Please drink, gamble and fornicate responsibly

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Breaking radio silence

How much debt does the USA have, compared to its income? According to Ned Davis Research, the previous all-time high was in the Depression of the 30s (265%); NDR's latest estimate is 350%, The Mogambo Guru reports.

So, inflation or deflation? The Mogambo Guru rants that only inflation (which he hates) can save us now. But in the first link above, Louis P. Stanasolovich comments:

High debt levels also have another side effect: disinflation. Because consumers and businesses have limited spending, they must retrench once they reach their saturation points. When the demand for goods and services diminishes due to the over-extension of credit, the result is disinflation.

In other words, we will have to live poorer - no matter what the currency does. We see in Zimbabwe that you can have billions and it won't buy you a square meal. What inflation can do, is disguise the problems for a while (as it did post-2000) - until the system breaks down completely. Who has the public spirit and grit to stop the charade now?

By the way (since The Mogambo Guru loves gold)... Krugerrand = going out to get more champagne.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Intermission: summer holidays!

"NOTHING AT PRESENT"

Inflation, deflation, the world economy and freedom

This article by Matthew Beller on the Mises website tries to show how the US government can't "print its way out" of the present crisis.

The Federal Reserve controls the "monetary base" of physical currency and bank deposits, which represent only 15% of the money supply; the rest is bank lending. Currently, the banks are in a fright, so they are reducing credit, on which the economy depends. But if the Federal Reserve increases the monetary base, the banks' ability to multiply their deposits could lead to hyperinflation and the destruction of the dollar altogether. Hence the attempts to maintain confidence in the banking system instead, even if that means expensive financial support.

This isn't enough for the monetarists. They say the lending in the recent boom went on consumer spending, which encouraged producers to make too much of the wrong stuff and so the economy developed in the wrong way. The econo-Puritans say we should accept deflation because, although temporarily painful, it will rebalance the economy for a more sustainable long-term future.

However, nobody likes nasty medicine, so a political question is whether democracies will allow politicians to take timely corrective action. Past history suggests that we'll only vote for the treatment when we're half-dead, and even then, we'll curse the doctor afterwards.

My feeling is that this tendency to delay means that underneath the business cycle is a fatal linear trend, moving wealth and power to less democratic countries. When the world economy recovers, it may be on very different terms: for although (e.g.) China may suffer a setback as the Western consumer reduces spending, Chinese industrial capacity has been growing over recent years - not only the factories and tools, but equally importantly the skills base. At the upturn, the East will be well-placed to cater for reviving demand, while the West struggles to supply appropriately-skilled labour, and tries to buy back some of the industrial materials it had previously exported. And as the East industrialises, it will generate locally a greater proportion of world demand.

I cannot see how we can avoid becoming poorer, on average, than we have been in past decades, even if an elite in our society grows richer and more powerful (a phenomenon associated with more impoverished economies). We cannot rely on high-end production: China will address its quality issues, as Japan did in the 1950s. Nor can we be complacent about intellectual property rights, in a world where might makes right.

But China itself has deep problems - an growing and ageing population; an increasingly unbalanced demographic structure, thanks to attempts to limit family size; pollution; water shortgages; declining quality of farm land. The Chinese leadership faces a long-term challenge in dealing with unsatisfiable domestic expectations, which will tend to make it intransigent in its relations with foreign powers. The East-West contest may become characterized by desperation on both sides.

And so democracy in the West will come under pressure. In difficult times, people are thrown back on a network of social relationships and mutual expectations, but sudden, unreal access of wealth has tempted us to put our faith in the amassing of cash, and/or government intervention, to the detriment of agreed internal social control and support systems. When the system enters its failure phase, which Fischer ("The Great Wave") thinks may be starting, the social threads begin to snap: inflation, crime, family breakdown, war. The reification of the ties that bind us together tempts our government to maintain the social order through externalised means of surveillance and enforcement. Ultimately, the mismanagement of national budgets is a freedom issue.

Banks: the legal recriminations begin.

I wondered a while ago where bankers would flee when the reckoning came. Looks like the lawsuits are starting already.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

For the gold bugs

"Jesse" does a chart suggesting the gold price could drop to $875 before taking off for $1,200 and upwards.

China shakes the steel world

Shen Wenrong, the billionaire who bought Dortmund's Phoenix steel plant and moved it to the Pearl River, is increasing his hold on the privately-owned sector of the Chinese steel industry, as reported in SteelGuru here.

Readers of James Kynge's "China Shakes the World" will recall that Wenrong acquired Phoenix in 2004 partly in order to get into production fast, but also because, having bought it at scrap valuation during the last steel recession, he would not be encumbered with the debts that would wipe out his rivals in the next one.

Which means that he's looking beyond the next recession. And when the recovery comes, where will the West's capacity be found? Those who say that the East's fortunes are bound up with those of the West, had better get new spectacles to correct their short-sightedness.

GSE losses "only $25 billion"

Bloomberg reports on the bailout plan. Only $25 billion? Phew - a couple of Senators were thinking maybe $1 trillion, as The Motley Fool's TMFSinchiruna points out.

Could I please have "only" 1% of the lower figure for my modest needs? You won't miss it - after all, look at what you haven't missed so far. I'd even write you a specially nice letter of thanks.

Mugabe "fighting extradition to the Hague"

I presume that in the wake of his arrest and ongoing extradition battle, the case of a certain Serbian alleged war criminal is sub judice, so I have edited down and altered names, facts, numbers and places in the following Press Association article, using alternatives plucked at random.

Mugabe fights crimes extradition

1 day ago

Former Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe is battling extradition from Zimbabwe to the Netherlands, where he faces trial for genocide.

Mugabe's lawyers have been given three days to appeal against the extradition ruling by a Zimbabwean judge.

If the extradition goes ahead he will stand trial at the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague on war crimes charges - including masterminding the massacre of thousands of Ndebele in Matabeleland during the liberation war of the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the arrest of the former Zimbabwean leader could help pave the way for Zimbabwe finally to join the European Union, Foreign Secretary David Miliband signalled.

Attending a meeting of the EU foreign ministers in Brussels, Mr Miliband said that the actions of the Zimbabwean government "bodes very well for long-term relations".

Mugabe was arrested while travelling on a bus in Harare, Zimbabwe. The one-time education lecturer had been practising as a tutor in legal studies during his period as a fugitive from international justice.

The Financial Times reports British and US intelligence helped trap Mugabe. The newspaper says they co-operated with Zimbabwean intelligence services, using both signals and human intelligence to track him down.

Mugabe's lawyer said his client was in good spirits but was not co-operating with police.

The hunt for Mugabe's right-hand man, Emmerson Mnangagwa, continues.

Now aged 61, his whereabouts are not known, but is believed that he could be hiding in Zimbabwe with the help of hardliners in the police and military and Mashona loyalists.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Mish: "The entire US banking system is insolvent."


Mish gives us a long list of bad news; the last item is, arguably, the worst:

Of the $6.84 Trillion in bank deposits, the total cash on hand at banks is a mere $273.7 Billion. Where is the rest of the loot? The answer is in off balance sheet SIVs, imploding commercial real estate deals, Alt-A liar loans, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac bonds, toggle bonds where debt is amazingly paid back with more debt, and all sorts of other silly (and arguably fraudulent) financial wizardry schemes that have bank and brokerage firms leveraged at 30-1 or more. Those loans cannot be paid back.

