Monthly Archives: December 2011
Lunch With Robert Reich.
The other day had me sharing a cold, congealed chicken salad for lunch with Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, at San Francisco’s posh Fairmont Hotel. We covered a wide range of market impacting topics, which I have summarized below. A Rhodes Scholar who dated Hillary Clinton at Yale, ran for governor of Massachusetts, and authored 12 books, Bob is never without an original thought, nor a stranger to controversy. Today he didn’t disappoint.
Bob says that easy money is creating new bubbles around the world, especially in China (FXI) and commodities, that will only end in tears. The Middle Kingdom is the first country where inflation may break out to the upside.
There is also a new form of protectionism that has emerged under the guise of competitive currency devaluations, where counties printing paper money are racing to the bottom. This will eventually force a revaluation of the Chinese Yuan (CYB), and there’s nothing the Chinese can do to stop it.
A US GDP that is 71% dependent on consumer spending is unsustainable, since they can no longer afford it, can’t get credit, no longer have a personal ATM in the form of home equity loans, are worried about losing their jobs, suffer under a huge debt burden, and are now unexpectedly having to save more for their retirement since their houses have dropped in value by half.
Scott Brown’s surprise win for the Massachusetts senate seat will only cause uncertainty in Washington to explode, not exactly a stock market friendly development. Brown is really “a sheep in wolves’ clothing,” as he is ideologically distant from the right wing that is currently running the Republican party, voted for Massachusetts’s state health care plan, and didn’t dare to use the word “Republican” in his campaign.
The Obama administration committed a major error by devoting one third of its massive $870 billion stimulus program to tax cuts, which in this environment, will get saved, not spent. You might as well have buried the money in your back yard.
The TARP money, while succeeding in rescuing the financial system, only ended up in Treasury bills, and never made it to Main Street. This is what the public is irate about. The loopholes in the proposed financial regulations are big enough for bankers to drive their Ferraris through. The best way to revive the economy is to give money to the states directly, which, unable to run deficits, and can only cut spending and raise taxes. This will create a $350 billion drag on the economy during 2010-2011, in effect an “anti stimulus” that cancels out a third of the federal government’s reflationary efforts.
I took two of Bob’s economics classes at UC Berkeley, and know too well his wry humor, acid wit, and preference for backing up arguments with mountains of empirical data. Entering students are obliged to buy 400 pages of photocopied charts, tables, and other raw data about the labor market which they are expected to commit to memory by the end of the semester. These are not basket weaving classes.
Bob warned me not to take his investment advice, as he bought his home in Berkeley at the 2006 market top, just before it dropped in value by half. On top of that he has had to eat a 10% cut in his Berkeley professor’s salary forced on him by drastic state budget cutbacks. UC Berkeley is the crown jewel of public education, but the state has little choice but to starve it to death. This is not good for the long term future of the Golden State, which has to create the educated class to earn the wealth to pay the taxes.
The real kicker of the lunch was Bob’s forecast that unemployment will remain stubbornly high at 9% a year from now. This is going to be a big problem for Obama in November. The jobs that have been exported to China or replaced by machines aren’t coming back. Because of the arcane way in which the surveys are conducted, someone who isn’t looking for work isn’t counted. But when the economy starts to improve, when they do start to look they are newly counted as jobless, causing the politically sensitive figure to shoot up. To avoid this trap, it is better to look at the Payroll Survey released on the first Friday of each month, which gives a much more accurate read on the economy. Even still, with the average work week at a record low of 33 hours, employers will make their existing staff work longer hours before they hire anyone new.
As we parted company, Bob left me on an upbeat note. “The good news is that the Great Recession of 2008-2009 is over. That’s because it’s now 2010.”
The Ultra Bull Argument for Gold.
I am constantly barraged with emails from gold bugs who passionately argue that their beloved metal is trading at a tiny fraction of its true value, and that the barbaric relic is really worth $5,000, $10,000, or even $50,000 an ounce (GLD). They claim the move in the yellow metal we are seeing is only the beginning of a 30 fold rise in prices similar to what we saw from 1972 to 1979, when it leapt from $32 to $950.
So when the chart below popped up in my in-box showing the gold backing of the US monetary base, I felt obligated to pass it on to you to illustrate one of the intellectual arguments these people are using. To match the 1936 monetary value peak, when the monetary base was collapsing, and the double top in 1979 when gold futures first tickled $950, this precious metal has to increase in value by eight times, or to $9,600 an ounce.
I am long term bullish on gold, other precious metals, and virtually all commodities for that matter. But I am not that bullish. It makes my own three year $2,300 prediction positively wimp-like by comparison. The seven year spike up in prices we saw in the seventies, which found me in a very long line in Johannesburg to unload my own krugerands in 1979, was triggered by a number of one off events that will never be repeated.
Some 40 years of demand was unleashed when Richard Nixon took the US off the gold standard and decriminalized private ownership in 1972. Inflation then peaked around 20%. Newly enriched sellers of oil had a strong historical affinity with gold. South Africa, the world’s largest gold producer, was then a boycotted international pariah and teetering on the edge of disaster. We are nowhere near the same geopolitical neighborhood today, and hence my more subdued forecast. But then again, I could be wrong.
