Here is the Jan 17 article from John Mauldin's 'Thoughts from the Frontline'. I like reading John Mauldin's stuff a lot. Not necessarily because I agree with everything or because he is on the money, but mostly because I don't agree with everything. His stance is usually a bit different than mine, but that is great because it offers a different viewpoint.
His writing also adds more nuance to the inflation / deflation debate. Because the truth is it will never be just one or the other. There are combinations, there are phases of inflation / deflation. In fact there will be times were the market will act in the opposite direction based on economic data (despite the fact that it is supposedly anticipating the economic conditions 6-9 months out).
You should always seek out opinions that run counter to you own. And John Mauldin is one of the most thoughtful analysts out there. So no matter what your particular opinion is, you should read him anyways :)
January 17, 2009
By John Mauldin
Employment Numbers Are Worse Than Posted
Aye, Captain, I'm Giving Her All I've Got!
Problem #1: Deflation
Problem #2: Pushing on a String
The Muddle Through Middle
Conversations With John
Deflation? Stimulus? Deleveraging? Recession? A soft depression? A return to a bull market? With all that is going on, how does it all end up? When we get to where we are going, where will we be? In chess, the endgame refers to the stage of the game when there are few pieces left on the board. The line between middlegame and endgame is often not clear, and may occur gradually or with the quick exchange of a few pairs of pieces. The endgame, however, tends to have different characteristics from the middlegame, and the players have correspondingly different strategic concerns. And in the current economic endgame, your strategy needs to consist of more than hope for a renewed bull market.
Rather than looking at just one year, in this week's letter we take the really long view and ask what the end result or endgame will look like. There are three possible scenarios (and multiple combinations) that I can think of, we will explore each. Any of them could happen, so we will need to look at some signposts to get an idea of what is actually going to occur. I can make the following prediction that will be absolutely correct: Whatever scenario I lay out here, events and time will change what actually happens. But this will give you an insight into my longer-term biases, and that should be useful. As I tell my kids, put on your thinking caps.
There are a few housekeeping topics I need to cover, but I will do it at the end of the letter. I just did two interviews with Aaron Task and Henry Blodget at Yahoo Tech Ticker, and will provide the links. I also want to talk about the upcoming Strategic Investment Conference, April 2-4 in La Jolla, which is going to sell out. And make sure you get around to subscribing to my new information service, called Conversations with John Mauldin. I will be posting the first conversation very soon, and you don't want to miss it! So, stay with me and let's jump right into this week's letter.
Employment Numbers Are Worse Than Posted
First, I have to address some more government data that can be misleading. We were told Thursday that initial unemployment claims were "only" 524,000. The talking heads immediately said that was proof the economy is simply bad, not falling off a cliff. Again, like last week, that seasonally adjusted number masks the real number, which was 952,151. That is not a typo. There were almost 1 million newly unemployed last week! That is up over 400,000 from the same week in 2008, while the seasonally adjusted number was up only 200,000. Last week the real number was 726,000, so this is a material rise of over 225,000, yet the seasonally adjusted number suggests a rise of only 57,000 from last week.
The continuing claims data leaped over 500,000 to (again, not a typo!) 5,832,746. The length of time people are staying unemployed is also rising rapidly. We are up almost 1.5 million new continuing claims in just the last five weeks. That is a stunning rise of over 30% in unemployment claims in just over a month. The data is truly ugly, but it is what it is.
When you are in periods where there are deep outliers to the data because of very real turning points in the economy (such as we are going through now), the seasonally adjusted numbers can mask the real underlying trends, both up and down.
Aye, Captain, I'm Giving Her All I've Got!
Let me repeat a point I made last week, which is important and necessary for us to grasp if we are to understand where we are headed.
We are in completely uncharted territory in terms of the economic landscape. Like the USS Enterprise in Star Trek, we are boldly going where no man has gone before. But the captains of our fleet are Keynesians to their core (and they don't have any Vulcan advisors). They don't have any historical maps to guide us back to a functioning economy; they only have theory. The North Star they are guiding us by, for good or ill, is John Maynard Keynes, with a slight nod to Milton Friedman.
It is not a question of whether or not there will be massive stimulus. The question is simply how much and for how long. And my wager, as outlined below, is that it will be far larger than anyone would want to admit today. Think of Scotty, aboard the Enterprise, when Captain Kirk demands more power, "But Captain, I'm giving her all she can take. She's ready to explode!" (But he always finds a little bit more.)
