Global Economy

Let’s face it, European countries are bankrupt. First it was Greece and Ireland. Now it’s Portugal. Pretty soon it’ll be Spain and Italy.

Politicians will never admit there’s a problem. Portugal’s prime minister just said that they don’t need any financial assistance. Just like Greece’s prime minister said last March, he claims they want to help themselves out of this mess. And like Ireland’s minister of foreign affairs said last November, there’s no need to panic. Of course a couple of weeks later both prime ministers came begging for aid. Portugal will probably do the same.

Everyone wants someone else to bail them out, and pay for their transgressions.  And other nations are rushing in to buy the sovereign debt – using freshly minted money of course. Maybe these saviors know that their own balance sheets are somewhat murky and hopefully someone else will return the favor in the future?

After all, printing more money to buy another country’s debt is a splendid idea. Keeps the world economy chugging along without having to deal with any of the difficult issues. Like reducing debt. (I’ve never quite understood the notion of solving a country’s excessive debt problem by rolling it over in to more expensive debt. But financiers make money selling debt, so that’s what economists (who secretly harbor dreams of working on Wall Street) will advise the governments to do). But there is a crisis of sorts and whenever there is a crisis anywhere, people flock to the US and to the relative safety of US treasuries.

Everyone and their mother seem to be making financial and investment predictions for the rest of 2011. So I’ll do the same.

1. For the first half of the year the US dollar and government bonds will appreciate – especially against the Euro.

2. Also during the first half of 2011, Gold and Silver prices will drop from their spectacular highs as the US dollar appreciates. But I think Gold prices will stay above $1000/ounce.

3. But eventually, probably during late-summer, people will realize that all the major countries are printing money and using it to prop up failing countries and companies by buying debt, the US dollar and treasuries will slide. And Gold and Silver prices will start to rise again.

4. This collapse in treasuries will be precipitated by multiple bankruptcies in the municipal bond markets.
In the past 2 years, 15 municipalities have filed bankruptcy. According to a recent article in WSJ:

Mr. Bernanke downplayed the notion that many state and local governments run the risk of defaulting and that the municipal bond market could be headed for turmoil. The muni market, he says, has been functioning “reasonably well,” with lots of bond issuance and liquidity in trading. “We’re not seeing extraordinary stress,” he says. Some analysts have been warning that a crisis is looming in the muni market. Mr. Bernanke described these warnings as overly pessimistic. He also said the Fed, which has some limited authority to buy short-term municipal debt, has “no expectation or intention to get involved in state and local finance.” If states are to be bailed out, he said, “it would have to be Congress.”

Isn’t that exactly what he said right before Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac went bankrupt? Let’s face it. There will be a muni-bond meltdown, and Bernanke will scare congress into bailing them out. Bernanke is just a bare-faced liar. Actually, he got tired of being called a bare-faced liar which is why he sports a beard. But regardless, the only reason he brought it up is because it is an issue that will become pertinent within the next 18 months.

Incidentally, previous Fed Chairman, Alan Greenspan, said exactly the same about the housing bubble back in 2005. That it wasn’t an issue and there was nothing to be worried about. As an economist, he should have seen it was a bubble, of his own creation.

This collapse of muni-bonds will scare the pants of regular Americans and foreign investors. As the last bastion of fixed income for the retired, the wealthy and global pension-funds, muni-bond defaults will trigger a major panic. Citizens and investors will realize that they’ve been hoodwinked by the government and Wall Street, and they can’t trust either of them.

5. This will cause a flight to gold and silver, possibly the last and most intense run in this bull market.
I predicted back in December 2005 that “the US is going to enter a period of inflation and recession brought on by the trade & budget deficit and precipitated by the devaluing dollar” and that at $508, it was a great time to buy gold. I still believe it is. If you haven’t already established a position, make sure you buy both gold and silver on dips. If you don’t know how to buy, read through the previous posts on gold and silver. Hopefully, this major rush in gold will not trigger the complete collapse of global currencies. And if it does, it’s still a few years away, so it’s not an 2011 prediction.

