The Room - 01/23/09

January 23, 2009

Dear Readers,

Like a runaway train, the crisis is heading at breakneck speed down the hill and towards the next sharp turn.

Though we are reasonably sure about the ultimate destination – an inflationary wreck – we can’t be entirely sure what exactly awaits around the next corner. Is it a reasonably long straightaway that gently slopes upward for a spell, allowing the train to slow to a safer speed? Or is it a broken trestle bridge hanging over a gap a mile wide and a mile deep?

Some typically random thoughts on the topic…

Obama at the Bat

As you don't need me to tell you, Obama's coronation, complete with a full court of princes, princesses, and even a couple of jesters, was greeted by the massive crowd with rousing choruses of God Save Obama... but by the financial markets with a sharp sell-off.

Since then, the market has struggled to do its part in heralding in the new American Era, managing, so far, to muster only a tepid one-day blip. Meanwhile, the economic news just gets worse. And worse.

This has investors keyed up and waiting in a nervous state of anticipation for Team Obama to step up to the home plate.

Given all that is at stake, when Team Obama eventually emerge from their many collaborations and deliberations to make the BIG announcement on their plans to save the world, we suspect they will be carrying a very big bat. As the new Treasury secretary stated, the plan they’ll present will be “dramatic.”

That leads us to conclude that one of two scenarios must almost surely follow...

Scenario One: They announce something that is so large it blows the mind and settles the markets. Evidence of this scenario being the one unfolding would be if, on hearing the details of the New Deal, your reaction were something along the lines of… "Wow, I can't believe they'd go that far, but I guess it's the kind of medicine needed just now."

At which point my guess is that the financial markets would take a deep breath and the Obama rally would start, giving the global economy an early spring break.

Scenario Two: Obama strikes out. They step up to the plate with a flimsy little bat that the next hard pitch shatters into small pieces that fly into the eyes of the crowd. A lot of arm waving occurs as the global economic train rounds the bend and spots the abyss just ahead. Positioned as they are in the engine at the front of the train, Team Obama start to frantically grab for levers, sparks fly, a fire breaks out, smoke, brakes screaming, people ducking for cover… you get the idea.

Which way do I personally think things will break? I quote myself from the July 18, 2008 edition of this column/blog thingy.

    As one frantic, clumsy or heavy-handed regulatory attempt to patch things up fails, things will grow steadily worse, leading, I continue to be convinced, to an announcement by the newly sworn-in President Obama of a new deal whose net result will be to knock the excesses out of the economy with an “ambitious” new body of legislation.

    That things will roll out this way is due to the quaint tradition in our modern democracy that the new resident of the White House will do “whatever it takes,” no matter what the effect on the economy, to try and eliminate any long-term negative consequences of the mess left by the prior president. The trick is to “git ‘er dun” early in the new presidency, while the memory of the previous administration’s role in creating the mess is still fresh in the public mind.

    The problem is that getting her done this time around would require an approach that is literally foreign to either of the leading aspirants of the highest office of the land… not to mention 99% of officialdom, elected and otherwise.

    Of course, I arrogantly assume that I know the solution… to let the failed banks fail, to end the fiat monetary system, to cut the size of government in half… for starters… etc. An anarchist/libertarian utopian dream, to be sure. But before writing it off, take a close look around and then tell me how well you think the current Frankenstein model that is just one tick away from communism is working out?

    … it is a given that Obama will approach his new deal using more traditional – which is to say “statist” – methods.”

So, here we are. As predicted back in July, Obama has been sworn in and he is working on a New Deal. Further, this New Deal will almost certainly be geared entirely toward increasing, not decreasing, the weight of government on the economy.

With that view in mind, one might lean toward Scenario One… yet I have a hard time imagining what the government can do at this point that could be so BIG that they’ll be able to smooth the global waters and mollify the restless masses. Especially with such a steady drumbeat of bad news coming from both the U.S. and overseas… the UK, China, Eurozone, Japan, etc., etc., etc.

That I can’t envision such a plan at this very moment is only because my imagination hasn’t been sufficiently amped up with enough coffee this morning. And so, with the benefit of another shot of espresso, I remember that the U.S. government can do pretty much anything it wants, short of opening up concentration camps, and get away with it… for a time at least.

In fact, with a bit more effort, I do see one plan shaping up that might, just might, do the trick.

And that is for the U.S. government to set up a new operation with a forward-looking title such as “The Economic Recovery Corporation of America.” All of the nation’s banks and any other institution deemed “important” by the administration would earn shares in this new entity by handing over the toxic assets that now pollute their portfolios.

