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John Mauldin

Uncertainty and Risk in the Suicide Pool

By John Mauldin | Sep 29, 2012

“By ‘uncertain’ knowledge, let me explain, I do not mean merely to distinguish what is known for certain from what is only probable. The game of roulette is not subject, in this sense, to uncertainty; nor is the prospect of a Victory bond being drawn. Or, again, the expectation of life is only slightly uncertain. Even the weather is only moderately uncertain. The sense in which I am using the term is that in which the prospect of a European war is uncertain, or the price of copper and the rate of interest twenty years hence, or the obsolescence of a new invention, or the position of private wealth owners in the social system in 1970. About these matters there is no scientific basis on which to form any calculable probability whatever.”

-John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, 1937

“… there are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say there are things that, we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.”

-Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense, 2002

“There are four types of men:

1. One who knows and knows that he knows… His horse of wisdom will reach the skies.
2. One who knows, but doesn’t know that he knows… He is fast asleep, so you should wake him up!
3. One who doesn’t know, but knows that he doesn’t know… His limping mule will eventually get him home.
4. One who doesn’t know and doesn’t know that he doesn’t know… He will be eternally lost in his hopeless oblivion!”

-Ibn Yami, 13th-century PersianTajik poet

 

For the past 80 years, we have created ever more sophisticated models of risk in the economic and investment worlds. With each new tool we create to measure risk, we seem to think we have somehow gained more control over our future. Paradoxically, we appear to believe that the more we understand risk, the more we can somehow control our exposure to it. The more we build elaborate models and see correlations between events and the performance of our investments and the economy, the more confident we become.

And if by some ill fortune we encounter a period of lengthy stability in our models and portfolio performance, we are likely to imbibe a cocktail of collective hubris: we actually think we understand some things in a quantifiable way. We thereupon seek to take on more risk at precisely the time when additional risk is the most disastrous. This week we explore the difference between risk and uncertainty. Perhaps we can even tie all this into our understanding of secular bull and bear markets.

New Publishing Schedule for Thoughts from the Frontline

But first, for those who missed this week’s announcements about new activities at Mauldin Economics, let me very briefly summarize. Beginning next week, Thoughts from the Frontline will be written on Sunday afternoon/evening and hopefully arrive in your inbox early Monday morning. Outside the Box will now come to you on Friday for your weekend reading pleasure.

The reason for this change is, frankly, that it is taking me longer and longer to write TFTF. I jokingly suggest to friends it may be because I have quit drinking and lost the inspiration of wine and scotch. But for the most part, it’s the sheer amount of material I consult while writing, coupled with the complexity of our world. As a consequence, I find myself walking and thinking about what I write more than ever.

Plus, the alcohol might have been a way of self-medicating my ADD. Or maybe I’m just getting older, and the policemen who stop me at night on my walks around the neighborhood are right to think I am somewhat confused.

Whatever the reason, Friday afternoons in the early years became Friday evenings and then morphed into Saturday mornings. Which means my weekend was shot, taking away some of the pleasure I get from writing. Regardless, I think the new schedule will improve the letter, as well as give me some more time to think about the events of the week just past, and the week ahead.

Finally, regular readers of Outside the Box are familiar with Grant Williams, who writes the wickedly brilliant Things That Make You Go Hmmm…. Grant has very graciously agreed to allow Mauldin Economics to become the publisher of his letter, and it will become a regular part of our offerings to you. Grant is an addictive essayist, and I think you will soon agree with me that he is the best “new” writer to come along in a very long time.

We have also announced a new publication, called Bull’s Eye Investor, a monthly newsletter that Grant will also write. Grant manages $250 million in a hedge fund in Singapore, with a total global mandate. We are philosophically very close in how we approach investing and the markets, and I’m excited that he will be writing what will become our flagship publication, bringing the same global perspective to his specific recommendations. You can click here to learn more. Now, since the above amounted to mostly known knowns, let’s embark on a trek into the world of uncertainty.

Jumping into the Suicide Pool

My oldest son Henry and my son-in-law Allen Porter are both in their late 20s, perfect gentleman, appropriately humble, engaging, and thoughtful young men. Unless you are talking about sports, when they become opinionated, overly self-confident, and quite willing to share their intimate knowledge of the subtleties and nuances of sports in general but football in particular. For the last few seasons, my friend Barry Habib has enticed the three of us to participate in what is known as a Suicide Pool.

A Suicide Pool is a betting pool – with a twist. Starting with the second game of the season, participants simply have to pick one winner out of all the games that are played that week. There are no point spreads involved and no handicaps. All you have to do is predict just one team that will win that week. Every week, if you like, you can pick the team that is the most heavily favored to win. There are no restrictions on your choices.

At the beginning of the season you “invest” $100 into the pool. And you stay in the pool as long as the team you pick wins. If more than one person survives to the end of the season, the winner is decided by cumulative point spreads. If you go out the first week, you are allowed to buy back in for $50 plus a point-spread penalty.

Notice the word if. Having done this for a few years, I have noted that the survival rate is actually quite small. The trick is not to pick close games but just to survive. But even if you are trying to choose the safest picks, every now and then there is a secular bear market among the top teams.

