A huge storm has blown through. Startled bystanders were caught by surprise. The damage was sudden and vicious. And then as quickly as it blew in, out it went and everything seemed to be back to normal. At least that was how the weather man described Saturday’s freak storm in Melbourne.
Your editor was semi-conscious over the Pacific ocean at the time, so he can’t vouch for reports. But our 30 hour trip back from Baltimore, via Chicago, L.A., and Sydney gave us time to think. Are we just being a paranoid nutcase about the global economy? Or is the position – gradually reduce your exposure to stocks and increase your tangible asset holdings – pretty sensible in a world with soaring debt and ambitious socialists?
You’ll find our answer in just a moment. In the markets, it’s pretty sunny out. While most of Australia idled its way through Labour Day yesterday, the ASX/200 crested through 4,800. It was a six-week high for the index. And then the news got better.
Newswires report that Royal Dutch Shell and PetroChina have offered $3.31 billion in cash and stock for coal-seam-gas player Arrow Energy (ASX:AOE). There’s some consolidation going on now in Queensland’s unconventional gas sector. So what should you do?
Nothing. The time to do some speculating was in November and December of 2008. That’s when our colleague Kris Sayce tipped two of the entrants in the CSG race in Queensland. As the projects were “de-risked” the share prices went up. We phoned up Kris down the hall this morning and it is long-since out of his LNG positions.
The point? You have to be a year or two ahead of these big ideas and risk looking like a fool to make the big money on them. There’s probably plenty of safe money to be made still. And if you are not a speculator or you don’t have money you can’t afford to lose, you shouldn’t be playing the small cap game at all.
But as we contended at a dinner in Baltimore last week, the best reason to be in equities at all right now is for the chance to make five or ten times your money. These are Taleb’s positive Black Swans, the low-probability, high-magnitude events that are actually good for your portfolio. Your much better off owning a portfolio of disruptive technologies or prospective ore bodies leveraged to higher commodity prices than blue chip stocks. Why?
The share market as a method for long-term, safe wealth-generation is a dead letter. That is, it ain’t gonna happen that way anymore. Stocks are up nearly 70% from their March 9 lows of last year. The reflation rally engineered by monetary and fiscal expansion in the last year has merely papered over some huge structural weaknesses in the global economy.
But more importantly, the share market is at risk now for a big fall as it was in the middle of 2007 when the Bear Stearns story broke. Since then the perimeter of global markets has gradually been overrun by the forces of wealth destruction. Investors retreat into a smaller and smaller circle of “healthy” institutions and currencies – which only heightens their risk to further asset write downs.
The basic problem is that the global illness of too much debt has been remedied by more debt, which is no remedy at all. France and Germany may bail out Greece. But who will bail out Europe? And who will bailout the United States when public debt could rise to be 716% of US GDP in the Congressional Budget Office’s alternative scenario (see page 20 for the figures).
Of course if you really think stocks are cheap now, your best bet would to be buy them and hold them. It’s worked before. But we wonder, given the demographic forces in the Western world, if there is simply going to be more sellers than buyers in the coming years as the boomers liquidate.
Granted, we’re arguing for a change to the prevailing conventional wisdom of the last 30 years. But hasn’t the last two years given you every indication that the world really is different now and that what worked for you before in investment markets may not work again?
Or if you prefer the argument in more concrete terms, have a look at what Karl Denninger has said about the systematic balance sheet fraud going on in the United States. Dennigner shows that the suspension of market-to-market rules for U.S. banks did not – surprise surprise – lead to any improvement in asset quality.
But it’s only at liquidation when the banks are taking over by the FDIC that the banks admit they’ve been carrying loan portfolios at much higher valuations than market prices would suggest. They only realise their losses when they are technically insolvent on their fictitious asset values. You wonder how many U.S. (or Australian) banks are doing the same thing.
Denninger reckons, based on the write-downs in assets on the firms seized by the FDIC, that total unrealised losses on bank loans could be between $1.5 and $3 trillion. Imagine what that would do to credit markets. And if the Fed tried to paper it over, imagine what that would (will) do to the dollar. Now imagine having the chance to buy gold at $1,124 an ounce.
Of course the underlying assumption to the recovery narrative has been that the bank collateral would always recover in value once the real estate market recovered. And that would happen with the passage of time, low interest rates, and short memories.
But in America at least, it’s nowhere close to happening. If anything, a second and destructive down leg is coming. This is why banks continue to hold large excess reserves at the Fed. They know they’re going to need it.
The underlying belief to all of this is that the credit boom has already gone bust and assets won’t fall any further. You see this fiction over and over in America with the ramshackle and largely failed attempts to modify mortgages with longer terms and lower interest rates. But the basic problem – the house just isn’t worth that much – is ignored.
Here we are, then, a year into the rally. The great central bank counterfeiters of the world have pumped up prices – presumably so those in the know can sell at a smaller loss, or in the case of the investment banks, at a substantial profit. But the real economy remains massively burdened by debt. For the rest of this week, we’ll look at why we think the end-game to all this will play out over months, and not years. And why it won’t be deflationary. Until then…
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