Tuesday, January 27, 2015

How to Find the Best Offshore Banks

By Nick Giambruno

It’s hard to think of a topic where following the conventional wisdom can be more dangerous. And that topic is banking. It’s generally accepted as an absolute truth by the public and most financial experts that putting your money in a domestic bank is a safe and responsible thing to do. After all, if anything were to go wrong, your deposits are insured by the government.

As a result, most people put more thought into which shoes they should purchase than which bank should be entrusted with their life savings.

It’s a classic moral hazard—a situation in which a person is more likely to take risks because the costs won’t be borne by that person. In the case of banking, that’s how a lot of people think, but it isn’t necessarily true that individuals bear no costs of their banking decisions. The prudent thing to do is ignore the conventional wisdom and look at the facts to form your opinions. Choosing the right custodian for your life savings makes a difference—and it deserves some serious thought.

A False Sense of Security


In the US, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) insures bank deposits. In the case of a bank failure, the FDIC pays depositors up to $250,000. The FDIC has a reserve of around $30 billion for this purpose.

Now, $30 billion might sound like a lot of money. But considering that the FDIC insures around $9 trillion in deposits, the $30 billion in reserve amounts to just a drop in the bucket. It’s actually less than half a penny for every dollar it supposedly insures.

In fact, there are over 36 banks in the US that have deposits larger than the FDIC’s reserve. It wouldn’t take much for the FDIC itself to go bust. One large bank failure is all it would take. And with many of the big banks leveraged to the hilt, that isn’t as remote a possibility as many would believe.

Oddly, this doesn’t shake the confidence the public and most financial experts place in the US banking system.

Also, it’s already an established precedent that whenever a government deems it necessary, deposit guarantees can be disregarded on whim. We saw this in the early days of the financial crisis in Cyprus. The Cypriot government initially sought (but was ultimately rebuffed) to dip its hands into bank accounts under the guaranteed amount. Similarly, Spain has imposed a blanket taxation on all bank deposits. I’d bet this is only the beginning. We haven’t even made it through the coming attractions.

Taken together, this shows that the confidence in the banking system—merely because of the existence of a bankrupt government promise—is dangerously misplaced.

Follow conventional wisdom at your own peril.

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Fortunately, in this day and age the decision on where to bank doesn’t have to be constrained by geography. Banking outside of your home country—where much sounder governments, banking systems, and banks can be found—is in most ways just as easy as banking with Bank of America.

The Solution


Obtaining a bank account outside of your home country is a key component of any international diversification strategy.

It protects you from capital controls, lightning government seizures, bail ins, other forms of confiscation, and any number of other dirty tricks a bankrupt government might try.

Offshore banks offer another benefit: they are usually much safer and more conservatively run than banks in your home country… at least if you live in the US and many parts of Europe. It’s hard to see how you’d be worse off for placing some of your cash where it’s treated best. In the event that your home government does something desperate or your domestic bank makes a losing bet, it could turn out to be a very prudent move.

When Doug Casey and I were in Cyprus, we met with a number of astute Cypriots who saw the writing on the wall. They got their money outside of the country before the bail in and capital controls, and they were spared. It would be wise to learn from their example.

But you shouldn’t just blindly move your savings to any foreign bank. You want to consider only the best.
For me, being able to find the safest and best offshore banks comes naturally. In the past, I worked as a banking analyst for an investment bank in Beirut, Lebanon. While there, I rigorously assessed countless banks around the world. This experience and the analytical tools I developed have been very helpful in evaluating the best offshore banks worthy of holding deposits.

A basic rundown (but not inclusive) of factors I look for when analyzing an offshore bank include:
  • The economic fundamentals and political risk of the jurisdictions the bank operates in.
  • The quality of the bank’s assets—namely its loan book and investments. This helps you determine what the bank is doing with your money. I look for banks that are conservatively run and don’t gamble with your deposits. Banks that make leveraged bets with things like mortgage-backed securities or Greek government bonds are obviously to be avoided. Having a sound loan book with a low nonperforming ratio is crucial.
  • Liquidity—a relatively safer bank will keep more cash on hand rather than invest it in risky assets or loan it out, all else equal. That way it can meet customer withdrawals without having to potentially sell off assets for a loss—which could affect its ability to give you back your deposits.
  • Capitalization—this is a measure of its financial strength of the bank. It also shows you if the bank is using excessive leverage, which can increase the risk of insolvency. A bank’s capitalization is like its margin of error: the higher the better.
Another important factor is whether an offshore bank has a presence in your home jurisdiction. To obtain more political diversification benefits, it’s better that it does not.

For example, assume you are a Chinese citizen and want to diversify. It wouldn’t make much sense to open an account with the New York City branch of the Bank of China. It would be much better from a diversification standpoint for the Chinese citizen to open an account with a sound regional or local bank that doesn’t have a presence or connection to mainland China—and thus cannot have its arm easily twisted by the Chinese government.

The Best Offshore Banks


Each year, a prominent financial magazine publishes a study on the world’s safest banks. Below are its top 10 safest banks in the world (notice that none of them is in the US).

Naturally, things can change quickly though. New options emerge, while others disappear. This is why it’s so important to have the most up-to-date and accurate information possible. That’s where International Man comes in. Be sure to get the free IM Communiqué to keep up with the latest on the best offshore banking options.


Now, as an American citizen, it’s very unlikely that you could just show up to one of these banks and open an account as a nonresident of that country. That is, unless you plan on making a seven figure or high six figure deposit. Then you might have a chance, but even then it’s not guaranteed.

This dynamic is thanks to FATCA and all the red tape that the US government imposes on foreign banks who have US clients. For foreign banks, the logical business decision is to show Americans the unwelcome mat. The costs simply do not justify the benefits.

This is unfortunately true for many banks the world over. The net effect is to drastically reduce the number of choices that Americans have when banking offshore. It’s a sort of de facto capital control.

There are of course exceptions. Some solid offshore banks still accept Americans, and some even open accounts remotely. This means you could obtain huge diversification benefits without having to leave your living room.

In our comprehensive Going Global publication, we discuss our favorite banks and jurisdictions for offshore banking, crucially including those that still accept Americans as clients. It’s a list that is constantly dwindling, which highlights the need to act sooner rather than later.

The article was originally published at internationalman.com.


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Monday, January 26, 2015

How Global Interest Rates Deceive Markets

By John Mauldin

 “You keep on using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
– Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride

“In the economic sphere an act, a habit, an institution, a law produces not only one effect, but a series of effects. Of these effects, the first alone is immediate; it appears simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The other effects emerge only subsequently; they are not seen; we are fortunate if we foresee them.

“There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen.

“Yet this difference is tremendous; for it almost always happens that when the immediate consequence is favorable, the later consequences are disastrous, and vice versa. Whence it follows that the bad economist pursues a small present good that will be followed by a great evil to come, while the good economist pursues a great good to come, at the risk of a small present evil.”

– From an 1850 essay by Frédéric Bastiat, “That Which Is Seen and That Which Is Unseen”

All right class, it’s time for an open book test. I’m going to give you a list of yields on various 10 year bonds, and I want to you to tell me what it means.

United States: 1.80%
Germany: 0.36%
France: 0.54%
Italy: 1.56%
UK: 1.48%
Canada: 1.365%
Australia: 2.63%
Japan: 0.22%

I see that hand up in the back. Yes, the list does appear to tell us what interest rates the market is willing to take in order to hold money in a particular country’s currency for 10 years. It may or may not tell us about the creditworthiness of the country, but it does tell us something about the expectations that investors have about potential returns on other possible investments. The more astute among you will notice that French bonds have dropped from 2.38% exactly one year ago to today’s rather astonishing low of 0.54%.

Likewise, Germany has seen its 10-year Bund rates drop from 1.66% to a shockingly low 0.36%. What does it mean that European interest rates simply fell out of bed this week? Has the opportunity set in Europe diminished? Are the French really that much better a credit risk than the United States is? If not, what is that number, 0.54%, telling us? What in the wide, wide world of fixed-income investing is going on?

Quick segue – but hopefully a little fun. One of the pleasures of having children is that you get to watch the classic movie The Princess Bride over and over. (If you haven’t appreciated it, go borrow a few kids for the weekend and watch it.) There is a classic line in the movie that is indelibly imprinted on my mind.
In the middle of the film, a villainous but supposedly genius Sicilian named Vizzini keeps using the word “inconceivable” to describe certain events. A mysterious ship is following the group at sea? “Inconceivable!”