So, I bought spots for Henry, Allen, and myself. Since I know absolutely nothing about what teams to pick, Henry and Allen chose them for me. My only instructions were to choose the safest pick and never to choose the Cowboys. It is bad enough to have the home team lose without losing your money as well. After 50 years, I’ve had too many heartbreaks watching the Cowboys to want to bet on them.

I figured the Suicide Pool would give us guys something to talk about and share a few laughs over, at least for a few months. But as US football fans know, in the past few weeks there has been the equivalent of a market crash rivaled only by the NASDAQ in 2000-2001.

This year has been a disaster for us Suicide Poolers. We started with 148 in the pool. We lost 78 football “experts” (!) in the first week, but 57 of those (including your humble analyst) had enough hubris to buy back in to the pool. (The winner would get $17,600 – enough to keep you fully invested.) After a second straight week of major upsets, there were only 21 people still standing, or about 14% of the original 148. Even worse, only eight (about 5%) were able to pick two winning teams in a row.

Note that my brain trust picked two prohibitive favorites, the least risky choices available. They agreed with my plan to avoid risk and also agreed on the teams we should all choose, rather than diversifying our risk. I went with my experts. We chose the New England Patriots the first week and the Pittsburgh Steelers the next. And we were not part of the elite 5%. No family-time discussions and debates, just commiseration and licking our wounds. I was hoping that at least one if not more of our chances would carry us a few months into the season, providing us with some good times, making game time a little more interesting – the whole thing seemed like a good investment at the time.

(Clearly, my choice of investment advisers this year has not been optimal. Wait till next year. Only, next year I’m going with the real sports authority in the family, my daughter Abbi.)

Probability Theory and Retirement Portfolios

While this is a cute story, there is, sadly, an investment implication. While no one would call betting on football an investment (except a bookie, and he is really investing in human frailty and probabilities and not, strictly speaking, football), all too often investors approach the markets in a fashion distressingly similar to my approach to betting on football. You either think you are an expert on the stock market, or you hire someone whom you think is. And while we are a great deal more serious about our investments, here too we try to pick safe investments that will last us for the long run. We use models to outline the probability of success or failure, and all too often we ignore the low probabilities that would be absolutely disastrous if they came about.

In most places and in most times, withdrawing 5% a year from a retirement portfolio is a reasonable approach. But not in all places and certainly not at all times. Your retirement plan should not be the investment equivalent of the Suicide Pool.

Many investors are told that it is safe to take 5% of their savings each year to spend on retirement. And the history of the last 110 years suggests that on average this is true. But every now and then people retire at the beginning of a secular bear market. Taking out 5% at such times is about as safe as betting on football.

My friend Ed Easterling at Crestmont Research did some very basic research which shows that if you retire and decide to keep your retirement savings 100% in stocks, then if you begin to invest your savings at a 5% withdrawal rate during a period when stocks are in the highest 25% of the historical average of valuation (P/E ratios), about 5% of the time you will be out of money within 23 years. 

And this outcome has a probability that we can model. Of course, we can’t tell you what your actual experience will be, but we can demonstrate that you are involved in risky behavior! Typically, investors are comfortable taking such a risk, because at the end of a secular bull market stocks have been performing well for a very long time. All the models show the bull will continue – or at least the ones you get to see. (You can read Ed’s full report at http://www.crestmontresearch.com/docs/Stock-Retirement-SWR.pdf.)

Obsessing on Risk, Ignoring Uncertainty

Investors in the stock market, especially professionals, are obsessed with risk, your humble analyst included. We try to measure risk in any number of ways, looking for an edge to improve our returns. Not only do we try to determine probable outcomes, we also look for the “fat tail” events, those things that can happen which are low in probability but will have a large impact on our returns.

I have found that it was the surprises that were not in my model that were the true drivers of portfolio performance. We like it when surprises produce a positive result, and we often find a way to congratulate ourselves for our wise choices. No one in 1982 thought that price-to-earnings ratios would rise by five times in the next 18 years. Yet that simple driver accounted for 60% of the last bull market (20% was inflation and only 20% was actual increased earnings). And while a few people began to invest in technology in the early ’80s, many of those early technology stocks ended up being disasters. (Remember Wang? Osborne? Sorry, I know, you were trying to forget.)

“In 1910 the British journalist Norman Angell published a book called ‘The Great Illusion’. Its thesis was that the integration of the European economy, and by implication the global economy too, had become so all-embracing and irreversible that future wars were all but impossible. The book perfectly captured the zeitgeist of its time and fast became a best seller.

“In some respects, the early 20th century was a period much like our own – one of previously unparalleled global trade and exchange between nations. Human beings appeared largely to have outgrown their propensity to mass slaughter, and everyone could look forward to to a world of ever increasing prosperity. War, Angell compellingly argued, was economically harmful to all, victors and defeated alike. Self interest alone could be expected to prevent it happening again.” (Jeremy Warner writing in The London Telegraph)

On the eve of World War I, bond markets throughout Europe were not pricing in a conflict. Everyone “knew” there would not be a war. It was all bluff and bluster. And then the world got a surprise. Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated and armies began to march. And while no one expects a war today in Europe, there are certainly plenty of tensions.

An Uncertain Spain

The Spanish government announced this week a rather severe austerity budget. They promise they will hold their budget deficits to 6.3% while slashing spending almost 9% and raising taxes. And of course there will be no wage increases for government workers. They also assume that growth will only fall to -0.5% in the face of that austerity, which most observers think is woefully optimistic.

