An American Story
This week, in the spirit of July 4 and Independence Day, I’m going to share the inspirational story of a friend who “Came to America.” But it’s also a teaching moment. I think the story is timely as we reflect on what this country means, to both its residents and the broader world. I hope you enjoy it.
Uncle Sam has made too many promises to too many people, with little regard for its future ability to fulfill them. These are debt. Worse, some of them are additional debt on top of the obligations we already see on the national balance sheet. Even worse, entire generations have planned their retirement lives around the government fulfilling those promises. If those promises aren’t met, their lifestyles will indeed become a potential train wreck.
Europe Has Train Wrecks, Too
Modern Europe’s (and Canada and Australia and…) vaunted social welfare programs have helped many people, but they haven’t eliminated poverty, nor let everyone retire in comfort. Could they simply have shifted spending forward, leaving future generations with the bill? Today, we’ll explore that question as part of my continuing Train Wreck series.
The Pension Train Has No Seat Belts
The pension crisis alone has catastrophic potential damage, let alone all the other debt problems we’re discussing in this series. You are sadly mistaken if you think it will end in anything other than a train wreck. The only questions are how serious the damage will be, and who will pick up the bill.
Debt Clock Ticking
The entire world went into debt for the equivalent of tropical vacations and, having now enjoyed them, realizes it must pay the bill. The resources to do so do not yet exist. So, in the time-honored tradition of lenders everywhere, we extend and pretend. But with our ability to pretend almost gone, we’re heading to the Great Reset.
The Italian Trigger
Over the next decade, we will endure increasingly damaging debt crises that culminate in a coordinated global default—“The Great Reset,” as I call it. There are limits in how much leverage the world can handle, and I think we are already beyond them. And that is before we have a global recession. The only question now is how we will manage the collapse.
High Yield Train Wreck
The first defaults will occur at the lowest end of the problematic market: high yield or “junk” bonds. They will play a role comparable to subprime mortgages in the last crisis. We’ll see mortgage problems as well, but I think overleveraged companies will be the core problem.
Train Crash Preview
Today we will summarize something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. Exactly how will we get from the credit crisis, which I think is coming in the next 12–18 months, to what I call the Great Reset, when the global debt will be “rationalized” via some form of nonpayment. Whatever you want to call it, I think a worldwide debt default is likely in the next 10–12 years.
Credit-Driven Train Crash, Part 1
I’ve been saying for some time that the next financial crisis will bring a major debt crisis. But as you’ll see today, it is a small part, maybe the opening event, of a rapidly-approaching train wreck. We’ll need several weeks to tease out all the causes and consequences, so this letter will be the first in a series.
Thoughts from the Mailbox
Today’s letter will be a little different. First, I want to relate some of the conversations I’ve had over the last week in my travels—a little glimpse into the life of John. Then I’m going to reproduce some recent letters from readers, with some mea culpas and comments from me. I literally get dozens and sometimes hundreds of interesting letters each week. They make me think and I read as many as I can. I think you’ll enjoy them.
China Plays It Cool
This year, China is in the headlines because President Trump wants better trade terms. That’s important, but it’s only one piece of a much larger Chinese story that has been unfolding slowly for decades. Periodically, I check in on the latest developments. Today, we’ll see where we are, with the help of my trusted sources.
Springtime Chart Fling
Just like the weather, the world economy and financial markets go through cycles. Most years, they don’t change suddenly. We get some transition time between the colder and warmer seasons. I fear we may be in an economic transition right now, and it may not be in the direction of the springtime or summer we would prefer. But let’s look at these charts and see what they tell us.
Squares, FAANGs, and Stock Valuations
We heard a lot about valuations at my Strategic Investment Conference, and particularly about the “FAANG” stocks that drove much of the recent bull run. Now, only two weeks later, the “F” in that acronym (Facebook) is tumbling, with the others maybe not far behind. That’s a problem for every stock investor, FAANG or otherwise. So today we’ll look at valuations more broadly and then zero in on the social networking issues that are turning more problematic.
It’s been a week and I’m starting to recover from my post-SIC high. It’s a weird feeling. I love SIC, yet processing it all takes time. Imagine one of those brain maps that shows the neurons opening new pathways. That’s what SIC does. It opens connections that I didn’t previously have.
The Great Jobs Collision
Today, I’m going to recap one of this year’s new speakers, Karen Harris from the Macro Trends Group at Bain & Company. She has done some ground-breaking research on job automation and the future of work. Much like geopolitics, these factors define the parameters in which other trends develop, so I made Karen one of our day 1 lead-off speakers. As you’ll see below, her presentation was even more enlightening than I expected.
Enjoy It While You Can
Rarely do we move directly from boom to bust; but when the shift comes, it can develop quite quickly, even though the transition isn’t usually obvious in real time. As I look at the data and talk to my contacts, I’m beginning to conclude that we’re approaching one of those transitional phases. I think we’ll look back at 2018 as an in-between year… from good times to something eventually not so good.
Gross Domestic Problems
We must next decide what, specifically, a newly formulated GDP should measure and how – and that’s a thornier question than you might think. Today we’ll wrestle with that question and with some of the implications of changing how we measure growth.
A Fly in the Economic Ointment?
Imagine this: Rising interest rates and reduced foreign capital flows combine to push housing prices down in places like Vancouver. Leveraged players who own speculative homes start to liquidate their properties, pushing prices down further. Banks find themselves holding properties they neither need nor want. The dominoes begin to topple.
Year of the Octopus, Part 2
Only two weeks in and 2018 is already breaking records – mostly in a good way. But that leaves 50 potentially less enjoyable weeks to go. So rather than focus on promising current events, I think I’d better dip back into my annual forecast bag and share a few more highlights with you.
