Friday, February 29, 2008

What the rubber mat said

I sat in my clients' office yesterday afternoon, waiting for them to arrive. The office had lovely new desks; as it turned out, not new, but taken from another business that has recently closed.

The reason for the delay - at least for one of the directors - was a last-moment requirement for tico rubber, needed next morning for anti-vibration matting under a five-ton machine that was being re-sited. The usual supplier, a major international concern, has recently shut down the closest depot to Birmingham. Rationalisation. Outsourcing. Globalization.

So while waiting, I tried to help my client find the material somewhere else. Googling away, we found it in the far north of England, or Cornwall; too far. Maybe just possibly in Market Harborough or Leicester? On calling the nearer companies, specifications and stock levels were doubtful.

My clients' business is contrarian: they move machines, and although originally that meant from one UK site to another, more often now it involves sending them abroad. As the decline of British manufacturing industry has accelerated, they've been very busy recently. For obvious reasons, the bonanza will end sometime.

But back to the matting. Once, suppliers of components you needed would be close at hand. Now we could be looking at journeys to the ends of the country - meaning cost, delay and maybe, sometimes, a lost contract.

The Pearl River in China is now home to myriads of small manufacturers, and the synergy improves everyone's productive capacity. Like it used to in Birmingham, "city of a thousand trades". But now in the UK, we could be dropping below the threshold of economic viability for manufacturing industry.

That's what the mat said to me.

What's your house worth?

Home prices WILL contract so that the median house is 2.5-3x the median income

says Karl Denninger. Now do your sums.

Some interesting comments and suggestions (including my usual twopenn'orth) on this post at the Capitalists@work blog - people seriously discussing inflation hedging and survivalism, here in the UK. We're getting beyond ivory-tower discussion.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Beyond gold

This blog by Thomas H. Greco looks interesting. The author, an American, has taken the trouble to address a convention in Malaysia on currency issues,and you'll recall that they're trialling the gold dinar in the province of Kelantan.

Greco thinks that modern technology may let us keep accounts of exchanges without having to resort to traditional forms of currency. I suppose this could be similar to Local Exchange Trading Systems. It's also interesting that he's featured and commented on Ron Paul's proposal that currency systems should be allowed to compete. Greco even looks at Air Miles as one candidate!

Going down

Another grizzly, this time Captain Hook:

You should know that when banks begin to fail in the States, and they will, things could spiral out of control to the extent controls will to need be placed on both digital and physical movement. Transfers between banks will cease up completely, debts will be called in (so pay them off now), systems from food distribution to medical care will break down, and Martial Law will be the result as the population retaliates. Life will change as you know it.

[...] Japan has never really escaped the credit crunch that gripped their economy back in the 90's after bubblizing the real estate market. That's the tell-tale-sign a bubble economy is on its last legs you know - when master planners need resort to bubblizing the real estate market. Generally it's all down hill after that on a secular (long-term) basis because this is a reflection of not just a turn in the larger credit cycle; but more, and the driver of credit growth in the end, this is the signal demographic constraints have turned negative. [...] It's a simple numbers game, where an aging population is less prone to take on debt.

He considers the possibility of a Japanese-style asset deflation, which gels with my earlier thoughts regarding a generation-long UK property slump.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Place your bets

Peter Navarro lays out three global economic scenarios and their effects on different asset classes. The grid looks a bit like the betting board for roulette, or possibly craps. At any rate, a good tool for helping you decide.

To me, decoupling seems the least likely at this stage; I don't feel the rest of the world has yet built up demand sufficient to be unaffected by the loss of the American consumer. But what do I know.

I'm guessing the first scenario for a while, followed by the third when governments panic.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

... and I thought I was a bear!

My position is firm, that the US banking system has been irrevocably destroyed, unfixable.

See the above and more in this from Jim Willie - and thanks to John East for the link.

The end of democracy

Simon Watkins and Helia Ebrahimi in The Mail on Sunday (p.58) give a graph showing that sovereign wealth funds (SWFs) purchased over £20 billion worth of British business in the last three years, and report a prediction that SWFs will own £6 trillion of world assets by 2015.