What cannot be paid back will be defaulted on. If you did not know it before, you do now. The entire US banking system is insolvent.

Big rewards for corporate failure

Wikipedia reports that chief executive Angelo Mozilo cashed in over $400 million (about a third of it in 2006/7) in Countrywide Financial stock before the failing lender's purchase by Bank of America this month. Karl Denninger's latest dramatic video presentation says, in effect, that bankers looted the system for personal gain and are now trying to get the taxpayer to foot the bill.

Investment wise owl Christopher Fildes has long advocated that, if they expect a bonus when things go well, directors should pay a "malus" when the company suffers. The French already use a bonus/malus system as a stick-and-carrot for car drivers.

Maybe then I'd be more reconciled to gross inequalities of wealth.

New: UK private schools fully-funded by the State

A friend has just sent me this article, originally from The Economist (14 June 2008). It's about the private-school revolution in Sweden, which is now coming here (starting in Richmond).

I've often wondered what the education system does with all the money - £6,000 a head times 30 children (if you're an English or maths teacher) = £180,000, but the classroom teacher's standard pay and pension might only use £30k-£40k a year.

Here's the website for the Swedish outfit trying their luck with a couple of academies in Greater London.

In praise of Patrick O'Flynn

This wide-ranging article by the Daily Express' chief political commentator covers many aspects of the broad crisis that led me to start blogging. My interest is not money per se, but about the fate of our country, and here Patrick O'Flynn unrolls a map of our problems, including:
  • The rise of the East
  • The growing power of foreign authoritarian regimes
  • The purchase of British enterprises by foreign sovereign wealth funds, and the consequent export of our future dividend income
  • Increasing foreign-held UK public debt (again, more income exported)
  • Our vulnerability to energy repricing, and inadequate energy security
  • Inflation in food and fuel
  • Our unbalanced national budget, what with the cost of unemployment, and rising costs in other social benefits such as the NHS
  • Inefficiency in the public sector
  • The UK's squandering of its North Sea oil opportunity (cf. Norway's £300 billion investment fund)
  • British economic decline, and our deterioriating manufacturing base
He concludes: "...the decade ahead will be full of challenges. Britain will have to aggressively earn its living in the world once more and those with nothing to offer will be offered nothing in return."

Spot on. But it's still tucked away on page 12 in yesterday's paper edition, well after Madeleine McCann and Amy Winehouse. This stuff should be hitting the front page all the time, because long after we've forgotten the celeb victims of today, we'll be counting the cost of our government's political and economic negligence and incompetence.

Gold fever may return

Gold has been in the doldrums for a while, but we're now getting messages about inflation and if Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are added to the liabilities of the US Government, we could be back in the paper-money world of pre-Revolutionary France as advised by the Scottish gambler, John Law.

The Mogambo Guru gives value, not just in comic entertainment, but also in his useful references. One of them is to Adrian Ash, who points out that gold is now worth less than 2% of world financial assets, whereas at times of "investor stress" (and as late as 1982) it has risen to 20-25%. It may be time to consider the argument for precious metals, not so much as investments as insurance against the severe loss of value of other assets.

The EU and Radavan Karadzic

ITV's News at Ten last night covered the arrest of Karadzic, making the point that his identity and whereabouts have been known to the Serbs for years.

(The archive footage included an infamously misleading shot of Bosnian Muslims behind barbed wire, hauntingly reminiscent of the Nazi concentration camps; both at the time and again now, it was not explained that it was the camera crew that was penned in. Still, dramatic truth and all that.)

Whatever the terrible crimes of this man, the decision by Serbia's new, pro-EU government to "lighten the troika" looks primarily motivated by the desire to re-establish trade and diplomatic links with "Europe." So to me, the real story is the continuing expansion of the new European Empire.

The Balkans are being knocked into shape, or so the empire-builders think. Kosova declared independence in February 2008 (in the teeth of an attempted legal challenge by Serbia) and has been recognised by the USA and many other countries. The 100,000 Serbs in Kosova make up only 5% of the new nation's population, and compared to the 10 million in Serbia itself they are, presumably, of little account politically there, also. Besides, of course, Kosovans are not wolves.
But the question remains, how much more of Europe's former battlegrounds does the EU have the wealth and power to suborn, absorb and control? What will happen when its money runs low? Can its Babel-army sustain the territorial integrity of a hastily-constructed, ramshackle and heterogeneous empire? Will its gourmet diplomats and bibbed lawyers maintain law and reason under its young, yet complex and fuzzy legal and constitutional codes?

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Whose country?

"Citizenship in this nation is is not a spectator sport," says Karl Denninger, as he tries to get more people to sign his petition to stop Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac being made vast burdens of the State.

I hope that is true for the USA, and I wish it were true here. Are we deluding ourselves when we talk of "our" Government?

Worrying signs

Knowing that debt creates extra money and so boosts inflation, The Mogambo Guru notes that the Chinese now have 1.58 billion credit cards! For some reason, TMG thinks we should look at gold and silver.

Karl Denninger points out that short-selling actually acts as a kind of price support in the market, since ultimately the short seller has to buy the shares he's sold to someone else; and so the new ban on short-selling selected financials has removed the floor beneath them. Jim in San Marcos found he couldn't do any short-selling in that sector for three hours yesterday, and doesn't know whether that means we're looking at free-fall or a sudden rally. Either way, it seems to prove the point that banning short-selling increases volatility, the sensible investor's enemy and the gambler's fatal siren.

If two views make a market, does silencing one leave the other free to become a whimsical dictator?

Inequality revisited

"...both the income share earned by the top 1 percent of tax returns and the tax share paid by that top 1 percent have once again reached all-time highs," says Russell Roberts at Cafe Hayek, quoting the Tax Foundation.

As we've seen recently, there's more than one way to interpret the facts. At what point do the rich cease to inspire those beneath them, and begin to squeeze them? Doesn't it take money to make money? If so, shouldn't the lower orders be left with some after paying their bills? Is there an optimum level for the Gini Index?

UPDATE

Trevor Phillips on inequality on Britain: "People can see the economic slowdown coming. Everyone is happy to take some of the pain as long as that pain is shared fairly and what we want to do is to make sure that the burden doesn't fall unfairly on some groups rather than others."

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Inequality

An anonymous spam-rant comment on one of my recent posts claimed that 1% of Americans owned 50% of the wealth, and this was destroying the system. Is it really a problem? I've had a quick trawl for information on inequality.

  • Gini Index/Coefficient of inequality explained here
  • Wikipedia lists countries by inequality here
  • The CIA Factbook gives the Gini Index of the USA as 45 (in 2007), the UK as 34 (in 2005)
  • Increase of USA's Gini coefficient since 1967 here
Here's some relevant articles and posts:

Richest 2% Own Half World Wealth; Bottom 50% Own 1% - UN Report (5 December 2006)
"the richest 1% of adults alone owned 40% of global assets in the year 2000"

The wealth gap is widening again (Daily Mail, 26 June 2008)

Why is the 'wealth gap' a bad thing? (MSNBC says it's not, what matters is opportunity)

Wealth gap widens (CNN, 29 August 2006)
"In the early 1960s, the top 1 percent of households in terms of net worth held 125 times the median wealth in the United States. Today, that gap has grown to 190 times..."