You may have noticed that I have not been doing much trading in gold or the other precious metals lately. That is because they are still working off an extremely overbought condition. Given some time, and a nice little dip in prices, and I’ll be back there in a heartbeat. You’ll be the first to know when that happens.
Quote of the Day
In Despicable Me, the latest animated children’s’ film from 20th Century Fox, the Bank of Evil, used to finance the nefarious deeds of villains, has listed under its name “formerly known as Lehman Brothers.”
Lunch With the Treasury Secretary.
When I wake up at 4:30 am each morning to check the overnight markets and review the opening salvo of incoming emails, I often have trouble focusing in my groggy state. So I had to blink twice when the first message in my inbox politely inquired if I had time to meet the Secretary of the Treasury in Palo Alto for lunch that day, apologizing for the short notice.
Tim Geithner was in San Francisco for a day to meet with a small group of venture capitalists and other business leaders. I can’t say who else was invited. Suffice it to say that I was the only one without an NYSE or NASDAQ listing.
When I greeted lithe, athletic, but diminutive Treasury Secretary, I could see the six secret service agents in the room visibly tense up. At 6’4” I towered over him, but he shook my hand firmly. I knew he was an avid surfer, and asked if he had stowed his board on Air Force One so he could shoot “Steamer Lane” in nearby Santa Cruz after the meeting. He laughed, confessing that he rode the waves in a less than adequate fashion.
Geithner succinctly laid out the administration’s position on a wide range of financial and economic issues. The economy is now healing, has been growing for 20 months, but conditions were still very tough, especially if you were in construction, real estate, or small banks. Private sector investment grew of 20% in H1, but then slowed down to 10% in H2. Exports are strong.
The economy is undergoing some difficult, but necessary changes. The crisis was caused by excessive debt levels, the adjustment of which is now mostly behind us. The savings rate has soared from below 0% before the crisis to 4%-6% today. The debt burden is falling. Still, further measures are required.
Geithner thrilled his audience by proposing a permanent investment tax credit for domestic R & D. On top of that, he wants to add a one year tax credit for capital investment. It was music to the ears of those present, who were primarily engaged in the business of starting new companies. He would also eliminate tax preferences that encouraged companies to build plants overseas. At the very least, the playing field should be level.
Stepped up spending on infrastructure is a big priority, which has suffered from decades of neglect and under investment. The US is not a country with unlimited resources, and this is where the taxpayer gets the highest return on money spent. He also highlighted the urgency to extend tax cuts for the bottom 98% of the working population. The country entered the crisis with an unsustainable fiscal situation, and this would help address that.
Geithner says that the US would not engage in a debasement of its currency. It is very important that our counterparties believe that we will fulfill our long term obligations. The US benefits from the dollar being used as a reserve currency, and there will be no non dollar reserve currency in our lifetimes.
The Dodd-Frank bill was an essential reform, as a huge financial industry had grown up outside the existing rules. Banks needed bigger shock absorbers. Governments do a very bad job at picking industries to protect, which only supports the weak at the expense of consumers.
Geithner said that by any measure, the Chinese Yuan was undervalued, and that was unfair to all of the country’s trading partners. Although this was enabling China to reap short term benefits, long term it meant that the US was setting its monetary policy. A flexible exchange rate would give China economic independence and soften the impact of imported inflation. When asked what exchange rate he would be happy with, he would only say “HIGHER”.
The 49 year old Geithner has devoted much of his life to public service. He spent his childhood abroad while his father was a micro finance administrator for the Ford Foundation, growing up in Zimbabwe, Indonesia, and India, and finally graduating from high school in Bangkok. He did his undergrad at Dartmouth, and obtained a master’s in Asian studies at Johns Hopkins, where he gained fluency in Chinese and Japanese. I first met Tim myself two decades ago, when he was a low level Treasury attaché at the Tokyo embassy who spoke the local language flawlessly. After that, his rise was meteoric, from Undersecretary of the Treasury for International Affairs, to President of the New York Fed, to his current gig.
Geithner put on quite the performance. No matter what the question, he was able to caste it in the context of its historical background, the lead up over the past two decades, the current policy response, and parallels with other major and minor countries. We jumped from the Japanese stagnation, to the Swedish banking crisis in the early nineties, to Indonesia’s explosion of hyperinflation in the sixties, to the Mexican debt crisis, all within a minute. His canned answers to standard question rolled effortlessly off his tongue, while original problems delivered an intensity of thought one rarely sees.
Before he left, I pulled out all the cash in my wallet and pointed out to Geithner that while I had bills signed by previous Treasury Secretaries Larry Summers, Paul O’Neil, and Robert Rubin, I lacked one with his illegible scrawl. Did he have any which he could exchange with me? He sheepishly admitted that while such bills existed, they we being held back from circulation until the Treasury’s existing stockpile of Hank Paulson bills ran out, in order to deliver taxpayers good value for money. I would only see his bills once the economy recovers and the growth of M1 starts to accelerate. That is truly an answer one would expect from the 75th Treasury Secretary.
