Saturday, December 20, 2014

Mike Seerys Weekly Crude Oil Market Recap for Week Ending Friday December 19th

Crude oil futures in the February contract are up $3 this Friday afternoon in New York currently trading at 57.40 after settling last Friday around 58.08 a barrel finishing down nearly $1 for the trading week and traded as low as 53.94 before slightly rallying as oversupply and lack of demand continue to push oil prices to 5 year lows.

If you’re still short this market I would continue to place my stop above the 10 day high which in Monday’s trade will be 64.35 risking around 700 points or $7,000 per contract plus slippage and commission, however the chart structure will improve on a daily basis as the 10 day high will be lowered significantly in the next several days.

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This has been one of the best trends in recent memory as prices have basically collapsed in recent weeks ever since OPEC announced that they will not cut production on Thanksgiving Day which sent prices sharply lower as there is also huge supplies here in the U.S. so who knows how low prices can go as I still highly recommended not to be buying this market so if you are currently not short I would sit on the sidelines and look for a market with better chart structure and less risk.

Crude oil futures are trading far below their 20 and 100 day moving average as consumers around the country are certainly benefiting from lower oil prices at the pump which is also good for the stock market in my opinion as volatility in oil is as high as I’ve ever seen it so be careful as volatility is here to stay.
Trend: Lower
Chart structure: Improving

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Friday, December 19, 2014

The Burning Questions For 2015

By John Mauldin

Louis Gave is one of my favorite investment and economic thinkers, besides being a good friend and an all-around fun guy. When he and his father Charles and the well-known European journalist Anatole Kaletsky decided to form Gavekal some 15 years ago, Louis moved to Hong Kong, as they felt that Asia and especially China would be a part of the world they would have to understand. Since then Gavekal has expanded its research offices all over the world. The Gavekal team’s various research arms produce an astounding amount of work on an incredibly wide range of topics, but somehow Louis always seems to be on top of all of it.

Longtime readers know that I often republish a piece by someone in their firm (typically Charles or Louis). I have to be somewhat judicious, as their research is actually quite expensive, but they kindly give me permission to share it from time to time.

This week, for your Outside the Box reading, I bring you one of the more thought-provoking pieces I’ve read from Louis in some time. In Thoughts from the Frontline I have been looking at world problems we need to focus on as we enter 2015. Today, Louis also gives us a piece along these lines, called “The Burning Questions for 2015,” in which he thinks about a “Chinese Marshall Plan” (and what a stronger US dollar might do to China), Abenomics as a “sideshow,” US capital misallocation, and whether or not we should even care about Europe. I think you will find the piece well worth your time.

Think about this part of his conclusion as you read:

Most investors go about their job trying to identify ‘winners’. But more often than not, investing is about avoiding losers. Like successful gamblers at the racing track, an investor’s starting point should be to eliminate the assets that do not stand a chance, and then spread the rest of one’s capital amongst the remainder.

Wise words indeed.

A Yellow Card from Barry


What you don’t often get to see is the lively debate that happens among my friends about my writing, even as I comment on theirs. Barry Ritholtz of The Big Picture pulled a yellow card on me over a piece of data he contended I had cherry picked from Zero Hedge. He has a point. I should have either not copied that sentence (the rest of the quote was OK) or noted the issue date. Quoting Barry:

Did you cherry pick this a little much? 

“… because since December 2007, or roughly the start of the global depression, shale oil states have added 1.36 million jobs while non-shale states have lost 424,000 jobs.”

I must point out how intellectually disingenuous this start date is, heading right into the crisis – why not use December 2010? Or 5 or 10 years? This is misleading in other ways:

It is geared to start before the crisis & recovery, so that it forces the 10 million jobs lost in the crisis to be offset by the 10 million new jobs added since the recovery began. That creates a very misleading picture of where growth comes from.

We have created 10 million new jobs since June 2009. Has Texas really created 4 million new jobs? The answer is no.

According to [the St. Louis Fed] FRED [database]:

PAYEMS – or NFP – has gone from 130,944 to 140,045, a gain of 9,101 over that period.
TXNA – Total Nonfarm in Texas – has gone from 10,284 to 11,708, for a gain of 1,424.

That gain represents 15.6% of the 9.1MM total.

Well yes, Barry, but because of oil and other things (like a business-friendly climate), Texas did not lose as many jobs in the recession as the rest of the nation did, which is where you can get skewed data, depending on when you start the count and what you are trying to illustrate.

My main point is that energy production has been a huge upside producer of jobs, and that source of new jobs is going away. And yes, Josh, the net benefit for at least the first six months until the job non production shows up (if it does) is a positive for the economy and the consumer. But I was trying to highlight a potential problem that could hurt US growth. Oil is likely to go to $40 before settling in the $50 range for a while. Will it eventually go back up? Yes. But it’s anybody’s guess as to when.

By the way, a former major hedge fund manager who closed his fund a number of years ago casually mentioned at a party the other night that he hopes oil goes to $35 and that we see a true shakeout in the oil patch. He grew up in a West Texas oil family and truly understands the cycles in the industry, especially for the smaller producers. From his point of view, a substantial shakeout creates massive upside opportunities in lots of places. “Almost enough,” he said, “to tempt me to open a new fund.”

On a different note, everyone is Christmas shopping and trying to find the right gift. Two recommendations. First, the Panasonic wet/dry electric razor (with five blades). I just bought a new set of blades and covers for mine after two years (you do have to replace them every now and then); and the new, improved shave reminded me how much I was in love with it when I bought it. Best shaver ever.

Second, and I know this is a little odd, but for a number of years I’ve been recommending a face cream that contains skin stem cells, which I and quite a number of my readers have noticed really helps rejuvenate our older skin. (I came across the product while researching stem cell companies with Patrick Cox.) It clearly makes a difference for some people. I get ladies coming up all the time and thanking me for the recommendation, and guys too sometimes shyly admit they use it regularly. (It turns out that just as many men buy the product as women.) The company is Lifeline Skin Care, and they have discounted the product for my readers. If you can get past the fact that this is a financial analyst recommending a skin cream for a Christmas gift, then click on this link.

It is time to hit the send button. I trust you are having a good week. Now settle in and grab a cup of coffee or some wine (depending on the time of day and your mood), and let’s see what Louis has to say.
Your trying to catch up analyst,

John Mauldin, Editor
Outside the Box
subscribers@mauldineconomics.com

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The Burning Questions For 2015

By Louis-Vincent Gave, GavekalDragonomics

With two reports a day, and often more, readers sometimes complain that keeping tabs on the thoughts of the various Gavekal analysts can be a challenge. So as the year draws to a close, it may be helpful if we recap the main questions confronting investors and the themes we strongly believe in, region by region.

1. A Chinese Marshall Plan?


When we have conversations with clients about China – which typically we do between two and four times a day – the talk invariably revolves around how much Chinese growth is slowing (a good bit, and quite quickly); how undercapitalized Chinese banks are (a good bit, but fat net interest margins and preferred share issues are solving the problem over time); how much overcapacity there is in real estate (a good bit, but – like youth – this is a problem that time will fix); how much overcapacity there is in steel, shipping, university graduates and corrupt officials; how disruptive China’s adoption of assembly line robots will be etc.

All of these questions are urgent, and the problems that prompted them undeniably real, which means that China’s policymakers certainly have their plates full. But this is where things get interesting: in all our conversations with Western investors, their conclusion seems to be that Beijing will have little choice but to print money aggressively, devalue the renminbi, fiscally stimulate the economy, and basically follow the path trail-blazed (with such success?) by Western policymakers since 2008. However, we would argue that this conclusion represents a failure both to think outside the Western box and to read Beijing’s signal flags.

In numerous reports (and in Chapters 11 to 14 of Too Different For Comfort) we have argued that the internationalization of the renminbi has been one of the most significant macro events of recent years. This internationalization is continuing apace: from next to nothing in 2008, almost a quarter of Chinese trade will settle in renminbi in 2014:

This is an important development which could have a very positive impact on a number of emerging markets. Indeed, a typical, non oil exporting emerging market policymaker (whether in Turkey, the Philippines, Vietnam, South Korea, Argentina or India) usually has to worry about two things that are completely out of his control:

1)   A spike in the US dollar. Whenever the US currency shoots up, it presents a hurdle for growth in most emerging markets. The first reason is that most trade takes place in US dollars, so a stronger US dollar means companies having to set aside more money for working capital needs. The second is that most emerging market investors tend to think in two currencies: their own and the US dollar. Catch a cab in Bangkok, Cairo, Cape Town or Jakarta and ask for that day’s US dollar exchange rate and chances are that the driver will know it to within a decimal point. This sensitivity to exchange rates is important because it means that when the US dollar rises, local wealth tends to flow out of local currencies as investors sell domestic assets and into US dollar assets, typically treasuries (when the US dollar falls, the reverse is true).

