decide.

UPDATE

...and a nice little thread in Market Ticker's forums section, on rat-race dropouts who've taken to the beaches in Hawaii

The Dow is a shape-changer

A brilliantly clear and succinct essay by Nadeem Walayat for Financial Sense, showing that the Dow tends to rise long-term simply by adding winners and dropping losers. Not only that, it's vulnerable to manipulation for official "feelgood factor" purposes. And the 30 stocks are not equally weighted, so a few stars can carry a load of duds with them.

An argument for betting on the index, if you're not an attentive stock-watcher.

This, I suggest, is one to bookmark, or print and put in in your wallet.

A moment of sanity

At times of crisis, unlicensed preachers and wild-eyed prophets roam the streets, gathering their crowds. But their rule never lasts.

My grandfather used to say, things are never as good as you hope or as bad as you fear. As I reported some while ago, members of the Chicago Stock Exchange in 1934 papered their club room with what they thought were now worthless stock certificates, but within five years were steaming them off the walls again.

The Thirties crash hit debtors, unwary investors (especially those trading with borrowed money) and insolvent banks. The lessons from this are easy to learn.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Unreal

Richard Daughty (the Mogambo Guru) refers to articles by Nouriel Roubini and Sharon Kayser, giving us debt -threat vistas of $1 trillion and $1,000 trillion respectively. Then he returns to Terry Pratchett's Discworld dwarves' favourite song ("Gold, gold, gold, gold...").

Two problems: one is, I can't visualise anything with many zeroes, so it's not real for me. More importantly, if there's a major meteor-strike financial bust (i.e. deflation), I'd have thought cash in hand is what everyone will want.

Unless a crazed government opts for hyperinflation. In which case, I'd rather have pallets of canned baked beans, boxes of ammunition and many brave, loyal friends. You can't eat gold.

But as with all truly terrible imaginings, the mind bounces off this like a tennis ball from a granite boulder, and we turn back to normal life with determined optimism.

The Fed and King Canute

Michael Panzner directs us to John Hussman, who explains that the Federal Reserve's power to manage the financial system is very limited - the funds it provides are dwarfed by the amount out in the economy.

... the problem with the U.S. financial system ... is not liquidity, but the solvency of mortgage loans and securitized debt. The Fed's actions are not likely to have material impact on this.

This, plus Larry Lindsey's comments noted in my previous post, adds weight to Karl Denninger's continuing theme of inevitable deflation.

Larry Lindsey: extraordinary rendition

Ed Steer (Financial Sense) relates his October experience of an unusually frank speech, and answers to questions, by President Bush's former economic adviser. According to Steer (I paraphrase), Lindsey's views include:

- The Fed knew home loans were getting dumb, but didn't want to spoil the party
- Banks are going to have to revalue their property holdings realistically
- Hedge funds will have to take what comes, and probably will
- America has offloaded zillions in toxic-waste loan packages to other countries, and ha, ha !
- House prices will plummet
- Don't trust the government CPI figures
- Gold dumping is coming from European central banks, not the US
- America could handle a 20-30% dollar devaluation

... loads of beef in that burger, where's the fluffy bun?

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The end of usury

In the inflation/deflation debate, Karl Denninger comes down firmly - and to me, persuasively - on the latter side.

He points out - as do others, including proponents of Islamic sharia banking - that however much money is created through credit, more must be created to cover the interest charged. Usury endlessly blows up the balloon, which must eventually pop, before the cycle begins again.

Lenders do want their money back, and so generally take security for the loans they grant. At some point - and Denninger believes it's now very close - lenders will become unwilling to lend further, and/or borrowers will retrench or become unable to service their debts. In short, borrowers will have to pay up or be ruined, together with the more reckless lenders.

Can the government print extra money to solve this? Not according to Denninger, who says that the effect of bad money will be to drive out private lenders (who would demand very high interest rates for lending in an inflationary environment). Since the government itself runs partly on borrowed money, it's not an option.
Like me, Denninger thought the bust came in 2000, but the refusal to face reality means that we now face a much bigger bust.

Conclusion: cash will be king; get out of debt now.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Ted Spread

Large Ted spread = bear market?

Michael Panzner shows a couple of ominous graphs:

One is the "TED spread" - the difference between interest rates charged by banks to each other, and short-term (and safe) Treasury bonds. A wider margin indicates that the market is charging more because it considers lending to be more risky, and the current TED spread is approaching 1987 levels.

The other shows the ratio of amount loaned out, to amounts of cash on deposit. Lenders are now very stretched.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

The Angriest Guy In Economics

Supposedly "the angriest guy in economics" is Richard Daughty, aka The Mogambo Guru - but he gives his rants a comedy twist.

Karl Denninger, on the other hand, is very emphatic that our economic woes are no laughing matter. Here he calls for all the "off-book" items to be included in lenders' accounts, and if that bankrupts them, so be it: a cleansing of the financial system, condign punishment for the perpetrators and a warning to others. This is similar to Marc Faber's position: he says the crisis should be allowed to "burn through and take out some of the players". Gritty.

And concrete. Denninger supplies a photo of a customer-empty store at 6 p.m. on a Sunday evening, to underscore his point.

Now that's something we can put to the test - look at the shops in your area and work out how crowded you'd normally expect them to be at the beginning of December.