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Archive for September 2014

Archive for September, 2014

Thoughts from the Frontline: The End of Monetary Policy

 

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar…

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

–  T. S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men

What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government. This is not to say that there will no longer be events to fill the pages of Foreign Affairs‘ yearly summaries of international relations, for the victory of liberalism has occurred primarily in the realm of ideas or consciousness and is as yet incomplete in the real or material world. But there are powerful reasons for believing that it is the ideal that will govern the material world in the long run.

– Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man

Francis Fukuyama created all sorts of controversy when he declared “the end of history” in 1989 (and again in 1992 in the book cited above). That book won general applause, and unlike many other academics he has gone on to produce similarly thoughtful work. A review of his latest book, Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalisation of Democracy, appeared just yesterday in The Economist. It’s the second volume in a two-volume tour de force on “political order.”

I was struck by the closing paragraphs of the review:

Mr. Fukuyama argues that the political institutions that allowed the United States to become a successful modern democracy are beginning to decay. The division of powers has always created a potential for gridlock. But two big changes have turned potential into reality: political parties are polarised along ideological lines and powerful interest groups exercise a veto over policies they dislike. America has degenerated into a “vetocracy”. It is almost incapable of addressing many of its serious problems, from illegal immigration to stagnating living standards; it may even be degenerating into what Mr. Fukuyama calls a “neopatrimonial” society in which dynasties control blocks of votes and political insiders trade power for favours.

Mr. Fukuyama’s central message in this long book is as depressing as the central message in “The End of History” was inspiring. Slowly at first but then with gathering momentum political decay can take away the great advantages that political order has delivered: a stable, prosperous and harmonious society.

While I am somewhat more hopeful than Professor Fukuyama is about the future of our political process (I see the rise of a refreshing new kind of libertarianism, especially among our youth, in both conservative and liberal circles, as a potential game changer), I am concerned about what I think will be the increasing impotence of monetary policy in a world where the political class has not wisely used the time that monetary policy has bought them to correct the problems of debt and market-restricting policies. They have avoided making the difficult political decisions that would set the stage for the next few decades of powerful growth.

So while the title of this letter, “The End of Monetary Policy,” is purposely provocative, the longer and more appropriate title would be “The End of Effective and Productive Monetary Policy.” My concern is not that we will move into an era of no monetary policy, but that monetary policy will become increasingly ineffective, so that we will have to solve our social and physical problems in a much less friendly economic environment.

In today’s Thoughts from the Frontline, let’s explore the limits of monetary policy and think about the evolution and then the endgame of economic history. Not the end of monetary policy per se, but its emasculation.

The End of Monetary Policy

Asset classes all over the developed world have responded positively to lower interest rates and successive rounds of quantitative easing from the major central banks. To the current generation it all seems so easy. All we have to do is ensure permanently low rates and a continual supply of new money, and everything works like a charm. Stock and real estate prices go up; new private equity and credit deals abound; and corporations get loans at low rates with ridiculously easy terms. Subprime borrowers have access to credit for a cornucopia of products.

What was Paul Volcker really thinking by raising interest rates and punishing the economy with two successive recessions? Why didn’t he just print money and drop rates even further? Oh wait, he was dealing with the highest inflation our country had seen in the last century, and the problem is that his predecessor had been printing money, keeping rates too low, and allowing inflation to run out of control. Kind of like what we have now, except we’re missing the inflation.

Let’s Look at the Numbers

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has a marvelous website full of all sorts of useful information. Let’s start by looking at inflation around the world. This table is rather dense and is offered only to give you a taste of what’s available.

What we find out is that inflation is strikingly, almost shockingly, low. It certainly seems so to those of us who came of age in the ’60s and ’70s and who now, in the fullness of time, are watching aghast as stupendous amounts of various currencies are fabricated out of thin air. Seriously, if I had suggested to you back in 2007 that central bank balance sheets would expand by $7-8 trillion in the next half-decade but that inflation would be averaging less than 2%, you would have laughed in my face.

Let’s take a quick world tour. France has inflation of 0.5%; Italy’s is -0.2% (as in deflation); the euro area on the whole has 0.4% inflation; the United Kingdom (which still includes Scotland) is at an amazingly low 1.5% for the latest month, down from 4.5% in 2011; China with its huge debt bubble has 2.2% inflation; Mexico, which has been synonymous with high inflation for decades, is only running in the 4% range. And so on. Looking at the list of the major economies of the world, including the BRICS and other large emerging markets, there is not one country with double-digit inflation (with the exception of Argentina, and Argentina is always an exception – their data lies, too, because inflation is 3-4 times what they publish.) Even India, at least since Rajan assumed control of the Reserve Bank of India, has watched its inflation rate steadily drop.

Japan is the anomaly. The imposition of Abenomics has seemingly engineered an inflation rate of 3.4%, finally overcoming deflation. Or has it? What you find is that inflation magically appeared in March of this year when a 3% hike in the consumption tax was introduced. When government decrees that prices will go up 3%, then voilà, like magic, you get 3% inflation. Take out the 3% tax, and inflation is running about 1% in the midst of one of the most massive monetary expansions ever seen. And there is reason to suspect that a considerable part of that 1% is actually due to the ongoing currency devaluation. The yen closed just shy of 110 yesterday, up from less than 80 two years ago.

I should also point out that, one year from now, this 3% inflation may disappear into yesteryear’s statistics. The new tax will already be factored into all current and future prices, and inflation will go back to its normal low levels in Japan.

Inflation in the US is running less than 2% (latest month is 1.7%) as the Fed pulls the plug on QE. As I’ve been writing for … my gods, has it really been two decades?! – the overall trend is deflationary for a host of reasons. That trend will change someday, but it will be with us for a while.

Where’s my GDP?

Gross domestic product around the developed world ranges anywhere from subdued to anemic to outright recessionary:

The G-20 itself is growing at an almost respectable 3%, but when you look at the developed world’s portion of that statistic, the picture gets much worse. The European Union grew at 0.1% last year and is barely on target to beat that this year. The euro area is flat to down. The United Kingdom and the United States are at 1.7% and 2.2% respectively. Japan is in recession. France is literally at 0% for the year and is likely to enter recession by the end of the year. Italy remains mired in recession. Powerhouse Germany was in recession during the second quarter.

Let’s put those stats in context. We have seen the most massive monetary stimulation of the last 200 years in the developed world, and growth can be best described as faltering. Without the totally serendipitous shale oil revolution in the United States, growth here would be about 1%, or not much ahead of where Europe is today.

Demographics, Debt, Bond Bubbles, and Currency Wars

Look at the rest of the economic ecology. Demographics are decidedly deflationary. Every country in the developed world is getting older, and with each year there are fewer people in the working cohort to support those in retirement. Government debt is massive and rising in almost every country. In Japan and many countries of Europe it is approaching true bubble status. Anybody who thinks the current corporate junk bond market is sustainable is smoking funny-smelling cigarettes. (The song from my youth “Don’t Bogart That Joint” pops to mind. But I digrass.)

We are seeing the beginnings of an outright global currency war that I expect to ensue in earnest in 2015. My co-author Jonathan Tepper and I outlined in both Endgame and Code Red what we still believe to be the future. The Japanese are clearly in the process of weakening their currency. This is just the beginning. The yen is going to be weakening 10 to 15% a year for a very long time. I truly expect to see the yen at 200 to the dollar somewhere near the end of the decade.

ECB head Mario Draghi is committed to weakening the euro. The reigning economic philosophy has it that weakening your currency will boost exports and thus growth. And Europe desperately needs growth. Absent QE4 from the Fed, the euro is going to continue to weaken against the dollar. Emerging-market countries will be alarmed at the increasing strength of the dollar and other developed world currencies against their currencies and will try to fight back by weakening their own money. This is what Greg Weldon described back in 2001 as the Competitive Devaluation Raceway, which back then described the competition among emerging markets to maintain the devaluation of their currencies against the dollar.

Today, with Europe and Japan gunning their engines, which have considerable horsepower left, it is a very competitive race indeed – and one with far-reaching political implications for each country. As I have written in past letters, it is now every central banker for him- or herself.

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.

Important Disclosures

Thoughts from the Frontline: The End of Monetary Policy

 

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar…

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

–  T. S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men

What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government. This is not to say that there will no longer be events to fill the pages of Foreign Affairs‘ yearly summaries of international relations, for the victory of liberalism has occurred primarily in the realm of ideas or consciousness and is as yet incomplete in the real or material world. But there are powerful reasons for believing that it is the ideal that will govern the material world in the long run.

– Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man

Francis Fukuyama created all sorts of controversy when he declared “the end of history” in 1989 (and again in 1992 in the book cited above). That book won general applause, and unlike many other academics he has gone on to produce similarly thoughtful work. A review of his latest book, Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalisation of Democracy, appeared just yesterday in The Economist. It’s the second volume in a two-volume tour de force on “political order.”

I was struck by the closing paragraphs of the review:

Mr. Fukuyama argues that the political institutions that allowed the United States to become a successful modern democracy are beginning to decay. The division of powers has always created a potential for gridlock. But two big changes have turned potential into reality: political parties are polarised along ideological lines and powerful interest groups exercise a veto over policies they dislike. America has degenerated into a “vetocracy”. It is almost incapable of addressing many of its serious problems, from illegal immigration to stagnating living standards; it may even be degenerating into what Mr. Fukuyama calls a “neopatrimonial” society in which dynasties control blocks of votes and political insiders trade power for favours.

Mr. Fukuyama’s central message in this long book is as depressing as the central message in “The End of History” was inspiring. Slowly at first but then with gathering momentum political decay can take away the great advantages that political order has delivered: a stable, prosperous and harmonious society.

While I am somewhat more hopeful than Professor Fukuyama is about the future of our political process (I see the rise of a refreshing new kind of libertarianism, especially among our youth, in both conservative and liberal circles, as a potential game changer), I am concerned about what I think will be the increasing impotence of monetary policy in a world where the political class has not wisely used the time that monetary policy has bought them to correct the problems of debt and market-restricting policies. They have avoided making the difficult political decisions that would set the stage for the next few decades of powerful growth.

So while the title of this letter, “The End of Monetary Policy,” is purposely provocative, the longer and more appropriate title would be “The End of Effective and Productive Monetary Policy.” My concern is not that we will move into an era of no monetary policy, but that monetary policy will become increasingly ineffective, so that we will have to solve our social and physical problems in a much less friendly economic environment.

In today’s Thoughts from the Frontline, let’s explore the limits of monetary policy and think about the evolution and then the endgame of economic history. Not the end of monetary policy per se, but its emasculation.

The End of Monetary Policy

Asset classes all over the developed world have responded positively to lower interest rates and successive rounds of quantitative easing from the major central banks. To the current generation it all seems so easy. All we have to do is ensure permanently low rates and a continual supply of new money, and everything works like a charm. Stock and real estate prices go up; new private equity and credit deals abound; and corporations get loans at low rates with ridiculously easy terms. Subprime borrowers have access to credit for a cornucopia of products.

What was Paul Volcker really thinking by raising interest rates and punishing the economy with two successive recessions? Why didn’t he just print money and drop rates even further? Oh wait, he was dealing with the highest inflation our country had seen in the last century, and the problem is that his predecessor had been printing money, keeping rates too low, and allowing inflation to run out of control. Kind of like what we have now, except we’re missing the inflation.

Let’s Look at the Numbers

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has a marvelous website full of all sorts of useful information. Let’s start by looking at inflation around the world. This table is rather dense and is offered only to give you a taste of what’s available.

What we find out is that inflation is strikingly, almost shockingly, low. It certainly seems so to those of us who came of age in the ’60s and ’70s and who now, in the fullness of time, are watching aghast as stupendous amounts of various currencies are fabricated out of thin air. Seriously, if I had suggested to you back in 2007 that central bank balance sheets would expand by $7-8 trillion in the next half-decade but that inflation would be averaging less than 2%, you would have laughed in my face.

Let’s take a quick world tour. France has inflation of 0.5%; Italy’s is -0.2% (as in deflation); the euro area on the whole has 0.4% inflation; the United Kingdom (which still includes Scotland) is at an amazingly low 1.5% for the latest month, down from 4.5% in 2011; China with its huge debt bubble has 2.2% inflation; Mexico, which has been synonymous with high inflation for decades, is only running in the 4% range. And so on. Looking at the list of the major economies of the world, including the BRICS and other large emerging markets, there is not one country with double-digit inflation (with the exception of Argentina, and Argentina is always an exception – their data lies, too, because inflation is 3-4 times what they publish.) Even India, at least since Rajan assumed control of the Reserve Bank of India, has watched its inflation rate steadily drop.

Japan is the anomaly. The imposition of Abenomics has seemingly engineered an inflation rate of 3.4%, finally overcoming deflation. Or has it? What you find is that inflation magically appeared in March of this year when a 3% hike in the consumption tax was introduced. When government decrees that prices will go up 3%, then voilà, like magic, you get 3% inflation. Take out the 3% tax, and inflation is running about 1% in the midst of one of the most massive monetary expansions ever seen. And there is reason to suspect that a considerable part of that 1% is actually due to the ongoing currency devaluation. The yen closed just shy of 110 yesterday, up from less than 80 two years ago.

I should also point out that, one year from now, this 3% inflation may disappear into yesteryear’s statistics. The new tax will already be factored into all current and future prices, and inflation will go back to its normal low levels in Japan.

Inflation in the US is running less than 2% (latest month is 1.7%) as the Fed pulls the plug on QE. As I’ve been writing for … my gods, has it really been two decades?! – the overall trend is deflationary for a host of reasons. That trend will change someday, but it will be with us for a while.

Where’s my GDP?

Gross domestic product around the developed world ranges anywhere from subdued to anemic to outright recessionary:

The G-20 itself is growing at an almost respectable 3%, but when you look at the developed world’s portion of that statistic, the picture gets much worse. The European Union grew at 0.1% last year and is barely on target to beat that this year. The euro area is flat to down. The United Kingdom and the United States are at 1.7% and 2.2% respectively. Japan is in recession. France is literally at 0% for the year and is likely to enter recession by the end of the year. Italy remains mired in recession. Powerhouse Germany was in recession during the second quarter.

Let’s put those stats in context. We have seen the most massive monetary stimulation of the last 200 years in the developed world, and growth can be best described as faltering. Without the totally serendipitous shale oil revolution in the United States, growth here would be about 1%, or not much ahead of where Europe is today.

Demographics, Debt, Bond Bubbles, and Currency Wars

Look at the rest of the economic ecology. Demographics are decidedly deflationary. Every country in the developed world is getting older, and with each year there are fewer people in the working cohort to support those in retirement. Government debt is massive and rising in almost every country. In Japan and many countries of Europe it is approaching true bubble status. Anybody who thinks the current corporate junk bond market is sustainable is smoking funny-smelling cigarettes. (The song from my youth “Don’t Bogart That Joint” pops to mind. But I digrass.)

We are seeing the beginnings of an outright global currency war that I expect to ensue in earnest in 2015. My co-author Jonathan Tepper and I outlined in both Endgame and Code Red what we still believe to be the future. The Japanese are clearly in the process of weakening their currency. This is just the beginning. The yen is going to be weakening 10 to 15% a year for a very long time. I truly expect to see the yen at 200 to the dollar somewhere near the end of the decade.

ECB head Mario Draghi is committed to weakening the euro. The reigning economic philosophy has it that weakening your currency will boost exports and thus growth. And Europe desperately needs growth. Absent QE4 from the Fed, the euro is going to continue to weaken against the dollar. Emerging-market countries will be alarmed at the increasing strength of the dollar and other developed world currencies against their currencies and will try to fight back by weakening their own money. This is what Greg Weldon described back in 2001 as the Competitive Devaluation Raceway, which back then described the competition among emerging markets to maintain the devaluation of their currencies against the dollar.

Today, with Europe and Japan gunning their engines, which have considerable horsepower left, it is a very competitive race indeed – and one with far-reaching political implications for each country. As I have written in past letters, it is now every central banker for him- or herself.

That Pesky Budget Thing

Developed governments around the world are running deficits. France will be close to a 4% deficit this year, with no improvement in sight. Germany is running a small deficit. Japan has a mind-boggling 8% deficit, which they keep talking about dealing with, but nothing ever actually happens. How is this possible with a debt of 250% of GDP? Any European country with such a debt structure would be in a state of collapse. The US is at 5.8% and the United Kingdom at 5.3%, while Spain is still at 5.5%.

Let’s focus on the US. Everyone knows that the US has an entitlement-driven spending problem, but very few people I talk with understand the true nature of the situation, which is actually quite dire, looming up ahead of us. In less than 10 years, at current debt projection growth rates, the third-largest expenditure of the United States government will be interest expense. The other three largest categories are all entitlement programs. Discretionary spending, whether for defense or anything else, is becoming an ever-smaller part of the budget. Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid now command nearly two-thirds of the national budget and rising. Ironically, polls suggest that 80% of Americans are concerned about the rising deficit and debt, but 69% oppose Medicare cutbacks, and 78% oppose Medicaid cutbacks.

At some point in the middle of the next decade, entitlement spending plus interest payments will be more than the total revenue of the government. The deficit that we are currently experiencing will explode. The following chart is what will happen if nothing changes. But this chart also cannot happen, because the bond market and the economy will simply implode before it does.

A Multitude of Sins

Monetary policy has been able to mask a multitude of our government’s fiscal sins. My worry for the economy is what will happen when Band-Aid monetary policy can no longer forestall the hemorrhaging of the US economy. Long before we get to 2024 we will have a crisis. In past years, I have expected the problems to come to a head sooner rather than later, but I have come to realize that the US economy can absorb a great deal of punishment. But it cannot absorb the outcomes depicted in those last two charts. Something will have to give.