Wealth Gap Is Increasing, Study Shows (ScienceDaily, 9 August 2007)
"The poorest ten percent of families actually had a negative net worth---more liabilities than assets..."

*** Sackerson's Prophet Prize for this: ***
Globalization Has Increased the Wealth Gap (interview with Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz , author of "Globalization and Its Discontents", posted 15 January 2007)
"I think we are in a precarious position. We might be lucky and wander our way through this mess. There is a significant probability, however, that global interest rates could rise. If that happened, households with a large amount of debt would find it very difficult to meet their mortgage payments, and home prices would go down, which would lead to a reduction in consumption. Last year Americans consumed more than their income, something that is obviously not sustainable. The only way they could get away with it was by taking out money from their houses. But if home prices go down, they won't be able to do that any more. So there is a significant risk of a large economic slowdown. And government, by piling on so much debt and having such a large deficit, does not have much room to maneuver."

Why the wealth gap keeps growing (essay by Paul van Eeden, 17 November 2006)
"The fact is that people all over the world are getting poorer -- not because of free enterprise, open markets or globalization but because government created monetary inflation robs them of their living standards. The only ones who can immunize themselves are those with sufficient capital and that is why the rich get richer and the poor get poorer."

Market manipulation in financials?

Mish refers us to a piece in Minyanville. It suggests a recently introduced selective ban on short-selling is intended to support share prices in financials, so that more money can be drawn in by splitting shares and selling new tranches to the public.

To me, it feels like touting for sucker money. What happens later, when the short-selling ban is lifted? When the government (via regulators) begins to manipulate the market in this way, it looks like a sign that we are in trouble.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Should sterling now decline against the US dollar?

Mish thinks so, now we've decided to borrow our way out of a recession.

Also interesting to hear the discussion on Radio 4's Any Questions, where the assertion that Gordon had stuck to the EU's "40% of GDP" borrowing guideline wasn't challenged by anyone, despite the massive off-book PFI financing.

Conspiracy Corner

Secret Bilderberg Agenda to Microchip Americans Leaked

Thought you ought to know.

Break free

To cut down the rainforest, you need logging roads and rivers, so that you can empty the land. And to extract the wealth and freedom of a nation, you need a money system, banking, credit and debt.

Thanks to iTulip, I'm working my way through a series of YouTube postings of an Argentinian documentary. It describes how banks and multinational companies raided Argentina from the nineteenth century onwards, and how successive betrayals by popular politicians and union leaders have perpetuated the crisis.

Some years ago, I watched a documentary about an old American farmer, trying to make ends meet while crop prices fell and the bank continued sucking up interest from his debts. Finally, he did a brave, bold, heroic thing: he sold. He took the farming equipment he had acquired with a life's work, and auctioned it to his farming neighbours, who were rooting for him. Then he cleared his bank debt entirely, gave the home farm unencumbered to his son, left the big sky and went with his wife to live in a little flat in town.

I don't think I shall ever forget the dignity and restraint he showed when the bank telephoned him with hypocritical words of goodwill.

Pay off your debts, save cash (or whatever will keep its value), and don't put it all in the bank.

M4 up

FXstreet.com reports (htp: Alice) on significant increase in UK M4 money supply and lending (someone please help me with the distinction). Conclusion: inflation.

To put it in context, click here for BoE long run stats on M4.

Saturday smile


Friday, July 18, 2008

Comments, please

I had the last comment here come through tonight, but although it's long and features words in capital letters (usually a bad sign), I read it. Shame it's anonymous, and maybe it could do with editing, but aren't there elements in it with which you could agree? Is he (I assume he, for some reason) right about wealth distribution in the USA?

UPDATE

That rant has indeed been copied and pasted as the author suggests, with slight variations. I've done a little digging via Google (there's about 1,600 instances) and the earliest date-stamped version I can find so far is 26th February 2008 here, though quite likely there's earlier ones.

I don't know what he's got against Oprah.

The "1% own 50%" claim startled me - looks like England in the 19th century. Anybody able to confirm the inequality data? And will the sucking-up of wealth by the rich destroy the economy, as the ranter claims?

Should we let Africa starve?

Wofie's post on the futility of charity in Africa, a rider to Kevin Myers' article in the Irish Independent, gave me pause for thought. Are we wasting our money keeping poor children alive, so that they can grow up to be gangster-soldiers? If abortion is the answer to the criminal classes (not actually advocated as such by the authors of "Freakonomics"), is starvation the solution to civil war in Africa?

"Africa’s peoples are outstripping their resources, and causing catastrophic ecological degradation," says Myers. Perhaps, if they do things as they have done before. But on that basis, one would never have predicted the growth of Europe's population to its current size.

One of my relations by marriage went to Kenya to try his fortune some years ago, and having married a local girl from the Kikuyu tribe, bought a farm. His new wife is clever and sent off for pamphlets on farming, from which she learned that you can multiply the productivity of your land by companion-planting several crops. I wonder how much more food Africa could produce if agricultural skills there were better developed and disseminated.

Even in Europe, there are disparities in efficiency. Up to the end of World War 2, my grandfather had a farm in East Prussia. His 600 acres produced at least as much as the 2,000-acre farms of his neighbours. He compounded this advantage by diddling the taxman, telling the latter that as a simple farmer, he didn't understand finance and would the taxman please assess him on what his land could be judged to yield. You may be sure that he paid his tax bill without argument.

And what about modernising energy supplies, too? As a child, I saw a map of the Congo Basin and fantasised about damming the encircling ring of mountain ranges to make the world's greatest hydro-electric project, supplying the electricity needs for the whole of Africa. Of course, I hadn't considered ecological consequences; but in the Sixties, all I ever (over)heard of "ecology" was an brief, excited discussion between two of my teachers. This doesn't vitiate the argument for looking for efficient energy production that doesn't require chopping down all the forests to cook on wood fires like traditional tribespeople, or middle-class hippies.

Yes, some African countries are spectacularly badly governed; but I don't think we should rush to a money-saving despair for their peoples.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Bubble economy is beyond satire

My brother sends me a link to this article in the internet satire mag The Onion:

Recession-Plagued Nation Demands New Bubble To Invest In

... The current economic woes, brought on by the collapse of the so-called "housing bubble," are considered the worst to hit investors since the equally untenable dot-com bubble burst in 2001. According to investment experts, now that the option of making millions of dollars in a short time with imaginary profits from bad real-estate deals has disappeared, the need for another spontaneous make-believe source of wealth has never been more urgent....

Has the author read iTulip's Eric Janszen on the "bubble economy"? If he has, he'll know Janszen expects the next craze to be alternative energy - full Harper's article here.

Free trade, or shop local?

An essay on the basic argument for trade, at Mises. But the author does admit a problem with externalised costs that aren't taken into account.

A thought: what if we in the UK really don't have much of a comparative advantage in any area, long-term? Once the East has caught up on skills, what do we have that anyone will want to buy?
And what about the monetary distortions in the market? It's like Monopoly with some players cheating by using secret stashes of extra banknotes.