The ship’s captain starts climbing the bad guys’ rope up the Cliffs of Insanity and even starts to gain on them? “Inconceivable!” The villain doesn’t fall from said cliff after Vizzini cuts the rope that all of them were climbing? “Inconceivable!” Finally, master swordsman – and my favorite character in the movie – Inigo, famous for this and other awesome catchphrases, comments on Vizzini’s use of this word inconceivable:

“You keep on using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

(You can see all the uses of Vizzini’s use of the word inconceivable and hear Inigo’s classic retort here.)
When it comes to interpreting what current interest rates are telling us about the markets in various countries, I have to say that I do not think they mean what the market seems to think they mean. In fact, buried in that list of bond yields is “false information” – information so distorted and yet so readily misunderstood that it leads to wrong conclusions and decisions – and to bad investments. In today’s letter we are going to look at what interest rates actually mean in the modern-day context of currency wars and interest-rate manipulation by central banks. I think you will come to agree with me that an interest rate may not mean what the market thinks it means.

Let me begin by briefly summarizing what I want to demonstrate in this letter. First, I think Japanese interest rates not only contain no information but also that markets are misreading this non-information as meaningful because they are interpreting the data as if it were normal market information in a familiar market environment, when the truth is that we sailed beyond the boundaries of the known economic world some time ago. The old maps are no longer reliable. Secondly, Europe is making the decision to go down the same path as the Japanese have done; and contrary to the expectations of European central bankers, the potential to end up with the same results as Japan is rather high.

The false information paradox is highlighted by the recent Swiss National Bank decision. Couple that with the surprise decisions by Canada and Denmark to cut rates, the complete retracement of the euro against the yen over the past few weeks, and Bank of Japan Governor Kuroda’s telling the World Economic Forum in Davos that he is prepared to do more (shades of “whatever it takes”) to create inflation, and you have the opening salvos of the next skirmish in the ongoing currency wars I predicted a few years ago in Code Red. All of this means that capital is going to be misallocated and that the current efforts to create jobs and growth and inflation are insufficient. Indeed, I think those efforts might very well produce a net negative effect.

But before we go any farther, a quick note. We will start taking registrations for the 12th annual Strategic Investment Conference next week. There will be an early bird rate for those of you who go ahead to register quickly. The conference will run from April 29 through May 2 at the Manchester Grand Hyatt in San Diego.

For those of you familiar with the conference, there will be the “usual” lineup of brilliant speakers and thought leaders trying to help us understand investing in a world of divergence. For those not familiar, this conference is unlike the vast majority of other investment conferences, in that speakers representing various sponsors do not pay to address the audience. Instead, we bring in only “A list” speakers from around the world, people you really want to meet and talk with. This year we’re going to have a particularly large and diverse group of presenters, and we structure the conference so that attendees can mingle with the speakers and with each other.

I am often told by attendees that this is the best economic and investment conference they attend in any given year. I think it is a measure of the quality of the conference that many of the speakers seek us out. Not only do they want to speak, they want to attend the conference to hear and interact with the other speakers and conference guests. This conference is full of speakers that other speakers (especially including myself) want to hear. And you will, too. Save the date and look for registration and other information shortly in your mail.
Now let’s consider what today’s interest rates do and do not mean as we navigate uncharted waters.

Are We All Turning Japanese?

Japan is an interesting case study. It’s a highly developed nation with a very sophisticated culture, increasingly productive in dollar terms (although in yen terms nominal GDP has not moved all that much), and carrying an unbelievable 250% debt to GDP burden, but with a 10 year bond rate of 0.22%, which in theory could eventually mean that the total interest expenses of Japan would be less than those of the US on 5 - 6 times the amount of debt. Japan has an aging population and a savings rate that has plunged in recent years.

The country has been saddled with either low inflation or deflation for most of the past 25 years. At the same time, it is an export power, with some of the world’s most competitive companies in automobiles, electronics, robotics, automation, machine tools, etc. The Japanese have a large national balance sheet from decades of running trade surpluses. If nothing else, they have given the world sushi, for which I will always hold them in high regard.

We talk about Japan’s “lost decades” during which growth has been muted at best. They are just coming out of a triple dip recession after a disastrous downturn during the Great Recession. And through it all, for decades, there is been a widening government deficit. The chart below shows the yawning gap between Japanese government expenditures and revenues.



This next chart, from a Societe Generale report, seems to show that the Japanese are financing 40% of their budget. I say “seems” because there is a quirk in the way the Japanese do their fiscal accounting. Pay attention, class. This is important to understand. If you do not grasp this, you will not understand Japanese budgets and how they deal with their debt.

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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Sunday, January 25, 2015

Weekly Futures Market Recap with Mike Seery for Week Ending January 23rd

Our trading partner Mike Seery is back with his weekly futures market recap. As always he includes where he is placing stops to lock in profits we have all been enjoying if you have been following Mike this year.

Crude oil futures in the March contract are trading far below their 20 and 100 day moving average settling last Friday in New York at 49.13 a barrel while currently trading at 46.00 down over $3 for the trading week continuing its bearish trend and if you’re still short this market my recommendation would be to continue to place your stop loss above the 10 day high which currently stands at 51.73 risking about $6 or $6,000 per contract plus slippage and commission from today’s price levels.

The next level of major resistance is the January 13th low of 44.78 and if that level is broken I think prices could head into the mid-30s as over supplies are overwhelming at the current time plus the fact that the U.S dollar is hitting an 11 year high with the Euro currency down over another 100 points this Friday afternoon continuing to put pressure on the entire commodity sector.

The king of Saudi Arabia died this week sending prices up to 47.76 on the night session before succumbing to pressure once again as the U.S dollar is starting an exponential move to the upside as traders continue to sell all rallies in crude oil. If you have not been short this market I certainly would sit on the sidelines as you have missed the boat, however I am definitely not recommending any type of bullish position as I still think prices go lower, however the 10 day stop will not be lowered until next Friday so you’re going to have to be patient with this trade as the trend still remains bearish in my opinion.
Trend: Lower
Chart structure: Improving

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Gold futures in the February contract are trading above their 20 and 100 day moving average settling last Friday in New York at 1,277 while currently trading at 1,288 an ounce down about $12 this afternoon as I have been recommending a bullish position when prices cracked 1,245 and if you took that trade place your stop at the 10 day low which in Monday’s trade will be 1,217 still risking about $70 or $7,000 per contract plus slippage and commission, however the chart structure will start to improve on a daily basis starting next week.

Gold prices hit a 5 month high this week and now is being considered as a currency and not a commodity as nobody wants to own any of the foreign currencies especially the Euro currency which was down another 100 points today sending the U.S dollar to an 11 year high as countries like Yemen are collapsing right in front of our eyes and many other countries are getting crushed by the low crude oil prices so investors are seeking a safe haven in gold despite today’s negative tape.

The chart structure in gold is poor at the current time as prices have gone up sharply in recent days as that will tighten up but the trend is your friend in the commodity markets and the trend in the precious metals is higher as I have been very bearish the entire commodity sector except for gold and silver and I will stay with that theory, but continue to make sure you place the proper amount of contracts risking 2% of your account balance on any given trade. If you have not entered this market on the bullish side wait for another price dip lowering risk so keep an eye and sit on the sidelines waiting for a retracement before entering and then continue to place the stop at the proper level.
Trend: Higher
Chart Structure: Improving

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Coffee futures in the March contract settled last Friday at 171 while currently trading at 159.80 down around 1500 points for the trading week as I’m still sitting on the sidelines waiting for a trend to develop as prices have traded down for the 6th consecutive trading session right at major support at 160 & if prices break that level you’re looking at a bear market as we have not seen these prices since last February.

Coffee futures are trading below their 20 and 100 day moving average telling you that the trend is to the downside, however the chart structure is terrible at the current time but I do believe lower prices are ahead but I’m not recommending any type of futures position as rain has hit key coffee growing regions and it certainly doesn’t look at this time that we are going to have a back to back drought situation so the trend is lower and I do think prices can trade as low as 140 in coming weeks as the commodity markets in general are still are headed lower in my opinion.

