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Archive for November 2014

Archive for November, 2014

Outside the Box: Stray Reflections

 

Today’s Outside the Box is special, because I’m about to give you a preview of things to come at Mauldin Economics. For months now I have been saying to my partners that we need to develop a service for the professionals who read me – the financial advisors, portfolio managers, family offices… you know who you are. And I’m excited to tell you that we are very close to making this service a reality. It will be called Mauldin Pro, and it will feature global macro and geopolitical research and analysis, portfolio recommendations, monthly interviews with some of the best talent in the business, and quarterly seminars to help you improve your game.

It will also feature a global macro analysis and investment letter that has created quite a buzz in the industry. Stray Reflections is written by Jawad Mian, a former portfolio manager who lives in the UAE. Born in Pakistan and educated in Canada, Jawad managed $250 million in proprietary funds before turning his attention to his real passion: writing about the macro themes that should be on every investor’s mind, and constructing a theme-based global macro investment portfolio. His audience includes some of the most-respected portfolio managers in the world.

He’ll bring his fantastic letter to Mauldin Pro in the coming weeks. If you are interested in learning more and you are a professional market participant, give us your email address, and we’ll contact you when the service is ready to go.

Regardless of who you are or how you make your living, you’ll enjoy this piece from Jawad, taken from the November edition of his Stray Reflections. It deals with his view on oil, which has been the focus of the market lately. Can we say Peak Demand?

I will be braving the crowds at Central Market in a few hours, stocking up for Thanksgiving. I am normally not much of a grocery shopper and try to relegate the task to someone with more patience and time. But today, I look forward to spending the time, selecting each ingredient that I will be using with care, choosing fresh spices, chatting with the other shoppers, and just getting into the whole cooking thing, always on the lookout for something new and different.

I will be cooking banana nut cake this evening, as that was my mother’s specialty, and it just isn’t Thanksgiving without banana nut cake, at least for my family. And maybe a carrot cake if I get ambitious. Starting the soups to cook overnight, making the thick glaze for the prime, getting up very early to start the prime, as it takes almost 6 hours (and sometimes more!) to cook, since I cook on very low heat. That really helps the meat stay moist and tender. And the fried turkeys and the mushrooms!

Have a great week with your family and friends. Remember to take some time to catalog the probably long list of things you should be thankful for. High on my list will be you, whose gracious allocation of time and attention, two of the most valuable commodities in the world, makes my world even possible. I am truly grateful.

I finish this note after a long workout, trying to get ready for the Thursday marathon (although I have been told on good authority that calories do not count on Thanksgiving Day). The Beast has changed up the workout routine from lighter weights and many repetitions to “maxing out” the last few days. To my utter surprise, at the end of the workout I bench-pressed 205 pounds, 10 more than my previous max (which was 10 years ago). Who knew that 65 was such a good age for working out?

Your deep into the creativity of the kitchen analyst,

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

 

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Stray Reflections (November 2014)

By Jawad Mian

Investment Observations

The precipitous decline in the price of oil is perhaps one of the most bearish macro developments this year. We believe we are entering a “new oil normal,” where oil prices stay lower for longer. While we highlighted the risk of a near-term decline in the oil price in our July newsletter, we failed to adjust our portfolio sufficiently to reflect such a scenario. This month we identify the major implications of our revised energy thesis.

The reason oil prices started sliding in June can be explained by record growth in US production, sputtering demand from Europe and China, and an unwind of the Middle East geopolitical risk premium. The world oil market, which consumes 92 million barrels a day, currently has one million barrels more than it needs. US pumped 8.97 million barrels a day by the end of October (the highest since 1985) thanks partly to increases in shale-oil output which accounts for 5 million barrels per day. Libya’s production has recovered from 200,000 barrels a day in April to 900,000 barrels a day, while war hasn’t stopped production in Iraq and output there has risen to an all-time high level of 3.3 million barrels per day. The IMF, meanwhile, has cut its projection for global growth in 2014 for the third time this year to 3.3%. Next year, it still expects growth to pick up again, but only slightly.

Everyone believes that the oil-price decline is temporary. It is assumed that once oil prices plummet, the process is much more likely to be self-stabilizing than destabilizing. As the theory goes, once demand drops, price follows, and leveraged high-cost producers shut production. Eventually, supply falls to match demand and price stabilizes. When demand recovers, so does price, and marginal production returns to meet rising demand. Prices then stabilize at a higher level as supply and demand become more balanced. It has been well-said that: “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. But, in practice, there is.” For the classic model to hold true in oil’s case, the market must correctly anticipate the equilibrating role of price in the presence of supply/demand imbalances.

By 2020, we see oil demand realistically rising to no more than 96 million barrels a day. North American oil consumption has been in a structural decline, whereas the European economy is expected to remain lacklustre. Risks to the Chinese economy are tilted to the downside and we find no reason to anticipate a positive growth surprise. This limits the potential for growth in oil demand and leads us to believe global oil prices will struggle to rebound to their previous levels. The International Energy Agency says we could soon hit “peak oil demand”, due to cheaper fuel alternatives, environmental concerns, and improving oil efficiency.

The oil market will remain well supplied, even at lower prices. We believe incremental oil demand through 2020 can be met with rising output in Libya, Iraq and Iran. We expect production in Libya to return to the level prior to the civil war, adding at least 600,000 barrels a day to world supply. Big investments in Iraq’s oil industry should pay-off too with production rising an extra 1.5-2 million barrels a day over the next five years. We also believe the American-Iranian détente is serious, and that sooner or later both parties will agree to terms and reach a definitive agreement. This will eventually lead to more oil supply coming to the market from Iran, further depressing prices in the “new oil normal”. Iranian oil production has fallen from 4 million barrels a day in 2008 to 2.8 million today, which we would expect to fully recover once international relations normalize. In sum, we see the potential for supply to increase by nearly 4 million barrels a day at the lowest marginal cost, which should be enough to offset output cuts from marginal players in a sluggish world economy.

Our analysis leads us to conclude that the price of oil is unlikely to average $100 again for the remaining decade. We will use an oil rebound to gradually adjust our portfolio to reflect this new reality.

From 1976 to 2000, oil consolidated in a wide price range between $12 and $40. We think the next five years will see a similar trading range develop in oil with prices oscillating between $55 and $85. If the US dollar embarks on a mega uptrend (not our central view), then we can even see oil sustain a drop below $60 eventually.


Source: Bloomberg

Normally, falling oil prices would be expected to boost global growth. Ed Morse of Citigroup estimates lower oil prices provide a stimulus of as much as $1.1 trillion to global economies by lowering the cost of fuels and other commodities. Per-capita oil consumption in the US is among the highest in the world so the fall in energy prices raises purchasing power compared to most other major economies. The US consumer stands to benefit from cheaper heating oil and materially lower gasoline prices. It is estimated that the average household consumes 1,200 gallons of gasoline a year, which translates to annual savings of $120 for every 10-cent drop in the price of gasoline. According to Ethan Harris of Bank of America Merrill Lynch: “Consumers will likely respond quickly to the saving in energy costs. Many families live “hand to mouth”, spending whatever income is available. The Survey of Consumer Finances found that 47% of families had no savings in 2013, up from 44% in the more healthy 2004 economy. Over time, energy costs have become a much bigger part of budgets for low income families. In 2012, families with income below $50,000 spent an average of 21.4% of their income on energy. This is almost double the share in 2001, and it is almost triple the share for families with income above $50,000.” The “new oil normal” will see a wealth transfer from Middle East sovereigns (savers) to leveraged US consumers (spenders).

The consumer windfall from lower oil prices is more than offset by the loss to oil producers in our view. Even though the price of oil has plummeted, the cost of finding it has certainly not. The oil industry has moved into a higher-cost paradigm and continues to spend significantly more money every year without any meaningful growth in total production. Global crude-only output seems to have plateaud in the mid-70 million barrels a day range. The production capacity of 75% of the world’s oilfields is declining by around 6% per year, so the industry requires up to 4 million barrels per day of new capacity just to hold production steady. This has proven to be very difficult. Analysts at consulting firm EY estimate that out of the 163 upstream megaprojects currently being bankrolled (worth a combined $1.1 trillion), a majority are over budget and behind schedule.

Large energy companies are sitting on a great deal of cash which cushions the blow from a weak pricing environment in the short-term. It is still important to keep in mind, however, that most big oil projects have been planned around the notion that oil would stay above $100, which no longer seems likely. The Economist reports that: “The industry is cutting back on some megaprojects, particularly those in the Arctic region, deepwater prospects and others that present technical challenges. Shell recently said it would again delay its Alaska exploration project, thanks to a combination of regulatory hurdles and technological challenges. The $10 billion Rosebank project in Britain’s North Sea, a joint venture between Chevron of the United States and OMV of Austria, is on hold and set to stay that way unless prices recover. And BP says it is “reviewing” its plans for Mad Dog Phase 2, a deepwater exploration project in the Gulf of Mexico.  Statoil’s vast Johan Castberg project in the Barents Sea is in limbo as the Norwegian firm and its partners try to rein in spiralling costs; Statoil is expected to cut up to 1,500 jobs this year. And then there is Kazakhstan’s giant Kashagan project, which thanks to huge cost overruns, lengthy delays and weak oil prices may not be viable for years. Even before the latest fall in oil prices, Shell said its capital spending would be about 20% lower this year than last; Hess will spend about 15% less; and Exxon Mobil and Chevron are making cuts of 5-6%.”

About 1/3rd of the S&P500 capex is done by the energy sector. Based on analysis by Steven Kopits of Douglas-Westwood: “The vast majority of public oil and gas companies require oil prices of over $100 to achieve positive free cash flow under current capex and dividend programs. Nearly half of the industry needs more than $120. The 4th quartile, where most US E&Ps cluster, needs $130 or more.”

As energy companies have gotten used to Brent averaging $110 for the last three years, we believe management teams will be very slow to adjust to the “new oil normal”. They will start by cutting capital spending (the quickest and easiest decision to take), then divesting non-core assets (as access to cheap financing becomes more difficult), and eventually, be forced to take write-downs on assets and projects that are no longer feasible. The whole adjustment process could take two years or longer, and will accelerate only once CEOs stop thinking the price of oil is going to go back up. A similar phenomenon happened in North America’s natural gas market a couple of years ago.

This has vast implications for America’s shale industry. The past five years have seen the budding energy renaissance attract billions of dollars in fixed investment and generate tens of thousands of high-paying jobs. The success of shale has been a major tailwind for the US economy, and its output has been a significant contributor to the improvement in the trade deficit. We believe a sustained drop in the price of oil will slow US shale investment and production growth rates. As much as 50% of shale oil is uneconomic at current prices, and the big unknown factor is the amount of debt that has been incurred by cashflow negative companies to develop resources which will soon become unprofitable at much lower prices (or once their hedges run out). Energy bonds make up nearly 16% of the $1.3 trillion junk bond market and the total debt of the US independent E&P sector is estimated at over $200 billion.

Robert McNally, a White House adviser to former President George W. Bush and president of the Rapidan Group energy consultancy, told Reuters that Saudi Arabia “will accept a price decline necessary to sweat whatever supply cuts are needed to balance the market out of the US shale oil sector.” Even legendary oil man T. Boone Pickens believes Saudi Arabia is in a stand-off with US drillers and frackers to “see how the shale boys are going to stand up to a cheaper price.” This has happened once before. By the mid-1980’s, as oil output from Alaska’s North Slope and the North Sea came on line (combined production of around 5-6 million barrels a day), OPEC set off a price war to compete for market share. As a result, the price of oil sank from around $40 to just under $10 a barrel by 1986.

In the current cycle, though, prices will have to decline much further from current levels to curb new investment and discourage US production of shale oil. Most of the growth in shale is in lower-cost plays (Eagle Ford, Permian and the Bakken) and the breakeven point has been falling as productivity per well is improving and companies have refined their fracking techniques. The median North American shale development needs an oil price of $57 to breakeven today, compared to $70 last year according to research firm IHS


Source: WoodMackenzie, Barclays Research

While we don’t believe Saudi Arabia engineered the latest swoon in oil prices, it would be foolish not to expect them to take advantage of the new market reality. If we are entering a “new oil normal” where the oil price range may move structurally lower in the coming years, wouldn’t you want to maximise your profits today, when prices are still elevated? If, at the same time, you can drive out fringe production sources from the market, and tip the balance in MENA geopolitics (by hurting Russia and Iran), wouldn’t it be worth it? The Kingdom has a long history of using oil to meet political and economic ends.

We don’t see any signs of meaningful OPEC restraint at the group’s 166th meeting on November 27th in Vienna. The cartel has agreed to cut crude production only a handful of times in the past decade, with December 2008 being the most recent instance. Based on our assessment, the only members with enough flexibility to reduce oil output voluntarily are the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. OPEC countries have constructed their domestic policy based on the assumption that oil prices will remain perpetually high and most members are not in a strong enough financial position to take production offline. Once all the costs of subsidies and social programs are factored-in, most OPEC countries require oil above $100 to balance their budgets. This raises longer-run issues on the sustainability of the fiscal stance in a low-oil price environment. On the one hand, you have rising domestic oil consumption because there is no price discipline, which leaves less oil for the lucrative export market, and on the other hand, you require more money now than ever before to support generous budgetary spending.

How will this be resolved?

And with a much slower rate of petrodollar accumulation, what will be the implication for global financial markets, given the non-negligible retraction in liquidity?

The current oil decline has potentially cost OPEC $250 billion of its recent earnings of $1 trillion. Thus, it is not surprising to see OPEC production – relative to its 30 million barrels a day quota – rising from virtual compliance to one where the cartel is producing above its agreed production allocation. Output rose to 30.974 million barrels per day in October, a 14-month high led by gains in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Libya. So, it can be grasped that the lower the price of oil falls, the greater the need to compensate for lower revenues with higher production, which paradoxically pushes oil prices even lower.

We believe the “new oil normal” will alter relative economic and political fortunes of most countries, with income redistributing from oil exporters (GCC, Russia) to oil importers (India, Turkey). We therefore exited our long position in the WisdomTree Middle East Dividend Fund (GULF) at a 14.4% gain.

Those nations with abundant oil tend to suffer from the “resource curse”. With no other ready sources of income, the non-oil economy atrophies due to the extraordinary wealth produced by the oil sector. OPEC countries are some of the least diversified economies in the world.