Disclaimer: I’m short a Euro ETF, long gold and silver (bullion and mining stocks). None of this should be construed as investment advice.

Gold closed at a record high today of $1,237/ounce but surged to nearly $1,250/ounce in intraday trading. The gold ETF, GLD, also reported record inflows this week of $2.3 billion dollars. The ETF also disclosed a record 1,185 tons of gold as distrust in global fiat currencies pushed investors to seek more tangible assets. Gold has hit a high against every major currency, with the exception of the Canadian dollar.

gold-record-price-2010-1250-ounce

Buoyed by gold’s action, silver has also seen some price movement. After dropping as low as $15.13 in February 2010, it has jumped nearly 30% to 19.52. (Silver prices hit $19.70 today in intraday trading).

Seems like Marc Faber was right about gold being a bargain at $950/oz! Since that post about 2 years ago, gold prices are up about 29% versus the S&P 500 which is down about 8%.

After hitting a high of $1.51 just six months ago, the euro broke the $1.30 level and is currently trading at $1.28. Greece’s inability to repay its debts has dragged down the euro and proposed austerity measures have led to rioting.

 euro-vs-dollar-may2010

After European Union eventually bails out Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Italy the euro might trade on parity with the dollar!

I wish I hadn’t been so quick to close my long position on the EUO May $21 calls last week!

With the financial crisis and currency devaluation, the long term prospects for gold are still looking good too.

A lot of people don’t even know that Greece’s debt is a problem that is threatening to bring down the European Union. And of those that have heard about, few realize its significance and potential impact on the US. John Mauldin has done a fine job explaining that in his most recent newsletter. It’s written as a letter to his kids explaining how the current economic situation affects them.

Why is Greece important? Because so much of their debt is on the books of European banks. Hundreds of billions of dollars worth. And just a few years ago this seemed like a good thing. The rating agencies made Greek debt AAA, and banks could use massive leverage (almost 40 times in some European banks) and buy these bonds and make good money in the process. (Don’t ask Dad why people still trust rating agencies. Some things just can’t be explained.)

Except, now that Greek debt is risky. Today, it appears there will be some kind of bailout for Greece. But that is just a band-aid on a very serious wound. The crisis will not go away. It will come back, unless the Greeks willingly go into their own Great Depression by slashing their spending and raising taxes to a level that no one in the US could even contemplate. What is being demanded of them is really bad for them, but they did it to themselves.

But those European banks? When that debt goes bad, and it will, they will react to each other just like they did in 2008. Trust will evaporate. Will taxpayers shoulder the burden? Maybe, maybe not. It will be a huge crisis. There are other countries in Europe, like Spain and Portugal, that are almost as bad as Greece. Great Britain is not too far behind.

The European economy is as large as that of the US. We feel it when they go into recessions, for many of our largest companies make a lot of money in Europe. A crisis will also make the euro go down, which reduces corporate profits and makes it harder for us to sell our products into Europe, not to mention compete with European companies for global trade. And that means we all buy less from China, which means they will buy less of our bonds, and on and on go the connections. And it will all make it much harder to start new companies, which are the source of real growth in jobs.

And then in January of 2011 we are going to have the largest tax increase in US history. The research shows that tax increases have a negative 3-times effect on GDP, or the growth of the economy. As I will show in a letter in a few weeks, I think it is likely that the level of tax increases, when combined with the increase in state and local taxes (or the reductions in spending), will be enough to throw us back into recession, even without problems coming from Europe. (And no, Melissa, that is not some Republican research conspiracy. The research was done by Christina Romer, who is Obama’s chairperson of the Joint Council of Economic Advisors.)

