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Archive for March 2014

Archive for March, 2014

140329-01

Thoughts from the Frontline: When Inequality Isn’t

 

“An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.”

–Plutarch, Greek historian, first century AD

“In the economic sphere an act, a habit, an institution, a law produces not only one effect, but a series of effects. Of these effects, the first alone is immediate; it appears simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The other effects emerge only subsequently; they are not seen; we are fortunate if we foresee them.

“There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen.

“Yet this difference is tremendous; for it almost always happens that when the immediate consequence is favorable, the later consequences are disastrous, and vice versa. Whence it follows that the bad economist pursues a small present good that will be followed by a great evil to come, while the good economist pursues a great good to come, at the risk of a small present evil.”

–Frédéric Bastiat, “That Which Is Seen and That Which Is Unseen,” 1850

“Still one thing more, fellow-citizens – a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities.”

–President Thomas Jefferson, first inaugural address

Plutarch argued over 1900 years ago that it was income inequality that lay at the heart of the failure of the Greek republics. Other writings of that period demonstrate that the leaders were worried about the distribution of wealth in society. The causes of unequal distribution have certainly changed over time, but it seems to be built into our DNA to obsess over what we have relative to what others have.

That we are living in the most splendid golden age in the history of humanity – if by golden age we mean that for the world at large there is less hunger, longer lives, less poverty, better healthcare, better and more universal education, and a host of other factors that are manifestly superior as compared to 2000, 1000, 200, 100, 50, and even 20 years ago – is patently evident. We are far from the world Thomas Hobbes described in 1651 in Leviathan when he said “[T]he life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” He would be amazed at the relative abundance achieved by mankind in the last 263 years.

And still, authority after authority the world over, in rich country and poor, from the President of the United States to the leaders of some of the most impoverished nations, describes income inequality as a fundamental injustice and the source of many problems .

We have spent three letters (so far) dealing with the topic of income inequality. The topic is everywhere in our daily conversation and in economic research. I’ve dealt with many of the facts of income inequality in these three issues and will try to conclude the topic this week. We’ve discovered so far that income inequality is a fact; however, income mobility has remained roughly the same over the last 40 years. That is, a person’s chances of rising from a lower stratum of wealth distribution to a higher stratum is approximately the same as it was in 1975.

We have liberals and progressives who use data to demonstrate the correlation between income inequality and recessions or slow growth and then erroneously equate correlation with causation. I think we have sufficiently shown the absurdity of their conclusions. This week we will look at some of the actual causes of income inequality, and in an argumentum ad absurdum I will offer “solutions” that I guarantee can absolutely reduce income inequality just as easily as taking money from the rich and giving it to the poor. In fact my solutions are far more direct, as they affect the causes rather than the effects of income inequality. I must warn you, however, that if you harbor a religious passion for pursuing higher taxes rates on the rich and rely on income inequality as your excuse, you may not be happy with my suggestions or with the rather inconvenient facts I present.

I would like to begin this week’s letter with a quote that might at first appear to have nothing to do with income inequality, but it strikes me that it is at the heart of the argument advanced by those who favor more progressive taxation. Charles Gave argues that there is a correlation (and he sees causation) between the financial repression perpetrated by central banks and the reduction of growth in the developed-world economies. And he links the low-interest-rate policies of central banks to an increased Gini coefficient and income inequality. Those of us who are of a more classical economic persuasion will find this correlation more attractive than we do the supposed one between income inequality and recessions. And we will see that the logic behind Charles’s argument is more compelling.

The simple fact is that there are many correlations to be found in the economic world, and politicians find economists useful in supplying justifications to support almost any policy. The fact that economists might not agree on the data that is used in this way is immaterial to politicians who are simply looking for an excuse to do what they want to do anyway. In this regard, economists perform the same function as shamans and witch doctors in tribal societies, who regard the entrails of sheep or some other unfortunate animal and predict the future, which generally corresponds to what the chief wants to hear. Economists are far more advanced than that, of course. We painstakingly gather data and develop complex computer models to show what our politicians want to hear.

I realize that I argue at the extreme and that most economists are actually well-intentioned and trying hard to figure out how the world works. But they cleave to economic theories in much the same way that people hold religious beliefs to try to explain how the world functions. These theories often predetermine the conclusions economists come to when they analyze data. Maybe someday we will have more precise models and better theories, but until then it is probably best to be somewhat humble in setting forth our conclusions.

Now, let’s devote a few moments of our attention to six paragraphs from Charles Gave’s latest note (gavekal.com – subscribers only) (emphasis mine):

I read everywhere that the US budget deficit is contracting because government consumption is falling as a percentage of GDP, now that the worst of the crisis has passed. This would be very good news indeed; however, I am not so sure that this decline is for real. In fact, I believe it is an accounting illusion.

Over a period of time long [interest] rates, if left to their own devices, always converge to the nominal GDP growth rate (this was called the “golden rule” by Economics Nobel laureate Maurice Allais, and [this] is the core belief in Knut Wicksell’s theory). However, a central bank can fight against this natural tendency by maintaining short rates at abnormally low levels, as the Federal Reserve did from the early 1970s until 1980 and again since 2002. During these two periods long rates were conspicuously lower than growth rates, violating the golden rule.

If negative, the difference between long bond rates and the economic growth rate is effectively a subsidy paid by the saver to the government. In short, this difference measures the amount of financial repression taking place in an economy. The fact that it is not paid to the Treasury does not mean it doesn’t exist. It is a tax paid by a nation’s savers – e.g., pensioners in Peoria….

This shows us that US savers have been paying a virtual tax equivalent to between 1% and 2% of GDP almost every year since 2002 – a sign of the “euthanasia of the rentier” central to every Keynesian analysis. The problem is that subsidizing government spending ultimately leads to lower productivity, slower structural growth and higher financial-crisis risk. We saw a similar euthanasia from 1966 to 1980, when the real structural growth rate of the economy was also in collapse…. The re-imposition of that dreadful tax by Alan Greenspan in 2002, only to be further aggravated by his successor Ben Bernanke, is a key factor behind the falling structural growth rate, the financial crisis and the subsequent slow recovery.

Unnaturally low funding costs undermine the structural growth rate of the US economy, because of capital misallocation. The losers in this deal are usually ordinary folk. Pensioners get no interest on their savings, while rich investors use cheap capital to chase up the cost of property, oil, etc. The Gini coefficient rises, as the poor are seldom asset-rich, and real disposable incomes take a hit as prices rise. Sometimes banks are pressured to make up the shortfall with consumer loans to the struggling classes – adding to the bonfire when the inevitable financial crisis comes.

At the end of the day, it is simple. Savings equal investments, so any tax on savings leads to lower economic growth over time. We may be seeing declining ratios in government spending as a percentage of GDP, but this is really an accounting decline. Financial repression means the government is still taxing the savers, leaving less aside for meaningful investment in the future.

Charles’s fellow Frenchman, Bastiat, argued (as I quoted in the opening of the letter) that in economics there is both what we see and what we don’t see. Charles argues that what we see is declining government spending as a percentage of GDP, but what we don’t see is the “contribution” of financial repression and a tax on savers in making up the difference.

With regard to income inequality, what we see is the growing gap between the 1% and the rest of the world. What we don’t see (because it is not often talked about in the New York Times or economics journals) are the natural and real reasons for that inequality. Most of the reasons for income inequality are in fact things we do not want to discourage. While we could devote multiple chapters of a book to each reason (and there is a massive amount of research on each), today we’ll stay focused on the big picture.

Getting Old Has Its Rewards

The most significant factor in income inequality, which some research suggests is close to 75% of the problem, is that  human beings get older. And the older you get, the more money you make and the more net assets you typically have. Let’s look at a few charts to give us a visual picture.

At every point across the net worth curve, the older you are the more likely you are to be wealthier, up until the time you cross into serious retirement and begin to consume your savings.

Furthermore, your income tends to rise the older you get (again, up until retirement age). The data shows that the peak earning period stretches between ages 45 to 65. This is not a shocking revelation, but it doesn’t get mentioned often enough in the debate about income inequality.

I think you can make the case that rising income inequality is significantly attributable to Baby Boomers reaching their peak income years. There are other factors, of course, but the demographics are what they are. Boomers are reaping the rewards from investing time and money in themselves and their businesses over 40+ year careers. They are able to develop and capitalize on three factors. (I’m pulling these off the top of my head; there may be more.)

1. Savings compounded over 40+ years in the workforce

2. Skills developed over 40+ years in the workforce

3. Networks developed over 40+ years in the workforce

It therefore seems logical that income inequality should be rising as the pig in the US population python reaches age 45-65.

The question that goes begging is … what happens next? What happens if medical technology allows Boomers to extend their lifetimes, and perhaps dramatically?

If you really want to start pondering very-long-term issues, what happens when medical technology allows the next generation of elders to live not a mere 10 years longer but to the age of 120 or 150? Will the age at which people are subjected to the Soylent Green solution be 130 instead of 30? Sadly, that will be a problem my kids get to deal with. But I digress.

Academic scholars are beginning to argue that conclusions about income inequality should be adjusted for age-related reasons. You can see one such paper, from Norway, with links to many others, at http://www.arts.cornell.edu/poverty/kanbur/InequalityPapers/Almas.pdf. The authors demonstrate that age factors are significant across a range of countries and that when you adjust for age, income inequality (with the obvious exception of the extreme 1/10 of 1%) narrows dramatically.

(Hopefully we will see a detailed research paper on aging and income inequality written by retired North Carolina State professor John Seater in an upcoming Outside the Box.)

The Usual Suspects 

While it may be inconvenient for those who want to blame income inequality on factors deemed politically correct, it should not come as a shock that much of the inequality can be attributed to characteristics that most people hold as positive values.

A report from the American Enterprise Institute gives us a good summary. Notice in the chart below that while the income of the highest fifth of the US population is almost 18 times that of the lowest fifth, there is only a 3.5x differential when it comes to the average earnings of the people actually working and making money in the household. It is just that high-income households have more than four times as many wage earners (on average) as poor households.

And married and thus two-earner households make more than single-person households. That seems obvious, of course, but it is a significant factor in income inequality. That doesn’t make the plight of the single working mom any better or easier, but it does help explain the statistical difference. And it does make a difference in lifestyle. Marriage drops the probability of childhood poverty by 82%.

And as we noted in previous letters on income inequality, education is an important factor, too. The relationship between families with higher incomes and the educational attainment of their children is also quite statistically significant.

The AEI report ends on this positive note:

Bottom Line: Household demographics, including the average number of earners per household and the marital status, age, and education of householders are all very highly correlated with household income. Specifically, high-income households have a greater average number of income-earners than households in lower-income quintiles, and individuals in high income households are far more likely than individuals in low-income households to be well-educated, married, working full-time, and in their prime earning years. In contrast, individuals in lower-income households are far more likely than their counterparts in higher-income households to be less-educated, working part-time, either very young (under 35 years) or very old (over 65 years), and living in single-parent households.

The good news is that the key demographic factors that explain differences in household income are not fixed over our lifetimes and are largely under our control (e.g. staying in school, getting and staying married, etc.), which means that individuals and households are not destined to remain in a single income quintile forever. Fortunately, studies that track people over time indicate that individuals and households move up and down the income quintiles over their lifetimes, as the key demographic variables highlighted above change…. And Thomas Sowell pointed out earlier this year in his column “Income Mobility” that:

Most working Americans who were initially in the bottom 20% of income-earners, rise out of that bottom 20%. More of them end up in the top 20% than remain in the bottom 20%. People who were initially in the bottom 20% in income have had the highest rate of increase in their incomes, while those who were initially in the top 20% have had the lowest. This is the direct opposite of the pattern found when following income brackets over time, rather than following individual people.

It’s highly likely that most of today’s high-income, college-educated, married individuals who are now in their peak earning years were in a lower-income quintile in their … single younger years, before they acquired education and job experience. It’s also likely that individuals in today’s top income quintiles will move back down to a lower income quintile in the future during their retirement years, which is just part of the natural lifetime cycle of moving up and down the income quintiles for most Americans. So when we hear the President and the media talk about an “income inequality crisis” in America, we should keep in mind that basic household demographics go a long way towards explaining the differences in household income in the United States. And because the key income-determining demographic variables change over a person’s lifetime, income mobility and the American dream are still “alive and well” in the US.

The Myth of Increasing Income Inequality

Now let us turn to to a fascinating if lengthy article from the Manhattan Institute. The report is by Diana Furchtgott-Roth, and it’s a treasure trove of data. It is exceptionally well footnoted and uses the same data available to all researchers from government sources. It just offers the data up in a manner that doesn’t play to a progressive/liberal narrative that is looking for an excuse to increase taxes and engage in income redistribution. Let’s look at her introduction:

Published government spending data by income quintile show that the ratio of spending between the top and bottom 20 percent has essentially not changed between 1987 and 2012. In terms of total spending, inequality is at the same level as 1987.

Why do other measures show increasing inequality? First, many studies use measures of income before taxes are paid and before transfers, such as food stamps, Medicaid, and housing allowances. Including these transfers reduces inequality.

Second, many studies do not take into account demographic changes in the composition of households over the past 25 years. These changes include more two-earner households at the top of the income scale and more one-person households at the bottom. Studies that show increasing inequality are capturing these demographic changes.

Third, some of this increase in measured inequality is due to the Tax Reform Act of 1986, which lowered top individual income-tax rates from 50 percent to 28 percent, leading more small businesses to file taxes under individual, rather than corporate, tax schedules (Joint Committee on Taxation, “General Explanation of the Tax Reform Act of 1986” (H.R. 3838, 99th Congress, Public Law 99-514), May 4, 1987). 

A superior measure of well-being that avoids these pitfalls is real spending per person by income quintile. Spending power shows how individuals are doing over time relative to those in other income groups. These data can be calculated from published consumer expenditure data from the government’s Consumer Expenditure Survey. An examination of these data from 1987 through 2012 shows that inequality has not changed. [Emphasis mine]

Is Inequality Increasing?

Ask almost anyone the most important economic facts about income distribution in America, and you are almost certain to hear that income distribution has worsened dramatically over the past generation and over the past decade in particular, with people at the top getting a bigger fraction of total personal income.

But measuring inequality is not simple. The choice of the measure of income, along with the measure of the household unit, substantially influences the results of the inequality measure. Should income be measured before the government removes taxes, or after? Should income include government transfers such as food stamps, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment benefits, and housing supplements? Furthermore, should wealth measures be included? 

In order to measure inequality, disposable income is the most accurate measure. This is what Americans can spend to make themselves better off. Hence, income should be measured after taxes are paid because households cannot avail themselves of tax revenue for expenditures. Similarly, income should include transfer payments because those are available for spending.

The report goes on to give us in detail a number of charts and data in support of the conclusions listed above. Those interested can read it for themselves, and those who wish to argue with it need to offer reasons why the analysis is not valid. Let me offer a couple of interesting observations I get from reading the report.

As noted above, there is a high correlation between income inequality and single-person households. The data from the US Census Bureau shows that the number of single-person households has more than doubled in the last 50 years. Is it any wonder that income inequality in an absolute sense – as measured by household (which is the standard measure cited in the press and used in most academic economic studies) – has risen dramatically during that time?

You can slice and dice the data (and Furchtgott-Roth does) by gender, age, marital status, family status, and so on. None of the outcomes are other than what you would expect them to be.

A few more interesting tidbits:

Another factor that can influence measures of inequality is changes in the tax code. The Tax Reform Act of 1986 lowered the top individual tax rate to 28 percent, and the corporate rate to 35 percent (Joint Committee on Taxation, “General Explanation of the Tax Reform Act of 1986” [H.R. 3838, 99th Congress, Public Law 99-514], May 4, 1987). In 1986, the top individual rate was 50 percent, and the top corporate rate was 46 percent, so small businesses would pay tax at a lower rate if they incorporated and filed taxes as corporations With the implementation of the Tax Reform Act of 1986, the top individual tax rate of 28 percent meant that small businesses were often better off filing under the individual tax code. Revenues shifted from the corporate to the individual tax sector. In the late 1980s and 1990s, that made it appear as though people had suddenly become better off and income inequality had worsened. This had not happened; rather, income that had been declared on a corporate return was being declared on the individual return. This makes any comparisons between pre- and post-1986 returns meaningless.

Finally, inequality appears greater because the cost of living varies substantially in different parts of the country. College graduates tend to move to locations with higher costs of housing, food, and services, such as New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. College students prefer these cities because they have amenities such as museums, theaters, shopping, and restaurants. As more well-educated people move into these locations, they become more attractive.

What this means for the study of inequality is that high incomes are less valuable in high-cost locations. A $200,000 salary goes further in Mobile than in New York, for instance, and if more $200,000 wage earners move to New York, the distribution of income is more unequal.

Low-income individuals spend a higher proportion of their income on food and clothing, and high-income people spend more on services. The price of food and clothing, nondurables, has been rising more slowly than the price of services, which are disproportionately consumed by higher-income individuals.

I’m going to include one chart from her study, as I find it pretty well demonstrates her point. It turns out if you use actual expenditures on individual items, not much has changed over the last 25 years. There are some significant differences in a few items such as education and clothing, but by and large the ratios among income quintiles for real expenditures per person have not changed all that much. That is not what you would conclude from stories in the press. Note: this is about expenditures and not incomes.

At the beginning of this letter I promised you a “solution” to income inequality. Let me offer this one tongue-in-cheek, as an argumentum ad absurdum.

We simply need to penalize the incomes of older people, take away any advantage there is from being married, reduce opportunities for education, penalize people for working more than 35 hours per week, and of course levy a significant tax on any accumulated savings. This will quickly reduce inequalities of income. It has the slight disadvantage that it will also destroy the economy and create a massive depression; but if the goal is equal outcomes for all, then communist Russia might be the model you are looking for. Except that even there the bureaucrats and other insiders did quite well.

And speaking of insiders and cronyism, that is a serious part of the problem of income inequality. This report from the Heritage Foundation offers some real meat:

While many on the Left – particularly the Occupy Wall Street movement – confuse the two, free-market economics could not be more different from crony capitalism. Whereas the free-market system treats all players equally, from the largest conglomerate to the smallest mom-and-pop shop, crony capitalism rigs the rules of the game in favor of the entrenched big players.

Whereas the free-market system celebrates and encourages competition, crony capitalism is about shielding the powerful and well-connected from competition. Subsidies, which have no place in a free-market system, form a basic staple of crony capitalism, as do waivers and bailouts.

In the long run, Americans pay a heavy price for this marriage of business and government. Crony capitalism forces taxpayers to subsidize well-connected players and restricts opportunities for the rest of us. As Paul Ryan has explained:

Pitting one group against another only distracts us from the true sources of inequity in this country—corporate welfare that enriches the powerful and empty promises that betray the powerless…. That’s the real class warfare that threatens us: a class of bureaucrats and connected crony capitalists trying to rise above the rest of us, call the shots, rig the rules, and preserve their place atop society. And their gains will come at the expense of working Americans, entrepreneurs, and that small businesswoman who has the gall to take on the corporate chieftain.

If you’re really serious about dealing with income inequality, you need to worry about equality of opportunity in education, and specifically about making sure that the education system is radically reformed by taking it out of the hands of bureaucrats and unions. We need to make sure the economic and legal playing field is level by getting government favoritism and bureaucratic meddling out of the way and making the pie larger for everyone. However, as I demonstrated a few weeks ago, a natural outcome of doubling the size of the economic pie over the coming 15 years will be that there is an even greater differential between those who have next to nothing and those who have accumulated the most. The only way to prevent such an outcome is to keep the total economic pie from growing, and that doesn’t seem like a very good economic policy.

I think it is appropriate to close with another quote from the concluding remarks of President Thomas Jefferson in his first inaugural address:

[A] wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.

Income inequality will not be solved by taxing the rich at higher levels. At some point, that “solution” would reduce savings and therefore investment and thus shrink the total potential for economic growth. To argue any differently is to argue with basic economics and simple math. The goal should not be equality of income or wealth but equality of opportunity. The role of government should be to make sure the playing field is level and the rules are simple and fair.

What constitutes a level playing field will change over time as society becomes richer and technology progresses, but the principle should remain the same. There is a place for the governments of developed economies and their societies to establish safety nets, including healthcare. But these are safety nets, not substitutes for personal endeavor and achievement.

In summary, in the last four weeks we’ve seen that while income inequality is real, increasing taxes and redistributing income is not the answer if the true goal is to improve the incomes and lifestyles of everyone. If we do that, we will actually make the problem worse rather than better.

South Africa, New York, Europe, and San Diego

I finish this letter tonight from Cafayate, Argentina. Sunday I start the trek back to Dallas, where I will be for eight hours – and then take off for 12 days in South Africa. That will mean three straight nights in airplanes, a first for me. I will need that vacation resort, with lots of massages and hydrotherapy, to unwind me. I’m going to try something new this trip and post a few pictures and comments to Twitter. Follow me if you like. After South Africa I’m back home for like a day before I have to run up to New York to do some videos. Then it’s back home for a few weeks (or so it appears) before I head to Amsterdam, Brussels, and Geneva. I’ll come home for a few days and then head to San Diego for our Strategic Investment Conference – one of my real highlights of the year. And then I’ll be home for more than two whole weeks before heading to Tuscany for a few weeks of vacation. Whew. I will be ready to relax at the end of all that travel.