Are the economists misled by an idealised picture of economics?

Will the UK/US trade balance influence the dollar value of sterling?

Here's some trade stats for UK/USA. Last year, we imported $6.6 billion more from the US than we exported to them. Last night, the exchange rate for the pound rose above US$2.00. For some time, we seem to have been shadowing the dollar, but do we have an incentive to allow the dollar to fall further against the pound?

Or will we be more influenced by the desire not to devalue the amount we have loaned to the US via Treasury bonds? And then there is the possible extra unemployment that could result from UK goods becoming more expensive in dollar terms.

Any forex experts care to give a view?

UPDATE: Here's the answer, it seems:

Weak jobs data knocks pound vs dollar and euro (Reuters)

UPUPDATE: ...And here's a different answer:

Sterling up versus dollar, banks support (Reuters)

Wouldn't roulette be more honest, somehow? "Manque! Pair! Impair! Passe! Noir! Rouge! Numero 17!"

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

How far can the FTSE fall?

The FTSE hit a long-term low at 3,287 at the close of 12 March 2003. If it were to drop to 5,000 now, that would still mean about 8% p.a. compound growth.

Bank deposits are investments, and can go wrong

Karl Denninger takes us back to basics about banks and "your money" (highlighting is mine):

I want to talk about IndyMac for a bit.

The news has covered a few really, truly sad stories. People with $200,000, $300,000, $400,000 or more in there who have seen 50% of their balance over $100k disappear overnight.

Older people who literally have their life savings in these institutions. People who are relatively unsophisticated, but have been told through the years that the government will make it all ok, and who believed it.

It tugs at your heart to see a 70+ year old man pleading for them to let him have his money - money that he worked and saved a lifetime for.

If only it were that easy.

People don't think of a bank as being an investment, but it is.

You are lending your money to the bank so they can make money with it, and they pay your a coupon - interest, or the "safekeeping" in the case of a checking account that does not pay interest - in return!

US banks: uninsured deposits stand at $2.6 trillion

Mish calculates the potential for disaster if depositors lose confidence:

"FDIC Recap

There is $6.84 Trillion in bank deposits.
$2.60 Trillion of that is uninsured.
Total cash on hand at banks is $273.7 Billion."


So 89% of uninsured deposits are not covered by available cash in the bank.

Monday, July 14, 2008

TMS a better measure of the money supply?

What looks like an important idea and discussion of "True Money Supply" in Mish. I shall have to chew on it for a bit, but thought the finance-oriented reader might care to do the same.

Mish says when you look at the situation correctly, we are definitely in DEflation.

Ron Paul and Tibet: is he right?

House and Senate Pass Resolutions on Chinese Crackdown of Tibet

On Wednesday, the House overwhelmingly passed a resolution calling on China to “end its crackdown on Tibet and release Tibetans imprisoned for “nonviolent” demonstrations.” The resolution passed on a vote of 413-1, with ”Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, who recently dropped out of the presidential race, was the lone congressman voting against it.”

(Reuters)

This entry is given prominence in Reuters' site (world news section), but is three months old, a point I didn't spot at first. Still, I think the underlying issues are enduring and (given the imminent start of the Games) topical.

The almost-complete unanimity of the vote seems rather suspicious, but although we are used to the army being out of step with Ron Paul in financial matters, is he right in this case? Some might think you cannot have a policy of "liberty in one country", any more than "socialism in one country."

Can't find much in Google News about it, but here's a bit of blog discussion, updated here.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Bear market: Steiff comes home

Chasing lower costs, Steiff outsourced around a fifth of its production to China in 2003 but has now decided to come back because of concerns about quality and staff turnover.

Steiff is one of a small number of German firms which are swimming against the tide and leaving China, despite its cheaper workforce and a burgeoning consumer population. With fuel at record highs, some cite mounting transport costs.

Production of Steiff toys, which include a distinctive long-limbed bear with a melancholy growl, will come back to Germany and other countries in Europe by the end of 2009.

(Reuters)

That's sort of heartening, except that as it continues to develop, China will deal with quality issues. Japan listened to W. Edwards Deming in the 1950s and soon "Made in Japan" meant, not cheap, tinny and shoddy, but innovative, reliable and affordable.

In any case, this is clutching at straws. Tiny companies making high-value toys won't sustain Western Europe. We need major changes if we're going to become globally competitive. For example, health and welfare provision will have to be reassessed as the budgets shrink.

And here's a big debate to come: how much education? How much benefits the economy, how much is positional (Swiss finishing school for your daughter, etc), and how much is luxury consumption, like foreign holidays and Lagerfeld dresses?

How much education is simply an illogical, implicit pretence that the government is doing something to give all children relative advantage, particularly yours? How much is to disguise unemployment? How much is to keep potential young criminals penned-in during the daytime on weekdays? How much is to baby-mind children so that women can be driven out of their homes to do low-paid work?

As the money dries up, there will be an education debate, and it will be messy.

US lending market: Apocalypse Now?

Some points from Denninger's latest (summary in my words):

It's getting hot. The collapse of IndyMac may take 10% - 20% of the FDIC's balance sheet, and that's assuming a savers' panic doesn't start.

If the government underwrites Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the Federal public debt doubles (goes up by $5 trillion), the US' credit rating is compromised (it's starting to happen already) and all debts will cost more in interest - maybe 3% extra. KD's recommendation is that the two monster lenders be put into receivership and wound down over time; this means a steep drop in house prices so that they can be afforded on more sensible terms and conditions.

His advice to you: head for the high ground. Get out of debt, get your savings balance below the FDIC's $100k ceiling, think about buying Treasury bonds. "If the government goes down you will need steel, lead and brass, not money."

BUT...

See Jim from San Marcos on the same matter. And someone copied Denninger's piece whole into a comment at Jim's, to which the latter responded:

"There is a very peculiar situation here from a stock ownership position. These two stocks are being shorted en-mass. I kind of get the feeling that neither one is going to zero. I smell a bear trap here. You can be right but still be dead wrong."

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Roubini: bailing out government mortgage lenders could downgrade the USA's national credit rating

If we fiscalize all of these losses the U.S. may fast lose its AAA sovereign debt rating and eventually end up like an insolvent banana republic.

Nouriel Roubini, quoted in Mish's.

The housing bubble: 5 - 12 years to the turn

According to iTulip, we are at Step D in a timetable (published in January 2005) that implies we have quite some years to go before a housing upturn.

Their point about real estate being an illiquid market seems valid to me, and I've suggested before now that we should expect a decline and a long stall, rather than an equity-style crash.

Zimbabwe: racism and international meddling

Mines in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe on Saturday welcomed the failure of a Western-backed U.N. Security Council resolution to impose sanctions over its violent presidential elections, calling it a victory over racism and meddling in its affairs. (Reuters)

Racist...

Robert Mugabe is a member of the Shona tribe (as is opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai), which comprises 70% of the population of Zimbabwe, occupying the centre and north of the country.

The Matabele (Ndebele) tribe, who tend to live in the southern part, make up half of the remaining minority, and (not surprisingly, in view of their post-Independence massacres by Mugabe's troops) are supporters of the MDC (Movement for Democratic Change). ''The denial of food to opposition strongholds has replaced overt violence as the government's principal tool of repression,'' the ICG wrote in August 2002.

