Posts filed under ‘Government’
Article is an excerpt from previously released Sidoxia Capital Management’s complementary February 1, 2013 newsletter. Subscribe on right side of page.
The red carpet was rolled out for the stock market in January with the Dow Jones Industrial Average rising +5.8% and the S&P 500 index up an equally impressive +5.0% (a little higher rate than the 0.0001% being earned in bank accounts). Movie stars are also strutting their stuff down the red carpet this time of the year as they collect shiny statues at ritzy award shows like the Golden Globes and Oscars. Given the vast volumes of honors bestowed, we thought what better time to put on our tuxes and create our own 2013 nominations for the economy and financial markets. If you are unhappy with our selections, you are welcome to cast your own votes in the comments section below.
By award category, here are Sidoxia’s 2013 selections:
Best Drama (Government Shutdown & Debt Ceiling): Washington D.C. has provided no shortage of drama, and the upcoming blockbusters of Shutdown & Debt Ceiling are worthy of its Best Drama nomination. If Congressional Democrats and Republicans don’t vote in favor of a new “Continuing Resolution” by March 27th, then our United States government will come to a grinding halt. At issue is Republican’s desire for additional government spending cuts to lower our deficit, which is likely to exceed $1 trillion for the fifth consecutive year. If you like more heart pumping drama, the Senate has just passed a Debt Ceiling extension through May 18th…mark those calendars!
Best Horror Film (Sequestration): Most people have already seen the scary prequel, The Fiscal Cliff, but the sequel Sequestration deserves the horror film honors of 2013. This upcoming blood-filled movie about broad, automatic, across-the-board government cost cuts will make any casual movie-watcher scream in terror. The $1.2 trillion in spending cuts (over 10 years) are so gory, many viewers may voluntarily leave the theater early. If you are waiting for the release, Sequestration is coming to a theater near you on March 1st, unless Congress, in an unlikely scenario, cancels the launch.
Best Director (Ben Bernanke): Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s film, entitled, The U.S. Economy, had a massive budget of about $16 trillion dollars, based on estimates of last year’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product). Nevertheless, Bernanke managed to do whatever it took (including trillions of dollars in bond buying) to prevent the economic movie studio from collapsing into bankruptcy. While many movie-goers were critical of his directorial debut, inflation has remained subdued thus far, and he has promised to continue his stimulative monetary policies (i.e., keep interest rates low) until the national unemployment rate falls below 6.5% or inflation rises above 2.5%.
Best Foreign Film (China): Americans are not the only people who produce movies globally. A certain country with a population of nearly 1.4 billion people also makes movies too…China. In the most recently completed 4th quarter, China’s economy experienced blockbuster growth in the form of +7.9% GDP expansion. This was the fastest pace achieved by China in two whole years. To put this metric into perspective, compare China’s heroic growth to the bomb created by the U.S. economy, which registered a disappointing -0.1% contraction at the economic box office. China’s popularity should bring in business all around the globe.
Best Special Effects (Japan): After coming out with a series of continuous flops, Japan recently launched some fresh new special effects in the form of a $116 billion emergency stimulus package. The country also has plans to superficially enhance the visual portrayal of its economy by implementing its own faux money-printing program modeled after our country’s quantitative easing actions (i.e., the Federal Reserve stimulus). As a result of these initiatives, the Japanese Nikkei index – their equivalent of our Dow Jones Industrial index – has risen by +29% in less than 3 months to a level of 11,138.66 (click here for chart). But don’t get too excited. This same Nikkei index peaked at 38,957 in 1989, a far cry from its current level.
Best Action Film (Icahn vs. Ackman): This surprisingly entertaining action film features a senile 76-year-old corporate raider and a white-haired, 46-year-old Harvard grad. The investment foes I am referring to are the elder Carl Icahn, Chairman of Icahn Enterprises, and junior Bill Ackman, CEO of Pershing Square Capital Management. In addition to terms such as crybaby, loser, and liar, the 27-minute verbal spat (view more here) between Icahn (his net worth equal to about $15 billion) and Ackman (net worth approaching $1 billion) includes some NC-17 profanity. The clash of these investment titans stems from a decade-old lawsuit, in addition to a recent disagreement over a controversial short position in Herbalife Ltd. (HLF), a nutritional multi-level marketing firm.
Best Documentary (Europe): As with a lot of reality-based films, many don’t receive a lot of attention. So too has been the commentary regarding the eurozone, which has been relatively peaceful compared to last spring. Despite the comparative media silence, European unemployment reached a new high of 11.8% late last year. This European documentary is not one you should ignore. European Central Bank (ECB) President Mario Draghi just stated, “The risks surrounding the outlook for the euro area remain on the downside.”
Best Original Song (National Anthem): We won’t read anything politically into Beyonce’s lip-synced rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner at the presidential inauguration, but she is still worthy of the Sidoxia nomination because music we hear in the movies is also recorded. I’m certain her rapping husband Jay-Z agrees whole-heartedly with this viewpoint.