Even though the ECB has committed to buying Spanish bonds, they have made it clear that they will do so only as long as Spain is committed to bringing its deficit under control.

“European Central Bank Executive Board member Joerg Asmussen said on Friday that he would only support purchasing the bonds of struggling euro zone countries if pressure on them to reform their economies remained high. ‘Only under strict conditionality and only if there is continued pressure to reform,’ Asmussen said of the bond purchase plan announced by ECB President Mario Draghi earlier this month.” (Reuters)

And if things were not already difficult enough for Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy, one of my favorite regions of Spain, Catalonia, which includes the beautiful city of Barcelona, is seriously talking about seceding from Spain. As much as 20% of the population (1.5 million) turned out for a march supporting independence last week.

Prime Minister Rajoy met with Catalonia’s president and flatly rejected any autonomy or more money. Catalonians are not happy that they send a great deal of money to Madrid, which goes to other regions as they deal with their own crises. So much for “all for one and one for all.”

The situation is complicated by the fact that the Basque region of Spain has been given a great deal of autonomy in its budget. If Spain were to compromise and give Catalonia the same deal, it would cost the Spanish government a great deal of money and enlarge the already gaping hole in their budget.

“Separately, the parliament of Spain’s most economically important region, Catalonia, approved holding a referendum on independence. Ms Saenz de Santamaria threw down the gauntlet to Spain’s most economically important region, arguing that Madrid could use a constitutional measure to block any attempt at a separatist vote. ‘Not only do instruments exist to prevent [a referendum], there is a government here that is willing to use them,’ she said.” (The Financial Times)

Casually browsing news on the Catalonian crisis, I came across an article on previous referenda concerning independence, held on a city-by-city basis in Catalonia. Independence was favored in nearly all cities by margins of 90% or more. This was rather surprising to me, as I am not certain I could get 90% of my neighbors to agree on the time of day.

In addition to the Basque and Catalonian regions, there are two other northern Spanish regions that send net revenues further south. If you give Catalonia budgetary autonomy, let alone political autonomy, then what do you do for the other two?

Which brings up the uncertainty in the entire euro project. It is one thing to create a common market in which goods and services can freely trade. It is another to impose monetary and fiscal authority on a sovereign nation. If economic tensions within the regions of Spain begin to move voters to push for independence from central control, how much more inclined will voters in the various eurozone nations be to do so?

Germany is just now entering a recession that has the real potential to get much worse. If Germany is asked to write checks and send them to other countries when they are in the midst of their own financial crisis, how will that play in Bavaria?

The only thing I can be certain about regarding Europe is that Europe is an uncertain mess. But the markets go on treating all these pressures as if they were not real. And, indeed, perhaps the mess will all get sorted out.

It is my belief that we focus on risk because it is something that we can model. The economics profession has physics envy. Economists like to think of themselves as scientists, but I must say that I am not convinced. Economics has a great deal to teach us, but it cannot tell us much about certainty. It can’t even help us all that much to avoid risk.

I fear we don’t pay enough attention to uncertainty because we cannot reduce it to an equation. How did you price in the risk of Catalonia succeeding from Spain, even two months ago? The answer is that no one did.

The US market seems to be focused on the “fiscal cliff” that will inevitably create a recession unless Congress does something. The fact that doing nothing will clearly create a recession gives me some confidence that even Congress will figure out a way to avoid doing nothing. What has not been priced in is what Congress will do about the deficit. Depending on what they do, what we get will be hugely positive or negative. But we remain totally uncertain as to what they will actually do. And so for years we have ignored the looming train wreck that is unfunded liabilities.

It is the fact that the results of inaction on the deficit are uncertain that allows Congress to keep postponing the inevitable.

“About these matters there is no scientific basis on which to form any calculable probability whatever.”

We live in most uncertain times.

Orlando, Portland, Atlanta, and South America

I am in New York tonight, writing as I look down on Times Square. Starting Sunday afternoon I’m booked solid with meetings until I get on a plane to Orlando on Tuesday afternoon. Monday night Tom Romero and I will host a dinner for a few friends. What started out as a small dinner has grown into a small crowd. There will be between 20 and 25 of us seated around a square table so that we can see and talk with each other. I have decided to give everybody a yellow flag they can throw at any time to comment on another participant’s musings. Only one flag per night per person, but that should make it interesting. Too many names to mention, so let’s just say, the usual suspects. Okay, two names. My Dr. Richard Roizen is coming, and he is bringing someone called Mehmet Oz.

I will be at the UBS conference with my partners from Altegris and will also spend an evening with my good friend Pat Cox, who writes Breakthrough Technology Alert. I am sure we will talk about the latest technologies and especially those that may help both of us fight off the ravages of growing older. Pat has the prototype of a new “toy” that he is raving about. I have been able to procure a prototype as well, and if it works even half as well as the study results out of Stanford suggest, I will let you know. Just think of me as your friendly neighborhood guinea pig.