I urge you to consider coming to the Strategic Investment Conference, May 13-16 in San Diego. We have the most phenomenal list of speakers of any conference in the country, I think. If you are trying to figure out how to deal with the Code Red world and find opportunities for capitalizing on the misalignment of government policies, both here and abroad, I think you’ll find no better place to do so. You will be with like-minded people (including the speakers, who typically hang around and meet the attendees!) for three days, and we’ll go deep into ways to position your portfolios for what lies ahead.

Also, I will be speaking for Peak Capital Management on April 24 in Dallas. You can find out more and secure a place by clicking on this link.

There are interesting contrasts here in Northern Argentina. The remarkably fertile valley in which Cafayate is situated is surrounded by towering mountains that change colors dramatically throughout the day. During the trip up to Guafin to see my friend Bill Bonner’s vast collection of rocks and sand interspersed with marvelous little fertile valleys, we encountered some of the most rugged and spectacular canyons I’ve ever seen, either in person or photos. It is as if the Andean gods were competing with each other to create the most stark sculptures imaginable in sandstone and granite. It must have been a violent time, as the players with rocks were clearly throwing them in every which direction, including backwards. The locals keep referring to these 10,000-18,000-foot mountains as the “foothills” of the Andes. And yes, off in the distance you can see the snowcapped ranks of the real mountains. This country is different from the green majesty of the Rockies, not to mention the barrenness of the Big Bend country of South Texas.

I doubt that it will be a short or easy trip, but I do need to somehow figure out how to cross the Andes at a few points. That’s on my bucket list. And from talking with fellow travelers (including an enthusiastic David Kotok), I have put Patagonia on that list as well.

Argentina is an odd mix. Beautiful people, and by that I mean beautiful in terms of graciousness and style, hospitality, and (am I about to make a politically incorrect statement?) their almost anti-French way of accepting strangers into their midst. They are industrious and hard-working, and to look around the country you would think it is quite prosperous.

And yet at least a half a dozen times in the past hundred years Argentina has completely destroyed the value of its currency, wiping out generations that were unable to protect themselves from the devastation wreaked by government bureaucracy. Famine, disease, pestilence, and natural disasters have all attacked the human species, but there are times when I think there is no more pernicious or wicked force than human government. Ensconced down here in what is admittedly a hotbed of radical libertarians, I find myself calling into question my optimism about government and the future of our country. A pessimist is someone who sees the problems in every opportunity, and an optimist is someone who sees the opportunities in every problem. For whatever reason, I find myself constitutionally firmly planted in the latter camp, but sometimes I wonder.

I know the problems our country faces. I’ve written about the problems that the rest of the world faces – and yes, we all confronted them every day in the media. Most of the problems are created by well-intentioned people who have decided they know better than you how to run your own life and business. But the road to hell, as my Less-Than-Sainted Dad often told me, is paved with good intentions. It is the unintended consequences of someone’s good intentions (even our own) that always end up biting us in the ass.

It is time to hit the send button, for which you are probably grateful, as I’m in a rambling, philosophical mood, and you need to go on to more important topics. I will report to you next week from Kruger Park, South Africa. Assuming that I can avoid the lions until I begin my weeklong speaking tour for Glacier next Sunday, starting from Cape Town. It is going to be a fascinating two weeks.

Your going out to try to hit a golf ball now analyst,

John Mauldin, Editor
subscribers@mauldineconomics.com

 

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Thoughts From the Frontline and MauldinEconomics.com is not an offering for any investment. It represents only the opinions of John Mauldin and those that he interviews. Any views expressed are provided for information purposes only and should not be construed in any way as an offer, an endorsement, or inducement to invest and is not in any way a testimony of, or associated with, Mauldin’s other firms. John Mauldin is the Chairman of Mauldin Economics, LLC. He also is the President and registered representative of Millennium Wave Advisors, LLC (MWA) which is an investment advisory firm registered with multiple states, President and registered representative of Millennium Wave Securities, LLC, (MWS) member FINRA and SIPC, through which securities may be offered. MWS is also a Commodity Pool Operator (CPO) and a Commodity Trading Advisor (CTA) registered with the CFTC, as well as an Introducing Broker (IB) and NFA Member. Millennium Wave Investments is a dba of MWA LLC and MWS LLC. This message may contain information that is confidential or privileged and is intended only for the individual or entity named above and does not constitute an offer for or advice about any alternative investment product. Such advice can only be made when accompanied by a prospectus or similar offering document. Past performance is not indicative of future performance. Please make sure to review important disclosures at the end of each article. Mauldin companies may have a marketing relationship with products and services mentioned in this letter for a fee.

Note: Joining The Mauldin Circle is not an offering for any investment. It represents only the opinions of John Mauldin and Millennium Wave Investments. It is intended solely for investors who have registered with Millennium Wave Investments and its partners at http://www.MauldinCircle.com (formerly AccreditedInvestor.ws) or directly related websites. The Mauldin Circle may send out material that is provided on a confidential basis, and subscribers to the Mauldin Circle are not to send this letter to anyone other than their professional investment counselors. Investors should discuss any investment with their personal investment counsel. John Mauldin is the President of Millennium Wave Advisors, LLC (MWA), which is an investment advisory firm registered with multiple states. John Mauldin is a registered representative of Millennium Wave Securities, LLC, (MWS), an FINRA registered broker-dealer. MWS is also a Commodity Pool Operator (CPO) and a Commodity Trading Advisor (CTA) registered with the CFTC, as well as an Introducing Broker (IB). Millennium Wave Investments is a dba of MWA LLC and MWS LLC. Millennium Wave Investments cooperates in the consulting on and marketing of private and non-private investment offerings with other independent firms such as Altegris Investments; Capital Management Group; Absolute Return Partners, LLP; Fynn Capital; Nicola Wealth Management; and Plexus Asset Management. Investment offerings recommended by Mauldin may pay a portion of their fees to these independent firms, who will share 1/3 of those fees with MWS and thus with Mauldin. Any views expressed herein are provided for information purposes only and should not be construed in any way as an offer, an endorsement, or inducement to invest with any CTA, fund, or program mentioned here or elsewhere. Before seeking any advisor’s services or making an investment in a fund, investors must read and examine thoroughly the respective disclosure document or offering memorandum. Since these firms and Mauldin receive fees from the funds they recommend/market, they only recommend/market products with which they have been able to negotiate fee arrangements.

PAST RESULTS ARE NOT INDICATIVE OF FUTURE RESULTS. THERE IS RISK OF LOSS AS WELL AS THE OPPORTUNITY FOR GAIN WHEN INVESTING IN MANAGED FUNDS. WHEN CONSIDERING ALTERNATIVE INVESTMENTS, INCLUDING HEDGE FUNDS, YOU SHOULD CONSIDER VARIOUS RISKS INCLUDING THE FACT THAT SOME PRODUCTS: OFTEN ENGAGE IN LEVERAGING AND OTHER SPECULATIVE INVESTMENT PRACTICES THAT MAY INCREASE THE RISK OF INVESTMENT LOSS, CAN BE ILLIQUID, ARE NOT REQUIRED TO PROVIDE PERIODIC PRICING OR VALUATION INFORMATION TO INVESTORS, MAY INVOLVE COMPLEX TAX STRUCTURES AND DELAYS IN DISTRIBUTING IMPORTANT TAX INFORMATION, ARE NOT SUBJECT TO THE SAME REGULATORY REQUIREMENTS AS MUTUAL FUNDS, OFTEN CHARGE HIGH FEES, AND IN MANY CASES THE UNDERLYING INVESTMENTS ARE NOT TRANSPARENT AND ARE KNOWN ONLY TO THE INVESTMENT MANAGER. Alternative investment performance can be volatile. An investor could lose all or a substantial amount of his or her investment. Often, alternative investment fund and account managers have total trading authority over their funds or accounts; the use of a single advisor applying generally similar trading programs could mean lack of diversification and, consequently, higher risk. There is often no secondary market for an investor’s interest in alternative investments, and none is expected to develop. You are advised to discuss with your financial advisers your investment options and whether any investment is suitable for your specific needs prior to making any investments.

All material presented herein is believed to be reliable but we cannot attest to its accuracy. Opinions expressed in these reports may change without prior notice. John Mauldin and/or the staffs may or may not have investments in any funds cited above as well as economic interest. John Mauldin can be reached at 800-829-7273.

Thoughts from the Frontline: When Inequality Isn’t

 

“An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.”

–Plutarch, Greek historian, first century AD

“In the economic sphere an act, a habit, an institution, a law produces not only one effect, but a series of effects. Of these effects, the first alone is immediate; it appears simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The other effects emerge only subsequently; they are not seen; we are fortunate if we foresee them.

“There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen.

“Yet this difference is tremendous; for it almost always happens that when the immediate consequence is favorable, the later consequences are disastrous, and vice versa. Whence it follows that the bad economist pursues a small present good that will be followed by a great evil to come, while the good economist pursues a great good to come, at the risk of a small present evil.”

–Frédéric Bastiat, “That Which Is Seen and That Which Is Unseen,” 1850

“Still one thing more, fellow-citizens – a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities.”

–President Thomas Jefferson, first inaugural address

Plutarch argued over 1900 years ago that it was income inequality that lay at the heart of the failure of the Greek republics. Other writings of that period demonstrate that the leaders were worried about the distribution of wealth in society. The causes of unequal distribution have certainly changed over time, but it seems to be built into our DNA to obsess over what we have relative to what others have.

That we are living in the most splendid golden age in the history of humanity – if by golden age we mean that for the world at large there is less hunger, longer lives, less poverty, better healthcare, better and more universal education, and a host of other factors that are manifestly superior as compared to 2000, 1000, 200, 100, 50, and even 20 years ago – is patently evident. We are far from the world Thomas Hobbes described in 1651 in Leviathan when he said “[T]he life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” He would be amazed at the relative abundance achieved by mankind in the last 263 years.

And still, authority after authority the world over, in rich country and poor, from the President of the United States to the leaders of some of the most impoverished nations, describes income inequality as a fundamental injustice and the source of many problems .

We have spent three letters (so far) dealing with the topic of income inequality. The topic is everywhere in our daily conversation and in economic research. I’ve dealt with many of the facts of income inequality in these three issues and will try to conclude the topic this week. We’ve discovered so far that income inequality is a fact; however, income mobility has remained roughly the same over the last 40 years. That is, a person’s chances of rising from a lower stratum of wealth distribution to a higher stratum is approximately the same as it was in 1975.

We have liberals and progressives who use data to demonstrate the correlation between income inequality and recessions or slow growth and then erroneously equate correlation with causation. I think we have sufficiently shown the absurdity of their conclusions. This week we will look at some of the actual causes of income inequality, and in an argumentum ad absurdum I will offer “solutions” that I guarantee can absolutely reduce income inequality just as easily as taking money from the rich and giving it to the poor. In fact my solutions are far more direct, as they affect the causes rather than the effects of income inequality. I must warn you, however, that if you harbor a religious passion for pursuing higher taxes rates on the rich and rely on income inequality as your excuse, you may not be happy with my suggestions or with the rather inconvenient facts I present.

I would like to begin this week’s letter with a quote that might at first appear to have nothing to do with income inequality, but it strikes me that it is at the heart of the argument advanced by those who favor more progressive taxation. Charles Gave argues that there is a correlation (and he sees causation) between the financial repression perpetrated by central banks and the reduction of growth in the developed-world economies. And he links the low-interest-rate policies of central banks to an increased Gini coefficient and income inequality. Those of us who are of a more classical economic persuasion will find this correlation more attractive than we do the supposed one between income inequality and recessions. And we will see that the logic behind Charles’s argument is more compelling.

The simple fact is that there are many correlations to be found in the economic world, and politicians find economists useful in supplying justifications to support almost any policy. The fact that economists might not agree on the data that is used in this way is immaterial to politicians who are simply looking for an excuse to do what they want to do anyway. In this regard, economists perform the same function as shamans and witch doctors in tribal societies, who regard the entrails of sheep or some other unfortunate animal and predict the future, which generally corresponds to what the chief wants to hear. Economists are far more advanced than that, of course. We painstakingly gather data and develop complex computer models to show what our politicians want to hear.

I realize that I argue at the extreme and that most economists are actually well-intentioned and trying hard to figure out how the world works. But they cleave to economic theories in much the same way that people hold religious beliefs to try to explain how the world functions. These theories often predetermine the conclusions economists come to when they analyze data. Maybe someday we will have more precise models and better theories, but until then it is probably best to be somewhat humble in setting forth our conclusions.

Now, let’s devote a few moments of our attention to six paragraphs from Charles Gave’s latest note (gavekal.com – subscribers only) (emphasis mine):

I read everywhere that the US budget deficit is contracting because government consumption is falling as a percentage of GDP, now that the worst of the crisis has passed. This would be very good news indeed; however, I am not so sure that this decline is for real. In fact, I believe it is an accounting illusion.

Over a period of time long [interest] rates, if left to their own devices, always converge to the nominal GDP growth rate (this was called the “golden rule” by Economics Nobel laureate Maurice Allais, and [this] is the core belief in Knut Wicksell’s theory). However, a central bank can fight against this natural tendency by maintaining short rates at abnormally low levels, as the Federal Reserve did from the early 1970s until 1980 and again since 2002. During these two periods long rates were conspicuously lower than growth rates, violating the golden rule.

If negative, the difference between long bond rates and the economic growth rate is effectively a subsidy paid by the saver to the government. In short, this difference measures the amount of financial repression taking place in an economy. The fact that it is not paid to the Treasury does not mean it doesn’t exist. It is a tax paid by a nation’s savers – e.g., pensioners in Peoria….

This shows us that US savers have been paying a virtual tax equivalent to between 1% and 2% of GDP almost every year since 2002 – a sign of the “euthanasia of the rentier” central to every Keynesian analysis. The problem is that subsidizing government spending ultimately leads to lower productivity, slower structural growth and higher financial-crisis risk. We saw a similar euthanasia from 1966 to 1980, when the real structural growth rate of the economy was also in collapse…. The re-imposition of that dreadful tax by Alan Greenspan in 2002, only to be further aggravated by his successor Ben Bernanke, is a key factor behind the falling structural growth rate, the financial crisis and the subsequent slow recovery.

Unnaturally low funding costs undermine the structural growth rate of the US economy, because of capital misallocation. The losers in this deal are usually ordinary folk. Pensioners get no interest on their savings, while rich investors use cheap capital to chase up the cost of property, oil, etc. The Gini coefficient rises, as the poor are seldom asset-rich, and real disposable incomes take a hit as prices rise. Sometimes banks are pressured to make up the shortfall with consumer loans to the struggling classes – adding to the bonfire when the inevitable financial crisis comes.

At the end of the day, it is simple. Savings equal investments, so any tax on savings leads to lower economic growth over time. We may be seeing declining ratios in government spending as a percentage of GDP, but this is really an accounting decline. Financial repression means the government is still taxing the savers, leaving less aside for meaningful investment in the future.

To continue reading this article from Thoughts from the Frontline – a free weekly publication by John Mauldin, renowned financial expert, best-selling author, and Chairman of Mauldin Economics – please click here.

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Thoughts From the Frontline and MauldinEconomics.com is not an offering for any investment. It represents only the opinions of John Mauldin and those that he interviews. Any views expressed are provided for information purposes only and should not be construed in any way as an offer, an endorsement, or inducement to invest and is not in any way a testimony of, or associated with, Mauldin’s other firms. John Mauldin is the Chairman of Mauldin Economics, LLC. He also is the President and registered representative of Millennium Wave Advisors, LLC (MWA) which is an investment advisory firm registered with multiple states, President and registered representative of Millennium Wave Securities, LLC, (MWS) member FINRA and SIPC, through which securities may be offered. MWS is also a Commodity Pool Operator (CPO) and a Commodity Trading Advisor (CTA) registered with the CFTC, as well as an Introducing Broker (IB) and NFA Member. Millennium Wave Investments is a dba of MWA LLC and MWS LLC. This message may contain information that is confidential or privileged and is intended only for the individual or entity named above and does not constitute an offer for or advice about any alternative investment product. Such advice can only be made when accompanied by a prospectus or similar offering document. Past performance is not indicative of future performance. Please make sure to review important disclosures at the end of each article. Mauldin companies may have a marketing relationship with products and services mentioned in this letter for a fee.

Note: Joining The Mauldin Circle is not an offering for any investment. It represents only the opinions of John Mauldin and Millennium Wave Investments. It is intended solely for investors who have registered with Millennium Wave Investments and its partners at http://www.MauldinCircle.com (formerly AccreditedInvestor.ws) or directly related websites. The Mauldin Circle may send out material that is provided on a confidential basis, and subscribers to the Mauldin Circle are not to send this letter to anyone other than their professional investment counselors. Investors should discuss any investment with their personal investment counsel. John Mauldin is the President of Millennium Wave Advisors, LLC (MWA), which is an investment advisory firm registered with multiple states. John Mauldin is a registered representative of Millennium Wave Securities, LLC, (MWS), an FINRA registered broker-dealer. MWS is also a Commodity Pool Operator (CPO) and a Commodity Trading Advisor (CTA) registered with the CFTC, as well as an Introducing Broker (IB). Millennium Wave Investments is a dba of MWA LLC and MWS LLC. Millennium Wave Investments cooperates in the consulting on and marketing of private and non-private investment offerings with other independent firms such as Altegris Investments; Capital Management Group; Absolute Return Partners, LLP; Fynn Capital; Nicola Wealth Management; and Plexus Asset Management. Investment offerings recommended by Mauldin may pay a portion of their fees to these independent firms, who will share 1/3 of those fees with MWS and thus with Mauldin. Any views expressed herein are provided for information purposes only and should not be construed in any way as an offer, an endorsement, or inducement to invest with any CTA, fund, or program mentioned here or elsewhere. Before seeking any advisor’s services or making an investment in a fund, investors must read and examine thoroughly the respective disclosure document or offering memorandum. Since these firms and Mauldin receive fees from the funds they recommend/market, they only recommend/market products with which they have been able to negotiate fee arrangements.

PAST RESULTS ARE NOT INDICATIVE OF FUTURE RESULTS. THERE IS RISK OF LOSS AS WELL AS THE OPPORTUNITY FOR GAIN WHEN INVESTING IN MANAGED FUNDS. WHEN CONSIDERING ALTERNATIVE INVESTMENTS, INCLUDING HEDGE FUNDS, YOU SHOULD CONSIDER VARIOUS RISKS INCLUDING THE FACT THAT SOME PRODUCTS: OFTEN ENGAGE IN LEVERAGING AND OTHER SPECULATIVE INVESTMENT PRACTICES THAT MAY INCREASE THE RISK OF INVESTMENT LOSS, CAN BE ILLIQUID, ARE NOT REQUIRED TO PROVIDE PERIODIC PRICING OR VALUATION INFORMATION TO INVESTORS, MAY INVOLVE COMPLEX TAX STRUCTURES AND DELAYS IN DISTRIBUTING IMPORTANT TAX INFORMATION, ARE NOT SUBJECT TO THE SAME REGULATORY REQUIREMENTS AS MUTUAL FUNDS, OFTEN CHARGE HIGH FEES, AND IN MANY CASES THE UNDERLYING INVESTMENTS ARE NOT TRANSPARENT AND ARE KNOWN ONLY TO THE INVESTMENT MANAGER. Alternative investment performance can be volatile. An investor could lose all or a substantial amount of his or her investment. Often, alternative investment fund and account managers have total trading authority over their funds or accounts; the use of a single advisor applying generally similar trading programs could mean lack of diversification and, consequently, higher risk. There is often no secondary market for an investor’s interest in alternative investments, and none is expected to develop. You are advised to discuss with your financial advisers your investment options and whether any investment is suitable for your specific needs prior to making any investments.

All material presented herein is believed to be reliable but we cannot attest to its accuracy. Opinions expressed in these reports may change without prior notice. John Mauldin and/or the staffs may or may not have investments in any funds cited above as well as economic interest. John Mauldin can be reached at 800-829-7273.

Outside the Box: Minsky’s Financial Instability Hypothesis

 

Looking back, I see that I have mentioned the name Hyman Minsky in no fewer than ten Thoughts from the Frontline letters in just the past two years; and his name has popped up in all four letters so far this month, most notably on March 1, when we brought back one of my most popular pieces, “Black Swans and Endogenous Uncertainty” (the “sandpile” letter) and last week, when the letter was titled “China’s Minksy Moment?”

I wasn’t consciously aware of how often I had trotted Minsky out as I sat (somewhat unstably, I have to admit) atop a headstrong horse in the foothills of the Argentine Andes the other day; but my precarious situation did somehow get me thinking of Minsky’s Financial Instability Hypothesis, and it occurred to me that both you and I might learn something by going right back to its source, which turns out to be a rather unprepossessing five-page paper Dr. Minsky published at Bard College in 1992.

Minsky’s work was roundly ignored by the economics profession and policy makers alike … until all hell broke loose in the financial industry and then the global economy in 2008. At the time (in Dec. 2007), I described Minsky’s thesis like this:

[E]conomist Dr. Hyman Minsky points out that stability leads to instability. The more comfortable we get with a given condition or trend, the longer it will persist and then when the trend fails, the more dramatic the correction. The problem with long-term macroeconomic stability is that it tends to produce unstable financial arrangements. If we believe that tomorrow and next year will be the same as last week and last year, we are more willing to add debt or postpone savings in favor of current consumption. Thus, says Minsky, the longer the period of stability, the higher the potential risk for even greater instability when market participants must change their behavior.