Meddling...

Zimbabwe's natural resources include "coal, chromium ore [10% of the world's reserves], asbestos, gold, nickel, copper, iron ore, vanadium, lithium, tin, platinum group metals" (CIA World Factbook), and there are 10 or so foreign-owned mining companies operating there. The Zimbabwean kleptocracy has turned from seizing farms (which they either don't know how to run, or can't be bothered to), to grabbing controlling interests in foreign-owned firms, and a 25% no-compensation stake in mining companies. Presumably, in the latter case, they'll leave the operational side to the experts.

In 2005, the Chinese government and Chinese businesses supplied T-shirts for ZANU-PF supporters, jets and trucks for the Army, and the architectural plans and blue tiles for Mugabe's new 25-bedroom mansion. The recent attempt (April 2008) to ship a load of arms in, so that Mr Mugabe could deal with his little local difficulty, was described by the Chinese as "normal military trade". Annual trade between these two countries was expected to reach $500 million this year.

Zimbabwe is touting Russia for trade and business deals, including tourism (uniformed hunting trips in Matabeleland?)

Perhaps the reason 84-year-old Mugabe is hanging on, is that he and his entourage have a tiger by the tail. How could they get out of their land-locked country alive?
UPDATE
But why Russia? The New York Times fishes for an explanation as to why Russia indicates some willingness to consider sanctions, and then reneged, dragging China with her. The NYT is baffled, limply quoting the US Ambassador to the UN: “Something happened in Moscow.”
Could it be that Zimbabwe in itself has little interest for Russia, but this veto is a dog-whistle to other African nations where the Ivans may develop more serious business links?
Or could it be, as this blogger hypothesises, part of the Great Game between Russia and the US, particularly reflecting missile defence technology?
How skilfully does Robert Mugabe, the Dom Mintoff of East Africa, play off great nations against one another! If only his skills benefitted his country, also.
Stephen Glover, in today's Grumbler:

The English libel laws used to be much loved by the rich and famous, and to a large degree London remains the libel capital of the world to which freebooters of all nationalities, including our own, flock in order to pick up some usually undeserved loot.

Now these and other folk have fastened on to Article Eight of the Human Rights Act. Of course, their and everyone else's privacy must be respected, but so must the right of a free Press to write about the private misbehaviour - more often financial rather than sexual - of the rich and powerful.

Does Mr Glover think this should apply to celeb journalists, also? It seems to me that some members of the Fourth Estate are rich and powerful, when compared to the rest of us.

Signs of the times

A BBC Radio 4 topical news comedy programme says that you can't make a movie featuring recession. I beg to differ. I think that we get reflections of how things are now, and inklings of things to come, from contemporary culture - think of Stravinsky's Rites of Spring and how the world changed shortly afterwards. Look out for films that echo these:



And I read long ago that some professional investors look for all sorts of straws in the wind, for example, the length of women's skirts (shorter = more confident, boomtime).

Any similar?

UK economy: between a rock and a hard place

CU has asked me to comment on his latest post on the UK's economic crisis. I'm flattered that someone thinks my opinion is worth anything, but here's my effort:

There's often a kind of self-destructive excitement as a crisis develops, as at the gathering of forces for a war. But the Rupert Brookes will be succeeded by the Wilfred Owens.

I have believed for about 9 years that we are in for an unpleasant time, and that is why I returned to the public sector pro tem at the end of 1999: I really did (and do) think that everybody should prepare for a storm. I have also been encouraging my clients to become/stay cautious, for the last 10 years. I thought we'd returned to sanity in 2003, when the FTSE had halved from its start-2000 peak, but off we went again. From my amateur perspective (and who exactly is an expert on the world economy?), the delay in facing economic reality has allowed the patient's condition to worsen.

Mark Wadsworth's opening comment here was "Sell to rent. Cash is King." Yes, I agree, at this stage. I was talking to my wife last year about selling the house (and, I think, the year before that) but personal circumstances and priorities often trump the cold financial calculations, don't they?

However, I don't think cash will be king for a long period. I can't see the government rapidly shrinking the public sector, and at the same time we shall see reduced earnings, more insolvencies and increasing unemployment in the private sector. The financial sector, which has helped our nation's books to nearly balance, is being hit in banking and investment now, and will (I think) be hit worse in future; that cow will yield far less milk to the Treasury, and so the budget will be even more unbalanced than it is today.

Europe seems keen to enforce a discipline on the Chancellor of the Exchequer, that it has been unwilling to emulate with respect to its own accounts for many years; if the EU continues to take such a rigid line, maybe there will be a tear in the EU fabric, along the line of the English Channel.

Meanwhile, I think Gordon Brown's reputation as a money manager is ruined. As has been said, he failed to fix the roof when the weather was fine. A playboy can seem a financial wizard as long as he keeps partying on his yacht, but the adoring guests will disembark when the holes below the waterline make themselves felt.

(I wonder what would have happened if the Conservatives had won again in 1997? Can we be confident that the consequences would have been better?)

To right the ship of State will take money, or (since we hardly know what faith to place in money any more) perhaps it would be apter to say, wealth. This, I think, is where the "cash is king" slogan will wear thin. At the moment, we see a devaluation/destocking in houses, cars, computers and other big-ticket items. It's a good time for Loadsamoney to go shopping, even if the price of his dried pasta is up 40%.

But when the stocks have been run down to match shrunken demand levels, and Loadsamoney's firm is on the skids, the game will probably change. RPI is on the up, but now the causes are more external than internal: we have forgotten the lessons of WWII and have become very dependent on imports of food and fuel, which are major components of those inflation indices that aim to reflect the circumstances of the ordinary person. So interest rate rises are unlikely to reduce the cost of such necessities, except indirectly insofar as they may help strengthen sterling; yet a weakening in sterling is the hope for our trade in manufactures (the pound has dropped 15% or so against the Euro, in the last year). Indeed, we seem to have a policy of shadowing the plummeting US dollar, as once we shadowed the Deutschmark; perhaps, perceiving this strategy, George Soros will stage another coup, to our country's cost, again.

If revenues are down because of recession (or the D-word), where else will the Chancellor find wealth to repair the yacht? More sale of assets to sovereign wealth funds (there goes the family silver)? More bonds sold to trade-surplus foreigners (but will they have the cash, at a time when their own economies may be slumping together with Western consumer demand)? (Perhaps they will, if the US insists on handing the Chinese mortgage bail-out money - see Mish!)

Left high and dry in public view as the tide of wealth recedes, will be the billions in cash held by the crafty, the nervous and the cautious old. And the subtlest way to steal it is by inflation.

I do not know what will be the best store of wealth when major inflation strikes. All the world's gold currently above ground could be made into a cube that would fit comfortably under the arches of the Eiffel Tower (and historically, a fair bit of it could have been found not far away from the Tour Eiffel, stashed away in French ceiling-bowl lights). The gold market is small enough to be a prey to manipulation both ways.

Perhaps a safer store of value would be NS&I index-linked savings certificates. If inflation gets too bad, the easy way out for the government will be not to launch new issues, and the old ones have a maximum term of 5 years. There could theoretically be a problem for investors, in the effect of inflation between the date of maturity and the date the money is cleared in the investor's bank account, but we must hope that the government will never permit a hyperinflation.