I will go to Portland the following week to speak for Common Sense Investments, and they have invited me to stay the next day and go pheasant hunting. I have never been pheasant hunting, let alone hunting at all. These are brave people who will hand me a shotgun and walk with me into the field. I will try not to do a Dick Cheney. And for all of you animal lovers, let me note that any bird I shoot at has a high probability of being missed. And that means I’ll also be taking them out of range from anyone else who could actually shoot them.

Care to join me election night, November 6 … in Argentina?  From October 28 to November 8 I’ll be in Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina, speaking to regional chapters of the CFA Society. As part of the trip, I’m stopping by for the season-opening celebration, November 5-10, of friend and partner Doug Casey’s lifestyle and sporting estate, La Estancia de Cafayate, where I’ll host the group at a café on the scenic town plaza and watch the election results roll in.  If you’d like to join me and a group of interesting folks from around the world in what promises to be a unique experience, drop Dave Norden a note at LiveMore@LaEst.com. David Galland has promised nonalcoholic beers for me for the evening. The recent polls suggest I might want something stronger, but I think I can hold out.

My oldest son, Henry, was having some problems as I left on this trip to Atlanta. Sitting on the plane, I got a message that they were testing his appendix, and that evening as I landed I learned they were taking it out. Oddly, I was relieved, as the symptoms he was having were making Dad nervous, given that he has early-onset diabetes. He is doing fine. But an event like this does bring the health-care debate up close and personal. On October 17 I am in Atlanta once again for Hedge Funds Care.

I fly back home on Wednesday, where I will watch the first Presidential debate with my youngest son, whose teacher has assigned him that task. The next morning I turn 63. I hope my new toy helps – I need all the help I can get. I’ve also added a few new supplements that are just appearing on the radar screen. As I said, I am just a living guinea pig. If I notice anything, I will let you know.

It is time to hit the send button on what will be our last Friday night/Saturday morning newsletter. I stop here knowing that I will get to write next Sunday, rather than all night Friday, and I really believe I’ll be more efficient. We’ll see! Have a great week, and you might check out early voting – I already have.

Your going to sleep till the crack of noon analyst,

John Mauldin
subscribers@MauldinEconomics.com

Copyright 2012 John Mauldin. All Rights Reserved.

John Mauldin – A Dysfunctional Nation

A Dysfunctional Nation
By John Mauldin | June 9, 2012

dysfunctional adj

1. (Medicine) Med (of an organ or part) not functioning normally

2. (especially of a family) characterized by a breakdown of normal or beneficial relationships between members of the group

European leaders launched the euro project in the last century as an experiment to see whether political hope could become economic reality. What they have done is create one of the most dysfunctional economic systems in history. And the distortions inherent in that system are now playing out in an increasingly dysfunctional social order. Today we look at some rather disturbing recent events and wonder about the actual costs of that experiment. What type of “therapy” will be needed to treat the dysfunctional family that Europe has become? And maybe I’ll throw in a “fun” item to finish with, so let’s get started.

A Dysfunctional Nation

Michael Lewis has documented quite tellingly in Boomerang the dysfunctional country that is Greece – how citizens avoid taxes, how over 600 categories of workers can retire at the age of 50 with full pensions, and how fraud and corruption are endemic. Other stories have surfaced about how few doctors report more than 10,000 euros of income and how few professionals pay their property taxes.

Recently, when the current Greek government committed to actually collect some taxes in order to get more loans, a bureaucrat decided that a great way to collect property taxes would be to include them in people’s electricity bills, a move that caused an uproar. Lawsuits followed, as the national power company tried to cut off electricity for nonpayment. In a country where it can take a decade for a legal matter to get on a court docket, a court rather quickly took up the case and ruled it illegal for the power company to cut off service for non-payment. This ruling led to a massive financial loss by the power company as people simply stopped paying their electric bills.

The government had to step in with a rather large chunk of cash to keep the power on. As of May 1, the power company announced, it would no longer collect property taxes. The natural gas company threatened to cut off supplies to the electric utility for nonpayment, and emergency meetings are being held to“… avert the collapse of the natural gas and electricity system.”

The credit system in Greece is in a shambles, and there has been an open bank run this year. Reports that hospitals cannot get necessary life-saving medicines abound, as there is no more credit to be had from most manufacturers. Unemployment is at 22%, and youth unemployment is over 50%. “A collapse in the country’s economy has forced many Greeks to turn to black market barter economies and has left millions financially devastated, with no hope of finding an income stream for the foreseeable future.” ( infowars.com)

The last election resulted in no possibility of a governing coalition, and new elections are scheduled for next weekend (June 17) – except that the employees who run the elections are threatening to strike if they are not given more pay. The head of the government workers union said Thursday that the union will hold a two-day strike on June 16-17. He also said municipal employees will refuse to do any election-related work until then. We will now see whether the courts will declare such a strike illegal and whether the members will honor a court decision.

Greece was already in enough turmoil, with no clear winner emerging in the last polls that were taken this week. (Note: It is against Greek law to publish the results of a poll less than two weeks before an election.) And then there was the “debate.”

I assume that by now you have seen the video of the televised debate among representatives of the seven Greek parties. In a bit of poor planning, the very nationalistic Golden Dawn party head, a rather solid-looking young body builder, was seated next to the Communist Party leader, who is a lady. A few insults were exchanged, some water was thrown in the face of a rather pleasant-looking young lady (a representative of a leftist party) across the table from the Golden Dawn guy, there was a slap on his arm with a folder by the Communist Party leader; and then they were on their feet and Mr. Golden Dawn was repeatedly slapping and then punching Ms. Communist Party.

