The Room – 06/19/2009
Dear Reader,

David is taking a well-deserved week off, so this week you’re hearing from Olivier.

While David may be off duty, it didn’t prevent him from submitting an interesting article sent by one of our subscribers, along with a couple of comments.

    Telegraph: U.S. cities may have to be bulldozed in order to survive

      Dozens of U.S. cities may have entire neighborhoods bulldozed as part of drastic "shrink to survive" proposals being considered by the Obama administration to tackle economic decline.

    David here. I have to admit, while I am reflexively against any government program, I kind of like this one…

    That said, there are obvious problems: Whose land gets left on the edge of the new forest and therefore goes up in value? What happens once the smaller city enjoys a resurgence in popularity, and people want their abandoned land back or want to again "sprawl"? What happens when the program gets up and rolling, and some malcontent in a shack refuses to sell? And how would they define "abandoned" in deciding whether to grab a piece of land -- what if it was just being left fallow by the owner?

    But given how hopeless the urban wastelands are, this is a pretty creative idea.

    So, am I wrong in thinking that this is not a horrible thing for government to undertake?

    I'm surprised that this hasn't been catching more attention in the U.S. news...

Olivier again. Definitely a creative plan that may prove to be a better use of federal dollars than most of the other infrastructure development projects contemplated by the administration. The problem with most new infrastructure projects is that they end up adding operating and maintenance costs to municipalities and states that can’t really afford them. At least the “wrecking ball programs” should result in decreased long-term overhead for the cities that implement them.

The First 150 Days

Yesterday marked the end of Obama’s first 150 days at the helm of the U.S. of A. None of us doubted that Obama was a savvy and ambitious politician, but even we are impressed by the sheer number of new initiatives the president has undertaken. In less than five months, there are very few campaign promises he has failed to tackle.

One has to wonder, however, whether Obama may be failing to deliver on the biggest of his campaign promises – that of bringing change to Washington. Weren’t we supposed to see the end of politics as usual and of government waste and pork? Instead, we’ve gotten more of the same, with Ben Bernanke, Larry Summers, and their ilk still in charge and Geithner replacing Paulson. The doors continue to revolve between Wall Street and K Street, with the same cabal influencing policy.

Given my inclination to look at facts rather than listen to pronouncements, here is my assessment of the State of the Union after 150 days. Let’s look at a balance sheet of achievements with assets and liabilities as of June 18.

Starting with the assets:

  1. While we have not returned to a healthy credit environment, it is undeniable that the massive injection of liquidity into the financial system by the Fed and the Treasury has managed to thaw the credit freeze we experienced last fall.

  2. After declining by 24% from January 1 through March 9, the S&P 500 has managed to recover and closed at $918 yesterday, up 3.4% for the year in spite of a sharp contraction of real GDP (-5.7%). This may be explained by a reported increase in corporate profits for Q1 (+$42.6 billion, although non-financials declined by $64.2 billion).

    One may wonder, however, if the $116.1 billion Q1 increase in profits from the financial sector (following a $178.7 billion decrease in Q4 2008) had anything to do with the changes in the FASB mark-to-market rules that were conveniently adopted by this regulatory board on April 2. (This change did not allow financial institutions to restate 2008 results but, interestingly enough, allowed them to apply the new rules retroactively to Q1 results.)

  3. A better-than-expected unemployment report for May 2009. Non-farm employment figures fell by “only” 345,000 compared to a decline of 504,000 in April. Yet the unemployment rate has continued to grow to an all-time high of 9.8% (for the record, it was 5.3% in May 2008).

  4. Total housing starts increased to 532,000 in May from 454,000 in April. The lowest since the Census Bureau began tracking housing starts in 1959.

  5. Foreclosure filings dipped 6% in May compared to April. Yet they increased 18% from May 2008, marking the third highest month on record. "There were almost one million foreclosure filings in a three-month period, and that's simply unprecedented," reported Rick Sharga, senior vice president at RealtyTrac.

  6. The University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index for May hit its highest level since last September, indicating that while consumers are still relatively glum, they are increasingly hopeful the economy will experience a turnaround in the next few months. The final index at 68.7 was higher than April’s 65.1 and November’s 28-year low of 55.3.