And I note that landowners such as the Duke of Westminster have rarely sold their land because of temporary monetary inflation. Even if house prices do decline towards 3 times earnings, they will always have a value, and if rented out, will create an income. Perhaps Mark's comment would then be reversed: buy to rent, not sell to rent. Even now, as many try to get out from under the mortgage trap, there are signs that renting out property is a promising sector, since (I understand) demand is increasing faster than supply.

I'd be interested to hear other ideas.

Zimbabwe: racism and international meddling


Zimbabwe on Saturday welcomed the failure of a Western-backed U.N. Security Council resolution to impose sanctions over its violent presidential elections, calling it a victory over racism and meddling in its affairs. (Reuters)

Racist...

Robert Mugabe is a member of the Shona tribe (as is opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai), which comprises 70% of the population of Zimbabwe, occupying the centre and north of the country.

The Matabele (Ndebele) tribe, who tend to live in the southern part, make up half of the remaining minority, and (not surprisingly, in view of their post-Independence massacres by Mugabe's troops) are supporters of the MDC (Movement for Democratic Change). ''The denial of food to opposition strongholds has replaced overt violence as the government's principal tool of repression,'' the ICG wrote in August 2002.

Meddling...

Zimbabwe's natural resources include "coal, chromium ore [10% of the world's reserves], asbestos, gold, nickel, copper, iron ore, vanadium, lithium, tin, platinum group metals" (CIA World Factbook), and there are 10 or so foreign-owned mining companies operating there. The Zimbabwean kleptocracy has turned from seizing farms (which they either don't know how to run, or can't be bothered to), to grabbing controlling interests in foreign-owned firms, and a 25% no-compensation stake in mining companies. Presumably, in the latter case, they'll leave the operational side to the experts.

In 2005, the Chinese government and Chinese businesses supplied T-shirts for ZANU-PF supporters, jets and trucks for the Army, and the architectural plans and blue tiles for Mugabe's new 25-bedroom mansion. The recent attempt (April 2008) to ship a load of arms in, so that Mr Mugabe could deal with his little local difficulty, was described by the Chinese as "normal military trade". Annual trade between these two countries was expected to reach $500 million this year.

Zimbabwe is touting Russia for trade and business deals, including tourism (uniformed hunting trips in Matabeleland?)

Perhaps the reason 84-year-old Mugabe is hanging on, is that he and his entourage have a tiger by the tail. How could they get out of their land-locked country alive?
 
UPDATE
 
But why Russia? The New York Times fishes for an explanation as to why Russia indicates some willingness to consider sanctions, and then reneged, dragging China with her. The NYT is baffled, limply quoting the US Ambassador to the UN: “Something happened in Moscow.”
 
Could it be that Zimbabwe in itself has little interest for Russia, but this veto is a dog-whistle to other African nations where the Ivans may develop more serious business links?
 
Or could it be, as this blogger hypothesises, part of the Great Game between Russia and the US, particularly reflecting missile defence technology?

How skilfully does Robert Mugabe, the Dom Mintoff of East Africa, play off great nations against one another! If only his skills benefitted his country, also.

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Friday, July 11, 2008

UK the financial "black sheep"

The UK now has the worst fiscal profile of any developed country in the North Atlantic sphere.

Daily Telegraph (htp: Mish)

Are oil speculators to blame?


Russell Roberts at Cafe Hayek discusses a spam email from United Airlines, which blames speculation for much of the high price of oil. Naturally, he puts on his quizzical econ spectacles and says it's like blaming a thermometer for hot weather; but maybe that's just a bit too sideways.

For isn't it interesting that in 20 years, the proportion of oil contracts purchased by middlemen who don't deliver, has risen from 21% to 66%?

And isn't there a big Space Hopper of excess liquidity squmphing around the world's markets and destabilising them, as Dr Marc Faber claims? Indeed, Faber has spent years making money from predicting the future movement of this excess. In an interview on "Financial Sense" on January 12, Faber said:

... we had during the excessive consumption period 1998-2006, a current account deficit in the US that increased from 2% of GDP to over 7% of GDP, and at the end was supplying the world with $800 billion annually. And this river flows into the world through the American current account deficits, and essentially provided the world with the so-called excess liquidity and created booms in everything from art prices to commodities, stocks, bonds, real estate, what not.
I suggest that now that the Space Hopper has been punctured, the speculators riding it have been squmphing around even faster, trying to visit as many markets as they can before their toy goes totally flat.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Dow and FTSE: making progress towards fair value


Time for some bankers to pack their bags

Karl Denninger continues his holy-roller rant against banks, supervisory authorities etc and reiterates the need for all the financial horror to be made plain. This is what ought to happen, but I'd have thought it's obvious that the results are likely to be so painful that delaying tactics will continue for as long as possible.

One of the outcomes, he thinks, will be major lawsuits:

We haven't even gotten to litigation risk yet, but you can bet we will. I envision racketeering suits coming in the next year or so as its rather apparent to me that this was not some "rogue deal" but rather a systematic approach to intentional understatement of risk.

I wonder how many banking and rating agency executives are even now quietly liquidating their assets and checking which countries do not have extradition agreements with the USA.

Brunei, Kuwait, the Maldives, the Philippines, Qatar, Tunisia and the UAE could be bearable; some might even allow you to buy a drink. Samoa?

Vietnam's on the rise, even if the dong is under pressure at the moment. Dr Marc Faber has an interest there, and he is no fool.

Why were construction companies caught in the credit crunch?

That's my question. Years ago I went to a Midlands construction company to prospect them for business, and learned that they had a long-term strategy of buying land when the market was depressed and developing it when the upturn came (well, duh, you're saying, doubtless). They'd done this for several business cycles, as (I assume) any well-established firm in their sector would have done.

It was obvious to me ages ago that house prices had gotten silly. How did major building companies get it so wrong this time, when watching the trend is so fundamental to their survival?

Commodities fall needed to rescue share prices

Bill Cara: "the new reality today is that Crude Oil at about $90-$100 and Gold at $820 is required to stave a total collapse of securities prices across the board. If that’s what the authorities want, ultimately that’s what they will get."

Mr Cara is also expecting many banks to fail.

Special education funding increases clientele

Over at Cafe Hayek, the cheery US econ blog, a report that funding special needs in education turns schools into bounty hunters and expands the market. The increasing value of "Special Ed" brings more marginal land under cultivation, so to speak.

Being in this field myself, I hear rumours that the UK's current approach to individual assessment and funding of special needs will eventually be phased out, to be replaced by some formula for grants to schools, perhaps based on such factors as the proportion of pupils receiving free school meals. Presumably the schools will then have to be more expert in diagnosing and addressing such special needs as may exist among their intake, but I wonder whether the extra funding will be used strictly for that purpose - or pay for more computers, sports equipment, an upgrade to the Head's Lexus, who knows?

