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Geopolitical issues such as trade and fiscal deficits, resource supply and demand, and political and corporate malfeasance significantly influence the direction of global markets. I also happen to believe that much of the thinking on these subjects is the repetition of old story lines. As a consequence, public discourse on these subjects generally sheds very little real light on the issues of our day. In particular, my interests lie in identifying and clarifying the current and prospective risk and opportunity environment, as well as strategies for availing oneself of the opportunities and minimizing exposures to the risks. I am the author of The Emperor's Clothes: A Look at the Megatrends Affecting Your Financial and Investment Decisions. Published February 2007, this work accurately discussed much of what was to occur in global financial crisis of the following several years.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Reflection and Analysis

A Look Back

Shock, confusion, and fear are probably some words which describe many people’s overall experience of 2008. As difficult and challenging as the year was, it is important to try to make some sense out of what happened, what is happening, and provide some analysis towards a sense of where things are likely to go. To this end, I am offering my thoughts on this subject with the recognition that the complexity and magnitude of world economic events can cloud even the best crystal balls. Having said this, those of you who have read my book, The Emperor’s Clothes, know that I discussed many of the issues of this global financial crisis prior to their occurrences.

The news of the past year has been filled with details of the institutional pillars of American finance, such as Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers, Washington Mutual, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and many others, collapsing or being taken over because of pending collapse. This has been followed by the frenzied attempts of the world’s Central Banks, such as the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank, coming up with one scheme after another to try to prevent a complete breakdown of the global financial system. Indeed, while trying to get support from Congress for a $700 billion bailout package to save the U.S. banking and financial system, the chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank, Ben Bernanke, and the U.S. Secretary of Treasury, Hank Paulson, testified before Congress that the U.S. financial system was within days of collapsing.

Massive indiscriminate selling pressure was created as a result of this financial turmoil. These institutions were forced to raise capital to meet their regulatory requirements. At the same time the credit markets froze up, capital very difficult to acquire. This made the situation even worse. Hedge funds are investments for institutions and very wealthy individuals. They operate by borrowing huge amounts of money using their invested positions of stocks, bonds, and more the esoteric derivative investments, as collateral. Some of these funds borrow 30-40 times the amount of actual dollars directly invested in them by their investors. The lenders who provide this money to the hedge funds have lending requirements which require the hedge funds to come up with more money if the value of their investments drops too much. During the financial turmoil, the decline of the investments in these hedge funds forced the hedge fund managers to start selling their investments whether they considered them good investments or not. This amplified the overall selling pressure and made a bad situation even worse.

Today, there appears to be some degree of stabilization from the worst of the turmoil. It will be many years, keeping many scholars employed, trying to sort out the details of what actually happened. The one thing that is abundantly clear is that financial imprudence at all levels of our society, and throughout the world, became institutionalized into an acceptable form of conduct. Imprudent lending, and imprudent borrowing, created a vicious destructive cycle of over-consumption and over-indebtedness. As with many extreme indulgences, when the party is over, we are left with a big hangover and a big cleanup job. Right now the United States in particular, and the world economy, in general, has one gigantic hangover, and a daunting clean up job.

Looking Forward

Currently the governments of the world have made massive commitments toward maintaining financial and economic stability. On a global scale, I have read estimates of up to $7 trillion dollars already committed to various bailout type endeavors. The bailout line also seems to be getting longer each time the government responds to an industry or business in financial crisis. The auto industry is the latest example. Following this bailout, I have read accounts of state and local municipalities, and the commercial real estate industry lining up to be next. When the government starts handing out money, there is no shortage of willing, ready, and potentially deserving takers.

Even if one considers these policies to be necessary to prevent an even more disastrous financial collapse, a number of issues arise which impact what the outcomes are that we can expect. One of these issues is the implementation of these policies. For example, the early reports on the banking system bailouts leave much to be desired as to the accountability of the use of the funds. The reports indicate that many of the recipients of the bailout funds are unable or unwilling to account for their use. Other reports suggest a business as usual attitude for many of these troubled institutions. They seem to feel at liberty to pay huge bonuses and compensation packages, and provide extravagant perks to the very management personnel who contributed to bringing about this disastrous situation. It was only when the spotlight of public opinion focused on some of these issues that public relations considerations brought about a more contrite demeanor in these institutions. This suggests to me that the only thing that has really changed is the public relations campaign.

Another issue, which I refer to as the elephant in the living room is: How are all these bailouts going to be paid for? In addition, the other component of trying to climb out of what is being referred to as the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, is the massive economic stimulus package being put together by the incoming Obama administration. It may, perhaps, be necessary, but there are also consequences. It is the consequences that, in my opinion, will provide both the hazards, as well as the long term opportunities from an investment and financial planning perspective.

Current discussions of the economic stimulus package lead me to believe that by the time it becomes policy it will have a cost ranging from $1-$2 trillion over a two year period. The funding for this will be added to the operating budget deficit of the United States. Prior to all these bailouts and economic stimulus packages, the United States had already needed to borrow $60-$70 billion per month in foreign money in order to continue funding its operations. Luckily, China, the petrodollar countries, and the other countries accumulating U.S. dollar reserves were doing well and were quite willing to continue lending money to the United States. The question that must be asked now is: How willing and how able are these countries going to be to continue loaning money to the United States to fund its budget deficit?

Many of these countries are having a more difficult financial time themselves in the present financial crisis. Many of these countries were, prior to this financial crisis, considering reducing the amount of money being loaned to the United States. In addition, because of this financial crisis the credit worthiness of the United States has deteriorated, and there are alternative places where these countries can deploy their financial resources which may be more directly beneficial to themselves. The funding requirements of the United States its meet the Budget Deficit needs may rise above $150 billion per month; the conclusion is inescapable of a potential funding crisis as being one of the major consequential fallout of the current attempts to contain this financial crisis.

It is exactly here that both the risks and the opportunities reside. In my estimation, the results of these circumstances will result in escalating interest rates, which is another version of credit availability reduction, and a damper on economic growth. This would be an unacceptable outcome for our government whose interests are critically tied to economic growth. The policy response will be an attempt to create vast amounts of money in order to effectively devalue debt, and consequently the dollar. Current economic policy discussion focuses on the immediate deflationary impact of the global financial crisis. However, I believe we will be seeing a very real potential of rapidly escalating inflation by the later part of 2009.

If we remember that the basic function of money is as a store of value and the viability of this function becomes impaired, it is important to consider where economic value will be best preserved, or even increased. Some of investment areas which I will be scanning for appropriate opportunities will be in areas such as precious metals, as well as real use assets such as energy, food, and materials. The added benefit to these areas, apart from providing a potential defense against some of the forces I discussed, is that when the global economy begins to get through this financial catastrophe, these will be among the things which will be crucial to growth and in consequently high demand, with limited supply.

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