And these projections assume there will be no recession within the next 10 years. How likely is that? What happens when the US has to deal with its imbalances at the same time Europe and Japan must deal with theirs? These problems are not resolvable by monetary policy.

Right now the markets move on every utterance from Janet Yellen, Mario Draghi, and their central bank friends. Central banking dominates the economic narrative. But what happens to the power of central banks to move markets when the fiscal imperative overcomes the central bank narrative?

Sometime this decade (which at my age seems to be passing mind-numbingly quickly) we are going to face a situation where monetary policy no longer works. Optimistically speaking, interest rates may be in the 2% range by the end of 2016, assuming the Fed starts to raise rates the middle of next year and raises by 25 basis points per meeting. If we were to enter a recession with rates already low, what would dropping rates to the zero bound again really do? What kind of confidence would that tactic actually inspire? And gods forbid we find ourselves in a recession or a period of slow growth prior to that time. Will the Fed under Janet Yellen raise interest rates if growth sputters at less than 2%?

An even scarier scenario is what will happen if we don’t deal with our fiscal issues. You can’t solve a yawning deficit with monetary policy.

Further, at some point the velocity of money is going to reverse, and monetary policy will have to be far more restrained. The only reason, and I mean only, that we’ve been able to get away with such a massively easy monetary policy is that the velocity of money has been dropping consistently for the last 10 years. The velocity of money is at its lowest level since the end of World War II, but it is altogether possible that it will slow further to Great Depression levels.

When the velocity of money begins to once again rise – and in the fullness of time it always does – we are going to face the nemesis of inflation. Monetary policy during periods of inflation is far more constrained. Quantitative easing will not be the order of the day.

For Keynesians, we are in the Golden Age of Monetary Policy. It can’t get any better than this: free money and low rates and no consequences (at least no consequences that can be seen by the public). This will end, as it always does…

Not with a Bang but a Whimper

Will we see the end of monetary policy? No, policy will just be constrained. The current era of easy monetary policy will not end (in the words of T.S. Eliot) with a bang but a whimper. Janet or Mario will walk to the podium and say the same words they do today, and the markets will not respond. Central banks will lose control of the narrative, and we will have to figure out what to do in a world where profits and productivity are once again more important than quantitative easing and monetary policy.

You need to be thinking about how you will react and how you want to protect your portfolios in such a circumstance. Even if that volatility is years off, “war-gaming” how you will respond is an important exercise. Because it will happen, unless Congress and the White House decide to resolve the fiscal crisis before it happens. Calculate the odds on that happening and then decide whether you need to have a plan.

Unless you think the bond market will continue to finance the US government through endless deficits (as so far has happened in Japan), then you need to start to contemplate the end of effective monetary policy. I would note that, even in Japan, monetary policy has not been effective in restarting an economy. It is a quirk of Japan’s social structure that the Japanese have devoted almost their entire net savings to government bonds. As the savings rate there is getting ready to turn negative, we are going to see a very different economic result. Japan with the yen at 200 and an even older society will look a great deal different than the country does today.

Current market levels of volatility and complacency should be seen as temporary. Plan accordingly.

Washington DC, Chicago, Athens (Texas), and Boston

I am in Washington DC as you read this. I have a few meetings set up, as well as a speaking engagement, and then I’ll return home to meet with my business partners at Mauldin Economics later in the week. In the middle of October I will go to Chicago for a speech, fly back to a meeting with Kyle Bass and his friends at the Barefoot Ranch in Athens, Texas, and then fly out to Boston to spend the weekend with Niall Ferguson and some of his friends. I am sure I will be happily surfing mental stimulus overload that week.

Next weekend (October 4) is my 65th birthday. I had originally thought I would do a rather low-key event with family; but my staff, family, and friends have different plans. I’m not really supposed to know what’s going on and don’t really have much of an idea as I am not allowed around planning sessions, but it sounds like fun.

I am walking on legs that feel like Jell-O, as it was “legs day” yesterday, working out with The Beast. My regular workout partner couldn’t make it, so he was able to focus on exhausting me to the maximum extent possible. I’ve never been all that athletic. As a kid, for the most part I was not allowed to participate in PE due to some physical limitations (which fortunately went away as I grew older).

I became a true geek. Not that that is all bad: it has served me rather well later in life. Geeks rule. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-40s that I began to go to the gym on more than a haphazard basis. And I must confess that I was a typical male in that I focused on my upper body as opposed to my legs and abdominals. That oversight is catching up with me now. The Beast is forcing me to devote more time to my legs and core. Much better for me as I approach the latter half of my 60s, but it’s painful to realize the cost of my negligence.

In the last five or six years my travel has reduced my gym time, or at least that’s my excuse. For whatever reason, my travel has been reduced for the last two months, so I’m getting much more time in the gym, and my workouts are more well-rounded. I typically try to do at least another 30 minutes of cardio after our training sessions, even if the session was based around cardio. Except on leg days. There’s nothing left for extra walking or cycling after leg days.

I share this because I want you to understand that working out is just as important as your investment strategy. I fully intend to be going strong for a very long time. But that doesn’t happen (at least as easily) if you lose your legs. As much as I hate leg days, I probably need those workouts more than any others.

It’s time to hit the send button. I hear kids and grandkids gathering in the next room. That’s something else that is just as important as investment strategy. You have a great week.

Your thinking about how to profit from the coming crisis analyst,

John Mauldin
subscribers@mauldineconomics.com

 

Outside the Box: Future Bull

 

In a conversation this morning, I remarked how rapidly things change. It was less than 20 years ago that cutting-edge tech for listening to music was the cassette tape. We blew right past CDs, and now we all consume music from the cloud on our phones. Boom. Almost overnight.

A lot has changed about the global economy and politics, too. Things that were unthinkable only 10 years ago now seem to be reality. What changes, I wonder, will we be writing about a few years from now that will seem obvious with the advantage of hindsight?

In today’s Outside the Box, my good friend David Hay of Evergreen Capital sends us a letter written from the perspective of a few years in the future. I find myself wishing that some of the more hopeful events he foresees will come true, and my optimistic self actually sees a way through to such an outcome. In that future, I will join David as a bull. But the path that he proposes to take to that more optimistic future is not one that most investors will enjoy, so on the whole it’s a very sobering letter and one that should make all of us think.

I’m back from San Antonio, where I spent four enjoyable days with my friends and participants at the Casey Research Summit. I tried to attend as many of the conference sessions as I could, and I intend to get the “tapes” for some of the ones I missed.

I did a lot of video interviews while in San Antonio, too. And finished up a major documentary. Mauldin Economics will be making all of these available very soon. It’s hard to recommend one interview over another, but Lacy Hunt is just so smart.

And with no further remarks let’s turn it over to David Hay and think about how the next few years will play out. Have a great week.

Your wishing his crystal ball was clearer analyst,

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

 

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Future Bull

By David Hay
Twitter: @EvergreenGK

“Money amplifies our tendency to overreact, to swing from exuberance when things are going well to deep depression when they go wrong.”

– Economist and historian Niall Ferguson

Future bull.  Let me admit up front that this EVA has been rolling around in my mind for quite awhile. Its genesis may be directly related to the fact that I’ve been desperately yearning to write a bullish EVA – besides on Canadian REITs or income securities that get trounced by the Fed’s utterances. In other words, I want to return to my normal posture of being bullish on the US stock market.

It wasn’t long ago, like in 2011, that clients were chastising me for believing in what I formerly referred to as “the coiled spring effect.” By this I meant that corporate earnings had been rising for over a decade, and yet, stock prices were much lower than they there were in 1999. Consequently, price/earnings ratios were compressed down to low levels, though certainly not to true bear market troughs. My belief was that stocks were poised for an upside explosion once the inhibiting factors, primarily extreme pessimism on the direction of the country, were removed. I even remember one long-time client dismissing my “Buy America” argument on the grounds that in my profession I had to be bullish (regular EVA readers know that is definitely not the case!).

Well, a funny thing happened to my “coiled spring effect” – namely, it became a reality. Additionally, the upward reaction was much stronger than I envisioned. But what really caught me by surprise was that it played out with virtually no improvement on the “extreme pessimism on the direction of the country” front. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I don’t think there has ever been a rally that has taken stocks to such high valuations (time for my usual qualifier – based on mid-cycle profit margins, not the Fed-inflated ones we have today) concurrent with such pervasive fears America is on the wrong track.

Undoubtedly, the pros among you who just read that last sentence are thinking: “That’s great news! All that pessimism will keep this market running. We’re not even close to the peak.” Not so fast, mon amis (and amies)! We’re not talking market pessimism here. As numerous EVAs have documented, US investors are as heavily exposed to stocks as they have ever been, other than during the late 1990s, when stocks bubbled up to valuations that made 1929 look restrained.

Further, please check out the chart below from still-bullish Ned Davis regarding investment advisor sentiment.  The bearish reading is the lowest since the fateful year of 1987, while bulled-up views are in the excessively optimistic zone.  (See Figure 1.)

It is my contention that there are currently millions of fully-invested skeptics. They aren’t bullish long-term – in fact, they believe the underlying fundamentals are alarming (with the usual perma-bull exceptions) – but they feel compelled by the lack of competitive alternatives to remain at their full equity allocation. Disturbingly, professional investors are increasingly doing so even with money belonging to retired investors who need both cash flow and stability.

Okay, with all that history out of the way, let’s go the other direction  – into the future, to a time several years from now, when conditions are nearly the polar opposite of where they are today.

The Evergreen Virtual Advisor (EVA)

November, 201???

At long last, reforms! Do you remember back in 2014 when the stock market was as hot as napalm? When it just never went down? When millions believed the Fed could control stock prices by whipping up a trillion here and a trillion there?

Looking back from the vantage of today, it all seems so obvious. We should have known better than to believe that the S&P 500 had years more of appreciation left in it after having already tripled by the fall of 2014 from the 2009 nadir. The warning signs were there. But, before we rehash what went wrong, let’s focus on the upside of what some are calling “The Great Unwind” – the hangover after years and years of the Fed recklessly driving asset prices to unsustainable heights.

First of all, let me start with what I think is the biggest positive of all:  the end of the central banks’ era of omnipotence. While that might sound like a major negative, you may have noticed that with the crutch of binge-printing taken away, our nation’s leaders are finally getting around to implementing reforms that should have been enacted years ago. The history of our country is that we are energized by crises, and the latest is no exception. Our most recent financial convulsions have galvanized a bipartisan coalition to attack an array of long-festering problems that have hobbled our country since the start of the millennium.

Arguably, the most important was the recently enacted tax reform legislation. Skeptics believed the US could never move toward the type of simple tax system that has long been used in countries like Singapore, Hong Kong, and even Estonia. It took the realization by both parties that lower tax rates with almost no deductions would actually produce more revenue. Moreover, the elimination of incalculable and massive “friction costs” for millions of businesses and individuals, trying to adhere to and/or game that beastly labyrinth known as the tax code, is quickly catalyzing real economic growth. This is in contrast to the 2010 to 2014 counterfeit version that rolled off the Fed’s printing press.

By 2014, the US was ranked a lowly 32nd out of 34 countries in terms of tax fairness and efficiency. Yet, now, thanks to last year’s drastic tax reform, US corporations are no longer fleeing in droves to other countries, using such tax dodges as inversions (buying out foreign companies and assuming their country of corporate citizenship to access lower tax rates). They have even begun to repatriate their trillion or so of offshore profits since the formerly onerous tax rate of 35%, the highest in the developed world, has been reduced. And, thanks to the eradication of the aforementioned legalized tax dodges, corporate tax receipts are actually beginning to rise sharply, despite the fact that our economy is in the early stages of recovering from the latest recession.

As we all know, the rationalization of our national business model involves much more than even the essential aspect of tax code simplification. At long last, meaningful tort reform has been enacted. No longer will the rule of lawyers be allowed to dominate the rule of law. The enormous, but insidiously hidden, costs of a subsector of the legal system whose chief mission is to squeeze unjustifiable sums from the private sector is finally being reined in.

Similarly, regulatory overkill is also being addressed by the very entity that created this monster in the first place: the government itself. Absurd, overlapping, and often conflicting directives that hobbled the most essential element of the private sector – small businesses – have been abolished, replaced by a much simpler and unified set of rules.

Even America’s dysfunctional and wasteful healthcare system is being revamped using rational economic solutions, rather than by piling on more incomprehensible rules, requirements, and panels. Consumers can now easily compare prices among service providers thanks to technology as instituted by for-profit providers. Along with significantly improved visibility, they also now have far greater control over how their healthcare dollars are spent.  Medical outlays are now in a decided downtrend.

Incredibly, Congress is actually beginning to behave like a representative of the people rather than an ATM dispensing taxpayer money to the most politically connected. The intense implosions of the multiple bubbles the Fed intentionally inflated triggered a backlash of voter ire toward its legislative enablers. Since then, we’ve seen a dramatic House – and Senate – cleaning. This new “coalition of the thinking” is now following the proven path to recovery that numerous countries – such as Germany, Sweden, and Canada – blazed when their economic and financial systems hit previous roadblocks. As in those nations, moving away from excessive socialism, while simultaneously supporting the business community, rather than vilifying and hindering it, is already beginning to elevate America out of its long stagnation.

Collectively, these sweeping reforms are as dramatic as those seen in the 1980s and promise to unleash a growth boom equally as powerful as the ones that followed those overhauls. Yet, despite these dramatic and highly promising changes, investors remain hunkered down in their bomb shelters.

Fool me once, fool me twice, fool me thrice!  After the third devastating bear market since 1999, investor hostility toward stocks has reached a level unseen since the 1970s. Far too many were lured in by the last up-leg of the great bull market that started in the depths of pessimism in March of 2009. As the market resolutely climbed higher and higher, even beyond the five-year length of most bull cycles, millions of investors succumbed to either greed or complacency.

Indicative of the feverish conditions prevailing then—despite the widely disseminated myth that it was the most hated bull market of all time—headlines like those shown below, and graphics such as the one above, began to dominate the financial press.

Remarkably, at least to me, investors once again ignored warnings from the savviest savants, almost all of whom had waxed cautious about the tech and housing manias: Bob Shiller, Jeremy Grantham, Rob Arnott, John Mauldin, Seth Klarman, and John Hussman. As the esteemed Mohamed El-Erian had prophetically written in June of 2014, “In their efforts to promote growth and jobs, central banks are trading the possibility of immediate economic gains for a growing risk of financial instability later.”

Conversely, Janet Yellen didn’t do her legacy any favors by uttering these words in July, 2014: “Because a resilient financial system can withstand unexpected developments, identification of bubbles is less critical.” At the time, I was pretty sure she would come to regret that statement as much as Ben Bernanke did his equally ill-advised assurances back in 2007 that the problems in sub-prime mortgages were contained. Based on how fragile the “resilient financial system” turned out to be, I’ll say no more.

It did surprise me that despite having called out those previous bubbles, as well as several others including the 2008 blow-offs in commodities and Chinese stocks, I received such intense resistance from other professionals and even clients. After awhile, I was getting so much push back I started to feel like the nose of a commercial airliner being readied for take-off.

Ignorance wasn’t bliss. Another aspect of the late stages of the last bull market was how many investment professionals – who should have known better – dismissed Robert Shiller’s namesake P/E. To clarify, Shiller believes (as did Warren Buffett’s mentor, Ben Graham) that the stock market needs to be valued based on normalized earnings, not bottom- or top-of-the cycle profits. Despite the unassailable logic of this approach, a legion of perma-bulls repeatedly sought to discredit Shiller and his valuation methodology. Some even went so far as to deride his process as “Shiller Snake Oil,” notwithstanding Dr. Shiller’s Nobel Prize and, more meaningfully in my view, the fact that he had forewarned of both the tech and housing bubbles – unlike almost all of those throwing stones at him back in 2014.

The main criticism from those who were “hatin’ on” Shiller in 2014 was that his P/E had produced only two buy signals over a 25-year period. This was a valid critique but it missed an essential point: Despite the reality that the stock market from 1990 to 2014 traded at valuations far higher than it had in any previous quarter-century timeframe, the Shiller P/E accurately predicted future returns. In other words, when the Shiller P/E was very elevated – like in the late 1990s, 2007, and 2014 (so far) – stocks went on to generate extremely disappointing future returns (it also did so in decades going all the way back to the 1920s but this was not the era that the Shiller debunkers were criticizing). The graphic on the next page vividly illustrates this fact, even though it was created before the most recent bear market further underscored the danger of ignoring high Shiller P/Es. (See Figure 2.)

It also shocked and dismayed me at the time how many contortions Wall Street strategists, and even money managers, performed in order to dismiss concerns about the extreme variability of earnings. Somehow charts like the one below from Capital Economics were blown-off despite (or, perhaps, because) it so clearly highlighted the tendency of corporate profits to return back down to the long-term trend-line of nominal GDP growth, with stocks closely following. As we all now know, this time wasn’t different. (See Figure 3.)

The legions of market cheerleaders also ignored the heavy reliance on profits from the financial sector, a notoriously unstable source of earnings. This proved to be a disaster in 2007 and, unsurprisingly, was again once the Fed’s “Great Levitation” fell victim to gravitational forces. (See Figure 4.)