On the other hand, you could hardly have a lengthier, more cumbersome and expensive approach to special needs diagnosis, than the one we have now. I get letters from educational psychologists dictated onto their snappy little digital dictaphones, but typed 6 - 8 weeks later and finally received (by second class post) after a further two weeks. Good thing these kids aren't being treated for busted legs.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Checking your deposit protection may not be enough

1. "total credit losses from subprime mortgages and other bad debts could reach a staggering $1.6 trillion"

2. "The FDIC has $52.8 billion in its insurance fund to cover bank failures."

Education, literacy and discipline

A thread began at Alice's, originally about the decline in manufacturing industry, but moving on to the expense and alleged uselessness of public services, particularly education - bring back the cane, we're turning out kids who can't read, etc. Here's some news from the front:

When it was available, corporal punishment didn't have to be used often. An unexpected consequence of the ban-the-cane soft-handedness is that children are now assaulted by each other much more frequently, and quite often in the classroom in front of the teacher - whom G*d help if she (and it will usually be a she, these days) tries to get involved.

But as to functional illiteracy, in the absence of old-style discipline (and I agree that schools are not nearly brutal enough), maybe we've got almost as far as we can go, because we're swimming against strong tides. In the past, we had a literate culture and media, and parents who reinforced social rules and had aspirations for their children. The children of today are more likely to have complex and dysfunctional homes, their TVs (I often turn off at 9 to avoid the crapshed) and computers are full of violent fantasy and their neighbourhoods are ruled by postcode-based gangs rather than the police.

With the best will in the world, teachers cannot impose marital fidelity, sobriety, male employment, moral self-restraint in public entertainment, and the free run of the Queen's writ throughout her realm. Quite seriously, we in the education system can hear the creaking and groaning from the pit props in the mine.

Teachers will continue to be moderately well-remunerated as long as our rulers maintain the pretence that schools can do the principal work of child-rearing; when the scales fall from our eyes and we start to take responsibility for our offspring and the example we set them, schools will go back to standardised textbooks and employ humble, low-paid functionaries to steer the children through them. The public purse will benefit, and more importantly so will the next generation, for whom the present one has so little regard.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Dinner at G8

WORLD leaders sat down to an 18-course gastronomic extravaganza at a G8 summit in Japan, which is focusing on the food crisis.


Don't scoff.

I've tried to work up an alternative menu, esp. for Gordon Brown's place (roast turkey?), but so far all I can manage is the wine:

Sweet Cherie (n/a)

Sancerre smiles

Beau jolly

Sham pain

Con yak

Emerging markets inflation could break the current system

... says Nouriel Roubini, and there's already a fund to speculate on consequential revaluation of developing world currencies, according to this.

Inside the news media

A comment from "Ryan" on the previous post is too good not to feature up-front (hope you don't mind, Ryan):

My sister is a journalist, but stays away from the nationals. She points out that the big papers get all their real news from Reuters and the local papers, then work it up into a much bigger story. They don't employ many real reporters or journalists - its too expensive. They prefer talking heads that can offer news-views which add a narrative to a story dug up by someone else and which matches the editorial line of the paper.

My sister also tells me that the papers have dirt on almost every public figure, but they CHOOSE who to turn over. This gives them enormous power over those that they chose to support - they can make you king one day and pauper the next. You can see they do this all the time with celebs, building them up one year and tearing them down the next, but we never imagine that they employ the same tactics with politicians - but they do.

She used to tell me all the tactics that papers would use to tell a story their way with their own spin on it. For instance, how often have you seen a phrase along the lines of "A spokesman said"? No name given. Why? It means the line was made up by the writer and attributed to someone real to give it substance. "A spokesmon", "unnamed sources", "A source within the Labour party" etc etc etc. Yes, they may all refer to a real person - but they could just have been made up by the journo to get his opinion across whilst making it sound like he has his finger on the pulse.

She showed me a story that she sold to the Guardian for £50. It was one column inch. The Guardian worked it up to half a page - all of it made up and based on opinion. She was pissed off: "I should have got £2500 if the story had really been that big!"

Take a story, remove the bits that are attributable to named sources - and what is left is usually made up. The attributable bit has probably come right from Reuters. That's why I don't read papers anymore and rarely watch TV news. Its 90% made up by wet-behind-the- ears kids that know nothing about the world we live in but make up a narrative for the news that suits their editor.

Can anyone else give us any more on the ways of journalists and the news media, please?

Here is the news

Lead story on Classic FM news this morning: "It looks like Britain's heading for a recession."

FLASH: Queen Anne's dead.

Where does the news come from? Is it any use? Other than weather forecasts, the last usable information I can remember is from the summer of 1987, when I learned that Sir James Goldsmith had sold all his shares on the Paris Bourse, which confirmed my feelings about the way the market was going - but that item came from Private Eye magazine.

December 1, 1978: publication of the Times and Sunday Times suspended for 11 months. During the journalists' industrial dispute, a spoof paper comes out, called "Not The Times". At that time, a strap line for the Financial Times was ""Don't you wish you were better informed?", so the send-up featured a picture of a steam locomotive that had crashed right through the wall of a railway terminus and down onto the pavement beneath, with the headline "What could you have done, had you been better informed?"

...this one, as I recall

Useless, or trivial. As the Poet Laureate Alfred Austin wrote about the terminally-ill King Edward:

"Along the wire the electric message came,
He is no better, He is much the same."

So, who determines the news agenda? Are journalists much cop any more? Are they allowed to be?

... which brings us back to gold.

A quote from the Economist article cited yesterday:

real returns from American shares were just 0.1% a year from 1966-81; they fell a dismal 1.3% a year from 1973 to 1981.

Although that performance was much better than the painfully negative returns suffered by holders of government bonds, it was a long way short of the 6-7% returns that shares have historically achieved. Gold was a much better inflation hedge, earning an annual 10.9% in real terms between 1966 and 1981.

Which is, I suppose, what Marc Faber means by recommending gold at this point.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Inflation bad for investors as well as depositors

I wondered recently what was the effect of inflation on shares - are they a hedge? Past history suggests not.

Now there is corroboration from a more distinguished source - the Economist.

And Nicola Horlick says don't buy shares for 2 - 3 years.

Well now, I've been leading the experts for a while. When I call the bottom correctly, it'll be time to start my own hedge fund. Usual terms: 2 and 20.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Government and homelessness

The "Pathfinder" project for urban renewal has come in for some criticism, because so far it's meant a net loss of 9,000 homes and many of those whose houses have been demolished have not received sufficient compensation to buy something similar elsewhere (see here and here, with an attempt at more balanced discussion in the Liverpool Daily Post).

I suspect we don't have a housing shortage, but a housing misallocation. There are lots of old people rattling around in houses too large for them, and too expensive for them to maintain properly. And how many million bedrooms have been converted into domestic gyms, games rooms etc? We simply expect far more space than we used to, and so the "shortage" is a function of our choices.

But there is a limit on land space, if we want to retain the capacity to feed ourselves in hard times. Maybe we should review policies on housing, housing benefit, local taxation etc. And the policy of using foreign labour to keep down wage rates, and so create traps for our working and under-classes. And is there a Gramscian plan to undermine the cultural cohesion of the country by means of deliberate negligence in border controls, with the side-effect of worsening the pressure on accommodation?