So maybe there is some light at the end of the tunnel, and the markets are anticipating the 2009 fourth-quarter recovery Ben Bernanke promised us last March in his 60 Minutes interview. Given Chairman Ben’s track record, though, I wouldn’t bet on a recovery just yet, so let’s turn to the liabilities:

  1. Back in early March, the Obama administration released its forecast for the federal budget for the remainder of 2009 (ending 9/30/09). While the 2009 deficit announced was a staggering $1.8 trillion – four times that of 2008 – the plan is that we will start to see a progressive return to reasonable levels after a few years. Unfortunately, it is already certain that once again actual deficits and unfunded liabilities will rise far beyond current plans. So far, tax receipts are $100 billion lower than forecasted in Obama’s budget, and I doubt that actual spending will come in below.

  2. The Public-Private Investment Partnership (PPIP), announced with great fanfare by Tim Geithner in March, has yet to attract investors. While banks appear to have returned to health, they are still undercapitalized and loaded with toxic assets ready to explode with the next round of bad news.

  3. Over the first five months of 2009, unemployment rose by 3.4 million to 14.5 million.

  4. Foreclosures have declined slightly, but the number of foreclosures from prime borrowers (as opposed to subprime and Alt-A “problem” loans) is rising quickly as job losses increase. We can expect more defaults as a result of the recent layoffs, and we have yet to hit the next wave of Alt-A loan resets that is forecasted to hit later this year and to continue through 2011. The number of new homebuyers may be dwindling soon, too – while 30-year mortgage rates are still low, they are definitely rising. More stringent lending standards and higher rates do not bode well for a recovery in the residential markets.

  5. Commercial real estate is only beginning to see the full impact of the recession. A tight lending environment, stricter loan-to-value ratios, declines in property values, lower occupancy rates, and the lower overall profitability of most properties mean that we will continue to see an increase in defaults in the commercial sector for quite some time.

  6. The Obama administration’s big push for alternative, “green” energies and for a cap on carbon emission is sure to cost American taxpayers and businesses hundreds of billions of dollars while providing no guarantees that it will have any real impact on reducing our dependency on imported hydrocarbons. The administration shows very little support for the only real short- to medium-term alternatives: clean coal, domestic oil and natural gas, and nuclear. In fact, many projects are being curtailed due to lower energy prices and regulatory hurdles and threats.

  7. Not only are we staying in the nightmare of the Iraqi war, we are expanding our involvement in Afghanistan and are drawing closer to involvement in Pakistan --

    leading to yesterday’s Senate approval of the war supplemental. Who knows, we may soon be liberating North Korea too.

  8. While universal health care may be a popular concept, it will come at a hefty price, and according to the Congressional Budget Office, it will definitely add to the already staggering, unfunded liabilities of Medicare and Social Security. Who will pay the bill?

  9. Why, the “rich,” of course! By rich, I mean those earning over $250,000 a year. Of course, since raising taxes on the rich and carbon-emitting businesses won’t suffice, new forms of taxation – such as a federal VAT – are being seriously considered in DC. In fact, if you want to get a deeper understanding of the impact of the first 150 days of the Obama administration on future taxation, you should check this link to the Americans for Tax Reform website:. While probably not totally unbiased, it provides a sobering look at what may be upon us.

  10. Inflation is still relatively tame. As we have explained time after time in our publications, we expect the deflationary impact of the recent burst in the asset bubble to soon be overcome by monetary expansion and runaway inflation. As the deficit widens and foreigners lose confidence in the dollar, we can expect the Fed to fill the gap by running its printing presses overtime.

  11. The bailout of the financial, insurance, and auto industries has not only cost taxpayers an enormous amount of money, it is also a clear step towards government control of the private sector.

  12. It is becoming clear that the federal government is challenging contractual rights in the name of the War on Crisis. In the past few months, the protection of stakeholders under bankruptcy has been trampled, contractual bonus obligations have been voided, mortgage lenders have seen foreclosure rights eliminated, and corporations have seen management and capital structure overhauled by bureaucrats without shareholders’ approval. Yet the administration states that private enterprise is the principal element of any economic recovery. Unless coerced, what private investor will want to invest in a challenging economic environment without contractual protections?

One of our subscribers, Tommy K, forwarded a cartoon that appeared in 1934 in the Chicago Tribune. It wouldn’t be too hard to make it current and relevant to our times.

Enough ranting on the state of the union, though. Let me turn to Bud Conrad, who will enlighten us on whether the current stock market rally is the beginning of a recovery or one of those bear market rallies common in serious recessions. I will let you draw your own conclusions.