If for some reason you have not viewed this short but exciting clip, here is a link: http://www.rt.com/news/greek-politician-slaps-rival-278/ . Or you can Google “golden dawn greek slap” and get a link to a report in your language of choice. If you choose the German version from Der Spiegel, you can hear the word neo-Nazi repeated several times by the German reporter.

This exchange provokes a few thoughts. First, incidents of violence and vigilantism in Greece are rising, along with the lawful public demonstrations. Whatever veneer of civility that was left was ripped away by the boorish behavior of the Golden Dawn representative.

Second, this fracas will now dominate the national conversation. Rather than focusing on what they should do about remaining in the eurozone, accepting or rejecting austerity, and putting together some sort of coalition that can govern the country, they will be focused on this event. Nine days before an election in which no party seemed to have a clear lead or a path to a ruling coalition, the results are now even more in question. Golden Dawn had some 6% of the Greek vote. Will it maintain that percentage? If not, where will its votes go? Will this help or hurt the mainstream conservative or left-of-center parties?

Whether it be families or nations, such a level of dysfunctionality almost always ends in tears. The “slap” is just one more telling incident in a country that is on the brink of self-destruction. It is very possible that the winner of the election will be a party that wants to reject austerity but believes that the rest of Europe will give them the money they need to continue to pay their public employees, maintain services, and keep the government functioning. The reasoning seems to be that Europe will do that because they need the Greeks to continue to pretend that they will pay off their national debt to the European governments and ECB.

Why are we still fixated on Greece? Even though Greece is small, it matters; because if Greece leaves the euro then the markets will immediately ask, “Who’s next?” And while a year ago everyone thought the answer was Portugal, the market is now looking hard at Spain, which is on the same path to insolvency that Greece was only a few years ago.

Spanish government leaders are now beginning to admit they must have help, as it appears they will soon be frozen out of the bond market, if that has not happened already. As I have written, it will take a massive commitment of European (read German) money to save Spain, and it’s not a one-time commitment. It is not just 100 billion euros to re-fund Spain’s banks. If Spain gets frozen out of the market, adding another €100 billion in debt will not make things better, when there is a nearly 10% fiscal deficit, unemployment as bad as Greece’s, and an economy that is in freefall.

Europe is going to have to buy all Spanish debt for years. And not just new debt but all the old debt that is coming due and must be refinanced. We are talking hundreds of billions of euros. And if there is a bank run on the order of Greece’s? The number just keeps getting bigger. To think it will be anything like the €46 billion being talked about by the IMF today is to simply ignore economic reality.

That money will have to come from somewhere. Either the ECB will have to monetize it directly (possible but not likely) or a pan-European entity like the ESM will have to be allowed to become a bank and then apply to the ECB for loans and a capital infusion in order to then bail out Spanish (and other) banks.

It is obvious, at least to your humble analyst, that if the eurozone is to survive several things must happen. First, there must be something created on the order of a European FDIC. Banking guarantees and regulation must become a European responsibility, not a country responsibility. How would it have worked if the rest of the US had decided that New York should bail out its own banks, when they had their crisis in 2008?

Second, if the ESM is allowed to become a bank, then what will those guarantees look like? Because the original agreement of member countries to back a specific and limited amount of debt will now be increased ten-fold. And that will mean something in the neighborhood of €4-5 trillion.

How could they need that much? The answer is, because it will not be just Spain. Can Italy be far behind, given the unfolding European recession? And the French banks? France itself, given the new policy direction of its government and its own massive unfunded liabilities?

Assume it is just €4 trillion, spread over a few years. Germany will be responsible for at least 25% of that amount, or about 40% of their GDP. And that assumes that Spain, Greece, Ireland, et al. will be good for their portions.

Will Germany want to take on such a massive new debt? The periphery countries already owe the German Bundesbank over €1 trillion. German debt-to-GDP is already at 80%. German credit default swaps are rising in cost.

If Germany takes that first step, it must be prepared to keep marching, because to stop at any point will mean even more pain, since they will still be responsible for their share of any debt created after that first step. As they say at the poker table, “In for a dime, in for a dollar.”

Certainly, if they are to take on such a debt, there must be guarantees of fiscal control by the nations who need help.

And that means a tighter fiscal union. When the euro was created, European leaders thought that a common currency would naturally lead to a fiscal union. Monetary unions without fiscal union always become dysfunctional.

Or there will have to be direct monetization of the debt by the ECB, which goes against the policy that Germany thinks it agreed to.

Either way, it is a very large change in position for Germany.

There are three problems that Europe must solve. They have a sovereign debt problem and a resulting banking debt problem. Both of these are evident and there might be some solution, given time and money.

But the third problem is the more difficult one. That is the trade imbalance between Germany and the peripheral countries and the differing levels of productivity of their workers. Trade deficits must be brought into line. The usual way to do this is through currency devaluation by the country with the trade deficit. That is not possible for the countries in the eurozone. So, the only other way is for the workers of an uncompetitive country to accept lower wages. Since no one thinks they are underpaid, that will happen slowly and painfully and mean a protracted recession or depression.