Economy on a Roll
In addition to popping champagne corks and black-eyed peas (at least in the South) on New Year’s Day, year-end brings something else for economists and portfolio managers: annual forecasts. People want to know what the coming year will bring. I would like to know, too. But since I’m on the other side of your monitor, I must give you my own forecast. Caveat emptor applies.
Why 2017 Was a Year to Celebrate
The holidays always prompt us to look both forward and back. Soon you’ll start seeing 2018 forecasts. I’ll review some of them for you and give you my own in the coming weeks. But first, I want to take a look back at 2017 – and do it a little differently.
Renovating the Fed
In talking with some of my Fed-watching friends, it appears the world’s most important central bank is about to experience some potentially profound changes – not just in personnel but more importantly in the kind of people who lead it. Those changes could, in turn, have some serious economic impacts; so it’s worth taking a deeper look.
The Bonfire Burns On
The volume of daily economic lunacy that lights up my various devices is truly stunning, and it seems to be increasing. I shared a little of it with you in last week’s “Bonfire of the Absurdities.” Since it’s a holiday weekend and I was traveling all week, today I’ll just give you a few more absurdities to ponder. And this shorter letter will lighten your weekend reading load.
Bonfire of the Absurdities
This week’s letter will take a look at the growing number of ridiculous, inane, and otherwise nonsensical absurdities that fill the daily economic headlines. I have gone from the occasional smile to scratching my head now and then to “WTF” moments several times a week.
The Distribution of Pain
When you write about economics, you learn very quickly that the economy doesn’t care what you say about it. The forces that drive it are beyond any one person’s comprehension, much less control. But at the same time, the economy doesn’t work like a law of nature. Unlike gravity, for instance, the economy responds to human choices and preferences. We influence it, even if we don’t understand exactly how.
The Fragmentation of Society
Lately, my life has been completely packed with speeches, meetings, and in-depth, often lengthy, conversations. Plus ongoing research and writing, of course. It all culminated Thursday afternoon at the beginning of a business meeting with the leadership team from a firm that will become a significant new business partner.
I don’t want to be glib, but our educational system is largely a failure in producing children and young adults ready for the future. Why we would think that more of that would be useful? What we need to do is completely rethink the whole concept of what we call education.
The World Turned Upside Down
It is extremely difficult for an active manager to buy the best companies and/or short the worst companies and show much outperformance relative to the passive index funds. No matter how much research you do, no matter how well you know those companies, your research is not giving you an edge over the massive movement to passive investing.
Uncle Sam’s Unfunded Promises
This week we are going to take a hard look at the unfunded liabilities and debt of the US government. And even though the federal unfunded pension liabilities dwarf those of state and local pensions, I want to make it clear that I believe the state and local problems will be far more intractable.
Global Retirement Reality
Readers outside the US might have felt smug and safe reading those stories. There go those Americans again, spending wildly beyond their means. You are correct that, generally speaking, we are not exactly the thriftiest people on Earth. However, if you live outside the US, your country may be more like ours than you think. Today we’ll look at some data that will show you what I mean. This week the spotlight will be on Europe.
Pension Storm Warning
Elected officials at all levels have promised workers they will receive pension benefits without taking the hard steps necessary to deliver on those promises. This situation will end badly and hurt many people. Unfortunately, massive snafus like this rarely hurt the politicians who made those overly optimistic promises, often years ago.
The Future of the Global Economy
This letter will be the first of a series in which I outline my vision for the next 5–10–15–20 years of global economics. I understand that there is a substantial amount of hubris involved in such an undertaking, so I will approach the topic gingerly.
Instead of delving deep into one subject, I’ll give you my quick thoughts on several different items. They aren’t connected to each other, nor do they build up to any sort of conclusion. They’re just what is on my mind as we wrap up summer 2017.
What I Learned at (Economics) Summer Camp
Well, I went to camp this summer, too. I go every year, and I always learn more than I can manage to remember. Camp Kotok is an invitation-only gathering of economists, market analysts, fund managers, and a few journalists. It takes place at the historic Leen’s Lodge in Grand Lake Stream, Maine. We fish, talk, eat, drink, and talk some more. It’s a three-day economic thought-fest (and more rich food and wine than is good for me or anyone else at the camp). For me, that’s about as good as life gets.
Hot Summer Mailbag
Today I am at Camp Kotok in a remote area of Maine where connectivity (the electronic kind) is limited. Rather than try to write a regular letter, I decided to hand the keyboard over to you – or at least to a few readers like you. I went through the feedback to my last few letters and picked some comments to share and respond to. These are a small fraction of the feedback we received, so forgive me if I omitted your brilliant submission! And because I want to get to the Camp Kotok opening reception in a bit, this letter will be shorter than usual.
Happiness Is a Normal Yield Curve
Today I will show you a simple indicator that has an excellent recession-forecasting record, according to research by the Federal Reserve itself. Though the Fed’s own wacky policies may have weakened this early-warning system’s reliability, an interpretive adjustment can restore its usefulness.
Three Black Swans
I am concerned that another major crisis will ensue by the end of 2018 – though it is possible that a salutary combination of events, aided by complacency, could let us muddle through for another few years. But there is another recession in our future (there is always another recession), and it’s going to be at least as bad as the last one was, in terms of the global pain it causes.
Trade War Games
I have lived through recessions and bear markets; I know what they look like. I wish I could forget what they feel like. They don’t come out of nowhere; there are always warning signs. Many investors choose to ignore those signs; I choose not to. I hope you make the same choice.