Coffee is considered a luxury item and is still historically relatively expensive as I will keep an eye on this market and wait for better chart structure to develop as right now the 10 day high is too far away & does not meet my criteria that’s why I’m sitting on the sidelines as the risk is too high but I certainly am not recommending any type of bullish position in this market at all.
Trend: Lower
Chart Structure: Awful

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Thursday, January 22, 2015

Is this ETF Laying the Foundation for a Rally in Crude Oil?

Picking bottoms is not something one should do if you're going to be a successful trader. But looking at market that may be forming a bottom is a good exercise, and one that you should be doing on a regular basis. I had done this before gold reversed to the upside traded over $1300 an ounce. Maybe it's time to look at crude oil and see if it's beginning to set itself up for a move to the upside.
Technically, the Trade Triangles remain negative on crude oil, so there is no reversal showing up with those technical tools. The story is a little bit different with the RSI indicator. This particular indicator is showing that there is a big positive divergence on the Energy Select Sector SPDR ETF (PACF:XLE), and it is one that spans months.
Today I'm looking at the ETF XLE and the fact that if it closes higher for the week, it will be a positive sign. The previous week saw a very important Japanese candlestick formation call a "Dragon Fly Doji" this can be interpreted as a strong indication of reversal. It all depend's on how XLE closes this Friday.
Should XLE close higher than ($76.56) the market will have created a "Bullish Engulfing Line" confirming that the previous weeks, "Dragon Fly Doji" was indeed a reversal to the upside.
Take a look at both charts, one is a daily graph showing a large positive divergence on the RSI indicator. The other graph is a weekly Candlestick chart highlighting the “Dragon Fly Doji” and the potential for a “Bullish Engulfing Line” to occur this week.
So here is my 3 step strategy for the Energy Select Sector SPDR ETF (PACF:XLE):
1. I'm going to watch this market closely and have it on my radar.
2. I want to watch the 50 line on the RSI. A close over this line will be another important clue and strong indication that this market is bottoming or has bottomed out.
3. I'm also watching the weekly Trade Triangle on crude oil, should this Trade Triangle turn green, you'll want to BUY XLE, as it closely tracks crude oil.
Now let's see how the Energy Select Sector SPDR ETF (PACF:XLE) does in the future.
Every success with MarketClub,
Adam Hewison
President, INO.com
Co-Creator, MarketClub

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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Cult of Central Banking

By John Mauldin

In today’s Outside the Box, good friend Ben Hunt informs us that we have entered the cult phase of the Golden Age of the Central Banker:

We pray for extraordinary monetary policy accommodation as a sign of our Central Bankers’ love, not because we think the policy will do much of anything to solve our real world economic problems, but because their favor gives us confidence to stay in the market. I mean, does anyone really think that the problem with the Italian economy is that interest rates aren’t low enough? Gosh, if only ECB intervention could get the Italian 10 yr bond down to 1.75% from the current 1.85%, why then we’d be off to the races! 

Really? But God forbid that Mario Draghi doesn’t (finally) put his money where his mouth is and announce a trillion euro sovereign debt purchase plan. That would be a disaster, says Mr. Market. Why? Not because the absence of a debt purchase plan would be terrible for the real economy. That’s not a big deal one way or another. It would be a disaster because it would mean that the Central Bank gods are no longer responding to our prayers.

But, he points out, the cult phase of any human society is a stable phase in the sense that, while change may happen, it will not happen from within:

There is such an unwavering faith in Central Bank control over market outcomes, such a universal assumption of god-  omnipotence within this realm, that any internal market shock is going to be willed away.

However, there is a minor catch: external market risk factors are all screaming red.


I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I can’t remember a time when there was such a gulf between the environmental or exogenous risks to the market and the internal or behavioral dynamics of the market. The market today is Wile E. Coyote wearing his latest purchase from the Acme Company – a miraculous bat-wing costume that prevents the usual plunge into the canyon below by sheer dint of will.



Ben identifies the three most pressing exogenous risks as the “supply shock” of collapsing oil prices, a realigning Greek election, and the realpolitik dynamics of the West vs. Islam and the West vs. Russia. (You or I might want to expand Ben’s list with one or two of our own favorites; but the point is, it’s a big, bad, volatile world out there right now.) Ben admits that it feels a bit weird to have written on all three of his chosen topics a few weeks before each of them appeared on investors’ radar screens. “Call me Cassandra,” says Ben. (Naw, I’ll stay with Ben.)

I wouldn’t want to steal too much of Ben’s thunder here, but I just can’t help sharing with you the punch line to his piece: “The gods always end up disappointing us mere mortals.”  This is one of Ben’s better pieces, and I really commend it to you as something you need to think about.

Before we examine our collective religious delusions (or at least our central banking delusions), let’s have a little fun. My friend Dennis Gartman (who could be the hardest working writer in the business) found this gem and shared it with his readers this morning. It is about the supposed lack of environmental concern of the Boomer generation has. And some of you will read it that way.

But I want those of you who are of a certain age (ahem) to realize just how much your world has changed in the last 50 years. If you are young, yes, we really did all the stuff listed below. I personally experienced every one of the rather long list of activities mentioned by the “little old lady.” Major changes in lifestyle since then? No, not really. But I’ll grand you that things are a good deal more convenient and time-saving today. Now sit back and enjoy.

Checking out at the store, the young cashier suggested to the much older lady that she should bring her own grocery bags, because plastic bags are not good for the environment. The woman apologized to the young girl and explained, "We didn't have this 'green thing' back in my earlier days." The young clerk responded, "That's our problem today. Your generation did not care enough to save our environment for future generations." The older lady said that she was right – her generation didn't have the "green thing" in its day. 

The older lady went on to explain: “Back then, we returned milk bottles, soda bottles and beer bottles to the store. The store sent them back to the plant to be washed and sterilized and refilled, so it could use the same bottles over and over. So they really were recycled. But we didn't have the ‘green thing’ back in our day. 

Grocery stores bagged our groceries in brown paper bags that we reused for numerous things. Most memorable besides household garbage bags was the use of brown paper bags as book covers for our school books. This was to ensure that public property (the books provided for our use by the school) was not defaced by our scribblings. Then we were able to personalize our books on the brown paper bags. But, too bad we didn't do the ‘green thing’ back then. We walked up stairs because we didn't have an escalator in every store and office building. We walked to the grocery store and didn't climb into a 300 horsepower machine every time we had to go two blocks. But you’re right, we didn't have the ‘green thing’ in our day. 

Back then we washed the baby's diapers because we didn't have the throwaway kind. We dried clothes on a line, not in an energy gobbling machine burning up 220 volts. Wind and solar power really did dry our clothes back in the early days. Kids got hand me down clothes from their brothers or sisters (and cousins), not always brand-new clothing. But you’re right, young lady; we didn't have the ‘green thing’ back in our day. Back then we had one TV, or radio, in the house – not a TV in every room. And the TV had a screen the size of a handkerchief [remember them?], not a screen the size of the state of Montana. In the kitchen we blended and stirred by hand because we didn't have electric machines to do everything for us. When we packaged a fragile item to send in the mail, we used wadded up old newspapers to cushion it, not Styrofoam or plastic bubble wrap. Back then, we didn't fire up an engine and burn gasoline just to cut the lawn. We used a push mower that ran on human power. 

We exercised by working, so we didn't need to go to a health club to run on treadmills that operate on electricity.” But you’re right; we didn't have the ‘green thing’ back then. We drank from a fountain when we were thirsty instead of using a cup or a plastic bottle every time we had a drink of water. We refilled writing pens with ink instead of buying a new pen, and we replaced the razor blade in a razor instead of throwing away the whole razor just because the blade got dull. But we didn't have the ‘green thing back then. 

Back then, people took the streetcar or the bus, and kids rode their bikes to school or walked instead of turning their moms into a 24 hour taxi service in the family's $45,000 SUV or van, which cost what a whole house did before the ‘green thing.’ We had one electrical outlet in a room, not an entire bank of sockets to power a dozen appliances. And we didn't need a computerized gadget to receive a signal beamed from satellites 23,000 miles out in space in order to find the nearest burger joint. But, isn't it sad, how the current generation laments how wasteful we old folks were just because we didn't have the ‘green thing’ back then?”

