Thursday, April 17, 2014

Gold Forecast – This Is Going To Be Exciting

Gold Forecast: During the past year there has been very little talk about gold, silver or gold stocks in the media. Yet the year before it was all the media could talk about and they even had the price of gold streaming live all day in the corner of the TV monitor.

I am always amazed how the masses and media can be so off in their timing of the stock market and commodities in general. For example when Greece was having issues in 2012 and everyone was avoiding investments in that country like it was the plague. Looking back now, Greece is up huge and only recently investors are confident enough to put money into the Greek stock market again.

But the truth is that big move has already happend, and the US and global markets are in rotation (changing trends). Money is slowly shifting from what has been hot during the past year or two, to new investments which have a lot more room to rise in value. And this is leads us back to my gold forecast.

If you are at all familiar with Stan Weinstein’s work, then you understand the four market stages. If not, you can learn these four stages on my Stan Weinstein page. Through stage analysis we can predict the type of price action we should expected and have a rough idea just how long a move (new trend) is likely to last. It is important to know that Stan Weinstein’s stage analysis works on any time frame from a one minute chart to a monthly chart. If you do not know this then you are trading almost blind without a doubt.

Current stage analysis looks as though the US stock market may be starting to form a stage three top. There are several indicators and market behaviors which are screaming, telling us to trade with caution to the long side. But the masses do not see this or hear what is unfolding in front of their very own eyes, and that I fine. It actually reminds me of a funny old movie called “hear no evil, see no evil”.

In short, the market is showing some signs of distribution selling in stocks, and the once market leaders are now getting completely crushed with heavy selling volume like the biotech stocks, social media stocks and other momentum stocks and this is bad.

Gold on the other had has been forming a stage one basing pattern. This provides a very bullish long term gold forecast that investors could ride for several years.

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Q: Where Will Investment Capital Go During The Next Bear Market In stocks?

 

A: One of the places will be precious metals. Click here for my gold forecast which shows the main reason why

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Gold Forecast Coles Notes:

 

1. The U.S. dollar index has setup a massive stage 3 topping pattern on the weekly chart. A falling dollar will send the price of gold higher naturally.

2. Bullish gold forecasts by the media have dropped substantially, meaning everyone is bearish on gold.

3. Gold stocks are already showing signs of massive accumulation. I always use the price and volume action of gold stocks to help create and time my gold forecasts which it starting to look bullish.

Gold Forecast Conclusion:

 

Gold market traders should understand that precious metals in general are still months away from breaking out to the upside and starting a new bull market. Do not be in a rush to buy gold or gold stocks yet. There will be plenty of time folks.

See you in the markets!
Chris Vermeulen 

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Doug Casey’s Coming Super Bubble

By Louis James, Chief Metals & Mining Investment Strategist

In many of my conversations with legendary speculator Doug Casey since the crash of 2008, Doug has talked about a coming super bubble.

Everything Doug has studied about human nature, history, and economics—from Roman times right up to the present—has him absolutely convinced that the global economy is headed for high inflation, with a very real potential for hyperinflation in the US.

Ben Bernanke's panicked deployment of squadrons of cash-laden choppers has been emulated around the world. The Bank of International Settlements estimates that global debt markets now exceed $100 trillion.
The laws of economics—maybe even physics—say that this inflation, whenever it arrives, must have consequences… and that those consequences cannot be avoided forever.

The easiest consequence to predict, and the one we're betting heavily on, is that the price of gold will move higher. Much higher. That move will in turn ignite a bubble in gold stocks and, as Doug likes to say, a super-bubble in junior gold stocks.

Jeff Clark, editor of our BIG GOLD newsletter, recently illustrated what such a super-bubble can look like, citing figures from several historic bull markets. I hesitate to repeat any of his figures because the right junior stocks' gains when the market goes bubbly are, frankly, hard to believe. However, it is a fact that quite a few junior stocks achieved the much vaunted 10 bagger status (1,000% gains) in previous bubbles, and some even returned 100 fold.

Here’s the essential reason why junior mining stocks are Doug's favorite speculations.

Let's start at the beginning: Doug's mantra is that one should buy gold for prudence and gold stocks for profit. These are very different kinds of asset deployment.

It's particularly important not to think of gold as an investment, but as wealth protection. It's the only highly liquid financial asset that is not simultaneously someone else's liability. Every ounce of gold you physically possess is value in solid form—there is no short to your long. Come hell or high water, it is value you can liquidate and use to secure your needs. That's why gold is for prudence.

Gold stocks are for speculation because they offer leverage to gold. This is actually true of all mining stocks and, more broadly, of stocks in commodity-related companies; they all tend to magnify the price movements in the underlying commodity. But the phenomenon is especially strong in the highly volatile precious metals.

Allow me to illustrate—and in an effort to avoid seeming overly promotional, I'll show how gold stocks' leverage works on the downside as well as the upside. Bad news first: here's a chart showing how gold retreated during October and November of 2008, the worst two months of that year's crash for mining stocks. Also shown are an index of gold juniors and our own portfolio performance. This was, of course, a terrific time to buy, resulting in spectacular gains over the next two years.




Now the good news: here's a chart showing the performance of the same three things in January and February of this year, which saw a major rally in the gold sector.





Here's one more, with a particularly telling point to make. This is the stock price of ATAC Resources (ATC.V) over the same time period as the chart above. The point I want to draw your attention to is that the company had no major news during the time period shown. It's a Yukon gold play, buried deep under the famous snows of the Great White North, so there's no exploration under way, and there won't be until the snow melts weeks or months from now.




This third chart shows in one simple yet powerful way exactly why Doug loves buying these stocks when they're on sale and selling them when they go into bubble mode. ATAC essentially did nothing and still shot up over an order of magnitude more than gold. Note that while this third chart looks like the second, the scales are quite different. (ATAC, by the way, is part of my special report, 10 Bagger List for 2014, that details nine companies I believe could show 1,000% or more returns this year. Note that the report was written before the big move upward you see in the chart above.)

It's worth emphasizing that ATAC's performance this year is just on a rebound from recent lows—imagine what a stock like this could do when Doug's super-bubble for gold stocks arrives.

But what if it doesn't? Or worse—what if we already missed it?

I remember a conversation with Doug back in 2011, when gold rose to within reach of $2,000 per ounce. Many mainstream analysts said gold was in a bubble. I told Doug I couldn't understand why anyone would listen to analysts who've called the gold trend wrong every year since the current bull cycle started. I remember Doug chuckling and saying: "Just wait and see—this is barely an overture."

I am certain Doug is right. That's not because he's the guru, nor because I'm a nutty gold bug, but because no government in history has ever multiplied its currency base without sparking serious and often fatal inflation. That's a fact, not an opinion, backed by enough data to make me extremely confident in predicting what lies ahead for the US dollar, even if I can't say exactly when we'll reach the tipping point.

Since that 2011 interim peak, as we all know painfully well, gold has backed off on par with the correction in the middle of the great 1970s gold bull market. But economic realities require that the market turn around and head for his long predicted super bubble in junior mining stocks before too long. That makes the correction the last, best time to build a substantial position in the stocks best positioned to profit from the coming bubble.

And now Doug is saying that he believes the upturn is at hand. He expects a steadily rising market for a year or two, perhaps more, but not many more, culminating in a market mania for the record books.

Our market does appear to have bottomed. It may take a while to go into its mania phase, but it's already heating up. No one is going to want to be short when this train leaves the station—and the conductor has blown the whistle.

To find out what you could be missing if you don’t invest in junior mining stocks right now, watch Casey Research’s recent video event, Upturn Millionaires—How to Play the Turning Tides in the Precious Metals Market. With resource and investment experts Doug Casey, Frank Giustra, Rick Rule, Porter Stansberry, Ross Beaty, John Mauldin, Marin Katusa, and myself. Watch it here for free, or click here to find out more about my 10 Bagger List for 2014.

The article Doug Casey’s Coming Super Bubble was originally published at Casey Research


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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Every Central Bank for Itself

By John Mauldin



“Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.”
– Mike Tyson

For the last 25 days I’ve been traveling in Argentina and South Africa, two countries whose economies can only be described as fragile, though for very different reasons. Emerging market countries face a significantly different set of challenges than the developed world does. These challenges are compounded by the rather indifferent policies of developed world central banks, which are (even if somewhat understandably) entirely self centered. Argentina has brought its problems upon itself, but South Africa can somewhat justifiably express frustration at the developed world, which, as one emerging market central bank leader suggests, is engaged in a covert currency war, one where the casualties are the result of unintended consequences. But the effects are nonetheless real if you’re an emerging market country.