The term Minsky moment was coined in 1998 by my good friend Paul McCulley (who, by the way, will once again entertain and enlighten us at the upcoming Strategic Investment Conference, May 13-16). He was characterizing the Russian default and ensuing Long Term Capital Management debacle, but he got to reprise the term (and how!) in ’08. And then everybody jumped on the “Minsky moment” bandwagon.

So today, let’s harken to the words of the man himself, in his “Financial Instability Hypothesis” paper from 1992.

I write tonight from my condo in La Estancia de Cafayate. Last Saturday we spent seven hours trekking the Andes highlands to spend a few days with my friend Bill Bonner (of Daily Reckoning fame). He and his wife Elizabeth are gracious hosts. His South American home is in the middle of 500,000 acres of some extraordinarily godforsaken land in the backside of the middle of nowhere. It comes complete with real-life gauchos, who have lived on the property for dozens of generations, and a herd of some 1000 sand-fed cattle. (In the dry season there is not much else for them to eat.) The area was settled from Peru in the 1500s. It is as remote as any place I’ve ever been, but it also shines with some of the most majestic beauty this writer has ever seen. If Montana is Big Sky Country, then this part of the world has to be called Muy Grande Cielo Campo. The valleys and surrounding mountains are larger and grander than any I have seen in my far-flung travels.

What passes for a road to Bill’s estancia is sometimes a dry, sandy riverbed but often just a track cut and mended by road graders from time to time through very rocky terrain and and over and through mountain passes.

But it was worth all the effort. I treasure the moments I get with Bill (and this time I was accompanied by David Galland, Olivier Garret, and Frank Trotter). I never know quite what to expect when I come to one of Bill’s “homes,” which are really just very large and very time-consuming projects, but he and Elizabeth seem to love it. As we arrived, one of the gauchos had discovered a few dead calves (otherwise healthy a few days before), and there was concern there might be a contagious disease, so they spent the next few days gathering what they could find of the herd, which was of course scattered all over heck and gone. Getting them into the pen and vaccinating them – and since they had them there, branding and gelding them as appropriate – was all in a very long day’s work. It had been many decades since I was anywhere close to that sort of work.

Some of you prone to wincing might want to avoid the following sentences. They had one young bull calf pushed into a chute where he was immobilized, and the head gaucho dropped into the chute behind him. The calf thereupon met his own Minsky moment. The gaucho, swear to God, pulled out a Swiss Army knife and proceeded to geld the unfortunate creature. It was not the clean, swift procedure I remember as a kid. I had no idea they made Swiss Army knives with that attachment. It seems to be missing in mine. The next time I go to Bill’s estancia, I am going to bring the gaucho a set of purpose-built clippers. I may even have them plated in stainless steel. It’s what you get for the man who has everything.

Our conversation at 10,000 feet in the Andes ranged far and wide but kept coming back to the intersection of economics, politics, and philosophy. And being basically off the grid for a couple days, we had plenty of time in the evening for conversation and even a little singing. Bill has written yet another book and writes daily for his own blog. After 30 years, we always have a lot to talk about. I live for days like this.

It is time to hit the send button, as there is a large group waiting at a local café for a reception. It is a beautiful night with perfect weather. It’s hard to think of place better suited for working vacation. Until this weekend…

Your glad he makes his living riding a computer analyst,

John Mauldin, Editor
Outside the Box
subscribers@mauldineconomics.com

 

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The Financial Instability Hypothesis

By Hyman P. Minsky
The Jerome Levy Economics Institute of Bard College
May 1992

The financial instability hypothesis has both empirical and theoretical aspects. The readily observed empirical aspect is that, from time to time, capitalist economies exhibit inflations and debt deflations which seem to have the potential to spin out ofcontrol. In such processes the economic system’s reactions to a movement of the economy amplify the movement – inflation feeds upon inflation and debt-deflation feeds upon debt-deflation. Government interventions aimed to contain the deterioration seem to have been inept in some of the historical crises.
These historical episodes are evidence supporting the view that the economy does not always conform to the classic precepts of Smith and Walras: they implied that the economy can best be understood by assuming that it is constantly an equilibrium seeking and sustaining system.

The classic description of a debt deflation was offered by Irving Fisher (1933) and that of a self-sustaining disequilibrating processes by Charles Kindleberger (1978). Martin Wolfson (1986) not only presents a compilation of data on the emergence of financial relations conducive to financial instability, but also examines various financial crisis theories of business cycles.

As economic theory, the financial instability hypothesis is an interpretation of the substance of Keynes’s “General Theory”. This interpretation places the General Theory in history.
As the General Theory was written in the early 1930s, the great financial and real contraction of the United States and the other capitalist economies of that time was a part of the evidence the theory aimed to explain. The financial instability hypothesis also draws upon the credit view of money and finance by Joseph Schumpeter (1934, Ch.3) Key works for the financial instability hypothesis in the narrow sense are, of course, Hyman P. Minsky (1975, 1986).


The theoretical argument of the financial instability hypothesis starts from the characterization of the economy as a capitalist economy with expensive capital assets and a complex, sophisticated financial system. The economic problem is identified following Keynes as the “capital development of the economy,” rather than the Knightian “allocation of given resources among alternative employments.” The focus is on an accumulating capitalist economy that moves through real calendar time.

The capital development of a capitalist economy is accompanied by exchanges of present money for future money. Present money pays for resources that go into the production of investment output, whereas the future money is the “profits” which will accrue to the capital asset owning firms (as the capital assets are used in production). As a result of the process by which investment is financed, the control over items in the capital stock by producing units is financed by liabilities – these are commitments to pay money at dates specified or as conditions arise. For each economic unit, the liabilities on its balance sheet determine a time series of prior payment commitments, even as the assets generate a time series of conjectured cash receipts.

This structure was well stated by Keynes (1972):

There is a multitude of real assets in the world which constitutes our capital wealth – buildings, stocks of commodities, goods in the course of manufacture and of transport, and so forth. The nominal owners of these assets, however, have not infrequently borrowed money [Keynes’ emphasis] in order to become possessed of them. To a corresponding extent the actual owners of wealth have claims, not on real assets, but on money. A considerable part of this financing takes place through the banking system, which interposes its guarantee between its depositors who lend it money, and its borrowing customers to whom it loans money wherewith to finance the purchase of real assets. The interposition of this veil of money between the real asset and the wealth owner is an especially marked characteristic of the modern world.” (p. l51)

This Keynes “veil of money” is different from the Quantity Theory of money “veil of money.” The Quantity Theory “veil of money” has the trading exchanges in commodity markets be of goods for money and money for goods: therefore, the exchanges are really of goods for goods. The Keynes veil implies that money is connected with financing through time. A part of the financing of the economy can be structured as dated payment commitments in which banks are the central player. The money flows are first from depositors to banks and from banks to firms: then, at some later dates, from firms to banks and from banks to their depositors. Initially, the exchanges are for the financing of investment, and subsequently, the exchanges fulfill the prior commitments which are stated in the financing contract.

In a Keynes “veil of money” world, the flow of money to firms is a response to expectations of future profits, and the flow of money from firms is financed by profits that are realized. In the Keynes set up, the key economic exchanges take place as a result of negotiations between generic bankers and generic businessmen. The documents “on the table” in such negotiations detail the costs and profit expectations of the businessmen: businessmen interpret the numbers and the expectations as enthusiasts, bankers as skeptics.

Thus, in a capitalist economy the past, the present, and the future are linked not only by capital assets and labor force characteristics but also by financial relations. The key financial relationships link the creation and the ownership of capital assets to the structure of financial relations and changes in this structure. Institutional complexity may result in several layers of intermediation between the ultimate owners of the communities’ wealth and the units that control and operate the communities’ wealth.

Expectations of business profits determine both the flow of financing contracts to business and the market price of existing financing contracts. Profit realizations determine whether the commitments in financial contracts are fulfilled – whether financial assets perform as the pro formas indicated by the negotiations.

In the modern world, analyses of financial relations and their implications for system behavior cannot be restricted to the liability structure of businesses and the cash flows they entail. Households (by the way of their ability to borrow on credit cards for big ticket consumer goods such as automobiles, house purchases, and to carry financial assets), governments (with their large floating and funded debts), and international units (as a result of the internationalization of finance) have liability structures which the current performance of the economy either validates or invalidates.

An increasing complexity of the financial structure, in connection with a greater involvement of governments as refinancing agents for financial institutions as well as ordinary business firms (both of which are marked characteristics of the modern world), may make the system behave differently than in earlier eras. In particular, the much greater participation of national governments in assuring that finance does not degenerate as in the 1929-1933 period means that the downside vulnerability of aggregate profit flows has been much diminished. However, the same interventions may well induce a greater degree of upside (i.e. inflationary) bias to the economy.


In spite of the greater complexity of financial relations, the key determinant of system behavior remains the level of profits. The financial instability hypothesis incorporates the Kalecki (1965)-Levy (1983) view of profits, in which the structure of aggregate demand determines profits. In the skeletal model, with highly simplified consumption behavior by receivers of profit incomes and wages, in each period aggregate profits equal aggregate investment. In a more complex (though still highly abstract) structure, aggregate profits equal aggregate investment plus the government deficit. Expectations of profits depend upon investment in the future, and realized profits are determined by investment: thus, whether or not liabilities are validated depends upon investment. Investment takes place now because businessmen and their bankers expect investment to take place in the future.

The financial instability hypothesis, therefore, is a theory of the impact of debt on system behavior and also incorporates the manner in which debt is validated. In contrast to the orthodox Quantity Theory of money, the financial instability hypothesis takes banking seriously as a profit-seeking activity. Banks seek profits by financing activity and bankers. Like all entrepreneurs in a capitalist economy, bankers are aware that innovation assures profits. Thus, bankers (using the term generically for all intermediaries in finance), whether they bebrokers or dealers, are merchants of debt who strive to innovate in the assets they acquire and the liabilities they market. This innovative characteristic of banking and finance invalidates the fundamental presupposition of the orthodox Quantity Theory of money to the effect that there is an unchanging “money” item whose velocity of circulation is sufficiently close to being constant: hence, changes in this money’s supply have a linear proportional relation to a well defined price level.

Three distinct income-debt relations for economic units, which are labeled as hedge, speculative, and Ponzi finance, can be identified.

Hedge financing units are those which can fulfill all of their contractual payment obligations by their cash flows: the greater the weight of equity financing in the liability structure, the greater the likelihood that the unit is a hedge financing unit. Speculative finance units are units that can meet their payment commitments on “income account” on their liabilities, even as they cannot repay the principle out of income cash flows. Such units need to “roll over” their liabilities: (e.g. issue new debt to meet commitments on maturing debt). Governments with floating debts, corporations with floating issues of commercial paper, and banks are typically hedge units.

For Ponzi units, the cash flows from operations are not sufficient to fulfill either the repayment of principle or the interest due on outstanding debts by their cash flows from operations. Such units can sell assets or borrow. Borrowing to pay interest or selling assets to pay interest (and even dividends) on common stock lowers the equity of a unit, even as it increases liabilities and the prior commitment of future incomes. A unit that Ponzi finances lowers the margin of safety that it offers the holders of its debts.

It can be shown that if hedge financing dominates, then the economy may well be an equilibrium seeking and containing system. In contrast, the greater the weight of speculative and Ponzi finance, the greater the likelihood that the economy is a deviation amplifying system. The first theorem of the financial instability hypothesis is that the economy has financing regimes under which it is stable, and financing regimes in which it is unstable. The second theorem of the financial instability hypothesis is that over periods of prolonged prosperity, the economy transits from financial relations that make for a stable system to financial relations that make for an unstable system.

In particular, over a protracted period of good times, capitalist economies tend to move from a financial structure dominated by hedge finance units to a structure in which there is large weight to units engaged in speculative and Ponzi finance. Furthermore, if an economy with a sizeable body of speculative financial units is in an inflationary state, and the authorities attempt to exorcise inflation by monetary constraint, then speculative units will become Ponzi units and the net worth of previously Ponzi units will quickly evaporate. Consequently, units with cash flow shortfalls will be forced to try to make position by selling out position. This is likely to lead to a collapse of asset values.

The financial instability hypothesis is a model of a capitalist economy which does not rely upon exogenous shocks to generate business cycles of varying severity. The hypothesis holds that business cycles of history are compounded out of (i) the internal dynamics of capitalist economies, and (ii) the system of interventions and regulations that are designed to keep the economy operating within reasonable bounds.

References


Fisher, Irving. 1933. “The Debt Deflation Theory of Great Depressions.” Econometrica 1: 337-57

Kalecki, Michal 1965. Theory of Economic Dynamics. London: Allen and Unwin

Keynes, John Maynard, 1936. The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Keynes, John Maynard. 1972. Essays in Persuasion,The Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes, Volume IX. MacMillan, St. Martins Press, for the Royal Economic Society, London and Basingstoke, p 151

Kindleberger, Charles 1978. Manias, Panics and Crashes. New York, Basic Books

Levy S. Jay and David A. 1983. Profits And The Future of American Society. New York, Harper and Row

Minsky, Hyman P. 1975. John Maynard Keynes. Columbia University Press.

Minsky, Hyman P. 1986. Stabilizing An Unstable Economy. Yale University Press.

Schumpeter, Joseph A. 1934. Theory of Economic Development. Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University Press

Wolfson, Martin H. 1986. Financial Crises. Armonk New York, M.E. Sharpe Inc.

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The Best Low-Cost, High-Benefit Life Extension Technique Available Today

 

The scientific consensus that has held sway for four decades regarding both exposure to the sun and vitamin D has collapsed. What has emerged in place of the old “settled science” is the knowledge that most people in North America are seriously vitamin D deficient or insufficient. The same is true for northern Europe, and the implications are staggering.

Simply put, unless you’re one of the few people with optimal serum D levels—such as lifeguards and roofers in South Florida—you can cut your risks from most major diseases by 50 to 80 percent. All you have to do is get enough D. It also means we can significantly reduce both healthcare costs and the staggering national deficit by taking a few simple steps.

I advise all my readers to get and keep their vitamin D levels up. This is simply because the economic benefits of doing so are so profound.

I’ve come to the conclusions you’ll read below because my job as a tech investment advisor requires that I survey thousands of the most recent scientific studies. In the last few years, an overwhelming flood of new evidence has been produced supporting the view that the medical and nutritional establishments have been fundamentally wrong about vitamin D’s physiological role and optimal dosage.

I’ll include a number of links at the end of this report to researchers and organizations with enormous credibility. They have journal articles online with voluminous footnotes. I would encourage you to then verify even their information and act accordingly.

If researchers are right, the benefits of raising your serum D levels to about 40 ng/ml are enormous. If they’re wrong, the risks associated with the recommended therapy are trivial, if not nonexistent, especially if done through supplementation. This is simple Bayesian analysis.

If you do take my advice and perform further research on this subject, you will still encounter holdouts who assert that unprotected exposure to sunshine is always dangerous and that a normal diet supplemented by a daily multivitamin provides sufficient vitamin D. Behind the scenes, however, even the NIH has moderated its position on vitamin D without taking too much blame for having resisted those who have urged reassessment for decades.

Changing Vitamin D Standards and What They Mean

Now we know that very few people have optimal serum levels of 25-hydroxyvitamin D [25(OH)D], the principal form of vitamin D circulating in the blood. Moreover, those with more melanin manufacture less vitamin D in their skin, so they suffer disproportionately from diseases exacerbated by vitamin D deficiencies.

Dr. Michael Holick, the researcher most responsible for this radical change in thinking, has described the current state of widespread vitamin D deficiency as a “silent epidemic.” It’s a serious public health problem that affects virtually all diseases. To understand this change in thinking, we need to review briefly the history of vitamin D and our understanding of its functions.

In the 1890s, the crippling, bone-softening children’s disease rickets was still widespread in northern states, which has more pollution and a thicker ozone layer than the Northwest. Ozone blocks the invisible component of sunshine, ultraviolet B (UVB), which produces vitamin D in the skin.

In the early 1900s, it was demonstrated that summer midday sunshine prevented rickets. As a result, there was an effort to educate the public, and nearly everybody learned that a little sunshine was good for you. If you’re of baby boomer age, your mother undoubtedly told you to go outside and get some sun. That’s why.

Ironically, the beginning of the end of this attitude came in 1923 when a means of producing dietary D was found. University of Wisconsin-Madison biochemistry professor Harry Steenbock discovered that the vitamin D content of milk and other organic substances could be increased with ultraviolet (UV) irradiation. This led to the widespread enrichment of milk and the near elimination of rickets. Slowly, the perception of sunshine as healthy began to fade.

For the most part, scientists lost interest in the biological role of sunshine for higher animals. Dr. Michael Holick was the notable exception. For the last thirty years, Holick has been gathering data, doing research, and studying the role of sunshine and vitamin D.

As a graduate student, Holick first identified the major circulating form of vitamin D in human blood as 25-hydroxyvitamin D. He then isolated and identified the active form of vitamin D as 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D. He determined the mechanism for how vitamin D is synthesized in the skin, and demonstrated the effects of aging, obesity, latitude, seasonal change, sunscreen use, skin pigmentation, and clothing on this vital cutaneous process.

Thanks to his work, we now know that D is not actually a vitamin. It is a “prohormone,” meaning that it’s a precursor form of a steroid hormone created by conversion in various organs. This active hormone regulates multiple important biological functions. Every single cell in the body has a D receptor—even stem cells.

When I asked Holick what the source of his epiphany was so long ago, he explained that it was the simple fact that D is a critical nutrient without a natural food source. It is so important biologically that early humans could manufacture D even during famines.

For that reason, he questioned the conventional zero-tolerance approach to sun exposure that has held sway with dermatologists since the 1970s. Holick, a professor of dermatology himself, lost his teaching position when he published his findings. When he wrote a book on the subject, he was targeted by a well-funded PR campaign aimed at debunking him by the leading dermatological organization. Supposedly objective journals refused to publish his exhaustively documented research—research now accepted as both accurate and pioneering.

An Emerging Scientific Consensus

About five years ago, the vitamin D climate began to change. Of late, Holick has finally received the recognition he deserves, and he now serves on multiple prestigious boards as well as advises the NIH. He is, incidentally, professor of medicine, physiology, and biophysics at the Boston University School of Medicine.

Holick explains that new breakthroughs in other areas have helped him make his case. With advances in computer processing and the decoding of the human genome, for example, it now appears that a remarkable 2,000 genes are influenced by vitamin D.

In retrospect, it’s odd that the lessons learned from the rickets epidemic were not applied sooner to osteomalacia, which is essentially rickets of the aged. In fact, Dr. Holick and others have demonstrated that osteomalacia is preventable and treatable using vitamin D. Osteoporosis, for example, is also related to lack of vitamin D.

That discovery alone is legitimately worthy of a Nobel prize. In Holick’s words, though, it’s only the tip of the iceberg. Though Holick began documenting the connection between vitamin D insufficiencies or deficiencies and health problems thirty years ago, the scientific floodgates have opened only in the past few years.

Optimal vitamin D serum blood levels, attained through sunlight or supplementation, dramatically reduce the risk of many diseases other than bone maladies. Many of the most serious are ameliorated by an astonishing 50 to 85 percent. These diseases include cancers, from breast and colon to deadly melanoma skin cancers.

Yes, that’s right. The really nasty skin cancers can be prevented by getting moderate, sensible sunshine or through vitamin D supplementation. Non-melanoma skin cancers do increase somewhat with sun exposure, especially with sunburns. These skin cancers, however, are relatively benign, as they don’t tend to spread to other parts of the body. They’re easily detected and removed because they appear on skin exposed to the sun.

Melanoma, on the other hand, is the deadly skin cancer that most people erroneously relate to sunshine. Melanomas, however, do not tend to occur on parts of the body that get direct sunlight. This not only argues against the notion that sunshine directly causes them, it makes them less likely to be detected. The bottom line, which is worth repeating, is that the incidence of truly nasty melanoma skin cancer goes down significantly with sensible exposure to UVB-containing sunshine or with vitamin D3 supplementation. Other effects of vitamin D include improved skin tone in general.

Wider Potential Benefits to Vitamin D Supplementation

This is not the end of the list, though. The big killers and most expensive diseases respond similarly to adequate D. I’m talking about hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and stroke. So do type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes (to a lesser extent), rheumatoid arthritis, peripheral vascular disease, multiple sclerosis, dementia, autoimmune diseases, and apparently even viral diseases such as H1N1 and AIDS.

It takes about 100 international units (IU) to raise serum blood levels by 1 ng/ml in a healthy adult. To get into the optimal range— 40 to 60 ng/ml—one would therefore have to take 4,000 IU daily. It would take even more if you were obese, are taking certain medications, or have one of a number of medical conditions that degrade or prevent the creation of usable D. The evidence, incidentally, is that 10,000IU is entirely safe.

Consider this projection: Once the requisite low-cost vitamin D therapies are fully adopted, Americans could save $50 billion annually in direct and indirect costs of disease. This in turn would have a real impact on our total healthcare spending.

My opinion, based on discussions with experts, is that adults who treat the big killers with sufficient vitamin D could see average increases in life expectancies of six to eight years.

Pertaining to UVB and latitude, Holick says that from Los Angeles south, UVB is present in sunshine year round, though it can be blocked by clouds. Even the palest among us will be unable to get sufficient UVB from sunshine in more northern latitudes. In Boston, for example, UVB is blocked by the angle of the sun from November through February. Edmonton, Canada has no UVB from mid-October through mid-April. Young people can store enough D during summer months to make it through the winter. Older people cannot.