Even David Rosenberg, one of the few economists who saw the housing debacle coming, but who briefly flirted with drinking the Fed-spiked bubble-aid in 2014, noted that 60% of earnings growth from 2010 through 2013 came from share buy-backs. He calculated that the market’s “organic” P/E, backing out the influence from share repurchases, was over 20, even prior to normalizing for peak profit margins. Additionally, the reality that corporations buy the most stock at high prices, and the least at low prices, was forgotten – another costly oversight. (See Figure 5, above.)

It was also overlooked during this era of Fed-induced euphoria, that low interest rates – so often cited by bulls as a justification for lofty P/Es – historically coincided with lower earnings multiples. (See Figure 6.)

As Japan and Europe have repeatedly shown over the last two decades, when low interest rates are a function of chronic economic stagnation, P/Es actually contract, not expand. The fact that the latest recession has reduced America’s anemic 1.8% annual growth rate since 2000 to even lower levels is a key reason why stocks have been thrashed over the last couple of years, despite interest rates on the 10-year treasury note falling to 1%.

Another massive mistake was to overlook the strident warning from Evergreen’s favorite valuation metric, the price-to-sales (P/S) ratio. By the summer of 2014, the median stock in the S&P 500 was trading at its highest P/S ratio on record. Sadly, this attracted little attention. (See Figure 7.)

But perhaps the most egregious oversight of all was to forget the theorem from the late, great economist Hyman Minsky who long ago warned that stability breeds instability. As was the case from 2002 through 2007, the exceptionally low volatility of the years leading up to the latest crisis numbed market participants to the steadily rising risks. Even professional investors convinced themselves they could get out in time once conditions became unstable, an arrogance that has been severely punished, as well it should. Alas, we’ve had to learn Dr. Minsky’s lesson the hard way, once again.

But let’s close this EVA by focusing on the stunning opportunity for investors created by the Fed’s latest misadventure…

Investors, start your engines! It is certainly understandable that US investors are thoroughly disenchanted with the stock market. The fact that the powers-that-be, or at least used-to-be, allowed securities trading to become so heavily dominated by computers was, like the tolerance of the Fed’s asset inflation, inexcusable. The influence of computerized, black box trading was unquestionably a huge factor in the speed-of-light-in-a-vacuum drop in stock prices. Also as feared, many ETFs poured kerosene on the fire as investors became terrified by the nearly overnight erosion in these prices, causing them to sell en masse. The plethora of ETFs holding illiquid underlying securities were particularly crushed, with many simply halting trading for long stretches. Now, instead of rapturous paeans about the wonders of ETF liquidity and low costs, the financial press is full of horror stories about their fundamental flaws (fortunately, higher quality and more liquid ETFs, performed as expected during the worst of the panic).

Further, based on the failure of the Fed’s desperate maneuver to stabilize stocks after their first big break, by launching another $1 trillion QE, this time directly buying US shares, investors have rationally lost faith in the Fed’s ability to make stocks dance to its tune. While QE 4 did cause a sharp counter-trend rally after it was initially launched, the supportive effects soon waned, as we all are now painfully aware. The resumption of the bear market after the Fed’s frantic triage effort was reminiscent of Dorothy, the Tinman, the Lion, and Toto discovering that behind the green curtain was a scared old man instead of The Wizard of Oz.

The extreme negativity by investors toward the stock market today is reflected in the high level of outflows being seen from equity mutual funds, including ETFs. Cash levels are high everywhere as institutional and retail investors, as well as corporations, have become excessively risk averse. This provides the rocket fuel for the next bull market which might just be much closer than almost everyone believes.

Rampant investor pessimism is also being manifested in the drop in the Shiller P/E to the mid-teens from 26 at the peak of the last bull romp.  As a direct result, future returns on stocks are now projected by the aforementioned Jeremy Grantham and John Hussman to be in the low double digits over the next seven to ten years.  Yet, no one seems interested. Even Warren Buffett’s ragingly bullish comments, which were considerably premature, are being attributed to the ramblings of a soon-to-be nonagenarian.

Naturally, I have considerable empathy for Mr. Buffett because, as usual, Evergreen was early to shift into bullish mode. We waited much longer than most people and actually did a fairly commendable job of cutting back into the Fed’s QE4 driven rally, after raising our equity exposure during the initial steep sell-off. But once stocks fell hard after that sugar-high wore off, we were guilty of our typical “premature accumulation syndrome.”

However, we did the same thing way back in October of 2008 when we published our client newsletter, “A Bull is Born” (and wrote a series of “buy the panic” EVAs), only to watch the market slide another 30%.  Yet, buying when almost the entire world was in liquidation mode, much of it forced, in the fall of 2008 proved to be extremely lucrative over the next two years. We are convinced the same will be true following this latest episode of market mayhem. 

From a longer-term standpoint, a perspective most investors seem unwilling to take given their still-fresh pain and suffering, conditions look highly encouraging. In addition to the previously described remedies our policy makers are belatedly adopting, many of the key positive trends the bulls used to justify over-the-top valuations for stocks back in 2014 are still in place. Admittedly, the enthusiasm got ahead of reality but the energy renaissance continues apace in the US, despite the well-publicized fracking problems. Re-shoring of manufacturing, which has been slower than the uber-optimists forecast, appears to be now accelerating. Relatedly, robotic adoption is rapidly spreading through the US industrial base, supporting Evergreen’s belief that re-shoring is a reality, not a fantasy. Yet, there’s even more to like.

Nanotechnology and solar power innovators continue to provide breathtaking breakthroughs. Today, nanotech is becoming as ubiquitous as the microprocessor was a decade ago. Meanwhile, solar power, thanks to miniaturization advances similar to Moore’s Law, has achieved “grid parity,” or even lower, in over a dozen US states. Power is becoming increasingly cheap and abundant and that’s terrific news for humanity.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, we are far closer to achieving that wondrous, if slightly scary, state known as “singularity.” As most us now know, this means that humans are becoming one with computers. The proliferation of wearables has essentially elevated the intelligence of anyone who can afford to spend $150 for an iWatch or Google Glass, to the level of a supercomputer. We now take for granted being able to whisper a few instructions into our watches, like Dick Tracy, and have all the information of the Cloud at our disposal. (It may soon be feasible to actually have a computer implanted into our brains, possibly even curing Alzheimer’s.) Clearly, the implications for productivity are nearly limitless. Already, we are beginning to see this in the data and we believe we are in the very early innings of a true revolution – with no apologies to gloomsters like Northwestern University’s Robert Gordon who believed, and still do, that the era of radical innovation ended long ago.

One of the biggest challenges a professional investor faces is the tyranny of current prices. When they are relentlessly rising, as they were back in 2013 and 2014, clients extrapolate those indefinitely, and, for a long time, they are right to do so. The same thing happens on the downside in periods such as we are in right now.  But rising markets always turn down and falling ones always turn up. Those are unquestionable facts. We are getting closer to the point where this bear goes back into its cave for a nice long nap while a powerful young bull is ready to bust out of the pen it’s been cooped up in for what seems like an eternity. Get out your checkbook – it’s time to bet on the bull!

Back to the here and now. A wise man once said that if you are going to predict that something will happen, don’t be so foolish as to say when it will happen. You may have noticed, I’ve followed that advice, perhaps to an irritating degree, mainly because I truly have no clue when our current bull market, already so long in the horns, will succumb.

It also goes without saying, but I will anyway, that the sequence and details of future financial events are almost certain to be dramatically different than what I’ve suggested in this EVA edition. However, I believe the broad outline is likely to be roughly along these lines, including my exceedingly optimistic long-term outlook for America.

It dawned on me as I wrote the section about tax, tort, healthcare, and regulatory reforms that many readers were probably thinking: “Not in my lifetime – and I’m only 50!” First, of all, let me say that I’m jealous you’re just 50. Second, it is highly unlikely stocks will remain in a long-term bull market, or even continue to hover at such generous valuations, unless our country makes some truly dramatic changes. It can’t remain business as usual, persistently avoiding essential reforms, relying almost totally on the Fed.

Believe me, I will be a bull again, and likely a very lonely one at that. But it’s going to take a combination of lower valuations and a serious makeover of how this country operates. We can do it and I’m convinced we will do it. Hopefully, I’ll be able to convince some of you the next time fear is on the rampage.

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Important Disclosures

The article Outside the Box: Future Bull was originally published at mauldineconomics.com.

Thoughts from the Frontline: Where’s the Growth?

 

In 1633 Galileo Galilei, then an old man, was tried and convicted by the Catholic Church of the heresy of believing that the earth revolved around the sun. He recanted and was forced into house arrest for the rest of his life, until 1642. Yet “The moment he [Galileo] was set at liberty, he looked up to the sky and down to the ground, and, stamping with his foot, in a contemplative mood, said, Eppur si muove, that is, still it moves, meaning the earth” (Giuseppe Baretti in his book the The Italian Library, written in 1757).

Flawed from its foundation, economics as a whole has failed to improve much with time. As it both ossified into an academic establishment and mutated into mathematics, the Newtonian scheme became an illusion of determinism in a tempestuous world of human actions. Economists became preoccupied with mechanical models of markets and uninterested in the willful people who inhabit them….

Some economists become obsessed with market efficiency and others with market failure. Generally held to be members of opposite schools – “freshwater” and “saltwater,” Chicago and Cambridge, liberal and conservative, Austrian and Keynesian – both sides share an essential economic vision. They see their discipline as successful insofar as it eliminates surprise – insofar, that is, as the inexorable workings of the machine override the initiatives of the human actors. “Free market” economists believe in the triumph of the system and want to let it alone to find its equilibrium, the stasis of optimum allocation of resources. Socialists see the failures of the system and want to impose equilibrium from above. Neither spends much time thinking about the miracles that repeatedly save us from the equilibrium of starvation and death.

– George Gilder, Knowledge and Power: The Information Theory of Capitalism and How It is Revolutionizing Our World

And to that stirring introduction let me just add a warning up front: today’s letter is not exactly a waltz in the park. Longtime readers will know that every once in a while I get a large and exceptionally aggressive bee in my bonnet, and when I do it’s time to put your thinking cap on. And while you’re at it, tighten the strap under your chin so it doesn’t blow off. There, now, let’s plunge on.

Launched by Larry Summers last November, a meme is burning its way through established academic economic circles: that we have entered into a period of – gasp! – secular stagnation. But while we can see evidence of stagnation all around the developed world, the causes are not so simple that we can blame them entirely on the free market, which is what Larry Summers and Paul Krugman would like to do: “It’s not economic monetary policy that is to blame, it’s everything else. Our theories worked perfectly.” This finger-pointing by Keynesian monetary theorists is their tried and true strategy for deflecting criticism from their own economic policies.

Academic economists have added a great deal to our understanding of how the world works over the last 100 years. There have been and continue to be remarkably brilliant papers and insights from establishment economists, and they often do prove extremely useful. But as George Gilder notes above, “[As economics] ossified into an academic establishment and mutated into mathematics, the Newtonian scheme became an illusion of determinism in a tempestuous world of human actions.”

Ossification is an inherent tendency of the academic process. In much of academic economics today, dynamic equilibrium models and Keynesian theory are assumed a priori to be correct, and any deviation from that accepted economic dogma – the 21st century equivalent of the belief by the 17th century Catholic hierarchy of the correctness of their worldview – is a serious impediment to advancement within that world. Unless of course you are from Chicago. Then you get a sort of Protestant orthodoxy.

It’s About Your Presuppositions

A presupposition is an implicit assumption about the world or a background belief relating to an utterance whose truth is taken for granted in discourse. For instance, if I asked you the question, “Have you stopped eating carbohydrates?” The implicit assumption, the presupposition if you will, is that you were at one time eating carbohydrates.

Our lives and our conversations are full of presuppositions. Our daily lives are based upon quite fixed views of how the world really works. Often, the answers we come to are logically predictable because of the assumptions we make prior to asking the questions. If you allow me to dictate the presuppositions for a debate, then there is a good chance I will win the debate.

The presupposition in much of academic economics is that the Keynesian, and in particular the neo-Keynesian, view of economics is how the world actually works. There has been an almost total academic capture of the bureaucracy and mechanism of the Federal Reserve and central banks around the world by this neo-Keynesian theory.

What happens when one starts with the twin presuppositions that the economy can be described correctly using a multivariable dynamic equilibrium model built up on neo-Keynesian principles and research founded on those principles? You end up with the monetary policy we have today. And what Larry Summers calls secular stagnation.

First, let’s acknowledge what we do know. The US economy is not growing as fast as anyone thinks it should be. Sluggish is a word that is used. And even our woeful economic performance is far superior to what is happening in Europe and Japan. David Beckworth (an economist and a professor, so there are some good guys here and there in that world) tackled the “sluggish” question in his Washington PostWonkblog”:

The question, of course, is why growth has been so sluggish. Larry Summers, for one, thinks that it’s part of a longer-term trend towards what he calls “secular stagnation.” The idea is that, absent a bubble, the economy can’t generate enough spending anymore to get to full employment. That’s supposedly because the slowdowns in productivity and labor force growth have permanently lowered the “natural interest rate” into negative territory. But since interest rates can’t go below zero and the Fed is only targeting 2 percent inflation, real rates can’t go low enough to keep the economy out of a protracted slump.

Rather than acknowledge the possibility that the current monetary and government policy mix might be responsible for the protracted slump, Summers and his entire tribe cast about the world for other causes. “The problem is not our theory; the problem is that the real world is not responding correctly to our theory. Therefore the real world is the problem.” That is of course not exactly how Larry might put it, but it’s what I’m hearing.

Where’s the Growth?

It’s been more than five years since the global financial crisis, but developed economies aren’t making much progress. As of today, the United States, Canada, Germany, France, Japan, and the United Kingdom have all regained their pre-crisis peaks in real GDP, but with little else to show for it.

Where orthodox neo-Keynesian policies like large-scale deficit spending and aggressive monetary easing have been resisted – as in Japan years ago or in the Eurozone debtor countries today – lingering depressions are commonly interpreted as tragic signs that “textbook” neo-Keynesian economic policy could have prevented the pain all along and that weak economic conditions persist because governments and central banks are not doing enough to kick-start aggregate demand and stimulate credit growth at the zero lower bound.

In places like the United States and Japan, where neo-Keynesian thought leaders have already traded higher public debt levels and larger central bank balance sheets for unspectacular economic growth and the kinds of asset bubbles that always lead to greater instability in the future, their policies have failed to jump-start self-accelerating recoveries. Even in the United States, when QE3 has been fully tapered off, I would expect to see the broader economy start to lose momentum once again.

We’ve tried countercyclical deficit spending to resist recessions, procyclical (and rather wasteful) deficit spending to support supposed recoveries, and accommodative monetary easing all along the way (to lower real interest rates and ease the financing of those pesky deficits); but growth has been sluggish at best, inflation has been hard to generate, and labor market slack is making it difficult to sustain inflation even when real interest rates are already negative. 

Call me a heretic, but I take a different view than the economists in charge. To my mind, the sluggish recovery is a sign that central banks, governments, and, quite frankly, the “textbook” economists (despite their best intentions) are part of the problem. As Detlev Schlichter commented in his latest blog post (“Keynes was a failure in Japan – No need to embrace him in Europe”), “To the true Keynesian, no interest rate is ever low enough, no ‘quantitative easing’ program ever ambitious enough, and no fiscal deficit ever large enough.” It’s apparently true even as debt limits draw closer.

While the academic elites like to think of economics as a reliable science (with the implication that they can somehow control a multi-trillion-dollar economy), I have repeatedly stressed the stronger parallel of economics to religion, in the sense that it is all too easy to get caught up in the dogma of one tradition or another. And all too often, a convenient dogma becomes a justification for those in power who want to expand their control, influence, and spending.

Whereas an Austrian or monetarist approach would suggest less government and a very light handle on the monetary policy tiller, Keynesian philosophy gives those who want greater government control of the economy ample reasons to just keep doing more.

Schlichter expands his critique of the logic of pursuing more of the same debt-driven policies and highlights some of the obvious flaws in the pervasive Keynesian thinking:

Remember that a lack of demand is, in the Keynesian religion, the original sin and the source of all economic troubles. “Aggregate demand” is the sum of all individual demand, and all the individuals together are not demanding enough. How can such a situation come about? Here the Keynesians are less precise. Either people save too much (the nasty “savings glut”), or they invest too little, maybe they misplaced their animal spirits, or they experienced a Minsky moment, and took too much risk on their balance sheets, these fools. In any case, the private sector is clearly at fault as it is not pulling its weight, which means that the public sector has to step in and, in the interest of the common good, inject its own demand, that is [to] “stimulate” the economy by spending other people’s money and print some additional money on top. Lack of “aggregate demand” is evidently some form of collective economic impotence that requires a heavy dose of government-prescribed Viagra so the private sector can get its aggregate demand up again.

Generations of mismanagement have left major economies progressively weaker, involving

  1. dysfunctional tax/regulatory/entitlement/trade policies created by short-sighted and corrupt political systems,
  2. private-sector credit growth encouraged by central bank mismanagement, and
  3. government expansion justified in times of crisis by Keynesian theory.

But rather than recognizing real-world causes and effects, neo-Keynesian ideologues are making dangerous arguments for expanding the role of government spending in places where government is already a big part of the problem.

We are going to delve a little deeper into this thesis of “secular stagnation” posited last year by Larry Summers and eagerly adopted by Paul Krugman, among others; and then we’ll take a trip around the rich world to assess the all-too-common trouble with disappointing growth, low inflation, and increasingly unresponsive labor markets. Then I’ll outline a few reasons why I think the new Keynesian mantra of “secular stagnation” is nothing more than an excuse for more of the same failed policies.

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.

Important Disclosures

Thoughts from the Frontline: Where’s the Growth?