And sadly, that means even higher unemployment. It means sales at the bar where you work, Melissa, will fall farther as more of your friends lose jobs. And commissions at the electronics store where you work, Chad, will be even lower than the miserable level they’re at now. And Henry, it means the hours you work at UPS will be even more difficult to come by. You are smart to be looking for more part-time work. Abbi and Amanda? People may eat out a little less, and your fellow workers will all want more hours. And Trey? Greece has little to do with the fact that you do not do your homework on time.

And this next time, we won’t be able to fight the recession with even greater debt and lower interest rates, as we did this last time. Rates are as low as they can go, and this week the bond market is showing that it does not like the massive borrowing the US is engaged in. It is worried about the possibility of “Greece R Us.”

Bond markets require confidence above all else. If Greece defaults, then how far away is Spain or Japan? What makes the US so different, if we do not control our debt? As Reinhart and Rogoff show, when confidence goes, the end is very near. And it always comes faster than anyone expects.

The good news? We will get through this. We pulled through some rough times as a nation in the ’70s. No one, in 2020, is going to want to go back to the good old days of 2010, as the amazing innovations in medicine and other technologies will have made life so much better. You guys are going to live a very long time (and I hope I get a few extra years to enjoy those grandkids as well!). In 1975 we did not know where the new jobs would come from. It was fairly bleak. But the jobs did come, as they will once again.

At least there is some good news in the end!

The underlying issue is the size of the country’s debt. At some point, either it becomes too big to service, or creditors get cold feet about the ability to service the debt and demand repayment – usually at the worst possible time. This is what happened to Iceland. They defaulted on $50 Billion euros of debt, not a large amount by US standards, but 488% of their GDP and a huge amount to their tiny population of less than 350,000. Greece, Portugual, Spain, Ireland and the UK are all in a similar situation.

Even the US isn’t too far behind. Currently our debt is nearly 400% of our GDP. At what point do our creditors stop lending us money?
USdebt-vs-gdp

One of my favorite investors, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, founder of Empirica investment management funds and author of Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets, was recently quoted on Bloomberg advising every single human being to short the US Treasury bonds. While this news is about a week old, I thought I’d still comment on it given the fact that it’s a pretty strong statement and that I recently exited a similar paired-trade.

Taleb said investors should bet on a rise in long-term U.S. Treasury yields, which move inversely to prices, as long as Bernanke and White House economic adviser Lawrence Summers are in office, without being more specific. Nouriel Roubini, the New York University professor who predicted the credit crisis, also said at the conference that the U.S. dollar will weaken against Asian and “commodity” currencies such as the Brazilian real over the next two or three years.

The Fed and U.S. agencies have lent, spent or guaranteed $9.66 trillion to lift the economy from the worst recession since the Great Depression, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Bernanke, who in December 2008 slashed the central bank’s target rate for overnight loans between banks to virtually zero, flooded the economy with more than $1 trillion in the largest monetary expansion in U.S. history.

President Barack Obama has increased the U.S. marketable debt to a record $7.27 trillion as he tries to sustain the recovery from last year’s recession. The Obama administration projects the U.S. budget deficit will rise to a record $1.6 trillion in the 2011 fiscal year.

“The problem we have in the United States, the level of debt is still very high and being converted to government debt”, Taleb said in an interview with Bloomberg Television. “We are worse-off today than we were last year. In the United States and in Europe, you have fewer people employed and a larger amount of debt”.

Moody’s Investors Service Inc. said on Feb. 2 that the U.S. government’s Aaa bond rating will come under pressure in the future unless additional measures are taken to reduce budget deficits projected for the next decade.”.

Do I believe him? Absolutely. So why did I exit my highly profitable trade? Several reasons. During times of global economic uncertainity, there has always been a flight to quality. We saw this during the financial meltdown in 2008, where US Treasury prices soared and yields tanked. Right now, there is uncertainity in Europe regarding the debt of Greece, Portugal, Ireland, and Spain. People are worried this might have lasting consequences on the Euro as a viable currency. These fears are probably overblown, but until everything settles down and we have more clarity, there will be a flight to quality, which means that people will sell the Euro and flock to US Treasuries.