I wonder what our grandchildren will be telling their grandchildren in 50 years… “I remember a time when we actually used combustion engines to drive our cars that belched out dirty gases. We actually had massive electricity generating power plants and wires everywhere to deliver the electricity, rather than the small, efficient home units that produce free electricity for us now. We used something called glasses to help us see. People actually had to carry their communications devices around, and computers were measured in pounds not ounces. We had to do something called “typing” to write; and while we didn’t have to actually go to places called libraries like our grandparents did, we could and did spend all day searching through a disorganized Internet for what we needed. You weren’t connected biologically to your computer, so getting information in and out of it was a drag.

“People actually got sick and died; and though the situation was getting better, billions of people didn’t have enough food at night. People went to big stores to buy what was needed rather than just ordering it or producing it on the spot. We actually threw garbage away in huge resource-consuming “dumps” rather than completely recycling it into new products at the back of the house. It took like forever to get from one point to another. People actually had to “drive” their car rather than just getting in it and telling it where to go. And people died all the time in those cars – they were so dangerous and uncomfortable. In those days you couldn’t even instantly communicate with anybody by just thinking. You had to push buttons on that clumsy communication device you hauled around, and then talk into it; and if you lost it you were out of touch and out of luck. We didn’t even have intelligent personal robots in those days. It was so Stone Age.”

I could go on and on, but you get the drift. The changes in the last 50 years are simply a down payment on the change we’ll see and live in the next 50.

When I think about central banks and markets and try to figure out how to get preserve and grow assets from where we are today to where we will be in 10 years, it can be a rather daunting and sometimes even a depressing task. But then I think about what the world will be like and how much fun my grand kids are going to have, and I get all optimistic and smiling again.

Have a great week. The future is going to turn out just fine.
Your wondering if we will have flying cars analyst,
John Mauldin, Editor
Outside the Box
subscribers@mauldineconomics.com

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“Catch-22”

By Ben Hunt, Salient Partners
Epsilon Theory, Jan. 12, 2015
Four times during the first six days they were assembled and briefed and then sent back. Once, they took off and were flying in formation when the control tower summoned them down. The more it rained, the worse they suffered. The worse they suffered, the more they prayed that it would continue raining. All through the night, men looked at the sky and were saddened by the stars. All through the day, they looked at the bomb line on the big, wobbling easel map of Italy that blew over in the wind and was dragged in under the awning of the intelligence tent every time the rain began. The bomb line was a scarlet band of narrow satin ribbon that delineated the forward most position of the Allied ground forces in every sector of the Italian mainland.
For hours they stared relentlessly at the scarlet ribbon on the map and hated it because it would not move up high enough to encompass the city.

When night fell, they congregated in the darkness with flashlights, continuing their macabre vigil at the bomb line in brooding entreaty as though hoping to move the ribbon up by the collective weight of their sullen prayers. "I really can't believe it," Clevinger exclaimed to Yossarian in a voice rising and falling in protest and wonder. "It's a complete reversion to primitive superstition. They're confusing cause and effect. It makes as much sense as knocking on wood or crossing your fingers. They really believe that we wouldn't have to fly that mission tomorrow if someone would only tiptoe up to the map in the middle of the night and move the bomb line over Bologna. Can you imagine? You and I must be the only rational ones left."

In the middle of the night Yossarian knocked on wood, crossed his fingers, and tiptoed out of his tent to move the bomb line up over Bologna.
― Joseph Heller, “Catch-22” (1961)

A visitor to Niels Bohr's country cottage, noticing a horseshoe hanging on the wall, teased the eminent scientist about this ancient superstition. “Can it be true that you, of all people, believe it will bring you luck?”

“Of course not,” replied Bohr, “but I understand it brings you luck whether you believe it or not.”
― Niels Bohr (1885 – 1962)

Here's an easy way to figure out if you're in a cult: If you're wondering whether you're in a cult, the answer is yes.
― Stephen Colbert, “I Am America (And So Can You!)” (2007)

I won't insult your intelligence by suggesting that you really believe what you just said.
― William F. Buckley Jr. (1925 – 2008)

A new type of superstition has got hold of people's minds, the worship of the state.
― Ludwig von Mises (1881 – 1973)

The cult is not merely a system of signs by which the faith is outwardly expressed; it is the sum total of means by which that faith is created and recreated periodically. Whether the cult consists of physical operations or mental ones, it is always the cult that is efficacious.
― Emile Durkheim, “The Elementary Forms of Religious Life” (1912)

At its best our age is an age of searchers and discoverers, and at its worst, an age that has domesticated despair and learned to live with it happily.
― Flannery O’Connor (1925 – 1964)

Man is certainly stark mad; he cannot make a worm, and yet he will be making gods by dozens.
― Michel de Montaigne (1533 – 1592)

Since man cannot live without miracles, he will provide himself with miracles of his own making. He will believe in witchcraft and sorcery, even though he may otherwise be a heretic, an atheist, and a rebel.
― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, “The Brothers Karamazov” (1880)

One Ring to rule them all; one Ring to find them.
One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.
― J.R.R. Tolkien, “The Lord of the Rings” (1954)

Nothing’s changed.
I still love you, oh, I still love you. Only slightly, only slightly less Than I used to.
― The Smiths, “Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before” (1987)

So much of education, I think, relies on reading the right book at the right time. My first attempt at Catch-22 was in high school, and I was way too young to get much out of it. But fortunately I picked it up again in my late 20’s, after a few experiences with The World As It is, and it’s stuck with me ever since. The power of the novel is first in the recognition of how often we are stymied by Catch-22’s – problems that can’t be solved because the answer violates a condition of the problem. The Army will grant your release request if you’re insane, but to ask for your release proves that you’re not insane. If X and Y, then Z. But X implies not-Y. That’s a Catch-22.

Here’s the Fed’s Catch-22. If the Fed can use extraordinary monetary policy measures to force market risk-taking (the avowed intention of both Zero Interest Rate Policy and Large Scale Asset Purchases) AND the real economy engages in productive risk-taking (small business loan demand, wage increases, business investment for growth, etc.), THEN we have a self-sustaining and robust economic recovery underway. But the Fed’s extraordinary efforts to force market risk-taking and inflate financial assets discourage productive risk-taking in the real economy, both because the Fed’s easy money is used by corporations for non-productive uses (stock buy-backs, anyone?) and because no one is willing to invest ahead of global growth when no one believes that the leading indicator of that growth – the stock market – means what it used to mean.

If X and Y, then Z. But X denies Y. Catch-22.

There’s a Catch-22 for pretty much everyone in the Golden Age of the Central Banker. Are you a Keynesian? Your Y to go along with the Central Bank X is expansionary fiscal policy and deficit spending. Good luck getting that through your polarized Congress or Parliament or whatever if your Central Bank is carrying the anti deflation water and providing enough accommodation to keep your economy from tanking.

Are you a structural reformer? Your Y to go along with the Central Bank X is elimination of bureaucratic red tape and a shrinking of the public sector. Again, good luck with that as extraordinary monetary policy prevents the economic trauma that might give you a chance of passing those reforms through your legislative process.

Here’s the thing. A Catch-22 world is a frustrating, absurd world, a world where we domesticate despair and learn to live with it happily. It’s also a very stable world. And that’s the real message of Heller’s book, as Yossarian gradually recognizes what Catch-22 really IS. There is no Catch-22. It doesn’t exist, at least not in the sense of the bureaucratic regulation that it purports to be. But because everyone believes that it exists, then an entire world of self-regulated pseudo-religious behavior exists around Catch-22. Sound familiar?

We’ve entered a new phase in the Golden Age of the Central Banker – the cult phase, to use the anthropological lingo. We pray for extraordinary monetary policy accommodation as a sign of our Central Bankers’ love, not because we think the policy will do much of anything to solve our real-world economic problems, but because their favor gives us confidence to stay in the market. I mean ... does anyone really think that the problem with the Italian economy is that interest rates aren’t low enough? Gosh, if only ECB intervention could get the Italian 10-yr bond down to 1.75% from the current 1.85%, why then we’d be off to the races! Really? But God forbid that Mario Draghi doesn’t (finally) put his money where his mouth is and announce a trillion euro sovereign debt purchase plan. That would be a disaster, says Mr. Market.

Why? Not because the absence of a debt purchase plan would be terrible for the real economy. That’s not a big deal one way or another. It would be a disaster because it would mean that the Central Bank gods are no longer responding to our prayers. The faith based system that underpins current financial asset price levels would take a body blow. And that would indeed be a disaster.