 

In 1633 Galileo Galilei, then an old man, was tried and convicted by the Catholic Church of the heresy of believing that the earth revolved around the sun. He recanted and was forced into house arrest for the rest of his life, until 1642. Yet “The moment he [Galileo] was set at liberty, he looked up to the sky and down to the ground, and, stamping with his foot, in a contemplative mood, said, Eppur si muove, that is, still it moves, meaning the earth” (Giuseppe Baretti in his book the The Italian Library, written in 1757).

Flawed from its foundation, economics as a whole has failed to improve much with time. As it both ossified into an academic establishment and mutated into mathematics, the Newtonian scheme became an illusion of determinism in a tempestuous world of human actions. Economists became preoccupied with mechanical models of markets and uninterested in the willful people who inhabit them….

Some economists become obsessed with market efficiency and others with market failure. Generally held to be members of opposite schools – “freshwater” and “saltwater,” Chicago and Cambridge, liberal and conservative, Austrian and Keynesian – both sides share an essential economic vision. They see their discipline as successful insofar as it eliminates surprise – insofar, that is, as the inexorable workings of the machine override the initiatives of the human actors. “Free market” economists believe in the triumph of the system and want to let it alone to find its equilibrium, the stasis of optimum allocation of resources. Socialists see the failures of the system and want to impose equilibrium from above. Neither spends much time thinking about the miracles that repeatedly save us from the equilibrium of starvation and death.

– George Gilder, Knowledge and Power: The Information Theory of Capitalism and How It is Revolutionizing Our World

And to that stirring introduction let me just add a warning up front: today’s letter is not exactly a waltz in the park. Longtime readers will know that every once in a while I get a large and exceptionally aggressive bee in my bonnet, and when I do it’s time to put your thinking cap on. And while you’re at it, tighten the strap under your chin so it doesn’t blow off. There, now, let’s plunge on.

Launched by Larry Summers last November, a meme is burning its way through established academic economic circles: that we have entered into a period of – gasp! – secular stagnation. But while we can see evidence of stagnation all around the developed world, the causes are not so simple that we can blame them entirely on the free market, which is what Larry Summers and Paul Krugman would like to do: “It’s not economic monetary policy that is to blame, it’s everything else. Our theories worked perfectly.” This finger-pointing by Keynesian monetary theorists is their tried and true strategy for deflecting criticism from their own economic policies.

Academic economists have added a great deal to our understanding of how the world works over the last 100 years. There have been and continue to be remarkably brilliant papers and insights from establishment economists, and they often do prove extremely useful. But as George Gilder notes above, “[As economics] ossified into an academic establishment and mutated into mathematics, the Newtonian scheme became an illusion of determinism in a tempestuous world of human actions.”

Ossification is an inherent tendency of the academic process. In much of academic economics today, dynamic equilibrium models and Keynesian theory are assumed a priori to be correct, and any deviation from that accepted economic dogma – the 21st century equivalent of the belief by the 17th century Catholic hierarchy of the correctness of their worldview – is a serious impediment to advancement within that world. Unless of course you are from Chicago. Then you get a sort of Protestant orthodoxy.

It’s About Your Presuppositions

A presupposition is an implicit assumption about the world or a background belief relating to an utterance whose truth is taken for granted in discourse. For instance, if I asked you the question, “Have you stopped eating carbohydrates?” The implicit assumption, the presupposition if you will, is that you were at one time eating carbohydrates.

Our lives and our conversations are full of presuppositions. Our daily lives are based upon quite fixed views of how the world really works. Often, the answers we come to are logically predictable because of the assumptions we make prior to asking the questions. If you allow me to dictate the presuppositions for a debate, then there is a good chance I will win the debate.

The presupposition in much of academic economics is that the Keynesian, and in particular the neo-Keynesian, view of economics is how the world actually works. There has been an almost total academic capture of the bureaucracy and mechanism of the Federal Reserve and central banks around the world by this neo-Keynesian theory.

What happens when one starts with the twin presuppositions that the economy can be described correctly using a multivariable dynamic equilibrium model built up on neo-Keynesian principles and research founded on those principles? You end up with the monetary policy we have today. And what Larry Summers calls secular stagnation.

First, let’s acknowledge what we do know. The US economy is not growing as fast as anyone thinks it should be. Sluggish is a word that is used. And even our woeful economic performance is far superior to what is happening in Europe and Japan. David Beckworth (an economist and a professor, so there are some good guys here and there in that world) tackled the “sluggish” question in his Washington PostWonkblog”:

The question, of course, is why growth has been so sluggish. Larry Summers, for one, thinks that it’s part of a longer-term trend towards what he calls “secular stagnation.” The idea is that, absent a bubble, the economy can’t generate enough spending anymore to get to full employment. That’s supposedly because the slowdowns in productivity and labor force growth have permanently lowered the “natural interest rate” into negative territory. But since interest rates can’t go below zero and the Fed is only targeting 2 percent inflation, real rates can’t go low enough to keep the economy out of a protracted slump.

Rather than acknowledge the possibility that the current monetary and government policy mix might be responsible for the protracted slump, Summers and his entire tribe cast about the world for other causes. “The problem is not our theory; the problem is that the real world is not responding correctly to our theory. Therefore the real world is the problem.” That is of course not exactly how Larry might put it, but it’s what I’m hearing.

Where’s the Growth?

It’s been more than five years since the global financial crisis, but developed economies aren’t making much progress. As of today, the United States, Canada, Germany, France, Japan, and the United Kingdom have all regained their pre-crisis peaks in real GDP, but with little else to show for it.

Where orthodox neo-Keynesian policies like large-scale deficit spending and aggressive monetary easing have been resisted – as in Japan years ago or in the Eurozone debtor countries today – lingering depressions are commonly interpreted as tragic signs that “textbook” neo-Keynesian economic policy could have prevented the pain all along and that weak economic conditions persist because governments and central banks are not doing enough to kick-start aggregate demand and stimulate credit growth at the zero lower bound.

In places like the United States and Japan, where neo-Keynesian thought leaders have already traded higher public debt levels and larger central bank balance sheets for unspectacular economic growth and the kinds of asset bubbles that always lead to greater instability in the future, their policies have failed to jump-start self-accelerating recoveries. Even in the United States, when QE3 has been fully tapered off, I would expect to see the broader economy start to lose momentum once again.

We’ve tried countercyclical deficit spending to resist recessions, procyclical (and rather wasteful) deficit spending to support supposed recoveries, and accommodative monetary easing all along the way (to lower real interest rates and ease the financing of those pesky deficits); but growth has been sluggish at best, inflation has been hard to generate, and labor market slack is making it difficult to sustain inflation even when real interest rates are already negative. 

Call me a heretic, but I take a different view than the economists in charge. To my mind, the sluggish recovery is a sign that central banks, governments, and, quite frankly, the “textbook” economists (despite their best intentions) are part of the problem. As Detlev Schlichter commented in his latest blog post (“Keynes was a failure in Japan – No need to embrace him in Europe”), “To the true Keynesian, no interest rate is ever low enough, no ‘quantitative easing’ program ever ambitious enough, and no fiscal deficit ever large enough.” It’s apparently true even as debt limits draw closer.

While the academic elites like to think of economics as a reliable science (with the implication that they can somehow control a multi-trillion-dollar economy), I have repeatedly stressed the stronger parallel of economics to religion, in the sense that it is all too easy to get caught up in the dogma of one tradition or another. And all too often, a convenient dogma becomes a justification for those in power who want to expand their control, influence, and spending.

Whereas an Austrian or monetarist approach would suggest less government and a very light handle on the monetary policy tiller, Keynesian philosophy gives those who want greater government control of the economy ample reasons to just keep doing more.

Schlichter expands his critique of the logic of pursuing more of the same debt-driven policies and highlights some of the obvious flaws in the pervasive Keynesian thinking:

Remember that a lack of demand is, in the Keynesian religion, the original sin and the source of all economic troubles. “Aggregate demand” is the sum of all individual demand, and all the individuals together are not demanding enough. How can such a situation come about? Here the Keynesians are less precise. Either people save too much (the nasty “savings glut”), or they invest too little, maybe they misplaced their animal spirits, or they experienced a Minsky moment, and took too much risk on their balance sheets, these fools. In any case, the private sector is clearly at fault as it is not pulling its weight, which means that the public sector has to step in and, in the interest of the common good, inject its own demand, that is [to] “stimulate” the economy by spending other people’s money and print some additional money on top. Lack of “aggregate demand” is evidently some form of collective economic impotence that requires a heavy dose of government-prescribed Viagra so the private sector can get its aggregate demand up again.

Generations of mismanagement have left major economies progressively weaker, involving

  1. dysfunctional tax/regulatory/entitlement/trade policies created by short-sighted and corrupt political systems,
  2. private-sector credit growth encouraged by central bank mismanagement, and
  3. government expansion justified in times of crisis by Keynesian theory.

But rather than recognizing real-world causes and effects, neo-Keynesian ideologues are making dangerous arguments for expanding the role of government spending in places where government is already a big part of the problem.

We are going to delve a little deeper into this thesis of “secular stagnation” posited last year by Larry Summers and eagerly adopted by Paul Krugman, among others; and then we’ll take a trip around the rich world to assess the all-too-common trouble with disappointing growth, low inflation, and increasingly unresponsive labor markets. Then I’ll outline a few reasons why I think the new Keynesian mantra of “secular stagnation” is nothing more than an excuse for more of the same failed policies.

I think we’ll see a consistent theme: fiscal and monetary stimulus alone cannot generate “financially stable growth with full employment.” In fact, such policies only make matters worse. And funny things happen in the Keynesian endgame.

USA: Secular Stagnation or Public Sector Drag?

This latest theory – “secular stagnation” – argues that powerful and inherently deflationary forces like shrinking populations…

… and potentially slowing productivity growth (as posited by Northwestern University professor Bob Gordon)…

 … are adding to the deleveraging headwinds that always follow debt bubbles. According to the “stagnation” theory, structural forces have been bearing down on the natural rate of interest and weighing on the full-employment level of economic growth since the early 1980s; but the slowdown in trend GDP growth has been masked by a series of epic bubbles in technology stocks and housing.

Even before the 2008 crisis, the argument goes, the real interest rate required to restart the business cycle had been trending lower and lower for years, and the average level of growth experienced during business cycles has fallen.

Moreover, it has taken longer and longer to recoup the jobs that were lost in each of the last three recoveries.

It’s hard to argue with the data, but it’s really a matter of how we interpret it. While the five-year-old “recovery” is still the weakest business cycle in modern US history…

… I quite frankly still believe the effects on growth are temporary. Difficult and long-lasting, for sure (as Jonathan Tepper and I outlined in our books Endgame and Code Red), but temporary nonetheless as private-sector deleveraging continues. We have encountered a massive debt crisis and still have a long way to go in dealing with the sovereign debt bubbles that are being created in Europe and Japan – with the potential of one’s ballooning out of control in the US unless we turn ourselves around.

It may take a crisis, but the forces that plague rich-world economies will eventually shake out and usher in a new era of technology-driven growth. In other words, this too shall pass… but continuing with the same old policies is highly likely to create another crisis through which we all must pass first.

Yes, shrinking workforces, private-sector debt overhangs, and technological innovation are making it difficult to achieve “financially stable growth with full employment” (quoting Summers); but governments and central banks are themselves becoming an increasing drag on rich-world economies. Our governments have saddled us with excessive public debt, onerous overregulation, oppressive tax codes, and their attendant distorted market signals; while our central banks have engaged in currency manipulation and monetary-policy overmanagement. Those in power who rely on Keynesian policies almost always find it inconvenient to cut back in times of relative economic strength (as Keynes would have had them do). And if, according to their arguments, the economy is still too weak even in periods of growth to enable the correction of government balance sheets, then perhaps their reluctance has something to do with debt piling up, market signals being distorted, and governments being empowered to encroach on every aspect of the lives of their productive citizens .

My friend Grant Williams used this chart in a speech yesterday. It shows that we have come to need ever more debt just to produce the same amount of GDP. With a deleveraging in the private sector underway, it is no wonder that growth is under pressure.

Debt is simply future consumption brought forward. Another way to think about it is that debt is future consumption denied. But there comes a point when debt has to be repaid, and by definition, from that point forward there is going to be a period of slower growth. I have called that point the Endgame of the Debt Supercycle, and it was the subject of my book Endgame.

As a result of central bank and governmental machinations, Keynesian growth is ultimately debt-fueled growth (either through the swelling of public debt via deficit spending or the accumulation of private debt via credit expansion); and eventually, public and private balance sheets run out of room to expand anymore. It has taken decades for cracks to show up in the prevailing theory, but now the cracks are everywhere.

One place where the crack-up is especially evident is Japan, where an uber-Keynesian combination of aggressive fiscal deficits and a planned doubling in the monetary base started to lift real GDP and inflation numbers last year before falling back into a deflationary trap. Yet the Japanese experience has seemingly convinced ECB President Mario Draghi that similar policies should be implemented across the Eurozone.

Last quarter, the Japanese economy shrank by an annualized 7.1%; business investment fell by 5.1%; and residential spending was down 10%. This is after one of the most massive Keynesian quantitative easing efforts in the history of the world.

So, let’s go to Japan, which may now have to retitle itself “the land of the setting sun,” since it is facing the steepest expected decline in population and in workforce-to-population ratio on the planet.

Land of the Setting Sun

Japan’s long-awaited “recovery” is already losing steam without the effective implementation of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “third arrow” of structural reform, which to my mind was always the most critical element of his entire “Abenomics” project (and of course the most politically difficult). Despite massive fiscal and monetary stimulus and a desperate attempt to boost tax revenues by hiking the sales tax this past April, Japanese GDP collapsed in Q2:

Let’s review how Japan got there.

Prime Minister Abe took office in late December 2012 and, together with his (initially reluctant) colleagues at the Bank of Japan, quickly fired the first two fiscal and monetary policy arrows, which aimed to propel the world’s third-largest economy out of its deflationary trap. The third arrow has yet to fly.


Source: Wall Street Journal, March 2013

Since January 2013 the Bank of Japan has expanded its balance sheet by 78% (42% on an annualized basis)…

… and pushed the USD/JPY exchange rate to a six-year low of a fraction under 109 yen per dollar as of the market close yesterday.

In true Keynesian form, the Japanese government ran a massive fiscal deficit in 2013, equivalent to 8.4% of GDP. This was its 22nd consecutive year of deficit spending, starting in mid-1992…

… despite the fact that the Japanese public-sector debt-to-GDP ratio is quickly approaching 250%:

While inflation has popped to its highest level since the early 1990s…

… headline CPI has been decelerating since May and could quickly revert to deflation in the event of continued economic weakness, as was the case after the 1997 tax hike… which would then bring on even more “money-financed” deficit spending.

Abe advisor Etsuro Honda was very clear on this point: “Regardless of the next sales tax hike, it could be that additional monetary easing might be called for if inflation and demand fail to pick up and the output gap doesn’t narrow…. I can fully see the possibility that such a situation will occur.”

Of course, the party cannot go on forever. More than twenty years of constant deficit spending and public-sector debt growth have finally led to a situation where debt service and entitlements are crowding out the government’s general budget.

And now the situation is turning dangerous. Japan has been flirting with current account deficits for the past few years, and the trend looks decidedly negative over the coming decade. That, in turn, could force the Abe administration to look for foreign investment to fund its ongoing operations, pushing interest rates up dramatically to the point that debt service and entitlements could consume more than half the annual operating budget.

Bottom line: Abenomics has delivered a bounce in economic growth and inflation, but it’s failing to push Japan into a self-sustaining recovery. Without a detour through structural reforms (which would be quite painful), this road leads to higher public debt balances and even more dysfunction in the medium term, leaving Japan only a shock away from disaster. As predicted here three years ago, I continue to believe that the yen will be over 200 to the dollar by the end of the decade, and possibly much sooner.

Keynesians argue that Abe had the right idea, he just didn’t spend enough and will need to spend a lot more in the near future. In other words, fiscal and monetary stimulus can lift inflation and boost growth in the short term… but the problem is that you can’t have that stimulus if you want to consolidate the national debt and boost tax revenues at the same time.

Some economists would argue that Abe’s policies don’t necessarily have to add to the debt load, as long as the government has a firm commitment from the central bank to monetize the debt along the way. The fact that that would destroy the buying power of the yen doesn’t seem to be a consideration for them. The elderly on fixed incomes might disagree.

So with their highly leveraged banking system and already crushing sovereign debt loads, why wouldn’t the Europeans embrace the same model?

Draghi’s Turn at Abenomics?

I’ve written extensively on the Eurozone in recent months, so I will keep this section brief.

Much of Southern Europe has been mired in depression, with hopelessly slow or negative growth rates, low inflation or outright deflation, and extremely high levels of unemployment (especially among young workers), for several years.

It’s a toxic situation for a multi-country monetary system that still lacks the underpinning of banking or fiscal unions. Demonstrations in the Catalonia region of Spain, inspired by this week’s Scottish referendum, reveal the very real political risks that are only growing with voter frustration.  

Perhaps it was just talk, but Mario Draghi laid out a three-point plan similar to Abe’s in his presentation at the recent Jackson Hole meeting of central bankers. It quickly acquired the sobriquet “Draghinomics.”

Draghi recently cut the ECB’s already-negative interest rates and has promised a large round of quantitative easing. But the core problems facing Europe are not interest rates or a lack of liquidity but rather a structurally unwieldly labor market, too many regulations being dreamed up in Brussels, a lack of capital available to small businesses, and major regulatory headwinds for business startups.