Wikipedia estimates the world's stockmarket capitalisation at $51 trillion and bonds at $45 trillion. Taken together, in sterling terms, that's about £49 trillion. So in seven years' time, sovereign funds are expected to control 12% of the market. This is significant: you'll recall that and EU countries require declarations of shareholdings at various levels between 2 and 5 per cent (3% in the UK), as seen in Appendix 5 of this document, and anyone owning over 1% of a company's shares has to declare dealings if the company is the subject of a takeover bid.

My hazy understanding of democracy is that it includes two crucial elements, namely, the vote, and the right to own personal property. We're losing both. What is our freedom worth when collectively, governments not only employ large numbers of people directly, but many more of them indirectly, through ownership of the businesses for which they work?

What does the vote matter? Here in the UK, we have had a coup by a small, tightly organised (and unscrupulous, even if and when principled) group who have realised that what matters is the swing voter in the swing seat, and nothing else. "What works is what matters" - a slogan that, superficially, seems simply pragmatic, but actually slithers away from identifying the principal objective: you can only tell if it works, when you know what you want it to do. And under our first-past-the-post system, with constituencies determined (how? and who is on the committee?) by the Boundary Commission, I could vote for the incumbent or the man in the moon, but I'm going to get a Labour Party apparatchik in my ward.

And I don't think the system will be reformed if "the other lot" get in, either: "Look with thine ears: See how yond Justice rails upon yond simple thief. Hark in thine ear: Change places, and handy-dandy, which is the Justice, which is the thief?" Structural issues matter: we are cursed by the psephologists, spin doctors and databases.

And as for property, when sovereign wealth funds go from being the tail that wags the dog, to becoming the dog, multinational businesses will be less concerned to satisfy the local shareholder, who may also be an employee. Big MD (or Big CEO) will have his arm around the shoulders of Big Brother.

We worry so much about wealth, and forget what it's for: not just survival, but independence, respect, liberty. Now, the peasants are fed, housed, medically treated, given pocket money, have their disabilities catered for, their children taught, and their legal cases expensively considered. So many of them are fat, enforcedly idle, addled with drink and drugs, chronically ill and disabled, negligent of their offspring and familiar to the point of contempt with the legal system. Despite (because of) their luxuries, they suffer, like the declawed, housebound cats in some American dwellings.

What matters is what works; these outcomes don't matter, except that they work for a class - which I think is becoming hereditary - that seeks, retains and services power. I have said to friends many times that we are seeing the reconstruction of a pan-European aristocracy, disguised as a political, managerial and media nexus.

The American Revolution was about liberty, not wealth, and it is one of the few major nations where the mice did, for a long time, succeed in belling the cat; there was a period here, too, when Parliament could call the King's men to a rigorous account. Now, even in America, the abstract networks of money and power are turning the voters into vassals of the machine that sustains them. As here, the political issues there will soon be welfare, pensions, Medicare and other elements of the badly-made pottage for which we sell our birthright.

As for Bombardier Yossarian in Catch-22, the first step back to our liberty is to stop believing in the benevolence of the system.
BTW: the man who wrote "The Anarchist Cookbook" later converted to Christianity. The one thing not to do with the system is to try to smash it - you'll only get something worse.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Flat Broke and Berserk