In an article titled “When The Petrodollars Run Out”, economist Daniel Altman wrote for the Foreign Policy magazine as follows: “Twenty countries depend on petroleum for at least half of their government revenue, and another 10 are between half and a quarter. These countries are clearly vulnerable to big changes in the price and quantity of oil and gas that they might sell…So what can these countries do to bolster themselves for the future? For one thing, they might try to use their petroleum revenues to diversify their economies. Yet there’s little precedent for that actually happening. In the three decades from 1983 to 2012, no country that ever got 20 percent of its GDP from oil and gas – according to the World Bank’s figures – substantially reduced those resources’ share of its economy. The shares typically rose and fell with prices; there were no long-term reductions.”


Source: Foreign Policy

Saudi Arabia appears to be comfortable with much lower oil prices for an extended period of time. The House of Saud is equipped with sufficient government assets to easily withstand three years at the current oil price by dipping into their $750 billion of net foreign assets. Saudi Arabia bolstered output by 100,000 barrels a day recently to 9.75 million, and cut its prices for Asian delivery for November – the fourth month in a row that it has cut official selling prices to shore up its global market share. With American imports from OPEC almost cut by half and given weak European demand, most oil-producing countries are now engaged in a price war in Asia. The Kingdom generates over 80% of its total revenue from oil sales so it may not remain immune in the “new oil normal” for long. According to HSBC research, Saudi Arabia would face a budget shortfall approaching 10% of GDP at $70 oil and at $50, the deficit could exceed 15% of GDP.

Russia and Saudi Arabia have opposing agendas in the Middle East. We believe Russia would like to see Middle East burn. This would shore up the cost of oil and keep America from geopolitically deleveraging from the region, thus allowing more room for Putin to outmaneuver his opponents in Europe. It was reported last year that the Saudis offered Russia a deal to carve up global oil and gas markets, but only if Russia stopped support of Syria’s Assad regime. No agreement was reached. It now seems the Saudis are turning to the oil market to affect an outcome.

With global energy prices at multi-year lows, Russia is facing a persistent low growth environment and an endemic outflow of capital. The $30 drop in the Brent price translates into an annual loss in crude oil revenues of over $100 billion. According to Lubomir Mitov, Russia’s financing gap has reached 3% of GDP, and they have to repay $150 billion in principal to foreign creditors over the next 12 months. Even with $400 billion in foreign currency reserves and the Russian central bank raising its official interest rate by 150 basis points to 9.5% last month, the ruble is down 38% from its June high making foreign liabilities a lot more onerous. As per Faisal Islam, political editor of Sky News, “financial markets have punished Russia far quicker than Western governments.”

“It took two years for crumbling oil prices to bring the Soviet Union to its knees in the mid-1980s, and another two years of stagnation to break the Bolshevik empire altogether…” writes Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in The Daily Telegraph. “…Russian ex-premier Yegor Gaidar famously dated the moment to September 1985, when Saudi Arabia stopped trying to defend the crude market, cranking up output instead.” It is estimated the Soviet Union lost $20 billion per year, money without which the country simply could not survive.

Could we see a repeat of events?

In the past, higher resource prices increased the occasions for military conflicts as nations would scramble to secure necessary supplies. Going forward, however, we firmly believe lower oil prices pose a greater risk of escalating current geopolitical challenges.

Putin is a determined and ambitious leader who wants to expand Russia’s power and influence. Since he rose to dominance in 1999, he advocated development of Russia’s resource sector to resurrect Russian wealth. In his doctoral thesis, he equated economic strength with geopolitical influence. Today, Russia needs an oil price in excess of $100 a barrel to support the state and preserve its national security. Consequently, there is no question Putin will try to resist lower oil prices either through outright warfare or more covert economic sabotage.

Russia is the world’s 8th-largest economy, but its military spending trails only the US and China. Putin increased the military budget 31% from 2008 to 2013, overtaking UK and Saudi Arabia, as reported by the International Institute of Strategic Studies. Russia also has plans to become the world’s largest arms exporter by more than tripling military exports by 2020 to $50 billion annually. We are convinced Putin would like to see a bull-market in international tensions. This is the biggest threat to our “new oil normal” theme.


Source: Cagle Cartoons

Turkey is a big beneficiary of lower oil prices, which provides much needed relief to the large current account deficit. As external imbalances correct and the inflation outlook gradually improves, we expect a significant shift in sentiment towards the country. Turkish stocks should do reasonably well going forward and we aim to buy the iShares MSCI Turkey ETF (TUR) on additional weakness. In our opinion, India will also continue to outperform many of its emerging market peers. Medium-term growth prospects have strenghtened due to credibility of policymakers and external windfalls from lower oil and gold prices. We will initiate a position in Indian equities once the election exuberance dissipates. The market is up 23% since Modi’s win.

Solar stocks have fallen 18% since oil peaked in June. It is assumed the fall in oil spells terrible news for the development of alternative energy sources, especially solar. We don’t agree with this conclusion as we see the world moving toward a more sustainable economy. We expect solar to gradually become more mainstream and less sensitive to fluctuations in the oil price. According to a Deutsche Bank research report, solar electricity may be as cheap or cheaper than average electricity-bill prices in 47 US states by 2016. Even if the tax credit drops to 10% (if Congress allows the federal tax credit for rooftop solar systems to expire at the end of 2016), solar will soon reach price parity with conventional electricity in well over half the nation. Solar has already reached grid parity in 10 states which are responsible for 90% of US solar electricity production. We own the Guggenheim Solar ETF (TAN) as a strategic long-term holding.

According to Nordea Research, markets are pricing in a 40% chance for an interest rate cut at the Norges Bank meeting in December. This has pushed the Norwegian kroner (NOK) nearly 7% weaker than the Norges Bank’s forecast for June of next year. We think markets have gone too far with an overreaction in NOK because of the Brent decline. The oil-sensitive Norwegian economy remains relatively more competitive with an average cash cost of $43 a barrel across the whole industry. We sold our NOK/SEK position for a 6.9% profit earlier and plan on re-buying the pair from lower levels. The cross-rate is the cheapest in two decades on a PPP basis and Sweden’s Riksbank cut its key interest rate to zero in October as it battles deflation.

In terms of other opportunities, we are also long the Mexican peso (MXN) versus the Colombian peso (COP). Mexico’s oil exports as a percent of GDP are 4% versus 8.5% in the case of Colombia. Our position is up 4.7% so far.

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Important Disclosures

The article Outside the Box: Stray Reflections was originally published at mauldineconomics.com.

Things That Make You Go Hmmm: How Could It Happen?

 

“How could it happen, Grandad?”

The old man’s eyes misted over as he looked down at his grandson, who sat at his feet, his young eyes alive with questions as he turned the heavy gold bar over in his hands.

”I’ve told you the story too many times to count,” said the man, half-pleading, but knowing full-well he’d soon be deep into the umpteenth retelling of a story he’d lived through once in reality and a thousand times more through the eager questioning of the young man now tugging at his trouser leg. “Why don’t I tell you the story of how I met your Grandma instead?”

“Because that’s boring.” The reply was borne of the honesty only a ten-year-old could possibly still possess.

“OK, OK,” said the old man, a smile creeping into the corners of his mouth, “you win.”

“It began in early November of 2014, when a man called Alasdair Macleod published a report on how the Chinese had been secretly buying gold for 30 years.

“Most people believed what the Chinese Central Bank had been telling the world — that they owned just 1,054 tonnes. That number, first published in 2009, had remained unchanged for over five years; but there was a group of people who refused to accept that the People’s Bank of China were telling the truth, and those people set about diligently doing their own analysis to try to determine what the real number might be.

“In early November of 2014, Macleod’s report — which went largely unnoticed because most people were busy celebrating new highs in the stock market and the fact that a newly strengthening dollar was forcing down the price of gold — laid out the case for there having been an astounding amount of gold bought by the Chinese over the previous three decades.

“According to Macleod, China saw an opportunity at a crucial time and, with a view on the longer term, they took it.”

Grandad dipped his thumb and forefinger into his vPad, which hovered just above the table, and pinched and cast a paragraph into the air before them. At the same time, they heard the voice of Alasdair Macleod himself read the words aloud:

(Alasdair Macleod): China first delegated the management of gold policy to the People’s Bank by regulations in 1983. This development was central to China’s emergence as a free-market economy following the post-Mao reforms in 1979/82. At that time the west was doing its best to suppress gold to enhance confidence in paper currencies, releasing large quantities of bullion for others to buy. This is why the timing is important: it was an opportunity for China, a one-billion population country in the throes of rapid economic modernisation, to diversify growing trade surpluses from the dollar.

“Macleod explained why what he was about to explain to the world was going to come as something of a surprise to most people.” Grandad dipped his fingers and cast again:

To my knowledge this subject has not been properly addressed by any private-sector analysts, which might explain why it is commonly thought that China’s gold policy is a more recent development, and why even industry specialists show so little understanding of the true position. But in the thirty-one years since China’s gold regulations were enacted, global mine production has increased above-ground stocks from an estimated 92,000 tonnes to 163,000 tonnes today, or by 71,000 tonnes; and while the west was also reducing its stocks in a prolonged bear market all that gold was hoarded somewhere.

“But Grandad, why was the West selling its gold? That’s just stupid!” the young boy interjected, right on cue.

Again the old man smiled. Every time he told the story, his grandson would pepper him with the same questions, with a regularity that brought a familiar rhythm to this very private dance the two of them had performed so many times.

He paused, as he always did, to create just the right amount of dramatic tension before answering.

“I know it seems stupid NOW, but don’t forget, you know what you know. Back then, the people in charge in the West weren’t really all that smart; and, besides, when the Golden Domino finally fell, it became obvious that they had been…” — the old man paused, choosing his words carefully, almost theatrically; but when they came, they were the same carefully chosen words he used every time — “… a little less than honest about a few things.

“Now,” he continued with mock indignation, “if you’ll allow me to get back to the story…”

The boy smiled, and his grandfather pushed on.

“Macleod’s report concentrated on the period between 1983 and 2002, because in 2002 two important things happened: the Chinese people became free to own gold, and the Shanghai Gold Exchange was established. He wrote that the reason they allowed these two events to take place was that they’d already accumulated ‘enough gold’ for what he called ‘strategic and monetary purposes,’ and they were happy to keep adding to their stockpile from their domestic mine production and scrap, rather than buy more in the market…”

The old man held up a hand to head off the question he knew was coming — “I know, I know… you want to know how much the Chinese would have had to accumulate in order to be able to do this, don’t you? Well, Mr. Macleod told us, remember?” He reached once more into vPad space, waggled his fingers a bit, and cast the following:

(Alasdair Macleod) Between 1983 and 2002, mine production, scrap supplies, portfolio sales and central bank leasing absorbed by new Asian and Middle Eastern buyers probably exceeded 75,000 tonnes. It is easy to be blasé about such large amounts, but at today’s prices this is the equivalent of $3 trillion. The Arabs had surplus dollars and Asia was rapidly industrialising. Both camps were not much influenced by Western central bank propaganda aimed at side-lining gold in the new era of floating exchange rates, though Arab enthusiasm will have been diminished somewhat by the severe bear market as the 1980s progressed. The table and chart below summarise the likely distribution of this gold:

SIMPLIFIED GOLD SUPPLY 1983-2002 Tonnes
Official Sales by Central Banks 4,856
Estimated Leasing (Veneroso) 14,000
Mine Production 41,994
Net Western divestment (bullion, jewelry & scrap (est.) 15,000
TOTAL 75,850

 

 

The old man clipped his last sentence short to allow his young audience to make the (quite grown-up, the man thought) point that he always did at this juncture:

“But Grandad, you can’t just say things like ‘probable’ and make assumings like that. We always get told at school that you have to show your workings-out.”

His grandfather let the grammatical error slide — one more time.

“Ah yes, but THAT was the problem, wasn’t it? Everybody wanted proof that numbers like Macleod’s were accurate, but NOBODY wanted proof that the official figures were true, and THAT turned out to be the key lesson that the world learned from this whole sorry debacle.”

“But Grandad, YOU didn’t get hurt, did you?”

The old man looked through the window and out at the snowflakes settling on the tall pines that surrounded the ski field not 40 yards from where he sat, and smiled.

“That’s true,” he said, “but only because I was willing to think for myself and allow for possibilities that most people wouldn’t believe for a moment could actually happen. It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t fun for many years, believe me. Now, where was I?”

“You were at the part where Mr. Macleod explained where all that gold had gone and…”

“Might have gone,” the man interrupted. “Remember, back then we didn’t know for sure.”

He smiled again and went on with the story.

“Macleod’s work suggested that, while a huge amount of gold had gone flooding into the Middle East during the oil boom of the 1970s (much of it ending up in Switzerland, which, back then at least, was famous around the world as being a safe haven for financial assets), in the mid-’90s, after the gold price had languished for many years, sentiment had changed.”

(Alasdair Macleod): In the 1990s, a new generation of Swiss portfolio managers less committed to gold was advising clients, including those in the Middle East, to sell. At the same time, discouraged by gold’s bear market, a Western-educated generation of Arabs started to diversify into equities, infrastructure spending and other investment media. Gold stocks owned by Arab investors remain a well-kept secret to this day, but probably still represent the largest quantity of vaulted gold, given the scale of petro-dollar surpluses in the 1980s. However, because of the change in the Arabs’ financial culture, from the 1990s onwards the pace of their acquisition waned.

By elimination this leaves China as the only other significant buyer during that era. Given that Arab enthusiasm for gold diminished for over half the 1983-2002 period, the Chinese government being price-insensitive to a Western-generated bear market could have easily accumulated in excess of 20,000 tonnes by the end of 2002.

“Now, I know this is all back-of-the-envelope stuff — assumings, as you call them — but remember, back then, in 2014, none of the other stuff had been exposed.”

“But, Grandad, why were the Chinese buying all that gold? And why did the Westerns let them have it? I mean, it’s worth so much. Why didn’t they just keep it?”

This was always the old man’s favourite part, and he leaned forward in his seat as his enthusiasm for the story returned. With a twinkle in his eyes, he beckoned the boy closer.

“Strategy,” he said, then, after a pause (and with what even he felt was a little more relish than usual) “… and STUPIDITY!

“The Chinese had become very rich during those years, but most of that wealth had come in the form of dollars…”

“What, US dollars?” the boy asked, incredulously. “But why would they ever have wanted lots of those?”