While I will write a little more about my experience in South Africa at the end of this letter, first I want to cover the entire emerging market landscape to give us some context. Full and fair disclosure requires that I give a great deal of credit to my rather brilliant young associate, Worth Wray, who’s helped me pull together a great deal of this letter while I am on the road in a very busy speaking tour here in South Africa for Glacier, a local platform intermediary. They have afforded me the opportunity to meet with a significant number of financial industry participants and local businessman, at all levels of society. It has been a very serious learning experience for me. But more on that later; let’s think now about the problems facing emerging markets in general.

Every Central Bank for Itself

Every general has a plan before going into battle, which immediately begins to change upon contact with the enemy. Everyone has a plan until they get hit… and emerging markets have already taken a couple of punches since May 2013, when Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke first signaled his intent to “taper” his quantitative easing program and thereby incrementally wean the markets off of their steady drip of easy money. It was not too long after that Ben also suggested that he was not responsible for the problems of emerging-market central banks – or any other central bank, for that matter.

As my friend Ben Hunt wrote back in late January, Chairman Bernanke turned a single data point into a line during his last months in office, when he decided to taper by exactly $10 billion per month. He established the trend, and now the markets are reacting as if the Fed's exit strategy has officially begun.

Whether the FOMC can actually turn the taper into a true exit strategy ultimately depends on how much longer households and businesses must deleverage and how sharply our old age dependency ratio rises, but markets seem to believe this is the beginning of the end. For now, that’s what matters most.

Under Fed Chair Janet Yellen’s leadership, the Fed continues to send a clear message to the rest of the world: Now it really is every central bank for itself. 

The QE-Induced Bubble Boom in Emerging Markets

By trying to shore up their rich-world economies with unconventional policies such as ultra low rate targets, outright balance sheet expansion, and aggressive forward guidance, major central banks have distorted international real interest rate differentials and forced savers to seek out higher (and far riskier) returns for more than five years.

This initiative has fueled enormous overinvestment and capital misallocation – and not just in advanced economies like the United States.

As it turns out, the biggest QE-induced imbalances may be in emerging markets, where, even in the face of deteriorating fundamentals, accumulated capital inflows (excluding China) have nearly DOUBLED, from roughly $5 trillion in 2009 to nearly $10 trillion today. After such a dramatic rise in developed world portfolio allocations and direct lending to emerging markets, developed world investors now hold roughly one third of all emerging market stocks by market capitalization and also about one third of all outstanding emerging market bonds.

The Fed might as well have aimed its big bazooka right at the emerging world. That’s where a lot of the easy money ran blindly in search of more attractive real interest rates, bolstered by a broadly accepted growth story.

The conventional wisdom – a particularly powerful narrative that became commonplace in the media – suggested that emerging markets were, for the first time in a long time, less risky than developed markets, despite their having displayed much higher volatility throughout the past several decades.

As a general rule, people believed emerging markets had much lower levels of government debt, much stronger prospects for consumption led growth, and far more favorable demographics. (They overlooked the fact that crises in the 1980s and 1990s still limited EM borrowing limits until 2009 and ignored the fact that EM consumption is a derivative of demand and investment from the developed world.)

Instead of holding traditional safe haven bonds like US treasuries or German bunds, some strategists (who shall not be named) even suggested that emerging market government bonds could be the new safe haven in the event of major sovereign debt crises in the developed world. And better yet, it was suggested that denominating these investments in local currencies would provide extra returns over time as EM currencies appreciated against their developed market peers.

Sadly, the conventional wisdom about emerging markets and their currencies was dead wrong. Herd money (typically momentum based, yield chasing investors) usually chases growth that has already happened and almost always overstays its welcome. This is the same disappointing boom/bust dynamic that happened in Latin America in the early 1980s and Southeast Asia in the mid 1990s. And this time, it seems the spillover from extreme monetary accommodation in advanced countries has allowed public and private borrowers to leverage well past their natural carrying capacity.

Anatomy of a “Balance of Payments” Crisis

The lesson is always the same, and it is hard to avoid. Economic miracles are almost always too good to be true. Whether we’re talking about the Italian miracle of the ’50s, the Latin American miracle of the ’80s, the Asian Tiger miracles of the ’90s, or the housing boom in the developed world (the US, Ireland, Spain, et al.) in the ’00s, they all have two things in common: construction (building booms, etc.) and excessive leverage. As a quick aside, does that remind you of anything happening in China these days?

Just saying…...Broad based, debt fueled overinvestment may appear to kick economic growth into overdrive for a while; but eventually disappointing returns and consequent selling lead to investment losses, defaults, and banking panics. And in cases where foreign capital seeking strong growth in already highly valued assets drives the investment boom, the miracle often ends with capital flight and currency collapse.

Economists call that dynamic of inflow induced booms followed by outflow induced currency crises a “balance of payments cycle,” and it tends to occur in three distinct phases.

In the first phase, an economic boom attracts foreign capital, which generally flows toward productive uses and reaps attractive returns from an appreciating currency and rising asset prices. In turn, those profits fuel a self-reinforcing cycle of foreign capital inflows, rising asset prices, and a strengthening currency.

In the second phase, the allure of promising recent returns morphs into a growth story and attracts ever stronger capital inflows – even as the boom begins to fade and the strong currency starts to drag on competitiveness. Capital piles into unproductive uses and fuels overinvestment, overconsumption, or both; so that ever more inefficient economic growth increasingly depends on foreign capital inflows. Eventually, the system becomes so unstable that anything from signs of weak earnings growth to an unanticipated rate hike somewhere else in the world can trigger a shift in sentiment and precipitous capital flight.

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.

The article Thoughts from the Frontline: "Every Central Bank for Itself" was originally published at Mauldin Economics


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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

What’s the Frequency Zenith?

By Grant Williams


WARNING: This week’s Things That Make You Go Hmmm... is going to run a little longer than usual, I’m afraid, so if you have some time to kill, strap yourself in for the ride.

Yes. I have read it.


For the last couple of weeks those have been the five words I have used the most — by a country mile.

The second most used five word combination during that time has been “I know, what a tool.”

The subject to which the first group of words pertains is, of course, Michael Lewis’s new book, Flash Boys; and the second phrase refers to a certain president of a certain exchange, who made a complete fool of himself during the fierce media debate that has surrounded the book since it burst upon the public consciousness in the space of what ironically felt like a few nanoseconds. (The particular piece to which I refer has to be seen to be believed; but if you somehow missed it, you’ll have your chance. Stick around.)
Now, before we get started, let’s get a few things straight right off the BAT(s).

Firstly, I am an enormous fan of Michael Lewis’s work. I think he is an incredible storyteller with a gift for narrative worthy of a place alongside many modern greats. I have read each of his books and enjoyed them all tremendously. Michael has an ability to weave complex subject matter into a tapestry that can be understood and enjoyed by many who might otherwise find such material utterly incomprehensible.

Secondly, I am no expert in high-frequency trading, but I have had some experience of it in recent years; and I have spent some considerable time analyzing it from a business perspective, which has given me a reasonable understanding of its mechanics.

Thirdly, whilst I have limited direct experience of HFT, I DO have almost thirty years’ hands-on experience of equity, bond, and commodity markets in the US, UK, Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia, and Japan, as well as in another dozen or so countries across Asia Pacific; and having watched markets of all types move in strange ways for seemingly no reason until, a few moments later, the cause of the move revealed itself, I feel I have developed enough of an understanding about how the markets work and, perhaps more importantly, about the people who MAKE them work, to venture an opinion or two about the subjects raised by Michael Lewis in Flash Boys.

But before we get to the book that is on everybody’s Kindle, we’re going to turn to sport for a little lesson. Let’s go back in time to Game 6 of the American League Championship Series between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees in 2004, and recall the actions of another “Flash Boy,” Alex Rodriguez, the Yankees’ star third baseman.

Now, at this point, I’m sure the thousands of non-baseball fans amongst you are tuning out in your droves; but in order to try to keep you engaged, let me also tell you a parallel story from the football (or “soccer,” if you must) 2002 World Cup in South Korea, a tale that features one of its brightest stars of that era, the Brazilian midfielder Rivaldo ... and some decidedly unsavory antics.