2)   A rapid rise in oil or food prices. Violent spikes in oil and food prices can be highly destabilizing for developing countries, where the median family spends so much more of their income on basic necessities than the typical Western family. Sudden spikes in the price of food or energy can quickly create social and political tensions. And that’s not all; for oil importing countries, a spike in oil prices can lead to a rapid deterioration in trade balances. These tend to scare foreign investors away, so pushing the local currency lower and domestic interest rates higher, which in turn leads to weaker growth etc...

Looking at these two concerns, it is hard to escape the conclusion that, as things stand, China is helping to mitigate both:
  • China’s policy of renminbi internationalization means that emerging markets are able gradually to reduce their dependence on the US dollar. As they do, spikes in the value of the US currency (such as we have seen in 2014) are becoming less painful.
     
  • The slowdown in Chinese oil demand, as well as China’s ability to capitalize on Putin’s difficulties to transform itself from a price taker to a price setter, means that the impact of oil and commodities on trade balances is much more contained.
Beyond providing stability to emerging markets, the gradual acceptance of the renminbi as a secondary trading and reserve currency for emerging markets has further implications. The late French economist Jacques Rueff showed convincingly how, when global trade moved from a gold based settlement system to a U.S. dollar based system, purchasing power was duplicated. As the authors of a recent Wall Street Journal article citing Reuff’s work explained: “If the Banque de France counts among its reserves dollar claims (and not just gold and French francs) – for example a Banque de France deposit in a New York bank – this increases the money supply in France but without reducing the money supply of the US. So both countries can use these dollar assets to grant credit.” Replace Banque de France with Bank Indonesia, and U.S. dollar with renminbi and the same causes will lead to the same effects.

Consider British Columbia’s recently issued AAA rated two year renminbi dim sum bond. Yielding 2.85%, this bond was actively subscribed to by foreign central banks, which ended up receiving more than 50% of the initial allocation (ten times as much as in the first British Columbia dim sum issue two years ago). After the issue British Columbia takes the proceeds and deposits them in a Chinese bank, thereby capturing a nice spread. In turn, the Chinese bank can multiply this money five times over (so goes money creation in China). Meanwhile, the Indonesian, Korean or Kazakh central banks that bought the bonds now have an asset on their balance sheet which they can use to back an expansion of trade with China...

Of course, for trade to flourish, countries need to be able to specialize in their respective comparative advantages, hence the importance of the kind of free trade deals discussed at the recent APEC meeting. But free trade deals are not enough; countries also need trade infrastructure (ports, airports, telecoms, trade finance banks etc...). This brings us to China’s ‘new silk road’ strategy and the recent announcement by Beijing of a US$40bn fund to help finance road and rail infrastructure in the various ‘stans’ on its western borders in a development that promises to cut the travel time from China to Europe from the current 30 days by sea to ten days or less overland.

Needless to say, such a dramatic reduction in transportation time could help prompt some heavy industry to relocate from Europe to Asia.

That’s not all. At July’s BRICS summit in Brazil, leaders of the five member nations signed a treaty launching the U.S. $50bn New Development Bank, which Beijing hopes will be modeled on China Development Bank, and is likely to compete with the World Bank. This will be followed by the establishment of a China-dominated BRICS contingency fund (challenging the International Monetary Fund). Also on the cards is an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to rival the Asian Development Bank.

So what looks likely to take shape over the next few years is a network of railroads and motorways linking China’s main production centers to Bangkok, Singapore, Karachi, Almaty, Moscow, Yangon, Kolkata. We will see pipelines, dams, and power plants built in Siberia, Central Asia, Pakistan and Myanmar; as well as airports, hotels, business centers... and all of this financed with China’s excess savings, and leverage. Given that China today has excess production capacity in all of these sectors, one does not need a fistful of university diplomas to figure out whose companies will get the pick of the construction contracts.

But to finance all of this, and to transform herself into a capital exporter, China needs stable capital markets and a strong, convertible currency. This explains why, despite Hong Kong’s pro democracy demonstrations, Beijing is pressing ahead with the internationalization of the renminbi using the former British colony as its proving ground (witness the Shanghai-HK stock connect scheme and the removal of renminbi restrictions on Hong Kong residents). And it is why renminbi bonds have delivered better risk adjusted returns over the past five years than almost any other fixed income market.

Of course, China’s strategy of internationalizing the renminbi, and integrating its neighbors into its own economy might fall flat on its face. Some neighbors bitterly resent China’s increasing assertiveness.

Nonetheless, the big story in China today is not ‘ghost cities’ (how long has that one been around?) or undercapitalized banks. The major story is China’s reluctance to continue funneling its excess savings into US treasuries yielding less than 2%, and its willingness to use that capital instead to integrate its neighbors’ economies with its own; using its own currency and its low funding costs as an ‘appeal product’ (and having its own companies pick up the contracts as a bonus). In essence, is this so different from what the US did in Europe in the 1940s and 1950s with the Marshall Plan?

2. Japan: Is Abenomics just a sideshow?


With Japan in the middle of a triple dip recession, and Japanese households suffering a significant contraction in real disposable income, it might seem that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has chosen an odd time to call a snap election. Three big factors explain his decision:

1)   The Japanese opposition is in complete disarray. So Abe’s decision may primarily have been opportunistic.

2)   We must remember that Abe is the most nationalist prime minister Japan has produced in a generation. The expansion of China’s economic presence across Central and South East Asia will have left him feeling at least as uncomfortable as anyone who witnessed his Apec handshake with Xi Jinping three weeks ago. It is not hard to imagine that Abe returned from Beijing convinced that he needs to step up Japan’s military development; a policy that requires him to command a greater parliamentary majority than he holds now.

3)   The final factor explaining Abe’s decision to call an election may be that in Japan the government’s performance in opinion polls seems to mirror the performance of the local stock market (wouldn’t Barack Obama like to see such a correlation in the US?). With the Nikkei breaking out to new highs, Abe may feel that now is the best time to try and cement his party’s dominant position in the Diet.

As he gets ready to face the voters, how should Abe attempt to portray himself? In our view, he could do worse than present himself as Japan Inc’s biggest salesman. Since the start of his second mandate, Abe has visited 49 countries in 21 months, and taken hundreds of different Japanese CEOs along with him for the ride. The message these CEOs have been spreading is simple: Japan is a very different place from 20 years ago. Companies are doing different things, and investment patterns have changed. Many companies have morphed into completely different animals, and are delivering handsome returns as a result. The relative year to date outperformances of Toyo Tire (+117%), Minebea (+95%), Mabuchi (+57%), Renesas (+43%), Fuji Film (+33%), NGK Insulators (+33%) and Nachi-Fujikoshi (+19%) have been enormous. Or take Panasonic as an example: the old television maker has transformed itself into a car parts firm, piggy backing on the growth of Tesla’s model S.

Yet even as these changes have occurred, most foreign investors have stopped visiting Japan, and most sell-side firms have stopped funding genuine and original research. For the alert investor this is good news. As the number of Japanese firms at the heart of the disruptions reshaping our global economy – robotics, electric and self-driving cars, alternative energy, healthcare, care for the elderly – continues to expand, and as the number of investors looking at these same firms continues to shrink, those investors willing to sift the gravel of corporate Japan should be able to find real gems.

Which brings us to the real question confronting investors today: the ‘Kuroda put’ has placed Japanese equities back on investor’s maps. But is this just a short term phenomenon? After all, no nation has ever prospered by devaluing its currency. If Japan is set to attract, and retain, foreign investor flows, it will have to come up with a more compelling story than ‘we print money faster than anyone else’.

In our recent research, we have argued that this is exactly what is happening. In fact, we believe so much in the opportunity that we have launched a dedicated Japan corporate research service (GK Plus Alpha) whose principals (Alicia Walker and Neil Newman) are burning shoe leather to identify the disruptive companies that will trigger Japan’s next wave of growth.

3. Should we worry about capital misallocation in the US?


The US has now ‘enjoyed’ a free cost of money for some six years. The logic behind the zero-interest rate policy was simple enough: after the trauma of 2008, the animal spirits of entrepreneurs needed to be prodded back to life. Unfortunately, the last few years have reminded everyone that the average entrepreneur or investor typically borrows for one of two reasons:
  • Capital spending: Business is expanding, so our entrepreneur borrows to open a new plant, or hire more people, etc.
     