Stagflation? Who can say?
Paul Kasriel says no to seventies-style stagflation, for two reasons: oil supplies aren't being choked off, and unions are weak. He may be right.
But I understand that the Saudis are keeping oil production at an unsustainably high level, even though this is damaging the quality of the remaining underground reserves. In French wine-growing terms, this is known as "faire pisser les vignes". And given the Peak Oil issue, we're going to find that countries like Russia and Iran may use their energy supplies to further their own agendas.
As to union wage demands, yes, the brothers are no longer so united; but the voters may yet get together behind a politician who promises to maintain living standards. I predict this will be achieved by writing checks/cheques on the future, i.e. inflation. That's after the current bout of monetary deflation, of course.
Which brings us to currencies. It's a good week for readers of Julian Phillips: here he discusses how in rural India, the rupee is on a flexible gold standard to avoid the depredations of taxation and bribery; and here he looks at possible plans by G7 nations to place your money under house arrest, to prevent it fleeing the country.
Is this back to the 70s, or the 60s? As Wikipedia reminds us, "In the summer of 1966, with the value of the pound falling in the currency markets, exchange controls were tightened by the Wilson government. Among the measures, tourists were banned from taking more than £50 out of the country, until the restriction was lifted in 1979. "
Pursuing my "sell up and get a (possibly horse-drawn) caravan" theme, I note it's a tradition of the Romanies to collect large pieces of Royal Crown Derby pottery - beautiful, thickly patinated with gold, easily identifiable in the event of theft, and impossible to melt down. Soon it'll be time to join the raggle taggle gypsies, O.
Until then, I have to have a replacement car (they tell me Fiat stands for "Fix It Again Tomorrow"), so I'm off to a second-hand auto supermarket today. Let's see if there is any real sign of recession hitting big-ticket items.

Friday, February 22, 2008

The low interest trap

The UK's residential housing stock is now worth an estimated £4 trillion. But this valuation is powered by £1.2 trillion in mortgages, an average first time buyer loan of £140,000, a loan/income multiple of 3.61 and the base interest rate at 5.5%.

In 1987, the average first-time buyer borrowed £25,000, with a loan/income multiple of 2.1 and the base interest rate at 10.5%.

So the modern housebuyer now takes on 72% more debt in relation to income. Interest rates (and house values) may go up and down, but the amount borrowed is a hard - and now heavy - number. All this for the same thing we had 20 years ago - a safe place to sleep.

One might think that the true value of our housing is the gross less debt, i.e. (4 - 1.2 =) £2.8 trillion. That approach would work, if each house had the same proportion of debt. But it must be far less than that, since most of the debt is on the shoulders of the young(ish) - if they halved their initial borrowing, there would have to be a severe impact on house prices generally.

What would houses be worth if no-one could borrow more than 2 years' income against them? What if there were no mortgages at all? What will happen - what will the multiplying effect be - when the housebuying generation finds itself so burdened with taxes and high food and energy costs, that it cannot afford to take on such large home loans?

In whose interest has all this money-lending operated?

In cartoon-caveman times, chasing the bear or sabre-toothed tiger out and seizing the cave would be a day's work. Now it takes 20-25 years (sometimes far more) to chase out the bank. Have we progressed?

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Will sovereign wealth funds support the market?

BBC Radio 4 broadcast an interesting programme on sovereign wealth funds tonight. Is it not possible the oil exporting and trading surplus nations will be looking for a home for their capital, at the same time as private investors and overborrowed institutional investors are trying to cash out?

If so, the real story is not yet another impending market crash, whose effects may in any case be softened by an influx of new money that has political motive and so is not so narrowly focussed on a fair market price; instead, the major issue may be that, just as the West's industrial base has been hollowed-out, so its equity base may be attenuated in the same way.

In other words, our countries are like a man who has lost his job and is just about to find out that his pension scheme has been raided.

Laying it on the line

Some people will act beyond their self-interest. Karl Denninger is an expert investor, but is moved to be an economic prophet for his country and like other prophets, despairs of the passivity of his people:

This financial weapon of mass destruction is going to detonate.

It will make it impossible for the government to pay your Medicare and Social Security benefits.
It will result in double the tax burden you have now being laid on your children and grandchildren, OR MORE.

And when that happens, if I am still alive I'm going to spend MY MONEY on a full page advertisement in The Wall Street Journal (or whatever the "mainstream media" is at that point) telling your kids (who will then be adults) that you scr*w*d them on purpose because you were too much of a cheap j*ckoff to get on a plane and go raise h*ll in Washington DC to put a stop to this cr*p!

I wonder what their reaction will be to "Dear Old Dad" when they're living in poverty as a direct consequence of you fiddling while Rome burns?