Best Motion Picture (Sidoxia Video): It may only be three minutes long, but as my grandmother told me, “Great things come in small packages.” I may be a little biased, but judge for yourself by watching Sidoxia’s Oscar-worthy motion picture debut:
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in HLF, Japanese ETFs, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.
Article is an excerpt from previously released Sidoxia Capital Management’s complementary December 3, 2012 newsletter. Subscribe on right side of page.
Over the last year, investors’ concerns have jumped around like a frog moving from one lily pad to the next. From the debt ceiling debate to the European financial crisis, and then from the presidential election to now the “fiscal cliff.” With the election behind us (Obama winning 332 electoral votes vs 206 for Romney; and Obama 50.8% of the popular vote vs 47.5% for Romney), the frog’s bulging eyes are squarely focused on the fiscal cliff. For the uninformed frogs that have been swimming underwater, the fiscal cliff is the roughly $600 billion in automatic tax hikes and spending cuts that are scheduled to be triggered by the end of this year, if Congress cannot come to some type of agreement (for more fiscal cliff information see videos here). The mathematical consequences are clear: Congress + No Deal = Recession.
While political brinksmanship and theater are nothing new, the explosive amount of data is something new. In our mobile world of 6 billion cell phones (more than the number of toothbrushes on our planet) and trillions of text messages sent annually, nobody can escape the avalanche of global data. Google (GOOG), Facebook (FB), Twitter, and millions of blogs (including this one) didn’t exist 15 years ago, therefore fiscal boogeymen like obscure Greek debt negotiations and Chinese PMI figures wouldn’t have scared pre-internet generations underneath their beds like today’s investors. The fact of the matter is our country has triumphed over plenty of significant issues (many of them scarier than today’s headlines), including wars, assassinations, currency crises, banking crises, double digit inflation, SARS, mad cow disease, flash crashes, Ponzi schemes, and a whole lot more.
Although today’s jumpy investors may worry about the lily pads of a double-dip recession in the US, a financial meltdown in Europe, and/or a hard landing in China, fiscal frogs will undoubtedly be worried about different lily pads (concerns) twelve months from now. This may not be an insightful observation for day traders, but for the other 99% of investors, taking a longer term view of the daily news cycle may prove beneficial.
Fiscal Cliff Term Paper Due on Friday December 21st
As a college student, chugging Jolt Cola, in combination with a couple dosages of NoDoz, was part of the routine procrastination process the day before a term paper was due. Apparently Congress has also earned a PhD in procrastination, judging by the last minute conclusion of the debt ceiling negotiations last summer. There are only a few more weeks until politicians break for the Christmas holiday break, therefore I am setting an Investing Caffeine mandated fiscal cliff due date of December 21st. Could Congress turn in its term paper early? Anything is possible, but unfortunately turning in the assignment early is highly unlikely, especially when politically bashing your opponent is perceived as a better re-election tactic compared to bipartisan negotiation.
A higher probability scenario involves Americans stuck listening to Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, John Boehner, and Mitch McConnell on a daily basis as these politicians finger-point and call the other side obstructionists. While I’m not alone in believing a deal will ultimately get done before Christmas, how credible and substantive the announcement will be depends on whether the politicians seriously face entitlement and tax reforms. Regardless, any deal announced by Investing Caffeine’s December 21st due date will likely be received well by the market, as long as a framework for entitlement and tax reform is laid out for 2013.
Frog News Bites
GDP Revised Higher: Despite all the gloom and uncertainties, the barometer of the economy’s health (i.e., Real Gross Domestic Product), was revised higher to 2.7% growth for the third quarter (from 2.0%). Nominal growth, a related measurement that includes inflation, reached a five-year high of 5.55%. In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, which caused upwards of $50 billion in damage, fourth quarter GDP numbers are likely to be artificially depressed. The silver lining, however, is first quarter 2013 figures may get an economic boost from reconstruction efforts.
Housing Recovery Continues: Buoyed by record low interest rates (30-yr fixed mortgages < 3.5%), housing sales and prices continue on an upward trajectory. New home sales came in at 368,000 in October, below expectations, but sales are still up around +20% from 2011 (Calculated Risk).
Confidence Still Low but Climbing: The recently reported consumer confidence figures reached the highest level in more than four years, but as Scott Grannis highlights, this is nothing to write home about. These current confidence levels match where we were during the 1990-91 and 1980-82 recessions.
Car Sales Picking Up: Fiscal cliff discussions haven’t discouraged consumers from buying cars. As you can see from the chart below, car and truck sales reached 14.3 million annualized units in October. November sales are expected to rise about +13% on a year-over-year basis, reaching approximately 15.3 million units.