Monetary policy has become a pure signifier – a totem. It’s useful only in so far as it indicates that the entire edifice of Central Bank faith, both its mental and physical constructs, remains “efficacious”, to use Emile Durkheim’s path breaking sociological analysis of a cult. All of us are Yossarian today, far too rational to think that the totem of a red line on a map actually makes a difference in whether we have to fly a dangerous mission. And yet here we are sneaking out at night to move that line on the map. All of us are Niels Bohr today, way too smart to believe that the totem of a horseshoe actually bring us good luck. And yet here we are keeping that horseshoe up on our wall, because ... well ... you know.

The notion of saying our little market prayers and bowing to our little market talismans is nothing new. “Hey, is that a reverse pennant pattern I see in this stock chart?” “You know, the third year of a Presidential Administration is really good for stocks.” “I thought the CFO’s
body language at the investor conference was very encouraging.” “Well, with the stock trading at less than 10 times cash flow I’m getting paid to wait.” Please. I recognize aspects of myself in all four of these cult statements, and if you’re being honest with yourself I bet you do, too.

 

No, what’s new today is that all of our little faiths have now converged on the Narrative of Central Bank Omnipotence. It’s the One Ring that binds us all.

I loved this headline article in last Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal – “Eurozone Consumer Prices Fall for First Time in Five Years” – a typically breathless piece trumpeting the “specter of deflation” racing across Europe as ... oh-my-god ... December consumer prices were 0.2% lower than they were last December. Buried at the end of paragraph six, though, was this jewel: “Excluding food, energy, and other volatile items, core inflation rose to 0.8%, up a notch from November.” Say what? You mean that if you measure inflation as the US measures inflation, then European consumer prices aren’t going down at all, but are increasing at an accelerating pace?

You mean that the dreadful “specter of deflation” that is “cementing” expectations of massive ECB action is entirely caused by the decline in oil prices, something that from the consumer’s perspective acts like an inflationary tax cut? Ummm ... yep. That’s exactly what I mean. The entire article is an exercise in Narrative creation, facts be damned. The entire article is a wail from a minaret, a paean to the ECB gods, a calling of the faithful to prayer. An entirely successful calling, I might add, as both European and US markets turned after the article appeared, followed by Thursday’s huge move up in both markets.

When I say that a Catch-22 world is a stable world, or that the cult phase of a human society is a stable phase, here’s what I mean: change can happen, but it will not happen from within. For everyone out there waiting for some Minsky Moment, where a debt bubble of some sort ultimately pops from some unexpected internal cause like a massive corporate default, leading to systemic fear and pain in capital markets ... I think you’re going to be waiting for a loooong time. Are there debt bubbles to be popped?

Absolutely. The energy sector, particularly its high yield debt, is Exhibit #1, and I think this could be a monster trade. But is this something that can take down the market? I don’t see it. There is such an unwavering faith in Central Bank control over market outcomes, such a universal assumption of god-like omnipotence within this realm, that any internal market shock is going to be willed away.

So is that it? Is this a brave new world of BTFD market stability? Should we double down on our whack- a-mole volatility strategies? For internal market risks like leverage and debt bubble scares ... yes, I think so. But while the internal market risk factors that I monitor are quite benign, mostly green lights with a little yellow/caution peeking through, the external market risk factors that I monitor are all screaming red. 

These are Epsilon Theory risk factors – political shocks, trade/forex shocks, supply shocks, etc. – and they’ve got my risk antennae quivering like crazy. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I can’t remember a time when there was such a gulf between the environmental or exogenous risks to the market and the internal or behavioral dynamics of the market. The market today is Wile E. Coyote wearing his latest purchase from the Acme Company – a miraculous bat-wing costume that prevents the usual plunge into the canyon below by sheer dint of will. There’s absolutely nothing internal to Coyote or his bat suit that prevents him from flying around happily forever. It’s only that rock wall that’s about to come into the frame that will change Coyote’s world.


My last three big Epsilon Theory notes – “The Unbearable Over-Determination of Oil”, “Now There’s Something You Don’t See Every Day, Chauncey”, and “The Clash of Civilizations” – have delved into what I think are the most pressing of these environmental or exogenous risks to the market: the “supply shock” of collapsing oil prices, a realigning Greek election, and the realpolitik dynamics of the West vs. Islam and the West vs. Russia. I gotta say, it’s been weird to write about these topics a few weeks before ALL of them come to pass. Call me Cassandra. I stand by everything I wrote in those notes, so no need to repeat all that here, but a short update paragraph on each.

First, Greece. And I’ll keep it very short. Greece is on. This will not be pretty and this will not be easy. Existential Euro doubt will raise its ugly head once again, particularly when Italy imports the Greek political experience.

Second, oil. I get a lot of questions about why oil can’t catch a break, about why it’s stuck down here with a 40 handle as the absurd media Narrative of “global supply glut forever and ever, amen” whacks it on the head day after day after day. And it is an absurd Narrative ... very Heller-esque, in fact ... about as realistic as “Peak Oil” has been over the past decade or two. Here’s the answer: oil is trapped in a positive Narrative feedback loop. Not positive in the sense of it being “good”, whatever that means, but positive in the sense of the dominant oil Narrative amplifying the uber-dominant Central Bank Narrative, and vice versa.

The most common prayer to the Central Banking gods is to save us from deflation, and if oil prices were not falling there would be no deflation anywhere in the world, making the prayer moot. God forbid that oil prices go up and, among other things, push European consumer prices higher. Can’t have that! Otherwise we’d need to find another prayer for the ECB to answer. By finding a role in service to the One Ring of Central Bank Omnipotence, the dominant supply glut oil Narrative has a new lease on life, and until the One Ring is destroyed I don’t see what makes the oil Narrative shift.

Third, the Islamist attack in Paris. Look ... I’ve got a LOT to say about “je suis Charlie”, both the stupefying hypocrisy of how that slogan is being used by a lot of people who should really know better, as well as the central truth of what that slogan says about the Us vs. Them nature of The World As It Is, but both are topics for another day. What I’ll mention here are the direct political repercussions in France.

The National Front, which promotes a policy platform that would make Benito Mussolini beam with pride, would probably have gotten the most votes of any political party in France before the attack. Today I think they’re a shoo-in to have first crack at forming a government whenever new Parliamentary elections are held, and if you don’t recognize that this is 100 times more threatening to the entire European project than the prospects of Syriza forming a government in Greece ... well, I just don’t know what to say.

There’s another thing to keep in mind here in 2015, another reason why selling volatility whenever it spikes up and buying the dip are now, to my way of thinking, picking up pennies in front of a steam roller: the gods always end up disappointing us mere mortals. The cult phase is a stable system on its own terms (a social equilibrium, in the parlance), but it’s rarely what an outsider would consider to be a particularly happy or vibrant system. There’s no way that Draghi can possibly announce a bond buying program that lives up to the hype, not with peripheral sovereign debt trading inside US debt.

There’s no way that the Fed can reverse course and start loosening again, not if forward guidance is to have any meaning (and even the gods have rules they must obey). Yes, I expect our prayers will still be answered, but each time I expect we will ask in louder and louder voices, “Is that all there is?” Yes, we will still love our gods, even as they disappoint us, but we will love them a little less each time they do.

And that’s when the rock wall enters the cartoon frame.

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The article Outside the Box: The Cult of Central Banking was originally published at mauldineconomics.com.


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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Single Most Important Economic Statistic that the White House Never Talks About

By Tony Sagami


For the first time in 35 years, American business deaths now outnumber business births. —Jim Clifton, CEO, Gallup Polls

I’ve been self employed since 1998, and let me tell you, the life of a business owner isn’t easy. It’s filled with long hours, a relentless amount of paperwork, and uncertainty of where your next paycheck will come from.

If you’ve ever owned a business, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

Difficult or not, self employment is extremely rewarding, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Nor would the other 6 million business owners in the United States. Of those 6 million businesses, the vast majority are small “Mom and Pop” businesses. Here are more statistics on businesses in the U.S. :
  • 3.8 million have four or fewer employees. That’s me!
     
  • 1 million with 5-9 employees;
     
  • 600,000 with 10-19 employees;
     
  • 500,000 with 20-99 employees;
     
  • 90,000 with 100-499 employees;
     
  • 18,000 with 500 employees or more; and
     
  • 1,000 companies with 10,000 employees or more.
Those small businesses are the backbone of our economy and responsible for employing roughly half of all Americans. Moreover, while estimates vary, small business create roughly two thirds of all new jobs in our country.