I wonder if Moses used expletives when he came down off the mountain and found the people worshipping a statue of an ox?

Good man.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Cut and run?

Atash Hagmahani does pessimism in a flowery and Orientally allusive way, but the bottom line is familiar: stagflation is on the way, if not here already, thanks to financial imprudence and the offshoring of work.

His action points are interesting, including starting to save hard (and I agree that's technically possible, though many people might find this hard to sell to their life-partners) and (more controversially) not wasting money on a college education for your children:

They will spend vast amounts of money (much of it borrowed) on an education that is economically worthless; the jobs they could not get out of high-school will still be out of reach after college.

I think that recommendation needs qualification. It seems to me that in poor countries, the well-off are even better-off. Surely it's more important to ensure that your children, if capable and hard-working, either pursue courses that train them for well-paid work, or at least go to universities that raise their ambitions and help them make useful social connections.

But I think he's right to think that we'll soon find we're in a game of musical chairs with most of the seating removed. Another of Hagmahani's options is simply to quit the country. It's time to really think out of the box.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

All our banks are sub-prime

The Mail on Sunday reports plans by the British Government to borrow money from the Middle East, on Islamic Sharia terms - that is, without, technically, paying interest.

Never mind the Islamophobic subtext: Islam is not the only religion to object to charging interest (which was illegal in France up to the Revolution of 1789). According to The Merchants' Magazine and Commercial Review by Isaac Smith Homans, William B. Dana (1849) (found by Google search here):

The Jewish law prohibited all usury between Jew and Jew, although it was allowed between Jews and foreigners. (Ex. 22 : 25 ; Levit. 25 : 36, 37 : Deut 23 : 19, 20. Compare Ps. 15 : 5 ; Ezek. 18 : 8, 13, 17, Ac.) The reason of this distinction, according to Father Ambrose, was, that God designed usury as one of the ways of making war upon the Canaanites and other heathen nations.

The Canon Law, as it is called, i. e., the ecclesiastical law of the Roman Catholic Church, pronounces the taking of interest, even the least, to be a mortal sin, and declares those who defend the practice to be heretics.

The interpretation of usury as a form of warfare is resonant.

There is also the unreligious technical point, that the money supply must increase to cover the interest charged. Either that, or ultimately all the money in the world will end up in the hands of the money-lenders.

This may not have mattered quite so much when the world was not so monetized - when we built our own houses, grew our own food, drew water from wells and rivers, and made our own clothes. It has to be said that none of it, generally, was as nice as today (though at least water didn't come in plastic bottles that took seven times as much water to make); but as more and more of reality nowadays has a price ticket on it, the inexorable demands of interest must either create unbounded inflation, or by seizing all our assets, enslave us. Perhaps usury is indeed a form of aggression.

Which leads me to wonder where money came from in the first place. How can you invent something, define the world with reference to your new creation (and possession), and use it to claim - to seize - ownership of the world? This is to make the money-issuer - originally the King or Emperor - lord of all the Creation he can control. So is power the only game in town? Maybe civilised life, the quiet enjoyment of one's own hard-won personal property, is merely an illusion, a time-out in the game. But impoverish the middle class and all bets are off - as Germany found out in the 20s and 30s. How foolish must a State be, to allow its mismanagement of finance to threaten the social order. Still, the Germans weren't entirely responsible for the WWI peace treaty that led to the total wreck of their economy; by contrast, look at this latest from Karl Denninger on the current, State-permitted mess.

The power of the State to coin money is nothing to the way the banks multiply it. Something like a mere 3% of all money is in notes and coins; the rest is deposits and credit - i.e. promises. Instead being charged a modest fee for guarding your cash (which is, I understand, the practice of the traditional Swiss bank), you're paid what you think is a nice rate of interest - but thanks to fractional reserve banking, your deposit can be multiplied and loaned out, at even higher rates. No wonder the banks always seem to have the nicest locations, including converted Tudor houses in little Warwickshire villages.