CIA Chief Fired in Sex Scandal: If you didn’t get enough of the Lindsay Lohan bar brawl dirt in New York, never fear, there was plenty of salacious details emanating from Washington DC this month. A complicated web of Florida socialites, a biographer, email chains, and a bare-chested FBI agent led to the firing of CIA director David Petraeus.
Death to Twinkies: After lining stomachs with golden cream-filled cakes for more than 80+ years, Hostess Brands was forced to halt production of Twinkies, Ding Dongs, and Ho Hos. Negotiations with union bakers crumbled, which led to Hostess Brands’ Chapter 7 bankruptcy and liquidation proceedings. My financial brain understands, but my sweet tooth is still grieving (see also Twinkie Investing).
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct positions in FB, Twitter or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.
Chemotherapy is a treatment that uses a mixture of toxic drugs designed to destroy cancer cells, so patients can recover to a healthy state. Similarly, our government system combines a mixture of toxic politicians designed to destroy our nation’s problems, so Americans can benefit from a healthy, expanding economy. In the long run, history teaches us that despite painful periods of political battles, beneficial results are eventually achieved.
Unfortunately, in the short run, political side effects relating to our country’s legislative process can result in extremely unpleasant outcomes, just like experienced during chemotherapy treatment (including nausea, vomiting, hair loss, and fatigue). Politically, we are going through a comparably repulsive period. The good news is, regardless of your political persuasion, a major source of contention is now behind us in the rearview mirror (i.e., the presidential elections) and we can temporarily recover from the barrage of venomous super PAC commercials that have temporarily halted.
Regrettably, the looming “Fiscal Cliff” poses larger consequences than election outcomes, if these out-of-control economic issues are not credibly resolved (see Fiscal Cliff: Repeat or Dead Meat?). Most Americans realize a responsible mixture of real spending cuts coupled with limited tax hikes, like proposed by the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles commission is a great starting blueprint to hammer out a deal. For the time being, I’m happy to hear both Republicans and Democrats are playing nicely in the sandbox. Republican Speaker of the House, John Boehner has signaled he is willing “to put (tax) revenue on the table” and President Obama has said he is “open to compromise.” So what’s all the worry then? We already know that $600 billion in tax increases and spending cuts kick in seven weeks from now, which has the real potential of spinning our economy into another recession if Congress doesn’t act.
You don’t need to go far back in history to see what the effects could be from continued gridlock or a lackluster agreement that kicks the can down the curb. For starters, last year’s initially unsuccessful debt ceiling negotiations resulted in a swift kick in the pants for stocks, as investors watched the S&P 500 index crater -18% within three short weeks. If the $600 billion impact of the Fiscal Cliff and sequestration actually occur, many pundits are predicting up to a -4% hit to GDP (Gross Domestic Product), which makes it virtually certain the economy will slip back into recession.
This game of political chicken can last only for so long. Congressional approval ratings are near record lows, and if inaction continues, voters will ultimately take powers into their own hands and vote out apathetic politicians.
Preparing for the Melt-Up
Would I be surprised to see a market pullback in the coming weeks and months? The short answer: NO. While I may be cynical about the short-term probabilities of a bipartisan “grand bargain” because brinksmanship will likely win in the coming weeks, as both sides jockey for negotiating leverage, I am also keenly aware of the melt-up risk that few investors are currently talking about. You don’t have to be a brain surgeon or rocket scientist to see the amount of pessimism that has built up over recent years. If you don’t believe me, you can just look at the following charts to get the gist:
i) A half of a trillion dollars has been pulled out of the equity markets by nervous investors, despite the market more than doubling from its 2009 lows.
ii) Panicked bond buying has caused the yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note to evaporate by about -90% since its peak more than 30 years ago.
iii) Fear insurance has been gobbled up by worrywarts as witnessed by gold prices sky-rocketing more than 500% in a little more than a decade.
A grand bargain doesn’t guarantee a return to the stock market circa the 1990s, but in an environment where trillions of dollars have been stuffed under the mattresses of corporations and individuals, earning next to nothing, it won’t take much to ignite the animal spirits of investors. Changing the perception of a market that sees the glass as -90% empty to the view of a glass 10% full, could lead to a happier 2013 for equity investors. However, if no Fiscal Cliff agreement is made, locating me may be a challenge – I suggest you try me in my bunker.
While our fiscal and political health conditions have reached crisis levels in recent years, there are reasons to be optimistic, now that a hotly contested presidential election has concluded and discussions move forward on a Fiscal Cliff solution. Chemotherapy involves a toxic and destructive regiment of harsh medicines, but in certain situations, like the present political environment, investors need to survive the unpleasant side effects before economic health and prosperity can be gained.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct positions in any security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.
These days, pundits continue to talk about how the same financial crisis plaguing Greece and its fellow PIIGS partners (Portugal, Ireland, Italy & Spain) is about to plow through the eurozone and then ultimately the remaining global economy with no mercy. If all the focus is being placed on a diminutive, calamari-eating, Ouzo-drinking society like Greece, whose economy matches the size of Maryland, then why not evaluate an even more miniscule, PIIGS prequel country…Iceland.