“Because,” the old man chuckled, “there was a time — long before you were born — when everybody wanted US dollars. I know that’s hard to believe NOW, but it was true. If I may…?”

“So-rry Gran-dad,” the boy answered rhythmically and with mock apology.

“Anyway, the Chinese were great students of history and knew that, over thousands of years, what used to be called ‘fiat currency’ had always ended up worthless; and so they planned for the day when that fate would befall the dollar. They began accumulating euros instead of dollars — not because the euro was better but because they didn’t want to own too much of any one currency.”

“Whatever happened to the euro, Grandad?” inquired the boy.

“One story at a time, little fella!” replied the old man. “Now, where was I? Oh yes, then, in the mid-2010s, China began signing all sorts of agreements with other countries, like Iran, Turkey, Russia…”

“And Switzerland!” the boy eagerly interjected.

“… and Switzerland,” his grandfather agreed.

“Those agreements enabled them to swap goods and services for currencies other than the US dollar — all so they could eventually break their ties to what they saw as a doomed currency. And all the while, quietly, in the background, they were swapping as much of that paper money as they could for…?”

“GOLD!!!” Right on cue the boy blurted out the answer, raising both hands in triumph.

“Gold,” the old man said, softly. “Remember what Mr. Macleod wrote?” He cast it up:

(Alasdair Macleod): Following Russia’s recovery from its 1998 financial crisis, China set about developing an Asian trading bloc in partnership with Russia as an eventual replacement for Western export markets, and in 2001 the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation was born. In the following year, her gold policy also changed radically, when Chinese citizens were allowed for the first time to buy gold and the Shanghai Gold Exchange was set up to satisfy anticipated demand.

The fact that China permitted its citizens to buy physical gold suggests that it had already acquired a satisfactory holding.

Since 2002, it will have continued to add to gold through mine and scrap supplies, which is confirmed by the apparent absence of Chinese-refined 1 kilo bars in the global vaulting system. Furthermore China takes in gold doré from Asian and African mines, which it also refines and probably adds to government stockpiles.

Since 2002, the Chinese state has almost certainly acquired by these means a further 5,000 tonnes or more. Allowing the public to buy gold, as well as satisfying the public’s desire for owning it, also reduces the need for currency intervention to stop the renminbi rising. Therefore the Chinese state has probably accumulated between 20,000 and 30,000 tonnes since 1983, and has no need to acquire any more through market purchases, given her own refineries are supplying over 500 tonnes per annum.

“A man called Simon Hunt, who had extremely good connections in China and, more importantly perhaps, a willingness to entertain possibilities most people couldn’t, told a fascinating story once about a visit paid by a friend of his to an army base in China…”

(Simon Hunt, Nov 14, 2014): China is in the process of making the RMB acceptable as an international currency. It wants its trading partners and others to see the RMB as a stable currency that does not play the game of devaluation when difficulties arise. It is the long-game in which Beijing hopes that their currency not only becomes acceptable in financing trade but that central banks can feel secure in adding the RMB to their reserves, as some are now doing.

As we have discussed in earlier reports, China, not just the PBOC, holds far more gold than the market has been assuming, probably in the region of 30,000 tonnes, compared with the USA holding very little of its reported 8,300 tonnes.

Whilst in Japan we were told an interesting if not amusing story that supports this contention. A friend of ours has several factories in China and thus knows many senior people in different disciplines, one of which is a senior PLA officer. He was invited down to their HQ for drinks. After a few hours, his friend suggested they take a walk around the compound ending up at the entrance of a large warehouse. The door was opened and to my friend’s astonishment the warehouse was stacked from floor to ceiling with gold bars.

One day, when the timing suits Beijing best, the PBOC will link the RMB to gold. The West may dislike gold, or at least some of their central banks [do], preferring to operate with fiat currencies, but Eastern governments have a history of seeing gold as a store of value.

“NOW, of course, it seems that what Simon said should have been completely obvious; but all the way back in 2014, believe it or not, the idea that the Chinese would peg their currency to gold was something that most people here in the West just couldn’t even comprehend. I can’t even begin to tell you the number of times I talked to people about this stuff. For years it was obvious how things would end, but only a small group of people listened. Mostly, people just laughed and told me I was a fool. They said I should be buying shares and that a return to ANY kind of gold standard was a ridiculous idea. Do you know what I did?”

“Bought more gold?” The boy phrased it like a question even though he knew the answer. He just liked to let his grandfather have his moment.

“Bought more gold,” the old man said matter of factly. He threw up a chart they both knew well:

“But, but, you’ve jumped ahead, Grandad! The part where the Chinese link their currency to gold isn’t for ages yet. You skipped the bit about the Swiss gold! AND you left out the best part — the missing gold?”

“Sheesh!” the old man said in mock exasperation, “I’m coming to that part now! You are one impatient little fella, aren’t you?”

“But this is the best bit!” the boy replied excitedly.

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

Outside the Box: Notes on Russia

 

Russia and its redoubtable president, Vladimir Putin, have been much in the news lately. The latest flurry came when Putin was taken out behind the woodshed at the G20 conference in the Philippines last weekend over his recent moves to inject more Russian troops and arms into Ukraine.

For today’s Outside the Box we have two pieces that deliver deeper insights into the situation with Russia and Putin. The first is from my good friend Ian Bremmer, President of the Eurasia Group and author of Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World. You probably caught my mention of Ian’s presentation at the institutional fund manager conference where we both spoke last weekend. He had some unsettling things to say about Russia; and so when he followed up with an email to me on Monday, I asked if he’d let me share the section on Russia with you. Understand, Ian is connected, and so what you’re about to be treated to here is analysis from way inside. (He’ll be presenting at our Strategic Investment Conference again next April, too.)

Then we turn to a piece that my friend Vitaliy Katsenelson published last week in his monthly column in Institutional Investor. I need to preface this one by mentioning that Vitaliy was born in Murmansk, Russia, where he lived until age 18, when his family emigrated to the US. Fast-forward 23 years, and today Vitaliy is Chief Investment Officer for Investment Management Associates in Denver and author of the highly successful Active Value Investing: Making Money in Range-Bound Markets and The Little Book of Sideways Markets. That’s quite a journey, and Vitaliy has some very strong feelings about the country he left as well as the one he came to. In his intro to today’s piece he admits,

[This is] one of the most emotionally taxing things I ever wrote. A few days ago my wife looked at me and said, “When are you going to be done with it; this article is bringing you down.” She was right.

But I think you’ll agree that when Vitaliy recently subjected himself to a 7-day news diet of nothing but Russian media, the better to comprehend current Russian attitudes, he resurfaced with some valuable insights.

And I can’t leave our deliberations on all things Russia and Putin without mentioning again Marin Katusa’s new book, The Colder War, which I featured in Outside the Box two weeks ago. It’s a compelling survey of the history and dynamics of world energy markets and the role that Putin seeks to play in them.

Geopolitically, the world seems to be a calmer place as we head into the Christmas season, with the significant and glaring exception of Russia. And remember, falling oil prices will seriously impact an already stressed Russian economy.

But before we turn to the eye-opening if somber notes below, I want to share with you a fabulous story from my friend Art Cashin, who is one of the world’s great raconteurs. I make sure to have dinner with Art whenever I’m in New York. In addition to his wisdom concerning the markets, he simply has the best stories. The last dinner (also attended by Barry Ritholtz and Josh Brown) was at an establishment called Sparks, an old New York watering hole and famous steakhouse not far from Grand Central Station.

Art shared the following story with us and had us in tears. Back in the day, the New York Stock Exchange was a mighty interesting place with a very curious cast of interesting and interlocking personalities. It has calmed down some over the decades, but the stories … well, let’s just let Art tell it.

For years, one of the communal tables at the Luncheon Club would issue a group challenge. They would all set a target for losing weight by some date a couple of months out. The one who weighed up furthest from their target had to buy dinner for the others.

In 1985, the loser was Maurice (Monk) Meyer of Henderson Brothers. Among the others were Jack (Jackie D) D’Alessandro, Pat McCarthy, Bill Fitzpatrick, and Roger Hochstin.

They decided to turn the event into a sort of a Christmas party and scheduled the dinner for the week before Christmas. They made reservations at Sparks Steakhouse.

As the day approached, there was an unexpected development. Mafia kingpin Paul Castellano was gunned down, along with his driver, on the sidewalk outside Sparks.

Nevertheless, the show must go on.

When the fated date arrived, the group decided to meet at the Luncheon Club bar for some rehearsal cocktails. They rehearsed for a couple of hours and then headed for Sparks.

As they arrived, around 7:00, there were some early hints it might be a bumpy evening. When they walked in, the hostess asked if they had reservations. “Only about the food,” snapped Pat McCarthy. That was followed by the maître d’ asking where they’d like to sit, only to hear Roger say, “In the non-shooting section, please.”

Once they were seated, they ignored the menu and ordered more cocktails and several bottles of wine. For the next three hours, they ignored the pleas of several waiters and the maître d’ to order some food to go along with the wine and drinks.

In the meantime, Roger may have been getting bored. He noticed another table with six Japanese men in their twenties and one older man, who looked maybe 60.

Somehow, Roger found a Chinese takeout menu from Chou Lu in his pocket. He put his napkin over his arm as though he were a waiter and went over to the table of Japanese men and began reading the menu in a form of broken Chinglish that would have embarrassed even the producers of the old Charlie Chan movies. Things like “Pork Flied Lice.”

Ironically, only the older man spoke English, and he seemed to think it was a wonderful joke. He told Roger that Roger’s table seemed to be having a wonderful time and asked if he might join it briefly.

Roger brought him over and introduced him around. There was a pleasant exchange for about 15 minutes and then Jackie D asked him where in Japan he came from. They man replied – “Actually, I’m from Okinawa.” Bill Fitzpatrick darkened and said, pointedly, “My favorite uncle was killed on Okinawa by you people during the war.” The man quickly excused himself.

Pat McCarthy reminded Bill that he had not had an uncle in the war. Jack turned to Pat and said, “That doesn’t matter; Bill went through the barrier about two drinks ago.”

Anyway, the waiter finally prevailed upon the boys to order entrees by 10:00. Meanwhile, Maurice was sinking fast. He had come out despite a bad case of the flu, since he was the designated payer. It quickly became evident that Meyer would not make it much past 10:30. He called for the check.

As they were about to help Meyer to his feet, Jackie D noticed that McCarthy had had his untouched entrée put into a doggie bag. Not wanting to be outdone, Jackie reached down and put his medium rare petite filet in his inside jacket pocket without benefit of a doggie bag.

At the coatrack, Jackie attempted to help Meyer get his overcoat on. In doing so Jack lifted his own hand high and out. That swept his jacket off to the side, revealing a shirt dripping with blood from the medium rare filet in his pocket.

Perhaps recalling Castellano’s recent fate, one woman at a table spotted Jack’s shirt and screamed, “My God! He’s been shot!”

Everybody in the restaurant hit the deck, including the maître d’ and our adventurous group. When everyone got back to their feet, the maître d’ told the boys they were never allowed back – collectively or individually.

In a huff, the boys headed off to the John Barleycorn.

Art can go on all night with stories like that. You really should put them into a book, Art.

You have a great week. I am off to the gym, where The Beast will continue to try to whip this poor old body into some similitude of shape.

Your still smiling from all the great stories analyst,

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

 

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Notes on Russia

By Ian Bremmer
Nov. 17, 2014

the russians are taking every opportunity to escalate an already plenty hostile relationship with the united states and some selected allies. the g20 summit was particularly negative on that front, with russian president putin bringing along some warships to australia, while canadian prime minister stephen harper led a rope line of western leaders calling putin a scoundrel and a liar. putin left early, claiming a need to catch up on sleep and some other business to attend to.

like in ukraine.

i had a chance to talk with some senior russians last week, including two advisors to the kremlin. they explained that putin expected his offer of a ceasefire in southeast ukraine would be sufficient to get the americans to tolerate a status quo, while bringing the europeans to the table with some sanctions reductions. that didn’t happen: instead a coordinated harder line policy stayed in place, while the americans and germans looked set to put more sanctions in place unless the russians actively backed down. despite mounting economic pressure on the europeans, the frozen conflict/long game the kremlin was playing didn’t look like it was going to succeed.

and so the kremlin moved backed to escalation, dramatically expanding their direct military presence in the region – confirmed by nato and the typically-conservative osce, denied by the russian government – and announcing plans to build up troops in crimea. they’re preparing both sides to consolidate their territory, initially through taking the port city of mariupol…potentially then a land-bridge between eastern ukraine and crimea and beyond (odessa being the most obvious place). the most likely path is the kremlin now looking for provocations to “go further” – they’ve already expressed a level of outrage around the ukrainian government severing economic ties to the separatist region – then the fiction of ceasefire is erased and the russians/separatists take more territory. ultimately, whatever the formalized “governance” structure, the kremlin is moving towards making crimea and southeast ukraine a single place.

there’s very little the ukrainians can do. the ukrainian military will remain badly outgunned, and the local populations in the region remain fairly anti-kiev, even if they’re skittish about the notion of russian takeover. we’ll see a pickup in international calls to provide arms for the ukrainian military, but they’ll be rejected, most particularly by the united states. at best we’ll see a step up in intelligence and training support, to little consequence.

putin’s military efforts are also stepping up outside ukraine: the “unknown” but clearly russian submarine off sweden, a russian nuclear armed exercise during an intelligence meeting in denmark; bomber patrols in the gulf of mexico. they’re all bluster, but a clear message to america and its allies…and pose a far higher potential for accidents – one scandanavian airlines flight recently made an emergency alteration to its flight path when a russian military jet suddenly appeared in front of it.

the likelihood of moscow backing down in this environment is near zero. the sanctions aren’t having a meaningful impact on the russian economy (yet) and the popularity of the kremlin isn’t taking a hit. the speech from former soviet general secretary mikhail gorbachev – no fan of putin, but clearly pointing the finger at the west for russia’s troubles – makes that clear. and it’s getting harder for the americans to find an out. german chancellor angela merkel continues to be the best opportunity for compromise, but her relationship with putin is now only barely functional (the kremlin advisors i spoke with said this was the single biggest misstep from putin to date – they believed his bilateral conversations with her were too aggressive and led merkel to feel misled; neither believed the relationship could be salvaged near-term). and so russians are now presuming the sanctions environment will be there for the long haul, and are thinking about the longer term economic implications.

i’d now say that’s meaningful before we get to russia’s 2018 elections: further sanctions causing steep recession leading to unrest in the regions, which begins to metastasize to the cities. that would spook russian elites, some of whom could split from the kremlin. the key early warning indicator would be meaningful defections of any insiders to the west. but critically, we’re at least a year or two away from that. by which time ukraine has been economically devastated, while the strategic shift of russia-china is thoroughly entrenched.