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For those reasons, the health (or lack thereof) of small business is the single most important long term indicator of America’s economic health. Warning: new data suggest that small businesses are in deep trouble.
For the first time in 35 years, the number of business deaths outnumbers the number of business births.


The US Census Bureau reported that the birth and death rates of American businesses crossed for the first time ever! 400,000 new businesses were born last year, but 470,000 died.

Yup, business deaths now outnumber business births.


Pay attention, because this part is important.

The problem isn’t so much that businesses are failing, but that American entrepreneurs are simply not starting as many new businesses as they used to. We like to think of America has the hotbed of capitalism, but the US actually is number 12 among developed nations for new business startups.

Number 12!

You know what countries are ahead of us? Hungary, Denmark, Finland, New Zealand, Sweden, Israel, and even financially troubled Italy are creating new businesses faster than us!


The reasons for the capitalist pessimism are many, but my guess is that the root of the problem comes down to three issues: (1) difficulty of accessing capital (loans); (2) excessive and burdensome government regulations; and (3) an overall malaise about our economic future.

Business owners are permanently smitten with an entrepreneurial bug, and the only thing that prevents them from seeking business success is the expectation that they’ll lose money.

Sadly, the lack of new business start ups is confirmation that American’s free enterprise system is broken.

"There is nobody in this country who got rich on their own. Nobody. You built a factory out there—good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn't have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory... Now look. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea—God bless! Keep a hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along."

Elizabeth Warren

“When small and medium-sized businesses are dying faster than they’re being born, so is free enterprise. And when free enterprise dies, America dies with it,” warns Gallup CEO Jim Clifton.

I don’t believe for a second that America’s free-enterprise system is permanently broken. The pendulum will eventually swing the other way, but our economy will not enjoy boom times until the birth/death trends are reversed.

That won’t happen next week or next month. It will take serious, fundamental changes in tax, regulatory, and judicial rules, and I sadly fear that it will take several years for that to happen. Until then, our economy is going to struggle and will pull our high flying stock market down with it. Are you prepared?

If you’re not familiar with inverse ETFs, you’re ignoring one of your best defenses against tough times. An inverse ETF is an exchange traded fund that’s designed to perform as the inverse of whatever index or benchmark it’s designed to track.

By providing performance opposite to their benchmark, inverse ETFs prosper when stock prices are falling. An inverse S&P 500 ETF, for example, seeks a daily percentage movement opposite that of the S&P. If the S&P 500 rises by 1%, the inverse ETF is designed to fall by 1%; and if the S&P falls by 1%, the inverse ETF should rise by 1%.

There are inverse ETFs for most major indices and even sectors and commodities (like oil and gold), as well as specialty ETFs for things like the VIX Volatility Index.

I’m not suggesting that you rush out and buy a bunch of inverse ETFs tomorrow morning. As always, timing is critical, so I recommend that you wait for my buy signals in my Rational Bear service.

But make no mistake, the birth/death ratio is signaling serious trouble ahead. Any investor who doesn’t prepare for it is going to get run over and flattened like a pancake.

Tony Sagami
Tony Sagami

30 year market expert Tony Sagami leads the Yield Shark and Rational Bear advisories at Mauldin Economics. To learn more about Yield Shark and how it helps you maximize dividend income, click here.

To learn more about Rational Bear and how you can use it to benefit from falling stocks and sectors, click here.



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Saturday, January 17, 2015

Weekly Futures Recap with Mike Seery....Crude Oil, Gold, Coffee and More

Our trading partner Mike Seery is out with his calls for this week and he includes some of reliable rules to protect our profits.

Crude oil futures in the March contract settled last Friday at 49.00 while currently trading at 47.50 up about $.80 in early trade this Friday morning in New York as extreme volatility has occurred in recent days and if you’re still short this market I would now place my stop above yesterday’s high which currently stands at 51.73 risking around $4.25 or $4,250 per contract plus slippage and commission from today’s price levels. Crude oil futures are trading significantly below their 20 and 100 day moving average telling you that the trend still remains bearish as oversupply has decimated prices in recent weeks as who knows how far prices can actually go but stick to the rules as the 10 day high has tightened up considerably as prices have gone sideways in the last week or so with big trading ranges.

Crude oil prices have been dramatically cut in recent months due to the fact that Saudi Arabia refuses to cut supply coming out earlier this week reiterating that fact that they will not cut which keeps sending prices lower as they are trying to squeeze some American companies to get out of the business as the U.S is now a major producer which we weren’t just 5 years ago and that’s what’s changed the situation. The crude oil market I believe for the 1st time in history is not putting any price premium as in the past we always had a $10 or $20 price premium due to the fact of chaos in the Mideast but at this point problems in the Mideast are not affecting crude oil prices so this market still could remain bearish for some time to come especially with the U.S dollar hitting a 9 year high which is pessimistic all commodity prices.
Trend: Lower
Chart structure: Improving

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Gold futures in the February contract are slightly lower this Friday afternoon in New York after settling last Friday at 1,216 currently trading at 1,260 as I’m currently recommending a long futures position while placing your stop loss below the 10 day low which is around 1,209 risking around $50 or $1,650 on a mini contract plus slippage and commission. Gold futures are trading above their 20 and 100 day moving average hitting a 5 month high as the chart structure will also start to improve on a daily basis starting next week as the market has caught fire recently due to worldwide problems as money is pouring back into the precious metals and out of the S&P 500 in the beginning of 2015.

Yesterday the Swiss government announced they will let the Swiss Franc float rocketing that currency up while sending shock waves through the bond and currency markets and it certainly looks to me that problems are here to stay here for a while as Europe is a mess and this could push gold up to the next resistance level of 1,300 – 1,320 so take advantage of any price dip while maintaining the proper stop loss risking 2% of your account balance on any given trade as gold has finally turned into a short-term bull market once again.
Trend: Higher
Chart structure: Improving

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Coffee futures in the March contract have been extremely volatile in recent weeks due to the fact of concerns of lack of rain down in Brazil pushing prices up in over the last several weeks as I’m currently sitting on the sidelines in this market as coffee prices are trading above their 20 but still below their 100 day moving average telling you the trend is mixed. Coffee prices settled last Friday at 180 and are currently trading at 175.30 topping out around the 185 area as volatility should increase as the next 3 weeks are very critical to the coffee crop as traders are keeping a close eye on Brazilian weather.

As I’ve talked about in many previous blogs I think it’s very difficult historically speaking to have back to back droughts, but you never know as the weather is unpredictable, however this market has been choppy so wait for a better trend to develop and avoid any type of futures position at this time in my opinion. Many of the commodity markets are still heading lower because of the U.S dollar hitting a 9 year high and if adequate rain comes to key coffee growing regions over the next 3 weeks I would have to think that a retest of the 160 level would be in the cards so have patience and wait for a trend to develop.
Trend: Mixed
Chart structure: Poor

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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

A Five Year Forecast: Is this a Tsunami Warning?

By John Mauldin

It is the time of the year for forecasts; but rather than do an annual forecast, which is as much a guessing game as anything else (and I am bad at guessing games), I’m going to do a five year forecast to take us to the end of the decade, which I think may be useful for longer term investors. We will focus on events and trends that I think have a high probability, and I’ll state what I think the probabilities are for my forecasts to actually happen. While I could provide several dozen items, I think there are seven major trends that are going to sweep over the globe and that as an investor you need to have on your radar screen. You will need to approach these trends with caution, but they will also provide significant opportunities.

There is a book in here somewhere, but I do not intend to write one today. In fact, my New Year’s resolution is to write shorter letters in 2015. Over the last decade and a half, the letter has tended to get longer. A little more here, a little more there, and pretty soon it just gets to be a bit too much to read in one sitting. That means I need to either be more concise, break up my topics into two sessions or, if further writing is necessary, post the additional work on the website for those interested.

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So I’m writing today’s letter in that spirit. Each of the major topics we’ll be covering will show up in other letters over the next few months. I would appreciate your feedback and any links to articles and/or data points that you think I should know about regarding these topics.

But first, this is generally the most downloaded letter of the year. I want to invite new readers to become one of my 1 million closest friends by simply entering your email address here. You can follow my work throughout the year, absolutely free (and see how my prognostications are turning out). And if you’re a regular reader, why not send this to a few of your friends and suggest they join you? At the very least, Thoughts from the Frontline should make for some interesting conversations this year. Thanks. Now let’s get on with the forecasting.