Compound all that with the significant structural imbalances between Northern and Southern Europe, dramatically overleveraged banks, and an obvious sovereign debt bubble, and you have all the elements of a major crisis in the making.

That the Eurozone is a fragile and politically unstable union will come as no surprise to Thoughts from the Frontline readers who have been diligently perusing my letters for the past several years, but it is a critical point that we cannot ignore. How, I wonder, can Draghi even hope for a successful European implementation of a three-point plan like Japan’s – where a leader who started with very strong approval ratings has burned through most of his political capital before structural reforms have even gotten off the ground?

Draghi simply does not have the political power to make the changes that are necessary. All he can do is prop up a failing system with liquidity and low rates, which will ultimately create even more serious problems.

The Failure of Monetary Policy

There are many economists, with Paul Krugman at their fore, who believe that Keynesian monetary policy is responsible for the United States doing better than Europe. I beg to differ. The United States is outshining Europe due to the combined fortuitous circumstances of massive new discoveries of unconventional oil and gas, new technologies, and an abundance of risk-taking entrepreneurs. Indeed, take away the oil boom and the technology boom centered in Silicon Valley, and the US would be as sclerotic as Europe is.

None of the above has anything to do with monetary policy. In fact, I would argue that current monetary, fiscal, and regulatory policy is getting in the way of that growth.

Robert A. Hefner III, chairman of The GHK Companies and the author of The Grand Energy Transition: The Rise of Energy Gases, Sustainable Life and Growth, and the Next Great Economic Expansion, wrote a wonderful piece in last month’s Foreign Affairs, entitled “The United States of Gas” (hat tip, Dennis Gartman).

Consider how much can change in one year alone. In 2013, on properties in Oklahoma in which the GHK Companies hold interests covering 150 square miles, one large U.S. independent company drilled and completed over 100 horizontal wells. Had those wells been drilled vertically, they would have exposed only about 1,000 feet of shale, whereas horizontal drilling allowed nearly 100 miles to be exposed. And rather than performing the 100 injections of fracking fluid that a vertical well would have made possible, the company was able to perform between 1,000 and 2,000 of them. The company’s engineers also tinkered with such variables as the type of drill bits used, the weight applied while drilling, the rotation speed of the drill, and the size and number of fracking treatments.

Thanks to that continuous experimentation, plus the savings from scale (for example, ordering tubular steel in bulk), the company managed to slash its costs by 40 percent over 18 months and still boost its productivity. The result: in 2014, six or seven rigs will be able to drill more wells and produce as much oil and gas as 12 rigs were able to the year before. Since the shale boom began, over a decade ago, companies have drilled about 150,000 horizontal wells in the United States, a monumental undertaking that has cost approximately $1 trillion. The rest of the world, however, has drilled only hundreds of horizontal wells. And because each borehole runs horizontally for about one mile (and sometimes even two miles) and is subjected to ten or more fracking injections, companies in the United States have fracked about 150,000 miles of shale about two million times. That adds up to around a thousand times as much shale exposed inside the United States as outside it.

There is a divide in the United States, and indeed in the world, between those who believe (and the emphasis is on believe) that government in all its various shapes and sizes is the font of all growth and progress and those who believe that it is individual effort and free markets that “move the ball down the field” of human progress. Count me in the latter group.

Government is necessary to the extent that we need to maintain a level playing field and proper conduct, but with the recognition that wherever government is involved there are costs for that service that must be paid by the private market and producers. For example, almost everyone thinks that the government’s being involved in student loans is a public good. We should help young people with education, right? Except that John Burns released a report this week that shows that student loans will cost the real estate industry 414,000 home sales. Young people are so indebted they can’t afford to buy new homes. Collateral damage?

The unintended consequences of government policies and manipulation of the markets are legendary. But often unseen.

Monetary policy as it is currently constructed is only marginally helping private markets and producers. Monetary policy as it is currently practiced is an outright war on savers, which sees them as collateral damage in the Keynesian pursuit of increased consumer demand.

It is trickle-down monetary policy. It has inflated the prices of stocks and other income-producing securities and assets, enriching those who already have assets, but it has done practically nothing for Main Street. It has enabled politicians to avoid making the correct decisions to create sustainable growth and a prosperous future for our children, let alone an environment in which the Boomer generation can retire comfortably.

It is a pernicious doctrine that refuses to recognize its own multiple failures because it starts with the presupposition that its theory cannot fail. It starts with the presuppositions that final consumer demand is the end-all and be-all, that increased indebtedness and leverage enabled by lower rates are good things, and that a small room full of wise individuals can successfully direct the movement of an entire economy of 300 million-plus people.

The current economic thought leaders are not unlike the bishops of the Catholic Church of 16th-century Europe. Their world was constructed according to a theory that they held to be patently true. You did not rise to a position of authority unless you accepted the truth of that theory. Therefore Galileo was wrong. They refused to look at the clear evidence that contradicted their theory, because to do so would have undermined their power.

Current monetary and fiscal policy is leading the developed world down a dark alley where we are all going to get mugged. Imbalances are clearly building up in almost every corner of the market, encouraged by a low-interest-rate regime that is explicitly trying to increase the risk-taking in the system. Our Keynesian masters know their policies and theories are correct – we must only give them time to more perfectly practice them. That the results they’re getting are not what they want cannot be their fault, because the theory is correct. Therefore the problem has to lie with the real world, full of imperfect people like you and me.

What our leaders need is a little more humility and a little less theory.

Washington DC, Dallas, Chicago, Athens (Texas), and Boston

I find myself in the Hill Country north of San Antonio, Texas, attending the Casey Research Summit, where I speak tomorrow. I’m surrounded by many friends in very pleasant circumstances. And when I hit the send button, I will have two days of fascinating conversations ahead of me. I am doing a number of videos with various interesting personalities, which we will post on the Mauldin Economics site in the coming weeks. More on that later.

On Monday I fly back to Dallas, where I will stay until the end of the month, then head off to Washington DC. In the middle of October I’ll visit Chicago, Athens (Texas), and Boston, all in one week.

I can’t hit the send button without noting that Jack Ma, the Chinese ultra-billionaire founder of Alibaba, was at the New York Stock Exchange for the launch of his IPO and sought out my friend Art Cashin, saying “I can’t leave without a picture with Art Cashin.” As one of Art’s friends subsequently wrote on our round-robin group email, Jack is clearly a man who understands who is really running things. The incident also shows that anyone can be a groupie. But what really intrigues me is that here is one of the richest men in the world, a force in China, obsessively focused on creating a merchandising machine, and yet he is so in touch with the world of investment and business that he watches CNBC enough to know who Art is. And to appreciate the character and class that Art has shown us for years – and want to meet him. Jeff Bezos may have his work cut out for him in the coming years.

Have a great week and tell a struggling businessman that you appreciate his work.

Your ready for some fun conversations analyst,

John Mauldin
subscribers@mauldineconomics.com

 

Outside the Box: “Finest Worksong”

 

“In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is” – Yogi Berra, as cited by Ben Hunt in today’s Outside the Box. Or, to put it in macroeconomic terms, “Why is global growth so disappointing?” In the aftermath of the Great Recession, fearing a deflationary equilibrium (which, as Ben notes, is macroeconomic-speak for falling into a well, breaking your leg, at night, alone), the Fed bought trillions of dollars in assets … and saved the world. Sort of. If you don’t count the reckoning yet to come. The theory was that with all that monetary-policy injections, global growth would spring back to “normal.”

But what did practice show? The global economic engine never fired back up. The central banks’ answer? Do more. So the Fed gave us QE 2 and QE 3, and then we got Abenomics, and now it’s Draghinomics.

Still no real growth. What’s missing? asks Ben. He has a surprising answer. Read on.

Ben works for Salient Partners and writes the fascinating letter called Epsilon Theory. You can subscribe to it for free here, or by emailing bhunt@salientpartners.com.

I had dinner last night with my good friend Richard Howard, who, besides being a charming young Australian lad, is also the wickedly brilliant chief economist of Hayman Advisors, the hedge fund outfit run by my friend Kyle Bass. We try to get together every few months at one of the local eateries and hash out the world. And yes, for those interested, the recent action in Japan has both of us smiling a “we told you so” sort of smile. But also thinking that the magic will last for Abe-sama a little while longer. Actually, we talked about why this trade could take a lot longer than most yen bears expect.

(Side note: As longtime readers know, I had just hedged a good portion of my newly acquired mortgage this year by shorting the yen using 10-year put options. Just for grins, I called my broker [a.k.a. The Plumber – Eric Keubler of JPMorgan] and asked how much my position was up. I know, I bought 10-year options and shouldn’t check more than once a year at most, but I was just curious – so sue me. Anyway, with a 5-yen move in my favor I expected to see a rather nice profit. It turned out the profit was about 3% of what I was expecting [not a typo]. That seems odd, I said. No, he told me, all the volatility in the option price has collapsed. The complacency in the currency market and especially in the yen-dollar market is simply massive. This made me glad that I bought 10-year options, as I fully expect that the volatility will have to reappear in the future – unless human nature has somehow changed without sending me a memo. But it goes to show you, gentle reader, that you can be right on the trade and lose money, perhaps a lot of it, if your timing sucks. Ironically, I can get roughly the same trade today for only a few dollars more than I paid five or six months ago, with the 5-yen advantage to the home team. Go figure. I plan to add to this trade, so if you are watching and know when I’m going to do it, you will know that volatility is exceedingly high when my personal situation allows me to execute.)

Richard and I then went on to talk about the interesting decision by CalPERS to completely exit hedge funds. I think the consensus as we left the table was that it is both an odd decision and a perfectly reasonable one, depending on your perspective. Please note that in their press release CalPERS used 5 years and 20 years as their retrospective time horizons. The intervals between 1994 and 2009 and the present just happen to be very convenient time periods to compare overall portfolio returns for CalPERS and for equity markets in general versus hedge funds. If you used 2000 or 2006, your internal rate of return would suck, and your portfolio performance would be less than flattering. Still, hedge funds in general have not performed as well for the last five years as they did in the past, and in general they didn’t offer the downside protection in 2008 that they did in the prior correction of 2000-2001.

In my opinion, CalPERS was not very good at choosing hedge funds, and their timing in entering and exiting a number of their funds wasn’t any better. You can go to any number of pension funds and find far better results than CalPERS achieved. To be fair, I would suggest that the majority of hedge funds are not worth the fees they charge, as they simply provide leveraged beta. Choosing hedge funds is as much an art form as it is a science. Kind of like choosing stocks.

I mean, every asset class has its own particular rhythm. As we all know, over the very long run stocks generally do well. But there are some periods of time when the performance numbers don’t live up to the promise. Those are called secular bear markets, and we had one beginning in 2000. I don’t think we have come to the end of it, and so we still live in a world where we have to look for absolute returns. That’s just the way I see the data.

All that said, I can totally understand CalPERS’ decision to exit the hedge fund world. First, their entire hedge fund investment portfolio was less than 2% of their total portfolio. Even if their hedge fund portfolio was crushing it, that wouldn’t move their overall needle. They were paying $135 million in fees for the privilege of being continually second-guessed by their critics. Frankly, if they had asked me, I would have said, either go large or go home.

And there’s the problem. They really can’t go large. Let’s say they put 10% of their fund into hedge funds. That means at least $30 billion. I don’t think you can allocate $30 billion appropriately from the standpoint of public pension fund responsibility. I wouldn’t even begin to know how to do it. Two or three billion? Absolutely. It would be difficult, but it could be done.

The problem is, you don’t want to become too big a portion of any one fund. Seriously, there are not that many good large funds. Most hedge funds are way too small to be considered as potential investments by CalPERS. So if you are CalPERS you are size-constrained and limited to a small universe of very large hedge funds. Which is not typically where you find hedge fund alpha. And you don’t want to have 100 different funds, as the complexity of tracking all that is enormous.

So you either end up with a portfolio that is ridiculously spread out and is going to regress to the mean, that is, to general market performance; or you going to be over-allocated to some fund that will prove to be a time bomb just when your public relations team is being overwhelmed with something else. I’m not sure who in the universe is in charge of the rules on timing, but it does seem that things are structured so as to cause the greatest possible embarrassment.

So I can certainly understand extremely large public funds leaving hedge funds. I do think that they should consider what other forms of alternative investing might make sense. Pension funds have one commodity that very few other investors have: they have time and lots of it. Most of them sell their time for ridiculously cheap premiums in the fixed-income market. Perhaps figuring out how to increase the return on your patient cash would be the way to go. And that’s not a bad strategy for individual investors as well. Just saying…

That’s the news from beautiful, sunny Dallas. It is time to go ahead and hit the send button as The Beast is lurking in the gym, waiting for me. Have a great week, and enjoy Ben Hunt’s essay.

Your ready to get on a plane again analyst,

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

 

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Scottish Independence Would Shake Up the Global System

“Finest Worksong”

Take your instinct by the reins
You’d better best to rearrange
What we want and what we need
Has been confused, been confused

– REM, “Finest Worksong” (1987)

The politics of dancing

The politics of oooh feeling good

– Re-flex, “The Politics of Dancing” (1983)

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.
– William Shakespeare, “Julius Caesar” (1599)

In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.
– Yogi Berra, (b. 1925)

Year after year we have had to explain from mid-year on why the global growth rate has been lower than predicted as little as two quarters back. …

Indeed, the IMF’s expectation for long-run global growth is now a full percentage point below what it was immediately before the Global Financial Crisis. …

But it is also possible that the underperformance reflects a more structural, longer-term, shift in the global economy, with less growth in underlying supply factors.
– Fed Vice Chairman Stanley Fischer, The Great Recession: Moving Ahead,” August 11, 2014

There is one great mystery in the high falutin’ circles of the Fed, ECB, and IMF today. Why is global growth so disappointing? There are different variations on this theme – why aren’t businesses investing more? why aren’t banks lending more? – but it’s all one basic question. First the Fed, then the BOJ, and now the ECB have taken superheroic efforts to inflate financial asset prices in order to bridge the gap between the output shock of 2008 and a resumption of normal economic growth. They’ve done their part. Why hasn’t the rest of the world joined the party?

The thinking was that leaving capital markets to their own devices in the aftermath of the Great Recession could result in a deflationary equilibrium, which is macroeconomic-speak for falling into a well, breaking your leg, at night, alone. It’s the worst possible outcome. So the decision was made to buy trillions of dollars in assets, forcing all of us to take on more risk with our money than we would otherwise prefer, and to jawbone the markets (excuse me … “employ communication policy”) to leverage those trillions still further. All this in order to buy time for the global economic engine to rev back up and allow private investment activity to take over for temporary government investment activity.

It was a brilliant plan, and as emergency intervention it worked like a charm. QE1 (and even more importantly TLGP) saved the world. The intended behavioral effect on markets and market participants succeeded beyond Bernanke et al’s wildest dreams, such that now the Fed finds itself in the odd position of trying to talk down the dominant Narrative of Central Bank Omnipotence. But for some reason the global economic engine never kicked back in. The answer? We must do more. We must try harder. And so we got QE2. And QE3. And Abenomics. And now Draghinomics. We got what we always get in the aftermath of a global economic crisis – a temporary government policy intervention transformed into a permanent government social insurance program.

But the engine still hasn’t kicked in.

So now villains must be found. Now we must root out the counter-revolutionaries and Trotskyites and Lin Biao-ists and assorted enemies of progress. Because if the plan is brilliant but it’s not working, then obviously someone is blocking the plan. The structural villains per Stanley Fischer (who is rapidly becoming a more powerful Narrative voice and Missionary than Janet Yellen): housing, fiscal policy, and the European economic slow-down. Or if you’ll allow me to translate the Fed-speak: consumers, Republicans, and Germany. These are the counter-revolutionaries per the central bank apparatchiks. If only everyone would just spend more, why then our theories would succeed grandly.

Hmm. Maybe. Or maybe what we want and what we need has been confused. Maybe the thin veneer of ebullient hollow markets has been confused for the real activity of real companies. Maybe the theatre of a Wise Man with an Answer has been confused for intellectually honest leadership. Maybe theoretical certainty has been confused for practical humility. Maybe the fault, dear Brutus, is not in external forces like Republicans or Germans (or Democrats or Central Bankers), but in ourselves.

Let me suggest a different answer to the mystery of missing global growth, a political answer, an answer that puts hyper-accommodative monetary policy in its proper place: a nice-to-have for vibrant global growth rather than a must-have. The problem with sparking renewed economic growth in the West is that domestic politics in the West do not depend on economic growth. What we have in the US today, and even more so in Europe (ex-Germany), are not the politics of growth but rather the politics of identity. At the turn of the 20th century the meaning of being a Democrat or a Republican was all about specific economic policies … monetary policies, believe it or not. You could vote for Republican McKinley and ride on a golden coin to Prosperity for all, or you could vote for Democrat Bryan and support silver coinage to avoid being “crucified on a cross of gold.”

