Are you sure you should be doing that?

Friday, July 24, 2009

Turning point; hiatus

Reading around in the wisdom of others, I predicted Dow 9,000 here, here and here. Now it's happened. Good for you day-traders, but a fraidy-cat like me is staying away.

Since Marc Faber and others have been saying for some considerable time that they can't see anything worth getting into, and now the dollar is getting closer to having the carpet yanked out from under its feet, and the British pound may follow suit thanks to the miserable state of the British economy, and China is busy blowing an inflationary bubble to maintain its vampire trading relationship with the West, and the gold-bugs are chirruping ever louder (though the US Government might not only seize gold as it did in 1933, but for those smarties who invest in overseas gold stores the bad news may be that Uncle Sam will also seize US citizens' title to those stores), the question is... where to hide your stash?

For the private investor, maybe part of the answer is to look at the currency market, for a country that isn't over-dependent on international trade, has enough natural resources to survive if the world system goes down, and is reasonably stable by second or third world standards. Sadly, I have even less expertise here than elsewhere, but any thoughts on e.g. the Thai baht?

HIATUS

We're going on holiday now, to a place where cellphones don't work (and it's in the UK) and our place has no broadband. Best wishes to you all, hope to be back in touch soon.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Out of their depth

The first serious, sensible, important piece I've seen from Toby Young, and it's a corker. He reflects on the well-heeled but louche and rackety Bullingdon Club, of which David Cameron and Boris Johnson were members:

... the theatrical element of Oxford's secret clubs and societies, the fact that so much of their activity seemed designed to dazzle and mystify bemused onlookers, is precisely what makes them such ideal training grounds for British public life.

... you don't have to be to the manor born to become a member of Britain's ruling class - or even particularly clever. You don't need charisma or sexual confidence or a sense of entitlement. All you need is the wherewithal to pretend to be someone who has these qualities. Provided you can do a reasonable impression of a person with the right stuff - and provided you wear the right uniform - that's enough to propel you to the top.

... The discovery that all these young pretenders make when they take their seats at the Cabinet table, or become QCs, or pocket £100million on a complicated land deal, is that the people at the very pinnacle of British society - the people pulling the levers of power - are exactly like them.

There is no such thing as the real McCoy, just a bunch of schoolboys parading around in the contents of the dressing-up box. They don't feel like frauds, because everyone else in this elite little club is as fraudulent as they are.

And when all is well, they get away with it. But when it comes to an emergency, a crisis needing skill, grit and sacrifice?

My father served his 25 in the British Army, and my mother used to say, "Thank God for civilians," i.e. the experienced people that would come in on callup when war broke out. Doubtless it's different now, with our much reduced and far more battle-experienced Armed Services, but in my father's career he met more than a few "educated idiots." Does the current crop of politicians and bankers have what it takes, including the moral fibre, to get us out of this mess? Or when it gets too tough, will they jump, like "Lord Jim" Blair, leaving us to our fate?

We're going to find out sooner than we'd like, if Denninger is right. He's looking at new Treasury debt issuance of $235 billion in the next week alone, and is busily folding his kitchen foil into a helmet:

Folks, this is how you get detonation of a nation's monetary and political system. Timing the "event" it is not easy, but the certainty of outcome given this sort of outrageously irresponsible activity is not in doubt.
I'm increasing my stock of things that "will never go to zero" and keeping my ear to the ground. The "short the phone book but make sure you get out fast before you get trampled" moment approaches - mark my words.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Mutter

In support of Man In A Shed's "Silly Week" campaign, may I suggest the libertarian blogger's alternative to Twitter: Mutter.

Up to 140 characters of mutinous grumbling in the comments, please. After a time, all will collated and republished in a new "feast o' bitchin' "post.

Think of of it as a kind of haiku for the disenchanted.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Doomsday scenario

Marc Faber is now using the phrase "total collapse". A commenter on this post says he's joking, because he's smiling, but I don't think the commenter understands European schadenfreude. The Dance of Death illustration on Dr Faber's website should warn you that he is in a very long tradition that sees death and disaster as the spice of our transitory existence.