Swelling the capital within the economy ultimately pushes up prices, though as money-lenders become more cautious and call loans back in, the opposite happens; but meanwhile, the expanded money supply also builds-in massive future inflation, because interest must come back, as well as all the existing capital. Even if some of this fake capital is lost because of asset write-offs, the lenders will seek to make up for it by charging more interest on the loans that haven't defaulted. And the difference between the small interest paid out to you on your little deposit, and the larger interest demanded on the much greater loan base, pays for all the overheads and leaves over enough, and more than enough.

Meanwhile, the temporarily bloated money supply inflates assets, including assets that really you must have, such as a roof over your head. In the UK, the M4 measure of money supply has approximately doubled since 2000 - and house prices have done almost exactly the same. But I don't have the power to say, I don't believe in borrowing money so I won't pay so much for your house. And since you (quite understandably) will refuse my lower offer, I will have to rent instead - at a rate that reflects the price of houses. What would houses cost - what would rents be - if home loans were illegal?

So now, in the wake of sub-prime (and other, earlier financial bubbles), we're all clapping our hands to save Tinkerbell's life. The government pumps yet more funny money into the economy to shore up the confidence tricks of bankers, and in the case of Northern Rock, their own voter base. If we understood what this "Tinkerbell" is really like, and what she's been up to, perhaps we'd be better off letting her die.

Except the law's on her side, and she'd take us and our families down with her. After all, by agreeing to borrow, we fix an obligation in nominal terms, even if (owing to events beyond our control, but not necessarily beyond that of the money-makers, and money-fakers) the assets decline in nominal terms. In fact, by first expanding and then contracting the money supply, it is possible for lenders to take your assets and any additional capital that you personally contributed, then reinflate the assets later. Hey presto, they've grabbed your cash. No wonder some Americans trash the house before mailing back the keys.

I think that for those who have the liberty to do so, escape comes in two stages: get your cash out, then buy whatever you need so that in future, you depend on the money system as little as possible. You should also stay mobile - the State needs captives, and a house is an excellent way to tie you by one leg. And the licence plate on a car is the next best thing to a tag clipped onto your ear. Unfortunately, in an overcrowded island like ours, this doesn't seem realistic, but maybe that's why an Irish girl told me, years ago, that farsighted (and typically pessimistic) Germans were buying into rural Ireland. Perhaps in America, or some other land blessed with a lower ratio of population to fertile land, we may escape with the raggle taggle gypsies. Velvet-clad slavery, or freedom and poverty?

What care I for a goose-feather bed?
With the sheet turned down so bravely, O!
For to-night I shall sleep in a cold open field
Along with the raggle taggle gypsies, O!

Friday, February 15, 2008

UK public debt twice as bad as America's

David Walker, the US Comptroller General, reckons the debts and unfunded liabilities of the USA amount to some $53 trillion, which assuming GDP of $13.75 trillion means a debt-to-GDP ratio of 3.85. Mr Walker, now retiring, has taken his "Fiscal Wake Up Tour" round America for two years, warning Cassandra-like of the woe to come if things don't change soon.

"Wat Tyler" of the redoubtable blog Burning Our Money reckons UK debts and unfunded liabilities to be some £9 trillion, which assuming GDP of $2.472 trillion (c. £1.26 trillion today) means a debt-to-GDP ratio of 7.16. Sir John Bourn (74) is the UK's equivalent of David Walker, and recently left office after a tenure of 20 years. A Google news search using the terms "Sir John Bourn", "debt" and "warning" yielded nothing today.

We worry about mortgages, but according to this site:

"Recent figures from the Council of Mortgage Lenders (CML) showed average first-time buyers borrowed 3.24 times their income - the highest level ever recorded...Many lenders will calculate a debt income ratio, which as a rule of thumb should not exceed 40%. " (i.e. 0.4; my highlights)

Bonds: up or down?

Where's safe for your money? It's like a minefield: we seem to be zig-zag running between financial explosions. Housing? Overpriced, full of bad debt. The stockmarket? Due to drop when earnings revert to the mean. The commodity market? Distorted by speculation and manipulation.