Let’s see how we get on with this whole parallel story thing, shall we? I know Michael Lewis would do a phenomenal job of weaving the two stories together. Me? I’m not so sure.....

Deep breath.

In 2002, Rivaldo Vitor Borba Ferreira was a footballer at the very top of the world game. He had helped Brazil reach the final of the 1998 World Cup (where they lost to France), and four years later he was one-third of the renowned “Three Rs,” alongside Ronaldo and Ronaldinho (sadly NOT referred to as “the Two Ronnies”), who spearheaded the dynamic Brazilian team that was rightly installed as the prohibitive favourite to win the trophy that year.
In Brazil’s opening game against Turkey on June 3rd, Rivaldo scored a goal in the 87th minute to give Brazil a 2-1 lead with only three minutes to play, and was on his way to earning the Man of the Match award (think “MVP,” baseball fans). With seconds of added time left, Brazil won a corner, which Rivaldo wandered across the pitch to take at a pace which could, at best, be described as “lacking a degree of urgency.” The ball was at the feet of Turkish defender Hakan Ünsal, who most certainly WAS in a hurry.....

(Cue Michael Lewis-like change of scene to increase the dramatic tension.)

Game 6 of the 2004 ALCS, played at Yankee Stadium on October 19, 2004, had urgency to spare, as the Boston Red Sox, having lost the first three games of the series to their hated rivals from New York, needed a win to tie the series at 3 games each and force a Game 7 decider, which would be played at The Stadium the following night. One more loss and their season was over. (No team had ever come from 3 games down to take a Championship Series.)

The Yankees were led by their talismanic third baseman, Alex Rodriguez, who had almost joined the Red Sox earlier that year after the team had suffered a heart-breaking Game 7 loss in the 2003 ALCS — to whom else but the Yankees — only to have the deal voided at the last minute by the players’ union, a move which opened the door for the Yankees to steal the highest-paid and, at the time, most prolific player in the game from under the noses of the seemingly cursed Red Sox. (You can see how that whole situation played out in the excellent ESPN short documentary The Deal).

Rodriguez had been on a tear in 2004 and would end the season with 36 home runs, 106 RBIs, 112 runs scored, and 28 stolen bases. (Soccer fans, I’d give you a comparison, but there isn’t one. Think: doing everything. Really well.) This made Rodriguez only the third player in the 100+ years of baseball history to compile at least 35 home runs, 100 RBIs, and 100 runs scored in seven consecutive seasons (joining two other players with names that even soccer fans would know [kinda]: Babe Ruth and Jimmie Foxx). (No, NOT the actor who won an Oscar for Ray, soccer fans.)

During the playoffs, Rodriguez had dominated the Minnesota Twins, batting .421 with a slugging percentage of .737. (Soccer fans, let’s face it, baseball owns statistics. You got nuthin’. Nuthin’. Take it from me, Rodriguez was Messi with a bat.) He had also equaled the single game post season record by scoring five runs in Game 3 as the Yankees seized a 3-0 lead.

But in Game 6, Messi with a bat was about to get messy with at-bats as his form deserted him and he found himself at the plate in the 8th inning, facing Red Sox relief pitcher Bronson Arroyo, in the game for starting pitcher Curt Schilling, who had battled heroically through seven innings with a torn tendon sheath in his right ankle.

With the Yankees down 4-2 and team captain Derek Jeter on first base, Rodriguez represented the tying run......

On that steamy night two years prior, in a purpose-built stadium in Korea, Rivaldo stood by the corner flag, hands on his knees, waiting oh so patiently for the clock to run down Ünsal to pass the ball to him. The fans whistled their derision at the Brazilian’s delaying tactics. Sadly, time wasting in such situations is commonplace in football, and though the referees are obliged to add additional seconds to negate these tactics, they seldom do so effectively.

Ünsal was no doubt frustrated at the Brazilian’s gamesmanship and kicked the ball towards him at some pace in an attempt to speed things up.

Rivaldo flinched and tried to turn away from the incoming ball, which struck him roughly two inches above his right knee.

With the linesman (baseball fans, think: third base umpire) standing no more than two or three feet from the Brazilian, Rivaldo collapsed to the ground, clutching hisface as if he had pole axed by the incoming projectile, and writhing around as if every bone in his face had been shattered by the evil Turk.

To the astonishment of everybody in the stands, commentators from over a hundred countries, hundreds of millions of fans around the world, and, above all, Ünsal himself, the Turkish player was shown a red card and sent off (baseball fans, think: ejected) for his “crime.”

Rivaldo, having made a miraculous recovery, took the resulting corner, and Brazil held on against the ten men of Turkey for the victory.

Back in the Bronx, with the count at 2-2 (soccer fans, that’s two balls and two strikes, which means... oh, to hell with it. Baseball is so much trickier to explain. From here on in, you’re on your own), Alex Rodriguez swung his bat, made contact with Arroyo’s pitch, and sent it bobbling down the first-base line. As soon as he hit it, Rodriguez set off in a furious foot race that he had absolutely no chance of winning as he tried to beat the ball to first base. He knew it. We knew it.

Sure enough, Arroyo, with a head start, got to the ball first and took the two or three steps necessary to tag the Yankee with the ball (before he reached first base, which would render him “out” and send him back to the dugout, bringing the Yankee inning closer to an end).

However, as he reached out to tag Rodriguez, the ball spun loose from Arroyo’s glove and bobbled into right field, keeping the play alive and letting Jeter score from second and throw the Yankees a lifeline.

Rodriguez continued to second base, where he stopped, called time out, clapped his hands, and whooped.
Cue pandemonium.

Everybody in the stadium — except the first-base umpire ... and presumably the millions at home — had seen Rodriguez intentionally slap the ball from Arroyo’s glove, a move which in baseball parlance is known as “cheating.” (Soccer fans, think: cheating.)

After a strong protest from Red Sox manager Terry Francona and a lengthy consultation among the various umpires, justice was done. Rodriguez was called “out,” Jeter was returned to second base, and the score remained 4-2.

The Red Sox would go on to win the game and, the following night, become the first team in baseball history to win a series after losing the first three games. They would go on to defeat the St. Louis Cardinals 4-0 in the 100th World Series (soccer fans, think: national championship with no “world” connotation whatsoever) and to vanquish a famous “curse” that had persisted for 86 years.

Now, armed with that background, watch these two defining moments HERE and HERE.
In the aftermath, both players were defiant. Rivaldo, amazingly, tried to paint himself as the victim:

(BBC): Rivaldo had admitted fooling the referee by clutching his face after Ünsal kicked the ball at his leg while he was waiting to take a corner in the closing moments of the Group C match.

But he shrugged off the fine and defended his faking as part and parcel of the game.

The 30-year-old said: “I’m calm about the punishment.

“I am not sorry about anything.
“I was both the victim and the person who got fined.
“Obviously the ball didn’t hit me in the face, but I was still the victim. I did not hit anyone in the face.”

... whilst Rodriguez was, for some reason, “perplexed”:
(NY Times): Alex Rodriguez was standing on second base when the umpires decided that he did not belong there. He folded his hands atop his helmet and screamed, “What?’’
He was, to use his word, perplexed.

After the game, Yankees Manager Joe Torre demonstrated that, when it comes to seeing important plays that go against your team, there is one thing common to both soccer AND baseball: the unreliability of a manager’s eyesight. These guys see EVERYTHING that goes against their team perfectly but somehow always seem to be curiously oblivious when the shoe is on the other foot:

(NY Times): “Randy Marsh was closer than anyone else, and it looked like there were bodies all over the place,’’ Torre said, referring to the fact that first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz was near the play. “There were a lot of bodies in front of me, so I can’t tell you what I saw. I was upset it turned out the way it did for a couple of reasons.”

Presumably neither of those reasons involved the fact that the call was right.

Anyway, the point of these two stories as they pertain to Flash Boys is this:

Both Rodriguez and Rivaldo knew there were dozens of TV cameras on them. They knew there were millions of pairs of eyes on them around the world, and they knew that they were being watched by officials charged with monitoring the games to ensure fairness and punish malfeasance — and yet, knowing all that to be true, they both instinctively cheated to try to gain an edge.

That is how they, as competitors, are wired. Whether it’s right or wrong is irrelevant. (It’s wrong, in case you were wondering.) They were both given a set of rules within which to play, and both chose to step outside those rules in the hope that they would get away with it.