That’s right, the same Iceland that just four years ago people were calling a “hedge fund on ice.” You know, that frozen island that had more foreign depositors investing in their banks than people living in the country. Before Icelandic banks became more than 75% of the overall stock market, and Gordon Gekko became the country’s patron saint, Iceland was more known for fishing. The fishing industry accounted for about half of Iceland’s exports, and the next largest money maker may have been Bjork, the country’s famed and quirky female singer.
In looking back at the financial crisis of 2008-2009, as it turned out, Iceland served as a canary in the global debt binging coal mine. In order to attract the masses of depositors to Icelandic banks, these financial institutions offered outrageous, unsustainable interest rates to yield-starved customers. How did the Icelandic bankers offer such high rates? Well of course, it was those can’t-lose American subprime mortgages that were offering what seemed like irresistibly high yields. Of course, what seemed like a dream at the time, eventually turned into a nightmare once the scheme unraveled. Ultimately, it became crystal clear that the subprime borrowers could not pay the outrageous rates, especially after rates unknowingly reset to untenable levels for many borrowers.
At the peak of the crisis, the Icelandic banks were holding amounts of debt exceeding six times the Icelandic GDP (Gross Domestic Product) and these lenders suffered more than $100 billion in losses. One of the Icelandic banks was even funding a large condominium project in my neighboring Southern California city of Beverly Hills. When the excrement hit the fan after Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, it didn’t take long for Iceland’s stock market to collapse by more than -95%; Iceland’s Krona to crumple; and eventually the trigger of Iceland’s multi-billion bailout by numerous constituents, including the IMF (International Monetary Fund).
Bitter Medicine First, Improvement Next
Today, four years after the subprime implosion and Lehman debacle, the hedge fund on ice known as Iceland is beginning to thaw, and their economic picture is looking much brighter (see charts below). GDP growth is the highest it has been in four years (4.5% recently); the stock market has catapulted upwards (almost doubling from the lows); and the Iceland unemployment rate has declined from over 9% a few years ago to about 7% today.
Re-jiggering a phony economy with a faulty facade cannot be repaired overnight. However, now that the banking system has been allowed to clear out its excesses, Iceland can move forward. One tailwind behind the economy has been Iceland’s weaker currency, which has led to a +17% increase in foreign tourist nights at Icelandic hotels through April this year. What’s more, tourist traffic at Iceland’s airport hit a record in May. Iceland has taken its bitter medicine, adjusted, and is currently reaping some of the rewards.
Although the detrimental effects of austerity experienced by the economies and banks of Greece, Spain, and Italy crowd out most of today’s headlines, Iceland is not the only country to make painful changes to its fiscal ways and then taste the sweetness of progress. Let’s not forget the Guinness drinking Irish. Ireland, like Greece, Portugal, and Spain received a bailout, but Ireland’s banking system was arguably worse off than Spain’s, yet Ireland has seen its borrowing costs on its 10-year bond decrease dramatically from 9.2% at the beginning of 2011 to about 7.4% this month (still high, but moving in the right direction). The same can be said for the United States. Our banks were up against the ropes, but after some recapitalization, tighter oversight, and stricter lending standards, our banks have gotten back on track and have helped assist our economy grow for 11 consecutive quarters (albeit at uninspiring growth rates).
The austerity versus growth debate will no doubt continue to circulate through media circles. In my view, these arguments are too simplistic and one dimensional. Every country has its unique culture and distinct challenges, but even countries with massive financial excesses can steer themselves back to a path of growth. A floating hedge fund on ice to the north of us has proven that fact to us, as we witness brighter days beginning to thaw Iceland’s chilly economy to expansion again.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in Lehman Brothers, Guinness, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.
I never thought my daily routine would be dominated by checking European markets before our domestic open, but these days it is appearing like the European tail is wagging the global dog. Tracking Spanish bond yields from the Tesoro Publico and the Italia Borsa index is currently having a larger bearing on my portfolio than U.S. fundamentals. When explaining short term performance to others, I feel a little like an elementary school student making an excuse that my dog ate my homework.
Although the multi-year European saga has gone on for years, this too shall pass. What’s more, despite the bailouts of Portugal, Ireland, and Greece in recent years, the resilient U.S. economy has recorded 11 consecutive quarters of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) growth and added more than 4 million jobs, albeit at a less than desirable pace.
Could it get worse? Certainly. Will it get worse before it gets better? Probably. Is worsening European fundamentals and a potential Greek eurozone exit already factored into current stock prices? Possibly. The truth of the matter is that nobody knows the answers to these questions with certainty. At this point, the probability of an unknown or unexpected event in a different geography is more likely to be the cause of our economic downfall than a worsening European crisis. As sage investor and strategist Don Hays aptly points out, “When everyone is concerned about a problem, that problem is solved.” That may be overstating the truth a bit, but I do believe the issues absent from current headlines are the matters we should be most concerned about.