How about bonds? Clive Maund thinks US Treasuries are due for a pasting as yields rise to factor-in inflation; but Karl Denning is still firmly of the DE-flation persuasion and thinks a stockmarket fall may be our saviour:

The Bond Market no likey what's going on. The 10 is threatening to break out of a bullish (for rates) flag, which presages a potential 4.20% 10 year rate. This will instantaneously translate into higher mortgage and other "long money" rates, destroying what's left of the housing industry.

There is only one way to prevent this, and that's for the stock market to blow up so that people run like hell into bonds, pushing yields down!

He also gives his own theory as to why the Fed stopped reporting M3 money supply rates:

The moonbats claim that The Fed discontinued M3 because they're trying to hide something. In fact they discontinued M3 because it didn't tell you the truth; it was simply NOT capturing any of the "shadow" credit creation caused by all the fraud (and undercapitalized "insurance" which, in fact, is worth zero), but it sure is capturing the forcible repatriation into bank balance sheets when there is no other when it comes to access to capital for companies and governments.

So, two elephants are riding the bond seesaw: fear of inflation, and fear of losing one's capital. I hope the plank doesn't snap. Antal Fekete reckons the bond market can take all the money you can throw at it - but what goes up will come down.

Cash still doesn't seem like such a bad thing, to me.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

A secular bear market in housing?

It's now generally accepted that houses are overpriced. I think valuations will not only go down, but (notwithstanding bear market rallies) stay down for at least a generation.

Here's some reasons, some having a longer-term effect than others:
  • house prices are now a very high multiple of earnings, choking the first-time buyer market.
  • presently, there is increasing economic pessimism, which will further inhibit buyers.
  • the mortgage burden now lies in the amount of capital to be repaid, rather than the interest rate; that's much harder to get out of, and will prolong the coming economic depression, either through the enduring impact on disposable income, or through the destruction of money by mortgage defaults on negative-equity property - and as valuations fall, there will be more and more of the latter.
  • fairly low current interest rates allow little room to drop rates further to support affordability - and at worst, rate drops could sucker even more people into taking on monster mortgage debt. But interest rate reductions are unlikely to benefit borrowers anyway. The banks have survived for centuries on the fact that while valuations are variable, debt is fixed. They got silly with sub-prime, but by George they will remain determined to get all they can of their capital back, and preserve its value. The people who create money literally out of nothing - a mere account-ledger entry - are now tightening lending criteria and will continue to press for high interest rates; for now, they will content themselves with not fully passing on central bank rate cuts, so improving the differential for themselves, as compensation for their risk.
  • food and fuel costs are rising, and given declining resources (including less quality arable land annually), a growing world population and the relative enrichment of developing countries, demand will continue to soar, cutting into what's left of disposable income.
  • our economy is losing manufacturing capacity and steadily turning towards the service sector, where wages are generally lower.
  • the demographics of an ageing population mean that there will be proportionately fewer in employment, and taxation in its broadest sense will increase, even if benefits are marginally reduced.
  • the growing financial burden on workers will further depress the birth rate, which in turn will exacerbate the demographic problem.
In short, there will be less money available to chase house prices; and in my view, less to chase investments, too. It may be very similar in the USA - as Jim from San Marcos says now (repeating himself from last May):

A market goes up when more people want to buy, than those that want to sell. Well, all of these first time home buyers have no spare cash for the Stock Market. The Baby Boomers, sometime in the future are going to want to sell. The question arises, "Sell to Whom?"

Returning to houses, there are still those who think valuations will continue to be supported by the tacit encouragement of economic migration to the UK.

Now, although this helps keep down wage rates at the lower end (where is the Socialist compassion in that?), the government is pledging the future for a benefit which is merely temporary, if it exists at all. Once an incoming worker has a spouse and several children, how much does he/she need to earn to pay for the social benefits consumed now and to come later? State education alone runs at around £6,000 ($12,000) per annum per child.