Putin’s World: Why Russia’s Showdown with the West Will Worsen

By Vitaliy Katsenelson
Institutional Investor, Nov. 17, 2014

My father, Naum Katsenelson, painted this watercolor, “Dolls Become Humans,” two years after we came to the United States in 1993. This is the only “thematic” picture my father ever painted.

If you look at the picture carefully you’ll see the silhouette of Lenin in the clouds (representing the past). On the far left there is a Stalin doll and a line of people going to prison. Across from Stalin on the right there is a doll of Brezhnev (you’ll recognize him by his large, distinct eyebrows). On the building on the right there is an image of Gorbachev. Look carefully at the faces in the foreground (representing the present and the future): as they get closer to you they become more humanized – transforming from dolls into humans. The man in front of the woman draped in the American flag is my father; the boy with the Star of David on his chest is me.

This was an aspirational picture. In 1993 the Soviet Union fell apart. Russia’s future looked bright – although it was in chaos, it was a democracy. The dolls here are an analogy for robots, suggesting uniformity of thought. As I was composing this I called my father and asked him if he’d paint the same picture today. He said, “No. Today’s picture would look very different.”

I spent three months aggravating over the following article. It was one of the most emotionally taxing things I ever wrote. A few days ago my wife looked at me and said, “When are you going to be done with it; this article is bringing you down.” She was right.

I grew up hating America. I lived in the Soviet Union and was a child of the cold war. That hate went away in 1989, though, when the Berlin Wall fell and the cold war ended. By the time I left Russia in 1991, the year the Soviet Union collapsed, America was a country that Russians looked up to and wanted to emulate.

Twenty-three years later, a new version of cold war is back, though we Americans haven’t realized it yet. But I am getting ahead of myself.

After Russia invaded Crimea and staged its referendum, I thought Vladimir Putin’s foreign excursions were over. Taking back Crimea violated plenty of international laws, but let’s be honest. Though major powers like the U.S. and Russia write the international laws, they are not really expected to abide by those laws if they find them not to be in their best interests. Those laws are for everyone else. I am not condoning such behavior, but I can clearly see how Russians could justify taking Crimea back – after all, it used to belong to Russia.

I was perplexed by how the Russian people could possibly support and not be outraged by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But I live in Denver, and I read mostly U.S. and European newspapers. I wanted to see what was going on in Russia and Ukraine from the Russian perspective, so I went on a seven-day news diet: I watched only Russian TV – Channel One Russia, the state-owned broadcaster, which I hadn’t seen in more than 20 years – and read Pravda, the Russian newspaper whose name means “Truth.” Here is what I learned:

If Russia did not reclaim Crimea, once the new, illegitimate government came to power in Ukraine, the Russian navy would have been kicked out and the U.S. navy would have started using Crimean ports as navy bases. There are no Russian troops in Ukraine, nor were there ever any there. If any Russian soldiers were found there (and there were), those soldiers were on leave. They went to Ukraine to support their Russian brothers and sisters who are being abused by Ukrainian nationalists. (They may have borrowed a tank or two, or a highly specialized Russian-made missile system that is capable of shooting down planes, but for some reason those details are not mentioned much in the Russian media.) On November 12, NATO reported that Russian tanks had entered Ukraine. The Russian government vehemently denied it, blaming NATO for being anti-Russian.

Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was not downed by Russia or separatists. It was shot down by an air-to-air missile fired by Ukraine or a NATO plane engaged in military exercises in Ukraine at the time. The U.S. has the satellite imagery but is afraid of the truth and chooses not to share it with the world.

Ukraine was destabilized by the U.S., which spent $5 billion on this project. As proof, TV news showed a video of Senator John McCain giving a speech to antigovernment protesters in Kiev’s Maidan Square. It was followed by a video of Vice President Joe Biden visiting Ukraine during the tumult. I wasn’t sure what his role was, but it was implied that he had something to do with the unrest.

Speaking of Joe Biden, I learned that his son just joined the board of Ukraine’s largest natural gas company, which will benefit significantly from a destabilized Ukraine.

Ukraine is a zoo of a country, deeply corrupt and overrun by Russian-haters and neo-Nazis (Banderovtsi – Ukrainian nationalists who were responsible for killing Russians and Jews during World War II).

Candidates for the recent parliamentary election in Ukraine included Darth Vader (not kidding), as well as a gay ex-prostitute who claims to be a working man’s man but lives in a multimillion-dollar mansion.

I have to confess, it is hard not to develop a lot of self-doubt about your previously held views when you watch Russian TV for a week. But then you have to remind yourself that Putin’s Russia doesn’t have a free press. The free press that briefly existed after the Soviet Union collapsed is gone – Putin killed it. The government controls most TV channels, radio and newspapers. What Russians see on TV, read in print and listen to on the radio is direct propaganda from the Kremlin.

Before I go further, let’s visit the definition of propaganda with the help of the Oxford English Dictionary: “The systematic dissemination of information, especially in a biased or misleading way, in order to promote a political cause or point of view.”

I always thought of the Internet as an unstoppable democratic force that would always let the truth slip out through the cracks in even the most determined wall of propaganda. I was wrong. After watching Russian TV, you would not want to read the Western press, because you’d be convinced it was lying. More important, Russian TV is so potent that you would not even want to watch anything else, because you would be convinced that you were in possession of indisputable facts.

Russian’s propaganda works by forcing your right brain (the emotional one) to overpower your left brain (the logical one), while clogging all your logical filters. Here is an example: Russian TV shows footage of schools in eastern Ukraine bombed by the Ukrainian army. Anyone’s heart would bleed, seeing these gruesome images. It is impossible not to feel hatred toward people who would perpetrate such an atrocity on their own population. It was explained to viewers that the Ukrainian army continued its offensive despite a cease-fire agreement.

Of course if you watched Ukrainian TV, you would have seen similar images of death and despair on the other side. In fact, if you read Ukrainian newspapers, you will learn that the Ukrainian army is fighting a well-armed army, not rebels with Molotovs and handguns, but an organized force fully armed by the Russian army.

What viewers were not shown was that the cease-fire had been broken before the fighting resumed. The fact that Putin helped to instigate this war was never mentioned. Facts are not something Russian TV is concerned about. As emotional images and a lot of disinformation pump up your right brain, it overpowers the left, which capitulates and stops questioning the information presented.

What I also learned is that you don’t have to lie to lie. Let me give you an example. I could not figure out how the Russian media came up with the $5 billion that “America spent destabilizing Ukraine.” But then I found a video of a U.S. undersecretary of State giving an 8.5-minute speech; at the 7.5-minute mark, she said, “Since Ukrainian independence in 1991 … [the U.S. has] invested more than $5 billion to help Ukraine.” The $5 billion figure was correct. However, it was not given to Ukraine in three months to destabilize a democratically elected, corrupt pro-Russian government but over the course of 23 years. Yes, you don’t have to lie to lie; you just have to omit important facts – something Russian TV is very good at.

Another example of a right-brain attack on the left brain is “the rise of neo-Nazism in Ukraine.” Most lies are built around kernels of truth, and this one is no different. Ukraine was home to the Banderovtsi, Ukrainian nationalists who were responsible for killing tens of thousands of Jews and Russians during World War II.

Putin justified the invasion of Crimea by claiming that he was protecting the Russian population from neo-Nazis. Russian TV creates the impression that the whole of Ukraine is overrun by Nazis. As my father puts it, “Ukrainians who lived side by side with Russians did not just become Nazis overnight.”

Though there may be some neo-Nazis in Ukraine, the current government is liberal and pro-Western. Svoboda – the party whose members are known for their neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic rhetoric – did not get even 5 percent of the votes in the October election, the minimum needed to gain a significant presence in parliament. Meanwhile the TV goes on showing images of Nazis killing Russians and Jews during World War II and drawing parallels between Nazi Germany and Ukraine today.

What also makes things more difficult in Russia is that, unlike Americans, who by default don’t trust their politicians – yes, even their presidents – Russians still have the czarist mentality that idolizes its leaders. Stalin was able to cultivate this to an enormous degree – most Russians thought of him as a father figure. My father was 20 when Stalin died in 1953, and he told me that he, like everyone around him, cried.

I keep thinking about what Lord Acton said: “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The Putin we scorn today was not always like this; he did a lot of good things during his first term. The two that stand out the most are getting rid of the organized crime that was killing Russia and instituting a pro-business flat tax system. The amount of power Russians give their presidents, however, will, with time, change the blood flow to anyone’s head. Come to think of it, even Mother Teresa would not have stood a chance in Russia.

A few weeks ago Putin turned 62, and thousands of people took to the streets to celebrate his birthday. (Most Americans, including this one, don’t even know the month of Barack Obama’s birthday.)

In my misspent youth, I took a marketing class at the University of Colorado. I remember very little from that class except this: For your message to be remembered, a consumer has to hear it at least six times. Putin’s propaganda folks must have taken the same class, because Russian citizens get to hear how great their president is at least six times a day.

We Americans look at Putin and see an evil KGB guy who roams around the country without a shirt on. Russians are shown a very different picture. They see a hard-working president who cares deeply about them. Every news program dedicates at least one fifth of its airtime to showcasing Putin’s greatness, not in your face but in subtle ways. A typical clip would have him meeting with a cabinet minister. The minister would give his report, and Putin, looking very serious indeed, would lecture the minister on what needed to be done. Putin is always candid, direct and tough with his ministers.

I’ve listened to a few of Putin’s speeches, and I have to admit that his oratory skills are excellent, of a J.F.K. or Reagan caliber. He doesn’t give a speech; he talks. His language is accessible and full of zingers. He is very calm and logical.

Russians look at the Putin presidency and ask themselves a very pragmatic question: Am I better off now, with him, than I was before he came into power? For most the answer is yes. What most Russians don’t see is that oil prices over the past 14 years went from $14 to more than $100 a barrel. They are completely responsible for the revival of Russia’s one-trick petrochemical economy. In other words, they should consider why their economy has done better the past decade, and why it may not do as well going forward. Unless Putin was the one who jump-started China’s insatiable demand for oil and other commodities that drove prices higher, he has had very little to do with Russia’s recent “prosperity.”

I place prosperity in quotes because if you take oil and gas riches away from Russia (lower prices can do that with ease), it is in a worse place today than it was 14 years ago. High oil prices have ruined Russia. They have driven its currency up, making its other products less competitive in international markets. Also, capital gravitates toward higher returns; thus oil has sucked capital from other industries, hollowing out the economy. After the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia had a chance to broaden its economy; it had one of the most educated workforces in the world. Sadly, it squandered that opportunity. Name one noncommodity product that is exported from Russia. There aren’t many; I can think only of vodka and military equipment.

But most Russians don’t look at things that way. For most of them, their lives are better now: No more lines for toilet paper, and the stores are full of food. Their personal liberties (such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press) have been taken away from them, but many have so much trust in their president that they don’t mind, whereas others are simply complacent.

Today we see three factors that influence oil prices and are working against Russia: Supply is going up with U.S. shale drilling; demand growth will likely decline if the Chinese economy continues to cool; and the dollar is getting stronger, not because the U.S. doing great but just because the rest of the world is doing worse. If oil prices continue to decline, this will expose the true state of the Russian economy.

When I visited Russia in 2008, I sensed an anti-American sentiment. NATO – which in Russia is perceived as a predominantly American entity – had expanded too close to Russian borders. Georgia tried to join NATO, but Russia put a quick end to that. Russians felt they extended a friendly hand to the U.S. after 9/11, but in response America was arraying missiles around its borders. (The U.S. says they are defensive, not offensive; Russians don’t see the distinction. They are probably right.)

The true colors of this new cold war came to light recently. In August 2008, according to Henry Paulson, the U.S. Treasury secretary at the time, “top level” Russian officials approached the Chinese during the Olympics in Beijing and proposed “that together they might sell big chunks of their GSE (Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) holdings to force the U.S. to use its emergency authorities to prop up these companies.”

This incident took place just weeks before the collapse of Lehman Brothers. The U.S. economy was inches from revisiting the Stone Age. The proposed Russian-Chinese maneuver could have made such an outcome more likely. The Federal Reserve would have had to step in and buy Fannie’s and Freddie’s debt, and the dollar would have taken a dive, worsening the plunge in the U.S. economy. Our friend Putin wanted to bring the U.S. economy down without firing a single shot, just as he annexed Crimea from Ukraine.

Today anti-American sentiment is much greater in Russia. European sanctions are seen as entirely unjustified. Here is why: Crimea had a “democratic referendum,” and the Ukrainian conflict is believed to be not of Russia’s doing but rather an American attempt to destabilize Russia and bring Ukraine into NATO. In his annual speech at the Valdai conference last month, Putin said America had pushed an unwilling Europe into imposing sanctions on Russia. America is perceived as an imperialistic bully that, because of its economic and military power, puts its own self-interest above everyone else’s, and international law.

Putin uses anti-Americanism as a shiny object to detract attention from the weak Russian economy and other internal problems. In the short run, sanctions provide a convenient excuse for the weakening Russian economy and declining ruble. They have boosted Putin’s popularity (at least so far). As the Russian economy gets worse, anti-American sentiment will only rise.

This new version of the cold war has little in common with the one I grew up in. There are no ideological differences, and there is no arms race (at least not yet, and let’s be honest: Today neither country can afford one, especially Russia). At the core of it, we don’t like what Russia is doing to its neighbors, and Russia doesn’t like what we do to the rest of the (non-EU) world.

The criticisms of U.S. foreign policy voiced by Putin in his latest Valdai speech are shared by many Americans: The U.S. is culpable in the unresolved, open-ended Afghanistan adventure; the Iraq War; the almost-bombing of Syria, which may have destabilized the region further; and the creation of the Islamic State, which is in large part a by-product of all of the above. Yet Putin’s abominable Ukrainian excursion and the thousands of lives lost were never mentioned.