  • Financial engineering: The entrepreneur or investor borrows in order to purchase an existing cash flow, or stream of income. In this case, our borrower calculates the present value of a given income stream, and if this present value is higher than the cost of the debt required to own it, then the transaction makes sense.
Unfortunately, the second type of borrowing does not lead to an increase in the stock of capital. It simply leads to a change in the ownership of capital at higher and higher prices, with the ownership of an asset often moving away from entrepreneurs and towards financial middlemen or institutions. So instead of an increase in an economy’s capital stock (as we would get with increased borrowing for capital spending), with financial engineering all we see is a net increase in the total amount of debt and a greater concentration of asset ownership. And the higher the debt levels and ownership concentration, the greater the system’s fragility and its inability to weather shocks.

We are not arguing that financial engineering has reached its natural limits in the US. Who knows where those limits stand in a zero interest rate world? However, we would highlight that the recent new highs in US equities have not been accompanied by new lows in corporate spreads. Instead, the spread between 5-year BBB bonds and 5-year US treasuries has widened by more than 30 basis points since this summer.

Behind these wider spreads lies a simple reality: corporate bonds issued by energy sector companies have lately been taken to the woodshed. In fact, the spread between the bonds of energy companies, and those of other US corporates are back at highs not seen since the recession of 2001-2002, when the oil price was at US$30 a barrel.

The market’s behavior raises the question whether the energy industry has been the black hole of capital misallocation in the era of quantitative easing. As our friend Josh Ayers of Paradarch Advisors (Josh publishes a weekly entitled The Right Tale, which is a fount of interesting ideas. He can be reached at josh@paradarchadvisors.com) put it in a recent note: “After surviving the resource nadir of the late 1980s and 1990s, oil and gas firms started pumping up capex as the new millennium began. However, it wasn’t until the purported end of the global financial crisis in 2009 that capital expenditure in the oil patch went into hyperdrive, at which point capex from the S&P 500’s oil and gas subcomponents jumped from roughly 7% of total US fixed investment to over 10% today.”

“It’s no secret that a decade’s worth of higher global oil prices justified much of the early ramp-up in capex, but a more thoughtful look at the underlying data suggests we’re now deep in the malinvestment phase of the oil and gas business cycle. The second chart (above) displays both the total annual capex and the return on that capex (net income/capex) for the ten largest holdings in the Energy Select Sector SPDR (XLE). The most troublesome aspect of this chart is that, since 2010, returns have been declining as capex outlays are increasing. Furthermore, this divergence is occurring despite WTI crude prices averaging nearly $96 per barrel during that period,” Josh noted.

The energy sector may not be the only place where capital has been misallocated on a grand scale. The other industry with a fairly large target on its back is the financial sector. For a start, policymakers around the world have basically decided that, for all intents and purposes, whenever a ‘decision maker’ in the financial industry makes a decision, someone else should be looking over the decision maker’s shoulder to ensure that the decision is appropriate. Take HSBC’s latest results: HSBC added 1400 compliance staff in one quarter, and plans to add another 1000 over the next quarter. From this, we can draw one of two conclusions:

1)   The financial firms that will win are the large firms, as they can afford the compliance costs.
2)   The winners will be the firms that say: “Fine, let’s get rid of the decision maker. Then we won’t need to hire the compliance guy either”.

This brings us to a theme first explored by our friend Paul Jeffery, who back in September wrote: “In 1994 Bill Gates observed: ‘Banking is necessary, banks are not’. The primary function of a bank is to bring savers and users of capital together in order to facilitate an exchange. In return for their role as [trusted] intermediaries banks charge a generous net spread. To date, this hefty added cost has been accepted by the public due to the lack of a credible alternative, as well as the general oligopolistic structure of the banking industry.

What Lending Club and other P2P lenders do is provide an online market place that connects borrowers and lenders directly; think the eBay of loans and you have the right conceptual grasp. Moreover, the business model of online market-place lending breaks with a banking tradition, dating back to 14th century Florence, of operating on a “fractional reserve” basis. In the case of P2P intermediation, lending can be thought of as being “fully reserved” and entails no balance sheet risk on the part of the service facilitator. Instead, the intermediary receives a fee- based revenue stream rather than a spread-based income.”

There is another way we can look at it: finance today is an abnormal industry in two important ways:

1)   The more the sector spends on information and communications technology, the bigger a proportion of the economic pie the industry captures. This is a complete anomaly. In all other industries (retail, energy, telecoms...), spending on ICT has delivered savings for the consumers. In finance, investment in ICT (think shaving seconds of trading times in order to front run customer orders legally) has not delivered savings for consumers, nor even bigger dividends for shareholders, but fatter bonuses and profits for bankers.

2)   The second way finance is an abnormal industry (perhaps unsurprisingly given the first factor) lies in the banks’ inability to pass on anything of value to their customers, at least as far as customer’s perceptions are concerned. Indeed, in ‘brand surveys’ and ‘consumer satisfaction reports’, banks regularly bring up the rear. Who today loves their bank in a way that some people ‘love’ Walmart, Costco, IKEA, Amazon, Apple, Google, Uber, etc?

Most importantly, and as Paul highlights above, if the whole point of the internet is to:

a) measure more efficiently what each individual needs, and
b) eliminate unnecessary intermediaries,

then we should expect a lot of the financial industry’s safe and steady margins to come under heavy pressure. This has already started in the broking and in the money management industries (where mediocre money managers and other closet indexers are being replaced by ETFs). But why shouldn’t we start to see banks’ high return consumer loan, SME loan and credit card loan businesses replaced, at a faster and faster pace, by peer-to-peer lending? Why should consumers continue to pay high fees for bank transfers, or credit cards when increasingly such services are offered at much lower costs by firms such as TransferWise, services like Alipay and Apple Pay, or simply by new currencies such as Bitcoin?

On this point, we should note that in the 17 days that followed the launch of Apple Pay on the iPhone 6, almost 1% of Wholefoods’ transactions were processed using the new payment system. The likes of Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon have grown into behemoths by upending the media, advertising retail and entertainment industries. Such a rapid take- up rate for Apple Pay is a powerful indicator which sector is likely to be next in line. How else can these tech giants keep growing and avoid the fate that befell Sony, Microsoft and Nokia? On their past record, the technology companies will find margins, and growth, in upending our countries’ financial infrastructure. As they do, a lot of capital (both human and monetary) deployed in the current infrastructure will find itself obsolete.

This possibility raises a number of questions – not least for Gavekal’s own investment process, which relies heavily on changes in the velocity of money and in the willingness and ability of commercial banks to multiply money, to judge whether it makes sense to increase portfolio risk. What happens to a world that moves ‘ex-bank’ and where most new loans are extended peer-to-peer? In such a world, the banking multiplier disappears along with fractional reserve banking (and consequently the need for regulators? Dare to dream...).

As bankers stop lending their clients umbrellas when it is sunny, and taking them away when it rains, will our economic cycles become much tamer? As central banks everywhere print money aggressively, could the market be in the process of creating currencies no longer based on the borders of nation states, but instead on the cross-border networks of large corporations (Alipay, Apple Pay...), or even on voluntary communities (Bitcoin). Does this mean we are approaching the Austrian dream of a world with many, non government-supported, currencies?

4. Should we care about Europe?


In our September Quarterly Strategy Chartbook, we debated whether the eurozone was set for a revival (the point expounded by François) or a continued period stuck in the doldrums (Charles’s view), or whether we should even care (my point). At the crux of this divergence in views is the question whether euroland is broadly following the Japanese deflationary bust path. Pointing to this possibility are the facts that 11 out of 15 eurozone countries are now registering annual year-on-year declines in CPI, that policy responses have so far been late, unclear and haphazard (as they were in Japan), and that the solutions mooted (e.g. European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker’s €315bn infrastructure spending plan) recall the solutions adopted in Japan (remember all those bridges to nowhere?). And that’s before going into the structural parallels: ageing populations; dysfunctional, undercapitalized and overcrowded banking systems; influential segments of the population eager to maintain the status quo etc....

With the same causes at work, should we expect the same consequences? Does the continued underperformance of eurozone stocks simply reflect that managing companies in a deflationary environment is a very challenging task? If euroland has really entered a Japanese-style deflationary bust likely to extend years into the future, the conclusion almost draws itself.

The main lesson investors have learned from the Japanese experience of 1990-2013 is that the only time to buy stocks in an economy undergoing a deflationary bust is:

a)   when stocks are massively undervalued relative both to their peers and to their own history, and
b)   when a significant policy change is on the way.