Faber lives in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, a country whose King is a proponent of national economic self-sufficiency. It's also worth noting that Chiang Mai is a fairly short air-hop from Burma, Laos and China; and that Dr Faber collects Mao memorabilia and has business interests in Vietnam. I see him as a long-term planner who covers all possible options.

As Dr Doom notes, "...a major crisis like we had should clean the system but nothing has been cleaned," so why should all be well again? But you could choose to side with Faber's co-interviewee Giles Keating of Credit Suisse; very nice accent, nice bearing - just the sort of thing the clients like.

However, witness also Karl Denninger today, commenting on a report that US Federal Government support for the economy could reach almost $24 trillion:

A couple of market technicians have noted certain "patterns" in the market that have potential downside targets of zero. That sort of thing normally results in a loud guffaw from me - even though I'm bearish I'm not that bearish - I couldn't imagine anything short of global thermonuclear war, ala "Joshua", that could lead to such an outcome.

Well I think I just found something purely economic that could lead to that outcome, and it's right here.

Be prepared. As the Greek saying goes, "There is no borrowing a sword in time of war." I'm going to go back to doing what I started to do a few months ago: draw extra cash and stash it in a locker. And some other things (though not weapons - the tiger is the endangered species, not the rabbit).

House prices to sink further

Barry Ritholtz gives his reasons why house prices will continue to drop - 15% to the mean, probably more - say 20%? (htp: Michael Panzner)

But the market is segmented. Maybe it'd be more useful to discuss the projected impact on different regions and price brackets.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Step by step - how the dollar is recycled via China

A propos China and monetary inflation, please see two very useful and enlightening articles by The Contrarian Investor - this explaining why the money supply is growing there, and this detailing the steps by which money from the US goes on a round trip to China and back.

North Dakota? Or New Mexico?

Interactive WSJ diachronic unemployment map here. (htp: Tim Iacono)

Lost in fantasy

Following up my Parthian shot about Waldsiedlung in the previous post, I looked up Erich Honecker and discovered that one of his slogans in the 80s was "Vorwärts immer, rückwärts nimmer" ("Always forwards, never backwards").

Perhaps you remember Tony Blair's "Forward not back" in 2005? Or his "the People's Princess" (I thought I heard his throat tightening in a desperate attempt to stop the awful phrase coming out - Diana was an Earl's daughter - but maybe it was only a stage sob). And how about "In the years to come, wherever I am, whatever I do, I'm with you", weirdly echoing Matthew 28.

A schlock PM, turning eclectic sources into a mishmosh of gibberish less meaningful than Queen's Bohemian Fantasy, for the sake of a momentary, meretricious glamour. An extension of the "Spacematic DISCO with LIGHTS!!" of his Oxford student days.
Did he ever understand what he was playing with?

Locking the doors

The dethroning of the US dollar as the international trading currency is under way. New bonds issued by the International Monetary Fund in the form of "Special Drawing Rights" are related to a basket of currencies, thus diluting the dollar element and reducing America's opportunity to cheat the world by devaluation.

The same article describes a Chinese proposal to start issuing bonds denominated in renminbi, so that if the dollar does drop against the Chinese currency, all that will happen is that the dollar cost of the capital debt will increase.

It occurs to me that such extra security for lenders may help interest rates to remain lower than they otherwise would be. So the threat to borrowers is not that interest rates will increase, but that debt outstanding will continue to feel heavy, since inflation won't lighten the burden. In fact, the burden of foreign debt could get worse, if the dollar weakens in this new foreign-currency-mortgage era.

Another factor, which may be a deliberate strategy with an eye to the above, is China's own expansion of credit. If monetary inflation goes global - including in the East - then there's less hope that Western businesses could use relative currency devaluation to increase the demand for their goods and services. Manufacturers here will still be unable to compete and debt will grow. Our creditors will own us - we'll "owe our soul to the company store".