Many of the benefits of D appear rapidly. Holick and others who prescribe D in clinical situations report that patients often experience dramatic improvements in quality of life within months. Not only do hypertension and bone density respond quickly, the neuromuscular impact of D is such that many of those who experience body pains and muscular weakness are quickly relieved when their serum blood levels are adjusted. Depression, irritable bowel syndrome, and various other maladies can respond extremely quickly to the sunshine vitamin.

The Future of Vitamin D Research and What to Do Now

Before giving you the links I promised, I’d like to make a few general observations. One is that in every age, much of the mainstream scientific establishment has considered itself to have achieved a final understanding of core scientific issues. It is also true that, in retrospect, it has never been the case. Science is rightly a process of discovery, not a set of established facts.

Recall one recent example of this authoritarian fatuousness: the US government dietary establishment’s long insistence that fats are bad. My nutritional scientist wife told me decades ago that this was untrue. It took many years, however, before the importance of omega-3 fats was generally recognized. Remember when eggs, coffee, and chocolate were bad for you?

Moreover, change and scientific progress continue to accelerate at an unbelievable pace. The next decade will see accelerating breakthroughs in world-changing technologies. They include stem cell sciences, as well as RNA interference, cellular engineering, and other life-extending technologies.

The single best source for information about vitamin D and sunshine is Holick’s book, The Vitamin D Solution: A 3-Step Strategy to Cure Our Most Common Health Problem. In keeping with the conventions of my profession, I should tell you that I have no personal financial interest in promoting Dr. Holick’s book.

In the meantime, his website will provide you with far more information than is included in this article. Another useful site is Grassroots Health. This activist group includes leading scientists dedicated to increasing understanding of vitamin D.

While sunshine and vitamin D supplements do not have a direct “invest in this” recommendation I can give you, I can ask you to consider the bigger picture. If optimal levels of vitamin D can help you avoid disease, as the research suggests, vitamin D could be considered nature’s easiest, most direct life-extension technique. This investment in your health is just as important as any market-based investment you could ever make.

Patrick Cox

 

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Thoughts from the Frontline: China’s Minsky Moment?

 

In speeches and presentations since the end of last year, I have been saying that I think the biggest macro problem in the world today is China. China has run up a huge debt, and the payments are coming due. They seem to be proactive, but will it be enough? How much risk do they pose for the global system?

This week as I travel to Cafayate I have asked my young associate Worth Wray to write up his research and our conversations on China. Worth has lived in China; and with his (and my) access to people with their fingers on the pulse of China, he has come up with some valuable insights. The hard part for him was to keep it in a single letter. China is a such a huge topic that writing about it can easily yield a tome.

I am lucky to have enticed Worth to come to work with me. He is extraordinarily talented and insightful as an economist, has the boundless energy of youth (which means he seemingly doesn’t sleep), and spent the last five years deep in one of the best training grounds that a young analyst could have. He brings his own extensive Rolodex to our organization. In the not too distant future, we plan to start writing a joint letter on portfolio design and construction, translating the macro insights we have into real-world portfolios that can inform your own investing. Lots of I’s to dot and T’s to cross, but we are making progress.

I am delighted to be able to bring a talent like Worth to your attention. So let’s let him talk China to us and see where it takes us. [Note: as I do the final edits here in Cafayate, I see that Worth did an outstanding job of bringing the data together and making the story understandable. You want to take the time to read this!]

A Front-Row Seat

By Worth Wray

Before I teamed up with John last July, I worked as the portfolio strategist for an $18 billion money manager in Houston, TX that, among its other businesses, co-managed (with an elite team of investors from the university endowment world) one of the largest registered funds of funds in the United States.

For a bright-eyed kid from South Louisiana, it was a life-changing experience. I had a front-row seat for every investment decision in a multi-billion-dollar portfolio for almost five years; and along with my colleagues and mentors in Texas, North Carolina, New York, Shanghai, and Singapore, I had the chance to meet and interact with a long list of the most sought-after hedge fund, private equity, and venture capital teams. I often found myself in the same room with honest-to-god legends like Kyle Bass, John Paulson, JC Flowers, and Ken Griffin … and I forged lasting some friendships with their portfolio managers and analysts. 

As you can imagine, the information flow was addictive. I spent thousands of hours poring over manager letters from six continents, doing my best to connect the global macro dots ahead of the markets and coming up with question after question for everyone who would return my calls. That experience plugged me in to an enduring network of truly independent thinkers, forced me to see the world from an entirely different perspective, and put me in an ideal position to figure out what it takes to navigate the unprecedented (not to say strange) investment challenges posed by a “Code Red” world.

Sometimes, combing through a mountain of manager letters felt like reading the newspaper years in advance. I remember watching with amazement as a free-thinking global macro investor named Mark Hart made a fortune for his investors by shorting US subprime mortgages and then shifted his focus to what he argued would be the next shoe to drop – a series of sovereign defaults across the Eurozone.

Mark explained how the launch of a common currency had allowed historically riskier borrowers like Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Spain, and France to issue sovereign debt for the same borrowing cost as Germany did… without any kind of fiscal union to justify the common rates. The resulting debt splurge led to a big increase in fiscal debts, drove an unwarranted rise in unit labor costs across the southern Eurozone, and essentially activated a ticking time bomb at the very foundations of the euro system. It seemed obvious that rates would eventually diverge to reflect the relative credit risks of the borrowers, but the market didn’t seem to care until it got very bad news from Athens. We all know what happened next.

Just as Mark and his team at Corriente Advisors had predicted, spreads blew out in Greece, then in Ireland, then in Portugal, then in Spain… and it now appears that Italy and France are veering toward a similar fate. When the euro crisis finally broke out, my colleagues and I were waiting for it, because Mark had already walked us through his playbook for a multi-act global debt drama.

Instead of blowing up in spectacular fashion, the Eurozone crisis has taken far longer to resolve than a lot of investors and economists expected (Mark, John, and myself included); but the euro’s survival thus far has been largely the result of extensive Realpolitik and an increasingly hollow narrative from Mario Draghi and the ECB laying claim to the wherewithal to “do whatever it takes” to preserve the single-currency system. Meanwhile, as Corriente understood, the likelihood of major defaults across the Eurozone rises every day that the ECB does the bare minimum to resist France’s and Italy’s slide toward deflation. It’s not over until the fat lady sings.

The point I am trying to make is that Mark saw the fundamental imbalances behind the global financial crisis in time to launch a dedicated fund in 2006, and he saw the root causes of the ongoing European debt crisis in time to launch a dedicated fund in 2007… precisely because he thinks of the global economy as one interconnected system peppered with a series of unstable and still unresolved debt bubbles. Mark is one of the most forward-thinking investors I have ever met and one of the best in recent decades at spotting the big imbalances that spell T-R-O-U-B-L-E.

I can’t tell you if he will be right about the next phase of the global debt drama. Predicting the actions and reactions of elected and unelected officials is next to impossible in a Code Red world, but some people have an eye for fundamental imbalances. And since Mark has been largely right in identifying the major debt bubbles that have plagued the world since 2007, John and I can’t comfortably ignore his warning.

As Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff argued in their still-authoritative history of financial boom and bust over the past eight hundred years, “When an accident is waiting to happen, it eventually does. When countries become too deeply indebted, they are headed for trouble. When debt-fueled asset price explosions seem too good to be true, they probably are.”

The Bubble That Is China

Following his prescient calls on the subprime debacle and the European debt crisis, Mark identified in 2010 another source of instability that he warned could shake the global economy. And it took me by surprise. He warned that China was in the “late stages of an enormous credit bubble,” and he projected that the economic fallout when that bubble burst could be “as extraordinary as China’s economic outperformance over the last decade.”

To my knowledge, Mark Hart and his team at Corriente were the first of many global macro managers to anticipate a hard landing in the People’s Republic of China. Mark argued that the Middle Kingdom would land very hard indeed, popping speculative bubbles in the property and stock markets, sending foreign capital flying out the door, and triggering a rapid collapse in the renminbi … and even if the Chinese government could manage its economy away from a deflationary bust, they would be forced to devalue the renminbi to do so. In other words, Mark saw a much lower renminbi under almost every outcome.

It was a mind-blowing concept to me that the main driver of global growth (at the time) could not only implode but even drag the rest of the world down with it.

I can’t share the original Corriente China presentation with you for legal reasons, but here are a few public notes published by the Telegraph’s Louise Armistead after she attended one of Mark’s presentations in November 2010. These may look like obvious observations today, the sort you can find plastered all across the internet, but very few people were actually paying attention four years ago. And the data has only gotten worse since 2010 as rampant credit growth and insidious shadow lending have continued to fuel greater and greater capital misallocation.

In the presentation, which amounts to a devastating attack on the prevailing belief that China is an engine for growth, the financier argues that ‘inappropriately low interest rates and an artificially suppressed exchange rate’ have created dangerous bubbles in sectors including:

Raw materials: Corriente says China has consumed just 65pc of the cement it has produced in the past five years, after exports. The country is currently outputting more steel than the next seven largest producers combined – it now has 200m tons of excess capacity, more that the EU and Japan’s total production so far this year.

Property construction: Corriente reckons there is currently an excess of 3.3bn square meters of floor space in the country – yet 200m square metres of new space is being constructed each year.

Property prices: The average price-to-rent ratio of China’s eight key cities is 39.4 times – this figure was 22.8 times in America just before its housing crisis. Corriente argues: “Lacking alternative investment options, Chinese corporates, households and government entities have invested excess liquidity in the property markets, driving home prices to unsustainable levels.” The result is that the property is out of reach for the majority of ordinary Chinese.

Banking: As with the credit crisis in the West, the banks’ exposure to the infrastructure credit bubbles isn’t obvious because the debt is held in Local Investment Companies – shell entities which borrow from Chinese banks and invest in fixed assets. Mr Hart reckons that ‘bad loans will equal 98pc of total bank equity if LIC-owned, non-cashflow-producing assets are recognised as non-performing.’

The result is that, rather than being the ‘key engine for global growth’, China is an ‘enormous tail-risk’.

(Louise Armistead, The Telegraph,Hedge fund manager Mark Hart bets on China as the next ‘enormous credit bubble’ to burst.” Nov. 29, 2010)

The markets may damn well prove Mark right, along with a host of other managers who either jumped on his bandwagon or reached the same conclusions independently; but it seemed downright crazy in 2010 to think that the main driver of global growth could abruptly become its biggest threat within a few short years.

On a personal note, I obsessed over China’s culture, economy, and political system for years in college and then witnessed the country’s transformation firsthand during my time at Shanghai’s Fudan University in the summer of 2007. Then and later, I marveled at China’s strength relative to the developed world and the seemingly invincible central government’s ability to keep the economy chugging along with credit growth and fixed investment while it hoped for the return of its developed-world customers then mired in the Great Recession.

It wasn’t what I wanted to hear … but I had to accept that Mark could be right. He had clearly identified a major imbalance which has continued to worsen over the last few years, and now we are just waiting for the next shoe to drop.

Four years later, Chinese production is slowing in the shadow of a massive credit bubble and in the face of aggressive reforms.

Disappointing investment returns are revealing broad-based capital misallocation; property prices are cooling (relative to other countries); and commodity stockpiles are mounting.

With China’s new policy of allowing defaults (historically, China’s default rate has been 0%), there is a real risk that follow-on events could spin out of control, raising nonperforming loan ratios and sparking a panic as bank capital is significantly eroded.

In the meantime, the renminbi is trading down, most likely due to an intentional effort by the People’s Bank of China to aid in the slow unwinding of leveraged trade finance.

Now the signs of a Chinese slowdown (and thus a global one, as the world is geared to 8% Chinese growth) are clear, and people around the world are meeting uncertainty with emotion. With that in mind, let’s dig into the data that really matters and try to get to the heart of China’s dilemma.

China’s Minsky Moment?

“China is like an elephant riding a bicycle. If it slows down, it could fall off, and then the earth might quake.” – James Kynge, China Shakes the World

After 30 years of sustained economic growth topping 8% and a successful bank cleanup in 2000, the People’s Republic was well on its way to blowing through the “middle income trap” and transitioning to a more advanced consumption-based economy. But then in 2008 the banking crisis in the United States abruptly ushered in a painful era of balance sheet repair across the developed world and delivered a demand shock to emerging markets. Rather than allow the Chinese economy to fall into recession at such an inconvenient time, the Party leadership sprang into action to stimulate demand with its largest fiscal deficit in more than 60 years and to mobilize bank lending with historically low interest rates and enormous liquidity injections.

As you can see in the charts above, China’s total debt-to-GDP (including estimates for shadow banks) grew by roughly 20% per year, from just under 150% in 2008 to nearly than 210% at the end of 2012 … and continued rising in 2013. Even more ominous, corporate debt has soared from 92% in 2008 to 150% today against the expectation that China’s government would always backstop defaults. That makes Chinese corporates the most highly levered in the world and more than twice as levered as US corporates, just as  corporate defaults are happening for the very first time in more than 60 years.

By another measure, China has accounted for more than $15 trillion of the $30 trillion in worldwide credit growth over the last five years, bringing Chinese bank assets to roughly $24 trillion (2.5x Chinese GDP) and prompting London Telegraph columnist Ambrose Evans-Pritchard to tweet John and me a short message: “China riding tail of $24 trillion credit tiger. Tiger will eat Maoists.” And to that, I would respond that I hope the tiger doesn’t find its way to France. (You can follow John and Worth on Twitter at @JohnFMauldin and @WorthWray.)

Looking further into the debt problem, China is steadily incurring more and more credit for less and less growth – suggesting that the newer debt is less productive because it is being put to unproductive uses – as you can see in Chart 2 above. That explains why many analysts believe China’s official reported nonperforming loan ratio of 1% is more like 11% – or more than 20% of GDP.

Furthermore, China’s incremental capital/output ratio rose from 2.5x in 2007 to almost 5.5x in 2012. That means it takes more than twice as much debt to generate a given improvement in growth as it did before the debt binge began; and as an aside, the interest burden on China’s total debt, at 9.2%, is higher than in the US in 1929 and near the peak interest burden in 2008. Moreover, debt-service costs in China are more than double the total interest burden seen at any time in the last 100 years of US history.

China’s massive debt build-up since 2008 looks like the perfect recipe for a particularly destructive banking crisis; but as George Soros explains, “There are some eerie resemblances with the financial conditions that prevailed in the US in the years preceding the crash of 2008. But there is a significant difference, too. In the US, financial markets tend to dominate politics; in China, the state owns the banks and the bulk of the economy, and the Communist Party controls the state-owned enterprises.”

It will be a difficult balancing act, but China’s ruling elite doesn’t appear to be in denial about its debt problem, as we have come to expect from the United States and the Japan of old. In fact, it seems the new government under President Xi Jinping is intent on popping the domestic debt bubble and allowing widespread defaults rather than continuing to leverage the system into an unmanageable crisis or a Japanese-style stagnation. The trouble is, their efforts may be too little too late to manage a gradual deleveraging from a massive debt bubble. They are about to perform a dive off the high board that has never been attempted, with the whole world watching.

Among the various reforms set forth in last November’s Communist Party Third Plenum, ranging from financial liberalization to a crackdown on corruption and pollution, the greatest challenge will be gradually deleveraging the Chinese economy without throwing growth into a tailspin. Wei Yao and Claire Huang at Societe Generale argue that the Chinese government must approach the deleveraging process in three steps:

The first step is to stall credit growth – especially the growth of risky lending – so that overall leverage rises at a slower pace. In order to achieve this, Beijing has to stick to stringent monetary policy. The market has got a bitter taste of this. Since the beginning of the year, the People’s Bank of China (PBoC) and financial regulators have issued a slew of policy-tightening measures on local government off-budget borrowing, cross-border arbitrage flows, bank WMPs and the interbank bond market. These measures were intended to limit the supply of easy liquidity – mostly from the interbank market – for speculative uses and risky shadow bank lending. In early June, interbank liquidity conditions started to tense up as these measures took effect. The PBoC at first adopted a surprisingly tough stance and held off on liquidity injections, which resulted in unprecedented interest rates spikes. We would agree that this approach lacks elegance and the central bank could have been more communicative, but it was a strong signal that policymakers disapproved of all the risky lending behaviour plaguing the system. This is nonetheless a difficult stance to maintain when economic growth slows, given that credit growth has been used as a policy tool by the Chinese government to stabilize short-term economic growth.

The second step is to keep rolling over (a majority of) bad debt. This may be a necessary evil. If stalling credit growth caps the upside on economic growth, rolling bad debt should limit the downside, at least in the near term. The purpose is to avoid sparking a series of corporate bankruptcies, and economic growth can also do its part in deleveraging. Particularly in the case of infrastructure debt, keeping existing projects going can help manufacturers’ supply glut from going wider, and some projects, once completed, may eventually generate cash flow.

In addition, an improving global economy is likely to invite a return of export demand.

The third step is to start NPL disposals bit by bit. Many companies in China are probably unable to even support interest payments on their debt. If the financial system were to keep all of them alive, the percentage of financial resources that goes into the efficient part of the economy would only decline. This is essentially the lesson we can learn from Japan’s lost decades – the economy struggled to grow due to the large number of zombie companies in the system. Therefore, China needs to let bad projects fail and failing companies disappear to make space for efficient ones.

(Wei Yao & Claire Huang, “Asian Themes: Deflating China’s credit bubbles.” Societe Generale; September 19, 2013)

If President Xi Jinping, his Politburo comrades, and the People’s Bank of China can work together to slow credit growth, roll over the majority of bad debts, and gradually start disposing of the worst nonperforming loans, they may have a small, but not hopeless, chance of avoiding the difficult choice between a forceful deleveraging and footing the bill to backstop defaults and/or bank failures that could pile up toward 20% of GDP. That increasingly likely scenario would seriously disrupt real GDP growth along with China’s annual budget.

Trouble is, the People’s Bank of China has allowed some pretty wicked cash crunches over the past year. Some say it was an intentional move to discipline the shadow banking system. That scenario scares the hell out of me, because that kind of behavior suggests the Chinese are playing a dangerous game – and not just with their own economy. Interbank rates do not normally bounce from 2% to 12% in a healthy economy.

In the chart below from Bloomberg, it appears that fluctuations in FX flows may explain a lot of the easing and tightening happening in the interbank market. I suspect this is a clear sign that the PBoC may already be losing control.

For all practical purposes, with China’s corporate debt above 150% and total debt above 210%, history suggests that China’s Minsky Moment is quickly approaching. Investors should prepare for the inevitable demand shocks and fall in global growth regardless of the specific outcome. The Chinese government may have the assets to backstop a truly horrific crisis and maintain slow growth in the 2-3% range; but then again, Mark Hart may have the final word.

Four years on, the denouement has clearly taken longer to arrive than Mark expected, but he is still in the market with his Corriente China Opportunities Fund. And he is still betting big against the yuan, which continues to surprise and slide.

With so much of the market expecting one-way appreciation in the RMB/USD – despite a crescendo of warnings of currency volatility from the PBoC – such moves represent a big surprise and may simply be the first steps down.

China’s government finds itself on the exact opposite side of the carry trade now,  and it appears they have a lot to gain by unwinding it – on the order of $200 billion for every 10% devaluation in the CNY/USD. It’s essentially a way to join the currency war and boost exports without appearing to circumvent the free market.

Contrary to what many onlookers believe, the People’s Bank of China and China’s top leadership are probably not willing and possibly not able to defend the currency while also supporting growth in a deleveraging economy. They will have to make a choice, and frankly, they already have an incentive to let the renminbi fall as they attempt to put the right reforms in place to support long-term growth – or face a deflationary nightmare in the uncomfortably near future.

Not many people realize that China has lost a great deal of competitiveness as its real effective exchange rate has risen in recent years.


Source: OECD

This is the same kind of dynamic that made Ireland, Spain, Greece, Italy, France, and others so uncompetitive relative to Germany in the easy-money years leading up to the euro crisis.


Source: JPMorgan, “Guide to the Markets”

After years of complaints from politicians around the world to let their currency float, the Chinese can allow just that to happen. A 10%, or 20%, or even 50% fall in the renminbi would take pressure off potential problems involving levered trade finance, boost China’s competitiveness, and pad government accounts at a critical time for China’s industrial transition. (Remember, the average currency devaluation in the Asian financial crisis of 1997-1998 was an even greater 60%.)

American, European, and Japanese politicians will have a hard time making the case for a downward-trending RMB as long as it floats freely. And honestly, the flip side will be difficult to defend. Although many economists believe that China’s abundant reserves, near 50% of GDP, will be enough to stem the tide in the event of capital flight, I don’t believe they are looking at the right data. In light of clearly wasted spending and widespread capital misallocation, GDP is artificially inflated … not to mention that a substantial portion of Chinese reserves may have already been locked up in loans to foreign borrowers. 

M2 is a far better proxy for the capital that can rush out of an economy without warning … and Chinese M2 is now nearly twice the size of GDP. Since outstanding reserves cover less than 35% of M2, capital outflows place more pressure on the currency than most people realize. I wholeheartedly believe the renminbi will fall further over time, albeit with some serious volatility.

The Bigger They Come…

Over the last 50 years, every investment boom coupled with excessive credit growth has ended in a hard landing, from the Latin American debt crisis of the 1980s, to Japan in 1989, East Asia in 1997, and the United States after both the late-1990s internet bubble and the mid-2000s housing bubble.