Which leads to voter frustration and frayed nerves that spill over into dysfunctional actions. It also leads to political changes.

Let’s hold that thought for a moment. In the weekend Financial Times, my friends Niall Ferguson and Nouriel Roubini have written an op-ed calling for a European banking authority and tighter fiscal union, if the eurozone is to survive. http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/c49b69d8-b187-11e1-bbf9-00144feabdc0.html#axzz1xHuDXIr4

Let’s look at a few paragraphs from the op-ed, with its leading question:

One Minute to Midnight?

“Is it one minute to midnight in Europe?

“We fear that the German government’s policy of doing ‘too little too late’ risks a repeat of precisely the crisis of the mid-20th century that European integration was designed to avoid.

“We find it extraordinary that it should be Germany, of all countries, that is failing to learn from history. Fixated on the nonthreat of inflation, today’s Germans appear to attach more importance to 1923 (the year of hyperinflation) than to 1933 (the year democracy died). They would do well to remember how a European banking crisis two years before 1933 contributed directly to the breakdown of democracy not just in their own country but right across the European continent….

“But now the public is finally losing faith and the silent run may spread to smaller insured deposits. Indeed, if Greece were to leave the eurozone, a deposit freeze would occur and euro deposits would be converted into new drachmas: so a euro in a Greek bank really is not equivalent to a euro in a German bank. Greeks have withdrawn more than €700m from their banks in the past month.

“More worryingly, there was also a surge in withdrawals from some Spanish banks last month. The government’s bungled bailout of Bankia has only heightened public anxiety. On a recent visit to Barcelona, one of us was repeatedly asked if it was safe to leave money in a Spanish bank. This kind of process is potentially explosive….

“Until recently, the German position has been relentlessly negative on all such proposals. We understand German concerns about moral hazard. Putting German taxpayers’ money on the line will be hard to justify if meaningful reforms do not materialise on the periphery. But such reforms are bound to take time. Structural reform of the German labour market was hardly an overnight success. By contrast, the European banking crisis is a real hazard that could escalate in days.

“Germans must understand that bank recapitalisation, European deposit insurance and debt mutualisation are not optional; they are essential to avoid an irreversible disintegration of Europe’s monetary union. If they are still not convinced, they must understand that the costs of a eurozone breakup would be astronomically high – for themselves as much as anyone.

“After all, Germany’s prosperity is in large measure a consequence of monetary union. The euro has given German exporters a far more competitive exchange rate than the old Deutschmark would have. And the rest of the eurozone remains the destination for 42 percent of German exports. Plunging half of that market into a new Depression can hardly be good for Germany.

“Ultimately, as Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, herself acknowledged last week, monetary union always implied further integration into a fiscal and political union. But before Europe gets anywhere near taking this historical step, it must first of all show it has learnt the lessons of the past. The EU was created to avoid repeating the disasters of the 1930s. It is time Europe’s leaders – and especially Germany’s – understood how perilously close they are to doing just that.”

The Triumph of Hope

When the Eurozone was created it was the triumph of hope over the reality of political and economic discord. Somehow, countries that had different languages, customs and national characteristics; that had fought each other for centuries; and that all had different views of themselves in relation to the rest of their fellow Europeans, were supposed to come together into a fiscal union, because they now shopped with the same money.

Rather than simply creating a free-trade zone and allowing for a common understanding and economic integration to develop over time, the European leaders wanted to jump-start the process. And they had numerous critics. Many of the best and brightest in the economics world pointed out the problems.

The reality is that the euro has never been a real currency. It is still an experiment. If it is even around in five years, it will be a true currency, as it will have endured its first real crisis. The peripheral countries used the low interest rates of the euro to borrow heavily (both privately and publicly) and got in trouble, and now the true costs of the euro project are being revealed.

A break-up will cost multiple trillions of euros. Keeping the eurozone together will cost multiple trillions of euros. But keeping the eurozone together will also cost countries a substantial loss of sovereign independence. When voters all over Europe signed on for the euro project, they did not think they were giving up their national independence and the right to control their own budgets.

Will Spain or Italy or Germany be willing to allow a European institution to set their budget priorities and limits? To set their retirement policies and health care? To tax them independently? That is what is meant when one talks fiscal integration. Germany is now a minority on the ECB and is beginning to realize it has lost control. Will its voters want to give up political control and become a minority in a “United States of Europe”?

That is the true problem. When real economic difficulties arise, as in Greece or Spain, voters tend to get rather touchy. Tensions rise. And the center does not hold.

George Soros said this week that Europe has three months to resolve its problems. Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz said Soros was being optimistic. A decision is going to have to be made quite soon about Spain, and likely before it becomes clear whether Greece will stay in or leave the euro. And that makes it difficult to give Spain aid that is not offered on equal terms to those Greece got. Monetizing Spanish debt (however you want to do it or whatever you want to call it) when Spain is running an almost 10% deficit, when it had agreed to a little over 5% only a few months ago, will not sit well with Greece.

But it now seems that Europe is unlikely to get the time it needs, absent some rabbit pulled out of its monetary hat to allow Spain to borrow money at rates that it can afford. The Endgame approaches. It will be a long summer.