Let's set the scene for where we are today. The US likely just experienced a 4th quarter with GDP down over 4%. Some estimates suggest 5%. For all of 2009 we are likely going to be down at least 1-2%, which will make this the longest recession since the Great Depression. Unemployment is headed to at least 9%. Consumer spending will be off by at least 3% this year and again in 2010, as consumers start to find virtue in savings, which should rise in the US to 6% within a few years. Housing prices are going to drop another 10-15%, taking homes back to a level where they may be more affordable.
Corporate earnings are going to be dismal for at least the first two quarters, with forward estimates being lowered again and again. (For a thorough analysis of earnings, look at the January 2, 2009 issue in the archives.) Global trade is falling rapidly, and it is likely that we will see a global recession this year, which will result in further negative feedback on US, European, and Japanese exports.
On a more positive note, oil is below $40, which is more of a stimulus to consumers than anything anticipated by the incoming Obama administration (at least as far as consumers go). With short-term rates at zero, adjustable-rate mortgages are actually not the problem anticipated a year ago, and many homeowners are rushing to refinance their homes at lower rates. Large banks have indicated a willingness to actually cut the principle and interest on troubled mortgages, which might lower the number of defaults.
Conversely, the number of defaults is high and rising -- throughout the developed world. It is likely to be 2011 before the housing market finds a real bottom and housing construction can begin to rise.
The credit markets are still in disarray. While there are some signs that the frozen markets are thawing, the Fed and the US Treasury are having to provide more bailout capital to large US banks. Citigroup is breaking up. Bank of America needs massive amounts of capital to digest Merrill. The hole that is AIG just keeps getting deeper. It is going to take several years for the credit markets to function at anything close to normal, as we simply vaporized a whole credit industry worldwide. To think it will take anything less is simply naive. And in the meantime, the various central banks of the world, along with their governments, are going to step in to fill the need for credit.
Obama has signaled that he needs the remaining $350 billion of Troubled Asset Relief Program money as soon as possible, although his delegated Treasury Secretary, who will run the program, may be in some trouble, as he failed to pay taxes on his income from his stint at the IMF.
(This is not an "Oops, I forgot!" The IMF does not withhold income taxes from its employees. However, he was given a memo about the taxes he owed. And he did pay them for two years when he was audited and caught. He clearly knew the nature of the taxes due the two prior years, yet did not come clean on those years. Dumb move for someone on a fast-track career and who clearly has an impressive intellect. He has got to be kicking himself. Since the Treasury Secretary is in charge of the IRS, this is not good for Obama. Someone on his team should have vetted this more thoroughly. I do think Geithner is otherwise as qualified as anyone else on the short list, but this is a very large cloud hanging over him.)
The auto industry is reeling. Without a lot more government funds, it is unlikely that GM or Chrysler will survive without going through bankruptcy. The industry needs to shed about 20% of capacity. No amount of government funding will change that reality. Beyond autos, industry after industry is on the ropes.
I could go on and on, but you get the picture that is facing the Obama administration and the entire rest of the developed world.
So, how do we get out of this mess? As noted above, the captains of our collective ships are Keynesians. They are going to provide as much stimulus as needed.
Problem #1: Deflation
We got the Consumer Price Index numbers today, and they tell a tale of deflation. On an annualized basis, the CPI for the last three months was a negative -12.7%! Even core CPI, which is without food and energy, was a minus 0.3%. The CPI for 2008 was just 0.1% for the whole year. This was the smallest calendar-year increase since 1954, and it's down from 4.1% for 2007. (To see the whole release and data, you can go to www.bls.gov.)
I outlined the problem of deflation last week in my 2009 Forecast so I will not go into detail, except to note that central bankers are going to fight tooth and nail any tendency for deflation to catch hold in the economic mind of the country. It is simply part of their DNA.
Obama wants an extra $825 billion in his stimulus package, in addition to the $350 billion in TARP monies. The Fed has started to buy mortgage assets, and that could be $500 billion or more. That is in addition to some $300 billion plus and growing in commercial paper, in addition to bank assets, etc.