The lesson is always the same, and it is hard to avoid. Economic miracles are almost always too good to be true. Broad-based, debt-fueled overinvestment (misallocation of capital) may appear to kick economic growth into overdrive for a while; but eventually disappointing returns and consequent selling lead to investment losses, defaults, and banking panics. And in the cases where foreign capital seeking strong growth in already highly valued assets drives the investment boom, the miracle often ends with capital flight and currency collapse.

John and I talk about China constantly and always reach the same conclusion. We really have no way of knowing whether the country will suffer a modest slowdown or a hard landing, but we both agree with George Soros that “The major uncertainty facing the world today is not the euro but the future direction of China.”

To be clear, China doesn’t have to experience a deep recession in order to disrupt global growth. A slowdown to 2-3% real GDP growth and a corresponding decline in China’s import demand could fire demand shocks across emerging Asian economies like India and Indonesia, commodity producers like Australia and South Africa, and even deteriorating economies in the Eurozone like France and Italy.

The investor’s dilemma is that there is really no way to know what is happening in China today, much less what will happen tomorrow. The primary data is flawed at best, manipulated at worst, and there seem to be a lot of inconsistencies when we compare official data to more concrete measures of economic activity.

Even China’s new premier, Li Keqiang, believes China’s GDP numbers are “man-made” and therefore unreliable, according to a US diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks in 2010. For what it’s worth, that same cable suggests the premier is more interested in measurements like electricity consumption (officially expected to rise by 7% in 2014), rail cargo volumes (officially expected to rise by 2% in 2014), and bank loans (officially expected to stall in 2014) … which are all showing potential signs of fatigue.

From an investment perspective, China’s predicament can teach us one valuable lesson. The most important risks are often the ones you cannot easily anticipate, and thorough diversification may be your only defense. As the Chinese say, “Precaution averts perils.”

__________

John here. I think Worth did a good job of outlining the issues. I might add that I think a Chinese slowdown and possible move up the manufacturing value chain would be particularly disruptive to Germany at a time when the Eurozone might be under pressure from a deteriorating France. As Shakespeare once wrote, “When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.” I see the situation in China as the domino that could topple and trigger another global crisis. Let us hope that they can find a path through a very difficult economic landscape. This way be dragons indeed!

For the record, I have been consistently saying for several years that when the Chinese allow their currency to float it will get weaker, perhaps materially so, not stronger, for a period of time. When they recently widened the bands, the renminbi did indeed weaken, and it seems to have been allowed to do so to teach those who were relentlessly trying to push the currency higher a hard lesson. When currencies float, they can move two ways. I believe the Japanese yen is on a very long and volatile ride to 200 to the dollar, but it will test the patience and resolve of all who try to trade it. The same resolve will be needed for trading the Renminbi. China is going to be a rough ride for anyone who thinks they can actually figure it out in advance.

Cafayate, South Africa, New York, Europe, and San Diego

I am in Cafayate, Argentina, which is in the northernmost province. While still in the tropics, it is at 5,500 feet, so the weather is almost perfect year-round and especially at this time of year. Some of the best wine grapes in Argentina grow here. Sunday or Monday we leave for Bill Bonner’s hacienda at almost 10,000 feet, up some of the roughest tracks I have ever been on, but the arrival is worth the adventure. At least this year we rented an appropriate vehicle for the drive. I don’t quite want to admit that I might not have chosen well the last time (since I didn’t know what lay in store for me), but I will suggest that you not buy a used rental car that comes out of Argentina. Getting towed out of rivers and sand dunes was challenging. And the roads were so rough and rocky that I drove on a flat tire for a few miles, since I couldn’t tell the difference in road feel, and the tire was shredded beyond recognition.

A week from Monday I head back to Dallas – for eight hours – before I take off for 12 days in South Africa. That will mean three straight nights in airplanes, a first for me. I will need that vacation resort, with lots of massages and hydrotherapy, to unwind me. I’m going to try something new this trip and post a few pictures and comments to Twitter. Follow me if you like. After South Africa I’m back home for like a day before I have to run up to New York to do some videos. Then it’s back home for a few weeks (or so it appears) before I head to Amsterdam, Brussels, and Geneva. I’ll come home for a few days and then head to San Diego for our Strategic Investment Conference – one of my real highlights of the year. And then I’ll be home for more than two whole weeks before heading to Tuscany for a few weeks of vacation. Whew. I will be ready to relax at the end of all that travel.

As I settled into my seat on the flight to Buenos Aires, who should sit down next to me but Kyle Bass, who was on a trip further south in Argentina to scope out what he sees as real opportunity. I should remind readers that Kyle and I will be doing a webinar on Monday, March 31, at 10 Central, sponsored by my partners at Altegris Investments. It is limited to qualified US investors. You can go to www.mauldincircle.com and sign up, and someone from Altegris will call and make sure you get an invitation. I hate to limit it, but that is the rule. (In the regard, I am president and a registered representative of Millennium Wave Securities, LLC, member FINRA and SIPC. And read the risk disclosures!)

And as you know, Jack Rivkin, one of the most savvy and got-it-together writers and investors I know, recently assumed the position of CIO at Altegris. What you may not know is that Jack has started posting Altegris updates on investments, economic factors, market conditions, etc., which can be found here. These are interesting reads, with timely information – most notably Jack’s urgent focus on the need for an unconstrained approach to fixed-income. You should check this out now … and periodically going forward.

I am finally at the Grace Hotel in Cafayate, which has just opened, and I am delighted with my room and its panoramic view of the vineyards and majestic red mountains in the background. On the way here Olivier Garret and I stopped at a natural amphitheater in the canyon that towered some 700-800 feet high. There was a local musician over to the side, and I encouraged him to give us a song. He strummed a few chords and then in a lilting tenor voice sang us a local folk tune that should be performed on a national stage. The natural acoustics amplified it better than a thousand Bose speakers. It was amazing. Then he put down his guitar and picked up his flute. The sound was surreal, like the finest surround sound I have ever heard but stepped up a magnitude. I stopped, closed my eyes, and just took in the moment. Anywhere else, maybe, and he was just another flute player. But here he was a god. Maybe he should stay and avoid that big-city stage. It was the best 100 pesos I will spend this trip. Which, if he doesn’t spend it soon, won’t buy much, with Argentina’s raging inflation. But that was a problem for another day. In the moment there was just the magical connection through the music.

It is time to hit the send button. They say some 100 people are enjoying themselves while waiting for me down at poolside, and so I really need to go. And tomorrow there is a gym, spa, and a good book awaiting me. Have a great week!

Your already relaxing in Argentina analyst,

John Mauldin, Editor
subscribers@mauldineconomics.com

 

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Thoughts from the Frontline: China’s Minsky Moment?

 

In speeches and presentations since the end of last year, I have been saying that I think the biggest macro problem in the world today is China. China has run up a huge debt, and the payments are coming due. They seem to be proactive, but will it be enough? How much risk do they pose for the global system?

This week as I travel to Cafayate I have asked my young associate Worth Wray to write up his research and our conversations on China. Worth has lived in China; and with his (and my) access to people with their fingers on the pulse of China, he has come up with some valuable insights. The hard part for him was to keep it in a single letter. China is a such a huge topic that writing about it can easily yield a tome.

I am lucky to have enticed Worth to come to work with me. He is extraordinarily talented and insightful as an economist, has the boundless energy of youth (which means he seemingly doesn’t sleep), and spent the last five years deep in one of the best training grounds that a young analyst could have. He brings his own extensive Rolodex to our organization. In the not too distant future, we plan to start writing a joint letter on portfolio design and construction, translating the macro insights we have into real-world portfolios that can inform your own investing. Lots of I’s to dot and T’s to cross, but we are making progress.

I am delighted to be able to bring a talent like Worth to your attention. So let’s let him talk China to us and see where it takes us. [Note: as I do the final edits here in Cafayate, I see that Worth did an outstanding job of bringing the data together and making the story understandable. You want to take the time to read this!]

A Front-Row Seat

By Worth Wray

Before I teamed up with John last July, I worked as the portfolio strategist for an $18 billion money manager in Houston, TX that, among its other businesses, co-managed (with an elite team of investors from the university endowment world) one of the largest registered funds of funds in the United States.

For a bright-eyed kid from South Louisiana, it was a life-changing experience. I had a front-row seat for every investment decision in a multi-billion-dollar portfolio for almost five years; and along with my colleagues and mentors in Texas, North Carolina, New York, Shanghai, and Singapore, I had the chance to meet and interact with a long list of the most sought-after hedge fund, private equity, and venture capital teams. I often found myself in the same room with honest-to-god legends like Kyle Bass, John Paulson, JC Flowers, and Ken Griffin … and I forged lasting some friendships with their portfolio managers and analysts. 

As you can imagine, the information flow was addictive. I spent thousands of hours poring over manager letters from six continents, doing my best to connect the global macro dots ahead of the markets and coming up with question after question for everyone who would return my calls. That experience plugged me in to an enduring network of truly independent thinkers, forced me to see the world from an entirely different perspective, and put me in an ideal position to figure out what it takes to navigate the unprecedented (not to say strange) investment challenges posed by a “Code Red” world.

Sometimes, combing through a mountain of manager letters felt like reading the newspaper years in advance. I remember watching with amazement as a free-thinking global macro investor named Mark Hart made a fortune for his investors by shorting US subprime mortgages and then shifted his focus to what he argued would be the next shoe to drop – a series of sovereign defaults across the Eurozone.

Mark explained how the launch of a common currency had allowed historically riskier borrowers like Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Spain, and France to issue sovereign debt for the same borrowing cost as Germany did… without any kind of fiscal union to justify the common rates. The resulting debt splurge led to a big increase in fiscal debts, drove an unwarranted rise in unit labor costs across the southern Eurozone, and essentially activated a ticking time bomb at the very foundations of the euro system. It seemed obvious that rates would eventually diverge to reflect the relative credit risks of the borrowers, but the market didn’t seem to care until it got very bad news from Athens. We all know what happened next.

Just as Mark and his team at Corriente Advisors had predicted, spreads blew out in Greece, then in Ireland, then in Portugal, then in Spain… and it now appears that Italy and France are veering toward a similar fate. When the euro crisis finally broke out, my colleagues and I were waiting for it, because Mark had already walked us through his playbook for a multi-act global debt drama.

Instead of blowing up in spectacular fashion, the Eurozone crisis has taken far longer to resolve than a lot of investors and economists expected (Mark, John, and myself included); but the euro’s survival thus far has been largely the result of extensive Realpolitik and an increasingly hollow narrative from Mario Draghi and the ECB laying claim to the wherewithal to “do whatever it takes” to preserve the single-currency system. Meanwhile, as Corriente understood, the likelihood of major defaults across the Eurozone rises every day that the ECB does the bare minimum to resist France’s and Italy’s slide toward deflation. It’s not over until the fat lady sings.

The point I am trying to make is that Mark saw the fundamental imbalances behind the global financial crisis in time to launch a dedicated fund in 2006, and he saw the root causes of the ongoing European debt crisis in time to launch a dedicated fund in 2007… precisely because he thinks of the global economy as one interconnected system peppered with a series of unstable and still unresolved debt bubbles. Mark is one of the most forward-thinking investors I have ever met and one of the best in recent decades at spotting the big imbalances that spell T-R-O-U-B-L-E.

I can’t tell you if he will be right about the next phase of the global debt drama. Predicting the actions and reactions of elected and unelected officials is next to impossible in a Code Red world, but some people have an eye for fundamental imbalances. And since Mark has been largely right in identifying the major debt bubbles that have plagued the world since 2007, John and I can’t comfortably ignore his warning.

As Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff argued in their still-authoritative history of financial boom and bust over the past eight hundred years, “When an accident is waiting to happen, it eventually does. When countries become too deeply indebted, they are headed for trouble. When debt-fueled asset price explosions seem too good to be true, they probably are.”

The Bubble That Is China

Following his prescient calls on the subprime debacle and the European debt crisis, Mark identified in 2010 another source of instability that he warned could shake the global economy. And it took me by surprise. He warned that China was in the “late stages of an enormous credit bubble,” and he projected that the economic fallout when that bubble burst could be “as extraordinary as China’s economic outperformance over the last decade.”

To my knowledge, Mark Hart and his team at Corriente were the first of many global macro managers to anticipate a hard landing in the People’s Republic of China. Mark argued that the Middle Kingdom would land very hard indeed, popping speculative bubbles in the property and stock markets, sending foreign capital flying out the door, and triggering a rapid collapse in the renminbi … and even if the Chinese government could manage its economy away from a deflationary bust, they would be forced to devalue the renminbi to do so. In other words, Mark saw a much lower renminbi under almost every outcome.

It was a mind-blowing concept to me that the main driver of global growth (at the time) could not only implode but even drag the rest of the world down with it.

I can’t share the original Corriente China presentation with you for legal reasons, but here are a few public notes published by the Telegraph’s Louise Armistead after she attended one of Mark’s presentations in November 2010. These may look like obvious observations today, the sort you can find plastered all across the internet, but very few people were actually paying attention four years ago. And the data has only gotten worse since 2010 as rampant credit growth and insidious shadow lending have continued to fuel greater and greater capital misallocation.

In the presentation, which amounts to a devastating attack on the prevailing belief that China is an engine for growth, the financier argues that ‘inappropriately low interest rates and an artificially suppressed exchange rate’ have created dangerous bubbles in sectors including:

Raw materials: Corriente says China has consumed just 65pc of the cement it has produced in the past five years, after exports. The country is currently outputting more steel than the next seven largest producers combined – it now has 200m tons of excess capacity, more that the EU and Japan’s total production so far this year.

Property construction: Corriente reckons there is currently an excess of 3.3bn square meters of floor space in the country – yet 200m square metres of new space is being constructed each year.

Property prices: The average price-to-rent ratio of China’s eight key cities is 39.4 times – this figure was 22.8 times in America just before its housing crisis. Corriente argues: “Lacking alternative investment options, Chinese corporates, households and government entities have invested excess liquidity in the property markets, driving home prices to unsustainable levels.” The result is that the property is out of reach for the majority of ordinary Chinese.

Banking: As with the credit crisis in the West, the banks’ exposure to the infrastructure credit bubbles isn’t obvious because the debt is held in Local Investment Companies – shell entities which borrow from Chinese banks and invest in fixed assets. Mr Hart reckons that ‘bad loans will equal 98pc of total bank equity if LIC-owned, non-cashflow-producing assets are recognised as non-performing.’

The result is that, rather than being the ‘key engine for global growth’, China is an ‘enormous tail-risk’.

(Louise Armistead, The Telegraph,Hedge fund manager Mark Hart bets on China as the next ‘enormous credit bubble’ to burst.” Nov. 29, 2010)

The markets may damn well prove Mark right, along with a host of other managers who either jumped on his bandwagon or reached the same conclusions independently; but it seemed downright crazy in 2010 to think that the main driver of global growth could abruptly become its biggest threat within a few short years.

On a personal note, I obsessed over China’s culture, economy, and political system for years in college and then witnessed the country’s transformation firsthand during my time at Shanghai’s Fudan University in the summer of 2007. Then and later, I marveled at China’s strength relative to the developed world and the seemingly invincible central government’s ability to keep the economy chugging along with credit growth and fixed investment while it hoped for the return of its developed-world customers then mired in the Great Recession.

It wasn’t what I wanted to hear … but I had to accept that Mark could be right. He had clearly identified a major imbalance which has continued to worsen over the last few years, and now we are just waiting for the next shoe to drop.

Four years later, Chinese production is slowing in the shadow of a massive credit bubble and in the face of aggressive reforms.

Disappointing investment returns are revealing broad-based capital misallocation; property prices are cooling (relative to other countries); and commodity stockpiles are mounting.

With China’s new policy of allowing defaults (historically, China’s default rate has been 0%), there is a real risk that follow-on events could spin out of control, raising nonperforming loan ratios and sparking a panic as bank capital is significantly eroded.

In the meantime, the renminbi is trading down, most likely due to an intentional effort by the People’s Bank of China to aid in the slow unwinding of leveraged trade finance.

Now the signs of a Chinese slowdown (and thus a global one, as the world is geared to 8% Chinese growth) are clear, and people around the world are meeting uncertainty with emotion. With that in mind, let’s dig into the data that really matters and try to get to the heart of China’s dilemma.

China’s Minsky Moment?

“China is like an elephant riding a bicycle. If it slows down, it could fall off, and then the earth might quake.” – James Kynge, China Shakes the World

After 30 years of sustained economic growth topping 8% and a successful bank cleanup in 2000, the People’s Republic was well on its way to blowing through the “middle income trap” and transitioning to a more advanced consumption-based economy. But then in 2008 the banking crisis in the United States abruptly ushered in a painful era of balance sheet repair across the developed world and delivered a demand shock to emerging markets. Rather than allow the Chinese economy to fall into recession at such an inconvenient time, the Party leadership sprang into action to stimulate demand with its largest fiscal deficit in more than 60 years and to mobilize bank lending with historically low interest rates and enormous liquidity injections.

As you can see in the charts above, China’s total debt-to-GDP (including estimates for shadow banks) grew by roughly 20% per year, from just under 150% in 2008 to nearly than 210% at the end of 2012 … and continued rising in 2013. Even more ominous, corporate debt has soared from 92% in 2008 to 150% today against the expectation that China’s government would always backstop defaults. That makes Chinese corporates the most highly levered in the world and more than twice as levered as US corporates, just as  corporate defaults are happening for the very first time in more than 60 years.

By another measure, China has accounted for more than $15 trillion of the $30 trillion in worldwide credit growth over the last five years, bringing Chinese bank assets to roughly $24 trillion (2.5x Chinese GDP) and prompting London Telegraph columnist Ambrose Evans-Pritchard to tweet John and me a short message: “China riding tail of $24 trillion credit tiger. Tiger will eat Maoists.” And to that, I would respond that I hope the tiger doesn’t find its way to France. (You can follow John and Worth on Twitter at @JohnFMauldin and @WorthWray.)

Looking further into the debt problem, China is steadily incurring more and more credit for less and less growth – suggesting that the newer debt is less productive because it is being put to unproductive uses – as you can see in Chart 2 above. That explains why many analysts believe China’s official reported nonperforming loan ratio of 1% is more like 11% – or more than 20% of GDP.

To continue reading this article from Thoughts from the Frontline – a free weekly publication by John Mauldin, renowned financial expert, best-selling author, and Chairman of Mauldin Economics – please click here.

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Thoughts From the Frontline and MauldinEconomics.com is not an offering for any investment. It represents only the opinions of John Mauldin and those that he interviews. Any views expressed are provided for information purposes only and should not be construed in any way as an offer, an endorsement, or inducement to invest and is not in any way a testimony of, or associated with, Mauldin’s other firms. John Mauldin is the Chairman of Mauldin Economics, LLC. He also is the President and registered representative of Millennium Wave Advisors, LLC (MWA) which is an investment advisory firm registered with multiple states, President and registered representative of Millennium Wave Securities, LLC, (MWS) member FINRA and SIPC, through which securities may be offered. MWS is also a Commodity Pool Operator (CPO) and a Commodity Trading Advisor (CTA) registered with the CFTC, as well as an Introducing Broker (IB) and NFA Member. Millennium Wave Investments is a dba of MWA LLC and MWS LLC. This message may contain information that is confidential or privileged and is intended only for the individual or entity named above and does not constitute an offer for or advice about any alternative investment product. Such advice can only be made when accompanied by a prospectus or similar offering document. Past performance is not indicative of future performance. Please make sure to review important disclosures at the end of each article. Mauldin companies may have a marketing relationship with products and services mentioned in this letter for a fee.

Note: Joining The Mauldin Circle is not an offering for any investment. It represents only the opinions of John Mauldin and Millennium Wave Investments. It is intended solely for investors who have registered with Millennium Wave Investments and its partners at http://www.MauldinCircle.com (formerly AccreditedInvestor.ws) or directly related websites. The Mauldin Circle may send out material that is provided on a confidential basis, and subscribers to the Mauldin Circle are not to send this letter to anyone other than their professional investment counselors. Investors should discuss any investment with their personal investment counsel. John Mauldin is the President of Millennium Wave Advisors, LLC (MWA), which is an investment advisory firm registered with multiple states. John Mauldin is a registered representative of Millennium Wave Securities, LLC, (MWS), an FINRA registered broker-dealer. MWS is also a Commodity Pool Operator (CPO) and a Commodity Trading Advisor (CTA) registered with the CFTC, as well as an Introducing Broker (IB). Millennium Wave Investments is a dba of MWA LLC and MWS LLC. Millennium Wave Investments cooperates in the consulting on and marketing of private and non-private investment offerings with other independent firms such as Altegris Investments; Capital Management Group; Absolute Return Partners, LLP; Fynn Capital; Nicola Wealth Management; and Plexus Asset Management. Investment offerings recommended by Mauldin may pay a portion of their fees to these independent firms, who will share 1/3 of those fees with MWS and thus with Mauldin. Any views expressed herein are provided for information purposes only and should not be construed in any way as an offer, an endorsement, or inducement to invest with any CTA, fund, or program mentioned here or elsewhere. Before seeking any advisor’s services or making an investment in a fund, investors must read and examine thoroughly the respective disclosure document or offering memorandum. Since these firms and Mauldin receive fees from the funds they recommend/market, they only recommend/market products with which they have been able to negotiate fee arrangements.