The European financial crisis may drag on for a while longer, but nothing lasts forever. Years from now, worries about the PIIGS countries (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, Spain) will switch to others, like the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China) or other worry geography du jour. The issues of greatest damage in 2008-2009, like Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, AIG, CDS (credit default swaps), and subprime mortgages, didn’t dominate the headlines for years like the European crisis stories of today. As compared to Europe’s problems, these prior pains felt like Band Aids being quickly ripped off.
Eventually European worries will be put on the backburner, but until some other boogeyman dominates the daily headlines, our financial markets will continue to correlate tightly with European security prices. How does one fight these tight correlations? For starters, the correlations will not stay tight forever. If an investor can survive through the valley of strong security association, then the benefits will eventually accrue.
Although the benefits from diversification may disappear in the short-run, they should not be fully forgotten. Bonds, cash, and precious metals (i.e., gold) proved to be great portfolio diversifiers in 2008 and early 2009. Commodities, inflation protection, floating rate bonds, real estate, and alternative investments, are a few asset classes that will help diversify portfolios. Risk is defined in many circles as volatility (i.e., standard deviation) and combining disparate asset classes can lower volatility. But risk, defined as the potential of experiencing permanent losses, can also be controlled by focusing on valuation. By in large, large cap dividend paying stocks have struggled for more than a decade, despite equity dividend yields for the S&P 500 exceeding 10-year Treasury yields (the first time in more than 50 years). Investing in large companies with strong balance sheets and attractive growth prospects is another strategy of lowering portfolio risk.
Politics & Winston Churchill
Some factors however are out of shareholders hands, such as politics. As we know from last year’s debt ceiling melee and credit downgrade debacle, getting things done in Washington is very challenging. If you think achieving consensus in one country is difficult, imagine what it’s like in herding 17 countries? That’s the facts of life we are dealing with in the eurozone right now.
Although I am optimistic something will eventually get done, I consider myself a frustrated optimist. I am frustrated because of the gridlock, but optimistic because these problems are not rocket science. Rather these challenges are concepts my first grade child could understand:
• Expenses are running higher than revenues. You must cut expenses, increase revenues, or a combination thereof.
• Adding debt can support growth, but can lead to inflation. Cutting debt can hinder growth, but leads to a more sustainable fiscal state of wellbeing.
Relieving all the excess global leverage is a long, tortuous process. We saw firsthand here in the U.S. what happened to the U.S. real estate market and associated financial institutions when irresponsible debt consumption took place. Fortunately, corporations and consumers adjusted their all-you-can-eat debt buffet habits by going on a diet. As a matter of fact, corporations today are holding records amounts of cash and debt service loads for consumers has been reduced to levels not seen in decades (see chart below). Unlike governments, luckily CEOs and individuals do not need Congressional approval to adapt to a world of reality – they can simply adjust spending habits.
Governments, on the other hand, generally do need legislative approval to adjust spending habits. Regrettably, cutting the benefits of your constituents is not a real popular political strategy for accumulating votes or brownie points. If you don’t believe me, see what voters are doing to their leaders in Europe. Nicolas Sarkozy is the latest European leader to be booted from office due to austerity backlash and economic frustration. No less than nine European leaders have been cast aside since the financial crisis began.
The fate for U.S. politicians is less clear as we enter into a heated presidential election over the next six months. We do however know how the mid-term Congressional elections fared for the incumbents…not all sunshine and roses. Until elections are completed, we are resigned to the continued mind-numbing political gridlock, with no tangible resolutions to the trillion dollar deficits and gargantuan debt load. Obviously, most citizens would prefer a forward looking strategic plan from politicians (rather than a reactive one), but there are no signs that this will happen anytime soon…in either party.
Realistically though, tough decisions made by politicians only occur during crises, and if this slow-motion train wreck continues along this same path, then at least we have something to look forward to – forced resolution. We are seeing this firsthand in Greece. The “bond vigilantes” (see Plumbers & Cops) and responsible parents (i.e., Germany) have given Greece two options:
1.) Fix your financial problems and receive assistance; or
2.) Leave the EU (return to the Drachma currency) and figure your problems out yourself.
Panic has a way of forcing action, and we are approaching that “when push comes to shove” moment very quickly. I believe the Europeans are currently taking a note from our strategic playbook, which basically is the spaghetti approach – throw lots of things up on the wall and see what sticks. Or as Winston Churchill stated, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.”