At least thats my hypothesis and I sold all my positions (except Berkshire Hathaway), shorted the Euro and also the S&P500. The one thing I didn’t do is go long the US Treasuries, since inherently I feel Nassim Nicolas Taleb is correct. At some point, I’ll most likely re-enter my short US Treasury trade, but in the meanwhile I happy to see how the European Union handles the issues of excessive debt.

Here’s an interesting article by Dominic Frisby about Venezuela’s devaluation, the effect on a country’s currency and the relation with gold prices.

Gold bugs are forever telling you to buy gold because it is ‘nobody else’s liability’. It’s become one of those hackneyed phrases that has almost lost its meaning.

But recent events in Venezuela give us a nice illustration of what that phrase really means. And there’s a stark, but important message for savers everywhere.

Inflation is currently running at 27% in Venezuela. That’s just the official figure. You can expect the real number to be considerably higher.

Earlier this month, the Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, devalued the bolivar by half, from 2.15 per US dollar to 4.30 per dollar. There will be a second peg, subsidised by the government, of 2.60 bolivars per dollar for essential imports such as food, medicine and machinery.

This devaluation has effectively doubled the cost of imported goods and halved the Venezuelan people’s purchasing power in a single stroke. Savers – though I doubt there are that many given the country’s precarious situation – will have had half of their wealth effectively wiped out overnight.

Chavez is doing it, he said on state TV, ‘to boost the productive economy, to reduce imports that aren’t strictly necessary and to stimulate exports.’ But that won’t be the effect. All his actions will do is discourage people from working at all. Leaving aside the moral issue of whether government should have the power to do that (and, largely speaking, with our modern system of money and credit, they do), many Venezuelans will now ask themselves: ‘What is the point of my working at all, if the proceeds are going to be devalued so suddenly?’

But any Venezuelan who happened to have converted some of their wealth into gold would be protected from these government foibles – at least, as much as is possible under the circumstances. [LOD”s note: Not only gold and silver, but even real estate would hold its price in an event like this. Over the long term, real estate matches inflation, and to some degree population growth]. Chavez cannot suddenly devalue gold by half to ‘boost the productive economy’. So the proceeds of that individual’s labour would have been preserved. The purchasing power of gold against essential goods such as food, energy and shelter remains unchanged – in fact it’s probably risen.

I remember backpacking across South America in the early ’90s. Venezuela was one of the wealthiest, most advanced nations on the continent. It’s such a shame to now see the country on Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, or, worse still, to Zimbabwe.

“Chavez”, writes Daniel Cancel on Bloomberg, “is trying to maintain spending for his 21st century socialist revolution as South America’s largest oil exporter fails to emerge from its first recession in six years. The government is seeking to stem its falling popularity and the highest inflation rate among 78 economies tracked by Bloomberg, ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for September.”

Well, isn’t our own government doing the same thing? Haven’t they boosted spending over the last three years in an attempt to stem falling popularity ahead of an election? Isn’t quantitative easing an elaborate form of currency devaluation? The effect of their actions has been that sterling has been losing its purchasing power. It buys us considerably less food, energy, medicine, industrial goods and anything else you care to mention (except mass manufactured goods from Asia) than it did five years ago.

It even buys us less foreign currency, as the chart below – which shows sterling against a basket of foreign currencies – shows. (I’ve drawn on that white line highlight the market direction) The only reason sterling has not fallen further is that other foreign central banks have been doing the same things to their own money. It is a race to the bottom.

british-pound-against-basket-of-currencies.ashx

Our currency has devalued many times before. Anyone who remembers 1976 can tell you about the sterling crisis then. Financial markets were losing confidence in the pound. (I believe that loss of confidence is coming again. If sterling drops below $1.57 against the dollar, look out below).