Rivaldo did, Rodriguez didn’t.

It’s a fine line, but the reward for success — even if it does involve bending the rules — is considerable.
Lewis’s media blitz began on Sunday night with an appearance on 60 Minutes, and in answering a simple opening question with a typically florid response, he sparked a media storm the likes of which I haven’t seen in a long, long time.

Steve Kroft: What’s the headline here?
Michael Lewis: Stock market’s rigged. The United States stock market, the most iconic market in global capitalism, is rigged.

Those words sent financial anchors on CNBC and Bloomberg TV into a state of apoplexy at the mere suggestion that the playing field in financial markets is anything but scrupulously fair.

As I watched the circus unpack its tents, erect them, and send a parade of clowns careening into the ring, I was genuinely baffled at what I was seeing.

The first act was Bill O’Brien, the president of BATS (one of the exchanges which, according to Lewis’s book, offers an unfair advantage to high-frequency traders), going toe-to-toe on CNBC with the hero of the book, Brad Katsuyama, once of RBC and now the founder of IEX, an exchange dedicated to leveling the playing field for the average investor.

Until last Sunday, I had never heard of either man, nor had I ever seen them in action.

What followed was extraordinary.

If you haven’t seen the clip, you can (and should) watch it HERE, because excerpts from a transcript cannot do justice to either the defensiveness of O’Brien or the cool confidence of Katsuyama; but from the off, had it been a fight, it would have been stopped before one of the participants embarrassed himself any further:


(CNBC):O’Brien: I have been shaking my head a lot the last 36 hours. First thing I would say, Michael and Brad, shame on both of you for falsely accusing literally thousands of people and possibly scaring millions of investors in an effort to promote a business model.

Bob Pisani (to Katsuyama): You are very respected on the street. I have known you a little while. You are thought very highly of. Do you think the markets are rigged?

Katsuyama (calmly): I think it’s very hard to put a word on it...

O’Brien (animatedly): He said it in the book. You said it in the book. “That’s when I knew the markets were rigged.” It’s disgusting that you are trying to parse your words now. Okay?

Katsuyama (calmly): Let me walk you through an example...
O’Brien: It’s a yes or no question. Do you believe it or not?
Katsuyama (calmly): I believe the markets are rigged.
O’Brien (somewhat triumphantly): Okay. There you go.
Katsuyama (calmly): I also think that you are part of the rigging. If you want to do this, let’s do this.

From there, Katsuyama proceeded to ask O’Brien how his own exchange (the one he, O’Brien, is president of) prices trades:

O’Brien: We use the direct feeds and the SIP (Securities Information Processor) in combination.
Katsuyama: I asked a question. Not what you use to route. What do you use to price trades in your matching engine on Direct Edge?
O’Brien: We use direct feeds.
Katsuyama: No.
O’Brien: Yes, we do...
Katsuyama: You use the SIP.
O’Brien: That is not true.

From there, O’Brien made the most successful attempt to make himself look a fool that I think I have ever seen (and on CNBC, that’s saying something). It was, I thought, painfully embarrassing to watch.
In my head, all I could hear was Sir Winston Churchill’s booming voice:

“Never engage in a battle of wits with an unarmed man.”

Less than 24 hours later...

(Wall Street Journal): BATS Global Markets Inc., under pressure from the New York Attorney General’s office, corrected statements made by a senior executive during a televised interview this week about how its exchanges work.

BATS President William O’Brien, during a CNBC interview Tuesday, said BATS’s Direct Edge exchanges use high-speed data feeds to price stock trades. Thursday, the exchange operator said two of its exchanges, EDGA and EGX, use a slower feed, known as the Securities Information Processor, to price trades.

Viva El Presidente!

Anyway, the interesting thing to me, once I got past the sheer insanity of it all, was the level of amazement shown by the CNBC journalists that the market could possibly be “rigged” in any way, shape, or form.
That amazement was shared by the two anchors on Bloomberg’s Market Makers show, Stephanie Ruhle and Eric Schatzker, when their turn came to take a tilt at Lewis the following day:

Ruhle (bewildered): The market is rigged? That’s a big claim!
Lewis (even more bewildered): Well it IS rigged. If you read the book, I don’t think you’d put it down and say the market’s not rigged.

Then, after a pretty good casino analogy that was interrupted by the anchors a few times, Lewis got to the crux of the issue that had been bothering me as I watched:

Lewis: Why are you so invested in the idea this is fair? Why are you even arguing about this? It’s so clear... people are front-running the market. There’s plenty of evidence in the book.
Schatzker: Their orders are being “anticipated.”

Lewis (laughing at the escalating absurdity): Anticipated and run in front of.... [The HFTs] PAY to execute the orders. Tens of millions of dollars a year. Ask yourself THAT question. Why would ANYONE pay for the right to execute someone else’s stock market order?... It’s quite obvious. That order is an opportunity to exploit, because he has advance information about the pricing in the stock market. Is that “fair”?

Ruhle: Today, when I go to execute a stock, I feel like, man, how did that get jacked right in front of me, every time? I do feel that way. But fifteen years ago when I did a trade, I was paying significantly more to do it through a specialist because of what the fees were.... Is it a different situation than when specialists were on the floor?

Lewis (with a somewhat confused look on his face): I never said THAT.
Ruhle: So has the system ALWAYS been rigged?
Lewis: Yes.

Yes.

After watching these exchanges, I was so astounded that so many people could STILL live in a complete fantasy world under the illusion assumption that the markets couldn’t possibly be rigged that I turned to my friends in the Twittersphere:


That was the 2,567th tweet I have sent out and, in contrast to the nearly pathological indifference shown by the rest of the world to the previous 2,566, this one was retweeted 96 times. (Button it, Bieber! That’s an impressive number for me, OK?)

But who are these people who believe in unicorns and rainbows fair markets?

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


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Monday, April 14, 2014

Listening to the Canary

By Terry Coxon, Senior Economist

During World War II, the British Royal Air Force (RAF) undertook a plan of misdirection to allow a squadron of bombers to approach an exceptionally valuable target in Europe undetected. The target was so heavily guarded that destroying it would require more than the usual degree of surprise.


Although the RAF was equipped to jam the electronic detection of aircraft along the route to the target (a primitive forebear of radar was then in use), they feared that the jamming itself would alert the defending forces. Their solution was to “train” the defending German personnel to believe something that wasn't true. The RAF had a great advantage in undertaking the training: The intended trainees were operating equipment that was novel and far from reliable; and those operators were trying to interpret signals without the help of direct observation, such as actually seeing what they were charged with detecting.

At sunrise on the first day, the RAF broadcast a jamming signal for just a fraction of minute. On the second day, it broadcast a jamming signal for a bit longer than a minute, also around sunrise. On each successive day, it sent the signal for a somewhat longer and longer time, but always starting just before sunrise.

The training continued for nearly three months, and the German radar personnel interpreted the signals their equipment gave them in just the way the British intended. They concluded that their equipment operates poorly in the atmospheric conditions present at sunrise and that the problem grows as the season progresses. That mistaken inference allowed an RAF squadron to fly unnoticed far enough into Europe to destroy the target.

People will get used to almost anything if it goes on for long enough. And the getting-used-to-it process doesn't take long at all if it's something that people don't understand well and that they can't experience directly. They hear about Quantitative Easing and money printing and government deficits, but they never see those things happening in plain view, unlike a car wreck or burnt toast, and they never feel it happening to themselves.

QE has become just a story, and it's been going on for so long that it has no scare value left. That's why so few investors notice that the present situation of the U.S. economy and world investment markets is beyond unusual. The situation is weird, and dangerously so. But we've all gotten used to it.

Here are the four main points of weirdness:
  1. The Federal Reserve is still fleeing the ghost of the dot-com bubble. It was so worried that the collapse of the dot-com bubble (beginning in March 2000) would damage the economy that it stepped hard on the monetary accelerator. The growth rate of the M1 money supply jumped from near 0% to near 10%. This had the hoped for result of making the recession that began the following year brief and mild.
  1. A nice result, if that had been all. But there was more. Injecting a big dose of money to inoculate the economy against recession set off a bubble in the housing market. Starting in 2003, the Fed began gradually lowering the growth rate of the money supply to cool the rise in housing prices. That, too, produced the intended result; in 2006, housing prices began drifting lower.