It's time to grasp the nettle - bust the banks who got us into this, have a tremendous clearout of debt from the system, reset wages and prices at lower (more internationally competitive) levels, get the people back to work and shrink the dead weight of government and its dependants.

That, or see what's left of our wealth leak away, and then suffer all the above as well - at even lower levels of per capita assets and income.

Doubtless the politically-favoured option is the latter - "Let it all happen on someone else's watch, after we've made ourselves into the New European Aristocracy and gone to our country estates." This would be a mistake. The palace of Versailles didn't protect Louis XVI, nor Waldsiedlung the East German communist elite.

Belling the cat

Karl Denninger calls again for the fat cats to "eat their own cooking", i.e. accept responsibility for the ruinous debt that will otherwise put a brake on the American economy for a decade. Good luck with that. Now, who's going to make them do it?

This is a test, not of the economy but of democracy.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Signs and portents

Over at Financial Sense University, Jim Willie paints a frightening picture. He claims that the US Federal Reserve has been secretly giving dollars to foreigners to buy US Treasury Certificates, so (temporarily) supporting US bonds and the dollar. Meanwhile, big banks are waiting for smaller banks to suffers losses on commercial loans, at which point they will gobble up their smaller competitors. But the big banks are insolvent, so rather than a healing juncture, it'll be a vampire puncture.

Studying the US Dollar Index, Willie uses a measure that Karl Denninger has previously cited, namely, a comparison of two trends: the 20-week moving average with the 50-week moving average. When the first crosses the second, the second will eventually follow - in this case, downwards.

In my previous post, I referred to signs and portents. This is because when big things are happening, the fog of lies thickens, so we have to look for betraying details and use our intuitions. Art is often the canary in the mine - you hear the coming conflict in the discords of Stravinsky's 1910 "the Rite of Spring". The disturbed children that I teach have recently been exploring zombies. Some also play computer games at home, that involve stabbing opponents in the eyes or genitals. One child's graffiti tag is JABZ.

Doodling, they draw pistols, rifles, knives, swords; but still read Postman Pat and Spongebob Squarepants. Gossiping, they talk of their mother's vibrator, their father's merkin, but (at age 11) don't quite understand and are looking forward to learning the facts about sex next week, which our curriculum now requires me to deliver. They come in shadow-eyed from gaming, but also from (in one case) accompanying their father late at night as he hunts down and savagely beats people who tied up and soaked with petrol an uncle suspected of stealing a motorbike. Where are the police? you may ask; the father is an ex-policeman. The Monarch's writ does not run where our underclass have to live; to have normal social inhibitions would be dangerous in such an environment.

Some may accuse me of moral panic; but I didn't grow up with the currently prevailing sense of moral ambiguity, despair and social collapse. Are we breeding a nation of future child guerrilla-band soldiers? And how tragic, how culpable, that the entertainment industry is playing its part in this; and that the Government hopes to shore up its vote by perpetuating the financial dependence of its claimants.

But it won't happen to us, will it? "Wat geht dat mik an?" as the mediaeval Germans would say: "What's it got to do with me?" Years ago, my Prussian grandmother described Der Flucht, the flight from the Red Army in 1945. They would come to a farm and be very grudgingly permitted to sleep in the haybarn; two days later, the owners would be on the road themselves.

We are in this together; but I cannot see how the present political arrangement can tackle the challenges. There are too many ways for our leadership to be distracted, to be suborned and to escape consequences personally.

Crash, cash, gold stash

Max Keiser is emphatic that there will be another huge banking crisis within the next 6 - 9 months, and says that the Chinese are "aggressively" buying gold in anticipation of a currency collapse. His talk (esp. with regards to Goldman Sachs) is intemperate, as his French co-guest diplomatically points out, but he may be correct.

I don't know how it is for you in the US, but here the jewellers have recently been fielding TV ads offering to buy your gold. What a favour they are doing for you.

PS

Barry Ritholtz shares in a strange, ecstatic group experience.