This was the situation in Japan in 1999 (the first round of QE under PM Keizo Obuchi), 2005 (PM Junichiro Koizumi’s bank recapitalization program) and of course in 2013-14 (Abenomics). Otherwise, in a deflationary environment with no or low growth, there is no real reason to pile into equities. One does much better in debt. So, if the Japan-Europe parallel runs true, it only makes sense to look at eurozone equities when they are both massively undervalued relative to their own histories and there are expectations of a big policy change. This was the case in the spring of 2012 when valuations were at extremes, and Mario Draghi replaced Jean-Claude Trichet as ECB president. In the absence of these two conditions, the marginal dollar looking for equity risk will head for sunnier climes.

With this in mind, there are two possible arguments for an exposure to eurozone equities:

1)   The analogy of Japan is misleading as euroland will not experience a deflationary bust (or will soon emerge from deflation).
2)   We are reaching the point when our two conditions – attractive valuations, combined with policy shock and awe – are about to be met. Thus we could be reaching the point when euroland equities start to deliver outsized returns.

Proponents of the first argument will want to overweight euroland equities now, as this scenario should lead to a rebound in both the euro and European equities (so anyone underweight in their portfolios would struggle). However, it has to be said that the odds against this first outcome appear to get longer with almost every data release!

Proponents of the second scenario, however, can afford to sit back and wait, because it is likely any outperformance in eurozone equities would be accompanied by euro currency weakness. Hence, as a percentage of a total benchmark, European equities would not surge, because the rise in equities would be offset by the falling euro.

Alternatively, investors who are skeptical about either of these two propositions can – like us – continue to use euroland as a source of, rather than as a destination for, capital. And they can afford safely to ignore events unfolding in euroland as they seek rewarding investment opportunities in the US or Asia. In short, over the coming years investors may adopt the same view towards the eurozone that they took towards Japan for the last decade: ‘Neither loved, nor hated... simply ignored’.

Conclusion:


Most investors go about their job trying to identify ‘winners’. But more often than not, investing is about avoiding losers. Like successful gamblers at the racing track, an investor’s starting point should be to eliminate the assets that do not stand a chance, and then spread the rest of one’s capital amongst the remainder.

For example, if in 1981 an investor had decided to forego investing in commodities and simply to diversify his holdings across other asset classes, his decision would have been enough to earn himself a decade at the beach. If our investor had then returned to the office in 1990, and again made just one decision – to own nothing in Japan – he could once again have gone back to sipping margaritas for the next ten years. In 2000, the decision had to be not to own overvalued technology stocks. By 2006, our investor needed to start selling his holdings in financials around the world. And by 2008, the money-saving decision would have been to forego investing in euroland.

Of course hindsight is twenty-twenty, and any investor who managed to avoid all these potholes would have done extremely well. Nevertheless, the big question confronting investors today is how to avoid the potholes of tomorrow. To succeed, we believe that investors need to answer the following questions:
  • Will Japan engineer a revival through its lead in exciting new technologies (robotics, hi-tech help for the elderly, electric and driverless cars etc...), or will Abenomics prove to be the last hurrah of a society unable to adjust to the 21st century? Our research is following these questions closely through our new GK Plus Alpha venture.
     
  • Will China slowly sink under the weight of the past decade’s malinvestment and the accompanying rise in debt (the consensus view) or will it successfully establish itself as Asia’s new hegemon? Our Beijing based research team is very much on top of these questions, especially Tom Miller, who by next Christmas should have a book out charting the geopolitical impact of China’s rise.
     
  • Will Indian prime minister Narendra Modi succeed in plucking the low-hanging fruit so visible in India, building new infrastructure, deregulating services, cutting protectionism, etc? If so, will India start to pull its weight in the global economy and financial markets?
     
  • How will the world deal with a US economy that may no longer run current account deficits, and may no longer be keen to finance large armies? Does such a combination not almost guarantee the success of China’s strategy?
     
  • If the US dollar is entering a long term structural bull market, who are the winners and losers? The knee-jerk reaction has been to say ‘emerging markets will be the losers’ (simply because they were in the past. But the reality is that most emerging markets have large US dollar reserves and can withstand a strong US currency. Instead, will the big losers from the US dollar be the commodity producers?
     
  • Have we reached ‘peak demand’ for oil? If so, does this mean that we have years ahead of us in which markets and investors will have to digest the past five years of capital misallocation into commodities?
     
  • Talking of capital misallocation, does the continued trend of share buybacks render our financial system more fragile (through higher gearing) and so more likely to crack in the face of exogenous shocks? If it does, one key problem may be that although we may have made our banks safer through increased regulations (since banks are not allowed to take risks anymore), we may well have made our financial markets more volatile (since banks are no longer allowed to trade their balance sheets to benefit from spikes in volatility). This much appeared obvious from the behavior of US fixed income markets in the days following Bill Gross’s departure from PIMCO. In turn, if banks are not allowed to take risks at volatile times, then central banks will always be called upon to act, which guarantees more capital misallocation, share buybacks and further fragilization of the system (expect more debates along this theme between Charles, and Anatole).
     
  • Will the financial sector be next to undergo disintermediation by the internet (after advertising and the media). If so, what will the macro consequences be? (Hint: not good for the pound or London property.)
     
  • Is euroland following the Japanese deflationary bust roadmap?
The answers to these questions will drive performance for years to come. In the meantime, we continue to believe that a portfolio which avoids a) euroland, b) banks, and c) commodities, will do well – perhaps well enough to continue funding Mediterranean beach holidays – especially as these are likely to go on getting cheaper for anyone not earning euros!

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Thursday, December 18, 2014

Why Russia Will Halt the Ruble’s Slide and Keep Pumping Crude Oil

By Marin Katusa, Chief Energy Investment Strategist

The harsh reality is that U.S. shale fields have much more to fear from plummeting oil prices than the Russians, since their costs of production are much higher, says Marin Katusa, author of The Colder War: How the Global Energy Trade Slipped from America’s Grasp.

Russia’s ruble may have strengthened sharply Wednesday, but it’s plunge in recent days has encouraged plenty of talk about the country’s catastrophe, with some even proclaiming that the new Russia is about to go the way of the old USSR.

Don’t believe it. Russia is not the United States, and the effects of a rapidly declining currency over there are much less dramatic than they would be in the U.S.

One important thing to remember is that the fall of the ruble has accompanied a precipitous decline in the per barrel price of oil. But the two are not as intimately connected as might be supposed. Yes, Russia has a resource based economy that is hurt by oil weakness. However, oil is traded nearly everywhere in U.S. dollars, which are presently enjoying considerable strength.

This means that Russian oil producers can sell their product in these strong dollars but pay their expenses in devalued rubles. Thus, they can make capital improvements, invest in new capacity, or do further explorations for less than it would have cost before the ruble’s value was halved against the dollar. The sector remains healthy, and able to continue contributing the lion’s share of governmental tax revenues.

Nor is ruble volatility going to affect the ability of most Russian companies to service their debt. Most of the dollar-denominated corporate debt that has to be rolled over in the coming months was borrowed by state companies, which have a steady stream of foreign currency revenues from oil and gas exports.

Russian consumers will be hurt, of course, due to the higher costs of imported goods, as well as the squeeze inflation puts on their incomes. But, by the same token, exports become much more attractive to foreign buyers. A cheaper ruble boosts the profit outlook for all Russian companies involved in international trade. Additionally, when the present currency weakness is added to the ban on food imports from the European Union, the two could eventually lead to an import substitution boom in Russia.

In any event, don’t expect any deprivations to inspire riots in the streets of Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s popularity has soared since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis. The people trust him. They’ll tighten their belts and there will be no widespread revolt against his policies.

Further, the high price of oil during the commodity super cycle, coupled with a high real exchange rate, led to a serious decline in the Russia’s manufacturing and agricultural sectors over the past 15 years. This correlation — termed by economists “Dutch disease”— lowered the Russian manufacturing sector’s share of its economy to 8% from 21% in 2000.

The longer the ruble remains weak, however, the less Dutch disease will rule the day. A lower currency means investment in Russian manufacturing and agriculture will make good economic sense again. Both should be given a real fillip.

Low oil prices are also good for Russia’s big customers, especially China, with which Putin has been forging ever stronger ties. If, as expected, Russia and China agree to transactions in rubles and/or yuan, that will push them even closer together and further undermine the dollar’s worldwide hegemony. Putin always thinks decades ahead, and any short term loss of energy revenues will be far offset by the long term gains of his economic alliances.

In the most recent development, the Russian central bank has reacted by raising interest rates to 17%. On the one hand, this is meant to curb inflation. On the other, it’s an direct response to the short selling speculators who’ve been attacking the ruble. They now have to pay additional premiums, so the risk/reward ratio has gone up. Speculators are going to be much warier going forward.