    But again, there was a further consequence—the financial collapse that began in 2008. This time, the Federal Reserve stomped on the monetary accelerator with both feet, and the growth of the money supply hit a year-over-year rate of 21%. It's still growing rapidly, at an annual rate of 9%.
  1. The nonstop expansion of the money supply since 2008 has kept money market interest close to zero. Rates on longer-term debt aren't zero but are extraordinarily low. The ten-year Treasury bond currently yields just 2.7%; that's up from a low of 1.7%.

    The flow of new money has been irrigating all financial markets. In the U.S., stocks and bonds tremble at each hint the Fed is going to turn the faucet down just a little. And it's not just US markets that are affected. When credit in the US is ultra cheap, billions are borrowed here and invested elsewhere, all around the world, which pushes up investment prices almost everywhere.
  1. US federal debt management is living on borrowed time. The deficit for 2013 was only $600 billion, down from trillion dollar plus levels of recent years. But this less terrible than before figure was achieved only by the grace of extraordinarily low interest rates, which limit the cost of servicing existing government debt. Should interest rates rise, less than terrible will seem like happy times.
Almost no one imagines that the current situation can continue indefinitely. But is there a way for it to end nicely? For most investors, the expectation (or perhaps just the hope) that things can gracefully return to normal rests on confidence that the people in charge, especially the Federal Reserve governors, are really, really smart and know what they're doing. The best minds are on the job.

If the best minds were in charge of designing a bridge, I would expect the bridge to hold up well even in a storm. If the best minds were in charge of designing an airplane, I would expect it to fly reliably. But if the best minds were in charge of something no one really knows how to do, I would be ready for a failure, albeit a failure with superb academic credentials.

Despite all the mathematics that has been spray-painted on it, economics isn't a modern science. It's a primitive science still weighted with cherished beliefs and unproven dogma. It's in about the same stage of development today that medicine was in the 17th century, when the best minds of science were arguing whether the blood circulates through the body or just sits in the veins. Today economists argue whether newly created cash will circulate through the economy or just sit in the hands of the recipients.

Let's look at the puzzle the best minds now face.

If the Federal Reserve were simply to continue on with the money printing that began in 2008, the economy would continue its slow recovery, with unemployment drifting lower and lower. Then the accumulated increase in the money supply would start pushing up the rate of price inflation, and it would push hard. Only a sharp and prolonged slowdown in monetary growth would rein in price inflation. But that would be reflected in much higher interest rates, which would push the federal deficit back above the trillion dollar mark and also push the economy back into recession.

So the Fed is trying something else. They’ve begun the so called taper, which is a slowing of the growth of the money supply. Their hope is that if they go about it with sufficient precision and delicacy, they can head off catastrophic price inflation without undoing the recovery. What is their chance of success?

My unhappy answer is "very low." The reason is that they aren't dealing with a linear system. It's not like trying to squeeze just the right amount of lemon juice into your iced tea. With that task, even if you don't get a perfect result, being a drop or two off the ideal won't produce a bad result. Tinkering with the money supply, on the other hand, is more like disarming a bomb—and going about it according to the current theory as to whether it's the blue wire or the red wire that needs to be cut means a small failure isn’t possible.

Adjusting the growth of the money supply sets off multiple reactions, some of which can come back to bite. Suppose, for example, that the taper proceeds with such a light touch that the U.S. economy doesn't tank. But that won't be the end of the story. Stock and bond markets in most countries have been living on the Fed's money printing. The touch that's light enough for the U.S. markets might pull the props out from under foreign markets—which would have consequences for foreign economies that would feed back into the U.S. through investment losses by U.S. investors, loan defaults against U.S. lenders, and damage to U.S. export markets. With that feedback, even the light touch could turn out not to have been light enough.

To see what the consequences of economic mismanagement can be, and how stealthily disaster can creep up on you, watch the 30 minute documentary, Meltdown America. Witness the harrowing tales of three ordinary people who lived through a crisis, and how their experiences warn of the turmoil that could soon reach the US. Click here to watch it now.

The article Listening to the Canary was originally published at Casey Research


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Thursday, April 10, 2014

It's Risk On.....Regardless

By John Mauldin


When Gary Shilling was with us here last fall, he and I were feeling considerably more sanguine about the near-term propects for the US and global economies. In fact, I said about Gary that “that old confirmed bear is waxing positively bullish about the future prospects of the US. In doing so he mirrors my own views.”

In today’s excerpt from Gary’s quarterly INSIGHT letter, he tackles head-on the shift in sentiment and economic performance that has ensued since then. He steps us through the ebullient headlines and forecasts that dominated at year-end, and then remarks,

It’s as if an iron curtain came down between the last trading day of 2013 and January 2014. A headline in the Feb. 5, 2014 Wall Street Journal screamed, “Turnabout on Global Outlook Darkens Mood.”

Don’t get me (and Gary) wrong: many of the positive factors that he and I identified last fall are still in play; but they are longer-term, secular factors such as technological transformation and a tectonic shift in the energy landscape rather than the cyclical factors that will dominate for most of the rest of this decade.

In today’s OTB, Gary does an excellent job of summarizing and analyzing those cyclical factors. In this extended excerpt from INSIGHT, you’ll be treated to sections on investor and consumer behavior, deleveraging, housing, income polarization, unemployment, Obamacare and medical costs, the prospects for inflation, the Fed, emerging markets, and much more.

Be sure to see the close of the letter for Gary’s special offer to OTB readers.

I find myself in the lovely tropical city of Durban, South Africa. The hotel where I’m staying, The Oyster Box, is a lovely old throwback properly set on the Indian Ocean, where you can see the continual shipping traffic queuing up to get into the port, which is the largest in Africa. The hotel reminds me of the Raffles in Singapore, with a better view and somewhat more Old World charm. Or at least what I romanticize as Old World charm from movies I saw as a kid (though some of my younger readers are probably sure I lived in that era!).

I sleep now, then get up in less than five hours to catch a plane to Johannesburg, where I will spend the next three days doing more of the speeches and interviews that I’ve been doing for the last two, for my host Glacier by Sanlam. Anton Raath, the CEO, has that quintessential ability to make everyone feel welcome and keep them on goal. I am continually impressed with the quality of South African management, whether here or among the South African diaspora. If the government here could ever figure out how to get out of their way… I wrote a Thoughts from the Frontline almost exactly seven years ago that I called “Out Of Africa.” It was a very bullish take on a country that I could see had wonderful prospects. And indeed investing in South Africa would have been a good move at the time – a solid double in seven years.



But this trip I’ve seen things and talked to people that don’t give me the same feeling. We’ll talk about it this weekend, after I have more meetings with both stakeholders and analysts of the local economy. South Africa seems to me to face many of the same problems that have beset Brazil, Turkey, and others in the Fragile Six. Why is this? Why should a country with this many resources, both physical and human, be falling behind? I think some of you can guess the answer, but I will wait to tell the rest of you in this week’s letter.

Once again, for the fourth time in my life, my hot air balloon trip was canceled! Sigh. I am not sure what the travel gods are trying to tell me, but I will not give up, and one day I expect to soar above the earth on something other than my own hot air.

Have a great week,

Your wanting to come back to this hotel and pretend to be genteel for a few days analyst,
John Mauldin, Editor
Outside the Box

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Risk On, Regardless

(Excerpted from the March 2014 edition of A. Gary Shilling's INSIGHT)

U.S. stocks leaped 30% last year, continuing the rally that commenced in March 2009 and elevated the S&P 500 index 173% from its recessionary low (Chart 1). By late 2013, many investors were in a state of euphoria, even irrationally exuberant about prospects for more of the same this year and seized on any data that suggested that robust economic growth here and abroad would underpin more of the same equity performance.


 

Optimistic Forecasts

 

Many forecasts from credible sources accommodated them. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in January said the leading indicators for its 34 members rose to 109.9 in November from 100.7 in October, foretelling faster economic growth in the first half of 2014 for the U.S., U.K., Japan and the eurozone.

The International Monetary Fund in mid-January raised its global growth forecast for 2014 real GDP from its October estimate by 0.1 percentage points to 3.7%, with the U.S. (up 0.2 points to 2.2%), Japan (up 0.4 to 1.7%), the U.K. (up 0.6 to 2.4%), the eurozone (up 0.1 to 1.0%) and China (up 0.3 to 7.5%) leading the way.