Today’s elections almost never hinge on any specific policy, much less anything to do with something as arcane as monetary policy. No, today’s elections are all about social identification with like- minded citizens around amorphous concepts like “justice” or “freedom” … words that communicate aspirational values and speak in code about a wide range of social issues. Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing inherently bad or underhanded about all this. I think Shepard Fairey’s “HOPE” poster is absolute genius, rivaled only by the Obama campaign’s genius in recognizing its power. Nor am I saying that economic issues are unimportant in elections. On the contrary, James Carville is mostly right when he says, “It’s the economy, stupid.” What I am saying is that modern political communications use neither the language nor the substance of economic policy in any meaningful way. Words like “taxes” and “jobs” are bandied about, but only as totems, as signifiers useful in assuming or accusing an identity. Candidates seek to be identified as a “job creator” or a “tax cutter” (or accuse their opponent of being a “job destroyer” or a “tax raiser”) because these are powerful linguistic themes that connect on an emotional level with well-defined subsets of voters on a range of dimensions, not because they want to actually campaign on issues of economic growth. Candidates have learned that while voters certainly care about the economy and their economic situation, the only time they make a voting decision based primarily on specific economic policy rather than shared identity is when the decision is explicitly framed as a binary policy outcome – a referendum. Even there, if you look at the ballot referendums over the past several decades (Howard Jarvis and Proposition 13 happened almost 40 years ago! how’s that for making you feel old?), the shift from economic to social issues is obvious.

Both the Republican and the Democratic Party have entirely embraced identity politics, because it works. It works to maintain two status quo political parties that have gerrymandered their respective identity bases into a wonderfully stable equilibrium. The last thing either party wants is a defining economic policy question that would cut across identity lines. But until the terms of debate change such that an electoral mandate emerges around macroeconomic policy … until voters care enough about Growth Policy A vs. Growth Policy B to vote the pertinent rascals in or out, despite the inertia of value affinity … we’re going to be stuck in a low-growth economy despite all the Fed’s yeoman work. I know, I know … what blasphemy to suggest that monetary policy is not the end-all and be-all for creating economic growth! But there you go. At the very moment that elections hinge on the question of economic growth, we will get it. But until that moment, we won’t, no matter what the Fed does or doesn’t do.

What reshapes the electoral landscape such that an over-riding policy issue takes over? Historically speaking, it’s a huge external shock, like a war or a natural disaster, accompanied by a huge political shock, like the emergence of a new political party or charismatic leader that triggers an electoral realignment. In the US I think that the emerging appeal of national Libertarian candidates (all of whom, so far anyway, have the last name Paul) is pretty interesting. The 2016 election has the potential to be a watershed event and set up a realignment, if not in 2016 then in 2020, which hasn’t happened in the US since Ronald Reagan transformed the US electoral map in 1980. And yes, I know that the conventional wisdom is that a viable Libertarian candidate is wonderful news for the Democratic party, and maybe that will be the case, but both status quo parties today are so dynastic, so ossified, that I think everyone could be in for a rude awakening. It’s a long shot, to be sure, mainly because the US economy isn’t doing so poorly as to plant the seeds for a reshuffling of the electoral deck, but definitely interesting to watch.

What’s not a long shot – and why I think Draghi’s recently announced ABS purchase is a bridge too far – is a realigning election in Italy.

I like to look at aggregate GDP when I’m thinking about the strategic interactions of international politics, but for questions of domestic politics I think per capita GDP gives more insight into what’s going on. Per capita GDP gives a sense of what the economy “feels like” to the average citizen. It addresses Reagan’s famous question in the 1980 campaign with Jimmy Carter: are you better off today than you were four years ago? It’s a very blunt indicator to be sure, as it completely ignores the distribution of economic goodies (something I’m going to write a lot about in future notes), but it’s a good first cut at the data all the same. Here’s a chart of per capita GDP levels for the three big Western economies: the US, Europe, and Japan.


Source: World Bank. For illustrative purposes only.

The Great Recession hit everyone like a ton of bricks, creating an output shock roughly equal to the impact of losing a medium-sized war, but the US and Japan have rebounded to set new highs. Europe … not so much.

Let’s look at Europe more closely. Here’s a chart of the big three continental European economies: Germany, France, and Italy.


Source: World Bank. For illustrative purposes only.

Germany off to the races, France moribund, and Italy looking like it just lost World War III. I mean … wow. More than any other chart, this one shows why I think the Euro is structurally challenged.

First, why in the world would Germany change anything about the current Euro system? The system works for Germany, and how. Alone among major Western powers, the politics of growth are alive and well in Germany. “But Germany, unless you lighten up and embrace your common European identity, maybe this sweet deal for you evaporates.” Ummm … yeah, right. The history books are just chock-full of self-interested creditors with sweet deals that unilaterally made large concessions before the very last second (and often not even then).

Second, why in the world would Italy accept anything about the current Euro system? The system fails Italy, and how. The system fails other countries, too, like Spain, Portugal, and Greece, but these countries are in the Euro by necessity. Their economies are far too small to go it alone. Italy, on the other hand, is in the Euro by choice. Its economy is plenty big enough to stand on its own, and with a vibrant export potential, an independent and devalued lira is just what the doctor ordered to get the economic growth engine revved up. Short term pain, long term gain.

Why doesn’t Italy bolt? Lots of reasons, most of them identity related. Also, let’s not underestimate the power of cheap money to keep the puppet-masters of the Italian State in a Germany-centric system. The system may fail Italy as a whole, but if you’re pulling the strings of the State and can borrow 10-year money at 2.5% to keep your vita nice and dolce … well, let’s keep dancing.

Still, nothing focuses the electoral mind like the economic equivalent of losing a major war. At some point in the not so distant future there will be an anti-Euro realigning election in Italy. And that will wake the Red King.

In the meantime, Draghi will go forward with his ABS purchase scheme, a brilliant theory that will deliver frustratingly slim results quarter after quarter after quarter. Until the politics of growth are embraced outside of Germany, European banks will remain reticent to lend growth capital to small and medium enterprises. Until the politics of growth are embraced outside of Germany, large enterprises with plenty of cash and access to cheap loans will remain reticent to invest growth capital. Maybe a little M&A, sure, but no new factories, no organic expansion, no grand hiring plans. The thing is, Draghi knows that he’s pushing on a string with the ABS program and that growth won’t return until the fundamental political dynamic changes in France in Italy, which is why he is calling both countries out by name to institute “structural reforms”. But in typical European fashion this entire debate is Mandarin vs. Mandarin, with almost all of the proposals focused on regulatory reform rather than something that must be hashed out through popular legislation. So long as economic policy reform is imposed from above … so long as we are engaged in modern-day analogs of Soviet Five-Year Plans … I believe we will remain stuck in what I call the Entropic Ending – a long gray slog of disappointing but not catastrophic aggregate economic growth. That’s not a terrible environment for stocks, certainly not for bonds, and the alternative – economic reform based on the hurly-burly of popular politics, is almost certain to be a wild ride that markets hate. But to get back to what we need (real growth) rather than what we want (higher stock prices) this is what it’s going to take. Elections always matter, but in the Golden Age of the Central Banker they matter even more.

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Important Disclosures

The article Outside the Box: “Finest Worksong” was originally published at mauldineconomics.com.

Thoughts from the Frontline: What’s on Your Radar Screen?

 

Toward the end of every week I begin to ponder what I should write about in the next Thoughts from the Frontline. Much of my week is spent in front of my iPad or computer, consuming as much generally random information as time and the ebb and flow of life will allow. I cannot remember a time in my life after I realized you could read and learn new things that that particular addiction has not been my constant companion.

As I sit down to write each week, I generally turn to the events and themes that most impressed me that week. Reading from a wide variety of sources, I sometimes see patterns that I feel are worthy to call to your attention. I’ve come to see my role in your life as a filter, a connoisseur of ideas and information. I don’t sit down to write with the thought that I need to be particularly brilliant or insightful (which is almighty difficult even for brilliant and insightful people) but that I need to find brilliant and insightful, and hopefully useful, ideas among the hundreds of sources that surface each week. And if I can bring to your attention a pattern, an idea, or thought stream that that helps your investment process, then I’ve done my job.

What’s on Your Radar Screen?

Sometimes I feel like an air traffic controller at “rush hour” at a major international airport. My radar screen is just so full of blinking lights that it is hard to choose what to focus on. We each have our own personal radar screen, focused on things that could make a difference in our lives. The concerns of a real estate investor in California are different from those of a hedge fund trader in London. If you’re an entrepreneur, you’re focused on things that can grow your business; if you are a doctor, you need to keep up with the latest research that will heal your patients; and if you’re a money manager, you need to keep a step ahead of current trends. And while I have a personal radar screen off to the side, my primary, business screen is much larger than most people’s, which is both an advantage and a challenge with its own particular set of problems. (In a physical sense this is also true: I have two 26-inch screens in my office. Which typically stay packed with things I’m paying attention to.)

So let’s look at what’s on my radar screen today.

First up (but probably not the most important in the long term), I would have to say, is Scotland. What has not been widely discussed is that the voting age was changed in Scotland just a few years ago. For this election, anyone in Scotland over 16 years old is eligible. Think about that for a second. Have you ever asked 16-year-olds whether they would like to be more free and independent and gotten a “no” answer? They don’t think with their economic brains, or at least most of them don’t. If we can believe the polls, this is going to be a very close election. The winning margin may be determined by whether the “yes” vote can bring out the young generation (especially young males, who are running 90% yes) in greater numbers than the “no” vote can bring out the older folks. Right now it looks as though it will be all about voter turnout.

(I took some time to look through Scottish TV shows on the issue. Talk about your polarizing dilemma. This is clearly on the front burner for almost everyone in Scotland. That’s actually good, as it gets people involved in the political process.)

The “no” coalition is trying to talk logic about what is essentially an emotional issue for many in Scotland. If we’re talking pure economics, from my outside perch I think the choice to keep the union (as in the United Kingdom) intact is a clear, logical choice. But the “no” coalition is making it sound like Scotland could not make it on its own, that it desperately needs England. Not exactly the best way to appeal to national instincts and pride. There are numerous smaller countries that do quite well on their own. Small is not necessarily bad if you are efficient and well run.

However, Scotland would have to raise taxes in order to keep government services at the same level – or else cut government services, not something many people would want.

There is of course the strategy of reducing the corporate tax to match Ireland’s and then competing with Ireland for businesses that want English-speaking, educated workers at lower cost. If that were the only dynamic, Scotland could do quite well.

But that would mean the European Union would have to allow Scotland to join. How does that work when every member country has to approve? The approval process would probably be contingent upon Scotland’s not lowering its corporate tax rates all that much, especially to Irish levels, so that it couldn’t outcompete the rest of Europe. Maybe a compromise on that issue could be reached, or maybe not. But if Scotland were to join the European Union, it would be subject to European Union laws and Brussels regulators. Not an awfully pleasant prospect.

While I think that Scotland would initially have a difficult time making the transition, the Scots could figure it out. The problem is that Scottish independence also changes the dynamic in England, making it much more likely that England would vote to leave the European Union. Then, how would the banks in Scotland be regulated, and who would back them? Markets don’t like uncertainty.

And even if the “no” vote wins, the precedent for allowing a group of citizens in a country within the European Union to vote on whether they want to remain part of their particular country or leave has been set. The Czech Republic and Slovakia have turned out quite well, all things considered. But the independence pressures building in Italy and Spain are something altogether different.

I read where Nomura Securities has told its clients to get out of British pound-based investments until this is over. “Figures from the investment bank Société Générale showing an apparent flight of investors from the UK came as Japan’s biggest bank, Nomura, urged its clients to cut their financial exposure to the UK and warned of a possible collapse in the pound. It described such an outcome as a ‘cataclysmic shock’.” (Source: The London Independent) The good news is that it will be over next Thursday night. One uncertainty will be eliminated, though a “yes” vote would bring a whole new set of uncertainties, as the negotiations are likely to be quite contentious.

One significant snag is, how can Scottish members of the United Kingdom Parliament continue to vote in Parliament if they are leaving the union?

I admit to feeling conflicted about the whole thing, as in general I feel that people ought have a right of self-determination. In this particular case, I’m not quite certain of the logic for independence, though I can understand the emotion. But giving 16-year-olds the right to vote on this issue? Was that really the best way to go about things? Not my call, of course.

Emerging Markets Are Set Up for a Crisis

We could do a whole letter just on emerging markets. The strengthening dollar is creating a problem for many emerging markets, which have enough problems on their own. My radar screen is full of flashing red lights from various emerging markets. Brazil is getting ready to go through an election; their economy is in recession; and inflation is over 6%. There was a time when we would call that stagflation. Plus they lost the World Cup on their home turf to an efficient, well-oiled machine from Germany. The real (the Brazilian currency) is at risk. Will their central bank raise rates in spite of economic weakness if the US dollar rally continues? Obviously, the bank won’t take that action before the election, but if it does so later in the year, it could put a damper on not just Brazil but all of South America. Take a look at this chart of Brazilian consumer price inflation vs. GDP:

Turkey is beginning to soften, with the lira down 6% over the last few months. The South African rand is down 6% since May and down 25% since this time last year. I noted some of the problems with South Africa when I was there early this year. The situation has not improved. They have finally reached an agreement with the unions in the platinum mining industry, which cost workers something like $1 billion in unpaid wages, while the industry lost $2 billion. To add insult to injury, it now appears that a Chinese slowdown may put further pressure on commodity-exporting South Africa. And their trade deficit is just getting worse.

Who’s Competing with Whom?

We could also do a whole letter or two on global trade. The Boston Consulting Group has done a comprehensive study on the top 25 export economies. I admit to being a little surprised at a few of the data points. Let’s look at the chart and then a few comments.

First, notice that Mexico is now cheaper than China. That might explain why Mexico is booming, despite the negative impact of the drug wars going on down there. Further, there is now not that much difference in manufacturing costs between China and the US .

Why not bring that manufacturing home – which is what we are seeing? And especially anything plastic-related, because the shale-gas revolution is giving us an abundance of natural gas liquids such as ethane, propane, and butane, which are changing the cost factors for plastic manufacturers. There is a tidal wave of capital investment in new facilities close to natural gas fields or pipelines. This is also changing the dynamic in Asia, as Asian companies switch to cheaper natural gas for their feedstocks.

(What, you don’t get newsfeeds from the plastic industry? Realizing that I actually do makes me consider whether I need a 12-step program. “Hello, my name is John, and I’m an information addict.”)

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.

Important Disclosures

Thoughts from the Frontline: What’s on Your Radar Screen?

 

Toward the end of every week I begin to ponder what I should write about in the next Thoughts from the Frontline. Much of my week is spent in front of my iPad or computer, consuming as much generally random information as time and the ebb and flow of life will allow. I cannot remember a time in my life after I realized you could read and learn new things that that particular addiction has not been my constant companion.

As I sit down to write each week, I generally turn to the events and themes that most impressed me that week. Reading from a wide variety of sources, I sometimes see patterns that I feel are worthy to call to your attention. I’ve come to see my role in your life as a filter, a connoisseur of ideas and information. I don’t sit down to write with the thought that I need to be particularly brilliant or insightful (which is almighty difficult even for brilliant and insightful people) but that I need to find brilliant and insightful, and hopefully useful, ideas among the hundreds of sources that surface each week. And if I can bring to your attention a pattern, an idea, or thought stream that that helps your investment process, then I’ve done my job.

What’s on Your Radar Screen?

Sometimes I feel like an air traffic controller at “rush hour” at a major international airport. My radar screen is just so full of blinking lights that it is hard to choose what to focus on. We each have our own personal radar screen, focused on things that could make a difference in our lives. The concerns of a real estate investor in California are different from those of a hedge fund trader in London. If you’re an entrepreneur, you’re focused on things that can grow your business; if you are a doctor, you need to keep up with the latest research that will heal your patients; and if you’re a money manager, you need to keep a step ahead of current trends. And while I have a personal radar screen off to the side, my primary, business screen is much larger than most people’s, which is both an advantage and a challenge with its own particular set of problems. (In a physical sense this is also true: I have two 26-inch screens in my office. Which typically stay packed with things I’m paying attention to.)

So let’s look at what’s on my radar screen today.

First up (but probably not the most important in the long term), I would have to say, is Scotland. What has not been widely discussed is that the voting age was changed in Scotland just a few years ago. For this election, anyone in Scotland over 16 years old is eligible. Think about that for a second. Have you ever asked 16-year-olds whether they would like to be more free and independent and gotten a “no” answer? They don’t think with their economic brains, or at least most of them don’t. If we can believe the polls, this is going to be a very close election. The winning margin may be determined by whether the “yes” vote can bring out the young generation (especially young males, who are running 90% yes) in greater numbers than the “no” vote can bring out the older folks. Right now it looks as though it will be all about voter turnout.

(I took some time to look through Scottish TV shows on the issue. Talk about your polarizing dilemma. This is clearly on the front burner for almost everyone in Scotland. That’s actually good, as it gets people involved in the political process.)

The “no” coalition is trying to talk logic about what is essentially an emotional issue for many in Scotland. If we’re talking pure economics, from my outside perch I think the choice to keep the union (as in the United Kingdom) intact is a clear, logical choice. But the “no” coalition is making it sound like Scotland could not make it on its own, that it desperately needs England. Not exactly the best way to appeal to national instincts and pride. There are numerous smaller countries that do quite well on their own. Small is not necessarily bad if you are efficient and well run.

However, Scotland would have to raise taxes in order to keep government services at the same level – or else cut government services, not something many people would want.

There is of course the strategy of reducing the corporate tax to match Ireland’s and then competing with Ireland for businesses that want English-speaking, educated workers at lower cost. If that were the only dynamic, Scotland could do quite well.

But that would mean the European Union would have to allow Scotland to join. How does that work when every member country has to approve? The approval process would probably be contingent upon Scotland’s not lowering its corporate tax rates all that much, especially to Irish levels, so that it couldn’t outcompete the rest of Europe. Maybe a compromise on that issue could be reached, or maybe not. But if Scotland were to join the European Union, it would be subject to European Union laws and Brussels regulators. Not an awfully pleasant prospect.

