Thursday, October 6, 2005

From The "R Man", Richard Russell

Here's Richard Russell's latest take on the state of things. Must reading in my opinion.

What I believe is happening is that investors, both domestic and international, have collectively recognized that the dollar's in trouble. And if the dollar's in trouble, everything denominated in dollars is in trouble. This concept has such enormous implications that it's almost beyond the comprehension of most professionals and totally beyond the comprehension of the great American retail public.

What, America's "mighty" reserve currency in trouble? The answer is "yes," but it's an answer that few analysts or journalists are addressing. The US population has depended on the dollar's reserve-status and "invincibility" for so long that it has never occurred to them that their debt-laden currency could be slowly losing its reserve status. And you have to ask yourself -- when a nation has to borrow money to pay off its own rising debts, how long can it be before it's currency reflects this dire state of affairs?

My own opinion is that the stock market's weakness is a function of big money leaving the scene. Where is the big money going? The answer is -- away from US dollars. But towards what? Towards other paper currencies such as the euro or even the yen -- but mainly towards tangibles, towards anything of real value unencumbered by debt. And world money is certainly moving toward the only intrinsic (non-debt) currency -- gold (with silver as a second choice).

Is oil a tangible? Yes, I consider oil a tangible, but unlike gold, you can't buy actual oil and put it in your bank vault. Of course, there are oil futures, but I don't recommend futures for most subscribers. This reduces oil to oil stocks and ETFs, including XLE and VDE.

A few days ago I made the statement that this is not just another "emergency oil spike," this is our first primary bull market in oil and energy. Thus, I would treat oil in the same way I treat gold. I'm not trading oil, I'm not timing oil purchases. You take your position, and you sit and allow the primary trend to do its work.

Oil became overbought, and as expected, oil is now correcting. I don't know how far the correction will carry, but I suspect it will be mild. Those wanting to participate in the oil-energy bull market should think in terms of ERFs, or the closed-end fund PEO.

The ominous but brilliant piece below was from the PrudentBear site, a site that I never fail to turn to -- Russell.

Guest Commentary, by Rob Lee Signals of the End of the Dollar Standard October 5, 2005

Rob Lee is an economist who has been involved in investment markets for 30 years, the last few in nominal retirement. I am an economist who worked for 25 years in large investment companies in South Africa.

I "retired" to the UK a few years ago. For most of my career I lobbied for policies such as money supply targets and later inflation targets that were (implicitly) intended to substitute the role of gold as an independent anchor for the monetary system. I was never an advocate of any form of gold standard, unlike the current Fed Chairman, now ironically testing the fiat money system to destruction.

However, in recent years the scales have fallen from my eyes. As Voltaire said in 1729 "paper money eventually goes down to its intrinsic value - zero." Every fiat paper currency before or since has confirmed to this prediction. A fiat paper currency that is also the global reserve currency becomes this problem writ large. A US Treasury official of old - Sam Cross - put it this way: "if you postulate a system that depends on one country always following the right policies, you will find that sooner or later no such country exists. The system is eventually going to break down". In my view the Dollar Standard system is irretrievably breaking down, as signaled by four recent developments described below:

1. China has ended its currency peg to the dollar. The new exchange rate system for the Yuan is admittedly not yet a dramatic break from the dollar fixed peg . That is not the Chinese way. It is nevertheless hugely symbolic. It serves notice that China will be increasingly reluctant to accumulate dollars they know will depreciate in value over time. Chinese economic spokesmen have made no secret in public of their alarm at US profligacy - what is said behind closed doors?

China is clearly intent on exchanging its paper assets (predominantly dollars) for real assets, notably commodities in general and energy products in particular. On gold the strategy focuses on encouraging private citizens to own gold- deregulation of the gold market has been rapid by Chinese standards. [Ironically it may now be easier for citizens of China to invest directly in gold than it is in many western democracies].

China is likely to prefer to remove dollar support only gradually. Bear in mind though that most of the smaller economies in Asia tend to follow China - Malaysia announced a similar change to its exchange rate system very soon after the Chinese. Other countries from outside the region - notably Russia and Saudi Arabia - have indicated an intention to downgrade the dollar in their currency arrangements. Iran is attempting to create an oil trading exchange that does not transact in dollars. These are ominous straws in the wind for a currency so dependent on foreign capital.

2. Deflation in Japan is coming to an end. Japan is the biggest foreign holder of US dollars. For example, Japan held $680bn in US Treasury Securities at the end of June - nearly 34% of total foreign holdings. This compares with $291bn held by China (including Hong Kong). Japan will therefore play a critical part in any changes to the world's currency system.

US-Japan relations are far closer than those between the US and China. Japan also has literally more to lose from the demise of the dollar than China. Nevertheless the same logic that impels China's move away from US paper applies to Japan. As long as deflation remained the key economic concern in Japan supporting the dollar was the paramount objective of its exchange rate policy. However, there are clear signs of a self-sustaining recovery of domestic employment, investment, and consumption in Japan. The recent election victory of PM Koizumi should reinforce reform and recovery. These forces are simultaneously bringing an end to both the deflationary process and to dependence on exports for growth. The imperative to support the dollar will erode and interest rates in Japan will begin to normalize. Another straw in the wind - Japan did not increase its holdings of US Treasuries in the first half of 2005.