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Outside the Box: Gavekal on Russia and Japan

 

I look at dozens of sources a day on global macroeconomics, but one source I go to every day is my good friends at Gavekal. The Gavekal partnership – father Charles Gave, son Louis-Vincent Gave, and noted economist and journalist Anatole Kaletsky – spans three continents: Charles is based in Paris, Anatole is in London, Louis has set up shop in Hong Kong, and the firm also has an office in the US. And they have an extensive team of outstanding analysts.

Gavekal’s publishes global macro articles for its clients on an almost daily basis, and for today’s Outside the Box they have allowed me to share two of them with you. First, Louis Gave gives us a very insightful analysis of Russia’s permanent interests and makes a very interesting case connecting Middle East oil and Crimea.

The author of the second piece is Gavekal Asia Research Director Joyce Poon, who has been rising on my must-read list because she consistently thinks differently and more deeply than most conventional analysts. Her analysis here on Japan is very intriguing, convincing, and counterintuitive to standard economic theory. But, you’ll note, the end result is to still short the yen.

Incidentally, Anatole Kaletsky will speak at our Strategic Investment Conference this year, as he has for the past several years. This is a must-attend conference.

There has been a great response to the exclusive-to-Mauldin-Economics video interview by Jim Bruce of Janet Yellen when she was the president of the San Francisco Fed. He interviewed her in the course of producing the gonzo documentary on the Federal Reserve, Money for Nothing. The original interview was quite wide-ranging – over two hours – and Jim has edited the interview to just over 10 minutes of the most pertinent and interesting pieces segments. Given that today is the day Yellen chairs her first Fed meeting, I think it might be interesting to see what her views are on the role of the Federal Reserve.

What’s fascinating to me are the risks inherent in so many of her beliefs: 

  • That the Fed can reduce “the pain that people feel when they want to have jobs” by stimulating financial markets with ultra-low rates
  • That the Fed will be able to control inflation no matter how profligate Washington gets
  • That the Fed wasn’t irresponsible in deliberately fueling the housing bubble, and shouldn’t raise rates to puncture a bubble because it might impact the economy.  

These are the views that are going to be driving Fed policy and shaping the monetary environment in which we all invest. I think it’s worth your time to consider. You can watch the interview here.

As you receive this I am on a plane to Buenos Aires, where I will spend the day before flying on to Salta and then driving three hours up through a beautiful canyon to Cafayate. Sometime early in the week I will make a 4- to 5-hour trek over the roughest terrain I’ve ever driven on, back to see my old friend Bill Bonner at his hacienda at 10,000 feet in the Andes. He retreats there for two months every year, where he continues to write and pursue his avocation of building things with his own hands. In theory there is internet, but in practice I was completely cut off for a few days when I was there last year. Withdrawal was acute, but I survived. I might even need to stay a few days longer with just my books to see if the reflexive tics go away.

As soon as I get back to the resort at La Estancia, I will once again be connected to the world and will be able to write my weekly letter as usual. With everything happening so fast these days, it almost seems like I should be writing to you three times a week. But that is why we have the other writers like Grant Williams and our Outside the Box contributors to supplement my humble weekly missives.

Have a great week, and follow me on Twitter as I try to post from Argentina and from South Africa in a few weeks.

Your getting ready to feast at almost daily asados analyst,

John Mauldin, Editor
Outside the Box
subscribers@mauldineconomics.com

 

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Russia’s Permanent Interests

By Louis-Vincent Gave

Nineteenth century statesman Lord Palmerston famously said that “nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.” As anyone who has ever opened a history book knows, Russia’s permanent interest has always been access to warm-water seaports. So perhaps we can just reduce the current showdown over Crimea to this very simple truth: there is no way Russia will ever let go of Sevastopol again. And aside from the historical importance of Crimea (Russia did fight France, England and Turkey 160 years ago to claim its stake on the Crimean peninsula), there are two potential reasons for Russia to risk everything in order to hold on to a warm seaport. Let us call the first explanation “reasoned paranoia,” the other “devilish Machiavellianism.”

Reasoned paranoia

Put yourself in Russian shoes for a brief instant: over the past two centuries, Russia has had to fight back invasions from France (led by Napoleon in 1812), an alliance including France, England and Turkey (Crimean War in the 1850s), and Germany in both world wars. Why does this matter? Because when one looks at a map of the world today, there really is only one empire that continues to gobble up territory all along its borders, insists on a common set of values with little discussion (removal of death penalty, acceptance of alternative lifestyles and multi- culturalism…), centralizes economic and political decisions away from local populations, etc. And that empire may be based in Brussels, but it is fundamentally run by Germans and Frenchmen (Belgians have a hard enough time running their own country). More importantly, that empire is coming ever closer to Russia’s borders.

Of course, the European Union’s enlargement on its own could be presented as primarily an economic enterprise, designed mainly to raise living standards in central and eastern Europe, and even to increase the potential of Russia’s neighbors as trading partners. However, this is not how most of the EU leaders themselves view the exercise; instead the EU project is defined as being first political, then economic. Worse yet in Russian eyes, the combination of the EU and NATO expansion, which is what we have broadly seen (with US recently sending fighter jets to Poland and a Baltic state) is a very different proposition, for there is nothing economic about NATO enlargement!

For Russia, how can the EU-NATO continuous eastward expansion not be seen as an unstoppable politico-military juggernaut, advancing relentlessly towards Russia’s borders and swallowing up all intervening countries, with the unique and critical exception of Russia itself? From Moscow, this eastward expansion can become hard to distinguish from previous encroachments by French and German leaders whose intentions may have been less benign than those of the present Western leaders, but whose supposedly “civilizing” missions were just as strong. Throw on top of that the debate/bashing of Russia over gay rights, the less than favorable coverage of its very expensive Olympic party, the glorification in the Western media of Pussy Riot, the confiscation of Russian assets in Cyprus … and one can see why Russia may feel a little paranoid today when it comes to the EU. The Russians can probably relate to Joseph Heller’s line from Catch-22: “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”

Devilish Machiavellianism

Moving away from Russia’s paranoia and returning to Russia’s permanent interests, we should probably remind ourselves of the following when looking at recent developments: 1) Vladimir Putin is an ex-KGB officer and deeply nationalistic, 2) Putin is very aware of Russia’s long-term interests, 3) when the oil price is high, Russia is strong; when the oil price is weak, Russia is weak.

It is perhaps this latter point that matters the most for, away from newspapers headlines and the daily grind of most of our readers, World War IV has already started in earnest (if we assume that the Cold War was World War III). And the reason few of us have noticed that World War IV has started is that this war pits the Sunnis against the Shias, and most of our readers are neither. Of course, the reason we should care (beyond the harrowing tales of human suffering coming in the conflicted areas), and the reason that Russia has a particular bone in this fight, is obvious enough: oil.

Indeed, in the Sunni-Shia fight that we see today in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and elsewhere, the Sunnis control the purse strings (thanks mostly to the Saudi and Kuwaiti oil fields) while the Shias control the population. And this is where things get potentially interesting for Russia. Indeed, a quick look at a map of the Middle East shows that a) the Saudi oil fields are sitting primarily in areas populated by the minority Shias, who have seen very little, if any, of the benefits of the exploitation of oil and b) the same can be said of Bahrain, where the population is majority Shia.

Now of course, Iran has for decades tried to infiltrate/destabilize Shia Bahrain and the Shia parts of Saudi Arabia, though so far, the Saudis (thanks in part to US military technology) have done a very decent job of holding their own backyard. But could this change over the coming years? Could the civil war currently tearing apart large sections of the Middle East get worse?

At the very least, Putin has to plan for such a possibility which, let’s face it, would very much play to Russia’s long-term interests. Indeed, a greater clash between Iran and Saudi Arabia would probably see oil rise to US$200/barrel. Europe, as well as China and Japan, would become even more dependent on Russian energy exports. In both financial terms and geo-political terms, this would be a terrific outcome for Russia.

It would be such a good outcome that the temptation to keep things going (through weapon sales) would be overwhelming. This is all the more so since the Sunnis in the Middle East have really been no friends to the Russians, financing the rebellions in Chechnya, Dagestan, etc. So having the opportunity to say “payback’s a bitch” must be tempting for Putin who, from Assad to the Iranians, is clearly throwing Russia’s lot in with the Shias. Of course, for Russia to be relevant, and hope to influence the Sunni-Shia conflict, Russia needs to have the ability to sell, and deliver weapons. And for that, one needs ships and a port. Ergo, the importance of Sevastopol, and the importance of Russia’s Syrian port (Tartus, sitting pretty much across from Cyprus).

The questions raised

The above brings us to the current Western perception of the Ukrainian crisis. Most of the people we speak to see the crisis as troublesome because it may lead to restlessness amongst the Russian minorities scattered across Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and tempt further border encroachments across a region that remains highly unstable. This is of course a perfectly valid fear, though it must be noted that, throughout history, there have been few constants to the inhabitants of the Kremlin (or of the Winter Palace before then). But nonetheless, one could count on Russia’s elite to:

a) Care deeply about maintaining access to warm-water seaports and

b) Care little for the welfare of the average Russian

So, it therefore seems likely that the fact that Russia is eager to redraw the borders around Crimea has more to do with the former than the latter. And that the Crimean incident does not mean that Putin will try and absorb Russian minorities into a “Greater Russia” wherever those minorities may be. The bigger question is that having secured Russia’s access to Sevastopol, and Tartus, will Russia use these ports to influence the Shia-Sunni conflict directly, and the oil price indirectly?

After all, with oil production in the US re-accelerating, with Iran potentially foregoing its membership in the “Axis of Evil,” with GDP growth slowing dramatically in emerging markets, with either Libya or Iraq potentially coming back on stream at some point in the future, with Japan set to restart its nukes … the logical destination for oil prices would be to follow most other commodities and head lower. But that would not be in the Russian interest for the one lesson Putin most certainly drew from the late 1990s was that a high oil price equates to a strong Russia, and vice-versa.

And so, with President Obama attempting to redefine the US role in the region away from being the Sunnis’ protector, and mend fences with Shias, Russia may be seeing an opportunity to influence events in the Middle East more than she has done in the past. In that regard, the Crimean annexation may announce the next wave of Sunni-Shia conflict in the Middle East, and the next wave of orders for French-manufactured weapons (as the US has broadly started to disengage itself, France has been the only G8 country basically stepping up to fight in the Saudi corner … a stance that should soon be rewarded with a €2.7bn contract for Crotale missiles produced by Thales and a €2.4bn contract for Airbus to undertake Saudi’s border surveillance). And, finally, the Crimean annexation may announce the next gap higher in oil prices.

In short, buying a straddle option position on oil makes a lot of sense. On the one hand, if the Saudis and the US want to punish Russia for its destabilizing actions, then the way to do it will be to join forces (even if Saudi-US relations are at a nadir right now) and crush the oil price. Alternatively, if the US leadership remains haphazard and continues to broadly disengage from the greater Middle East, then Russia will advance, provide weapons and intelligence to the Shias, and the unfolding Sunni- Shia war will accelerate, potentially leading to a gap higher in oil prices. One scenario is very bullish for risk assets, the other is very bearish! Investors who believe that the US State Department has the situation under control should plan for the former. Investors who fear that Putin’s Machiavellianism will carry the day should plan for the latter (e.g., buy out-of-the-money calls on oil, French defense stocks, Russian oil stocks).

Japan’s Self-Defeating Mercantilism

By Joyce Poon

In the 16 months since Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe launched his bold plan to reflate Japan’s shrinking economy the yen has depreciated by 22% against the dollar, 28% against the euro and 24% against the renminbi. The hope was to stimulate trade and push the current account decisively into the black. Yet the reverse has occurred. Japan’s external position has worsened due to anemic export growth and a spiraling energy import bill: in January it recorded a record monthly trade deficit of ¥2.8trn ($27.4bn). Having eked out a 0.7% current account surplus in 2013, Japan may this year swing into deficit for the first time since 1980. So why is the medicine not working?

The standard response revolves around timing issues: the so called J-curve effect usually means that the boost to exports after a currency devaluation lags the rise in the value of imports by about 12-18 months. In addition, consumers may be busily buying goods ahead of April’s scheduled sales tax increase, temporarily jacking up imports. On a more structural note, there is also the suspicion that exports are not benefitting from the cheaper yen partly because so much production has been pushed offshore.

This may all be true, but there is more to the story than the trade data. After all, a big devaluation has a ricochet effect across the broad economy that changes the outlook for producers, consumers, the government and providers of capital. The transmission mechanism can be thought as working in the following way. Consumers are immediately hit with an implicit “tax” as imported goods cost more, while export-oriented firms get an effective subsidy. In the capital markets, the effect is to lower the value of domestic bonds in foreign currency terms, with the result that yields rise. This means that the cost to the government of financing its deficit rises, forcing a reduction in government spending. As a result of these effects, resources are shifted from the household and government sectors and into the corporate sector. The effect of this resource reallocation should be to boost productivity, which in turn initiates a virtuous circle of rising incomes and ultimately higher consumption.

Unfortunately, Japan defies this textbook paradigm because in addition to devaluing, it is also engaging in massive quantitative easing. This keeps bond yields low, enabling the government to keep financing its deficit at low cost. There is thus no incentive for the government to cut spending— and in fact the consumption tax hike will be offset by even more spending. Furthermore, low bond yields suppress the financial income of household savers.

The end result of all this is that the government bears none of the burden of the adjustment and the household sector bears all of it, through higher import costs and lower financial income. With the household sector’s spending power thus crimped, companies have no incentive to invest in domestically-focused production. Instead, all their investment will be geared toward exports—mercantilism on steroids.

A mercantilist policy can feel like it is working during periods when strong global growth allows excess exports to be absorbed without ruinous price falls. Between 2001 and 2006 the yen devalued by almost 40% on a real effective exchange rate basis and Japan’s current account improved sharply. Japan may not have won back its global competitiveness (its share of the global export pie fell by 1.5 percentage points in the period), but strong external conditions did allow exports to grow 9% a year in dollar terms.

Today, Japanese exporters do not face such benign conditions and any successful mercantilist boost can only come from eating the lunch of rivals.

Since all the leading economies favor policies that support production over consumption, the world is getting more goods than it can absorb. The result is ongoing price declines, which have the effect of deferring the ultimate global recovery.

What this means is that Japan’s ultra-mercantilism is self defeating. In a global environment of weak demand and disinflation any volume increase in its exports will have to be paid for through price reductions. To be sure, in the short term the trade balance is likely to improve somewhat as a result of the J-curve effect taking hold. But in the longer term Japan looks to be entering a cycle where it must run harder just to stand still.

There are a few ways this could all end happily. Japan might embrace a structural reform agenda that boosts productivity, raises wages and pushes up domestic demand. Alternatively, world growth could surprise on the upside, creating a rerun of 2001-06. Energy prices could collapse, closing Japan’s trade deficit and reducing the incentives for mercantilist policy. But we are not holding our breath on any of these possibilities.

Instead, Japan’s most likely path is that the yen keeps falling, the BoJ keeps printing money, and the dollar value of exports stagnates as devaluation and price cuts offset any volume increases. And so, paradoxically, the current account will continue to deteriorate into permanent deficit, despite ultra-mercantilism. At this point the game will have changed in Japan and Abenomics will have manifestly failed to deliver on its stated objectives.

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Things That Make You Go Hmmm: Crimea River

 

By Grant Williams  |  February 17, 2013

 (Marina Lewycka): Public clashes between Ukrainians and Russians in the main square in Sevastopol. Ukrainians protesting at Russian interference; Crimean Russians demanding the return of Sevastopol to Russia, and that parliament recognise Russian as the state language. Ukrainian deputies barred from the government building; a Russian “information centre” opening in Sevastopol. Calls from the Ukrainian ministry of defence for an end to the agreement dividing the Black Sea fleet between the Russian and Ukrainian navies. The move is labelled a political provocation by Russian deputies. The presidium of the Crimean parliament announces a referendum on Crimean independence, and the Russian deputy says that Russia is ready to supervise it. A leader of the Russian Society of Crimea threatens armed mutiny and the establishment of a Russian administration in Sevastopol. A Russian navy chief accuses Ukraine of converting some of his Black Sea fleet, and conducting armed assault on his personnel. He threatens to place the fleet on alert. The conflict escalates into terrorism, arson attacks and murder.

Sound familiar? All this happened in 1993, and it has been happening, in some form or other, since at least the 14th century.

So begins an article in the UK Guardian this week, written by a British novelist of Ukrainian origin, Marina Lewycka; and amidst all the furore surrounding the events in Ukraine these past couple of weeks, it’s important to gain a little perspective in order to understand the history surrounding the country’s fractious relationship with Russia and its recent dalliance with European suitors.

Source: Wikipedia

The key to the stand-off over Ukraine is the Crimean Peninsula — no stranger to conflict over the years and home to the infamous “Valley of Death” into which rode the 600 whom Tennyson commemorated in his epic poem recounting the ill-fated Charge of the Light Brigade. The order that sent those gallant young men to their inevitable doom is symptomatic of the kinds of catastrophic misjudgements that get made when emotions are running high.

At 10:45 a.m. on October 25th, 1854, the following order, signed by the Quartermaster General Richard Airey, was delivered to Field Marshall, Lord Lucan (no, not him. HE was the 7th Earl of Lucan. THIS was the 3rd Earl — his great, great grandfather):

Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front — follow the enemy and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns — Troop Horse Artillery may accompany — French cavalry is on your left. R Airey. Immediate.

The vagueness of Raglan’s order confused Lucan, as it made no mention of which guns the Light Brigade were being ordered to keep from leaving the battlefield; but when he questioned the order, Captain Louis Nolan of the 15th The King’s Hussars damned his impudence:

“Attack, sir!”
”Attack what? What guns, sir?”
”There, my Lord, is your enemy!” said Nolan indignantly, vaguely waving his arm eastwards. “There are your guns!”

And with that, not daring to challenge a direct order further, Lucan ordered the Earl of Cardigan to lead the 600 men of the 13th Light Dragoons, the 17th Lancers, the 11th Hussars, the 4th Light Dragoons, and the 8th Hussars into the teeth of the Russian battery two kilometres distant, with further guns flanking their advance on either side….

Cannon to right of them,


Cannon to left of them,


Cannon in front of them


Volley’d and thunder’d;


Storm’d at with shot and shell,


Boldly they rode and well,


Into the jaws of Death,


Into the mouth of Hell


Rode the six hundred.

The result of one of the most famous military blunders of all time, the destruction of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava, demonstrated the dangers of military miscalculation in the Crimea; and 160 years later the possibility of another such misjudgment on the part of a commander looms heavily over the region.

However, rather than tracing every twist and turn in the Crimea between 1854 and today, we shall focus on the more recent history of the isolated and vulnerable peninsula that juts out into the Black Sea from Ukraine’s southern coastline; and, with a little help from the NY Times, we’ll begin with a look at how things stood after the first week of the crisis….

Click here to continue reading this article from Things That Make You Go Hmmm… – a free weekly newsletter by Grant Williams, a highly respected financial expert and current portfolio and strategy advisor at Vulpes Investment Management in Singapore.

The article Things That Make You Go Hmmm: Crimea River was originally published at mauldineconomics.com.

Thoughts from the Frontline: Inequality and Opportunity

 

“Nothing is more dangerous than a dogmatic worldview – nothing more constraining, more blinding to innovation, more destructive of openness to novelty.”

– Stephen Jay Gould

My letters the last few weeks on income inequality (here and here) brought more response from readers than any topic I’ve written on in the history of this letter. And there was certainly no unanimity of viewpoints. Some of you strongly agree with me; some of you aggressively disagree and think I’m full of it; and others see the issue in an entirely different light. Many of you offered links to other research, which I have spent a great deal of time reading. Today we will continue our thinking about income inequality, and I will respond to some of your letters, as they make good launching points for further discussion of the topic.

Income inequality is going to be a central theme in political campaigns for the rest of the decade, so what I want to try to do is simply get some facts on the table so that at least we know what the research says and doesn’t say. A lot of emotional content is offered under the guise of economic research in order to support various political positions. The data suggest that the problem is both worse than we might think when viewed through one lens, and not that big a problem – or at least a very different problem – when viewed through another. I suggest that we look as objectively as possible at all of the data and not just cherry-pick the data that supports our views.

But before we jump back in, I am really pleased to announce that I’ve persuaded George Gilder, one of the finest thinkers and philosophers I know, and Stephen Moore, contributing editor to the Wall Street Journal, along with Grant Williams of Things That Make You Go Hmmm… fame to speak at the 11th annual Strategic Investment Conference in San Diego May 13-16. They will join Niall Ferguson, Kyle Bass, Newt Gingrich, Ian Bremmer, David Rosenberg, Dr. Lacy Hunt, Anatole Kaletsky, Patrick Cox, Dylan Grice, David Rosenberg, David Zervos, Rich Yamarone, my Code Red coauthor Jonathan Tepper, Jeff Gundlach, and Paul McCulley. Nothing but headliners, one after the other, for 2½ days. Plus some of the best money managers around, some names I hope to confirm within the next few weeks, and one or two people who are trying to figure out how to change their schedules in order to get there and who will be fabulous surprises for the attendees. By the way, many of the speakers are planning to hang around and listen to the other speakers. This means you will have chances to engage them at the lunches, dinners, and breaks. Most speakers simply fly into a conference and fly out, but my conference is little different.