Governments have a talent for creating problems that will long survive them. After four centuries, Northern Ireland still has its difficulties. And look at Fiji, where a century ago British planters imported Indians for indentured service periods of ten years. By the end of their contractual decade, quite naturally the labourers had married, had children and put down roots in the island. The historical result is festering resentment between ethnic groups, leading to outbursts such as George Speight's rebellion in 2000.

Similarly, covering England's green and pleasant land with concrete, tarmac and brick will also have persistent unpleasant consequences. And is there any way to change it back? Could we put a foot depth of earth along a disused motorway to convert it to arable use? So, new building on agricultural land, flood plains etc is tricky, and now we are seeing some of the problems of brownfield development.

But there's a huge number of houses built in the Thirties that need refurbishment. There may be a boom in plumbers, plasters, electricians and bricklayers; while at the same time we may see growing white-collar unemployment, as a result of outsourced information-processing. Maybe the working class will be victorious, after all, while the chattering classes fill holes in their shoes and jumpers with old copies of the Guardian.

I know it can happen, because it did happen in the Thirties - read Helen Forrester, whose debt-burdened middle-class father made the mistake of leaving London post-Crash, to return to his Liverpool birthplace, where the parish had no statutory obligation to support him. Helen wrote that if the Depression comes again, the things to stock up will be newspapers, razor blades and soap. And in her case, a purse inside her clothes so that her own family couldn't steal her meagre savings.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

What are recessions and bear markets?

I'm reading picky definitions, e.g. a bear market is one that drops 20% in two months, and a recession is two quarters of negative GDP.

Says who?

What we're in now waddles and quacks like a duck, and darned if it isn't a duck. I say we're in a recession and a bear market, and have been so since the year 2000. A recession, because our manufacturing industries are in steeper decline and will take the rest of the economy down slowly with them*; a bear market, because the stockmarket is more likely to go down than up, over the course of the next year or two.

I once paid for a repair to a slow leak in one of my tyres, and only when I ran over a nail did I discover that the repair had been effected using an old-fashioned inner tube. It went totally flat in two seconds. Thank goodness I wasn't on the motorway. Now, any problems, I get a new tyre.
Monetary inflation was used as an inner tube to repair the economy from around 2003 on. Subprime was the nail.

* For corroboration see "Alice" on the UK current account deficit and our declining trade.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Make the punishment fit the crime

After this, and this, I begin to think about about the return, not only of capital punishment, but the gibbet. I really never thought I'd get to this stage; but I never thought society would, either.

Blaming the prophets

In this week's Spectator, Christopher Fildes discusses the way short-sellers get blamed for market falls, although they take hair-raising risks in doing so. He paraphrases Fred Schwed on the unfairness of such criticism: "In good times, he said, nobody minded the short sellers except their families, who minded going bankrupt. In bad times they were a receptacle for blame." I'd go back further:

But who wants to be foretold the weather? It is bad enough when it comes, without our having the misery of knowing about it beforehand. The prophet we like is the old man who, on the particularly gloomy-looking morning of some day when we particularly want it to be fine, looks round the horizon with a particularly knowing eye, and says:

"Oh no, sir, I think it will clear up all right. It will break all right enough, sir."

"Ah, he knows", we say, as we wish him good-morning, and start off; "wonderful how these old fellows can tell!"

And we feel an affection for that man which is not at all lessened by the circumstances of its NOT clearing up, but continuing to rain steadily all day.

"Ah, well," we feel, "he did his best."

For the man that prophesies us bad weather, on the contrary, we entertain only bitter and revengeful thoughts.

"Going to clear up, d'ye think?" we shout, cheerily, as we pass.

"Well, no, sir; I'm afraid it's settled down for the day," he replies, shaking his head.

"Stupid old fool!" we mutter, "what's HE know about it?" And, if his portent proves correct, we come back feeling still more angry against him, and with a vague notion that, somehow or other, he has had something to do with it.

Jerome K Jerome: "Three Men In A Boat", Chapter 5

So, don't blame me, please, but I still think investors won't be out of the woods until 2010.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Credit default insurance and murky dealings

You have to have car insurance, it's a legal requirement. So it occurred to me a long time ago that you could make some money selling very low-cost car insurance that (when you looked at the fine print) promised nothing, thus making a safe profit for the company, fooling the regulators and satisfying the cheapskate customer, all at the same time. Fine, till the regulators find out.

According to Karl Denninger today, this is exactly what's happened in the case of UBS insuring one of its mortgage debt packages against default losses. The insurer, it's alleged, has totally inadequate capital for the insurance it's undertaken, but the insurance suited UBS because it permitted the stinking package to be left off the balance sheet.

Oh, to be a lawyer now.

Housing: have we reached the "point of maximum pessimism"?

Blanche Evans of Realty Times thinks the most of the bad news in housing has already been built into the market; she was interviewed on iTulip a couple of years ago, predicting a downturn but also saying that housing would be supported by the government, to some extent.

Benjamin Graham said we should “buy from pessimists and sell to optimists”. The smart money has done the second part, maybe it should look out for the first soon.

Peter Schiff using the word "collapse"

Some hot collars in this discussion. But a question does arise for me, which is this: if the US economy has to be rebased on savings and investments, but the sinking dollar raises prices of food, fuel etc, it's going to be very hard to find the money to improve the savings rate. Especially if those who have serious money are doing what Schiff and others would recommend as their financial advisers, i.e. buying foreign stocks and holding foreign currency.

And the same goes for us in the UK, I would think.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Could deflation reduce the price of gold?

Last year, Robert McHugh predicted that the Dow would drop to 9,000, at least in terms of the price of gold. By January 22 this year, that had happened.

But people like Karl Denninger have been saying for a long time that the outcome of the credit crunch will be deflationary, and Mr Denninger is more emphatic than ever about that now. And that's not just the view of a private investor who backs his judgment with his own hard-earned money: the Bank for International Settlements (htp: Michael Panzner) also thinks deflation a serious possibility.

I recently did a little primitive chartism and thought it possible that the Dow might revert to what looks like a longer-term trend line that includes the 9,000 mark.

Turning to the price of gold, it has certainly soared over the past few years, but there's been debate about manipulation. Frank Veneroso thinks central banks have been releasing stocks of gold to keep the price down, yet at the same time it is suspected that speculators have been boosting the price, possibly using leveraging (borrowing extra cash to increase the returns).

So another way for McHugh's prediction to come true (again), would be for both the Dow and the gold price to come down together. The ratio implicit in his prediction (13.51) could imply that the Dow hits 9,000 and gold drops to about $666 per ounce, or about 30% off where it is now.

Not impossible, if leveraged speculators have to disinvest to repay their borrowings in a hurry; and it would still only be a reversion to where gold was two years ago (and even then, nearly double what it had been three years before that).

Investment challenges in a bear market

If you don't believe me, believe a sophisticated investor like Karl Denninger:
One thing to remember folks - the test of your prowess as an investor does not come in a bull market. It's easy to make money in a bull market - you just buy the index.

No, the test is whether you keep your money in a Bear market. Note that I didn't say "make money". I said keep your money.

If you have the same amount of money now in your investment accounts as you did at SPX 1576 in October, you are doing better than 90% of all institutional money managers and 95% of all individual investors. This puts you in the top 5% - and that's just by going to cash in October and sitting on your hands.

If you've actually made money since then, you're in the top 1%.