There is no question, the European sovereign debt issue is a complete mess, and there are no clear paths to a quick solution. Until voters force politicians into making tough unpopular decisions, or leaders come together with forward looking answers, the default position will be to keep kicking the fiscal can issues down the road. In the absence of political leadership, eventually the crisis will naturally force tough decisions to be made. Until then, I will go on explaining to others how the European dog ate my homework.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds (including commodities, inflation protection, floating rate bonds, real estate, dividend, and alternative investment ETFs), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in AIG, JNJ, Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.
The ceiling is leaking, but it’s unclear whether it will be repaired? Rather than fix the seeping fiscal problem, Democrats and Republicans have stared at the leaky ceiling and periodically applied debt ceiling patches every year or two by raising the limit. Nanosecond debt ceiling coverage has reached a nauseating level, but this issue has been escalating for many months. Last fall, politicians feared their long-term disregard of fiscally responsible policies could lead to a massive collapse in the financial ceiling protecting us, so the President called in the bipartisan plumbers of Alan Simpson & Erskine Bowles to fix the leak. The commission swiftly identified the problems and came up with a deep, thoughtful plan of action. Unfortunately, their recommendations were abruptly dismissed and Washington fell back into neglect mode, choosing instead to bicker like immature teenagers. The result: poisonous name calling and finger pointing that has placed Washington politicians one notch above Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the list of the world’s most hated leaders. Strategist Ed Yardeni captured the disappointment of American voters when he mockingly states, “The clowns in Washington are making people cry rather than laugh.”
Although despair is in the air and the outlook is dour, our government can redeem itself with the simple passage of a debt ceiling increase, coupled with credible spending reduction legislation (and possibly “revenue enhancers” – you gotta love the tax euphimism).
The Elephant in the Room
Our country’s spending problems is nothing new, but the 2008-2009 financial crisis merely amplified and highlighted the severity of the problem. The evidence is indisputable – we are spending beyond our means:
If the federal spending to GDP chart is not convincing enough, then review the following graph:
You don’t need to be a brain surgeon or rocket scientist to realize government expenditures are massively outpacing revenues (tax receipts). Expenditures need to be dramatically reduced, revenues increased, and/or a combination thereof. Applying for a new credit card with a limit to spend more isn’t going to work anymore – the lenders reviewing those upcoming credit applications will straightforwardly deny the applications or laugh at us as they gouge us with prohibitively high borrowing costs. The end result will be the evaporation of entitlement programs as we know them today (including Medicare and Social Security). For reference of exploding borrowing costs, please see Greek interest rate chart below. The mathematical equation for the Greek financial crisis (and potentially the U.S.) is amazingly straightforward…Loony Spending + Looney Politicians = Loony Interest Rates.
To illustrate my point further, imagine the government owning a home with a mortgage payment tied to a 2.5% interest rate (a tremendously low, average borrowing cost for the U.S. today). Now visualize the U.S. going bankrupt, which would then force foreign and domestic lenders to double or triple the rates charged on the mortgage payment (in order to compensate the lenders for heightened U.S. default risk). Global investors, including the Chinese, are pointing a gun at our head, and if a political blind eye on spending continues, our foreign brethren who have provided us with extremely generous low priced loans will not be bashful about pulling the high borrowing cost trigger. The ballooning mortgage payments resulting from a default would then break an already unsustainably crippling budget, and the government would therefore be placed in a position of painfully slashing spending. Too extreme a shift towards austerity could spin a presently wobbling economy into chaos. That’s precisely the situation we face under a no-action Congressional default (i.e., no fix by August 2nd or shortly thereafter). To date, the Chinese have collected their payments from us with a nervous smile, but if the U.S. can’t make some fiscally responsible choices, our Asian Pacific pals will be back soon with a baseball bat to collect.
The Cops to the Rescue
Any parent knows disciplining teenagers doesn’t always work out as planned. With fiscally irresponsible spending habits and debt load piling up to the ceiling, politicians are stealing the prospects of a brighter future from upcoming generations. The good news is that if the politicians do not listen to the parental voter cries for fiscal sanity, the capital market cops will enforce justice for the criminal negligence and financial thievery going on in Washington. Ed Yardeni calls these capital market enforcers the “bond vigilantes.” If you want proof of lackadaisical and stubborn politicians responding expeditiously to capital market cops, please hearken back to September 2008 when Congress caved into the $700 billion TARP legislation, right after the Dow Jones Industrial average plummeted 777 points in a single day.
Who exactly are these cops? These cops come in the shape of hedge funds, sovereign wealth funds, pension funds, endowments, mutual funds, and other institutional investors that shift their dollars to the geographies where their money is treated best. If there is a perceived, heightened risk of the United States defaulting on promised debt payments, then global investors will simply take their dollar-denominated investments, sell them, and then convert them into currencies/investments of more conscientious countries like Australia or Switzerland.
Assisting the capital market cops in disciplining the unruly teenagers are the credit rating agencies. S&P (Standard and Poor’s) and Moody’s (MCO) have been watching the slow-motion train wreck develop and they are threatening to downgrade the U.S.’ AAA credit rating. Republicans and Democrats may not speak the same language, but the common word in both of their vocabularies is “reelection,” which at some point will effect a reaction due to voter and investor anxiety.