With all its wisdom, the U.S. government would provide management expertise to work the paper out over time, keeping the new “Bad Bank” afloat in the interim with government guarantees. To the extent that the government actually has to make good on any of its guarantees, it would recoup the losses taken prior to the contributing institutions receiving any share of the proceeds from the liquidations. To help get this idea through Congress, the Treasury would set a realistic time table for the workout – say, ten years – and confidently project that the new entity would ultimately make money from its activities.

Of course, there would be a lot of detailed work to make this idea work, but the plan – which has already been hinted at by members of the administration – could be packaged in such a way that it could be deemed acceptable even to members of Congress, despite the hefty price tag.

As to the size of that price tag, the outstanding toxic paper on the books of the banks is currently estimated at somewhere between one and two trillion smackers.

“But Congress would never pass another big bailout to the greedy banks!” some would say.

To which I might reply, “For Bush, you are right. He had burned through all his goodwill. But at this early stage in his administration, provided the thing was properly packaged with an extra big helping of spin, our shiny new president can get pretty much anything he wants.”

So, that is how Scenario One might come to pass; a national Get Out of Jail Free card for banks. Followed, I suspect, by governments around the world quickly following suit. Problem solved, crisis over. The Obama rally starts and the world enjoys several months of respite before the hard reality that this thing is far, far from over smacks the global economy up the side of the head. More on that in a moment.

But what about Scenario Two – Obama strikes out? It could very well happen. People are very skittish just now. If history has repeatedly demonstrated anything, it is that governments are heavily prone to miscalculation. In the current situation, should they propose a plan that leaves people muttering to themselves, “What? That’s it? You must be kidding!” the retribution would come hard and fast.

Unfortunately, until we actually hear the details of “the plan” – which should be announced relatively soon – we simply can’t know which way things are going to break.

There are, however, a couple of things that I think we can be pretty sure of, in either scenario.

  1. Gold soars. In Scenario One, the market will correctly see the fresh wave of new money as inflationary – as it has at virtually every new bailout announcement over the last six months – and send gold spiking upwards. In Scenario Two, the scramble for safety triggered by the looming abyss will likewise send people scrambling for gold. Going out on the limb a bit, I’m going to guess that gold is headed over $1,000 within the next month or three.

  2. There will be a crash, regardless. All Scenario One does is postpone, and for not very long (three months?), the day of reckoning. It does nothing to actually resolve the massive misallocation of capital built up over decades of excessive spending and debt creation. The plan, at least as I envision it, just assures that the government’s debt soars even further. And, should it succeed in actually getting banks to loan and strapped consumers to borrow again… it just exacerbates the situation.

In addition to gold, I also think there are going to be some spectacular trading opportunities coming up, opportunities we are well geared up to take advantage of with our new Casey Trend Trader service.

It is now up and running, but heretofore, only for our Alert subscribers. A broader release on the service will be out soon… it is temporarily hung up in some minor administrative details related to the announcement itself. Watch for it.

Swearengen on the New Administration

Last week I reprinted a rather strongly worded and entirely unflattering farewell to George Bush by my dear friend and business partner, Doug Casey.

In response, I received several strongly worded emails from readers, including one from a Vietnam vet who threatened to beat me up for, I guess, exercising the right of free speech that soldiers are regularly attributed with fighting for. Oh, well.

In that, in the same edition, I expressed some skepticism about the economy’s prospects under the Obama administration, I also received several emails from readers suggesting we get on board with the Obama express… emphatically stating that we owe the guy a decent chance to fix things.

While I think I have tried to be fair in my assessment of what we might expect of Obama, I will accept that, even at this early point in his administration, I am skeptical.

To help explain why, I will take a roundabout approach by stating that Doug and I share a passion for the now canceled HBO series Deadwood.

Deadwood, about the founding and early days of that infamous Wild West town, is not for everyone, due primarily to equal parts sex, violence, and truly obscene language. Yet if you can get past the first couple of episodes – and almost no one I know other than Doug has – the degraded milieu of the show begins to grow on you. Especially when you realize that the writers regularly use iambic pentameter to express their most colorful language.

So, other than being aficionados of violent westerns (Doug's favorite movie of all time is The Wild Bunch, and I cast top ten votes for The Outlaw Josey Wales and The Searchers), what does this have to do with anything?

Stick with me for a minute, because there was a scene in Deadwood that struck me as relevant given this week's inauguration of Mr. Obama.