Outgoing Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke on January 3 said that the fiscal drag from federal and state fiscal policies that restrained growth in recent years was likely to ease in 2014 and 2015. Other deterrents such as the European debt crisis, tighter bank lending standards and U.S. household debt reductions were easing, he said. “The combination of financial healing, greater balance in the housing market, less fiscal restraint and, of course, continued monetary policy accommodation bodes well for U.S. economic growth in coming quarters.”

A Wall Street Journal poll of economists found an average forecast of 2.7% growth in 2014, up from 1.9% in 2013 and the official forecast of the perennially-optimistic Fed, made before Christmas, called for 2.8% to 3.2% real GDP growth this year. Also, chronically-optimistic Barron’s, in its Feb. 17, 2014 edition, headlined its cover story, “Good News. The U.S. Economy Could Grow This Year At A Surprisingly Robust 4%. Forget The Snow. Consumers And Businesses Are Ready To Spend.” Many investors also believed that the U.S. economy was about to break out of the 2% real GDP rises that have ruled since 2010.

Sentiment Shift

 

It’s interesting that Barron’s ran this headline after investor sentiment shifted dramatically. It’s as if an iron curtain came down between the last trading day of 2013 and January 2014. A headline in the Feb. 5, 2014 Wall Street Journal screamed, “Turnabout on Global Outlook Darkens Mood.” As stocks flattened and then fell, people started to realize that economic growth last year was weak, rising only 1.9% from 2012 as measured by real GDP.

The fourth quarter annual rate was chopped from the 3.2% “advance estimate” by the Commerce Department to 2.4%, and one percentage point of the 2.4% was due to the jump in net exports as imports fell due to domestic shale oil and natural gas replacing imported energy. Nevertheless, exports remain vulnerable to ongoing weakness in American trading partners. Also in the third quarter of 2013, 1.7 percentage points of the 4.1% growth was due to inventories. Given the disappointing Christmas sales, these were probably undesired additions to stocks and will retard growth this year as they are liquidated.
Even the stated GDP numbers show this to be the slowest recovery in post-World War II history (Chart 2). And real median income has atypically dropped in this recovery, largely due to the slashing of labor costs by American business.



Pending home sales, which are contracts signed for future closings, peaked last May and had dropped considerably before cold weather set in this past winter while housing starts fell for a third straight month in February.

Wary Investors

 

While stocks soared in 2013, investors didn’t dig too deeply into corporate earnings reports, but now they are. As we’ve discussed in many past Insights, with limited sales volume increases in this recovery and virtually no pricing power, businesses have promoted profits by cutting costs, resulting in all time highs for profit margins. Many investors are now joining us in believing that the leap in profit margins, which has stalled for eight quarters, may be vulnerable.

They’re also paying more attention to the outlook for future profits and cash generation as foretold by acquisitions and spending on R&D. Shareholders favor those companies that invest while penalizing companies that fall short. Per-share profits gains due to share buybacks are no longer viewed favorably. Furthermore, investors are aware that two-thirds of the 30% rise in the S&P 500 index last year was due to the rising P/E, with only a third resulting from earnings improvement.

In mid-February, the S&P 500 stocks were trading at 14.6 times the next 12 months earnings, higher than the 10-year average of 13.9. As Insight readers may recall, we take a dim view of this measure since it amounts to a double discount of both future stock performance and analysts’ perennially-optimistic estimates of earnings. In December, Wall Street seers, on average, forecast a 10% rise in stocks for 2014, the average of the last 10 years. But the average forecasting error over the past decade was 12% with a 50% overestimate in 2008. That 12% error was larger than the average gain of 10%.

Besides cost-cutting, the leap in profit margins has been supported by declining borrowing costs spawned by record-low interest rates. Low rates have also made equities attractive relative to plenty of liquidity supplied by the Fed and Chinese banks and shadow banks.

Last May and June, stocks, bonds and other securities were shaken by the Fed’s talk of tapering its then-$85 billion per month worth of security purchases, in part because many assumed that also meant hikes in the central bank’s federal funds rate. But then the Fed then went on an aggressive offensive to convince investors that raising rates would be much later than tapering, and investors have largely shrugged off the credit authorities’ decision in December to cut its monthly purchases from $85 billion to $75 billion in January and by another $10 billion in February.

The Fed’s decision in January came despite the recent signs of weak U.S. economic activity, weather-related or not, and indications of trouble abroad. Furthermore, although the Fed is still adding fuel to the fire under equities, it is adding less and less, and is on schedule to end its quantitative easing later this year.

The Age of Deleveraging

 

So the zeal for equities persists but we remain cautious about the spread between that enthusiasm and the sluggish growth of economies around the globe. As in every year of this recovery, the early-in-the-year hope for economic acceleration that would justify soaring equities may again be disappointed, and real GDP is likely to continue to rise at about a 2% annual rate.

Deleveraging after a major bout of borrowing and the inevitable crisis that follows normally takes a decade. The process of working down excess debt and retrenching, especially by U.S. consumers and financial institutions globally, is six years old, so history suggests another four years of deleveraging and slow growth. And, as we’ve noted many times in the past, the immense power of deleveraging is shown by the reality that slow growth persists despite the massive fiscal and monetary stimulus of recent years. Furthermore, although the Fed hasn’t started to sell off its immense holdings of securities, as it will need to in order to eliminate excess bank reserves, it is reducing the additions to that pile by tapering its new purchases.

Consumers Retrench

 

In the U.S., some have made a big deal over the uptick in domestic borrowing in the fourth quarter of 2013. Auto loans have risen, the result of strong replacement sales of aged vehicles, but sales are now falling. Student debt and delinquencies continue to leap (Chart 3). The decline in credit borrowing may be leveling, but what’s gotten the most attention was the rise in mortgage debt.



Since housing activity is falling, the mortgage borrowing uptick is due to fewer foreclosures and mortgage writeoffs as well as easier lending standards by some banks. They are under continuing regulatory pressure to increase their capital and slash their exposure to highly-profitable activities like derivatives origination and trading, off-balance sheet vehicles and proprietary trading, so banks are eager for other loans. Furthermore, the jump in mortgage rates touched off by the Fed’s taper talk has slaughtered the profitable business of refinancing mortgages as applications collapsed.

Household debt remains elevated even though, as a percentage of disposable personal income, it has fallen from a peak of 130% in 2007 to 104% in the third quarter, the latest data (Chart 4). It still is well above the 65% earlier norm, and we’re strong believers in reversion to well-established norms. Even more so considering the memories many households still have of the horrors of excess debt and the losses they suffered in recent years.



Furthermore, given the lack of real wage gains and real total income growth, the only way that consumers can increase the inflation-adjusted purchases of goods and services is to reduce their still-low saving rate or increase their still-high debts. Furthermore, consumer confidence has stabilized after its recessionary nosedive but remains well below the pre-recession peak.

So, in rational fashion, consumers are retrenching, with retail sales declines in December and January and slightly up in February. That’s much to the dismay of retailers who appear to be stuck with excess merchandise, as reflected in their rising inventory-sales ratio. And recall that retailers slashed prices on Christmas goods right before the holidays to avoid being burdened with unwanted inventories. Of course, there’s the usual argument that cold winter weather kept shoppers at home. But that's where they could order online, yet non-store retail sales—largely online purchases—actually fell 0.6% in January in contrast to the early double-digit year-over-year gains.

We’re not forecasting a recession this year but rather a continuation of slow growth of about 2% at annual rates. But with slow growth, it doesn’t take much of a hiccup to drive the economy into negative territory. And indicators of future activity are ominous. The index of leading indicators is still rising, but a more consistent forecaster—the ratio of coincident to lagging indicators—is falling after an initial post-recession revival.

Housing

 

Housing activity is retrenching, with pending sales, housing starts and mortgage applications for refinancing all declining. Also, as we’ve discussed repeatedly in past Insights, the housing recovery has never been the on the solid backs of new homeowners who buy the starter houses that allow their sellers to move up to the next rung on the housing ladder, etc. Mortgage applications for house purchases, principally by new homeowners, never recovered from their recessionary collapse. Multi-family housing starts, mostly rental apartments), recovered to the 300,000 annual rate of the last decade but single-family starts, now about 600,000, remain about half the pre-collapse 1.1 million average.

Many potential homeowners, especially young people, don’t have the 20% required downpayments, are unemployed or worry about their job security, don’t have high enough credit scores to qualify for mortgages, and realize that for the first time since the 1930s, house prices nationwide have fallen—and might again. Prices have recovered some of their earlier losses (Chart 5), but in part because lenders have cleaned up inventories of foreclosed and other distressed houses they sold at low prices. In any event, prices weakened slightly late last year.