But there is also something less tangible that is influencing Russia’s behavior: a bruised ego. During the good old Soviet Union days, Russia was a superpower. It mattered. When it spoke, the world listened. The Russian people had a great sense of pride in their Rodina (Mother Russia). Today, if Russia did not have nuclear weapons, we’d pay much less attention to it than we do. Pick a developing country without oil whose president you can name. (Okay, we Americans can’t name the president of almost any other country, but you get the point.)

Anti-Americanism and Putin’s popularity will both rise as the Russian economy weakens. For instance, Putin took his own people hostage when he imposed sanctions on imports of European food. The impact on Europe will not be significant (the Russian economy is not very large in comparison to the European Union), but Russia is very dependent on these imports. In the U.S. consumers spend about 13 percent of their earnings on food, but in Russia that number is almost three times larger. Therefore, food inflation hurts Russians much more. Yet as food inflation spiked, so did Putin’s popularity and anti-Americanism. Even declining oil prices will be explained as a anti-Russian manipulation by the U.S.

Unfortunately, the only thing Russia has going for it today is its nuclear weapons. Russia has started to remind us of its military recently. According to NATO, the alliance “has conducted over 100 intercepts of Russian aircraft in 2014 to date, which is about three times more than were conducted in 2013.”

Every article needs a conclusion, but this one doesn’t have one. I am not sure what this new cold war means for the world. Will Russia start invading other neighboring countries? Will it test NATO resolve by invading Baltic countries that are part of NATO? I don’t know. Economic instability will eventually lead to political crises. We have plenty of economic instability going on around the world.

I’ll leave you with this thought: On March 7, 1936, the German army violated the Treaty of Versailles and entered into the Rhineland. Here is what Hitler later said:

“The forty-eight hours after the march into the Rhineland were the most nerve-racking in my life. If the French had then marched into the Rhineland, we would have had to withdraw with our tails between our legs, for the military resources at our disposal would have been wholly inadequate for even a moderate resistance.”

Those two days determined what Germany would do next – build out its army and start World War II.

Comparing Putin with Hitler, as one of my Russian friends put it, is “absolutely abominable” because it diminishes Hitler’s atrocities and overstates by a mile what Putin has accomplished to date. Yet it feels as if we are at a Putin-of-1936 moment. Will he turn into a Putin of 1939 and invade other countries? I don’t know. But the events of the past nine months have shown Putin’s willingness to defy international law and seize the advantage on the ground, betting – correctly so far – that the West won’t call his bluff.

As Garry Kasparov put it, while the West is playing chess, responding tactically to each turn of events, Putin is playing high-stakes poker. We ignore Putin at our own peril.

Vitaliy Katsenelson, CFA, is Chief Investment Officer at Investment Management Associates in Denver, Colo. To receive Vitaliy’s future articles by email or read his articles, click here.

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Outside the Box: The Return of the Dollar

 

Two years ago, my friend Mohamed El-Erian and I were on the stage at my Strategic Investment Conference. Naturally we were discussing currencies in the global economy, and I asked him about currency wars. He smiled and said to me, “John, we don’t talk about currency wars in polite circles. More like currency disagreements” (or some word to that effect).

This week I note that he actually uses the words currency war in an essay he wrote for Project Syndicate:

Yet the benefits of the dollar’s rally are far from guaranteed, for both economic and financial reasons. While the US economy is more resilient and agile than its developed counterparts, it is not yet robust enough to be able to adjust smoothly to a significant shift in external demand to other countries. There is also the risk that, given the role of the ECB and the Bank of Japan in shaping their currencies’ performance, such a shift could be characterized as a “currency war” in the US Congress, prompting a retaliatory policy response.

This is a short treatise, but as usual with Mohamed’s writing, it’s very thought-provoking. Definitely Outside the Box material.

And for a two-part Outside the Box I want to take the unusual step of including an op-ed piece that you might not have seen, from the Wall Street Journal, called “How to Distort Income Inequality,” by Phil Gramm and Michael Solon. They cite research I’ve seen elsewhere which shows that the work by Thomas Piketty cherry-picks data and ignores total income and especially how taxes distort the data. That is not to say that income inequality does not exist and that we should not be cognizant and concerned, but we need to plan policy based on a firm grasp of reality and not overreact because of some fantasy world created by social provocateur academicians.

The calls for income redistribution from socialists and liberals based on Piketty’s work are clearly misguided and will further distort income inequality in ways that will only reduce total global productivity and growth.

I’m in New York today at an institutional fund manager conference where I had the privilege of hearing my good friend Ian Bremmer take us around the world on a geopolitical tour. Ian was refreshingly optimistic, or at least sanguine, about most of the world over the next few years. Lots of potential problems, of course, but he thinks everything should turn out fine – with the notable exception of Russia, where he is quite pessimistic. A shirtless Vladimir Putin was the scariest thing on his geopolitical radar. As he spoke, Russia was clearly putting troops and arms into eastern Ukraine. Why would you do that if you didn’t intend to go further? Ian worried openly about Russia’s extending a land bridge all the way to Crimea and potentially even to Odessa, which is the heart of economic Ukraine, along with the Kiev region. It would basically make Ukraine ungovernable.

I thought Putin’s sadly grim and memorable line that “The United States is prepared to fight Russia to the last Ukrainian” pretty much sums up the potential for a US or NATO response. Putin agreed to a cease-fire and assumed that sanctions would start to be lifted. When there was no movement on sanctions, he pretty much went back to square one. He has clearly turned his economic attention towards China.

Both Ian Bremmer and Mohamed El Erian will be at my Strategic Investment Conference next year, which will again be in San Diego in the spring, April 28-30. Save the dates in your calendar as you do not want to miss what is setting up to be a very special conference. We will get more details to you soon.

It is a very pleasant day here in New York, and I was able to avoid taxis and put in about six miles of pleasant walking. (Sadly, it is supposed to turn cold tomorrow.) I’ve gotten used to getting around in cities and slipping into the flow of things, but there was a time when I felt like the country mouse coming to the city. As I walked past St. Bart’s today I was reminded of an occasion when your humble analyst nearly got himself in serious trouble.

There is a very pleasant little outdoor restaurant at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, across the street from the side entrance of the Waldorf-Astoria. It was a fabulous day in the spring, and I was having lunch with my good friend Barry Ritholtz. The president (George W.) was in town and staying at the Waldorf. His entourage pulled up and Barry pointed and said, “Look, there’s the president.”

We were at the edge of the restaurant, so I stood up to see if I could see George. The next thing I know, Barry’s hand is on my shoulder roughly pulling me back into my seat. “Sit down!” he barked. I was rather confused – what faux pas I had committed? Barry pointed to two rather menacing, dark-suited figures who were glaring at me from inside the restaurant.

“They were getting ready to shoot you, John! They had their hands inside their coats ready to pull guns. They thought you were going to do something to the president!”

This was New York not too long after 9/11. The memory is fresh even today. Now, I think I would know better than to stand up with the president coming out the side door across the street. But back then I was still just a country boy come to the big city.

Tomorrow night I will have dinner with Barry and Art Cashin and a few other friends at some restaurant which is supposedly famous for a mob shooting back in the day. Art will have stories, I am sure.

It is time to go sing for my supper, and I will try not to keep the guests from enjoying what promises to be a fabulous meal from celebrity chef Cyrille Allannic. After Ian’s speech, I think I will be nothing but sweetness and light, just a harmless economic entertainer. After all, what could possibly go really wrong with the global economy, when you’re being wined and dined at the top of New York? Have a great week.

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

 

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The Return of the Dollar

By Mohamed El-Erian
Project Syndicate, Nov. 13, 2014

LAGUNA BEACH – The US dollar is on the move. In the last four months alone, it has soared by more than 7% compared with a basket of more than a dozen global currencies, and by even more against the euro and the Japanese yen. This dollar rally, the result of genuine economic progress and divergent policy developments, could contribute to the “rebalancing” that has long eluded the world economy. But that outcome is far from guaranteed, especially given the related risks of financial instability.

Two major factors are currently working in the dollar’s favor, particularly compared to the euro and the yen. First, the United States is consistently outperforming Europe and Japan in terms of economic growth and dynamism – and will likely continue to do so – owing not only to its economic flexibility and entrepreneurial energy, but also to its more decisive policy action since the start of the global financial crisis.

Second, after a period of alignment, the monetary policies of these three large and systemically important economies are diverging, taking the world economy from a multi-speed trajectory to a multi-track one. Indeed, whereas the US Federal Reserve terminated its large-scale securities purchases, known as “quantitative easing” (QE), last month, the Bank of Japan and the European Central Bank recently announced the expansion of their monetary-stimulus programs. In fact, ECB President Mario Draghi signaled a willingness to expand his institution’s balance sheet by a massive €1 trillion ($1.25 trillion).

With higher US market interest rates attracting additional capital inflows and pushing the dollar even higher, the currency’s revaluation would appear to be just what the doctor ordered when it comes to catalyzing a long-awaited global rebalancing – one that promotes stronger growth and mitigates deflation risk in Europe and Japan. Specifically, an appreciating dollar improves the price competitiveness of European and Japanese companies in the US and other markets, while moderating some of the structural deflationary pressure in the lagging economies by causing import prices to rise.

Yet the benefits of the dollar’s rally are far from guaranteed, for both economic and financial reasons. While the US economy is more resilient and agile than its developed counterparts, it is not yet robust enough to be able to adjust smoothly to a significant shift in external demand to other countries. There is also the risk that, given the role of the ECB and the Bank of Japan in shaping their currencies’ performance, such a shift could be characterized as a “currency war” in the US Congress, prompting a retaliatory policy response.

Furthermore, sudden large currency moves tend to translate into financial-market instability. To be sure, this risk was more acute when a larger number of emerging-economy currencies were pegged to the US dollar, which meant that a significant shift in the dollar’s value would weaken other countries’ balance-of-payments position and erode their international reserves, thereby undermining their creditworthiness. Today, many of these countries have adopted more flexible exchange-rate regimes, and quite a few retain adequate reserve holdings.

But a new issue risks bringing about a similarly problematic outcome: By repeatedly repressing financial-market volatility over the last few years, central-bank policies have inadvertently encouraged excessive risk-taking, which has pushed many financial-asset prices higher than economic fundamentals warrant. To the extent that continued currency-market volatility spills over into other markets – and it will – the imperative for stronger economic fundamentals to validate asset prices will intensify.

This is not to say that the currency re-alignment that is currently underway is necessarily a problematic development; on the contrary, it has the potential to boost the global economy by supporting the recovery of some of its most challenged components. But the only way to take advantage of the re-alignment’s benefits, without experiencing serious economic disruptions and financial-market volatility, is to introduce complementary growth-enhancing policy adjustments, such as accelerating structural reforms, balancing aggregate demand, and reducing or eliminating debt overhangs.

After all, global growth, at its current level, is inadequate for mere redistribution among countries to work. Overall global GDP needs to increase.

The US dollar’s resurgence, while promising, is only a first step. It is up to governments to ensure that the ongoing currency re-alignment supports a balanced, stable, and sustainable economic recovery. Otherwise, they may find themselves again in the unpleasant business of mitigating financial instability.

 

How to Distort Income Inequality

By Phil Gramm and Michael Solon
Wall Street Journal, Nov. 11, 2014

The Piketty-Saez data ignore changes in tax law and fail to count noncash compensation and Social Security benefits.

What the hockey-stick portrayal of global temperatures did in bringing a sense of crisis to the issue of global warming is now being replicated in the controversy over income inequality, thanks to a now-famous study by Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, professors of economics at the Paris School of Economics and the University of California, Berkeley, respectively. Whether the issue is climate change or income inequality, however, problems with the underlying data significantly distort the debate.

The chosen starting point for the most-quoted part of the Piketty-Saez study is 1979. In that year the inflation rate was 13.3%, interest rates were 15.5% and the poverty rate was rising, but economic misery was distributed more equally than in any year since. That misery led to the election of Ronald Reagan, whose economic policies helped usher in 25 years of lower interest rates, lower inflation and high economic growth. But Messrs. Piketty and Saez tell us it was also a period where the rich got richer, the poor got poorer and only a relatively small number of Americans benefited from the economic booms of the Reagan and Clinton years.

If that dark picture doesn’t sound like the country you lived in, that’s because it isn’t. The Piketty-Saez study looked only at pretax cash market income. It did not take into account taxes. It left out noncash compensation such as employer-provided health insurance and pension contributions. It left out Social Security payments, Medicare and Medicaid benefits, and more than 100 other means-tested government programs. Realized capital gains were included, but not the first $500,000 from the sale of one’s home, which is tax-exempt. IRAs and 401(k)s were counted only when the money is taken out in retirement. Finally, the Piketty-Saez data are based on individual tax returns, which ignore, for any given household, the presence of multiple earners.

And now, thanks to a new study in the Southern Economic Journal, we know what the picture looks like when the missing data are filled in. Economists Philip Armour and Richard V. Burkhauser of Cornell University and Jeff Larrimore of Congress’s Joint Committee on Taxation expanded the Piketty-Saez income measure using census data to account for all public and private in-kind benefits, taxes, Social Security payments and household size.

The result is dramatic. The bottom quintile of Americans experienced a 31% increase in income from 1979 to 2007 instead of a 33% decline that is found using a Piketty-Saez market-income measure alone. The income of the second quintile, often referred to as the working class, rose by 32%, not 0.7%. The income of the middle quintile, America’s middle class, increased by 37%, not 2.2%.

By omitting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, the Piketty-Saez study renders most older Americans poor when in reality most have above-average incomes. The exclusion of benefits like employer-provided health insurance, retirement benefits (except when actually paid out in retirement) and capital gains on homes misses much of the income and wealth of middle- and upper-middle income families.

Messrs. Piketty and Saez also did not take into consideration the effect that tax policies have on how people report their incomes. This leads to major distortions. The bipartisan tax reform of 1986 lowered the highest personal tax rate to 28% from 50%, but the top corporate-tax rate was reduced only to 34%. There was, therefore, an incentive to restructure businesses from C-Corps to subchapter S corporations, limited-liability corporations, partnerships and proprietorships, where the same income would now be taxed only once at a lower, personal rate. As businesses restructured, what had been corporate income poured into personal income-tax receipts.