This, I suggest, is a sign. Norman Cohn's mediaeval history "The Pursuit of the Millennium" notes that at times of great societal stress, there were mass outbreaks of spontaneous frenzied dancing, singing, visions.
Unconsciously perhaps, Ritholtz connects the two, for just before he describes the happening he says, "The multitudes were slowly moving thru the mass transit walkways like cows being led to slaughter." The people are feeling the fear and reaching for joy.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Prepare

Realistically, growth was far above where it should have been for close to seven years because of the Fed induced lending boom, insane lending standards, and extreme leverage and risk taking everywhere epitomized by "liar loans" and zero-percent down housing. Now is the payback time. We should be expecting growth to be below trend for the next seven years, with a few outliers tossed in for good measure to keep everyone excessively optimistic.


1 And it came to pass at the end of two full years, that Pharaoh dreamed: and, behold, he stood by the river.

2 And, behold, there came up out of the river seven well favored kine and fatfleshed; and they fed in a meadow.

3 And, behold, seven other kine came up after them out of the river, ill favored and leanfleshed; and stood by the other kine upon the brink of the river.

4 And the ill favored and leanfleshed kine did eat up the seven well favored and fat kine. So Pharaoh awoke.

5 And he slept and dreamed the second time: and, behold, seven ears of corn came up upon one stalk, rank and good.

6 And, behold, seven thin ears and blasted with the east wind sprung up after them.

7 And the seven thin ears devoured the seven rank and full ears. And Pharaoh awoke, and, behold, it was a dream.

8 And it came to pass in the morning that his spirit was troubled; and he sent and called for all the magicians of Egypt, and all the wise men thereof: and Pharaoh told them his dream; but there was none that could interpret them unto Pharaoh.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The East is [in the] Red

Here's an interesting one: the Contrarian Investor reckons a credit bubble could be brewing in China.

For now, a cloud no bigger than your fist on the horizon; but sometime... This is how we ourselves started, back in the 80s.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Masters of the Universe vs. the Lord's Elect

A bright gleam has caught the helmets of our bankers. Goldman Sachs is set to pay an average £500,000 bonus to its London traders. This modest lagniappe is the equivalent of merely 20 years' median annual remuneration for NHS nurses. It is heartening to see that amid the gloom of an economy wrecked by... well, anyway, I'm sure we all agree that they deserve it. Indeed, more; but we must hope they may reasonably expect further such emoluments in the years to come. Nothing is too good for our money-boys, or for the politicians whom they will accommodate when put out to grass.

On an unrelated note, I've suddenly recalled the episode in Evelyn Waugh's "Decline and Fall" where Paul Pennyfeather meets a madman in prison:

"Well, one day I was just sweeping out the shop before shutting up when the angel of the Lord came in. I didn't know who it was at first. "Just in time," I said. "What can I do for you?" Then I noticed that all about him there was a red flame and a circle of flame over his head, same as I've been telling you. Then he told me how the Lord had numbered His elect and the day of tribulation was at hand. "Kill and spare not," he says."

Fortunately, the nutter's victim is a Modern Churchman, not a vitally important, wealth-creating banker.

Many market "shorts" are due to expire on Friday, I understand. Perhaps the market - a free and unmanipulated market, you may be sure - will change its mood next week.

PS

The S&P 500 closed above 900 points yesterday. "Mish" has said that it could easily fall below 500 points, or stall for years. He is against "buy and hold." So who profits if the poor layman is persuaded to stay in the market?

Regardless of what strategy one uses, it is a horrible idea to hold stocks throughout recessions.

Why Is Bad Advice So Common?

Clearly, stay the course is bad advice. So why is it so common? A personal anecdote might help explain things: In January of this year, an investment advisor from Wachovia Securities called me up and stated "Mish, I am sitting on millions because I see nothing I like". I told the person I did not like much either and that Sitka Pacific was heavily in cash and or hedged. His response was "Well, I do not get paid anything if my clients are sitting in cash".

I called up a rep at Merrill Lynch and he said the same thing, that reps for Merrill Lynch do not get paid if their clients are sitting in cash.