Some realtors complain that existing home sales are being depressed by the lack of for-sale inventory. Nevertheless, inventories of existing houses rose from December to January by 2.2%. Fannie Mae reported that its inventories of foreclosed properties rose for the second time in the last three months of 2013 as sales fell and prices dropped for the first time in three years. Also, with the percentage of underwater home mortgage loans dropping—to 11.4% in October from 19% at the start of 2013—potential sellers may emerge now that their houses are worth more than their mortgages.

Income Polarization

 

Rising equity prices persist not only in the face of a weak economic recovery, including a faltering housing sector, but also a recovery that has been benefiting relatively few. The winners are found in the financial sector and those with brains and skills to succeed in today’s globalized economy that put the low-skilled in direct competition with lower-paid workers in developing lands. The ongoing polarization of incomes illustrates this reality eloquently.

Chart 6 shows that the only share of income that continues to increase is the top quintile. All of the four lower quintiles continue to lose shares. Income polarization is very real in the minds of many. It probably doesn’t bother people too much as long as their real incomes are rising. Sure, their shares of the total may be falling but their purchasing power is going up. But now both the shares and real incomes of most people are falling.



Resentment is being augmented by huge pay packages of the CEOs of big banks that were bailed out by the federal government. The number of billionaires in the world, most of them in the U.S., rose from 1,426 in 2012 to 1,645 last year, far surpassing the 1,125 in 2008.

The leaders of financial institutions and other businesses appear to be setting themselves up as easy targets for President Obama, who is fanning the flames of income inequality with some rather pointed rhetoric. Last year, he said, “Ordinary folks can’t write massive campaign checks or hire high priced lobbyists and lawyers to secure policies that tilt the playing field in their favor at everyone else’s expense. And so people get the bad taste that the system is rigged, and that increases cynicism and polarization, and it decreases the political participation that is a requisite part of our system of self government.”

Minimum Wages

 

Nevertheless, pressure to reduce income inequality remains strong and the Administration’s attempts to raise minimum wages are an obvious manipulation of its efforts in this area. The President issued an executive order raising minimum wages on new federal contracts and in his State of the Union address called for an increase in the federal minimum wage from $7.25 per hour to $10.10 in 2016.

The effects of the minimum wage have been hotly debated for years, no doubt since it was first introduced in 1938, and during each of the nearly 30 times it’s been raised since then, the latest in 2009. Liberals argue that it increases incomes and purchasing power and lifts people out of poverty. Conservatives believe that higher labor costs reduce labor demand, encourage automation, the hiring of fewer high skilled people and result in more jobs being exported to cheaper areas abroad. A new study by the bipartisan Congressional Budget office found that both arguments are true.

The report predicts that 16.5 million workers would benefit from the President’s proposal and lift 900,000 out of poverty from the 45 million projected to be in it in 2016. Earnings of low paid workers would rise $31 billion. Since low income people tend to spend most of their paychecks, higher consumer outlays would result.

But the CBO also predicts that the proposed rise in minimum wages would eliminate 500,000 jobs and because of their income losses, the overall effect on wages would be an increase of only $2 billion, not $31 billion. Also, 30% of the higher pay would go to families that earn three times the poverty level since many minimum wage workers are second earners and teenagers in middle and upper income households. And higher labor costs would retard profits and result in price increases, muting the effects of more spending power by higher minimum wage recipients.

In any event, it appears that the proposed jump in the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 would cause a lot of distortions and no doubt unintended consequences for a net gain in low-wage earnings of just $2 billion. That’s less than a rounding error in the $17 trillion economy and would do almost nothing to narrow income inequality. Regardless of the merits, the evidence suggests that higher federal minimum wages are probably in the cards.

Unemployment

 

By his promotion of an increase in the minimum wage, the President reveals his preference for higher pay for those with jobs over the creation of additional employment. This seems strange politically in an era when unemployment remains very high, especially when corrected for the fall in the labor participation rate (Chart 7).



As also noted earlier, the cutting of costs, especially labor costs, has been the route to the leap in profit margins to record levels and the related strength in corporate earnings in an era when slow economic growth has curtailed sales volume gains, the absence of inflation has virtually eliminated pricing power and the strengthening dollar is creating currency translation losses for foreign and export revenues.

Obamacare

 

One reason for the Administration’s emphasis on income inequality and raising the minimum wage may be to divert attention from the troubled rollout of Obamacare. True, big new government programs always have bugs but the Administration’s overconfidence in initiating Obamacare and the lack of testing of its website is notable. Also, Obama promised that "if you like your plan, you can keep it," but many, in effect, are being forced into high-cost but more comprehensive policies. To reduce the flack it is receiving, the Administration plans for a second time to allow insurers to sell policies that don't comply with the new federal law for at least 12 more months.

Another problem for the Administration is that Obamacare will reduce working hours by the equivalent of 2.5 million jobs by 2024, according to the CBO. People will work less in order to have low enough incomes to qualify for Obamacare health insurance subsidies. Also, older workers who previously planned to keep their jobs until they could qualify for Medicare will cut back their hours or leave the workforce entirely in order to qualify for Medicare, the federal-state programs for low-income folks that are being expanded under Obamacare.

Hospitals may benefit from Obamacare. Under a 1970s-era law, they must shoulder the emergency room costs of the uninsured, but those risks are being shifted to insurers and taxpayers. Taxpayers will also pay more since 25 states have refused to expand Medicaid, leaving the federal government to set up and run the enhanced programs.

More Medical Costs

 

Not only is Obamacare proving unaffordable for many but also promises huge additional costs for the government. Healthcare outlays have been leaping and were already scheduled to continue skyrocketing under previous laws as the postwar babies retire and draw Medicare benefits while Medicare costs leap.

The original projected jump in insured people under Obamacare was not projected by the Administration to increase the government’s health care costs appreciably from what they otherwise would have been. You might recall, however, that when Obamacare was enacted, we noted in Insight that after Medicare was introduced in 1967, the House Ways and Means Committee forecast its cost at $12 billion in 1990. It turned out to be $110 billion—nine times as much. Obamacare is no doubt destined for the same cost overruns.

Acting in what they perceive to be their best economic interest, elderly people and those in poor health—but not healthy folks—have persevered through the government website labyrinth to sign up for healthcare exchanges. They're taking advantage of the law's ban on discrimination based on health conditions and age-related premiums. Many healthy people, on the other hand, don’t want to pay higher premiums than on their existing policies, and many of those who are uninsured want to remain so.

So, to make insurance plans economically viable, in the absence of younger, healthy participants to pay for the ill ones, insurers will need to be subsidized by the government or premiums will need to be much higher and therefore much less attractive to all but the chronically ill. This self-reinforcing upward spiral in health care insurance premiums would no doubt also require substantial government subsidies. Aetna expects to lose money this year on its health care exchanges due to enrollment that is skewed more than expected to older people.

Many of the young, healthy people needed to make Obamacare function as a valid insurance fund would rather pay the penalty, which begins at $95 for this year, and continue to use the emergency room instead for medical treatment. Even the escalation of the penalty from $150 in 2014 for a single person earning $25,000 to $325 in 2015 and $695 in 2016 may not spur sign-ups. In total, there are 11.6 million people ages 18 to 34 who are uninsured, a big share of the 32 million Obamacare is intending to insure.

Some employers, especially smaller outfits, plan to encourage employees to sign up for exchanges and drop company plans. The government could push up the now-low penalties for not signing up to force participation, but we doubt that the Administration would risk the ire of an already-unhappy public in pursuing this approach. On balance, the taxpayer cost of Obamacare seems destined to exceed vastly the $2 billion originally projected gap.

The Fed

 

The Fed is on course to continue reducing its monthly purchases of securities and at the current rate, would cut them from $65 billion at present to zero late this year. The minutes of the Fed’s January policy meeting indicate that it would take a distinct weakening of the economy to curtail another $10 billion cut in security purchases in March.

The tapering of the Fed’s monthly security purchases only reduced the ongoing additions to the staggering pile of $2.5 trillion in excess reserves. That’s the difference between the total reserves of member banks at the Fed, created when the central bank buys securities, and the reserves required by the bank’s deposit base. Normally, banks lend and re-lend those reserves and each dollar of them turns into $70 of M2 money.