The set up is that Al Swearengen, the hard case who was instrumental in the founding of Deadwood, finds his turf being cut into by George Hearst, the scion of the Hearst dynasty who is trying to hone in on the nearby Homestake Mine, the biggest of the Black Hills mines, and one of the largest in North America. Hearst is a hard-charging bull who knows what he wants, and what he wants, he gets (in real life, he ended up buying Homestake in 1877 for $70,000... in today's money, that's $1,347,705).

In any event, Hearst sends a flunky over to Al Swearengen's saloon and invites him to his hotel room for a pow wow about the future of Deadwood, a future he very much wants to control. When the meeting doesn't go exactly as Hearst intends, he has his henchmen grab Al, hold his hand down on a table, remove a couple of fingers with a bowie knife, then toss him out on the street.

About a week later, Hearst decides he wants to meet again with Swearengen. And so he sends the same flunky back to Swearengen’s saloon to request that Al, once again, follows the flunky back to a meeting with Hearst.

Upon hearing the request for a second meeting, Swearengen, his hand still swaddled in bandages, raises one eyebrow skeptically and says the immortal words, "Why, the must take me for an optimist."

Well, given my life experience to date, an experience that has involved watching a succession of presidents pursuing policies that have each, in turn, increased both the size of government and its many obligations to the point where we are now on the brink of the worst financial debacle since the nation’s founding, you will excuse me if, when asked by anyone to grab hands around Obama's campfire, my mind returns to Swearengen’s words, "Why, the must take me for an optimist."

But wait, say Obama's many fans, he's different! He really will change things!

To which I reply: Bush’s inauguration, $40 million (a ridiculous amount); Obama's, $170 million (an insane amount). I would have been impressed if he had a modest affair in the Rose Garden, with a modest little wine and cheese served afterward. But $170 million?

It says to me like little else can that the new administration is, at the least, still living in the past – a past marked by excesses in all things.

And so, for the time being, like Al, I am going to have to be convinced by something other than words.

Leaving off on the topic, other than the sheer spectacle and Obama’s seemingly well-practiced, beatific countenance as he walked toward the inaugural podium, the thing that jumped out at me the most was when a camera zoomed in on a T-shirt that was apparently quite popular with the crowd, and that is pictured here.

Skepticism aside, I sincerely do hope that Obama does a better than average job… but yet, I can’t help but find the expectations inherent in the iconography that surrounds the man deeply concerning. The higher the expectations, the harder the fall.

The Continuing Crisis

Item One: Real Estate Still in Real Trouble. I can remember some years ago being shown a fixer-upper selling for $750,000 in a neighborhood near the San Francisco airport where one would have to be stupid or well armed to go out after nightfall. My, what a difference a few years make. This from Bloomberg…

    Jan. 21 (Bloomberg) -- Home prices in the San Francisco Bay Area fell 44 percent last month from a year earlier as discounted, foreclosed properties lured buyers, MDA DataQuick said.

In a conversation this week with real estate pro Andy Miller, he shared his view that there is literally nothing, but nothing, that any government body in the world can do about real estate until values fall to the point where equilibrium returns. And we are nowhere near that point. It doesn’t hurt to be looking for that dream property you have always wanted, but the smart money is holding off buying… probably through the end of this year. (As all real estate is local, there will of course be exceptions.)

Item Two: Let's Piss Off China! In his Senate confirmation hearing, Treasury secretary nominee Timothy Geithner went on record that… “President Obama – backed by the conclusions of a broad range of economists – believes that China is manipulating its currency.” Adding, “The new economic team will forge an integrated strategy on how best to achieve currency realignment in the current economic environment.”

This audience, more than most, is aware of the fact that foreigners – led by China – were responsible for buying something like 80% of the U.S. Treasury bonds sold over the last couple of years. So, naturally, it makes perfect sense that the likely new Treasury secretary would come out of the starter’s gate with tough words for China, even though buyers will have to be found for record quantities of Treasuries in the months just ahead.

The distinguished New York Congressman Charles Rangel seconded Geithner by warning that, “What they can’t work out diplomatically, we can work out legislatively.”

See my earlier remarks on governments serially making miscalculations.

Item Three: What Price Oil? I recently commented on the fact that the price of many things has either already fallen, or soon will fall, below the cost of production. On that general topic, regular correspondent and über-researcher Marko F. of Canaccord sent along the following item this week.