Let me predict right here that this is merely the first installment. The problems described above are very large. It is one thing to make credit cheap and yet another to make consumers either want to borrow more, or be able to convince a lender that borrowers can repay their debts. On the one hand, the government is providing capital to banks and hoping they will lend it, and on the other hand the regulators are telling them to reduce lending and increase their capital. Their commercial mortgages on a mark-to-market basis are imploding. Consumer credit risk is high and rising. What's a bank to do?
Let's add it up. In the US, we have seen massive wealth destruction on personal balance sheets. At the end of the third quarter the losses totalled $5.6 trillion, between housing and stocks. They could be over $10 trillion at the end of the fourth quarter. (Source: Hoisington) The losses will almost certainly top $12 trillion by the middle of the year as housing continues to deteriorate. Pick any country in the developed world or much of the developing world, and it's the same picture: wealth destruction.
We have seen at least a trillion dollars of capital on financial companies' balance sheets disappear; and given the recent spate of bailouts, it is likely to get worse.
As I have been pounding the table about, a credit crisis and imploding balance sheets, a housing crisis, and a massive earnings shortfall that yields a relentless stock market drop are all independently deflationary. The combined forces are massively so. To think that a mere trillion or so dollars in stimulus will be enough to reflate the US and the world economies is simply not realistic.
Let me offer a simplistic definition of what I mean by reflation: it's when the velocity of money stops falling for at least two quarters and the economy emerges from outright recession.
And much of the proposed stimulus is not really stimulus. Temporary tax cuts, as much as I like them, that are not targeted at getting small businesses recharged (which is where the real growth in jobs will come from) will likely be saved, much in the way that the last stimulus package did little real good for the economy, and simply put us another $177 billion in debt that our kids will have to pay. Helping keep people in their homes when they are already over their heads in debt is not really stimulus, however noble it sounds. Over 50% of mortgages that are reduced and rewritten are delinquent again within 6 months. That does not bode well for future efforts. Better to let the home go at some price to someone who can afford it. Tough love, but realistic.
Giving money to states to allow them to continue to spend beyond their budgets is not stimulus. And why should Texas pay for a profligate California? We have our own problems. The Robin Hood approach to stimulus programs is nonproductive and only encourages bad budgeting habits.
What will work? Infrastructure development, although that takes time, and some real thought should be given as to which projects are undertaken, rather than allocating according to which Senator has the most seniority. Spending on defense equipment, which must all have US content (which will be distasteful to the left), is real stimulus. Upgrading technology in a number of areas qualifies, although past experience suggests governments are not good at spending new tech money wisely.
Spending on green technologies? Creating a million new jobs in clean tech? Get real. How do we go from less than a 100,000 real clean-tech jobs to 1,000,000 in five years, let alone one? And three million new jobs? Really? From where? What government program could do this? In what universe? It makes for nice feel-good talk, but has no bearing on reality.
Don't get me wrong. In the midst of the late 1970s malaise, when the gloom was as thick as it is today, the correct answer to the question, "Where will all the new jobs come from?" was "I don't know, but they will." And it is still the correct answer. The US free market system is still the most dynamic economy in the world, and I truly believe that we will see new industries spring up, which will be a jobs dynamo. But that will take time. It is not a short-term solution, and by short-term I mean 1-2 years.
My bet is that in the third quarter, when earnings reports come out and are terrible, unemployment is over 8% and pushing 9%, and there is no evidence of a recovery, that we will see more stimulus from both the Fed and Congress. Count on it.
The Fed and the Keynesian captains of our economic ship are "all in." If the current plans do not reflate the economy, they are not going to say, "Well, that is too bad. We did what we could. Now we just have to go ahead and let the US economy catch Japanese disease." Not a chance. They will up the ante.
And they will keep trying to "jump start" the economy until it works. Obama told us to expect trillion-dollar deficits for years to come. Give him this: he is being candid and honest.
The Fed, and I think other central banks, are going to step in and be the buyers of last resort for a whole host of debts, both corporate and consumer. There are those who worry about creating inflation, because they actually do have to print money to buy these debts. While I would prefer a world where a central bank does not intervene in the markets, the time to fix the problem of excess leverage was a decade ago. Allowing banks to go to 30:1 leverage based on "value at risk" models and other financial wizardry that clearly neither the banks nor the regulators understood, was simply bad policy, and we are paying for it. As Woody Brock so wisely notes, 30:1 leverage is not three times more risky than 10:1 leverage, it is 25 times more risky. (Trust me, or at least Woody, on the math.) As an aside, many European banks were even more highly leveraged.