But with banks reluctant to lend and regulators urging them to be cautious while creditworthy borrowers are swimming in cash, each dollar of reserves has only generated $1.4 in M2 since the Fed’s big asset purchase commenced in August 2008.

At present, those excess reserves amount to no more than entries on the banks’ and the Fed’s balance sheets. But when the Age of Deleveraging ends in another four years or so and real GDP growth almost doubles from the current 2% annual rate, those excess reserves will be lent, the money supply will leap and the economy could be driven by excess credit through full employment and into serious inflation. So as the Fed is well aware, its challenge is, first, to end additions to those excess reserves through quantitative easing and then eliminate them by selling off its huge securities portfolio. This will be Yellen’s major job, assuming she's still chairwoman in coming years.

Raise Rates?

 

Last spring, when the Fed began to talk of tapering its monthly security purchases, investors assumed that to mean simultaneous increases in interest rates, so Treasury notes and bonds sold off as interest rates jumped. In the course of 2013, however, the Fed’s concerted jawboning campaign convinced markets that the two were separate policy decisions and that rate-raising was distant. Still, as in almost every year since the great rally in Treasury bonds began in 1981 (Chart 8), the chorus of forecasters at the end of 2013 predicted higher yields in 2014.



“Treasury Yields Set To Resume Climb,” read a January 2 Wall Street Journal headline. It cited a number of bond dealers and investors who expected the yield on 10-year Treasury notes to rise from 3% at the end of 2013 to 3.5% a year later or even 3.75%. They cited a strengthening economy, Fed tapering and higher inflation. Many investors rushed into the Treasury’s brand new floating rate 2-year notes when they were issued in January in anticipation of higher rates. About $300 billion in floating-rate securities already existed, issued by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as well as the U.K. and Italian governments.

Nevertheless, Treasurys have rallied so far this year as the 10-year note yield dropped to 2.6% on March 3 from 3.0% at the end of 2013. U.S. economic statistics so far this year are predominantly weak, as noted earlier. Emerging markets are in turmoil. China’s growth is slowing.

Inflation

 

Besides concerns over the sluggish economic recovery and chronic employment problems, the Fed worries about too-low inflation, which remains well below its 2% target, and over the threat of deflation.

As discussed in our January 2014 Insight, there are many ongoing deflationary forces in the world, including falling commodity prices, aging and declining populations globally, economic output well below potential, globalization of production and the resulting excess supply, developing-country emphasis on exports and saving to the detriment of consumption, growing worldwide protectionism including competitive devaluation in Japan, declining real incomes, income polarization, declining union memberships, high unemployment and downward pressure on federal and state and local government spending.

Very low inflation is found throughout developed countries (Chart 9). It ran 0.8% in the eurozone in January year over year, well below the target of just under 2%. In Germany, where employment is high, inflation was 1.2% but lower in the southern weak countries with 0.6% in Italy, 0.3% in Spain and a deflationary minus-1.4% in Greece in January from a year earlier. In the U.K., inflation in January at 1.9% was just below the Bank of England’s 2% target.


 

Chronic Deflation Delayed

 

We’ve noted in past Insights that aggressive monetary and fiscal stimuli probably have delayed but not prevented chronic deflation in producer and consumer prices (see “What’s Preventing Deflation?,” Feb. 2013 Insight). Still, this year may see the onset of chronic global deflation. And it will probably be a combination of the good deflation of new technology- and globalization-driven excess supply with the bad deflation of deficient demand.

Why do the Fed and other central banks clearly fear deflation and fight so hard to stave it off? There are a number of reasons. Steadily declining prices can induce buyers to wait for still-lower prices. So, excess capacity and inventories result and force prices lower. That confirms suspicions and encourages buyers to wait even further. Those deflationary expectations are partly responsible for the slow economic growth in Japan for two decades.

Central banks also worry that with deflation, it can’t create negative interest rates that encourage borrowers to borrow since, then, in real terms, they’re being paid to take the filthy lucre away. Since central bank target rates can’t go below zero, real rates are always positive when price indices are falling. This has been a problem in Japan many times in the last two decades (Chart 10). Furthermore, credit authorities fret that if chronic deflation sets in, it can’t very well raise interest rates. That means it would have no room to cut them as it would prefer when the next bout of economic weakness threatens.



Central banks also are concerned that deflation raises the real value of debts and could produce considerable financial strains in today’s debt-laden economies. In deflation, debt remains unchanged nominally, but as prices fall, it rises in real terms. Since the incomes and cash flows of debtors no doubt fall in nominal terms, their ability to service their debts is questionable. This makes banks reluctant to lend.

Governments also worry about the rising real cost of their debts in deflation, especially when slow growth makes it difficult to reduce even nominal debts in relation to GDP. This is the dilemma among the Club Med eurozone countries. Deflationary cuts in wages and prices make them more competitive but raises real debt burdens.

Emerging Markets: Sheep and Goats

 

As noted earlier, the agonizing reappraisal of emerging economies by investors commenced with the Fed’s taper talk last May and June. Investors have been forced to separate well-managed emerging economies, the good guys, or the Sheep that, in the Bible, Christ separated from the bad guys, the Goats with poorly-run economies.

Our list of Sheep—South Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan and the Philippines—have current account surpluses, which measure the excess of domestic saving over domestic investment. So they are exporting that difference, which gives them the wherewithal to fund any outflows of hot money. The Sheep also have stable currencies against the U.S. dollar, moderate inflation and fairly flat stock markets over the last decade. Also, with their current account surpluses, the Sheep haven’t been forced to raise interest rates in order to retain hot money.

In contrast, the Goats have negative and growing current account deficits. These countries include the “fragile five”—Brazil, India, Indonesia, South Africa and Turkey—with basket case Argentina thrown in for good measure. They also have weak currencies, serious inflation and falling stock markets on balance. These Goats rely on foreign money inflows to fill their current account deficits, so when it leaves, they’re in deep trouble with no good choices. They’ve raised interest rates to try to retain and attract foreign funds. Higher rates may curb inflation and support their currencies but they depress already-weak economies while any strength in currencies is negative for exports.

The alternative is exchange controls, utilized by Argentina as well as Venezuela. That’s why Argentina hasn’t bothered to increase its central bank rate. But these policies devastate already-screwed up economies. In Argentina, artificially-low interest rates and soaring inflation encourage Argentinians to spend, not save. Inflation is probably rising at about a 40% annual rate this year, up from 28% in 2013 but officially 11%. Purchasers are frustrated because retailers don’t want to sell their goods, knowing they’ll have to replace inventories at higher prices—if they can obtain them.

Who Gives? Who Gets?

 

In some ways, even the Goats among emerging economies are better off than they were in the late 1990s. Back then, many had fixed exchange rates and borrowed in dollars and other hard foreign currencies. So they didn’t want to devalue because that would increase the local currency cost of their foreign debts. Consequently, they all were vulnerable and fell like dominoes when Thailand ran out of foreign currency reserves in 1997. That touched off the 1997-1998 Asian crisis that ultimately spread to Russia, Brazil and Argentina.

Today, less foreign borrowing, more debts in local currencies and flexible exchange rates make adjustments easier. Still, as discussed earlier, the sharp currency drops that are seen promote inflation, but raising interest rates to protect currencies depresses economic growth. Either way, it's no-win in Goatland.

Furthermore, as our friends at GaveKal research point out, current account balances globally are a zero sum game, so if the Goats’ current account deficits decline, other countries’ balances must weaken. This is difficult in an era of slow growth in global trade. Which countries will volunteer to help out the Goats? Not likely the Sheep. Not the U.S. As noted earlier, the Fed has said clearly that the emerging countries are on their own. China isn’t likely as overall growth slows and both import and export order indices in China's Purchasing Managers Index have dropped below 50, indicating contraction. Furthermore, China maintains her mercantilist bias and isn’t overjoyed with her much diminished recent current account and trade balances.
A collapse in oil prices would transfer export earnings from OPEC to energy-importing Goats but oil shocks as a result of a Middle East crisis or an economic collapse and revolution in Venezuela seem more likely. Japan is going the other way, with the Abe government’s trashing of the yen designed to spike exports, reverse the negative trade balance and the soon-to-go-negative current account. The eurozone is also unlikely to help the Goats due to its slow growth and attempts by the Club Med South, mentioned earlier, to become more competitive and improve their trade balances.

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The article Outside the Box: Risk On, Regardless was originally published at Mauldin Economics


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