While I think that Scotland would initially have a difficult time making the transition, the Scots could figure it out. The problem is that Scottish independence also changes the dynamic in England, making it much more likely that England would vote to leave the European Union. Then, how would the banks in Scotland be regulated, and who would back them? Markets don’t like uncertainty.

And even if the “no” vote wins, the precedent for allowing a group of citizens in a country within the European Union to vote on whether they want to remain part of their particular country or leave has been set. The Czech Republic and Slovakia have turned out quite well, all things considered. But the independence pressures building in Italy and Spain are something altogether different.

I read where Nomura Securities has told its clients to get out of British pound-based investments until this is over. “Figures from the investment bank Société Générale showing an apparent flight of investors from the UK came as Japan’s biggest bank, Nomura, urged its clients to cut their financial exposure to the UK and warned of a possible collapse in the pound. It described such an outcome as a ‘cataclysmic shock’.” (Source: The London Independent) The good news is that it will be over next Thursday night. One uncertainty will be eliminated, though a “yes” vote would bring a whole new set of uncertainties, as the negotiations are likely to be quite contentious.

One significant snag is, how can Scottish members of the United Kingdom Parliament continue to vote in Parliament if they are leaving the union?

I admit to feeling conflicted about the whole thing, as in general I feel that people ought have a right of self-determination. In this particular case, I’m not quite certain of the logic for independence, though I can understand the emotion. But giving 16-year-olds the right to vote on this issue? Was that really the best way to go about things? Not my call, of course.

Emerging Markets Are Set Up for a Crisis

We could do a whole letter just on emerging markets. The strengthening dollar is creating a problem for many emerging markets, which have enough problems on their own. My radar screen is full of flashing red lights from various emerging markets. Brazil is getting ready to go through an election; their economy is in recession; and inflation is over 6%. There was a time when we would call that stagflation. Plus they lost the World Cup on their home turf to an efficient, well-oiled machine from Germany. The real (the Brazilian currency) is at risk. Will their central bank raise rates in spite of economic weakness if the US dollar rally continues? Obviously, the bank won’t take that action before the election, but if it does so later in the year, it could put a damper on not just Brazil but all of South America. Take a look at this chart of Brazilian consumer price inflation vs. GDP:

Turkey is beginning to soften, with the lira down 6% over the last few months. The South African rand is down 6% since May and down 25% since this time last year. I noted some of the problems with South Africa when I was there early this year. The situation has not improved. They have finally reached an agreement with the unions in the platinum mining industry, which cost workers something like $1 billion in unpaid wages, while the industry lost $2 billion. To add insult to injury, it now appears that a Chinese slowdown may put further pressure on commodity-exporting South Africa. And their trade deficit is just getting worse.

Who’s Competing with Whom?

We could also do a whole letter or two on global trade. The Boston Consulting Group has done a comprehensive study on the top 25 export economies. I admit to being a little surprised at a few of the data points. Let’s look at the chart and then a few comments.

First, notice that Mexico is now cheaper than China. That might explain why Mexico is booming, despite the negative impact of the drug wars going on down there. Further, there is now not that much difference in manufacturing costs between China and the US .

Why not bring that manufacturing home – which is what we are seeing? And especially anything plastic-related, because the shale-gas revolution is giving us an abundance of natural gas liquids such as ethane, propane, and butane, which are changing the cost factors for plastic manufacturers. There is a tidal wave of capital investment in new facilities close to natural gas fields or pipelines. This is also changing the dynamic in Asia, as Asian companies switch to cheaper natural gas for their feedstocks.

(What, you don’t get newsfeeds from the plastic industry? Realizing that I actually do makes me consider whether I need a 12-step program. “Hello, my name is John, and I’m an information addict.”)

Note that Japan is about 10% cheaper than Germany, and those costs are going to drop more as the yen continues to fall. This will affect whether the European Central Bank will finally turn on the monetary spigot to try to produce a little inflation (as opposed to none). In any case, Germany would like to see the euro weakened. Note that Spain, with its aggressive labor reforms, has brought its cost of manufacturing down below that of Germany, to just about the lowest level in Europe. France is the high-cost producer in Europe with the exception of Switzerland, but they don’t do much head-to-head competing. Note, too, that China is no longer the low-cost Asian manufacturer. That’s Indonesia, by far.

O Canada, Where Are You Headed?

My friend Jared Dillian, ex-Wall Street trader and now the editor of a great newsletter humorously titled The Daily DirtNap, has been writing about the problems of Canada for the last several months. Some of it is anecdotal, as in four of the top five major bank CEOs have resigned in the last year, at relatively young ages. Just prior to the Canadian banks getting downgraded by S&P last month. Go figure.

Writes young Jared:

My thoughts: McCaughey is the – not kidding – fourth Canadian bank CEO to retire in the last year. RBC, TD, BNS, and now CIBC. And these guys are not that old. Late fifties, maybe. So it is clear what is going on here – they are cashing out on the highs. It is perfectly rational behavior. Come on – if you were a bank CEO, and you thought that your industry had years of upside left, would you get out? If you were 57? You would not.

The Canadian economy is almost entirely dependent upon its housing market for economic growth. Now, some of my Canadian readers will probably not want to acknowledge that Canadians have an obsession with housing. Debt-to-income levels in Canada are beginning to look a little toppish: $2 million is the new $1 million house. (And in Vancouver it is the half-million-dollar house.) But it has been that way for years. I haven’t written much about Canada lately, because I quite frankly don’t get it. But the country is on my radar screen. Because, I will admit, I really like Canada. At least in the summer.

Thinking about Momentum

Every week I get at least one email from my friend Alexander Ineichen in Zürich. He does this fabulous analysis of scores of momentum indicators all over the world. It’s a good way to get a quick read (well, not that quick, at 90 pages) on what is happening in the real world. Let me give you an example of one of his recent charts:

What I see when I glance through his PowerPoint is that leading indicators are beginning to stall, Eurozone economic sentiment is collapsing, and momentum is not in Germany’s favor. In general, Europe sucks (that is a technical economic term for newbies).

Recently, I’ve become aware of a fabulous young macroeconomic writer from Dubai by the name of Jawad Mian. Remember that name. I read a lot of macro letters, and his is one of the best. Rather than spend the pages that he deserves on his analysis, I just want to acknowledge that he brought to my attention a quote that I’d forgotten from my friend George Friedman of Stratfor. Friedman was responding to a comment by Louis Bacon, who had just returned $2 billion to his investors, complaining, “It is hard to figure out how to invest when actions taken by politicians can affect financial markets more than basic economic factors. The political involvement is so extreme – we have not seen this since the postwar era. What they are doing is trying to thwart natural market outcomes. It is amazing how important the decision-making of one person, Angela Merkel, has become to world markets.”

Friedman objected on the grounds that political decisions are in fact subject to analysis and constraints. He pointed out that Merkel was not acting on whims but on the basis of very real circumstances. Jawad quoted at length from George, but let me pull a few poignant paragraphs that we can all relate to:

The investors’ problem is that they mistake the period between 1991 and 2008 as the norm and keep waiting for it to return. I saw it as a freakish period that could survive only until the next major financial crisis – and there always is one. While the unusual period was under way, political and trade issues subsided under the balm of prosperity. During that time, the internal cycles and shifts of the European financial system operated with minimal external turbulence, and for those schooled in profiting from these financial eddies, it was a good time to trade.

Once the 2008 crisis hit external factors that were always there but quiescent became more overt. The internal workings of the financial system became dependent on external forces. We were in the world of political economy, and the political became like a tidal wave, making the trading cycles and opportunities that traders depended on since 1991 irrelevant. And so, having lost money in 2008, they could never find their footing again. They now lived in a world where Merkel was more important than a sharp trader. Actually, Merkel was not more important than the trader. They were both trapped within constraints about which they could do nothing. But if those constraints were understood, Merkel’s behavior could be predicted.

The real problem for the hedge funds was not that they didn’t understand what they were doing, but the manner in which they had traded in the past simply no longer worked. Even understanding and predicting what political leaders will do is of no value if you insist on a trading model built for a world that no longer exists. What is called high velocity trading, constantly trading on the infinitesimal movements of a calm but predictable environment, doesn’t work during a political tidal wave. And investors of the last generation do not know how to trade in a tidal wave. When we recall the two world wars and the Cold War, we see that this was the norm for the century and that fortunes were made. But the latest generation of investors wants to control risk rather than take advantage of new realities.

We have re-entered an era in which political factors will dominate economic decisions. This has been the norm for a very long time, and traders who wait for the old era to return will be disappointed. Politics can be predicted if you understand the constraints under which a politician such as Merkel acts and don’t believe that it is simply random decisions. But to do that, you have to return to Adam Smith and recall the title of his greatest work, The Wealth of Nations. Note That Smith was writing about nations, about politics and economics – about political economy.

It is getting close to time to hit the send button, and I must confess that this letter became overly long. Simply looking around at what was on my radar screen took me close to 15 pages, and I wasn’t even halfway through! Discretion being the better part of valor, and wishing to take pity on my ever-faithful readers, I simply cut the last half. Perhaps it will show up in some later missive.

But maybe this will give you a little understanding of the angst I go through each week, trying to decide what to write about. In 2006 I was beginning to reach for topics. Today there is literally no end of them.

In deleting half the letter, I left considerable notes on Japan and Europe on the cutting-room floor, as well as concerns about the current brouhaha over secular stagnation. Don’t even get me started on Fed policy and the cult that has developed around central bankers. I would probably start ranting about how monetary policy is about the fourth most important thing but has become an excuse for politicians to do nothing about the more important things that are at least obstensibly under their control.

So what’s on your radar screen?

The Rational Bear

I mentioned last week that my friend Tony Sagami is now publicly working for Mauldin Economics, and we can finally tell you that he has been the brains behind Yield Shark, which is our take on how to find yield in a low-interest-rate environment. Tony ranges all over the world finding those little anomalies which when put together can make a portfolio that generates reasonable yields in a tough investing environment. And every now and then he’s been able to capture some capital gains, which help the overall returns.

You will soon get an important email from Ed D’Agostino, the publisher of Mauldin Economics, telling you about the newest addition to our growing family of letters. Tony and I have been talking about this for some time, and we’ve decided to take advantage of his natural talent and launch a newsletter that will be called The Rational Bear. My good friend David Tice, who ran the successful Prudent Bear fund here in Dallas for so many years (and who lives in the same building I do) has spent a great deal of time with Tony, getting to know how he sees the world, and we agree that Tony has the right philosophy. And with the markets looking a little topping, the timing is not bad.

Just as with Yield Shark, Tony will be our international man. He will look for special situations all over the world that are just screaming “overvalued!” and work out how we go about timing what can be very difficult and sometimes dangerous trades. Shorting stocks is not for beginning investors. Seriously, don’t even think about trying to get your feet wet shorting by subscribing to The Rational Bear. Do your homework about all the risks first, before you start looking at the potential rewards!

With that caution, I think Tony will provide a very valuable service for serious traders. You will have another very astute set of eyes and ears scanning the world to help you with your portfolio research. And frankly, while we don’t talk about it much, we are building up a pretty cool team of researchers that help our writers dig deep and think wide. My partners at Mauldin Economics are handling our expansion, rapid though it is, in a very systematic and businesslike manner. We are all in good hands.

I know that some of you won’t need a letter from Ed to be persuaded to subscribe to The Rational Bear. Here is a link. Note that there is a serious discount off of the subscription price, which will last for only a short time. This is an introductory offer that will go away after launch. Also note that the letter is not cheap. The very nature of the letter means that there is a practical limit to how many subscribers we can have. Again, if you are serious, active investor, this is something you really want to look at. Subscribe now or wait for Ed’s note to tell you more, if you like.

San Antonio, Washington DC, and Dallas

I head to the Casey Research Summit in San Antonio, September 17-21. It actually takes place at a resort in the Hill Country north of San Antonio, which is a fun place to spend a weekend with friends. Then the end of the month will see me traveling to Washington DC for a few days.

I’ll be back in Dallas in time for my 65th birthday on October 4, and then I get to spend another two weeks at home before the travel schedule picks back up. I will make a quick trip to Chicago, then swing back to Athens, Texas, before I head on to Cambridge, Massachusetts, for conferences. There are a few other trips shaping up as well.

Tiffani (my oldest daughter) just sent me a text. It seems she is cleaning out her garage after accumulating a large number of boxes that have gone unopened for many moons. (That trait may be genetic.) I’m not quite sure how she got it, and neither is she, but she came across a paper that I wrote in my first year in seminary, back in 1973, entitled “Poverty and the Poor.” I have absolutely no idea what it says, but I’m looking forward to (and will probably be greatly embarrassed by) reading it. And yes, I went to seminary. I’m a full-fledged master divine or whatever they call the degree holder. I probably needed a 12-step program for that, too, for many years. Fortunately, I seem to have fully recovered. Time heals a multitude of sins, or something like that.

Taking a very full course load while also working a 40-hour week was tough, and it might have affected my academic effort. Evidently the professor who graded this paper thought so, as he or she gave me a B-. Tiffani said the prof wrote in the margin, “You need to do better research.” I’m sure there are lots of readers who concur with my professors. Now, however, my full-time job is research, so I have no excuse. If you give me a B- now, we just have to blame it on sloppy execution.

I’m really looking forward to being with so many friends in San Antonio this coming weekend. It will be my first opportunity to test my new travel resolve, which is to exercise more on the road. Having been home for more than a month and having been in the gym for at least six out of every seven days, I can see and feel a significant difference. It is tough for me to exercise on the road, but I have to figure out how to do it. Maybe I will start holding meetings on the treadmill.

I mean, last time I was in Singapore I had a morning meeting with Jim Rogers. I went to his house and sat outside while he pedaled like a madman on his exercise bike. He would have been about 70 at the time, and there is no way that I could even marginally keep up with him today (or ever!). He went for at least 90 minutes all-out. Outside in the heat and humidity. I was drenched with sweat just watching him. But he held his own in the conversation the entire time. He wasn’t even breathing hard when he got off the bike.

Have a great week and be sure and get a little exercise. You will live a little longer and feel a little better if you do.

Your always trying to think about what to write next analyst,

John Mauldin
subscribers@mauldineconomics.com

 

Outside the Box: An Independent Scotland?

 

The United States is just starting to think about the upcoming elections (for whatever reason, the vast majority of people don’t focus on politics until after Labor Day), but there is another election happening “over the pond,” where the polls have just made everybody do a double-take. I am of course referring to the referendum on Scottish independence, which will be held next week. Voters opposing the measure were a clear majority for months, but their numbers began slipping a few weeks ago; and as of last few days the contest is basically even, with the election probably to be decided by the undecided.

A “yes” outcome would have significant ramifications not just for the United Kingdom but for all of Europe. Can a region of a country just decide it wants to be independent? You take a vote and that’s it? To everyone’s credit in the United Kingdom, they are being quite civilized about it. However, I imagine if Scotland votes to leave, the negotiations will be rather less cultured. There will be a big bill to be paid before everybody gets to leave the restaurant. Just who ran up what part of the tab over the last 300 years is an issue that has the potential to turn into a rowdy soccer – pardon me, football – match.

In today’s Outside the Box we explore a few aspects of the potential break-up. And not just what it would mean for the United Kingdom (it would not be good) but for all of Europe. Note that Spanish bonds are beginning to fall as people wonder what it might mean for Scotland to be allowed to declare independence. There are a couple regions in Spain that would very much like to do the same. And frankly, the Catalan region has a much better economic rationale for being on its own than Scotland does. (From this side of the pond, I cannot see what Scotland would have to gain economically from independence. They are a net consumer of taxes. But the whole independence thing is clearly about more than just economics, so this is one bar fight among friends where I think I’ll just retreat to my corner and watch.)

First, let’s look at a few comments from Bloomberg:

Spain’s government bonds fell, undermined by the Catalan region’s crescendoing push for independence, as polls 1,000 miles away in Scotland showed increased support for its own bid to break from the U.K.…

“It’s a question of raising the flag to more event risk,” Harvinder Sian, a fixed-income strategist at Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc in London, said today by phone. “Where the U.K. government has decided to guarantee all government debt, the Catalonia region is too large for the rest of Spain to absorb. It’s a much more problematic issue for Spain with regard to its debt markets.”…

“If Catalonia were to become independent it would be a strong drag on Spain’s growth and doubts would resurface regarding the sustainability of Spanish public debt,” said Marius Daheim, a Munich-based senior fixed-income strategist at Bayerische Landesbank. “Liquidity rules.”

Today’s OTB features a piece by Stratfor’s George Friedman on the implications of an independent Scotland. Do the Belgians get to split their country in two? Which regions of Spain might move for independence? How about the Northern League in Italy? What about the rest of the world? Can parts of Ukraine simply take a vote and leave? Where does it end?

Then Anatole Kaletsky over at GaveKal thinks about the implications for British politics. You could have the odd situation of Scotland’s representatives in Parliament, who are overwhelmingly from the Labour Party, voting with a possible labor majority to put into place a very liberal policy agenda and then leaving Parliament after less than a year, which might then leave the Conservatives in the majority. Were those votes really legitimate if it was already known that Scotland was leaving? Exactly how does that work?

Before putting you in George and Anatole’s capable hands, let me offer two additional links, from opposite sides of the political spectrum. The first is from my friend Niall Ferguson, here, musing back in 2007 on the question of what it takes to make a nation-state. Then, I offer this link to Paul Krugman’s blog in the New York Times. Paul gets my vote for best line I’ve read so far about the election:

Well, I have a message for the Scots: Be afraid, be very afraid. The risks of going it alone are huge. You may think that Scotland can become another Canada, but it’s all too likely that it would end up becoming Spain without the sunshine.