Quote of the Day
“If You’ve lived long enough on Wall Street, you know that we shoot our wounded and eat our young,” said Brad Hintz, an analyst with Sandford Bernstein.
Penny Stock Trader Tim Sykes.
Every once in a while I run into a natural born trader, someone who crawls out of the crib quoting options spreads, price earnings multiples, and book values. His first spoken word was “Sell!” While other kids were practicing their ABC’s, Tim was pouring through prospectii.
During his college years, Tim skipped classes and turned a $12,415 Bar Mitzvah gift into $1.65 million by trading the market from his dorm room. By the time he graduated from Tulane in 2003, he was already running his own hedge fund. Barclays Bank rated it the number one short bias fund during 2003-2006.
Tim argues that if you cut through all the hype and manipulation in the penny stock market, it is clear that there are huge opportunities on the short side. Most of the companies trading there are frauds, and most will fail. Mini Enron’s and mini Madoff’s abound.
Defined as trading under $5 a share, these stocks are purchased mostly by individuals desperate for “get rich quick” success. Promoters buy lists of email addresses from major online publishers, sometimes paying millions of dollars, to launch a never ending onslaught of “pump and dump” schemes. Email barrages and Twitter spam have replaced the dinnertime telemarketing calls and junk mail of yore.
The SEC is so inundated with tips on Madoff copycats and competitors ratting out each other, they don’t have time to pursue gripes about $1,000 losses emanating from penny stock scams. It’s like expecting the FBI to pursue shoplifters of 99 cent items from Seven Eleven stores.
Some of the claims made by these bogus IPO’s boggle the imagination. Tim’s favorite was one company’s efforts to promote vitamins infused with stem cells. Another offered a solar spray that turned you house into an energy source. Then there was the BP Gulf oil spill that threw up innumerable crude eating forms of algae. As for my own experience, I’ll never forget the aquaculture farm in the middle of the Saudi Arabian desert. To separate out the obvious rip offs from the legitimate companies, Tim spends hours a day gleaning through voluminous SEC filings, some of which are blatant cut and paste jobs from earlier failed floatations.
Even though most of these companies are fake, prices can run away to the upside, wiping out the early short sellers. So some risk control discipline is required. When a stock truly rockets, “buy-ins” of shorts can also be a problem. A few hundred penny stocks are launched each year, but only about five a month catch on fire. And remember, Apple (AAPL), and True Religion (TRLG) jeans were once penny stocks.
To avoid being taken to the cleaners by unscrupulous con men, Tim offers some very basic advice. If it is too good to be true, it generally is. It also helps to read the SEC filings, which can be obtained online for free.
Tim claims to have a success rate with his short strategy of 75%, which has delivered a 56% return in 2010, proving he still has the golden touch. His problem is that the strategy is not scalable, and can only be executed with a small amount of money. No mega hedge fund for him.
That’s why Tim has turned to online education instead of ramping up a big hedge fund. Today, he is offering several subscription newsletters, trade alerts, chat rooms, along with a DVD course on making money in the penny stock market at his website.
Notice to Military Subscribers.
To the dozens of subscribers in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the surrounding ships at sea, thank you for your service! I think it is very wise to use your free time to read my letter and learn about financial markets in preparation for an entry into the financial services when you cash out. Nobody is going to call you a baby killer and shun you, as they did when I returned from Southeast Asia four decades ago.
I have but one request. No more subscriptions with .mil addresses, please. The Defense Department, the CIA, the NSA, Homeland Security, and the FBI do not look kindly on newsletters entering the military network, even the investment kind. If you think civilian spam filters are tough, watch out for the military kind! And no, I promise that there are no secret messages embedded with the stock tips. “BUY’ really does mean “BUY.”
If I did not know the higher ups at these agencies, as well as the Joints Chiefs of Staff, I might be bouncing off the walls in a cell at Guantanamo by now. It also helps that many of the mid level officers at these organizations have made a fortune with their meager government retirement funds following my advice. All I can say is that if the Baghdad Stock Exchange ever become liquid, I’m going to own it.
Where would you guess the greatest concentration of readers The Diary of a Mad Hedge Fund Trader is found? New York? Nope. London? Wrong. Chicago? Not even close. Try a ten mile radius centered on Langley, Virginia, by a large margin. The funny thing is, half of the subscribing names coming in are Russian. I haven’t quite figured that one out yet.
So keep up the good work, and fight the good fight. But please, only subscribe to my letter with personal Gmail or hotmail addresses. That way my life can become a lot more boring. Oh, and by the way, Langley, you’re behind on you bill. Please pay up, pronto, and I don’t want to hear whining about any damn budget cuts!
I Want My Mad Hedge Fund Trader!
Quote of the Day
“Unless developed economies learn to compete the old fashioned way – by making more goods and making them better, the smart money will continue to move offshore to Asia, Brazil, and other developing economies both in the asset and the currency space. The United States, in short, needs to make things, and not paper,” said Bill Gross, the managing director and co- chief investment officer of bond giant PIMCO.