Where Did the Wealth Go?

Bud Conrad, June 2009

The drop in housing and the stock market decreased consumers’ desire to spend. To understand how big the impact is, I have taken the Federal Reserve’s latest data that was published on June 11 to see what the effect is on the assets of households and nonprofit organizations. The chart below shows all the assets added together are generally growing through the end of 2007. It then shows the levels of decline through the end of the first quarter of 2009. The drop in all assets combined was $12 trillion in just over a year's time. The biggest downturn is in stock market valuation ($7 trillion), and the second-biggest drop in housing ($3 trillion).

Household liabilities decreased a very small amount by comparison. That makes sense, because housing prices can move much more rapidly than the debt on those houses. This very big decline in asset value is both the result of a slowing economy and the cause of future slow growth. As consumers feel less wealthy, they are less likely to spend. The conclusion to be drawn from this loss of wealth is that the slow economy will be with us for quite a while.

Foreigners Are Slowing Investment in the U.S.

Bud Conrad, June 2009

Foreign investment in the U.S. has been one of the supports for our government deficits and for our dollar. With foreigners questioning how large their holdings should grow, a closer look at the total cross-border flows gives some indication of what is going on.

Breaking down foreign purchases of securities into long-term and short-term gives an indication that while foreigners are not yet running away from the dollar, they are reluctant to hold long-term instruments. A logical interpretation is that by holding short-term paper, they retain more flexibility to shift their money towards new investments.

The conclusion from the data is that foreigners are starting to look for alternatives to U.S. investments. Their pronouncements confirm what they are doing. Important meetings are occurring, such as that of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, where the U.S. was excluded this week and where they discussed looking for alternatives to the dollar.

Olivier again. There are still a few bears around on Wall Street. Goldman Sachs Chief Economist Jim O’Neill said financial markets could weaken in coming weeks amid concern over the government’s intentions to roll back stimulus packages.

See this link.

In fact, it does not take a seasoned economist or a PhD to figure out that there is more downside than upside in the stock market these days.

During the month of May, the S&P 500 traded at an average P/E ratio of 127.48, shattering the previous average monthly high of 58.66 in April. For historical reference, the average P/E for publicly traded U.S. stocks has been around 15.

You may ask, if we see clear signs of a correction and weakness in the dollar, and if inflation is around the corner, why hasn’t gold gone through the roof yet? I can give at least three reasons for its relative lack of strength ($934 this morning):

  1. Seasonality. The gold price typically shows signs of weakness in the summer and picks up in the fall and winter months because of increased jewelry demand.
  2. IMF gold sales. It is expected that the IMF will sell one eighth of its gold reserves (12.97 million ounces) to finance aid programs to developing economies hit by the current crisis.
  3. Deflation. While we are forecasting inflation, there are still some strong deflationary forces at play. We do not anticipate the gold mania to start until deflation fully subsides.

So am I long on gold? More than ever. I see the current softness in prices of precious metal as an opportunity to continue to load up on bullion and stocks of major gold producers, as advised in our BIG GOLD newsletter. If you are not yet a BIG GOLD subscriber, you may want to check it out and follow our recommendations.

Speaking of gold, you may have seen the following article on our site or others: Mint moves to halt possible “run” on gold.

On the same subject, one of our subscribers reports:

    Just recently (a few weeks ago), I was closing a position in my “Prestige” Kitco account, which is “guaranteed” held by the Canadian Mint. While I was doing so, I kept getting IT reports from the Mint that indicated that I had 500 ounces more gold in my account than I knew I did. Maybe this has something to do with the problems at the Canadian Mint?

    While I, of course, did not take advantage of the situation, I have consistently had appalling problems with the Canadian Mint's IT systems. If this results in apportioning an individual almost half a million dollar's worth of gold they haven't got, I can see how they might run into problems...

    Food for thought (and action?)

Notes from the Field

Although he was just back from a trip to Colombia, Louis James hopped on a plane again this week to go down to Mexico and check out Mexican silver properties there. Louis just sent along preliminary notes from his visit.

    I'm several kilometers into a mountainside in northern Mexico, with maybe a half a kilometer of rock over my head.

    I've just pulled a few grams of native silver out of a tunnel wall. This stuff is currently going right through the old mill and out to the tailings pond. Management is building a new circuit to capture it (and plans to reprocess old tailings). The regular ore is high-grade oxides – I just hammered a sample from another vein that grades 28 kilos of silver per tonne, so they aren't wasting time on current works, but I'm glad to see that they'll be getting the silver metal soon as well.