    The IMF recently compiled a list of break-even prices that various oil-producing nations require in order to avoid a budget deficit in 2009. Those figures are as follows: Bahrain $84, Kuwait $34, Oman $78, Qatar $24, Saudi Arabia $54, United Arab Emirates $24, Algeria $60, Azerbaijan $35, Iran $90 (!), Iraq ($94), Kazakhstan $67, and Libya $53.

While there is some internal debate here at Casey Research on the outlook for oil prices, my personal sense is that it is approaching oversold. One of many recent developments in the energy scene supporting that view occurred this week when we learned that the output at PEMEX, Mexico’s state oil company, fell 9 percent in 2008. This is, unfortunately, a trend solidly in motion: from its peak production of 3.8 million barrels per day in 2004, Mexican production is now ringing in at just 2.8 million bbl/d, a startling drop of 1 million bbl/d in just four years.

The consequences of this decline are serious, starting with the simple fact that the already embattled Mexican government derives over 40% of its revenue from PEMEX. As the underlying cause of the production decline is that the giant Cantarell field is well past peak, this is not a situation that will be quickly or easily resolved.

While this heightens the odds that Mexico will become a failed state, it also supports Jeffrey Brown’s time line that by 2014 – if not sooner – Mexico will stop exporting oil.

So, sure, oil and gas might stay under pressure for a bit longer… but the time will come, and probably sooner rather than later, when you’ll want to begin positioning yourself for some exceptional contrarian profits.

Item Four: Car, Anyone? In a recent edition of these weekly musings, I mentioned that, while flying into Newark recently, I could see a sea of unsold cars waiting on the dock of the port. Apparently, this is a growing problem, as you can see for yourself by clicking this link.

Item 5: Credit Denied. Regular correspondent Jeff B. sent this along earlier today.

    I decided to apply for 3 or 4 credit cards in Canada to see how easy credit is currently to get.

    I currently only have one credit card in my “home” country of Canada and have, as far as I know, the best possible credit rating you could have in Canada… I’ve never been late for a bill payment, ever.

    Also of interest, I used to have numerous credit cards, all with limits from $10-20k, but cancelled all of them a few years ago as I never used them.

    The result: I was declined outright for two of them. And of the one I was approved for, I was granted a Capital One MasterCard with a $500 credit limit! $500!!!???

    What a difference from a few years ago where my newly employed, just-out-of-school, 22-year-old girlfriend was offered numerous credit cards and credit lines, all well over $10,000!!!

    And this is Canada… supposedly nowhere near as bad off as the US banks!

Item 6: Who’s at Fault? This just in from Casey Research Washington correspondent, Don Grove.

    Now we’ll get to the bottom of this! Senators Johnny Isakson (R-Ga) and Kent Conrad (D-ND), yesterday introduced S. 298 to establish a commission to conduct a “forensic audit” of the unfathomable mystery of what caused the banking and financial crisis. The bipartisan “Financial Markets Commission,” fashioned after the commission that investigated the 9/11 attack, would have a $3M budget, subpoena powers, and seven members appointed by the president (2), Fed chairman, and by both parties’ leaders in the House and Senate.

    The Commission will have a year to investigate “the circumstances that led to this financial crisis,” whereupon it will “report to the President and to the Congress its recommendations for statutory or regulatory changes necessary to protect our country from a repeat of this financial collapse.” Isakson said, “I’ve never personally seen anything like the economic times we’re in now. We must learn exactly what happened and why. We must hold people accountable. If institutions or individuals broke the law, they must face the consequences.”

    Isakson came to Congress from a successful career as president of one of the largest residential real estate brokerage companies in America. It seems he would be able to figure out for less than $3M that this crisis can largely be traced directly back to meddling by Congress distorting the free market. The bill has been referred to the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs.

    Regards, Don

Item 7: Next, It Gets Ugly. There was an interesting article in the Times of London this week on the growing number of violent protests flaring up around the world. Here’s an excerpt.

    Icelanders all but stormed their Parliament last night. It was the first session of the chamber after what might appear to be an unusually long Christmas break.

    Ordinary islanders were determined to vent their fury at the way that the political class had allowed the country to slip towards bankruptcy. The building was splattered with paint and yoghurt, the crowd yelled and banged pans, fired rockets at the windows and lit a bonfire in front of the main door. Riot police moved in.

    Now in the grand sweep of the current crisis, a riot on a piece of volcanic rock in the north Atlantic may not seem to add up to much. But it is a sign of things to come: a new age of rebellion.