Massive Conflict of Interest

Notice the massive conflict of interest possibilities. Reps for various broker dealers have a vested interest in keeping clients 100% invested 100% of the time, even if they know it is wrong. And so it is every recession, bad advice permeates the airwaves and internet "Stay The Course".

We own you

The Big Picture selects several articles for us on US debt.

This one points out that to balance the US budget with borrowing, new bonds must be sold totalling 3 times the amount issued last year. Bearing in mind that there's less money around, and that people are getting nervous about America's credit rating, inflation and the value of the dollar on the international market, it seems very unlikely that this new debt auction would succeed; and if it did, it would have to be on the basis of higher interest rates, to factor-in the various increased risks.

Alternatively, it's time for the repo man - with a twist. Nassim Taleb and Mark Spitznagel suggest that banks could take part of homeowners' equity in exchange for lower interest rates. But if houses continue to decline in price? I bet the banks have thought of that, so if such a scheme were introduced, they'd want a bigger share than most homeowners would be willing to give them. My guess is that when houseowners realize that the market isn't going to turn soon, there'll be more voluntary bankruptcies and doorkeys in the post. That, plus rising and lengthening unemployment could set off the domino chain.

But returning to the Sprott analysis, note that late last year, 28% of US debt was foreign-owned. Look out for some form of debt-for-equity here - if not the sale of equities, then in the form of favours and concessions. He who pays the piper calls the tune.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

It's just the way things are?

UPDATE: The Big Picture begs to differ with the no-blame angle, and names names...

I've asked several times before, whether any country could have played it differently and avoided getting involved in The Crash. Then I read this article (htp: Jesse) about ex-BIS economist William White, and near the end there's an indication that maybe it's not simply about baddies and goodies:

White is more concerned about the things he doesn't understand. New Zealand is a case in point. Interest rates were raised early in the crisis there, and yet the central bank was unable to come to grips with the credit bubble. Investors were apparently borrowing cheap money from foreign lenders.

This is the sort of thing that worries him. "That's when you have to ask yourself: Who exactly is controlling the whole thing anymore?"

Perhaps his model has a flaw in that regard. Could it be possible that central bankers today have far less influence than he assumes?

The thought causes him to wrinkle his brow for a moment. Then he smiles, says his goodbyes and quickly disappears into a Paris Metro station.

...this time it vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone.

They

Lots of people now muttering darkly. But if we think we know what They are up to, and think we can't thwart Them, there should be some way to exploit the situation. For example, if They are manipulating the price of gold to keep it down for as long as possible, then surely it's a great time to buy it before They run out of possible.

Can't we do better than call vainly for somebody to restore justice to the world? Because that's the one thing that won't happen.

So, any ideas?

For example, what to do about the New World Order coinage unveiled by Medvedev the other day?

If you have a son or daughter, would you advise him/her to join GS and their ilk? Or McKinsey? Or emigrate?

Saturday, July 11, 2009

KBO

From Colwyn Bay to Kettering
They're sobbing themselves to sleep,
The shrieks and wails
In the Yorkshire dales
Have even depressed the sheep.
In rather vulgar lettering
A very disgruntled group
Have posted bills
On the Cotswold Hills
To prove that we're in the soup.
While begging Kipling's pardon
There's one thing we know for sure
If England is a garden
We ought to have more manure.
Hurray-hurray-hurray!
Suffering and dismay.

Noel Coward.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

An astrologer writes

Russell Grant is trenchant in his criticism of feckless governments and financial advisers.

Next market peak due in... 2018 - if society's still around by then

See here. Back in November, I figured that inflation-adjusted Dow took 16 years to decline from 1966 to 1982, and my guess is that we're on a similar inflation-fuelled ride, so starting with the last peak in 2000, we might think about hitting bottom in real terms in 2016.

On the other hand, history doesn't repeat, it rhymes. In 1966 China was... a disaster area. The world economy is much more interconnected now, and the tide is Eastwards, and big business is global. The company you invest in, if US or UK-based, may still be making good profits on its overseas earnings, even if domestic workers are all on the dole.