Nobody wants to see our nation’s pipes burst from excessive debt and spending, and if the political plumbers can repair the very obvious and fixable fiscal problems, we can move on to more important challenges. It’s best we fix our problems by ourselves…before the cops arrive and arrest the culprits for gross negligence.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
DISCLOSURE: Performance data from Morningstar.com. Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in MCO, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.
Fareed Zakaria thoughts have blanketed both traditional and internet media outlets, spanning everything from Newsweek to Time, and the New York Times to CNN. With an undergraduate diploma from Yale and his PhD from Harvard, Dr. Zakaria has built up quite a following, especially when it comes to foreign affairs.
In his latest Time magazine article, Can America Keep Pace?, Zakaria addresses the role of innovation in the U.S., “Innovation is as American as apple pie.” The innovation lead the U.S. maintains over the rest of the world will not evaporate over night because this cultural instinct is bred into our DNA – innovation is not something you one can learn directly from a textbook, Wikipedia, or Google (GOOG). With that said, the innovation gap is narrowing between developed and developing countries. New York Times columnist Tom Friedman captured this sentiment when he stated the following:
“French voters are trying to preserve a 35-hour work week in a world where Indian engineers are ready to work a 35-hour day.”
The fungibility of labor has pressured industries by transferring jobs abroad to much lower-cost regions like China and India, and that trend is only expanding further into countries with even lower labor cost advantages. Zakaria agrees:
“America’s future growth will have to come from new industries that create new products and processes. Older industries are under tremendous pressure.”
The good news is the United States maintains a significant lead in certain industries. For instance, we Yankees have a tremendous lead in fields such as biotechnology, entertainment, internet technologies, and consumer electronics.
The poster child for innovation is Apple Inc. (AAPL), which arose from the ashes of death ten years ago with its then ground-breaking new product, the iPod. Since then, Apple has introduced many innovative products and upgrades as a result of its research and development efforts, including the recently launched iPad.
The Education Engine
Where we are falling short is in education, which is the foundation to innovation. In a country with a high school system that Microsoft Corp.’s (MSFT) founder Bill Gates calls “obsolete,” society is left with one-third of the students not graduating and nearly half of the remaining graduates unprepared for college. In this instant gratification society we live in, the long-term critical education issue has been pushed to the backburner. Other emerging countries like China and India are churning out more college graduates by the millions, and also dominating us in the key strategic count of engineering degrees.
With the massive debt and deficits our country currently faces, an ongoing debate about the size and role of government persists. Zakaria makes the case that government must place a significant role when it comes to innovation. Unfortunately, the U.S. wastes billions on pork-barrel projects and suboptimal subsidies while dilly-dallying in political gridlock over critical investments in education, infrastructure spending, basic research, and energy policies. In the meantime, our fellow competing countries are catching up to us, and in certain cases passing us (e.g., alternative energy investments – see Electric Profits).
Zakaria makes this point on the subject:
“The fastest-growing economies are all busy using government policy to establish commanding leads in one industry after another. Google’s Eric Schmidt points out that ‘the fact of the matter is, other countries are putting a lot more money into nurturing new industries than we are, and we are not going to win unless we do something like what they’re doing.’”
As a matter of fact, an ITIF (Information Technology & Innovation Foundation) study measuring innovation improvement from 1999 to 2009, as it related to government funding for basic research, education and corporate-tax policies, ranked the U.S. dead last out of 40 countries.
Not All is Lost – Pie Slice Maintained
Although the outlook may sounds bleak, not all is lost. In a recent Wall Street Journal interview with Bob Doll Chief Equity Strategist at the world’s largest money management company (BlackRock has $3.6 trillion in assets under management), he makes the case that the U.S. remains the leading source of technological innovation and home to the greatest universities and the most creative businesses in the world. He sees this trend persisting in part because of our country’s relative demographic advantages:
“Over the next 20 years, the U.S. work force is going to grow by 11%, Europe’s going to fall by five, and Japan’s going to fall by 17. This alone tells me the U.S. has a huge advantage over Europe and a bigger one over Japan for growth.”
So while emerging markets, like those in Asia, continue to gain a larger slice of the global GDP pie, Mark Perry at Carpe Diem shows how the U.S has maintained its proportional slice of a growing global economic pie, over the last four decades.
Growth is driven by innovation, and innovation is driven by education. If America wants to maintain its greatness, the focus needs to be placed on innovation-led growth. The world is moving at warp speed, and our neighbors are moving swiftly, whether we come along for the ride or not. The current, sour conversations regarding deficits, debt ceilings, entitlements, wars, and unemployment are all essential discussions, but more importantly, if these debates can be refocused on accelerating innovation, the country will be well on its way to curing its ills.