I get asked all the time if the euro will break up. The honest answer is, we really don’t know. I think the economically rational thing to do in the very long term is for some countries to figure out how to leave the euro, but that is more a political question than an economic one. And if you can tell me what politicians and voters will do in a political crisis and deepening recession, then your crystal ball is less foggy than mine.

I think it is 50-50. The drive to hold the euro together will go head to head with national self-interest. Right now, it depends on whom you ask as to what answer you get. But I do not think we will be asking the question much longer. Soon enough, we will know.

To be clear, Europe has no good choices, only a choice among very distressing and expensive options. This will not be good for them or for the world. I think we are already seeing a global slowdown, in great part due to Europe. Let us hope they get the answer right, whatever it is.

A Quadrillion Here, A Quadrillion There

Everett Dirksen was a Republican Senator from Illinois back in the ’50s and ’60s. He is credited with saying “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you are talking about real money.” It seems that thorough research does not turn him up actually saying that line, although researchers do note that one reporter said he had asked Dirksen about it and received the reply, “Oh, I never said that. A newspaper fella misquoted me once, and I thought it sounded so good that I never bothered to deny it.”

But that quote has slipped into the US national memory, and whether or not he said it, it does make a real point. And that was back in the early ’60s, when a billion dollars was not just a rounding error in the national budget.

Today we have become rather casual in our use of the word trillion. “A trillion dollars” slips so easily off the tongue, but it is too big a number for most of us to even fathom. Estimates of the total stars in our galaxy run between 100 and 400 billion. A trillion barrels of oil would fuel the world for over 30 years. One trillion seconds is almost 32,000 years. The mind boggles. Yet today we think almost nothing of adding a trillion dollars every year to the already bloated US debt! In fact, economists like Paul Krugman fume that we are not adding more trillions to the debt each year, as if debt brought no consequences. By this thinking, Greece should not be made to have to suffer austerity because it has taken on too much debt. Rather, other nations should be taxed to give Greece the money to go even deeper into debt that it cannot and most likely will not repay.

So, I must admit that when I came across this next item, it gave me pause. We turn now to a report published by Bloomberg and authored by my friend Dr. Gary Shilling, talking about the massive debt that has been accumulated by Japan. Gary argues that Japan is reaching a critical point where its debt cannot be financed except by extreme monetization by its central bank, because turning to world markets to sell the debt will drive up interest rates to unsustainable levels. I have made similar arguments, but that is a topic for another letter. Today, I want to quote just one paragraph. ( http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-06-07/strong-yen-won-t-survive-japan-s-fiscal-cliff.html)

“As Japan’s government debt of 1,085 trillion yen matures over time, it will be subject to any higher refinancing rates. The average maturity of Japanese government debt is six years and 11 months. Yet 17 percent of that debt matures this year, 52 percent in the next five years and 76 percent in the next decade. Markets anticipate, so Japanese bonds throughout the spectrum will probably plummet in price and leap in yield at the first sign of a current-account deficit, maybe even before.”

One thousand trillion yen. 32,000,000 years’ worth of seconds. Yes, I know a yen has a few extra zeros in relation to the dollar, but we are talking about one quadrillion yen.

Are we really ready for the word quadrillion to enter the lexicon in what is supposed to be the developed world? In the case of Japan, we are apparently there. A hundred years ago, a deficit of US$1 billion would have been unthinkable. We actually had balanced budgets for most of our first 200 years, except during wars and economic crashes. And now we talk trillions, albeit in the wake of inflation that has made the word trillion less than it was 100 years ago. Will our grandchildren in the latter half of this century talk quadrillions? Or quintillions? Is that even thinkable? Let’s just hope the word quadrillion doesn’t come into common parlance any time soon.

New York, Chicago, Italy, and Singapore

I leave for New York Monday afternoon, arriving in time to have dinner with Art Cashin, Barry Ritholtz, Barry Habib, Rich Yamarone, and a few other friends, before I spend the following day speaking at a few private events with my partners from Altegris. I am back in Dallas Wednesday and home till the middle of next week, when I make a quick trip to Chicago for the Morningstar National Investment Conference, again with Altegris.

Then Friday evening I leave for Tuscany (with a night in Madrid) for two weeks. I will be writing from there and catching up on my reading, but a vacation for me is staying in the same place for two weeks. I will have some friends in, as well as some family, with a few side trips here and there, but I’m hoping to relax some.

I expect to be writing this letter as usual from Tuscany, although right now Ed Easterling and I are talking about revisiting some work we did in 2002 on secular bull and bear markets. We both believe we are still in a secular bear, but the question now is, when will it end? The original work was published in this letter and in Bull’s Eye Investing and is the core of that book.

Wiley recently released an edited, smaller version of the book, called The Little Book of Bull’s Eye Investing, which updates the main points. Given that the single most important thing for an equity investor is to know what long-term secular cycle we are in, the material is most topical. (And if you are asking what a secular cycle is, then you REALLY need to read the book). I like the way the book turned out. You can order a copy at http://www.amazon.com/Little Book.

I think it will take us at least two weeks to cover the topic, but it is important and will help us all think about something besides Europe, even if I am sitting right there in the middle of it.