    A post-market-meltdown revised construction plan is going well, but the company's financials have been shaky, so the market seems to be in a "show me, don't tell me" mode.

    From my inspection, I think the company will deliver the core functions of the new plant within a couple months, which should greatly increase the profitability of the operation. That's very good, because this mine has more high-grade ore (300-400 g/t silver) under development for near-term production than I expected.

    Not all the company's projects have this much potential to add to the company's bottom line so soon, but I'm feeling much better about our investment. I'll have more details on the company in the next issue of the International Speculator.

A Centrally Controlled Economy?

This week has seen another flurry of activity in Washington. It started with an announcement by Obama on the Financial Regulatory Reform granting the Fed broad authority as a super regulator. After studying the White Paper issued by the White House, our Bud Conrad had the following comments:

  • We are quickly moving to a centrally controlled economy, private ownership be damned. The source of my opinion is the already 80 pages of general description of the thousands of bureaucrats that will be assigned to direct the economy and not just limit the excesses.
  • One of the most problematic parts of the proposal, in my opinion, is that the Federal Reserve would be given yet more power and responsibilities in the face of its abject failure to understand and deal with the ongoing economic situation.

  • The Federal Reserve has stepped beyond its original charter to manage the monetary system and has been taking on loans and responsibilities for specific financial institutions. Look at Mr. Bernanke’s reaction to the simple inquiry by Congress to reveal the names of the institutions to which the Fed handed out almost $1 trillion: he flatly refused to comply.

  • We don't need more bureaucracy. We need more accountability and prosecution of the crooks that brought us here in the first place. What we will get is an expensive bureaucracy, many reporting requirements, and overhead. This system will add a great burden to the efficient operations of our financial systems.

  • If exporting manufacturing jobs offshore has hurt our economy, think of what a constipated regulatory system will do to our financial institutions: they will go somewhere else, taking jobs and wealth with them.

I have to say, having the Fed as an unregulated super-regulator is a scary thought.

But there are reports on more activities on Capitol Hill…

Audit the Fed

Don Grove, Casey Research Washington correspondent

The Federal Reserve Transparency Act would require the first audit ever of the Federal Reserve. The bill has 234 sponsors, a comfortable majority of the members of the House, and is gaining momentum.

The Obama administration should be delighted, given its commitment to transparency in government.

Drill, Baby, Drill!

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee adopted an amendment to its energy bill that would allow oil and gas drilling within 45 miles of the Florida coast. If the Senate climate bill becomes law with the Florida drilling amendment intact, it could be sufficient to derail the whole climate bill. "We're simply not going to let this happen," said Bill Nelson (D-Fla).

Yes! That's what I like to hear! As long as they are bickering among themselves, there is less chance they will do any real mischief.

Back to Olivier .

On the subject of hydrocarbons, you may be interested in this article about the recently released 2009 International Energy Outlook. This year’s report released by the Energy Information Administration (EIA) includes the first acknowledgement of Peak Oil by this agency.

At Casey Research, we are so bullish on energy that it will be the central theme of our next conference on September 18-20 in Denver, Colorado. Marin Katusa, Senior Editor of Casey Energy Opportunities, has been working on an extraordinary line-up of experts to cover both conventional and alternative energies in depth. If you have not done so, mark your calendar – registration will open soon.

As we all know, Europe has been struggling with the recession just as much as we have. For a while it appeared as though Italy might have just found the solution ($40 billion more or less) to its financial problems, thanks to the diligence of its border patrol officers, who detained two supposedly Japanese men with $134 billion worth of U.S Treasury bonds in a suitcase.

Check out this story from Asia News: U.S. government securities seized from Japanese nationals not clear whether real or fake.

Unfortunately for Italy, Bloomberg reported yesterday that according to the U.S. government, the notes are fake..

Building Without the Proper Permits

Jacques T. sent us this very funny email I would like to share. Purportedly, this is an actual letter sent to a man named Ryan DeVries regarding a pond on his property. It was sent by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Quality, State of Pennsylvania.

While we haven’t verified if this is real or a hoax, it’s quite amusing nonetheless.