Seven Significant Changes for the Next Five Years

Let’s look at what I think are six inexorable trends or waves that will each have a major impact in its own right but that when taken together will amount to a tsunami of change for the global economy.

1. Japan will continue its experiment with the most radical quantitative easing attempted by a major country in the history of the world… and the experiment is getting dangerous. The Bank of Japan is effectively exporting the island nation’s deflation to its trade competitors like Germany, China, and South Korea and inviting a currency war that could shake the world. I’ve been saying this for years now, but the story took a nasty turn on Halloween Day, when the Bank of Japan announced it was greatly expanding and changing the mix of its asset purchases. The results have been downright scary, and a major slide in the JPY/USD exchange rate is almost certain over the next five years. I give it a 90% probability. All this while the population of Japan shrinks before our very eyes.

2. Europe is headed for a crisis at least as severe as the Grexit scare was in 2012 – and for the resulting run-up in interest rates and a sovereign debt scare in the peripheral countries. After all these years of struggle, the structural flaws in the EMU’s design remain; and now major economies like Italy and France are headed for trouble. In the very near future we will finally know the answer to the question, “Is the euro a currency or an experiment?” The changes required to answer that question will be wrenching and horrifically expensive. There are no good answers, only difficult choices about who pays how much and to whom. Again, I see the deepening of the Eurozone crisis as a 90% probability.

3. China is approaching its day of reckoning as it tries to reduce its dependency on debt in its bid for growth, while creating a consumer society. The world is simply not prepared for China to experience an outright “hard landing” or recession, but I think there is a 70% probability that it will do so within the next five years.

And the probability that China will suffer either a hard landing OR a long period of Japanese style stagnation (in the event that the Chinese government is forced to absorb nonperforming loans to prevent a debt crisis) is over 95%. To be sure, it is still quite possible that the Chinese economy will be significantly larger in 2025 (ten years from now) than it is today, but realizing that potential largely depends on President Xi Jinping’s ability to accomplish an extremely difficult task: deleveraging the debt overhang that threatens the country’s MASSIVE financial system while rebalancing the national economy to a more sustainable growth model (either through either a vast expansion of China’s export market or the rapid development of “new economy” sectors like technology, services, and consumption; or both).

This will not be the end of China, which I’m quite bullish on over the very long term, but such transitions are never easy. Even given this rather stark forecast, it is still likely (in my opinion) that the Chinese economy will be 20 to 25% bigger as 2020 opens than it is today; and every other major economy in the world (including the US) would be thrilled to have such growth. At the very least, though, China’s slowdown and rebalancing is going to put pressure on commodity exporters, which are generally emerging markets plus Australia, Canada, and Norway.

4. All of the above will tend to be bullish for the dollar, which will make dollar-denominated debt in emerging market countries more difficult to pay back. And given the amount of debt that has been created in the last few years, it is likely that we’ll see a series of crises in emerging-market countries, along with an uncomfortably high level of risk of setting off an LTCM-style global financial shock.

My colleague Worth Wray spoke about this new era of volatile FX flows and growing risk of capital flight from emerging markets at my Strategic Investor Conference last May, and he has continued to remind us of those risks in recent months (“A Scary Story for Emerging Markets” and “Why the World Needs the US Economy to Struggle”).

Now that Russia has tumbled into a full-fledged currency crisis with serious signs of contagion, Worth’s prediction is already playing out, and I would assign an 80 to 90% probability that it will continue to do so, as a function of (1) the rising US dollar and a reversal in cross border capital flows, (2) falling commodity prices, or (3) both. This massive wave is going to create a lot of opportunities for courageous investors who are ready to surf when countries are cheap.

5. I do not believe that the secular bear market in the United States that I began to describe in 1999 has ended. Secular bull markets simply do not begin from valuations like those we have today. Either we began a secular bull market in 2009, or we have one more major correction in front of us.

Obviously, I think it is the latter. It has been some time since I’ve discussed the difference between secular bull and bear markets and cyclical bull and bear markets, and I will briefly touch on the topic today and go into much more detail in later letters. For US focused investors, this is of major importance. The secular bear is not something to be scared of but simply something to be played. It also offers a great deal of opportunity.

If I am right, then the next major leg down will bring on the end of the secular bear and the beginning of a very long term secular bull. We will all get to be geniuses in the 2020s and perhaps even before the last half of this decade runs out. Won’t that be fun? Let’s call the end of the secular bear a 90% probability in five years and move on.

6. Finally, the voters of the United States are going to have to make a decision about the direction they want to take the country. We can either opt for growth, which will mean a new tax and regulatory regime, or we can double down on the current direction and become Europe and Japan. I’ve traveled to both Europe and Japan, and they’re both pleasant enough places to live, but I wouldn’t want to be a citizen of either Japan or the Eurozone for the rest of this decade. (I particularly love Italy, but it is beginning to resemble a basket case, with last year’s optimistic drive for reforms seemingly stalled.)

However, I would rather live and work and invest in a high-growth country, with opportunities all around me, a country where we reduce income inequality by increasing wealth and opportunities at the lower end of the income scale instead of trying to legislate parity by increasing taxes and imposing government mandated wealth redistribution, which slows growth and squelches opportunity for everyone.

A restructuring of the US tax and regulatory regime does not mean a capitulation to the wealthy, big banks, or big business. Properly conceived and constructed, it will allow the renewal of the middle class and result in higher income for all. Sadly, it is not clear to me that either the Republican or Democratic parties are up to the task of making the difficult political decisions necessary. They each have constituencies that tend to opt for the status quo. But I see hope on both sides of the political spectrum that change is possible. The course they set will give us an idea where we will want to focus our portfolios in the decade of the ’20s. It is a 100% probability that we will have to make a decision. It is less than 50% that we will make the right one – or at least the one that I think is the right one.

7.  We have entered the Age of Transformation. We’re going to see the development of new technologies that will simply astound us – from increasingly capable robots and other applications of AI to huge breakthroughs in biotechnology.

The winners are going to be those who identified the truly transformational technologies early on in their development and invested wisely. While riskier (potentially far riskier) than most of your investments should be, a basket of new-technology stocks should be considered for the growth part of your portfolio. I see the Age of Transformation as a 100% probability.

Just for the record, I also see a continuation of the global deflationary environment and a slowing of the velocity of money until we have some type of resolution concerning sovereign debt. Central banks will continue to try to solve the “crises” I mentioned above with monetary policy, but monetary policy will simply not be enough to stem the tide. Central banks can paddle as hard as they like into the waves of change, but they cannot reverse their powerful flow.

Now, let’s look further at each of the waves that are forming into a potential tsunami.

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, January 13, 2015

The New Normal for Crude Oil?

By Marin Katusa, Chief Energy Investment Strategist

You may have come across the word “contango” in an oil related news report or article recently and wondered, “What’s contango?”

It isn’t the Chinese version of the tango.

Contango is a condition in a commodity market where the futures price for the commodity is higher than the current spot price. Essentially, the future price of oil is higher than what oil is worth today.


The above forward curve on oil is what contango looks like. There’s more value placed on a barrel of oil tomorrow and in the future than over a barrel today because of the increased value of storage.

I personally believe our resource portfolios are in portfolio contango—but that’s an entirely separate discussion that I’ll get to later. In today’s missive, I want to focus entirely on oil contango.

Crude oil under $50 per barrel may seem to put most of the producers out of business, but many oil and gas exploring and producing (E&P) companies are sheltered from falling prices in the form of hedges.

Often, companies will lock in a price for their future production in form of a futures commodity contract. This provides the company with price stability, as it’s sure to realize the price it locked in at some future date when it must deliver its oil.

But the market will always figure out a way to make money—and here’s one opportunity: the current oil contango leads to plenty of demand for storage of that extra oil production.


With US shale being one of the main culprits of excess crude oil production, storage of crude in US markets have risen above seasonally adjusted highs in the last year. This abundance of stored crude has pushed the current spot price of crude oil toward five year lows, as current demand is just not there to take on more crude production.

When in contango, a guaranteed result is an increase in demand for cheap storage of the commodity, in order to clip the profit between the higher commodity price in the future versus what’s being paid for the commodity at present. This is precisely what’ playing out in oil today.