A recovery for the investors may happen sooner, and the market bottom may not be so deep in nominal terms (currency-adjusted is something else: look at what has happened to the dollar and pound; and what may yet happen). I think there's a big disconnect between the markets and Joe Average, since the extra wealth from 1980 on has mostly accrued to the top layer of society.

The concentration of money into fewer hands means that investment issues must inevitably give way to considerations of maintaining (repairing) the social and political fabric of our democracies.

Ho, ho


Sunday, July 05, 2009

Where did the funny money go?

A few days ago, I charted American public debt in the 2oth century. I also wrote to the Spectator (they didn't publish) to point out that Ronald Reagan and the Bushes were far from conservative when it came to fiscal matters, and that this did not result in benefit to the average American.

Now I come across a graph that makes it plain:

I suppose much the same happened here in the UK. So that's why we got all those posh-cooking and property-in -Provence TV programmes. We were encouraged to dream about the top echelon, not try to join them. As Eva Peron said, "I am taking the jewels from the oligarchs for you"; but somehow we never got to wear them ourselves. Not unless we went into hock for them.

This Wiki entry on the Gini coefficient remarks "Overall, there is a clear negative correlation between Gini coefficient and GDP per capita; although the U.S.A, Hong Kong and Singapore are all rich and have high Gini coefficients." Perhaps there is going to be a reversion to the standard international model: a poorer USA with a high Gini coefficient. Or (same source) a reversion to the social stratification of 1929:

"Gini indices for the United States at various times, according to the US Census Bureau:


1929: 45.0 (estimated)
1947: 37.6 (estimated)
1967: 39.7 (first year reported)
1968: 38.6 (lowest index reported)
1970: 39.4
1980: 40.3
1990: 42.8
2000: 46.2
2007: 46.3"

This blog projects a Gini convergence between the USA and Mexico - perhaps it makes sense, on the reversion-to-mean basis:

Friday, July 03, 2009

The sun also rises


... the governance of Britain which as we have said is semi-feudal, ruled by a few corporations and the wealthy elite in partnership with essentially a one party government.This will go a long way in helping to understand the "British disease" of economic stagnation. You start by crippling the middle class through debt indebtedness to a corporate elite.

So sorry, an error in transcription: for Britain and British, I should have written Japan and Japanese. Gomen nasai. But an understandable mistake, you may think. How much difference will a regime change in the UK make? The inclusion of Ken "fags and Bilberberg" Clarke on the Opposition team seems a deadly marker to me.

Returning to our muttons... Jesse has been focusing on the Land of the Rising Sun recently. He's pointed out that an ageing demographic structure is a major brake on the economy, especially with tight controls on immigration (though we in the UK may have have drawn the wrong conclusion from this); and today he looks at how the Japanese have organised themselves to reduce energy costs and oil dependency.

Especially the car: "I have long thought of cars as vampires sucking the economic life out of every household in the US. And the risk of death and serious injury from car accidents is about half what it is in the US (although the statistics may not be directly comparable)." And considered from a coldly economic point of view, think of the enormous overall costs of those deaths; and the possibly far greater costs of medical care and other support for the vast and growing army of injured and permanently disabled.

It's well worth reading the whole letter from Jesse's friend in Japan - not just about energy, but preventive healthcare etc. They walk to McDonald's - not waddle. They're organising themselves; so can we.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Market support

Denninger:

... a handful of banks, most specifically Goldman Sachs, constitute the majority of NYSE trading volume... This "back and forth trade" between a handful of institutions is nothing more than the old "pump and dump" game that has been played in the OTC market forever - and almost always screws the individual investor.

This is no different than you and I selling a house back and forth between us repeatedly, each time at a higher price. We both appear to be geniuses as we're both making a "profit", right?

Well, no. One of us is destined to take a horrifying loss if we do not find a sucker to make the final transaction with.

I wondered what was keeping it all up. And sooner or later...

P.S. Rob Kirby strongly suspects that similar manipulation is going on in oil and gold - one kept up, the other down. (For an update on the latter, click on the goldcam.)