The rise in interest rates mirrors how former U.S. Fed Chair Paul Volcker fought inflation in the U.S. in the early ‘80s. It worked for Volcker, as the U.S. stock market embarked on a historic bull run. The Russians — whose market has been beaten down during the oil/currency crisis — are expecting a similar result.

Not that the Russian market is anywhere near as important to that country’s economy as the US’s is to its. Russians don’t play the market like Americans do. There is no Jim Kramerovsky’s Mad Money in Russia.

Russia is not some Zimbabwe-to-be. It’s sitting on a surplus of foreign assets and very healthy foreign exchange reserves of around $375 billion. Moreover, it has a strong debt-to-GDP ratio of just 13% and a large (and steadily growing) stockpile of gold. Why Russia will arrest the ruble’s slide and keep pumping oil
And there is Russia’s energy relationship with the EU, particularly Germany. Putin showed his clout when he axed the South Stream pipeline and announced that he would run a pipeline through Turkey instead.

The cancellation barely lasted long enough to speak it before the EU caved and offered Putin what he needed to get South Stream back on line. Germany is never going to let Turkey be a gatekeeper of European energy security. With winter arriving, the EU’s dependence on Russian oil and gas will take center stage, and the union will become a stabilizing influence on Russia once again.

In short, while the current situation is not working in Russia’s favor, the country is far from down for the count. It will arrest the ruble’s slide and keep pumping oil. Its economy will contract but not crumble. The harsh reality is that American shale fields have much more to fear from plummeting oil prices than the Russians (or the Saudis), since their costs of production are much higher. Many US shale wells will become uneconomic if oil falls much further. And it they start shutting down, it’ll be disastrous for the American economy, since the growth of the shale industry has underpinned 100% of US economic growth for the past several years.

Those waving their arms about the ruble might do better to look at countries facing real currency crises, like oil dependent Venezuela and Nigeria, as well as Ukraine. That’s where the serious trouble is going to come.
The collapse in oil prices is just the opening salvo in a decades long conflict to control the world’s energy trade. To find out what the future holds, specifically how Vladimir Putin has positioned Russia to come roaring back by leveraging its immense natural resource wealth, click here to get your copy of Marin Katusa’s smash hit New York Times bestseller, The Colder War. Inside, you’ll discover how underestimating Putin will have dire consequences.

And you’ll also discover how dangerous the deepening alliance between China, Russia and the emerging markets is to the future of American prosperity. Click here to get your copy.



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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Crude Oil, Employment, and Growth

By John Mauldin


Last week we started a series of letters on the topics I think we need to research in depth as we try to peer into the future and think about how 2015 will unfold. In forecasting U.S. growth, I wrote that we really need to understand the relationships between the boom in energy production on the one hand and employment and overall growth in the US on the other. The old saw that falling oil prices are like a tax cut and are thus a net benefit to the US economy and consumers is not altogether clear to me. I certainly hope the net effect will be positive, but hope is not a realistic basis for a forecast. Let’s go back to two paragraphs I wrote last week:

Texas has been home to 40% of all new jobs created since June 2009. In 2013, the city of Houston had more housing starts than all of California. Much, though not all, of that growth is due directly to oil. Estimates are that 35–40% of total capital expenditure growth is related to energy. But it’s no secret that not only will energy related capital expenditures not grow next year, they are likely to drop significantly. The news is full of stories about companies slashing their production budgets. This means lower employment, with all of the knock on effects.

Lacy Hunt and I were talking yesterday about Texas and the oil industry. We have both lived through five periods of boom and bust, although I can only really remember three. This is a movie we’ve seen before, and we know how it ends. Texas Gov. Rick Perry has remarkable timing, slipping out the door to let new governor Greg Abbott to take over just in time to oversee rising unemployment in Texas. The good news for the rest of the country is that in prior Texas recessions the rest of the country has not been dragged down. But energy is not just a Texas and Louisiana story anymore. I will be looking for research as to how much energy development has contributed to growth and employment in the US.

Then the research began to trickle in, and over the last few days there has been a flood. As we will see, energy production has been the main driver of growth in the US economy for the last five years. But changing demographics suggest that we might not need the job creation machine of energy production as much in the future to ensure overall employment growth.

When I sat down to begin writing this letter on Friday morning, I really intended to write about how falling commodity prices (nearly across the board) and the rise of the dollar are going to affect emerging markets.

The risks of significant policy errors and an escalating currency war are very real and could be quite damaging to global growth. But we will get into that next week. Today we’re going to focus on some fascinating data on the interplay between energy and employment and the implications for growth of the US economy. (Note: this letter will print a little longer due to numerous charts, but the word count is actually shorter than usual.)

But first, a quick recommendation. I regularly interact with all the editors of our Mauldin Economics publications, but the subscription service I am most personally involved with is Over My Shoulder.
It is actually very popular (judging from the really high renewal rates), and I probably should mention it more often. Basically, I generally post somewhere between five and ten articles, reports, research pieces, essays, etc., each week to Over My Shoulder. They are sent directly to subscribers in PDF form, along with my comments on the pieces; and of course they’re posted to a subscribers-only section of our website. These articles are gleaned from the hundreds of items I read each week – they’re the ones I feel are most important for those of us who are trying to understand the economy. Often they are from private or subscription sources that I have permission to share occasionally with my readers.

This is not the typical linkfest where some blogger throws up 10 or 20 links every day from Bloomberg, the Wall Street Journal, newspapers, and a few research houses without really curating the material, hoping you will click to the webpage and make them a few pennies for their ads. I post only what I think is worth your time. Sometimes I go several days without any posts, and then there will be four or five in a few days. I don’t feel the need to post something every day if I’m not reading anything worth your time.

Over My Shoulder is like having me as your personal information assistant, finding you the articles that you should be reading – but I’m an assistant with access to hundreds of thousands of dollars of research and 30 years of training in sorting it all out. It’s like having an expert filter for the overwhelming flow of information that’s out there, helping you focus on what is most important.

Frankly, I think the quality of my research has improved over the last couple years precisely because I now have Worth Wray performing the same service for me as I do for Over My Shoulder subscribers. Having Worth on your team is many multiples more expensive than an Over My Shoulder subscription, but it is one of the best investments I’ve ever made. And our combined efforts and insights make Over My Shoulder a great bargain for you.

For the next three weeks, I’m going to change our Over My Shoulder process a bit. Both Worth and I are going to post the most relevant pieces we read as we put together our 2015 forecasts. This time of year there is an onslaught of forecasts and research, and we go through a ton of it. You will literally get to look “over my shoulder” at the research Worth and I will be thinking through as we develop our forecasts, and you will have a better basis for your own analysis of your portfolios and businesses for 2015.

And the best part of it is that Over My Shoulder is relatively cheap. My partners are wanting me to raise the price, and we may do that at some time, but for right now it will stay at $39 a quarter or $149 a year. If you are already a subscriber or if you subscribe in the next few days, I will hold that price for you for at least another three years. I just noticed on the order form (I should check these things more often) that my partners have included a 90 day, 100% money-back guarantee. I don’t remember making that offer when I launched the service, so this is my own version of Internet Monday.  

You can learn more and sign up for Over My Shoulder right here.

And now to our regularly scheduled program.

The Impact of Oil On U.S. Growth
I had the pleasure recently of having lunch with longtime Maine fishing buddy Harvey Rosenblum, the long-serving but recently retired chief economist of the Dallas Federal Reserve. Like me, he has lived through multiple oil cycles here in Texas. He really understands the impact of oil on the Texas and U.S. economies. He pointed me to two important sources of data.

The first is a research report published earlier this year by the Manhattan Institute, entitled “The Power and Growth Initiative Report.” Let me highlight a few of the key findings:

1. In recent years, America’s oil & gas boom has added $300–$400 billion annually to the economy – without this contribution, GDP growth would have been negative and the nation would have continued to be in recession.

2. America’s hydrocarbon revolution and its associated job creation are almost entirely the result of drilling & production by more than 20,000 small and midsize businesses, not a handful of “Big Oil” companies. In fact, the typical firm in the oil & gas industry employs fewer than 15 people. [We typically don’t think of the oil business as the place where small businesses are created, but for those of us who have been around the oil patch, we all know that it is. That tendency is becoming even more pronounced as the drilling process becomes more complicated and the need for specialists keeps rising. – John]

3. The shale oil & gas revolution has been the nation’s biggest single creator of solid, middle-class jobs – throughout the economy, from construction to services to information technology.