So Messrs. Piketty and Saez report a 44% increase in the income earned by the top 1% in 1987 and 1988—though this change reflected how income was taxed, not how income had grown. This change in the structure of American businesses alone accounts for roughly one-third of what they portray as the growth in the income share earned by the top 1% of earners over the entire 1979-2012 period.

An equally extraordinary distortion in the data used to measure inequality (the Gini Coefficient) has been discovered by Cornell’s Mr. Burkhauser. In 1992 the Census Bureau changed the Current Population Survey to collect more in-depth data on high-income individuals. This change in survey technique alone, causing a one-time upward shift in the measured income of high-income individuals, is the source of almost 30% of the total growth of inequality in the U.S. since 1979.

Simple statistical errors in the data account for roughly one third of what is now claimed to be a “frightening” increase in income inequality. But the weakness of the case for redistribution does not end there. America is the freest and most dynamic society in history, and freedom and equality of outcome have never coexisted anywhere at any time. Here the innovator, the first mover, the talented and the persistent win out—producing large income inequality. The prizes are unequal because in our system consumers reward people for the value they add. Some can and do add extraordinary value, others can’t or don’t.

How exactly are we poorer because Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and the Walton family are so rich? Mr. Gates became rich by mainstreaming computer power into our lives and in the process made us better off. Mr. Buffett’s genius improves the efficiency of capital allocation and the whole economy benefits. Wal-Mart stretches our buying power and raises the living standards of millions of Americans, especially low-income earners. Rich people don’t “take” a large share of national income, they “bring” it. The beauty of our system is that everybody benefits from the value they bring.

Yes, income is 24% less equally distributed here than in the average of the other 34 member countries of the OECD. But OECD figures show that U.S. per capita GDP is 42% higher, household wealth is 210% higher and median disposable income is 42% higher. How many Americans would give up 42% of their income to see the rich get less?

Vast new fortunes were earned in the 25-year boom that began under Reagan and continued under Clinton. But the income of middle-class Americans rose significantly. These incomes have fallen during the Obama presidency, and not because the rich have gotten richer. They’ve fallen because bad federal policies have yielded the weakest recovery in the postwar history of America.

Yet even as the recovery continues to disappoint, the president increasingly turns to the politics of envy by demanding that the rich pay their “fair share.” The politics of envy may work here as it has worked so often in Latin America and Europe, but the economics of envy is failing in America as it has failed everywhere else.

Mr. Gramm, a former Republican senator from Texas, is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Mr. Solon was a budget adviser to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and is a partner of US Policy Metrics.

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Things That Make You Go Hmmm: Hato No Naka No Neko

 

Last week, appropriately enough on Halloween, the Bank of Japan did something truly scary.

As shocks go, this one — though it had been fairly well-telegraphed to the markets that something wicked this way might be coming — was in a league of its own.

Description: uroda%20Halloween.psd

I’m sure that by now you’re well aware of what Kuroda-san (the Governor of the Bank of Japan) announced to the world; but in case you’re not, here’s a little recap:

(Japan Times): The bank will “enter a new phase of monetary easing in terms of quantity and quality,” Kuroda said…. “This is coming from a different level in both quality and quantity,” Kuroda told reporters after the two-day Policy Board meeting. “We have put forward everything there is to do at this point,” he said….

The former chief of the Asian Development Bank said the BOJ will aim to expand the amount of outstanding JGBs by hiking purchases to an annual pace of ¥50 trillion.

Increasing the amount outstanding of the bank’s JGBs at an annual pace of ¥50 trillion will bring the current balance of ¥89 trillion to about … ¥190 trillion by the end of 2014.

It also will target longer-term debt, including JGBs with maturities as long as 40 years, as well as ETFs and real estate investment trusts, it said….

Kuroda said he’d allow this monetary experiment to run until the inflation target is met.

He also said the main target of the BOJ’s operations would switch from the uncollateralized overnight call rate to the monetary base, which will be fattened via money market operations to the tune of about ¥60 trillion to ¥70 trillion a year.

Kuroda also pledged that the BoJ:

Will invest ¥1 trillion in exchange-traded funds and ¥30 billion in real-estate investment trusts annually.

Vows to continue quantitative and qualitative monetary easing until 2 percent inflation is achieved in a stable manner.

Will conduct monetary market operations so Japan’s monetary base expands at an annual pace of about ¥60 trillion to ¥70 trillion per year. The monetary base is cash in circulation and the balance of current-account deposits held by financial institutions at the BOJ.

Shocking? Unprecedented? Foolhardy?

All of the above… except…

That was the announcement Kuroda made in April of 2013 as the first of Abenomics’ Three Arrows was fired.

Description: uroda.psd

Last week, barely 19 months after the world digested the news that Japan was going all-in, Kuroda pointed over the shoulders of all the other players at the table, said “Look! Behind you! An Austrian economist!” And in the ensuing panic, he slipped a bunch of freshly minted chips from a secret pocket in his jacket onto the table and, once calm had returned, went all-in again.

This time, apparently, he was serious.

The Bank of Japan, said Kuroda, would first be increasing its purchases of JGBs to ¥80 trillion a year from the previous range of ¥60-70 trillion.

What does this mean in real(ish) money? Well that’s about $720 billion. Sounds OK, right? After all, TARP was $787 billion, and that hasn’t done any damage whatsoever, has it?

However, there’s this age-old problem with comparing apples to oranges; and so, once we get our citrus fruits straight and convert the BOJ’s stimulus to a number proportionate to the larger economy of the USA, we find ourselves staring at the equivalent of the BoJ’s splashing out almost $3 trillion. Each year.

JP Morgan swiftly pointed out that this means the BoJ will be buying more than double the amount of new JGBs issued by the government.

Yes. You read that right. Double the total new government issuance. The Fed are lightweights compared to this mob.

We’ll get back to why they’re doing this a little later.

But this is just the beginning.

The BoJ will also triple its purchases of ETFs and J-REITs (yes, direct intervention by a Central Bank into the stock market is now not something to be afraid of, but rather embraced) which will make the BoJ the largest buyer of Japanese equities.

Do you smell anything wrong with this, Dear Reader?

Well, by way of a change, a few mainstream commentators are also beginning to question the logic of Kuroda-san’s latest incursion into monetary madness:

(Gavyn Davies, FT): [The BoJ’s] gigantic increase in QE activities… [is] …of first order global importance… ensuring that the total central bank injection of liquidity into the global economy in 2015 will be much larger than it has been in the last year….

The Japanese injection… relative to the size of the economy, is far larger than anything attempted by the other central banks.

[Japan is now conducting] a laboratory experiment… [and] Governor Kuroda’s monetary experiment has in effect morphed into a strategy of devaluation plus financial repression.

But Davies isn’t alone in highlighting the sheer madness of Kuroda’s latest move:

(Richard Katz, The Oriental Economist): In the face of growing loss of faith in the Bank of Japan’s ability to either achieve its 2% inflation target in the foreseeable future or to help boost real growth, Kuroda has doubled down his strategy of lots of confident talk and even more money-creation…. (I)t is well known that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who keeps a stock monitor in his offices, sees rising stock prices as critical to voter confidence in Abenomics and hence his own approval ratings…. Moves to lower the yen and raise stock prices are key to the BoJ’s own strategy and tactics; Kuroda is an Abe ally, not a puppet.

However, leave it to David Stockman — one of the shoutiest sane people you’ll ever come across — to dispense with journalistic niceties.

In a piece entitled The BOJ Jumps the Monetary Shark — Now the Machines, Madmen and Morons Are Raging, Stockman takes Kuroda and the BoJ to task as only he can:

This is just plain sick. Hardly a day after the greatest central bank fraudster of all time, Maestro Greenspan, confessed that QE has not helped the main street economy and jobs, the lunatics at the BOJ flat-out jumped the monetary shark. Even then, the madman Kuroda pulled off his incendiary maneuver by a bare 5-4 vote. Apparently the dissenters — Messrs. Morimoto, Ishida, Sato and Kiuchi — are only semi-mad.

Never mind that the BOJ … balance sheet which had previously exploded to nearly 50% of Japan’s national income or more than double the already mind-boggling US ratio of 25%.

In fact, this was just the beginning of a Ponzi scheme so vast that in a matter of seconds it ignited the Japanese stock averages by 5%. And here’s the reason: Japan Inc. is fixing to inject a massive bid into the stock market based on a monumental emission of central bank credit created out of thin air. So doing, it has generated the greatest frontrunning frenzy ever recorded.

The scheme is so insane that the surge of markets around the world in response to the BOJ’s announcement is proof positive that the mother of all central bank bubbles now envelopes the entire globe.

The “surge of markets” to which Stockman refers illustrates the madness that has consumed both equity and bond markets in the wake of the 2008 ceding of custody of formerly free markets to the world’s central banks.

These are the two charts that people care about when discussing the Bank of Japan’s moves.

Firstly, the Nikkei 225:

Description: 395.png

As you can see, stocks have exploded in Japan since the beginning of Abenomics, rising 41.6% in just 19 months — but it wasn’t a straight line. Initially, after a 30% surge, the doubts set in and the Nikkei retraced most of its gains before beginning a long grind higher as investors reluctantly bought into the idea that Abenomics might just work raise the Nikkei 225.

Taking a step back, we get to see just how poorly stocks have behaved since the bursting of the twin Japanese bubbles in real estate and equities back in the late 1980s, as well as the clear breakout, retest, and break higher from the 25-year downward trendline:

Description: 409.png

The second chart that folks care about in the wake of the BoJ’s moves is this one, the yen:

Description: 421.png

Again, as you can clearly see, QE10 and now QE11 jumpstarted the yen. (Are you paying attention, Janet? Do you think for a second that when the BoJ announced QE1, it was as the first installment of a cunning 11-part plan to be implemented over a couple of decades?)

However, jumpstarted tends to imply a positive effect, as does a chart that travels from bottom-left to top-right. In the chart above, I have inverted the yen to better reflect the damage being done to it by the BoJ rather than the kinda-cool-looking chart where it explodes “higher.”

Of course, thanks to the wisdom of guys like Kyle Bass (whose Rational Investor Paradox warned of a plummeting yen and a skyrocketing Nikkei) and Dylan Grice (whose 63,000,000 call for the Nikkei by 2025 is occasioning fewer chuckles by the day), everybody is riding both these horses — hard. However, the fact that everybody got “long the Nikkei” and everybody got “short the yen” when Abenomics’ first arrow was fired is the wrong reason to be cheering Kuroda’s interference in the natural forces that used to drive markets.

Now, “long the Nikkei and short the yen” is undoubtedly a great trade and has much further to go — something my friend Jared Dillian pointed out in his excellent Daily Dirtnap recently. Pointedly, the piece was entitled “Unlimited Upside”:

(The Daily Dirtnap): I am starting to wonder if nobody understands why this trade works and why it will continue to work, and why, in November 2012, I called it “THE GREATEST TRADE EVER.” The reason it is the greatest trade ever is because you literally have unlimited upside. JPY can infinitely weaken. The stock market can go infinitely high….

So USDJPY is going to get to 120 in a hurry, then what? You’ve seen the chart. If it gets through that trendline, the sky is the limit. Where could the Nikkei go? Beats the heck out of me. But that is the great and interesting thing about this trade, is that if Japan really does find itself in trouble, they can’t default — well, I suppose they could, and that actually would be the smart thing to do, but no, they will print their way out.

No arguments from me there, Jared, BUT… the charts that people need to be looking at to try to understand the dire state Japan is in (as well as the ultimate futility of the Keynesian free lunch) are charts of things that can’t be directly influenced by the BoJ but which are instead supposed to be indirect beneficiaries of Abenomics and to generate the organic growth needed to revive Japan’s moribund economy.

Charts like… oh, I dunno, Japanese industrial production:

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Orrrr… perhaps that relatively unimportant macroeconomic datapoint, GDP:

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Then there are the places my friend Paul Mylchreest of ADM ISI looked at this week in an excellent piece that landed in my inbox — places like real Japanese household incomes:

(Paul Mylchreest): You only know with hindsight, but there’s a good chance that Japan’s economy has just moved into the terminal ward of mismanagement and decline.

Kuroda went nuclear just as Mr and Mrs Watonabe… never mind the rest of the world… had begun to realise that “Abenomics” wasn’t working.

Real household incomes in Japan are running 6.0% lower year-on-year, which is close to the worst they’ve been in a decade… and most of the bad data points have followed the implementation of Abenomics.

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And then of course there are the twin charts from my presentation at the Strategic Investment Conference back in May: Japan’s trade balance and current account (updated here to show the improvement in the data):

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In his most recent Global Macro Investor, my friend and colleague Raoul Pal pointed out a couple more problems with the Japanese economy that no amount of prestidigitation can hope to cure, beginning with the reaction to Abe’s recent sales tax hike and moving swiftly along to exports (ordinarily the natural beneficiary of a plummeting currency for an exporter like Japan):

(Global Macro Investor): Japan’s economy has reacted as it always has with regards to the tax hike — it got flushed down the toilet…. It puts to rest any stupid notions that you can falsely raise inflation and see it stick. It also shows that QE does not help the economy in any way.

We can also see that massive Japanese QE has not helped its industrial production base…. And exports are just not picking up with a cheaper currency…. And even after a massive currency move versus the RMB, it is still not able to export its way out of trouble… demand is just not there, regardless of price….

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Ahem!

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So the simple truth is this:

Japan’s only solution to its crippling debt burden and seemingly unbreakable deflationary spiral is to weaken its currency.

Period.

Yes, there is plenty of talk of reform, though given Japan’s corporate culture that is far harder to achieve and much farther in the distance than most outside observers could possibly imagine; but were the narrative presented to the world simply as “we are going to destroy our currency,” even the market monkeys who continue to see no evil would be forced to take drastic action.

By maintaining the pretense that weakening the yen is actually part of a broader strategy which will ultimately be successful, the Bank of Japan is engaged in simply that: pretense.

Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying the necessary reforms CAN’T be achieved in Japan — just that theywon’t. Not in time to save the country from disaster at the hands of Abe, Kuroda, and the rest of the Crazy Gang, anyway.

Those stagnant exports are a huge, flashing-red warning sign in the face of what can only be described as a resounding success in beginning the complete destruction of weakening the yen.