SUBJECT: DEQ File No.97-59-0023; T11N; R10W, Sec. 20; Lycoming County

Dear Mr. DeVries:

It has come to the attention of the Department of Environmental Quality that there has been recent unauthorized activity on the above referenced parcel of property. You have been certified as the legal landowner and/or contractor who did the following unauthorized activity:

Construction and maintenance of two wood debris dams across the outlet stream of Spring Pond.

A permit must be issued prior to the start of this type of activity. A review of the Department's files shows that no permits have been issued. Therefore, the Department has determined that this activity is in violation of Part 301, Inland Lakes and Streams, of the Natural Resource and Environmental Protection Act, Act 451 of the Public Acts of 1994, being sections 324.30101 to 324.30113 of the Pennsylvania Compiled Laws, annotated.

The Department has been informed that one or both of the dams partially failed during a recent rain event, causing debris and flooding at downstream locations. We find that dams of this nature are inherently hazardous and cannot be permitted. The Department therefore orders you to cease and desist all activities at this location, and to restore the stream to a free-flow condition by removing all wood and brush forming the dams from the stream channel. All restoration work shall be completed no later than January 31, 2009.

Please notify this office when the restoration has been completed so that a follow-up site inspection may be scheduled by our staff. Failure to comply with this request or any further unauthorized activity on the site may result in this case being referred for elevated enforcement action. We anticipate and would appreciate your full cooperation in this matter. Please feel free to contact me at this office if you have any questions.


David L. Price

District Representative and Water Management Division.

Here is the response sent back by Mr. DeVries:

Re: DEQ File No. 97-59-0023; T11N; R10W, Sec. 20; Lycoming County

Dear Mr. Price,

Your certified letter dated 12/17/07 has been handed to me to respond to. I am the legal landowner but not the Contractor at 2088 Dagget Lane, Trout Run, Pennsylvania.

A couple of beavers are in the (State-unauthorized) process of constructing and maintaining two wood “debris” dams across the outlet stream of my spring pond. While I did not pay for, authorize, nor supervise their dam project, I think they would be highly offended that you call their skillful use of nature’s building materials “debris.”

I would like to challenge your department to attempt to emulate their dam project any time and/or any place you choose. I believe I can safely state there is no way you could ever match their dam skills, their dam resourcefulness, their dam ingenuity, their dam persistence, their dam determination and/or their dam work ethic.

These are the beavers/contractors you are seeking. As to your request, I do not think the beavers are aware that they must first fill out a dam permit prior to the start of this type of dam activity.

My first dam question to you is:

(1) Are you trying to discriminate against my spring pond beavers, or

(2) do you require all beavers throughout this state to conform to said dam request?

If you are not discriminating against these particular beavers, through the Freedom of Information Act, I request completed copies of all those other applicable beaver dam permits that have been issued.

(Perhaps we will see if there really is a dam violation of Part 301, Inland Lakes and Streams, of the Natural Resource and Environmental Protection Act, Act 451 of the Public Acts of 1994, being sections 324.30101 to 324.30113 of the Pennsylvania Compiled Laws, annotated.)

I have several concerns. My first concern is, aren't the beavers entitled to legal representation? The spring pond beavers are financially destitute and are unable to pay for said representation -- so the state will have to provide them with a dam lawyer. The Department's dam concern that either one or both of the dams failed during a recent rain event, causing flooding, is proof that this is a natural occurrence, which the Department is required to protect. In other words, we should leave the spring pond beavers alone rather than harassing them and calling them dam names…

Being unable to comply with your dam request, and being unable to contact you on your dam answering machine, I am sending this response to your dam office.

Thank you,

Ryan Devries & the Dam Beavers


We have received requests for new phyles. Several subscribers want to know if there are existing phyles in either Chicago, Manhattan, or in Massachusetts. No formal group have formed in these areas yet, but if you are interested in organizing or participating in such a group, let Megan know by sending an email to [email protected] She will be happy to facilitate contacts in these cities.

Tom in Melbourne, Australia, is interested in starting a new phyle there. Contact Megan if you live in the area, and she will coordinate with him.

Finally, Tommy K. is wondering if the Denver area phyle members would be interested in a summer meeting in Vail he would host with his wife.

12:50 pm… I’m afraid it is time for me to sign out. The Dow is slightly down, the S&P and TSX are up again, and commodities markets are quiet.

Thank you for reading and being a Casey subscriber.

Olivier Garret
CEO, Casey Research

Posted 06-19-2009 2:57 PM by David Galland