This is an annual gathering you simply don’t want to miss. I can’t think of any conference anywhere that has a lineup this strong. When I first broached the idea of our conference to Jon Sundt, the founder of cosponsor Altegris, the one rule I had was that I wanted the conference to be one I would want to attend. The usual conference boasts a few headliners, and then the sponsors fill out the lineup. I wanted to do a conference where no speaker could buy his or her way onto the platform. That means we often lose money on the conference (hard as that may be to imagine, at the price, I acknowledge); however, the purpose is not to make money but to learn with – and maybe have some fun with – great people. We do put on a great show, and my partners make sure it is run well. But the best part will be your fellow attendees. A lot of long-term friendships are forged at this conference. You can learn more and sign up at http://www.mauldineconomics.com/landing/sic-2014 .

At the close of the letter, I also want to tell you about an exclusive interview with Janet Yellen – but first, let’s think about income inequality.

No Serious Economist Would Bother

As noted above, the previous two letters on income inequality evoked more responses than any other topic I’ve written about. Some rather heated debate ensued between readers, which I actually think is a good thing. For the record, I read every comment posted on our website and many that are sent to me directly. I typically don’t answer, simply because I could spend all day answering, although I certainly get tempted when there’s a comment like the one in which a reader asserted that because I predicted a continuation of the Muddle Through Economy in January 2005, I completely missed the recession that came along three years later! I was clearly predicting recession in late 2006 and a collapse in subprime debt. If anything, I was way too early, and subprime was worse than the $400 billion in losses I suggested at the time.

Let me note that every letter I’ve written since January 2000 is online. Some of them have aged quite well, and a few are simply embarrassing, but I think it would be disingenuous to pull them down. The record is what the record is. But the letters all generally focus on a single topic in a single week. If I make a forecast, it is typically for a discrete period of time. Further, in total agreement with John Maynard Keynes, when the facts change, I will change my mind. (My less-than-sainted Dad would often remark, when I challenged him over his frequent changes of mind, “A wise man changes his mind. A fool never does.” There were times in my youth when I really got tired of hearing that, but now I would love to hear it just one more time if I could.)

But to the point of last week’s letter, retired economics professor Dr. John Seater  of North Carolina State University took me to task (yet again). John is courteous and a real scholar and was gracious enough to talk me through some of his thoughts. Basically, he felt the paper that had me so thoroughly aroused was not worth the time and effort. But I’ll let his words speak for themselves and then reply.

I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but John’s column is a waste of time. Most of what John has to say is right, but the article that he uses as a launch pad (Cynamon and Fazzari) is simply silly. No serious economist would bother with it. The authors don’t understand economic theory at all, and they certainly propose nothing coherent in their paper. Their citations are almost entirely from fringe outlets that most serious economists never heard of. They also do not understand general equilibrium, which is amazing for macroeconomists because macroeconomics is nothing but dynamic general equilibrium. In any case, because they ignore general equilibrium and its requirements, they say foolish things. A big whopper, for example, is their assertion that a shift in income from the poor to the rich will reduce total spending.

Complete nonsense. What it *may* do is shift the *composition* of spending away from consumption a little toward investment. The permanent income/life cycle theory of consumption, developed independently by Modigliani and Friedman in the 1950s questions even that conclusion. All serious economists know these things, even though Cynamon and Fazzari, who apparently live in the mindset of the 1930s, do not. Also, their paper indeed *is* just a paper. It’s not even published. I can pretty much guarantee that it will not appear in any respectable journal, not because of any intellectual snobbery (the authors are at places that, until now at any rate, I thought were pretty good) but because the paper is terrible. I can assure John and his readers that mainstream economics is far less confused and ridiculous than the pathetic paper that got John started.

I can add a few more constructive comments. First, the Wikipedia definition of Keynesian economics that John cites misses the most important element of the Keynesian approach, which is the assumption that in periods of recession markets do not clear. Keynesians assume that prices are “sticky” at least downward, leading to excess supply during periods of recession. Downward price stickiness is and always has been the central tenet of the Keynesian approach. There is very little direct evidence to support it. Mark Bils and Pete Klenow, for example, have shown that prices move around far too much to be consistent with the Keynesian assumption of “sticky” prices. However, there is a strong indirect piece of evidence, which motivated Keynes himself, that in recessions there are idle productive resources, both capital and labor, willing to work at the going price and that therefore should be employed but that nevertheless remain idle. That strongly suggests that prices are not moving fast enough to clear the market, as Keynes assumed.

So, although I am very skeptical of Keynesianism, I have to concede that the problem that motivated Keynes remains a problem today – how to explain the presence of persistently idle resources. Furthermore, it also is true that *if* resources are idle because prices really are sticky, then it also is true that an increase in government demand will stimulate the economy by getting those resources back to work. It is *not* a crazy theory. I don’t have much regard for Keynesian theory because there is in fact little or no theory there. Keynesians have utterly failed to produce a microeconomic foundation for their macroeconomic model that is both internally coherent and also consistent with the facts. Unfortunately, no one else has a convincing theory for recessions, either. After spending several decades trying to understand recessions, economists still don’t understand them.

Second, John says most academics accept the view that inequality hinders growth. I don’t know how he knows that. I certainly don’t know that to be true. I am an academic economist, and I am unaware of any such consensus. I also know for sure that few and probably no economists who actually study economic growth (which happens to be my own current field of research) believe such a thing. I note that Cynamon and Fazzari propose no theory of economic growth. They just make a bunch of assertions. They cite literally no works on economic growth. I doubt they know much if anything about it. In any case, they are not at all representative of what other economists think about economic growth.

First of all, Dr. Seater makes very good points. Cynamon and Fazzari are to some degree straw men who don’t put forth the best of arguments. But the problem from my point of view is that the arguments they make are becoming more mainstream. Last week the IMF published a paper extolling the virtues of income redistribution to address income inequality. Then this week we got a paper from the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond suggesting that income redistribution is in fact one of the appropriate tools for dealing with income inequality, although that particular paper is far more nuanced, and caveat-rich. And I would call Paul Krugman a more or less mainstream economist (tongue firmly wedged in cheek here), and he is certainly espousing income redistribution. He has just announced that he is leaving Princeton University and will be joining the Graduate Center at CUNY, where he will focus on issues of income inequality.

The use of income inequality as a justification for income redistribution is popping up more and more in mainstream economic journals and thinking. Everyone is writing about it, which is why it is such a hot topic among my readers when I write about it. Hot, as in, some of you get hot and bothered about it.

In a rather wide-ranging discussion this morning, Prof. Seater began to cite studies which demonstrate that 75% of income inequality is actually due to age distribution. The older you are, the more likely you are to be in the top 20% of whatever category you’re looking at. (I “assigned” John the task of producing a paper on this theme for Outside the Box. I will publish it when he turns his homework in.) There other factors besides age (education, the status of your parents, etc.) that also help explain income inequality, and we’ll get to those later in the letter. This is not to say that income inequality is not real, but you have to know what you mean by the term and then decide whether income redistribution will actually fix what you think is the problem.

Using academic economic studies on income inequality as a Trojan horse to argue for higher taxation on the rich when higher taxes may or may not solve the problem of income inequality is a canard. Especially when those studies, which may issue from prestigious organizations, do not address the problem in totality. This is a very complex topic, and producing a paper in which it is demonstrated that one or two sets of data correlate with your data on income inequality can be very misleading. Correlation is not causation, and to think that it is proves to be one of the most pernicious problems in economic analysis as well as investment analysis.

And despite Dr Seater’s counsel, I want to address at least one other point the Cynamon and Fazzari paper makes, as that point keeps showing up in articles and opinion editorials everywhere. They say:

We argue that demand drag caused by inequality is now constraining the U.S. economy. The result is aggregate consumption substantially below comparable trends for past U.S. recoveries. We consider several alternatives that might restore a healthy demand generation process, but we conclude that a robust recovery is unlikely without policy or other institutional change that at least stops, or even reverses, the trend toward greater income inequality. Without such changes, we question whether the U.S. economy can generate the demand growth necessary to maintain stable full employment….

In this simple framework, it is evident that stagnating income growth for any group of households need not create demand drag immediately, but the choice to keep consumption growth above declining income growth will lower the saving rate and increase the fragility of the group’s collective balance sheet.

Net worth cannot decline indefinitely, nor can debt rise indefinitely relative to income. While households may initially choose to respond to lower income growth by reducing saving growth rather than reducing consumption growth this choice is not sustainable over some horizon: eventually rising debt forces households with lower income growth to cut back consumption to satisfy their intertemporal [basically, relative-value choices] budget constraint.

What Cynamon and Fazzari argue is that – because a significant percentage of the US population borrowed too much money prior to 2008 and used that money to increase their consumption –  unless a way is found to increase the income of the bottom 95%, a recovery is not possible. They don’t see the problem as one of people borrowing too much money and getting into debt and now having to pay that money back (irrespective of whether such borrowing was encouraged by unscrupulous banks and given the blessing of regulatory authorities). Not having ongoing access to ever-increasing debt will in fact reduce people’s consumption. Especially when some of that consumption was financed by debt to begin with, and must now be paid for.

Adam Smith argued that housing is not a source of wealth, but simply shelter. In the US, housing has come to be seen as a form of wealth and particularly as the foundation for increasing leverage and debt. The increasing use of leverage to finance consumption is precisely what Minsky, Kindleburger, and Fisher would predict, as stability sets the stage for capital misallocation and eventually gives way to instability across the economy. Now, Cynamon and Fazzari, along with many other researchers, want government solutions (notably forced income redistribution) to solve what is essentially a government-created problem. Hold that thought.

Who Are the Rich?

Back in 2006 it took $382,000 to be in the top 1% of all US taxpayers. The latest data from 2011 tax returns shows that it now takes an adjusted gross income of $389,000. There are 1.37 million Americans make this amount or more, and they report almost 19% of total taxable income.

And while many people think of the top 1% as Wall Street bankers, hedge fund and other money managers, Fortune 500 company executives who make 500 times the salary of their lowest-paid workers, and so on, the fact is that there are really only a few such people (10,000 perhaps). Throw in a few well-paid athletes and movie and rock stars, and you might get to 10K. The vast, vast majority of this top-income group are small businesspeople, farmers, doctors, and other professionals. These are not people that we tend to think of as people who don’t deserve what they make.

And while the share of income of the top 1% has risen in the past decades in the US, the shares of the immediate 9% just below them hasn’t moved all that much. There is some upward bias for the top 2-10%, but it is nowhere near significant. For confirmation we can look at the latest research paper offered by Prof. Emmanuel Saez of UC Berkeley. The chart below shows the top decile’s US income share for the last 99 years. The chart following it breaks that share up into three different classes, and we can note that the top 1% made almost half the total income of the top-10% group.

To get into the top 10% of income earners in the United States, a family needed to make $114,000 in 2012. As it turns out, the national share of people reporting over $100,000 in income has much more than doubled since 1975. Quoting from a recent op-ed by Professor Don Boudreaux of George Mason University and Liya Palagashvili in the Wall Street Journal:

The Census Bureau in 2012 compiled data on the percentage of U.S. households earning annual incomes, measured in 2009 dollars, in different income categories (for example, annual incomes between $25,000 and $35,000). These data reveal that between 1975 and 2009, the percentage of households in the low- and middle-income categories fell. The only two categories that saw an increase were households earning between $75,000 and $100,000 annually, and households earning more than $100,000 annually. Remarkably, the share of American households earning annual incomes in excess of $100,000 went to 20.1% in 2009 from 8.4% in 1975. Over these same years, households earning annual incomes of $50,000 or less fell to 50.1% from 58.4%.

They show that when you add in benefits to pay and use the same measure of inflation for both pay and productivity, the disconnect between worker pay and productivity goes away, both in the US and Britain.

Their conclusion? “Middle-class stagnation and the ‘decoupling’ of pay and productivity are illusions. Yes, the U.S. economy is in the doldrums, thanks to a variety of factors… But by any sensible measure, most Americans are today better paid and more prosperous than in the past.”

Equality of Opportunity

In one of the most far-reaching studies I’ve seen, a group of Harvard economists have compared upward mobility – the ability to rise from lower to higher income groups – among US metropolitan areas, as well as among developed nations. Their rather remarkable website and database can be found here. Their one-paragraph summary is:

In two recent studies, we find that: (1) Upward income mobility varies substantially within the U.S. [summary][paper] Areas with greater mobility tend to have five characteristics: less segregation, less income inequality, better schools, greater social capital, and more stable families. (2) Contrary to popular perception, economic mobility has not changed significantly over time; however, it is consistently lower in the U.S. than in most developed countries. [summary][paper].

The map below from the Harvard study shows upward mobility in the United States. The patterns are a little complicated, but the lighter the color, the greater the upward mobility in the population. The New York Times did a rather remarkable job of making the map interactive, and you can play with that here.

In looking at the map I find a lot of the research counterintuitive. Why does Houston show more upward mobility than Dallas? And upward mobility is higher in the Northeast than it is in the industrial Midwest.

From the New York Times article (which is interesting):

“Where you grow up matters,” said Nathaniel Hendren, a Harvard economist and one of the study’s authors. “There is tremendous variation across the U.S. in the extent to which kids can rise out of poverty.”

That variation does not stem simply from the fact that some areas have higher average incomes: upward mobility rates, Mr. Hendren added, often differ sharply in areas where average income is similar, like Atlanta and Seattle.

The gaps can be stark. On average, fairly poor children in Seattle – those who grew up in the 25th percentile of the national income distribution – do as well financially when they grow up as middle-class children – those who grew up at the 50th percentile – from Atlanta.

Geography mattered much less for well-off children than for middle-class and poor children, according to the results. In an economic echo of Tolstoy’s line about happy families being alike, the chances that affluent children grow up to be affluent are broadly similar across metropolitan areas.

Given the rise in the percentage of total income of the top groups, there is remarkably little difference in income mobility during the last 45 years. While the bottom income group and the top income group are further apart (the income inequality is increased) the chances of moving from the bottom group to the top group are roughly the same.

The researchers concluded that larger tax credits for the poor and higher taxes on the affluent seemed to improve income mobility only slightly. The economists also found only modest or no correlation between mobility and the number of local colleges and their tuition rates or between mobility and the amount of extreme wealth in a region.

But the researchers identified four broad factors that appeared to affect income mobility, including the size and dispersion of the local middle class. All else being equal, upward mobility tended to be higher in metropolitan areas where poor families were more dispersed among mixed-income neighborhoods.

Income mobility was also higher in areas with more two-parent households, better elementary schools and high schools, and more civic engagement, including membership in religious and community groups.

Regions with larger black populations had lower upward-mobility rates. But the researchers’ analysis suggested that this was not primarily because of their race. Both white and black residents of Atlanta have low upward mobility, for instance.

The authors emphasize that their data allowed them to identify only correlation, not causation. Other economists said that future studies will be important for sorting through the patterns in this new data. Still, earlier studies have already found that education and family structure have a large effect on the chances that children escape poverty.

(I commend the professors for making all of their data and analysis available.)

To me their study reinforces my basic premise that valid conclusions about causes of income inequality are more difficult to come by than are the simple correlation analyses presented in many academic and political policy papers offered by various advocates in support of their personal policy choices (both conservative and liberal).

Upward Mobility Across Nations

Finally we will look at a study by Miles Corak of the University of Ottawa that shows the correlation between socioeconomic mobility and income inequality. Notice that Sweden (along with the rest of Scandinavia) shows some of the lowest income inequality and highest social mobility, while the reverse is true for the US.

Silence of the Left

Conveniently for the discussion of our topic, John Goodman posted a brief article on Townhall.com this week called “Silence of the Left”:

The topic du jour on the left these days is inequality. But why does the left care about inequality? Do they really want to lift those at the bottom of the income ladder? Or are they just looking for one more reason to increase the power of government? If you care about those at the bottom then you are wasting your time and everyone else’s time unless you focus on one and only one phenomenon: the inequality of educational opportunity. Poor kids are almost always enrolled in bad schools. Rich kids are almost always in good schools.

It turns out that homes cost roughly 20% more in areas with good schools. School choice is already in effect because people with more money buy homes in areas with better public schools. Children of families with less money on average tend to be stuck in lower-performing public schools.

Goodman cites a Brookings Institution study that investigated the same phenomenon nationwide:

  • Across the 100 largest metropolitan areas, housing costs an average of 2.4 times as much, or nearly $11,000 more per year, near a high-scoring public school than near a low-scoring public school.
  • This housing cost gap reflects that home values are $205,000 higher on average in the neighborhoods of high-scoring versus low-scoring schools. Near high-scoring schools, typical homes have 1.5 additional rooms and the share of housing units that are rented is roughly 30 percentage points lower than in neighborhoods near low-scoring schools.

Goodman continues:

You almost never see anything written by left-of-center folks on reforming the public schools. And I have noticed on TV talk shows that it’s almost impossible to get liberals to agree to the most modest of all reform ideas: getting rid of bad teachers and making sure we keep the good ones.

Here is the uncomfortable reality:

1. Our system of public education is one of the most regressive features of American society.

2. There is almost nothing we could do that would be more impactful in reducing inequality of educational opportunity and inequality overall than to do what Sweden has done: give every child a voucher and let them select a school of choice.

3. Yet on the left there is almost uniform resistance to this idea or any other idea that challenges the power of the teachers’ unions.

That “socialist” bastion of income equality and mobility – Sweden – uses vouchers for education.

Krugman argues against school vouchers because they might reduce support for public schools. And then he actually writes, “And – dare we say it? – we should in general oppose privatization plans if they are likely to destroy public sector unions.”

We have total academic, bureaucratic, and teachers’-union capture of public education. We are subjecting our children to an education system that that was designed for and that worked remarkably well during the first two industrial revolutions but that is now utterly inadequate for the coming Age of Transformation. The new New York City Mayor, Bill de Blasio, is working to shut down many of the best-performing schools in his city – charter schools – which are hated by teachers’ unions. Rather than ask what is good for the children, he and many others simply want to expand the power of the unions.

If we want to do something about income inequality, perhaps we should think about the data that shows the remarkable correlation between education, educational opportunity, and income.

Exclusive Video: An Interview with Janet Yellen

My friend Jim Bruce, the producer of the fabulous documentary on the US Federal Reserve system, Money for Nothing, conducted a remarkable two-hour interview with Janet Yellen when she was the president of the San Francisco branch of the Federal Reserve. He has edited the interview down to a little more than 10 minutes of the most important parts. For the time being, it is available exclusively at Mauldin Economics at this link.

You can order your own DVD of Money for Nothing at a link underneath the video interview. If you have not seen it, you should get it and make sure that it is played in schools and for social groups everywhere. This is the most powerful video presentation on the role and history of the Federal Reserve that has ever been done. It’s hard for me to recommend it enough, and I’m proud to be able to offer it to readers of Thoughts from the Frontline.

Argentina, South Africa, New York, Europe, and San Diego

I leave next Wednesday evening for Argentina for 12 days, then return home for eight hours before I take off for 12 days in South Africa. I’m going to try something new this trip and post a few pictures and comments to Twitter. Follow me if you like. After South Africa I’m back home for like a day before I have to run up to New York to do some videos. Then it’s back home for a few weeks (or so it appears) before I head to Amsterdam, Brussels, and Geneva. I’ll come home for a few days and then hightail it to San Diego for our Strategic Investment Conference – one of my real highlights of the year. And then – where were we? – ah yes, I’ll be home for more than two whole weeks before heading to Tuscany for a few weeks of vacation. Whew. I will be ready to relax at the end of all that travel.

Today was all about the one-year birthday party of my granddaughter Addison Porter. It was held at my apartment, since there were lots of family member and friends who wanted to help us celebrate the event. Given the occasion, I thought it would be appropriate to play Disney family tunes over the sound system. My own kids grew up with Disney music, and I’ve learned to appreciate it. A very special tune came on – one of my favorite songs of all time. We know it as the introduction and ending to the Disney movie Pinocchio. It’s Jiminy Cricket singing “When You Wish upon a Star.” If you listen to it, notice that the books Jiminy Cricket is leaning against as he sings are Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland – and this was prior to Disney’s actually turning them into movies. The singing is done by Cliff Edwards, who was known as Ukulele Ike. His lilting falsetto created a song sensation that the American Film Institute says is the seventh-best movie song of all time and easily the top Disney song. Edwards was quite popular back in the ’20s and ’30s, and his number-one song was “Singing in the Rain.” Sadly, he had a troubled life and ended up broke, a welfare patient in a California nursing home. That said, he left us one of the most beautiful melodies of all time. Just a little nostalgic trivia brought on by a granddaughter’s birthday. And yes, she is gorgeous. My daughter Amanda mischievously placed a small cake with lots of pink cream icing on her lap and let her explore the icing and cake with her hands, which of course ended up all over her face, giving everyone great photo opportunities. And now when I wish upon a star, I will think of Addison and that icing-splattered face.

And now it is time to hit the send button. I’ll be writing to you in the next few weeks from far locales, but I’ll stay in touch, and Thoughts from the Frontline will come at more or less the same time on the weekend. Thanks for taking the time to read, and keep those cards and letters coming.

Your thinking about my granddaughter’s education analyst,

John Mauldin, Editor
subscribers@mauldineconomics.com

 

© 2013 Mauldin Economics. All Rights Reserved.