    The financial meltdown has become part of the real economy and is now beginning to shape real politics. More and more citizens on the edge of the global crisis are taking to the streets. Bulgaria has been gripped this month by its worst riots since 1997 when street power helped to topple a Socialist government. Now Socialists are at the helm again and are having to fend off popular protests about government incompetence and corruption.

And here’s a link to the full article.

A sign of times to come? I think the answer is, yes… especially as more and more people hit the unemployment lines.

Item 8: The Unemployment Lines. John Mauldin, who has just signed on as a faculty member for our March 20-22 Crisis & Opportunity Summit, puts out an excellent weekly letter, titled Out of the Box (more here In his latest edition, he sheds some useful light on the government’s prettied-up employment statistics. Here’s the quote:

    We were told Thursday that initial unemployment claims were "only" 524,000. The talking heads immediately said that was proof the economy is simply bad, not falling off a cliff. Again, like last week, that seasonally adjusted number masks the real number, which was 952,151. That is not a typo. There were almost 1 million newly unemployed last week! That is up over 400,000 from the same week in 2008, while the seasonally adjusted number was up only 200,000. Last week the real number was 726,000, so this is a material rise of over 225,000, yet the seasonally adjusted number suggests a rise of only 57,000 from last week.

    The continuing claims data leaped over 500,000 to (again, not a typo!) 5,832,746. The length of time people are staying unemployed is also rising rapidly. We are up almost 1.5 million new continuing claims in just the last five weeks. That is a stunning rise of over 30% in unemployment claims in just over a month. The data is truly ugly, but it is what it is.

    When you are in periods where there are deep outliers to the data because of very real turning points in the economy (such as we are going through now), the seasonally adjusted numbers can mask the real underlying trends, both up and down.

There is much more I could include under the topic “The Continuing Crisis,” but time and space prohibits it.

From the big-picture perspective, while one should practice optimism at every chance in everyday life – life is much happier that way – when it comes time to roll up your sleeves and work on your finances, pessimism remains the word of the day… and likely, the week, month, and year as well.

In time this storm will pass, just not real soon, and not because some government spokesperson – no matter how well spoken – says it has.

Crisis & Opportunity Summit Update – Going, Going…

There are a couple of important developments to share in regards to the upcoming Casey Research Crisis & Opportunity Summit, being held at the beautiful Four Seasons in Las Vegas, March 20-22.

The first is that the Summit is now more than half sold out, despite almost no marketing on the event (we wanted to hold off until the first draft of the schedule was ready).

Further, the deeply discounted room block at the Four Seasons at $195 a night, versus an amount normally almost twice that – is almost sold out (we are trying to negotiate for more).

And finally, the aforementioned schedule is now finished. While discussions continue with several additional individuals we are determined to land as faculty – including Congressman Ron Paul and former GAO Comptroller David Walker – the line-up as it now stands is, I think, exceptional. By the time the event is over, participants will come away well armed with the hard facts and specific knowledge needed to both persevere and prosper in the crisis now unfolding. While our various services will provide you with most of what you need to know to stay ahead of the crowd, the added advantage of this Summit is that it allows you to get the answers to all your many questions, in a collegial and almost familial setting.

In any event, I’m not going to pitch you hard on attending; rather, I wanted to let you know that if you might be interested in attending, you can now view the schedule by clicking this link.

Then, act quickly if you want to attend… this event will, without question, sell out.

Hope to see you there!

And That’s It for This Week…

As I wrap up this week, I see that the stock market is trying to end the week on a softer note, and the Dow is down only 57 points. But, whoa Nelly! Gold is up strongly, up $37.60 to $896.40. Per above, I am increasingly convinced we’re on our way back over $1,000.

For those of you who appreciate the musical selections I share now and again, I was just listening to Tori Amos’ song Cornflake Girl, a soft classic. I went looking for the song on YouTube to share it with you and came across the following video of her doing a live performance. While I like the song on the original album, until seeing this video I had never seen her perform… which, after watching her cavorting about the stage, I am now fairly sure I never will. But she has musical skills, I’ll give her that. Here’s the (strange) link.

For something entirely different, a couple of you have sent me a link to a fantastic video commentary on the bailout by Fred Thompson. Well worth a watch. Here it is…

And that, dear readers, is that for this week.

Be of good cheer… why not?

Thanks for reading and for sharing this journey with us.

David Galland
Managing Director
Casey Research, LLC.

Posted 01-27-2009 9:39 AM by David Galland