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

Thoughts from the Frontline: The Last Argument of Central Banks

 

For a central banker, deflation is one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Death, Famine, Disease, and Deflation. (We will address later in this letter why War, in the form of a currency war, is not in a central banker’s Apocalypse mix.) It is helpful to understand that, before a person is allowed to join the staff or board of a central bank, he or she is taken into a back room and given DNA replacement therapy, inserting a gene that is viscerally opposed to deflation. Of course, in fairness, it must be noted that central bankers don’t like high inflation, either (although, looking around the world, we see that the definition of high inflation can vary). In the developed world, 2% inflation seems to be the common goal. You wouldn’t think that 2% a year is a significant change in the overall price structure, but the panic among economists that would ensue with a 2% price deflation would border on hysteria.

Inflation and deflation are often topics of discussions as I travel, but I find that there is general confusion about what inflation and deflation actually are. This is understandable, since many economists don’t agree on the definitions, so they are often talking about totally different phenomena. In this week’s letter I have for you a brief essay on the topic of deflation. Depending on your view, you might find some of my thoughts controversial, but I will try to make my case clear, at least. Please note this is the 30,000-foot view and is nowhere close to definitive. If you want great detail, I suggest you get my good friend Gary Shilling’s latest book on deflation (of four that I know of), called The Age of Deleveraging. (It’s only $11.49 on Kindle.)

Definitions of Inflation and Deflation

Generally speaking, there are two schools of thought about inflation. The Austrian school of economic theory, founded by Ludwig von Mises, sees inflation as an increase in the money supply and deflation as a contraction in the money supply. Somewhat similarly (but not entirely!), the monetarist school of economic theory tends to see money supply as the chief determinant of GDP in the short run and of the price level over the long run.

Mainstream economics (generally Keynesian) tend to refer to rising or falling prices as inflation or deflation. They tend to see deflation as a general price decline, often brought about by reductions in available credit, money, or reserves or by the government’s restraint of spending programs.

So when we talk about inflation/deflation, it is important to know whether we’re talking about monetary inflation or price inflation. As we have seen recently, a rising money supply is not necessarily accompanied by rising prices (although there is a certain long-term rhythm to the two different measures).

When I talk to the general public about deflation being something to be avoided, I get confused looks. Don’t we like it when the price of something goes down? Who doesn’t love a sale on something they want to buy? Since the beginning of the First Industrial Revolution, the general tendency for the prices of manufactured goods (in real inflation-adjusted terms) has been to go down as productivity has gone up. This is what Gary Shilling and others refer to as “good deflation.”

You can actually have solid productivity, GDP growth, wealth creation, a general increase in the standard of living, and a buoyant economy during a period of overall price deflation such as we had in the late 1800s – if it is the good kind of deflation.

What is the difference between good deflation and bad deflation? Good deflation is the general fall in prices that comes from an excess supply of goods due to increased productivity and product improvement. From 1870 to 1897 wheat prices fell from $1.06 to 63¢ a bushel, corn from 43¢ to 30¢ a bushel, and cotton from 15¢ to 6¢ a pound. Most of the time farmers received even less for their crops.

While farmers blamed all sorts of people for their falling prices, the primary cause of their problem was overproduction resulting from increases in the acreage of farms and increased yields per acre due to improved farming methods, as well as the advent of railroads that made it easy to get produce to Eastern markets. A farmer had to produce more just to stay even. It didn’t help that global competition from Argentina, Russia, and Canada was added into the mix, as increasingly large oceangoing steamboats made international transportation cheaper and ended an era of American agricultural export advantages.

This period of time saw one-third of farmers move to the cities for other work as they lost their employment on small family farms. That trend in falling farm employment continued until recent years, and farming has seen even greater increases in productivity (yield per acre) in recent decades. Farm and ranch families are just 2% of the US population today. Only 15% of the US workforce produces, processes, and sells the nation food and fiber. Today’s farmers produce almost three times more food with 2% lower inputs than farmers did 60 years ago. A third of American agriculture is strictly for exports.

The late 1800s was a particularly contentious period of history in the United States as farmers blamed railroads, bankers, and industrialists for their problems – a situation not unlike the income inequality debate we have today. And while falling prices weren’t fun for the farmers, the general public enjoyed lower food costs and higher-quality food.

The easiest way to illustrate this trend in the modern area is by looking at the cost of a gigabyte of storage. You can see an interactive version of this chart here. Prices for a gigabyte of storage dropped from $500-700,000 in the early 1980s (depending on what you were buying) to about $0.03 today. Put another way, a gigabyte cost about 2 million times more 35 years ago than it does today. And it has fallen by 50% every few years. The good deflationary fall in prices for data storage has enabled all sorts of industries and products, creating millions of jobs. And we could find dozens of other, similar products whose prices have been falling dramatically.

Measuring Inflation/Deflation

Each month we are greeted by the announcement of the Consumer Price Index (CPI), telling us what the level of general price inflation has been for the previous month and year. I’ve written about CPI extensively in past letters, but basically we need to understand that the CPI is an artificial amalgamation of the prices of various products and services. The composition of the CPI has changed significantly over the last 40 years. As John Williams at Shadow Stats demonstrates, if we used the same measurement methodology that was in force during the Reagan years or the early Clinton years, inflation would be almost 4 percentage points higher now than it is currently calculated to be.

Contrary to some commentators, I do not see this is a conspiracy to mislead investors or consumers, or to slow down the rise in Social Security payments. We should all be grateful that there is a small band of economists who are consumed by the details of what inflation actually is. They go to conferences and vehemently argue with each other (well, vehemently for academic economists) over arcane topics that would bore 99%-plus of the population. They are passionate about trying to find the proper measure of inflation.

My personal feeling is that the adjustments that have been made in the calculation of inflation are generally quite reasonable, if somewhat controversial. With the prices of electronics and many other manufactured goods falling over the decades, how do you measure inflation in those items? Or rather deflation? I still spend about the same amount for a new phone today as I did 10 years ago, but my new iPhone 6+ is a major improvement over the Motorola flip phone I had 10 years ago, by any standard you want to apply. Both could make phone calls, but that is about where the similarity ends. Am I getting better value for my money? More bang for the buck? Absolutely.

Currently, the economists who determine inflation see that increase in value as an actual drop in inflation, and they use a somewhat controversial methodology called hedonics to adjust the prices of a myriad of products for quality. If anti-lock brake systems are now standard whereas before they were optional, then by this doctrine the price of your car went down. (Those who are interested can google hedonics and get a wealth of information on the definition and the controversy.)

Housing is a big component of our spending. Should we use actual housing prices or what the inflation economists call “owner’s equivalent rent prices” as our measure of housing cost increases? If we had used actual housing prices during the 2000s, the inflation figures would have gone through the roof, suggesting to the Federal Reserve that they should be raising interest rates rather than lowering them or keeping them too low. And again, if we had been using actual house prices to calculate inflation during the Great Recession, the economy would have been seen as being swamped by serious deflation. There would’ve been even more weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.

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

Outside the Box: The Biggest Threat to U.S. Jobs: “The Contestability Nightmare”

 

Today’s Outside the Box comes from Sam Rines of Chilton Capital Management in Houston, TX – a promising young economics contributor to The National Interest and a rising star who I met at Worth Wray’s wedding a few weeks ago.

Worth and Sam have developed quite the friendship over the past several months, but it didn’t take much convincing from Worth to get me to share Sam’s latest article with you. Sam’s work speaks for itself and I am VERY impressed by his insights on a wide range of economic issues – from the evolution of Fed policy and growing risk of a rising US dollar, to the long-awaited industrialization of India.

In his latest piece, Sam alerts us to a breakdown in the Federal Reserve’s full-employment mandate (one leg of its dual mandate, the other being stable prices). In a normal recovery, Sam reminds us, “[W]age growth and the labor market move together in a lagged fashion – the labor market heals and tightens, followed by wage increases as labor becomes increasingly scarce. But this has not happened during the current recovery, and it has not occurred economy-wide in quite some time.”

But why the breakdown? Janet Yellen herself points to growing inequality. Here’s Yellen (as quoted by Sam): “[W]idening inequality resumed in the recovery, as the stock market rebounded, wage growth and the healing of the labor market have been slow, and the increase in home prices has not fully restored the housing wealth lost by the large majority of households for which it is their primary asset.”

But again, why – why the laggardly wage growth? Sam drills down and finds the problem rooted in what he (and others) are calling the “contestability” of many US jobs, and especially those of middle-skilled workers, whose jobs are liable to international outsourcing or antiquation by computer technology (robotic or otherwise). To make matters worse, much of the post-Great Recession job growth has come in the form of low-paying and part-time work. Thus we have the “hollowing out of the middle class,” which is tantamount to saying that the middle is slipping down the wage ladder, even as those on the top rungs continue to climb (since their positions require high levels of education and intellectual competence and are not very susceptible to competition from outside the country or from machines – or at least not yet).

So income inequality grows, and lower- and middle-skilled workers are unable to exert any pressure for their wages to increase. This trend, as Sam points out, is “at best disinflationary and may be deflationary. With stagnant wages across the economy, the middle cannot increase consumption – one can only borrow so much.”

This is a major trend with huge implications for US economic growth – and thus for Fed policy. Sam concludes his piece by saying, “The Fed is muddling the mandate to fight a wage war, but the Fed will struggle to justify its continuous actions to counteract those forces. The middle skills squeeze is not a swiftly passing phenomenon. It may mean that extraordinary monetary policy and unconventional intervention are increasingly normal.”

A conversation today triggered a memory. I just turned 11 years old, and it was Christmas morning. I’d retrieved a few toys out from under the tree and was looking forward to going out to play with friends. But my dad said that first I had a project to do. He had just bought all the equipment to open a small printing shop in Bridgeport, Texas. This was 1959 (we had just left the Stone Age), and printing was still done with hand-set type and on letter presses. The small press that was invented in the early 1900s was now powered by an electric motor.

My dad had brought home a type case full of 12-point Franklin Gothic lead type. He turned the case upside down on the kitchen table and said, “Put all the type back and then you can go out and play.” There was nothing else to do but sit and look at each small piece of type, figuring out what each character was and putting in its respective small box. It took forever, but I eventually finished and got up to leave. My dad said “Wait a minute.”

He asked me to come over and look at another case where he hadn’t labeled all those individual little compartments with the letters that belonged in them. He pointed to one and asked me which letter belonged in there. I didn’t know. Then he asked me a second one. I didn’t know that one either. He went back over to the kitchen table and turned that type case  – much like the one you see in the picture above – upside down. “Do it again.”

I’m only a little slow. When I finished and Dad started asking questions, I knew the answers. It was the start of a decades-long process love-hate affair with the printing business. I Actually made money in college going around to the print shops and offering to clean up their “hell boxes,” which were the boxes and buckets full of type that had gotten jumbled and that no senior printer wanted to take the time to put back. So what do you find in hell? You find a printer’s devil, which is the young apprentice who does all the dirty work. And it was dirty. But by the late 1960s printing with actual type was on its way out, and then there were no young apprentices. Business was good, but within a few years all that knowledge was simply arcane trivia, of no use in the real world.

I was training with yesterday, and while he was putting me through my paces, he was reading a report on his phone about the political changes. “What’s the GOP?” he asked. As I pumped away on the exercise bike I told him it stood for “Grand Old Party.” I went on to explain the term and added, “In the early days, writers would often set their own type for their newspaper columns. Republican Party had a lot more letters in it than GOP.” And then I explained setting type. You could see he was thinking I must be really old. And I thought back to all the hours I hand-set type as a young man.

And continued to pump. The Beast is pushing me harder as time goes on, and it’s helping, but leg days just kill me for the following few days. My legs feel like they’re wrapped in lead. For years I focused on upper body in my workouts, and my legs became appallingly weak. But knowing that as we get older our wheels take on ever more importance, I’m trying to get them in some kind of working order. They say no pain, no gain, so I must be gaining a lot. Surely?

Have a great week. Fall is in the air. Can Thanksgiving be far behind?

Your pretty much hurting somewhere every day analyst,

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

 

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The Biggest Threat to U.S. Jobs: The “Contestability” Nightmare

By Samuel Rines
The National Interest, October 22, 2014

The Federal Reserve’s mandate has never been well defined, and there are no concrete definitions to adhere to. Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen has begun to deviate from the traditional characterization of full employment to something far more nebulous. Recognizing this shift is critical to understanding the Fed, and its new relationship with the two esoteric mandates of stable prices and full employment. 

At a conference in Boston, Yellen stated that she was concerned about rising inequality. Before listing off a blistering round of statistics that show the US has become more unequal over the past few decades, Yellen succinctly articulates why the Great Recession was responsible for widening the gap further: “But widening inequality resumed in the recovery, as the stock market rebounded, wage growth and the healing of the labor market have been slow, and the increase in home prices has not fully restored the housing wealth lost by the large majority of households for which it is their primary asset.”

One piece in particular of the above statement stands out – and has broad implications for understanding the Fed mandate. A normal recovery would see wage growth and the labor market move together in a lagged fashion – the labor market heals and tightens, followed by wage increases as labor becomes increasingly scarce. But this has not happened during the current recovery, and it has not occurred economy-wide in quite some time.

The new target for the Fed may be best described as not simply “full employment” but “full wages.” At first glance, it seems unreasonable for the Chair of the Federal Reserve to be concerned with how the income of the country gets dispersed. However, in many ways, “full wages” are at the intersection of the fed mandates. In essence, Yellen is admitting that the past few decades were not kind to a significant swath of the US, and that this endangers future economic growth.

Many of the jobs US middle-skilled workers once took for granted can now easily be outsourced or contested – even some previously thought untouchable. This “contestability” is increasing as more jobs become relocateable or replaceable with computing power due to advances in communications technology. Contestability is fundamental to Yellen’s concern. If a US job is contestable internationally, then US workers are competing with cheap labor around the world. This limits the bargaining power of the US worker, and keeps a lid on wage inflation in the US. The cheap-but-educated global labor force is becoming an increasing threat to the US worker.

Yellen sees this middle-skilled squeeze phenomenon in the data, but also sees the lack of deflationary wage pressure on the top of the income ladder. The highest-paying jobs tend to have little competition from outside – requiring creativity and high levels of education. The question to ask is why this has occurred, and whether the factors underlying it are dangerous to the US economy.

And in many ways – they are dangerous. If ignored long enough, the disintermediation of the middle class is at best disinflationary and may be deflationary. With stagnant wages across the economy, the middle cannot increase consumption – one can only borrow so much. If contestability continues to erode the wages of US middle-skilled workers, wages could be pressured or even decrease toward more internationally competitive levels. This would be disastrous for consumption and inflation expectations, especially in a service oriented economy where many of the jobs could be at risk. 