4. Overall, nearly 1 million Americans work directly in the oil & gas industry, and a total of 10 million jobs are associated with that industry.

Oil & gas jobs are widely geographically dispersed and have already had a significant impact in more than a dozen states: 16 states have more than 150,000 jobs directly in the oil & gas sector and hundreds of thousands more jobs due to growth in that sector.

Author Mark Mills highlighted the importance of oil in employment growth:



The important takeaway is that, without new energy production, post recession U.S. growth would have looked more like Europe’s – tepid, to say the least. Job growth would have barely budged over the last five years.

Further, it is not just a Texas and North Dakota play. The benefits have been widespread throughout the country. “For every person working directly in the oil and gas ecosystem, three are employed in related businesses,” says the report. (I should note that the Manhattan Institute is a conservative think tank, so the report is pro-energy-production; but for our purposes, the important thing is the impact of energy production on recent US economic growth.)

The next chart Harvey directed me to was one that’s on the Dallas Federal Reserve website, and it’s fascinating. It shows total payroll employment in each of the 12 Federal Reserve districts. No surprise, Texas (the Dallas Fed district) shows the largest growth (there are around 1.8 million oil related jobs in Texas, according to the Manhattan Institute). Next largest is the Minneapolis Fed district, which includes North Dakota and the Bakken oil play. Note in the chart below that four districts have not gotten back to where they were in 2007, and another four have seen very little growth even after eight years. “It is no wonder,” said Harvey, “that so many people feel like we’re still in a recession; for where they live, it still is.”



To get the total picture, let’s go to the St. Louis Federal Reserve FRED database and look at the same employment numbers – but for the whole country. Notice that we’re up fewer than two million jobs since the beginning of the Great Recession. That’s a growth of fewer than two million jobs in eight years when the population was growing at multiples of that amount.



To put an exclamation point on that, Zero Hedge offers this thought:

Houston, we have a problem. With a third of S&P 500 capital expenditure due from the imploding energy sector (and with over 20% of the high yield market dominated by these names), paying attention to any inflection point in the U.S. oil producers is critical as they have been gung-ho “unequivocally good” expanders even as oil prices began to fall. So, when Reuters reports a drop of almost 40 percent in new well permits issued across the United States in November, even the Fed's Stan Fischer might start to question [whether] his [belief that] lower oil prices are "a phenomenon that’s making everybody better off" may warrant a rethink.

Consider: lower oil prices unequivocally “make everyone better off.” Right? Wrong. First: new oil well permits collapse 40% in November; why is this an issue? Because since December 2007, or roughly the start of the global depression, shale oil states have added 1.36 million jobs while non shale states have lost 424,000 jobs.



The writer of this Zero Hedge piece, whoever it is (please understand there is no such person as Tyler Durden; the name is simply a pseudonym for several anonymous writers), concludes with a poignant question:

So, is [Fed Vice-Chairman] Stan Fischer's “not very worried” remark about to become the new Ben “subprime contained” Bernanke of the last crisis?

Did the Fed Cause the Shale Bubble?

Next let’s turn to David Stockman (who I think writes even more than I do). He took aim at the Federal Reserve, which he accuses of creating the recent “shale bubble” just as it did the housing bubble, by keeping interest rates too low and forcing investors to reach for yield. There may be a little truth to that. The reality is that the recent energy boom was financed by $500 billion of credit extended to mostly “subprime” oil companies, who issued what are politely termed high yield bonds – to the point that 20% of the high yield market is now energy production related.

Sidebar: this is not quite the same problem as subprime loans were, for two reasons: first, the subprime loans were many times larger in total, and many of them were fraudulently misrepresented. Second, many of those loans were what one could characterize as “covenant light,” which means the borrowers can extend the loan, pay back in kind, or change the terms if they run into financial difficulty. So this energy related high yield problem is going to take a lot more time than the subprime crisis did to actually manifest, and there will not be immediate foreclosures. But it already clear that the problem is going to continue to negatively (and perhaps severely) impact the high-yield bond market. Once the problems in energy loans to many small companies become evident, prospective borrowers might start looking at the terms that the rest of the junk-bond market gets, which are just as egregious, so they might not like what they see. We clearly did not learn any lessons in 2005 to 2007 and have repeated the same mistakes in the junk bond market today. If you lose your money this time, you probably deserve to lose it.

The high yield shake out, by the way, is going to make it far more difficult to raise money for energy production in the future, when the price of oil will inevitably rise again. The Saudis know exactly what they’re doing. But the current contretemps in the energy world is going to have implications for the rest of the leveraged markets. “Our biggest worry is the end of the liquidity cycle. The Fed is done. The reach for yield that we have seen since 2009 is going into reverse,” says Bank of America (source: The Telegraph).

Contained within Stockman’s analysis is some very interesting work on the nature of employment in the post recession U.S. economy. First, in the nonfarm business sector, the total hours of all persons working is still below that of 2007, even though we nominally have almost two million more jobs. Then David gives us two charts that illustrate the nature of the jobs we are creating (a topic I’ve discussed more than once in this letter). It’s nice to have somebody do the actual work for you.

The first chart shows what he calls “breadwinner jobs,” which are those in manufacturing, information technology, and other white collar work that have an average pay rate of about $45,000 a year. Note that this chart encompasses two economic cycles covering both the Greenspan and Bernanke eras.



So where did the increase in jobs come from? From what Stockman calls the “part time economy.” If I read this chart right and compare it to our earlier chart from the Federal Reserve, it basically demonstrates (and this conclusion is also borne out by the research I’ve presented in the past) that the increase in the number of jobs is almost entirely due to the creation of part time and low wage positions – bartenders, waiters, bellhops, maids, cobblers, retail clerks, fast food workers, and temp help. Although there are some professional bartenders and waiters who do in fact make good money, they are the exception rather than the rule.



It’s no wonder we are working fewer hours even as we have more jobs.

To continue reading this article from Thoughts from the Frontline – a free weekly publication by John Mauldin, renowned financial expert, best selling author, and Chairman of Mauldin Economics – please click here.



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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

German Chancellor Merkel Won’t Let Ukraine Get in the Way of Business

By Marin Katusa, Chief Energy Investment Strategist

The Ukraine crisis has moderated for now, but it should have awakened the world to the new “great game” being played in Eastern Europe. Vladimir Putin is positioning Russia to control the global energy trade, knowing that he holds the trump card: Europe’s dependence on Russian oil and gas.

This epic struggle between the US and Russia could change the very nature of the Euro-American trans Atlantic alliance, because Europe is going to have to choose sides.

The numbers in Putin’s OIL = POWER equation are only going to keep getting bigger as Russia’s control and output of energy continues to grow and as Europe’s supply from other sources dwindles—as I outline in my new book, The Colder War. Finland and Hungary get almost all their oil from Russia; Poland more than 75%; Sweden, the Czech Republic, and Belgium about 50%; Germany and the Netherlands, upward of 40%.

Cutting back on energy imports from Russia as a means of pressuring Moscow is hardly in the EU’s best interest.

Germany, the union’s de facto leader, has simply invested too much in its relationship with Putin to sever ties—which is why Chancellor Angela Merkel has blocked any serious sanctions against Russia, or NATO bases in Eastern Europe.

In fact, Germany is moving to normalize its relations with Russia, which means marginalizing the Ukrainian showdown. Ukraine is but a very small part of Moscow’s and Berlin’s plans for the 21st century. Though the U.S. desperately wants Germany to lean Westward, it has instead been pivoting East. It’s constructing an alliance that will ultimately elbow the US out of Eastern and Central Europe and consign it to the status of peripheral player. (The concept of the “pivot “ in geopolitics was advanced by the celebrated early 20th century English geographer Halford Mackinder with regard to Russia’s potential to dominate Europe and Asia because it forms a geographical bridge between the two.

Mackinder’s “Heartland Theory” argued that whoever controlled Eurasia would control the world. Such a far flung empire might come into being if Germany were to ally itself with Russia. It’s a doctrine that influenced geopolitical strategists through both World Wars and the Cold War. It was even embraced by the Nazis before Russia became an enemy. And it may still be relevant today—despite the historical animosities between the two countries. After all, the mutually beneficial alliance of a resource-hungry Germany with a resource-rich Russia is a logical one.)

Considering the deepening ties between Russia and Germany in recent years, the real motive for the US’s stoking of unrest in Ukraine may not have been to pull Ukraine out of Russia’s sphere of influence and into the West’s orbit—it may have been primarily intended to drive a wedge between Germany and Russia.