Contago, Five Years Later


Looking back at the similarities of the 2009 dramatic free fall in oil prices to $35 per barrel, after a five year hiatus, crude has returned to a similar price point, and the futures market has returned to contango (green shows oil in contango).


Floating Storage Is Back in Vogue


Oil traders are now taking advantage of the contango curve through floating storage in the form of waterborne oil tankers.

This is what a big oil tanker looks like:


I’m personally reminded of contango whenever I look out my living room window:


Here’s a photo taken out my living room window—and this is non-busy part of the harbor. At times when I do my runs along the seawall, there have been up to 30 large oil tankers just sitting in the harbor. (On a side note, Olivier and I went for a run in July along the Vancouver seawall, and we counted 26 oil tankers.) All that pricey Vancouver waterfront will have an incredible view of even more oil tankers in the years to come when the pipelines are eventually built. I can only imagine what the major import harbors of China and the US look like… never mind the number of oil tankers sitting in the export nations’ harbors and the Strait of Hormuz. Multiply the above by at least 50 red circles.

As the spread between future delivery of oil and the spot price widened, traders looking to profit from the spread would purchase crude at spot prices and store it on oil tanker ships out at sea. The difference between the spread and the cost to store the crude per barrel is referred to as the arbitrage profit taken by traders. Scale is a very important factor in crude storage at sea: therefore, traders used very large crude carriers (VLCC) and Suezmax ships that hold between 1-2 million barrels of crude oil.

In the late summer of 2014, rates charged for crude tankers began to climb to yearly highs because of the lower price that spurred hoarding of crude oil. This encouraged VLCCs to lock in one year time charter rates close to and above their breakeven costs to operate the ship.

Time charter rates share similarities to the oil futures market, as ships are able to lock in a daily rate for the use of their ships over a fairly long period of time. VLCC spot rates have reached around $51,000 per day; however, these rates tend to be booked for a shorter period of around three months. These higher spot rates tend to reflect the higher cost paid to crew a VLCC currently against locking in crew and operating costs over a longer-term charter that could last a year. Crude oil is often stored on floating VLCCs for periods of six months to a year depending, on the contango spread.


Floating Storage: Economics


Many VLCCs are locking in yearlong time charter rates at or above $30,000-$33,000 per day, as that tends to be the breakeven rate to operate the vessel. If we assume that a VLCCs charge their breakeven charter rate and we include insurance, fuel, and financing costs that would be paid by the charterer, storage on most VLCCs in the 1-2 million barrel ranges are barely economic at best.

However, they’ll soon become profitable across the board once the oil futures and spot price spread widens above $6-$7 per barrel.


The red star depicts the current spread between the six-month futures contract from the futures price in February 2015. Currently companies are losing just under $0.20 per barrel storing crude for delivery in six months. However, once that $6-$7 hurdle spread is achieved, most VLCCs carrying 2 million barrels of crude will be economic to take advantage of the arbitrage in the contango futures curve.

The VLCC and ULCC Market

VLCC= Very Large Crude Carrier
ULCC=Ultra-Large Crude Carrier

VLCCs store 1.25-2 million barrels of oil for each cargo. Globally, there are 634 VLCCs with around 1.2 billion barrels of storage capacity, or over one-third of the US’s total oil production. The VLCC market is fairly fractioned, and the largest fleet of VLCCs by a publicly traded company belongs to Frontline Ltd. with 25 VLCCs. The largest private company VLCC fleet belongs to Tankers International with 37 VLCCs. In early December, Frontline and Tankers International created a joint venture to control around 10% of the VLCC market. Other smaller VLCC fleets belong to DHT with 16 VLCCS, and Navios Maritime with 8 VLCCs.


The lowest time charter breakeven costs of $24,000 per day are associated with the largest VLCC fleet from Frontline Ltd. and Tankers International. This is followed by the smaller fleets that have time charter breakeven costs of around $29,000 per day. Of course, on average the breakeven costs associated with most VLCCs is around $30,000 per day, and current time charter rates are around $33,000.


Investing in companies with VLCC fleets as the contango trade develops can generate great potential for further profits for investors. The focus of these investments would be between the publicly traded companies DHT Holdings, Frontline Ltd., and Navios Maritime.

But one must consider that investing in these companies can be very volatile because of the forward curve’s ability to quickly change. It isn’t for the faint of heart.

However, if current oil prices stay low, there will be an increase in tanker storage and thus a sustained increase in the spot price of VLCCs. However, eventually low prices cure low prices, and the market goes from contango to backwardation. It always does and always will.

Shipping companies have been burdened by unprofitable spot and charter pricing since the financial crisis, and these rates have only recently started to increase.

Warning!


As I sit here on a Saturday morning writing this missive, I want to remind all investors now betting on this play that they’re actually speculating, not investing.

There’s a lot of risk for one to think playing the tankers is a sure bet. I have a pretty large network of professional traders and resource investors, and I do not want to see the retail crowd get caught on the wrong side of the contango situation.

In the past, spot rates for the VLCCs usually decline into February and have dropped to as low as under $20,000 per day. It is entirely possible that if the day rates of VLCCs go back to 2012-2013 levels, operators will lose money.

Conclusion: this speculation on tankers is entirely dependent on the spot price and the forward curve.
The risk of this short term trade is that these companies are heavily levered, and some are just hanging on by a thread. Although this seasonal boost to spot rates has been a positive for VLCCs and other crude carriers, the levered nature of these companies could spell financial disaster or bankruptcy if spot rates return to 2012-2013 levels.


What should be stressed are the similarities to the short-lived gas rally in the winter of 2013-‘14, and the effect these prices have had on North American natural gas companies. A specific event similar to the polar vortex has occurred in the oil market, which has spurred a seasonal increase in the spot price tankers charge to move and store oil.

However, much like the North American natural gas market, the VLCC market is oversupplied; a temporary increase in spot prices that have led to increased transport and storage of oil will not be enough to lift these carriers from choppy waters ahead. Future VLCC supplies are expected to rise, with 20 net VLCCs being built and delivered in 2015 and 33 in 2016. This is much more than the 17 net VLCCs added in 2013 and 9 in 2014.

Another looming and very possible threat to these companies is the same debt threat that affected energy debt markets as global oil prices plummeted. If VLCC and other crude carriers experience a fall in spot prices, these companies’ junk debt could be downgraded to some of the lowest debt grades that border a default rating. This will increase financing costs and in turn increase the operating breakeven costs to operate these crude carrying vessels. The supply factor, high debt, and potentially short-lived seasonally high spot market could all affect the long-term appreciation of these VLCC stock prices. Investing in these companies is very risky over the long run, but a possible trade exists if storage and transport of oil continues to increase for these crude carriers.

Portfolio Contango—An Opportunity Not Seen in Decades


If you talk to resource industry titans—the ones who’ve made hundreds of millions of dollars and been in the sector for 40 years—they’re now saying that they’ve never seen the resource share prices this bad. Brokerage firms focused on the resource sector have not just laid off most of their staffs, but many have shut their doors.

The young talent is the first group to be laid off, and there’s a serious crisis developing in the sector, as many of the smart young guns have left the sector to claim their fortunes in other sectors.
There’s blood in the streets in the resource sector.

Now if you believe that, as I do, to be successful in the resource sector one must be a contrarian to be rich, now is the time to act.

I have invested more money in the junior resource sector in the last six months than I have in the last five years. I believe we’re in contango for resource stocks, meaning that the future price of the best juniors will be worth much more than they are currently.

I have my rules in speculating, and you’ll learn from my experience—and more important, my network of the smartest and most successful resource mentors whom I have shadowed for many years.

So how can we profit from the blood in these markets? Easy.

Take on my “Katusa Challenge.” You’ll get access to every Casey Energy Report newsletter I’ve written in the last decade, and my current recommendations with specific price and timing guidance. There’s no risk to you: if you don’t like the Casey Energy Report or don’t make any money over your first three months, just cancel within that time for a full, prompt refund, no questions asked. Even if you miss the three month cutoff, cancel anytime for a prorated refund on the unused part of your subscription.

As a subscriber, you’ll receive instant access to our current issue, which details how to protect yourself from falling oil prices, plus our current top recommendations in the oil patch. Do your portfolio a favor and have me on your side to increase your chances of success. I can’t make the trade for you, but I can help you help yourself.

I’m making big bets—are you ready to step up and join me?

The article The New Normal for Oil? was originally published at caseyresearch.com



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