On a personal note, many of you know that I quit drinking alcohol about ten months ago, for health reasons. It has helped. One of the side benefits, I thought, was that I could expand my diet somewhat, since I was no longer consuming all those calories in wine and scotch. I added bread and desserts and a lot of red meat. Then this week I got the results of my latest blood tests. It seems I now have a cholesterol problem. Nothing that changing my diet can’t fix, but I have to admit, I was enjoying indulging myself and not really gaining any weight. Oh well. A little moderation is good for the soul, or so they tell me.

Oh, and we’re getting really close to the launch of Mauldin Economics, with a brand-new website and an investment newsletter that will turn some heads. Stay tuned!

It really is time to hit the send button. The sun is coming up and I need to get some sleep. (I procrastinated much too long tonight.) My grandson (Henry’s son) has a birthday this weekend, so the family will gather on Sunday for brunch and a party. It will be good times. But I see chicken, not steak, on my menu. Have a great week.

Your needing to eat more fish analyst,

John Mauldin
John@FrontlineThoughts.com

Copyright 2012 John Mauldin. All Rights Reserved.

A Bubble in Complacency – John Mauldin

By John Mauldin | January 29, 2011

In this issue:
The Recent GDP Numbers – A Real Statistical Recovery
Consumer Spending Rose? Where Was the Income?
A Bubble in Complacency
Egypt
Rosie, Las Vegas, Phuket, and Bangkok

This week I had the privilege of being on the same panel with former Comptroller General David Walker and former Majority Leader (and presidential candidate) Richard Gephardt. A Democrat to the left of me and a self-declared nonpartisan to the right, stuck in the middle and not knowing where the unrehearsed conversation would take us. As it turned out, to a very interesting conclusion, which is the topic of this week’s letter. By way of introduction to those not familiar with them, David M. Walker (born 1951) served as United States Comptroller General from 1998 to 2008, and is now the Founder and CEO of the Comeback America Initiative. Gephardt served in Congress for 28 years, was House Majority Leader from 1989 to 1995 and Minority Leader from 1995 to 2003, running for president in 1988 and 2004.

Some housekeeping first. We have posted my recent conversation with George Friedman on the Conversations with John Mauldin web site. And on Saturday we will post the Conversation and transcript I just did with David Rosenberg and Lacy Hunt, which I think is one of the more interesting (and informative!) ones I have done. You can learn more about how to get your copy and the rest of the year’s Conversations (I have some really powerful ones lined up) by going to www.johnmauldin.com/conversations. Use the code “conv” to get a discount to $149 from the regular price of $199. (If you recently subscribed at $199 we will extend your subscription proportionately. Fair is fair.)

And go to www.johnmauldin.com to contribute comments on this letter. I do read them!

The Recent GDP Numbers – A Real Statistical Recovery

Now, before we get into our panel discussion (and the meeting afterward), let me comment on the GDP number that came in yesterday. This is what Moody’s Analytics told us:

“Real GDP grew 3.2% at an annualized pace in the fourth quarter of 2010. This was below the consensus estimate for 3.6% growth and was an improvement from the 2.6% pace in the third quarter. Private inventories were an enormous drag on growth, subtracting 3.7 percentage points; this bodes very well for the near-term outlook and means that current demand is very strong. Consumer spending, investment and trade were all positives for growth in the fourth quarter; government was a slight negative. The economy will see very strong growth in 2011 as the tax and spending deal passed in December stimulates demand and the labor market picks up, creating a self-sustaining expansion.”

[Read more…]

First, Let’s Lower the Bar – John Mauldin’s Weekly E-Letter

Thoughts from the Frontline Weekly Newsletter

First, Let’s Lower the Bar

by John Mauldin
November 12, 2010
Visit John's Home Page
In this issue:
Health-Care Realities
The Chinese Renminbi is Going Down, Not Up
First, Let’s Lower the Bar
They Need to Borrow How Much? Really?
Irish Eyes Are Not Smiling
La Jolla, New York and a Forbes Cruise
China’s currency is rising ever so slowly against the dollar. But is that hurting China? We will look at a very interesting chart and some research. And then we’ll gain some more insight into why the employment numbers seemed to surprise. I guess if you lower the bar, it’s easier to jump over. I also deal with the pushback from last week’s Outside the Box! And Ireland is on my radar. There is a lot to cover, so let’s jump in.

I start this week’s letter on a flight from Cleveland (where I was at the Cleveland Clinic meeting with my good friend and doctor Mike Roizen (of Oprah and the various “YOU” books with Mehmet Oz) on some non-health-related business, and we talked last night about the state of health care. Mike keeps pointing out that much of our health-care cost comes from chronic diseases that are either directly or partially lifestyle choices. And he is right. The data shows it. Smoking, overeating, lack of exercise – all contribute to our health-care bills. And health care was on my mind.

Now, a little mea culpa. I get letters from readers who start their missive out with something like, “I know you probably won’t read this, but…” Well, I can’t say I read every letter, but someone does and I get and read as many as I can. And my rule is that I get all the negative ones, and any letters that show particular thoughtfulness and give me suggested reading or just good suggestions. I do pay attention to you. It takes some time, I admit, but I think it is important.

And the feedback I got on last week’s Outside the Box on health care was definitely running much more on the negative side. And as it turns out, for good reason. There were just simply some factual errors in the piece that made it more partisan than it sounded when I first read it. And many readers justifiably took me to task for that. [Read more…]