The US almost certainly views the growing trade between them—3,000 German companies have invested heavily in Russia—as a major geopolitical threat to NATO’s health. The much-publicized spying on German politicians by the US and the British—and Germany’s reciprocal surveillance—shows the level of mutual distrust that exists.

If sowing discord between Russia and Germany was America’s goal, the implementation of sanctions might look like mission accomplished. Appearances can be deceptive, though.

Behind the scenes, Germany and Russia maintain a cordial dialogue, made all the easier because Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel get along well on a personal level. They’re so fluent in each other’s languages that they correct their interpreters. They often confer about the possibility of creating a stable, prosperous and secure Eurasian supercontinent.

Despite the sanctions, German and Russian businessmen are still busy forging closer ties. At a shindig in September for German businesses in the North-East and Russian companies from St. Petersburg, Gerhard Schröder—former German prime minister and president, and friend of Putin—urged his audience to continue to build their energy and raw-material partnership.

Schröder’s close personal relationship with Putin is no secret. He considers the Russian president to be a man of utmost trustworthiness, and his Social Democratic Party has always been wedded to Ostpolitik (German for “new Eastern policy”), which asserts that his country’s strategic interest is to bind Russia into an energy alliance with the EU.

Schröder would have us believe that they never talk politics. Yet in his capacity as chair of the shareholders’ committee of Gazprom’s Nord Stream—the pipeline laid on the Baltic seabed which links Germany directly to Russian gas—he continues to advocate for a German-Russian “agreement.”

That’s a viewpoint Merkel shares. In spite of her public criticism of Putin’s policy toward Ukraine, Merkel has gone out of her way to play down any thought of a new Cold War. She’s on the record as wanting Germany’s “close partnership” with Russia to continue—and she’s convinced it will in the not-so-distant future.

Though Merkel has rejected lifting sanctions against Russia and continues to publicly call on Putin to exert a moderating influence on pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists, it looks like Germany is seeking a reasonable way out. That makes sense, given the disproportionate economic price Germany is paying to keep up appearances of being a loyal US ally.

Politicians in Germany are alert to the potential damage an alienated Russia could inflict on German interests. Corporate Germany is getting the jitters as well, and there are a growing number of dissenting voices in that sector. And anti-American sentiment in Germany—which is reflected in the polls—is putting added pressure on Berlin to pursue a softer line rather than slavishly following Washington’s lead in this geopolitical conflict.
With the eurozone threatened by a triple dip recession, expect Germany and the EU to act in their own interests. Germany has too much invested in Russia to let Ukraine spoil its plans.

As you can see, there’s no greater force controlling the global energy trade today than Russia and Vladimir Putin. But if you understand his role in geopolitics as Marin Katusa does, you’ll know how he’s influencing the flow of the capital in the energy sector—and which companies and projects will benefit and which will lose out.

Of course, the situation is fluid, which is why Marin launched a brand new advisory dedicated to helping investors get out in front of the latest chess moves in this struggle and make a bundle in the process.
It’s called The Colder War Letter. And it’s the perfect complement to Marin’s New York Times best-seller, The Colder War, and the best way to navigate and profit in the fast changing new reality of the energy sector. When you sign up now, you’ll also receive a FREE copy of Marin’s book. Click here for all the details.




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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Seven Questions Gold Bears Must Answer

By Jeff Clark, Senior Precious Metals Analyst

A glance at any gold price chart reveals the severity of the bear mauling it has endured over the last three years. More alarming, even for die hard gold investors, is that some of the fundamental drivers that would normally push gold higher, like a weak U.S. dollar, have reversed.

Throw in a correction defying Wall Street stock market and the never ending rain of disdain for gold from the mainstream and it may seem that there’s no reason to buy gold; the bear is here to stay.
If so, then I have a question. Actually, a whole bunch of questions.

If we’re in a bear market, then…..

Why Is China Accumulating Record Amounts of Gold?


Mainstream reports will tell you Chinese imports through Hong Kong are down. They are.
But total gold imports are up. Most journalists continue to overlook the fact that China imports gold directly into Beijing and Shanghai now. And there are at least 12 importing banks—that we know of.
Counting these “unreported” sources, imports have risen sharply. How do we know? From other countries’ export data. Take Switzerland, for example:


So far in 2014, Switzerland has shipped 153 tonnes (4.9 million ounces) to China directly. This represents over 50% of what they sent through Hong Kong (299 tonnes).

The UK has also exported £15 billion in gold so far in 2014, according to customs data. In fact, London has shipped so much gold to China (and other parts of Asia) that their domestic market has “tightened significantly” according to bullion analysts there.

Why Is China Working to Accelerate Its Accumulation?


This is a growing trend. The People’s Bank of China released a plan just last Wednesday to open up gold imports to qualified miners, as well as all banks that are members of the Shanghai Gold Exchange. Even commemorative gold maker China Gold Coin could qualify to import bullion. Not only will this further increase imports, but it will serve to lower premiums for Chinese buyers, making purchases more affordable.

As evidence of burgeoning demand, gold trading on China’s largest physical exchange has already exceeded last year’s record volume. YTD volume on the Shanghai Gold Exchange, including the city’s free trade zone, was 12,077 tonnes through October vs. 11,614 tonnes in all of 2013.

The Chinese wave has reached tidal proportions—and it’s still growing.

Why Are Other Countries Hoarding Gold?


The World Gold Council (WGC) reports that for the 12 months ending September 2014, gold demand outside of China and India was 1,566 tonnes (50.3 million ounces). The problem is that demand from China and India already equals global production!

India and China currently account for approximately 3,100 tonnes of gold demand, and the WGC says new mine production was 3,115 tonnes during the same period.

And in spite of all the government attempts to limit gold imports, India just recorded the highest level of imports in 41 months; the country imported over 39 tonnes in November alone, the most since May 2011.

Let’s not forget Russia. Not only does the Russian central bank continue to buy aggressively on the international market, Moscow now buys directly from Russian miners. This is largely because banks and brokers are blocked from using international markets by US sanctions. Despite this, and the fact that Russia doesn’t have to buy gold but keeps doing so anyway.

Global gold demand now eats up more than miners around the world can produce. Do all these countries see something we don’t?

Why Are Retail Investors NOT Selling SLV?


SPDR gold ETF (GLD) holdings continue to largely track the price of gold—but not the iShares silver ETF (SLV). The latter has more retail investors than GLD, and they’re not selling. In fact, while GLD holdings continue to decline, SLV holdings have shot higher.


While the silver price has fallen 16.5% so far this year, SLV holdings have risen 9.5%.

Why are so many silver investors not only holding on to their ETF shares but buying more?

Why Are Bullion Sales Setting New Records?


2013 was a record-setting year for gold and silver purchases from the US Mint. Pretty bullish when you consider the price crashed and headlines were universally negative.
And yet 2014 is on track to exceed last year’s record-setting pace, particularly with silver…
  • November silver Eagle sales from the US Mint totaled 3,426,000 ounces, 49% more than the previous year. If December sales surpass 1.1 million coins—a near certainty at this point—2014 will be another record-breaking year.
  • Silver sales at the Perth Mint last month also hit their highest level since January. Silver coin sales jumped to 851,836 ounces in November. That was also substantially higher than the 655,881 ounces in October.
  • And India’s silver imports rose 14% for the first 10 months of the year and set a record for that period. Silver imports totaled a massive 169 million ounces, draining many vaults in the UK, similar to the drain for gold I mentioned above.
To be fair, the Royal Canadian Mint reported lower gold and silver bullion sales for Q3. But volumes are still historically high.

Why Are Some Mainstream Investors Buying Gold?


The negative headlines we all see about gold come from the mainstream. Yet, some in that group are buyers…..

Ray Dalio runs the world’s largest hedge fund, with approximately $150 billion in assets under management. As my colleague Marin Katusa puts it, “When Ray talks, you listen.”

And Ray currently allocates 7.5% of his portfolio to gold.


He’s not alone. Joe Wickwire, portfolio manager of Fidelity Investments, said last week, “I believe now is a good time to take advantage of negative short-term trading sentiment in gold.”

Then there are Japanese pension funds, which as recently as 2011 did not invest in gold at all. Today, several hundred Japanese pension funds actively invest in the metal. Consider that Japan is the second-largest pension market in the world. Demand is also reportedly growing from defined benefit and defined contribution plans.

And just last Friday, Credit Suisse sold $24 million of US notes tied to an index of gold stocks, the largest offering in 14 months, a bet that producers will rebound from near six-year lows.

These (and other) mainstream investors are clearly not expecting gold and gold stocks to keep declining.

Why Are Countries Repatriating Gold?