The UK Treasury could not balance its books, while Labour’s strategy emphasized high public spending. The newly-elected prime minister, Jim Callaghan, was told there were three possible outcomes: a disastrous free fall in sterling, an internationally unacceptable siege economy, or a deal with key allies to prop up the pound while painful economic reforms were put in place. What will David Cameron be told should he win in the summer? The parallels to today are uncanny.

In more recent memory, we have had the sterling lows of March 1985 (when we almost hit parity with the dollar), then another crisis with ‘Black Wednesday’ in October 1990, when we were forced to drop out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism.

What is worrying is that our current deficits, debts and spending are all at far greater levels than during any of the previous crises. So many toxic assets have been transferred from the balance sheets of banks to governments, that sovereign debt default – not just here, but throughout the Anglo-Saxon economies – is now a major risk.

You can read the entire article on moneyweek.

So Why should you care?
If you invest in US companies that do business with Venezuela, then your portfolio returns will definitely be adversely impacted. US companies that do business with Venezuela like Haliburton are likely to feel the impact of this currency devaluation. Haliburton CEO just announced that they may face a $30 million loss in the 1st quarter because of this.

While I liquidated almost my entire stock portfolio at the market open this morning (including Harvest Natural Resources which does business in Venezuela), I’m still keeping my gold and silver coins!  Talking the about market, its risen 50% since the March lows of last year. I might even go short some weaker stocks on any market bounces too.

Here’s an excellent video about an empty city in China that has been built using government funds. Ploughing billions of dollars in infrastructure and construction works theorectically improves the GDP but benefits no one (unless you count the companies that were awarded the contracts), and actually punishes tax-payers. But of course, the people reaping the rewards are not those being punished so there is no incentive to change the way things are.

The government bailout of poorly run companies (via direct investment and subsidizing of their products) also distorts the GDP. GDP numbers in the US without the Trillion dollar bailout would not look so rosy.

Despite all the talk of the economy being out of recession, 39 million people in are on food stamps. [source: USA Today] Thats 12.65% of the US population! And 6 million of that number have no other source of income. In what was once the world’s most prosperous nation, 2% of people would starve if the government didn’t send them food stamps.

Maybe they should start blogging to earn some online income. I see that LivingOffFoodStamps.com is still available!

Gold just broke the previous intraday record and touched $1,043 per ounce. It’s currently trading around $1,038.

 gold-hits-record-high

This spike may have been caused by a news report that appeared in the Independent today. It states that the Arab States in the Gulf have made secret plans with China, Russia, Brazil and France to stop using the US dollar for oil trading. While this isn’t immediate and it calls for a transition to occur by 2018, it seems to have set the stage for a pretty bad precedent – that gold will jump on these sort of rumors! Lets see if we get any official confirmation of this “news”.

So is this the beginning of the end for the US Dollar? I hope not, but I’m buying some silver and maybe some more gold, just to be safe!

In the last post we saw that China was slowly diversifying away from it’s usual investments in US Treasury Bonds and investing in hard assets, natural resources and maybe other currencies.

There probably a very good reason why the world’s second largest holder of US Dollars is weaning itself away from bonds issued by the world’s largest debtor nation.  If you believe the Chinese know what they are doing, it might make sense to imitate their investment strategy.

While you don’t need to buy $80 Billion worth of gold, you might do well buying gold equal to at least 5% of your net worth. Gold is not an investment in itself but a historic store of value. Regardless what anyone tells you, the US Dollar is not a store of value. During times when governments print money hand-over-fist, gold typically does well. In fact, over the past 10 years, gold has appreciated against every single currency.

You can either buy the physical gold, gold ETF(GLD) & gold mining stock ETF (GDX), gold certificates or a custodial account. You can also buy silver and silver ETFs in a similar fashion. There was a recent Chinese news report recommending Chinese investors buy silver since its a better value than gold!