Spain without the sunshine, indeed. This may be one of the few occasions on which you will find Niall Ferguson and Paul Krugman in agreement.

Right now the London bookies still think the vote for independence will fail. I think that conclusion is largely based on the assumption that many Scottish citizens who say they are “yes” voters today will go into the polling booth and realize at the last moment that their personal economic interests lie in remaining in the union. But as of today, it looks to be very close. Just the fact that they can take a vote on such a question is really rather remarkable. I don’t remember there being a vote in the movie Braveheart.

My father told me that our family was kicked out of Scotland and then kicked out of Ireland before we made it to the colonies (back when they were still colonies). The name was Muldoon in Scotland and Ireland and was Americanized when we hit these shores. We can’t find any records to prove the family legend, and it’s been a few centuries since anyone in the family had the right to vote over there. But there’s a part of me that might be looking at the numbers a wee bit sentimentally, so let me close by wishing my Scottish friends Go n-éirí an bóthar leat! (That’s Gaelic, which is as close to an ancient Scottish language is there is, though it’s more commonly thought of as Irish.)

Your wondering if I’ll need a passport to see Edinburgh again analyst,

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

 

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Scottish Independence Would Shake Up the Global System

By George Friedman, Stratfor
September 9, 2014

Polls released today showed for the first time that a majority – an extremely small majority, but a majority nonetheless – of Scots favor independence, although other polls suggest the no camp remains in the lead. A poll is not the election, which will be held Sept. 18, but it is still a warning that something extraordinary might happen very soon. The political union between Scotland and England might be abolished after 300 years. The implications of this are enormous and generally ignored.

Obviously, this raises a host of question about how such a divorce might take place, whether the expected time frame – divorce by 2016 – will be adhered to, and how state property might be divided. It also raises the question of Scottish foreign policy. Will Scotland remain in NATO? Will it have membership in the European Union? Will it continue to use the pound sterling, and if not, how will it roll out its own currency?

These are important questions, but far more important issues will follow. One of the principles of the postwar world was the inviolability of Europe’s borders. Border disputes were the origin of centuries of war, and so Europe’s borders were frozen after World War II to avoid discussion. This may have left some people of one nationality on the wrong side of a border, but this was accepted since the risk of opening the door to border redefinition was considered far greater than any discomforts stemming from the borders that were locked in place.

This principle has been weakened since the end of the Cold War. Still, though the disintegration of the Soviet Union created fully independent states, these were recognized republics within the context of the Soviet Union. One could argue that this did not in fact represent border change. Later, the “Velvet Divorce” of Czechoslovakia into Czech and Slovak successor countries represented another shift, but in a country that had only existed since the end of World War I. The separation of Kosovo from Serbia was a more radical shift but was justified by claims of Serbian oppression. Though each shift weakened the principle of inviolable borders, each came with an asterisk – that is, each had an aspect that stopped it from being the definitive case.

Scotland separating from England, by contrast, can’t be minimized. If that centuries-old union can be revised, then anything can be revised. Scottish separatists’ reason for splitting is that they are a separate nation, that each nation has the right to its own state and the right to determine its own destiny, and that they no longer choose to be in union. But if they have the right to determine this, why shouldn’t others in Europe enjoy the same right?

For example, modern Spain is an amalgam of regions. One, the Catalan region – which contains Barcelona – has a strong separatist movement. If Scotland can leave the United Kingdom, then why shouldn’t Catalonia be allowed to leave Spain? Farther east, the Treaty of Trianon gave Romania and then-Czechoslovakia large portions of Hungary along with the Hungarians living there. Why shouldn’t Hungarians living in those territories have the right to rejoin Hungary? Meanwhile, if French-speaking Belgians and Dutch-speaking Belgians wish to part ways and return their two regions to their respective countries of origin, why should they not be allowed to? And why shouldn’t the eastern part of Ukraine be allowed to secede and join Russia?

Raising the stakes, this is an issue that goes far beyond Europe. There are seemingly innumerable separatist movements in India, China, Africa and so forth. If Scotland has the right to leave the nation-state it is part of and form a new one based on ethnic identity, why can’t anyone follow suit? And if anyone can do it, but they are blocked by the state they wish to leave, is resorting to violence in pursuit of independence legitimate?

The Scottish issue – the claim that the Scots are a separate nation and that all nations have a right to self-determination – simply cannot be asterisked. Having this happen in the heart of Western Europe would set a clear precedent that would expand geographically and conceptually. It would legitimize similar movements globally and force a reconsideration of what a nation is. Ultimately, a nation would be whatever the majority says it is.

It is doubtful that the Scottish precedent could be contained in Europe. And it is hard to imagine how this precedent might not lead to conflict somewhere, not in the British Isles but somewhere where the existing state would be less inclined to grant the right of self-determination to a separatist movement.

Of course, the separatists in Scotland may well lose, sentiment might change in the post-election negotiations, and so on. But if England and Scotland divorce, the right to separate will become an integral part of international custom – and it will arouse other movements.

The UK Now Faces Years Of Volatility

By Anatole Kaletsky, Gavekal

The probability that the United Kingdom will break apart now appears to be at least 50%. The weekend’s crop of opinion polls agree with each other, and support last Tuesday’s poll showing a powerful swing in favor of a ‘Yes’ vote in next week’s referendum on Scottish independence. Given that up until last Tuesday most investors and analysts (including me) saw no more than a 10%-20% probability of independence, what has happened in the past few days amounts to a genuine exogenous shock of seismic proportions. In response to such a shock it is reasonable to expect further large market movements, especially in the pound, which has now fallen 2.4% against the US dollar in just one week

The biggest risk to the pound sterling and gilts lies not in the economic uncertainties that will be generated by future arguments about Scotland’s relationship to sterling, the sharing of the UK’s national debt, or the distribution of North Sea oil revenues. These are all issues with relatively marginal investment impact, which will only be felt in the long term.

Much more important are three political questions, not about abstract ideology, but of a kind that is highly relevant to investors:

1) What will a Scottish independence vote mean for British politics and economic management in the next nine months?

2) What will be the impact on the 2015 UK general election and subsequent economic policies, especially taxation?

3) What will all this imply for Britain’s membership of the European Union?

The answers to all three questions are more alarming than almost anyone would have predicted a week ago:

1) If the Scots vote for independence it is likely that David Cameron will feel forced to take responsibility and resign as prime minister. If he fails to stand down, a putsch against him by right wing Tories is almost certain. A mutiny may or may not succeed, but Conservative Party politics is extremely febrile and ruthless, and the risk to Cameron’s position is not remotely discounted in the markets. In September 1990 nobody imagined that Margaret Thatcher was vulnerable; less than two months later she was ousted by her closest supporters. Whether Cameron is replaced or not, Britain’s government will be reduced to lame duck status between now and the May 2015 election. The only issues on the political agenda will be the terms of Scottish separation and apportioning blame for the referendum debacle.

2) The sense of shock and national failure resulting from an independence vote would make it much more difficult for the present coalition to win the 2015 election. The probability of a Labour-led government would rise from 40%-50% today to something like 70%. This prospect should be very alarming to investors in sterling. Labour will campaign on a platform of higher taxes and public spending, a tougher property tax regime, hobbling and shrinking the City of London, and abolishing the concessions to foreign residents which make Britain one of the world’s most effective tax havens. If anything, the Liberal Democrats, who would probably be Labour’s coalition partners, would be even tougher both in terms of personal tax reform and in their antagonism to the financial sector. To make matters worse, a Labour or Lab-Lib government would lack the political legitimacy to enact the measures promised in its manifesto, since the government’s majority would rely on Scottish members due for expulsion from the English parliament in 2016. A constitutional crisis would therefore ensue. Presumably Labour would respond by promising another general election in mid-2016, immediately after the Scottish secession. The result would be two years of unprecedented political and fiscal uncertainty for all businesses and investors in Britain.

3) Even in the unlikely event that the Conservative Party or a Conservative-Liberal coalition is re-elected in a 2015 election after a Scottish independence vote next week, the political consequences would be dire. In the event of such an unexpected victory, the Conservative Party would regard its hold on power as assured following the expulsion of Scotland’s 59 members of parliament (only one of whom is Conservative). As a result, the party would swing decisively towards the Euro-skepticism favored by its grassroots activists. A referendum on EU membership would be held in 2017 in which the new prime minister (who might conceivably even be David Cameron after a Damascene conversion to Euro-skepticism) would either adopt a neutral position or actively campaign for an exit. Either way, the odds on the UK leaving the EU would climb above 50%.

In the more probable scenario discussed in option (2)—that a Scottish independence vote would lead to a Labour-Liberal victory in the May 2015 general election—there would be no EU referendum in 2017 as promised by the Conservatives. At first that might seem to offer some relief on the European front. In reality, however, it would do nothing to secure Britain’s EU membership. On the contrary, a Lab-Lib government would have to call another general election immediately after Scottish secession in 2016; an election in which EU membership would be straight back on the agenda. The Conservatives, emboldened by their ‘natural’ majority in the UK-minus-Scotland would swing towards outright Euro-skepticism and campaign for an immediate post-election referendum, laying down conditions for renegotiating EU membership which Brussels, France and even Germany would be sure to reject.

Thus a Conservative victory in a 2016 election would make Brexit almost certain a year later. If, as is quite possible, the Euro-skeptics overplayed their hand and the Tories lost the 2016 election, the UK would be saddled with a high tax Labour-Liberal government until 2021.

As a result, if Scotland does vote for independence next week, it is hard to come up with a positive scenario for British assets, whatever happens subsequently. Of course, there is always the hope that the polls may be wrong or the Scots will change their minds at the last moment once they realize what a Pandora’s box of political uncertainties they are about to open. But hope is not a strategy. We recommend selling sterling and other British assets, apart from those such as resource shares which have little exposure to British politics and which benefit directly from a weak pound.

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Important Disclosures

The article Outside the Box: An Independent Scotland? was originally published at mauldineconomics.com.

Thoughts from the Frontline: Europe Takes the QE Baton

 

If the wide, wide world of investing doesn’t seem a little strange to you these days, it can only be because you’re not paying attention. If you’re paying attention, strange really isn’t the word you’re probably using in your day-to-day investing conversations; it may be more like weird or bizarre. It increasingly feels like we’re living in the world dreamed up by the creators of DC Comics back in the 1960s, called Bizarro World. In popular culture “Bizarro World” has come to mean a situation or setting that is weirdly inverted or opposite from expectations.

As my Dad would say, “The whole situation seems about a half-bubble off dead center” (dating myself to a time when people used levels that actually had bubbles in them). But I suppose that now, were he with us, he might use the expression to refer to the little bubbles that are effervescing everywhere. In a Bizarro French version of very bubbly champagne (I can hardly believe I’m reporting this), the yield on French short-term bonds went negative this week. If you bought a short-term French bill, you actually paid for the privilege of holding it. I can almost understand German and Swiss yields being negative, but French?

And then Friday, as if to compound the hilarity, Irish short-term bond yields went negative. Specifically, roughly three years ago Irish two-year bonds yielded 23.5%. Today they yield -0.004%! In non-related un-news from Bizarro World, the Spanish sold 50-year bonds at 4% this week. Neither of these statistics yielded up by Bloomberg makes any sense at all. I mean, I understand how they can technically happen and why some institutions might even want 50-year Spanish bonds. But what rational person would pay for the privilege of owning an Irish bond? And does anyone really think that 4% covers the risk of holding Spanish debt for 50 years? What is the over-under bet spread on the euro’s even existing in Spain in 50 years? Or 10, for that matter?

We might be able to lay the immediate, proximate cause of the bizarreness at the feet of ECB President Mario Draghi, who once again went all in last Monday for his fellow teammates in euroland. He gave them another round of rate cuts and the promise of more monetary easing, thus allowing them to once again dodge the responsibility of managing their own economies. The realist in me scratches my already well-scratched head and wonders exactly what sort of business is going to get all exuberant now that the main European Central Bank lending rate has dropped to 0.05% from an already negligible 0.15%. Wow, that should make a lot of deals look better on paper.

We should note that lowering an already ridiculously low lending rate was not actually Signor Draghi’s goal. This week we’ll look at what is happening across the pond in Europe, where the above-mentioned negative rates are only one ingredient in a big pot of Bizarro soup. And we’ll think about what it means for the US Federal Reserve to be so close to the end of its quantitative easing, even as the ECB takes the baton to add €1 trillion to the world’s liquidity. And meanwhile, Japan just keeps plugging away. (Note: this letter will print longer than usual as there are a significant number of graphs. Word count is actually down, for which some readers may be grateful.)

But first, I’m glad that I can finally announce that my longtime friend Tony Sagami has officially come to work for us at Mauldin Economics. Tony has been writing our Yield Shark advisory since the very beginning, but for contractual reasons we could not publicize his name. I will say more at the end of the letter, but for those of you interested in figuring out how to increase the yield of your investments, Tony could be a godsend.

The Age of Deleveraging

Extremely low and even negative interest rates, slow growth, unusual moves by monetary and fiscal authorities, and the generally unseemly nature of the economic world actually all have a rational context and a comprehensible explanation. My co-author Jonathan Tepper and I laid out in some detail in our book End Game what the ending of the debt supercycle would look like. We followed up in our book Code Red with a discussion of one of the main side effects, which is a continual currency war (though of course it will not be called a currency war in public). Both books stand up well to the events that have followed them. They are still great handbooks to understand the current environment.

Such deleveraging periods are inherently deflationary and precipitate low rates. Yes, central banks have taken rates to extremes, but the low-rate regime we are in is a natural manifestation of that deleveraging environment. I’ve been doing a little personal research on what I was writing some 15 years ago (just curious), and I came across a prediction from almost exactly 15 years ago in which I boldly and confidently (note sarcasm) projected that the 10-year bond would go below 4% within a few years. That was a little edgy back then, as Ed Yardeni was suggesting it might go below 5% by the end of the following year. That all seems rather quaint right now. The Great Recession would send the 10-year yield below 2%.

Sidebar: The yield curve was also negative at the time, and I was calling for recession the next year. With central banks holding short-term rates at the zero bound, we no longer have traditional yield-curve data to signal a recession. What’s a forecaster to do?

I was not the only one talking about deflation and deleveraging back then. Drs. Gary Shilling and Lacy Hunt (among others) had been writing about them for years. The debt supercycle was also a favorite topic of my friend Martin Barnes (and prior to him Tony Boeckh) at Bank Credit Analyst.

Ever-increasing leverage clearly spurs an economy and growth. That leverage can be sustained indefinitely if it is productive leverage capable of creating the cash flow to pay for itself. Even government leverage, if it is used for productive infrastructure investments, can be self-sustaining. But ever-increasing leverage for consumption has a limit. It’s called a debt supercycle because that limit takes a long time to come about. Typically it takes about 60 or 70 years. Then something has to be done with the debt and leverage. Generally there is a restructuring through a very painful deflationary bursting of the debt bubble – unless governments print money and create an inflationary bubble. Either way, the debt gets dealt with, and generally not in a pleasant manner.

We are living through an age of deleveraging, which began in 2008. Gary Shilling summarized it this week in his monthly letter:

We continue to believe that slow worldwide growth is the result of the global financial deleveraging that followed the massive expansion of debt in the 1980s and 1990s and the 2008 financial crisis that inevitably followed, as detailed in our 2010 book, The Age of Deleveraging: Investment strategies for a decade of slow growth and deflation. We forecast back then that the result in the U.S. would be persistent 2% real GDP growth until the normal decade of deleveraging is completed. Since the process is now six years old, history suggests another four years or so to go.

We’ve also persistently noted that this deleveraging is so powerful that it has largely offset massive fiscal stimuli in the form of tax cuts and rebates as well as huge increases in federal spending that resulted in earlier trillion-dollar deficits. It has also swamped the cuts in major central bank interest rates to essentially zero that were followed by gigantic central bank security purchases and loans that skyrocketed their balance sheets.  Without this deleveraging, all the financial and monetary stimuli would surely have pushed real GDP growth well above the robust 1982–2000 3.7% average instead of leaving it at a meager 2.2% since the recovery began in mid-2009.

The problems the developed world faces today are the result of decisions made to accumulate large amounts of debt over the past 60 years. These problems cannot be solved simply by the application of easy-money policies. The solution will require significant reforms, especially labor reforms in Europe and Japan, and a restructuring of government obligations.

Mohammed El-Erian called it the New Normal. But it is not something that happens for just a short period of time and then we go back to normal. Gary Shilling cites research which suggests that such periods typically last 10 years – but that’s if adjustments are allowed to happen. Central banks are fighting the usual adjustment process by providing easy money, which will prolong the period before the adjustments are made and we can indeed return to a “normal” market.

How Bizarre Is It?

We are going to quickly run through a number of charts, as telling the story visually will be better than spilling several times 1000 words (and easier on you). Note that many of these charts display processes unfolding over time. We try to go back prior to the Great Recession in many of these charts so that you can see the process. We are going to focus on Europe, since that is where the really significant anomalies have been occurring.

First, let’s look at what Mario Draghi is faced with. He finds himself in an environment of low inflation, and expectations for inflation going forward are even lower. This chart depicts inflation in the two main European economies, Germany and France.

Note too that inflation expectations for the entire euro area are well below 1% for the next two years – notwithstanding the commitment of the European Central Bank to bring back inflation.

But as I noted at the beginning, ECB policy has already reached the zero bound. In fact the overnight rate is negative, making cash truly trash if it is deposited with the ECB.

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Important Disclosures