I mean, it’s not as if the New York depository is unsafe. It and Ft. Knox rank as among the most secure storage facilities in the world. That makes the following developments very curious:
  • Netherlands repatriated 122 tonnes (3.9 million ounces) last month.
  • France’s National Front leader urged the Bank of France last month to repatriate all its gold from overseas vaults, and to increase its bullion assets by 20%.
  • The Swiss Gold Initiative, which did not pass a popular vote, would’ve required all overseas gold be repatriated, as well as gold to comprise 20% of Swiss assets.
  • Germany announced a repatriation program last year, though the plan has since fizzled.
  • And this just in: there are reports that the Belgian central bank is investigating repatriation of its gold reserves.
What’s so important about gold right now that’s spurned a new trend to store it closer to home and increase reserves?

These strong signs of demand don’t normally correlate with an asset in a bear market. Do you know of any bear market, in any asset, that’s seen this kind of demand?

Neither do I.

My friends, there’s only one explanation: all these parties see the bear soon yielding to the bull. You and I obviously aren’t the only ones that see it on the horizon.

Christmas Wishes Come True…..


One more thing: our founder and chairman, Doug Casey himself, is now willing to go on the record saying that he thinks the bottom is in for gold.

I say we back up the truck for the bargain of the century. Just like all the others above are doing.

With gold on sale for the holidays, I arranged for premium discounts on SEVEN different bullion products in the new issue of BIG GOLD. With gold and silver prices at four-year lows and fundamental forces that will someday propel them a lot higher, we have a truly unique buying opportunity. I want to capitalize on today’s “most mispriced asset” before sentiment reverses and the next uptrend in precious metals kicks into gear. It’s our first ever Bullion Buyers Blowout—and I hope you’ll take advantage of the can’t-beat offers.

Someday soon you will pay a lot more for your insurance. Save now with these discounts.
The article 7 Questions Gold Bears Must Answer was originally published at casey research.


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Sunday, December 7, 2014

Crude Oil Market Summary for Week Ending Friday December 5th

Crude oil futures in the January contract had a wild trading week continuing a bearish trend after settling last Friday around 66.15 basically going out at the same price today and if you are still short this market I would continue to place my stop loss above the 10 day high which currently stands at 77.02 risking around 1100 points or $11,000 per contract plus slippage and commission as this is a high risk trade at the current time.

However if you are not currently short this market I would sit on the sidelines and look for a better trade. The chart structure will start to improve dramatically starting on Monday as the risk will come down dramatically as the trend continues with gold and crude oil to the downside as the commodity markets as a whole remain bearish as the U.S dollar hit another 5 year high today so continue to play this to the downside as I think the oversupply issue worldwide will put a lid on prices here in the short term.

Eastern Europe and Russia are both heading into recession while the United States economy is looking very solid as consumers will definitely benefit from lower prices at the pump which should continue to put upward pressure on the equity markets in my opinion, however with OPEC deciding last week not to cut production this market should continue to move to the downside as the chart structure has started to improve, however there is extreme volatility in this market at the current time with high risk so move on and do not try to pick a bottom as I’m not bullish crude oil prices at all.
Trend: Lower
Chart Structure: Improving

This weeks crude oil market summary was provided by our trading partner Mike Seery. Get more of his calls on commodities....Just Click Here

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Friday, December 5, 2014

Russia and China’s Natural Gas Deals are a Death Knell for Canada’s LNG Ambitions

By Marin Katusa, Chief Energy Investment Strategist

In recent years, a number of Asian companies have been betting that Canada will be able to export cheap liquefied natural gas (LNG) from its west coast. These big international players include PetroChina, Mitsubishi, CNOOC, and, until December 3, Malaysian state owned Petronas.

However, that initial interest is decidedly on the wane. In fact, while the British Columbia LNG Alliance is still hopeful that some of the 18 LNG projects that have been proposed will be realized, it’s now looking less and less likely that any of these Canadian LNG consortia will ever make a final investment decision to forge ahead.

That’s thanks to the Colder War—as I explain in detail in my new book of the same name—and the impetus it’s given Vladimir Putin to open up new markets in Asia.

The huge gas export deals that Russia struck with China in May and October—with an agreed-upon price ranging from $8-10 per million British thermal units (mmBtu)—has likely capped investors’ expectations of Chinese natural gas prices at around $10-11 per mmBtu, a level which would make shipping natural gas from Canada to Asia uneconomic.

At these prices, not even British Columbia’s new Liquefied Natural Gas Income Tax Act—which has halved the post payout tax rate to 3.5% and proposes reducing corporate income tax to 8% from 11%—can make Canadian natural gas globally competitive.

These tax credits are too little, too late, because Canada is years behind Australia, Russia, and Qatar’s gas projects. This means there’s just too much uncertainty about future profit margins to commit the vast amount of capital that will be needed to make Canadian LNG a reality.

Sure, there are huge proven reserves of natural gas in Canada. It’s just been determined that Canada’s Northwest Territories hold 16.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves, 40% more than previous estimates.

But the fact is that Canada will remain a high-cost producer of LNG, and its shipping costs to Asia will be much higher than Russia’s, Australia’s, and Qatar’s. So unless potential buyers in Asia are confident that Henry Hub gas prices will stay below $5, they’re unlikely to commit to long-term contracts for Canadian LNG—or US gas for that matter—because compression and shipping add at least another $6 to the price.

Shell has estimated that its proposed terminal, owned by LNG Canada, will cost $40 billion, not including a $4 billion pipeline. As LNG Canada—whose shareholders include PetroChina, Korea Gas Corp., and Mitsubishi Corp.—admits, it’s not yet sure that the project will be economically viable. Even if it turns out to be, LNG Canada says it won’t make a final investment decision until 2016, after which the facility would take five years to build.

But investors shouldn’t hold their breath. It seems like Korea Gas Corp. has already made up its mind. It’s planning to sell a third of its 15% stake in LNG Canada by the end of this year.

And who can blame it? The industry still doesn’t have clarity on environmental issues, federal taxes, municipal taxes, transfer pricing agreements, or what the First Nations’ cut will be. And these are all major hurdles.

Pipeline permits are also still incomplete. The federal government still hasn’t decided if LNG is a manufacturing or distribution business, which matters because if it rules that it’s a distribution business, permitting is going to be delayed.

And to muddy the picture even further, opposition to gas pipelines and fracking is on the rise in British Columbia and elsewhere in Canada. While fossil fuel projects are under fire from climate alarmists the world over, Canadian environmentalists are also angry that increased tanker traffic through its pristine coastal waters could lead to oil spills.

Canada is now under the sway of radical environmental groups and think tanks like the Pierre Elliot Trudeau Foundation, which take as a given that Canada should shut down its tar sands industry altogether. For these people, there’s no responsible way to build new fossil fuel infrastructure.

Elsewhere, investors might expect money and jobs to do the talking, but Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party, which has called for greenhouse gas limits on oil sands, is now leading the conservatives in the polls. (Just out of curiosity, does Trudeau plan on putting a cap on the carbon monoxide concentration from his marijuana agenda? But I digress.) If a liberal government is elected next year, it might adopt a national climate policy that would cripple gas companies and oil companies alike.

Some energy majors are already shying away from Canadian LNG. BG Group announced in October that it’s delaying a decision on its Prince Rupert LNG project until after 2016. And Apache Corp., partnered with Chevron on a Canadian LNG project, is seeking a buyer for its stake.

Not everyone is throwing in the towel. Yet. ExxonMobil—which is in the early planning phase for the West Coast Canada LNG project at Tuck Inlet, located near Prince Rupert in northwestern British Columbia—has just become a member of the British Columbia LNG alliance.

But Petronas was a key player. It was thought that the company would be moving ahead after British Columbia’s Ministry of Environment approved its LNG terminal, along with two pipelines that would feed it.

Instead, Petronas pulled the plug. We can’t know how many things factored into that decision nor whether it’s absolutely final. All the company would say is that projected costs of C$36 billion would need to be reduced before a restart could be considered. (That $36B figure includes Petronas’s 2012 acquisition of Calgary based gas producer Progress Energy Resources Corp., as well as the C$10 billion proposed terminal, a pipeline, and the cost of drilling wells in BC’s northeast.)

This latest blow leaves Canadian LNG development very much in doubt. In fact, most observers believe that Petronas’s move to the sidelines probably sounds the death knell for the industry, at least for the foreseeable future.
For more on how the Colder War is forever changing the energy sector and global finance itself, click here to get your copy of Marin’s New York Times bestselling book. Inside, you’ll discover more on LNG and how this geopolitical chess game between Russia and the West for control of the world’s energy trade will shape this decade and the century to come.



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