And then there's the cost of all the benefits for the indiginous worker on low pay, or simply unemployed and becoming steadily less employable as time passes. And his/her children, learning their world-view in a family where there is no apparent connection between money and work. The government makes get-tough noises, but in a recessionary economy, I don't think victimising such people for the benefit of newspaper headlines will be any use. I seem to recall (unless it was an Alan Coren spoof) that in the 70s, Idi Amin made unemployment illegal in Uganda; not a model to follow.

So to me, allowing open-door economic migration to benefit the GDP and hold up house prices doesn't work in theory, let alone in practice.

Besides, I maintain that in the UK, we don't have a housing shortage: we have a housing misallocation. There must be very many elderly rattling around alone in houses too large and expensive for them to maintain properly. This book says that as long ago as 1981, some 600,000 single elderly in owner-occupied UK property had five or more rooms; the ONS says that in 2004, some 7 million people were living alone in Great Britain. Then there's what must be the much larger number of people who live in twos and threes in houses intended for fours and fives. Before we build another million houses on flood-plains, let's re-visit the concept of need.

Maybe we'll see the return of Roger the lodger - if he's had a CRB check, of course.

Would I buy a second home now? No. Would I sell the one I live in? I'd certainly think about it - in fact, have been considering that for some years.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Reversion to mean

Echoing recent comments by Vitaliy Katsenelson (also on Barron's), Jeremy Grantham thinks profit margins will decline towards normal and the Standard & Poor's 500 will head from its current c. 1334 to 1100 in the year 2010 - a drop of about 18%.

Grantham is emphatic that borrowed money is not a stimulant to the economy:

I have an exhibit that shows the 30 years prior to 1982 when the debt-to-gross domestic product ratio was completely flat at 1.2 times. Total debt is defined as government debt, personal debt, corporate debt and financial debt. Then in the 25 years after 1982, the flat line goes up at a 45 degrees angle from 1.2 times to 3.1 times GDP. Massive. In the first 30 years, when debt is flat, annual GDP growth is its usual battleship, growing at 3.5% and hardly twitching. After the massive increase in debt, GDP, far from accelerating, grew at 3%. So debt in the aggregate does not drive the economy. The economy is driven by education, man-hours worked, capital investment and technology.

That last sentence is really pregnant. I'm not sure about the man-hours (the closer we approach peasanthood, the harder we'll work), but I think that on both sides of the Atlantic, we've been falling down on the other three.

In Britain, our government has failed to distinguish between investing in education, and managing it - and where it has tried to do the latter, has pursued a Romantic-heritage political agenda. Capital investment? Going abroad. Technology? Ditto - and eagerly taken up (if not positively filched) by our Eastern trading partners.

I live in what used to be Car City; now, the vast Longbridge site is being redeveloped for housing and shops - in other words, open prison for the new ex-industrial underclass.

But Rome, too, kept control of its plebs with bread and circuses for a couple more centuries, before it fell.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Will monetary inflation be absorbed by the bond market?

In the previous post, I looked at the expectation that interest rates will rise. But it seems that freaky things can happen if the government tries to stimulate the economy by progressively cutting interest rates and pumping more money into the system.

Professor Antal E Fekete thinks that in a deflationary environment, governmental attempts to reflate by introducing more money will be thwarted by the ability of the bond market to soak up the excess liquidity. Higher bond yields result in lower bond valuations, so reducing interest rates inflates the price of bonds. Fekete says that halving the rate doubles the bond price, and since mathematically you can halve a number indefinitely, the bond market can absorb all the fiat money you can create. Therefore, you can have hyperinflation and economic depression at the same time.

This trap is possible because the abandonment of the gold-and-silver standard means that the dollar has no limit to its expansion. And bond speculators have their risk covered by the need of the government to return to the market for renewed borrowing. If the Professor is right, it would be a nasty trap indeed.

But maybe our conclusion should be that this explains why interest rates must rise.

A quibble on style: especially in England, money is regarded as dull. So financial commentators try hard to add flavour, and in the Professor's case, too hard - it has been difficult for me to detect the meat of the argument under its many-spiced similes. Byron's Don Juan comes to mind:

And Coleridge, too, has lately taken wing,
But like a hawk encumber'd with his hood,
Explaining Metaphysics to the nation--
I wish he would explain his Explanation.