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Thoughts From the Frontline and MauldinEconomics.com is not an offering for any investment. It represents only the opinions of John Mauldin and those that he interviews. Any views expressed are provided for information purposes only and should not be construed in any way as an offer, an endorsement, or inducement to invest and is not in any way a testimony of, or associated with, Mauldin’s other firms. John Mauldin is the Chairman of Mauldin Economics, LLC. He also is the President and registered representative of Millennium Wave Advisors, LLC (MWA) which is an investment advisory firm registered with multiple states, President and registered representative of Millennium Wave Securities, LLC, (MWS) member FINRA and SIPC, through which securities may be offered. MWS is also a Commodity Pool Operator (CPO) and a Commodity Trading Advisor (CTA) registered with the CFTC, as well as an Introducing Broker (IB) and NFA Member. Millennium Wave Investments is a dba of MWA LLC and MWS LLC. This message may contain information that is confidential or privileged and is intended only for the individual or entity named above and does not constitute an offer for or advice about any alternative investment product. Such advice can only be made when accompanied by a prospectus or similar offering document. Past performance is not indicative of future performance. Please make sure to review important disclosures at the end of each article. Mauldin companies may have a marketing relationship with products and services mentioned in this letter for a fee.

Note: Joining The Mauldin Circle is not an offering for any investment. It represents only the opinions of John Mauldin and Millennium Wave Investments. It is intended solely for investors who have registered with Millennium Wave Investments and its partners at http://www.MauldinCircle.com (formerly AccreditedInvestor.ws) or directly related websites. The Mauldin Circle may send out material that is provided on a confidential basis, and subscribers to the Mauldin Circle are not to send this letter to anyone other than their professional investment counselors. Investors should discuss any investment with their personal investment counsel. John Mauldin is the President of Millennium Wave Advisors, LLC (MWA), which is an investment advisory firm registered with multiple states. John Mauldin is a registered representative of Millennium Wave Securities, LLC, (MWS), an FINRA registered broker-dealer. MWS is also a Commodity Pool Operator (CPO) and a Commodity Trading Advisor (CTA) registered with the CFTC, as well as an Introducing Broker (IB). Millennium Wave Investments is a dba of MWA LLC and MWS LLC. Millennium Wave Investments cooperates in the consulting on and marketing of private and non-private investment offerings with other independent firms such as Altegris Investments; Capital Management Group; Absolute Return Partners, LLP; Fynn Capital; Nicola Wealth Management; and Plexus Asset Management. Investment offerings recommended by Mauldin may pay a portion of their fees to these independent firms, who will share 1/3 of those fees with MWS and thus with Mauldin. Any views expressed herein are provided for information purposes only and should not be construed in any way as an offer, an endorsement, or inducement to invest with any CTA, fund, or program mentioned here or elsewhere. Before seeking any advisor’s services or making an investment in a fund, investors must read and examine thoroughly the respective disclosure document or offering memorandum. Since these firms and Mauldin receive fees from the funds they recommend/market, they only recommend/market products with which they have been able to negotiate fee arrangements.

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Outside the Box: Seth Klarman: Investors Downplaying Risk “Never Turns Out Well”

 

Today’s Outside the Box is unusual in that it isn’t an original document but rather a summary of a client letter from one of the greatest investors of our generation, Seth Klarman, who is also one of the more reclusive – he rarely speaks in public or grants interviews. He is known for his very deep value investing style and willingness to pursue value where others get very nervous.

This last year he returned $4 billion cash to his clients (from a fund in the $30 billion range). Not difficult for a hedge fund, you may say, but this is what a good value investor does when there aren’t many opportunities. He won’t have any trouble raising cash if he decides he wants more at some point, as his fund is easily in the top-performing bracket by almost any measure. Some refer to him as the Warren Buffett of his generation.

I think the author of the piece you’re about to peruse, Mark Melin, did a pretty good job of giving us the highlights and a little color from what is really a thought-provoking letter from Seth Klarman.

Tonight I find myself in Houston, where I flew down for a meeting. I am always exploring ways to serve you better and help you protect yourselves from the consequences of the Code Red policies of central banks and governments. This is not a short-term problem; it will be with us for some time. More to come as we work through a hundred logistical issues.

The last few issues of Thoughts from the Frontline have sparked the most comments and letters of any column ever, including healthcare. It seems income inequality is a very sensitive subject, and I have heard from you, both pro and con. Some remarks have been merely dismissive but most have been quite thoughtful. And I was pointed to LOTS more research that I now have to cover for this week’s letter.

One thing I can count on is that readers will let me know when I miss something. I mentioned in passing at the end of last week’s letter that I had dinner with Senator Rand Paul in DC last week and that our conversation was conducted under Chatham House rules. As it turns out that is not quite the case. I actually had a very polite letter from DeAnne Julius, a former chairman of Chatham House (and a former member and founder of the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England, CIA analyst, World Bank economist, etc. – one very busy lady!). She wrote:

Not to be pedantic, but there is only ONE rule. More importantly, that rule is that participants are free to use the ideas and information they gain from the discussion but NOT to identify any of the speakers or participants. In other words, the rule is nearly the opposite of what you say below. If the content of the discussion is not to be revealed, then the discussion is “off the record” rather than “under the Chatham House rule.”

Sigh. I knew that. David Kotok gives us a lecture on the Chatham House rule every summer at the beginning of our Maine “Shadow Fed” meetings. At the end of my letters, when I write my personal notes, I sometimes write “on the fly” and don’t stop and think about what I am saying. And when I blow it, I hear from very nice people who politely correct me.

DeAnne did offer to arrange for me to come to Chatham House and conduct a discussion group, after which I presume I could actually state correctly that I was in a meeting held under the Chatham House rule. I may take her up on that.

It is time to hit the send button. I am making preparations to leave for Argentina and South Africa  next week and be out for 25 days. But I will be in contact and writing and reading away. And I will have a new wifi-enabled Moto X phone that in theory will enable me to make and receive calls from even the remote Andes essentially for free. The whole thing is remarkably cheap and is a shift in the cost paradigm for cellular. And the phone looks to be cool, although I have to learn to speak something called Android as opposed to iPhone. I am told that it is easier to learn than Spanish, so maybe this old dog can figure it out.

Have a great week and enjoy the spring weather, whenever it gets to you. It is perfect in Dallas and Houston.

Your always looking for value analyst,

John Mauldin, Editor
Outside the Box
subscribers@mauldineconomics.com

 

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Seth Klarman: Investors Downplaying Risk “Never Turns Out Well”

By Mark Melin, March 04, 2014, 2:00 pm

ValueWalk.com

Major hedge fund trader says the QE stimulus bubble will burst… at some point

In his letter to investors, Seth Klarman noted that “most” investors are downplaying risk and this “never turns out well,” noting that most people are not prepared for anything bad to happen. “No one can know what the future holds, but any year in which the S&P 500 jumps 32% and the NASDAQ Composite 40% while corporate earnings barely increase should be cause for concern, not further exuberance,” Seth Klarman’s investor letter said. “It might not look like it now, but markets don’t exist simply to enrich people.”

Noting that stock markets have risk and are not guaranteed investments may seem like an obvious notation, but against today’s backdrop of never before witnessed manipulated markets Seth Klarman sagely notes “Someday, financial markets will again decline. Someday, rising stock and bond markets will no longer be government policy. Someday, QE will end and money won’t be free. Someday, corporate failure will be permitted. Someday, the economy will turn down again, and someday, somewhere, somehow, investors will lose money and once again come to favor capital preservation over speculation. Someday, interest rates will be higher, bond prices lower, and the prospective return from owning fixed-income instruments will again be roughly commensurate with the risk.”

When will this happen? “Maybe not today or tomorrow, but someday,” he writes, then starts to consider what a collapse might look like. “When the markets reverse, everything investors thought they knew will be turned upside down and inside out. ‘Buy the dips’ will be replaced with ‘what was I thinking?’ Just when investors become convinced that it can’t get any worse, it will. They will be painfully reminded of why it’s always a good time to be risk-averse, and that the pain of investment loss is considerably more unpleasant than the pleasure from any gain. They will be reminded that it’s easier to buy than to sell, and that in bear markets, all to many investments turn into roach motels: ‘You can get in but you can’t get out.’ Correlations of otherwise uncorrelated investments will temporarily be extremely high. Investors in bear markets are always tested and retested. Anyone who is poorly positioned and ill-prepared will find there’s a long way to fall. Few, if any, will escape unscathed.”

Seth Klarman’s focus on Fed

Seth Klarman then once again turned his sharp rhetorical knife to the academics that run the US Federal Reserve who seem to think that controlling free markets is a matter of communications policy.

“The Fed, in its ongoing attempt to tamp down market volatility as much as possible decided in 2013 that its real problem was communication,” Seth Klarman dryly wrote. “If only it could find a way to communicate to the financial markets the clarity and predictability of policy actions, it could be even more effective in its machinations. No longer would markets react abruptly to Fed pronouncements. Investors and markets would be tamed.” The Fed has been harshly criticized by professional traders for its lack of understanding of real world market mechanics.

This lack of understanding is a concern given that the Fed is taking the economy into uncharted territory with unprecedented stimulus. “As experienced traders who watch the markets and the Fed with considerable skepticism (and occasional amusement), we can assure you that the Fed’s itinerary is bound to be exceptional, each stop more exciting than the one before,” Seth Klarman wrote, sounding a common theme among professional market watchers. “Weather can suddenly turn foul, the navigation faulty, and the deckhands hard to understand. In short, the Fed captain and crew are proficient in theory but lack real world experience. This is an adventure into unexplored terrain, to parts unknown; the Fed has no map, because no one has ever been here before. Most such journeys end badly.”

While the mainstream media is loaded with flattering articles of the Fed’s brilliance in quantitative easing and its stimulus program, the real beneficiaries of such a policy are the largest banks. Here Seth Klarman notes they have placed the economy at great risk without achieving much reward. “Before 2009, the Fed had never bought a single mortgage bond in its nearly 100-year history,” Seth Klarman writes of the key component of the Fed’s policy that took risky assets off the bank’s balance sheets. “By 2013, the Fed was by far the largest holder of those bonds, holding over $4 trillion and counting. For that hefty sum, GDP was apparently raised as little as 25 basis points in the aggregate. In other words, the policy has been a near-total failure. Bernanke is left arguing that some action was better than none. QE in effect, had become Wall Street’s new ‘too big to fail’ policy.”

Seth Klarman: What do economists know?

There has been considerable discussion that the academic side of the economics profession has little clue how markets really work. Economic academics, who now make up the majority of the Fed governors, often look at the world from the standpoint of a game of chess, where one can explore different options and there is now a “right” or “wrong” approach to market manipulation.

“The 2013 Nobel Memorial Prize in economics was shared by three academics: two were proponents of the efficient market hypothesis and the third was a behavioral economist, who believes in market inefficiency,” Seth Klarman wrote. “We suppose that could be considered a hedged position for the awards committee, one that would never occur in the hard sciences such as physics and chemistry, where a prize shared among three with divergent views would be an embarrassing mistake or a bad joke. While a Nobel Prize might well be the culmination of a life’s work, shouldn’t the work accurately describe the real world?”

Another interesting insight on the topic was to come from David Rosenberg, Chief Economist and Strategist at GluskinSheff, who recently wondered “[A]m I the only one to find some humour, if not irony, in the fact that the three U.S. economists who won the Nobel Prize for Economics did so because they ‘laid the foundation for the current understanding of asset prices’ at the same time that these asset prices are being determined less today by market-determined forces but rather by the distorting effects of the unprecedented central bank manipulation?”

Seth Klarman: Fed Created Truman Show Style Faux Economy

Baupost Group, among the largest hedge funds in the world, returned $4 billion in assets to clients at the end of 2013 because it didn’t want to grow too quickly and dilute performance. Klarman’s fund, which in 2013 had a high of 50% of his portfolio in cash, up from 36% in 2012, posted 2013 returns in the mid-teens consistent with the fund’s nearly 22-year track record.

Seth Klarman on Baupost’s returns

Saying the fund “drew a line in the sand” when it decided to return roughly $4 billion to clients at year end, Seth Klarman reflected on the decision, saying he wanted to control the fund’s head count, noting “we could not allow the firm to grow without limit. We are wise enough to know a good thing when we see it, and cautious enough to want to cherish, protect and nurture it so that we might maintain its essential qualities for a very long time.” A 50% cash position for a hedge fund might be construed as an indication the fund has grown to the point it was having difficulty allocating all the capital in appropriate trades.

He noted the 2013 performance occurred “despite the drag of large, zero-yielding cash balances throughout the year.” Klarman, author of Margin of Safety: Risk-Averse Value Investing Strategies for the Thoughtful Investor, said the performance resulted from “considerable progress in event-driven and private situations, and at least some uplift from the strong equity rally. Distressed debt, public equities, structured products, and real estate led the gains.” Tail risk hedges, the only material area of loss in the portfolio, cost approximately 0.2% as the fund reduced exposure to distressed debt, structured products, and private investments while public equity exposure increased modestly.

Market bifurcation {the basis for being bullish on equities}

In 2013 Seth Klarman noted the market bifurcation, which he describes as “a momentum environment of market haves (which we avoid spending time on) and have-nots (which receive our undivided attention) – coupled with our energetic sourcing efforts and valued long-term relationships,” and he expressed optimism for the fund in 2014 amidst what might be a stock market subject to individual interpretation. “In the face of mixed economic data and at a critical inflection point in Federal Reserve policy, the stock market, heading into 2014, resembles a Rorschach test,” he wrote. “What investors see in the inkblots says considerably more about them than it does about the market.”

Seth Klarman noted that those “born bullish,” those who “never met a stock market they didn’t like” and those with “a consistently short memory,” might look to the positives and ignore the negatives. “Price-earnings ratios, while elevated, are not in the stratosphere,” he wrote, stating the bull case. “Deficits are shrinking at the federal and state levels. The consumer balance sheet is on the mend. U.S. housing is recovering, and in some markets, prices have surpassed the prior peak. The nation is on the road to energy independence. With bonds yielding so little, equities appear to be the only game in town. The Fed will continue to hold interest rates extremely low, leaving investors no choice but to buy stocks it doesn’t matter that the S&P has almost tripled from its spring 2009 lows, or that the Fed has begun to taper purchases and interest rates have spiked. Indeed, the stock rally on December’s taper announcement is, for this contingent, confirmation of the strength of this bull market. The picture is unmistakably favorable. QE has worked. If the economy or markets should backslide, the Fed undoubtedly stands ready to once again ride to the rescue. The Bernanke/Yellen put is intact. For now, there are no bubbles, either in sight or over the horizon.

Seth Klarman’s market analysis

Like many of the best market analysts, Seth Klarman looks at both sides of the issue, the bull and bear case, in depth. “If you’re more focused on downside than upside, if you’re more interested in return of capital than return on capital, if you have any sense of market history, then there’s more than enough to be concerned about,” he wrote. Citing a policy of near-zero short-term interest rates that continues to distort reality and will have long term consequences, he ominously noted “we can draw no legitimate conclusions about the Fed’s ability to end QE without severe consequences,” a thought pervasive among many top fund managers. “Fiscal stimulus, in the form of sizable deficits, has propped up the consumer, thereby inflating corporate revenues and earnings. But what is the right multiple to pay on juiced corporate earnings?”

As he outlined the bear case, he started to divulge his own analysis that “on almost any metric, the U.S. equity market is historically quite expensive. A skeptic would have to be blind not to see bubbles inflating in junk bond issuance, credit quality, and yields, not to mention the nosebleed stock market valuations of fashionable companies like Netflix, Inc. and Tesla Motors Inc.

As it turns out he was just warming up. “There is a growing gap between the financial markets and the real economy,” Seth Klarman wrote, noting that even as the Fed promised that interest rates would stay low, they did get out of control to some degree across the yield curve in 2013. “Medium and long­term bond funds got hammered in 2013. Meanwhile, corporate earnings sputtered to a mid-single digit gain last year even as stocks drove relentlessly higher, without even a 10% correction in the last two and a half years,” a concern among many professional traders.

When it comes to stock market speculation and jumping on the bull market happy talk, Seth Klarman notes it’s never hard to build a “coalition of willing” who are willing to climb on the bandwagon. “A flash mob of day traders, momentum investors, and the usual hot money crowd drove one of the best years in decades for U.S., Japanese, and European equities,” he wrote. “Even with the ranks of the unemployed and underemployed still bloated and the economy barely improved from a year ago, the S&P 500 , Dow Jones Industrial Average 2 Minute, and Russell 2000 regularly posted new record highs.”

Seth Klarman noted that whether you see today’s investment glass as half full or half empty depends on your age and personality type, as well as your “lifetime” of experiences. “Our assessment is that the Fed’s continuing stimulus and suppression of volatility has triggered a resurgence of speculative froth,” while citing numerous examples of overvalued internet stocks that defied value investing logic.

“In an ominous sign, a recent survey of U.S. investment newsletters by Investors Intelligence found the lowest proportion of bears since the ill-fated year of 1987,” he wrote. “A paucity of bears is one of the most reliable reverse indicators of market psychology. In the financial world, things are hunky dory; in the real world, not so much. Is the feel-good upward march of people’s 401(k)s, mutual fund balances, CNBC hype, and hedge fund bonuses eroding the objectivity of their assessments of the real world? We can say with some conviction that it almost always does. Frankly, wouldn’t it be easier if the Fed would just announce the proper level for the S&P, and spare us all the policy announcements and market gyrations?” he said in a somewhat hilarious moment that bears a degree of truth.

Seth Klarman on Europe

Seth Klarman still isn’t much of a bull in Europe, as we noted in a previous ValueWalk. “Europe isn’t fixed either, but you wouldn’t be able to tell that from investor sentiment,” he noted. “One sell-side analyst recently declared that ‘the recovery is here,’ a sharp reversal from his view in July 2012 that Greece had a 90% chance of leaving the Euro by the end of 2013. Greek government bond prices have nearly quintupled in price from the mid-2012 lows. Yet, despite six years of painful structural adjustments, Greece’s government debt-to-GDP ratio currently stands at 157%, up from 105% in 2008,” he said, noting a growing concern among fund managers regarding the government debt crisis getting out of hand.

Seth Klarman noted that Germany’s own government debt-to-GDP ratio stands at 81%, up from 65% in 2008, and said “That doesn’t look fixed to us.” The EU credit rating was recently reduced by S&P, he noted, while European unemployment remains stubbornly above 12%. “Not fixed,” he said. “Various other risks lurk on the periphery: bank deposits remain frozen in Cyprus, Catalonia seems to be forging ahead with an independence referendum in 2014, and social unrest continues to escalate in Ukraine and Turkey. And all this in a region that remains saddled with deep structural imbalances. As Angela Merkel recently noted, Europe has 7% of the world’s population, 25% of its output, and 50% of its social spending.” While he notes the problems in Europe, Seth Klarman did not rule out that opportunity might be found in the region.

Seth Klarman on Bitcoin

Seth Klarman also weighed in on Bitcoin, noting that “Only in a bull market could an online ‘currency’ dubbed bitcoin surge 100-fold in one year, as it did in 2013. Now most sell-side firms are rushing to provide research on this latest fad,” he also noted that while “bitcoin funds” are being formed, the fund is “happy to let pass us by, the thinking behind cryptocurrencies may contain a kernel of rationality. If paper currencies – dollars and yen – can be printed in essentially unlimited volumes, and just as with all currencies are only worth what recipients on any given day will exchange in goods or services, then what makes them any better than the “crypto” kind of money?”

Comparing the economy and the Federal Reserve’s management of it to the movie The Truman Show, where the lead character lived in a false, highly-orchestrated environment, Seth Klarman notes with insight, “Every Truman under Bernanke’s dome knows the environment is phony. But the zeitgeist is so damn pleasant, the days so resplendent, the mood so euphoric, the returns so irresistible, that no one wants it to end, and no one wants to exit the dome until they’re sure everyone else won’t stay on forever.” Then he quotes Jim Grant who recently noted on CNBC, the problem is that “the Fed can change how things look, it cannot change what things are.”

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Outside the Box is a free weekly economic e-letter by best-selling author and renowned financial expert, John Mauldin. You can learn more and get your free subscription by visiting www.MauldinEconomics.com.
Please write to subscribers@mauldineconomics.com to inform us of any reproductions, including when and where copy will be reproduced. You must keep the letter intact, from introduction to disclaimers. If you would like to quote brief portions only, please reference www.MauldinEconomics.com.
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Outside the Box and MauldinEconomics.com is not an offering for any investment. It represents only the opinions of John Mauldin and those that he interviews. Any views expressed are provided for information purposes only and should not be construed in any way as an offer, an endorsement, or inducement to invest and is not in any way a testimony of, or associated with, Mauldin’s other firms. John Mauldin is the Chairman of Mauldin Economics, LLC. He also is the President of Millennium Wave Advisors, LLC (MWA) which is an investment advisory firm registered with multiple states, President and registered representative of Millennium Wave Securities, LLC, (MWS) member FINRA, SIPC, through which securities may be offered . MWS is also a Commodity Pool Operator (CPO) and a Commodity Trading Advisor (CTA) registered with the CFTC, as well as an Introducing Broker (IB) and NFA Member. Millennium Wave Investments is a dba of MWA LLC and MWS LLC. This message may contain information that is confidential or privileged and is intended only for the individual or entity named above and does not constitute an offer for or advice about any alternative investment product. Such advice can only be made when accompanied by a prospectus or similar offering document. Past performance is not indicative of future performance. Please make sure to review important disclosures at the end of each article. Mauldin companies may have a marketing relationship with products and services mentioned in this letter for a fee.

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