See also Our Nation’s Keys to Success
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, GOOG, and AAPL, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in MSFT, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.
With the federal government anchored down with over $14 trillion in debt and trillion dollar deficits as far as the eye can see, somehow people are shocked that Standard & Poor’s downgraded its outlook on U.S. government debt to “Negative” from “Stable.” This is about as surprising as learning that Fat Albert is overweight or that Charlie Sheen has a substance abuse problem.
Let’s use an example. Suppose I received a pay demotion and then I went on an irresponsible around-the-world spending rampage while racking up over $1,000,000.00 in credit card debt. Should I be surprised if my 850 FICO score would be reviewed for a possible downgrade, or if credit card lenders became slightly concerned about the possibility of collecting my debt? I guess I wouldn’t be flabbergasted by their anxiety.
Debt Default Paradox?
With the recent S&P rating adjustment, pundits over the airwaves (see CNBC video) make the case that the U.S. cannot default on its debt, because the U.S. is a sovereign nation that can indefinitely issue bonds in its own currency (i.e., print money likes it’s going out of style). There is some basis to this argument if you consider the last major developed country to default was the U.S. government in 1933 when it went off the gold standard.
On the other hand, non-sovereign nations issuing foreign currencies do not have the luxury of whipping out the printing presses to save the day. The Latin America debt defaults in the 1980s and Asian Financial crisis in the late 1990s are examples of foreign countries over-extending themselves with U.S. dollar-denominated debt, which subsequently led to collapsing currencies. The irresponsible fiscal policies eventually destroyed the debtors’ ability to issue bonds and ultimately repay their obligations (i.e., default).
Regardless of a country’s strength of currency or central bank, if reckless fiscal policies are instituted, governments will eventually be left to pick their own poison…default or hyperinflation. One can think of these options as a favorite dental procedure – a root canal or wisdom teeth pulled. Whether debtors get paid 50 cents on the dollar in the event of a default, or debtors receive 100 cents in hyper-inflated dollars (worth 50% less), the resulting pain feels the same – purchasing power has been dramatically reduced in either case (default or hyperinflation).
Of course, Ben Bernanke and the Federal Reserve Bank would like investors to believe a Goldilocks scenario is possible, which is the creation of enough liquidity to stimulate the economy while maintaining low interest rates and low inflation. At the end of the day, the inflation picture boils down to simple supply and demand for money. Fervent critics of the Fed and Bernanke would have you believe the money supply is exploding, and hyperinflation is just around the corner. It’s difficult to quarrel with the printing press arguments, given the size and scale of QE1 & QE2 (Quantitative Easing), but the fact of the matter is that money supply growth has not exploded because all the liquidity created and supplied into the banking system has been sitting idle in bank vaults - financial institutions simply are not lending. Eventually this phenomenon will change as the economy continues to recover; banks adequately build their capital ratios; the housing market sustainably recovers; and confidence regarding borrower creditworthiness improves.
Scott Grannis at the California Beach Pundit makes the point that money supply as measured by M2 has shown a steady 6% increase since 1995, with no serious side-effects from QE1/QE2 yet:
In fact, Grannis states that money supply growth (+6%) has actually grown less than nominal GDP over the period (+6.7%). Money supply growth relative to GDP growth (money demand) in the end is what really matters. Take for instance an economy producing 10 widgets for $10 dollars, would have a CPI (Consumer Price Index) of $1 per widget and a money supply of $10. If the widget GDP increased by 10% to 11 widgets (10 widgets X 1.1) and the Federal Reserve increased money supply by 10% to $11, then the CPI index would remain constant at $1 per widget ($11/11 widgets). This is obviously grossly oversimplified, but it makes my point.
Gold Bugs Banking on Inflation or Collapse
Gold prices have been on a tear over the last 10 years and current fiscal and monetary policies have ”gold bugs” frothing at the mouth. These irresponsible policies will no doubt have an impact on gold demand and gold prices, but many gold investors fail to acknowledge a gold supply response. Take for example Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc. (FCX), which just reported stellar quarterly sales and earnings growth today (up 31% and 57%, respectively). FCX more than doubled their capital expenditures to more than $500 million in the quarter, and they are planning to double their exploration spending in fiscal 2011. Is Freeport alone in their supply expansion plans? No, and like any commodity with exploding prices, eventually higher prices get greedy capitalists to create enough supply to put a lid on price appreciation. For prior bubbles you can reference the recent housing collapse or older burstings such as the Tulip Mania of the 1600s. One of the richest billionaires on the planet, Warren Buffett, also has a few thoughts on the prospects of gold.
The recent Standard & Poor’s outlook downgrade on U.S. government debt has caught a lot of press headlines. Fears about a technical default may be overblown, but if fiscal constraint cannot be agreed upon in Congress, the alternative path to hyperinflation will feel just as painful.
Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®
Plan. Invest. Prosper.
DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in FCX, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.