If the U.S. continues to see this type of wage pressure, there may be enough jobs (for people who want them), but the ability to consume at previous levels will not be there. Deflation – generally – is bad for an economy, and wage deflation might be the worst kind. Deflation puts pressure on prices, making it more difficult to consume on the aggregate as the economy previously did. The standard of living declines. Further, the potential for wage pressures, in the current recovery, is low. The jobs created during the recovery disproportionately skew towards part-time relative to previous recoveries, and part-time jobs do not yield much bargaining power. There are few reassurances about the labor market.

This puts the Fed in a particularly odd place. Its mandate is supposed to be two separate pieces of a puzzle, but Yellen appears to have identified an intersection. The Fed runs the risk of missing both its “full employment” and “stable price” mandates without pursuing – either explicitly or implicitly – a “full wage” target.

Yellen’s statement has little to do with fairness or equality. It is directly connected to ensuring the US has created enough uncontestable jobs for the Fed to step away, and these jobs are the type that will lead to – or at least allow for – future wage pressures. Prime examples are the jobs created by the current shale oil boom and housing construction during the boom through 2006. Many of the jobs created for the oil patch require the presence of the worker – and cannot be done without a significant amount of education. These characteristics make them difficult to offshore or relocate. As quantitative easing begins to roll-off, the ability of the US shale revolution to stand on its own will be tested, and the jobs engine of Texas may suffer. This would be a tremendous hit to a sector where wage pressures exist, and the contestability is low. The Fed should be watching this closely.

Yellen’s wage war is a battle the US does not know it must win. For the Fed, it ties together both pieces of its mandate, and gives them a reasonable basis for stimulus when observers feel it unnecessary. The Fed is muddling the mandate to fight a wage war, but the Fed will struggle to justify its continuous actions to counteract those forces. The middle-skills squeeze is not a swiftly passing phenomenon. It may mean that extraordinary monetary policy and unconventional intervention are increasingly normal.

You can read more of Sam’s work in The National Interest by clicking here: http://nationalinterest.org/archives/by/10797.

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Important Disclosures

Thoughts from the Frontline: Rhyme and Reason

 

“The significant problems that we have created cannot be solved at the level of thinking we were at when we created them.”
– Albert Einstein

“Generals are notorious for their tendency to ‘fight the last war’ – by using the strategies and tactics of the past to achieve victory in the present. Indeed, we all do this to some extent. Life’s lessons are hard won, and we like to apply them – even when they don’t apply. Sadly enough, fighting the last war is often a losing proposition. Conditions change. Objectives change. Strategies change. And you must change. If you don’t, you lose.”
Dr. G. Terry Madonna and Dr. Michael Young

“Markets are perpetuating a serious error by acting on the belief that central bankers actually know what they are doing. They do not. Not because they are ill-intentioned but because they are human and subject to the limitations that apply to all human endeavors. If you want proof of their fallibility, simply look at their economic forecasts. Despite their efforts to do so, central banks can’t repeal the business cycle (though they can distort it). While the 2008 financial crisis should have taught them that lesson, it appears to have led them to precisely the opposite conclusion.

“There are limits to knowledge in every field, including the hard sciences, and economics is not a hard science; it is a social science whose knowledge is imprecise, and practitioners’ ability to predict the future is extremely limited. Fed officials are attempting to guide an extremely complex economy with tools of questionable utility, and markets are ignoring their warnings that their ability to manage a positive outcome is highly uncertain. Markets are confusing what they want to happen with what is likely to happen, a common psychological phenomenon. Investors who prosper in the long run will be those who acknowledge the severe limits of economic knowledge and the compelling evidence that trillions of dollars of QE and years of zero interest rates may have saved the system from immediate collapse five years ago but failed to produce sustained economic growth or long-term price stability.”
– Michael Lewitt, The Credit Strategist, Nov. 1, 2014

As I predicted months ago in this letter and last year in Code Red, the Japanese have launched another missile in their ongoing currency war, somewhat fittingly on Halloween. Rather than being spooked, the markets saw it as just another round of feel-good quantitative easing and climbed to all-time highs on the Dow and S&P 500. The Nikkei soared even more (for good reason). As we will see later in this letter, this is not your father’s quantitative easing. The Japanese, for reasons of their own, will intervene not only in their own equity markets but in foreign equity markets as well, and do so in a size and manner that will be significant. This gambit is going to have ramifications far beyond merely weakening the yen. In this week’s letter we are going to take an in-depth look at what the Japanese have done.

It is something of a cliché to quote Mark Twain’s “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” But it is an appropriate way to kick things off, since we are going to look at the “ancient” history of Mark Twain’s era, and specifically the Panic of 1873. That October saw the beginning of 65 months of recession (certainly longer than our generation’s own Great Recession), which inflicted massive pain on the country. The initial cause was government monetary intervention, but the crisis was deepened by soaring debt and deflation.

As we seek to understand what happened 141 years ago, we’ll revisit the phenomenon of October as a month of negative market surprises. It actually has its roots in the interplay between farming and banking.

The Panic of 1873

Shortly after the Civil War, which saw the enactment of federal fiat money (the “greenback” of that era, issued to finance the war), there was a federal law passed that required rural and agricultural banks to keep 25% of their deposits with certain certified national banks, which were based mainly in New York. The national banks were required to pay interest on those deposits, so they had to put the money out for loans. But because those deposits were “callable” at any time, there was a limit to the types of loans they could do, as long-term loans mismatched assets and liabilities.

The brokers of the New York Stock Exchange were considered an excellent target for such loans. They could use the proceeds of the loans as margin to buy stocks, either for their own trading or on behalf of their clients. As long as the stocks went up – or at the very least as long as the ultimate clients were liquid – there wasn’t a problem for the national banks. Money could be repatriated; or, if necessary, margins could be called in a day. But this was before the era of a central bank, so actual physical dollars (and other physical instruments) were involved as reserves, as was gold. Greenbacks could be used to buy gold, but at a rate that floated. The price of gold could fluctuate significantly from year to year, depending upon the availability of gold and the supply of greenbacks (and of course, market sentiment – which certainly rhymes with our own time).

The driver for October volatility was an annual cycle, an ebb and flow of dollars to and from these rural banks. In the fall when the harvest was ready, the country banks would recall their margin loans in order to pay farmers or loan to merchants to buy crops from farmers and ship them via the railroads. Money would then become tight on Wall Street as the national banks called their loans back in.

This cycle often caused extra volatility, depending on the shortness of loan capital. Margin rates could rise to as much as 1% per day! Of course, this would force speculators to sell their stocks or cover their shorts, but in general it could drive down prices and make margin calls more likely. This monetary tightening often sent stocks into a downward spiral – not unlike the downward pressure that present-day Fed tightening actions have exerted, but in a compressed period of time.

If there was enough leverage in the system, a cascade could result, with stocks dropping 20% very quickly. Since much of Wall Street was involved in railroads, and railroads were nothing if not leveraged loans and capital, falling asset prices would reduce the ability of investors in railroads to find the necessary capital for expansion and maintenance of operations.

This historical pattern no longer explains the present-day vulnerability of markets in October. Perhaps the phenomenon persists simply due to market lore and investor psychology. Like an amputee feeling a twinge in his lost limb, do we still sense the ghosts of crashes past?

(And once more with Mark Twain: “October. This is one of the peculiarly dangerous months to speculate in stocks. The others are July, January, September, April, November, May, March, June, December, August, and February.”)

It was in this fall environment that a young Jay Gould decided to manipulate the gold market in the autumn of 1873, creating a further squeeze on the dollar. Not only would he profit off a play in gold, but he thought the move would help him in his quest to take control of the Erie Railroad. Historian Charles R. Morris explains, in a fascinating book called The Tycoons:

Gould’s mind ran in labyrinthine channels, and he turned to the gold markets as part of a strategy to improve Erie’s freights. Grain was America’s largest export in 1869. Merchants purchased grain from farmers on credit, shipped it overseas, and paid off the farmers when they received their remittances from abroad. Their debt to the farmers was in greenbacks, but their receipts from abroad came in gold, for the greenback was not legal tender overseas. It could take weeks, or even months, to complete a transaction, so the merchant was exposed to changes in the gold/greenback exchange rate during that time. If gold fell (or the greenback rose), the merchant’s gold proceeds might not cover his greenback debts.

The New York Gold Exchange was created to help merchants protect against that risk. Using the Exchange, a merchant could borrow gold when he made his contract, convert it to greenbacks, and pay off his suppliers right away. Then he would pay off the gold loan when his gold payment came in some weeks later; since it was gold for gold, exchange rates didn’t matter. To protect against default, the Exchange required full cash collateral to borrow gold. But that was an opening for speculations by clever traders like Gould. If a trader bought gold and then immediately lent it, he could finance his purchase with the cash collateral and thereby acquire large positions while using very little of his own cash.

[Note from JM: In the fall there was plenty of demand for gold and a shortage of greenbacks. It was the perfect time if you wanted to create a “corner” on gold.]

Gould reasoned that if he could force up the price of gold, he might improve the Erie’s freight revenues. If gold bought more greenbacks, greenback-priced wheat would look cheaper to overseas buyers, so exports, and freights, would rise. And because of the fledgling status of the new Gold Exchange, gold prices looked eminently manipulable, since only about $20 million in gold was usually available in New York. [Some of his partners in the conspiracy were skeptical because…] The Grant administration, which had just taken office in March, was sitting on $100 million in gold reserves. If gold started suddenly rising, it would hurt merchant importers, who could be expected to clamor for government gold sales.

So Gould went to President Grant’s brother-in-law, Abel Corbin, who liked to brag about his family influence. He set up a meeting with President Grant, at which Gould learned that Grant was cautious about any significant movements in either the gold or the greenback, noting the “fictitiousness about the prosperity of the country and that the bubble might be tapped in one way as well as another.” That was discouraging: popping a bubble meant tighter money and lower gold.

But Gould plunged ahead with his gold buying, including rather sizable amounts for Corbin’s wife (Grant’s wife’s sister), such that each one-dollar rise in gold would generate $11,000 in profits. Corbin arranged further meetings with Grant and discouraged him from selling gold all throughout September.

Gould and his partners initiated a “corner” in the gold market. This was actually legal at the time, and the NY gold market was relatively small compared to the amount of capital it was possible for a large, well-organized cabal to command. True corners were devastating to bears, as they generally borrowed shares or gold to sell short, betting on the fall in price. Just as today, if the price falls too much, then the short seller can buy the stock back and take his losses. But if there is no stock to buy back, if someone has cornered the market, then losses can be severe. Which of course is what today we call a short squeeze.

The short position grew to some $200 million, most of it owed to Gould and his friends. But there was only $20 million worth of gold available to cover the short sales. That gold stock had been borrowed and borrowed and borrowed again. The price of gold rose as Gould’s cabal kept pressing their bet.

But Grant got wind of the move. His wife wrote her sister, demanding to know if the rumor of their involvement was true. Corbin panicked and told Gould he wanted out, with his $100,000+ of profits, of course. Gould promised him his profits if he would just keep quiet.

Then Gould began to unload all his gold positions, even as some of his partners kept right on buying. You have to keep up pretenses, of course. Gould was telling his partners to push the price up to 160, while he was selling through another set of partners.

It is a small irony that Gould also had a contact in the government in Washington (a Mr. Butterfield) who assured him that there was no move to sell gold from DC, even as that contact was personally selling all his gold as fast as he could. Whatever bad you could say about Gould (and there were lots of bad things you could say), his trading instincts were good. He sensed his contact was lying and doubled down on getting out of the trade. In the end, Gould didn’t make any money to speak of and in fact damaged his intention of getting control of the Erie Railroad that fall.

The attempted gold corner didn’t do much harm to the country in and of itself. But when President Grant decided to step in and sell gold, there was massive buying, which sucked a significant quantity of physical dollars out of the market and into the US Treasury at a time when dollars were short. This move was a clumsy precursor to the open-market operations of the Federal Reserve of today, except that those dollars were needed as margin collateral by brokerage companies. No less than 14 New York Stock Exchange brokerages went bankrupt within a few days, not including brokerages that dealt just in gold.

All this happened in the fall, when there were fewer physical dollars to be had.

The price of gold collapsed. Cornelius Vanderbilt, who was often at odds with Jay Gould, had to step into the market (literally – that is, physically, which was rare for him) in order to quell the panic and provide capital, a precursor to J.P. Morgan’s doing the same during the Panic of 1907.

While many today believe the Fed should never have been created, we have not lived through those periods of panics and crashes. And while I think the Fed now acts in ways that are inappropriate (how can 12 FOMC board members purport to fine-tune an economic cycle, let alone solve employment problems?), the one true and proper role of the Fed is to provide liquidity in time of a crisis.

People Who Live Too Much on Credit”

At the end of the day, it was too much debt that was the problem in 1873. Cornelius Vanderbilt was quoted in the epic book The First Tycoon as saying (emphasis mine):

I’ll tell you what’s the matter – people undertake to do about four times as much business as they can legitimately undertake.… There are a great many worthless railroads started in this country without any means to carry them through. Respectable banking houses in New York, so called, make themselves agents for sale of the bonds of the railroads in question and give a kind of moral guarantee of their genuineness. The bonds soon reach Europe, and the markets of their commercial centres, from the character of the endorsers, are soon flooded with them.… When I have some money I buy railroad stock or something else, but I don’t buy on credit. I pay for what I get. People who live too much on credit generally get brought up with a round turn in the long run. The Wall Street averages ruin many a man there, and is like faro.

In the wake of Gould’s shenanigans, President Grant came to New York to assess the damage; and eventually his Secretary of the Treasury decided to buy $30 million of bonds in a less-clumsy precursor to Federal Reserve open-market operations, trying to inject some liquidity back into the markets. This was done largely as a consequence of a conversation with Vanderbilt, who offered to put up $10 million of his own, a vast sum at the time.

But the damage was done. The problem of liquidity was created by too much debt, as Vanderbilt noted. That debt inflated assets, and when those assets fell in price, so did the net worth of the borrowers. Far too much debt had to be worked off, and the asset price crash precipitated a rather deep depression, leaving in its wake far greater devastation than the recent Great Recession did. It took many years for the deleveraging process to work out. Sound familiar?

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