3. The US in effect now has to borrow abroad in order to service all its foreign debt. The remarkable down spiral in the US foreign financial position took another crucial but little noticed twist recently. In the second quarter of 2005 the US paid out more in income to foreigners on their US assets than it received in income on its foreign assets. Technically net foreign investment income went negative. No comfort should be taken from the fact the second quarter investment income deficit was a mere $0.5bn. The income deficit will deteriorate rapidly in coming years. The US has net foreign debt (foreign liabilities minus foreign assets) of more than $ 2.5 trillion, and this debt will grow rapidly as the US continues to rack up huge current account deficits (now roughly $800bn annually). The income deficit on this debt has only just gone negative because the US receives a rate of return on its foreign assets roughly double that of overseas investors in the US - about 7% versus 3.4% between 2002 and 2004.

This differential return reflects the fact that Americans have invested largely in riskier assets abroad while foreigners have opted more for Treasury securities. A world economic downturn (likely in my view) would reduce returns on US overseas assets, while rising US interest rates will raise the return to foreigners. The longer term dynamics of this process are alarming. Within a short period of years the US will be borrowing hundreds of billions merely to service existing debt. Economists call this the "debt trap" - and the US economy is heading inexorably into it Can the US dollar sustain its position as the world reserve currency in the face of these fundamentals? As the saying goes, you only have to ask the question to know the answer.

4. The gold price is breaking out in all key currencies. Not all the world's investors (or central bankers!) are blind to the scary developments sketched above. Gold in dollars has definitively been in a bull market for some time, but in recent weeks gold has decisively broken out all key currencies including the Euro, Yen, Swiss Franc and Sterling. Markets are recognizing that the failure of the Dollar Standard is one not only of US economic management but one inherent in the fiat money system itself. In the long term they may demand gold's return as an anchor to the global monetary system.

The flight from paper assets (and especially dollars) towards hard assets is now underway in earnest. There is still time - this is a multi-year trend - for investors to switch from devaluing dollars to rising gold. Those ahead of the herd are moving but the herd itself is yet to stir.

There you have it folks.

Winning Without Fighting

Bush once again has the Democrats discombobulated. They are almost forced to support his nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court despite her pro-life opinions and strong evangelical faith. They know so little about her that they can still plausibly hope that she might not be as "bad" as Clarence Thomas or Antonin Scalia. Should she fail to be confirmed, however, whoever is nominated in her place is most likely going to be a Thomas/Scalia clone, and it will be much harder to defeat a second nominee. Miers is about the closest thing to what the Dems want that they're likely to get, and they'll almost have to see her confirmed or face a far tougher fight over a more obviously qualified substitute.

If Miers really is a conservative and an intelligent strict constructionist, and if that's truly what the President wanted on the Court, then he is indeed a wizard at political strategy. He gets (ex hypothesi) a qualified originalist on the Bench by forcing the Dems to vote for her and without having to fight them for their vote.

Hugh Hewitt linked to someone today who recalls the words of Sun Tzu:

"For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the supreme excellence."

I think Sun Tzu would admire the Miers gambit.

Chaos and Anarchy

The LA Times tells us that media reports of chaos and anarchy in New Orleans in the wake of Katrina were highly exaggerated and largely incorrect. Indeed, it was these reports which caused relief teams to delay going into the city.

We'd do well to keep this in mind when we read the next dispatches from the MSM about how Iraq is descending into chaos and civil war.

Consciousness and Materialism

Philosopher David Chalmers notes that there has been a shift among philosophers of mind in the last decade from a strict materialistic reductionism (or physicalism) toward the view that mind cannot be reduced to matter (dualism), that mind and matter are essentially disparate entities. Dualists, by Chalmers' estimation, are still in the minority, but their numbers are growing. This is a fascinating development after a century and a half of philosophers and neurobiologists trying to show that mind is nothing more than a word we use to describe the function of the brain.

Materialism seems to be under assault everywhere. Marxist economic materialism has long been discredited, of course, and within the last fifteen years materialist conceptions of the cosmos have become increasingly untenable in light of discoveries being made by cosmologists about the fine-tuning of the fundamental forces, laws, and constants which govern the universe. Similarly, Intelligent Design is challenging materialism in the realm of biology, and now many philosophers are concluding that consciousness is something other than just chemical reactions in the brain.

Next thing you know philosophers will be resurrecting the concept of soul. It reminds me of the closing words of Robert Jastrow's God and the Astronomers. Jastrow notes that scientists have struggled, like men climbing a mountain, for every foothold and handhold that would help them reach the pinnacle - an understanding how our universe works. Every scrap of knowledge came at a great cost in effort and labor. Finally, after centuries of working their way toward the summit, they heave themselves over the last ledge only to find a bunch of theologians who've been sitting at the top all along.