You can also exchange your US dollars directly for foreign currencies. Everbank currently has a Marketsafe BRIC CD, which invests in a basket of Brazilian Real, Russian Ruble, Indian Rupee and Chinese Remnimbi.  This CD doesn’t pay any interest but the principle is protected against loss! But if you’d rather take a risk and earn some interest, Everbank has a slew of CD products in several European and Asian currencies.

Another option are the CurrencyShare ETFs for Australian Dollars(FXA), British Pounds(FXB), Swiss Francs(FXF), Japanese Yen(FXY) and Euros(FXE).  Another ETF worth considering is UDN, an inverse US Dollar ETF, which is a basket of the above mentioned currencies. (However, inverse ETFs may not accurately follow the downward movement so you’re cautioned to do some research).

I do not recommend forex-trading as a means of hedging yourself against Dollar devaluation. Forex trading is a highly leveraged, zero-sum speculation. In a zero-sum game, a participant can only win at the expense of another participant. In fact, it may be considerably less than zero-sum becauase your brokerage can run your stops (which it can see) and effectively trade against you.

If you are thinking of investing in currencies, definitely check out Everbank’s free newsletter, the Daily Pfenning. It provides a very informative (and entertaining) look at global economics and investing. Actually, you should subscribe if you do any sort of investing! Everbank also has a low-cost custodial account for gold and from time to time (whenever the price of gold drops dramatically) they offer a MarketSafe (which means principle-protected) Gold CD. Sign up for the newsletter and they’ll inform you whenver they come out with new products.

If you have a penchant for natural resources, you should look into Master Limited Partnerships (MLPs) like Tortoise Energy (TYY) or Kinder Morgan (KMP). Both pay a juicy dividend that is considered a return of principle and thus non-taxable (although it does alter cost-basis). However both have appreciated significantly this year. Canadian Royalty Trusts like Enerplus Resources (ERF)  are also an option.

You can also buy natural resource stocks like Rio Tinto (RTP) or BHP Biliton(BHP). China has been trying to buy multi-billion dollar stakes in companies like these and is currently unsuccesful. If you think that a day may come where Chinalco will be successful, you might want to get in before that happens.

IRSA International (IRS) is an Argentinian company that trades on the ADRs.  It owns farm land, resorts, hotels and shopping malls in prime locations.  After decades of “quantitative easing” (another word for printing money) wreaked havoc on their economy and standard of living, Argentinians don’t trust banks or central bankers. They trust gold and farmland. The way the US economy is going, we too may come to that same conclusion. Just to be safe, I bought some of the stock. On the other hand, you might be better off buying farmland or a ranch for hunting. I’m pretty sure, buying farmland is next on China’s list!

Disclosure: I own ERF, TYY,FXA, IRS, Everbank MarketSafe Japanese REIT CD, GDX and physical gold/silver.

I just finished reading John Mauldin’s weekly newsletter. He has a very interesting graph that I’m reproducing below.

5-trillion-in-sovereign-debt-issuance

This year there’s an expected $5.3 Trillion dollars in new sovereign debt issuance!  He asks a great question – where is this money going to come from? Most of this money is going to bank bailouts and increased government spending.  The resulting decrease in imports and increase in government spending will of course make our GDP look rosier than it actually is. So there’s a good chance we’ll hear news reports of the economy improving even though there’s absolutely no improvement whatsoever!

So even though I’m concerned that the US is printing money hand over fist, it seems everyone is just doing the same thing. Unfortunately, we’re “winning”.   I still think we’ll see hyperinflation during this cycle and even though the USD may not weaken against foreign currencies, it should depreciate against real assets like gold and silver, and towards the tail-end of the cycle maybe real estate too.  I strongly doubt we’ll see any sort of quick recovery any time soon.  And if you want to read an entertaining article on why you should short the US, proceed on to Ahlgren Multiverse.