Warren Buffett's misleading optimism

Jonathan Chevreau reports Warren Buffett's bullishness on the US economy, long-term; but the real gem in this piece is the extensive, but cogent and crunchy comment by Andrew Teasdale of The TAMRIS Consultancy, who analyses Buffett's real approach to equity valuations.

Teasdale points out that although interest rates hit 21% in 1982, there was less debt, higher disposable income and lower valuations: relative to disposable income, debt is a bigger burden today than it was 25 years ago. He summarises his position pithily:

It is also worthwhile remembering that not everyone holds a Buffet portfolio and not everyone has the luxury of a 220 year investment horizon. If I was a long term investor with no financial liabilities arising over the next 15 years equities would be my preferred asset class relative to cash and bonds, but I would be mindful of valuations in determining where I put my money.

Not all the bad debt has yet surfaced, and as Karl Denninger comments, even at this stage Citibank has recently been forced to borrow foreign money at 14%, and other banks at over 7%, in preference to the 3% Federal Funds rate, presumably to keep the scale of their insolvency in the dark.

Inflation is increasing, therefore money-lenders are going to want more income to compensate for risk and the erosion of the real value of their capital. For the yield to rise, the capital value of bonds has to fall.

So I read Teasdale's summary as implying that for now, it's cash rather than either bonds or equities.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

The Golden Compass doesn't work

FTSE closed today down at 5,724.10, a point first reached (travelling the other way) in December 1998. The longer-term chart above suggests to me a glass ceiling. Or flogging a dead horse (I can't tell you how some ten-year-olds I know misheard that last saying recently, or how their conversation continued. That generation appears to be developing backwards from middle age.)

Adjusted for inflation, the line would look worse, of course. I think my gut feeling was right ten years ago: essentially, we've been going down since the late nineties.

But what inflation measure to use? Gold seems to go down together with equity sell-offs, rather than seesawing against them. And unlike with the Dow, there doesn't seem to be an easily accessible index of the FTSE priced in gold terms; but GATA last week went very public with their theory that gold is being held down by surreptitious selling - and has been quietly disappearing from central bank vaults. This is something I've touched on a number of times before, and MoneyWeek gives its take on it here. Meanwhile, here's the ad:

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

The New World Order: a philosophical objection

A deep essay by Christopher Quigley here, but one I intend to re-read. Marxist philosophy always made my eyes water, practically instantly, as I have little tolerance for prolonged abstract multisyllabic holy-rolling, but I'll steel myself because we have to have some understanding of the madness that seems to have seized our modern conspiratorial ruling class. "Affairs are now soul-size".

Gold chart confusion

Here's a chart of gold against inflation as measured by CPI, from Captain Hook, and it suggests that high as it is now, the price of gold is still below its 1973 - 1997 average:

... and here's another reproduced on the Contrarian Investor's Journal (possibly from TedBits, which I'll come to in a moment), which seems to show the opposite:

... and here's another from Ty Andros's TedBits, comparing gold to gobal financial liquidity:

Which line of reasoning would you support at this time?

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Why equities should go down

I'm breaking radio silence because of a brilliantly lucid article (from the subscription-only Barron's site) found for us by Michael Panzner.

Vitaliy Katsenelson explains that the current average price-earnings ratio may seem cheap, but that's because recent profit margins have been well above the 8.5% trend. Even allowing for a shift since 1980 away from industry towards the higher-margin service sector, the present 11.9% profit margin should be seen against a longer-term background figure of around 8.9 - 9.2%, which if current p/e ratios continue would imply a downward stock price correction of 22 -25%.

This chimes with Robert McHugh's "Dow 9,000" prediction from last July. And in many fields it's usual for overshoot to occur in the process of regression to a mean, so if it holds true in this case we could see even deeper temporary lows.

Day traders, be warned: this piste is a Black Run.