Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A Viennese Waltz vs a Stumbling Drunk

Mark Skousen is one of my favorite living economists because of my bias for the practical. Skousen has a PhD in economics, but he chose to pursue a career in the private sector as an investment adviser rather than one in academia or government. We need more great economists like Skousen. Their impact will be much greater than that of academics because those of us who need practical advice are much greater than the number of people who will major in economics in college. Also, if you wander through the blogs of Austrian academics you’ll find that academics spend a great deal of time on Quixotic efforts like trying to change Fed policy or reform mainstream economics.

Laissez Faire Books has released a collection of essays by Skousen with the clever title A Viennese Waltz Down Wall Street: Austrian Economics for Investors. It answers the classic book A Random Walk down Wall Street, by Burt Malkiel that promotes the mainstream vision of the Efficient Market Hypothesis.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Ghost of Ricardo Haunts Europe and Japan

The ghost of David Ricardo must be sending chills up the spines of the economists of Europe and Japan. They may not understand what causes those chills because of the poverty of their education. The US may soon experience a similar visit. Here is how the Wall Street Journal put it in email newsletter:
Can the U.S. go it alone? All of a sudden, economic data from around the world is looking decidedly worrisome. China on Thursday showed stark, sudden slowdown in lending and home buying in July, while Europe’s second-quarter results confirmed everyone’s worst fears, with Germany registering a contraction for the quarter and the euro zone as a whole failing to grow. This comes after a very big slowdown in the same quarter for Japan, the world’s second-biggest economy.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Omens of the fall

In the ancient world outside of Israel pagan priests discerned the will of the gods through omens in the sky and on earth.  Israelis didn’t need omens because they had revelation straight from God in the Torah. Omens came from the movement of planets and from the structure of kidneys in goats sacrificed to idols. Pagan gods would never have considered humiliating themselves by speaking directly to insignificant humans. The more omens a priest collected the more certain he could be of the will of the gods.

Investors today don’t have a revelation about the future. We have the Austrian business-cycle theory that tells us to expect a crash after years of artificially stimulating the economy with near-zero short term interest rates and massive buying of junk bonds by the Fed. But we can’t know the exact date, or even the quarter, when the crash will come. So like ancient pagans we have to rely on omens that suggest we are near the end of the expansion. These omens are what mainstream economists consider good news about the economy. Here are some gleaned from the kidneys of the Wall Street Journal.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

BIS Pushes ABCT Draws Fire

ABCT investing offers financial advise derived from the Austrian business-cycle theory, so to be confident in that advise investors need to be confident in the theory. The most visible institution promoting the theory today is the Bank for International Settlements (BIS). The BIS is the central bank for central banks based in Basel, Switzerland. Just as the Fed in the US coordinates the exchange of funds for commercial banks, the BIS acts as a clearinghouse that coordinates the international transfer of funds between the central banks of nations. 

Claudio Borio and William White of the BIS have used the ABCT for years to analyze events and create policy. Recently, the bank created a minor storm in the world of economics and central bank policy with the release of its 84th annual report. The report asserts that the loose monetary policies of the world's central banks as well as fiscal policies of governments have failed and continuation of those policies will prove harmful. Mainstream economists trashed the report. Martin Wolf of the Financial Times descended to juvenile language. Gavyn Daviesalso of the FT,  wrote of the report,
The Bank for International Settlements (BIS) caused a splash last weekend with an annual report that spelled out in detail why it disagrees with central elements of the strategy currently being adopted by its members, the major national central banks. On Wednesday, Fed Chair Janet Yellen mounted a strident defence of that strategy in her speech on “Monetary Policy and Financial Stability”. She could have been speaking for any of the major four central banks, all of which are adopting basically the same approach.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Dow 17000!

The Dow Jones Industrial Average crossed the 17,000 mark for the first time this year. What does it mean?

The market is somewhere in the Excitement stage of the Overstone cycle of trade.  Overstone described business cycles in the mid-19th century. Starting at the six o’clock position in the graphic, the cycle begins with Stagnation, the depths of the depression with high unemployment. Stage two is Improvement, followed by Confidence, then Prosperity, Excitement, and last, Convulsion.

If you enlarge the graphic you’ll notice Overstone’s sense of humor. In the Excitement phase, crowds fight to get into the building with the sign “South Pole Warming Company” while a machine lifted by four hot air balloons flies over the building. In the Convulsion stage the Royal Bubble Bank explodes and sends people flying.

George Soros describes the Excitement stage as one in which the stock market becomes disconnected from the real economy, but Soros is thinking like a mainstream economist and assumes that the market has an intrinsic value somewhere close to the net present value. In reality, investors are merely adjusting their risk tolerance for the prevailing interest rates and opportunity costs. With ridiculously low interest rates, investors are showing greater tolerance for risk and a thirst for yield. One of the main drivers of stock prices is the changing discount rate of investors. 

What that means is that PE ratios may continue to rise and there is no way of knowing how far. But investors will have to come back to ground when profits start to fail. We are entering the profit reporting season for the third quarter and it may give us market direction.

At this stage in the cycle investors need patience most of all, but that's what they lack according to this quote from the Wall Street Journal newsletter Wealth Adviser
The market’s rarest commodity: patience. Benjamin Roth’s diary of the Great Depression is highly relevant today, as is his notion of why the wealthy investors’ club is an exclusive one. In a Motley Fool column, Morgan Housel cites some excerpts, including this one: “Most people do not have the patience to wait for the bad break. The average speculator is tied up in the market to the hilt when the break comes and has no liquid cash for the bargains that prevail.”
So when the market crashes as it did in 2000 or 2008, their wealth gets caught in the whirlpool and gets flushed.

Not only do investors need patience, but we need to be willing to be wrong as Spitznagel wrote in The Dao of Investing. Investors who followed his MS Index might have exited the market last year and missed the latest run ups to record highs. Friends and family would be mocking them and they might suffer from regret. But if they stick with the index they will earn more in dollars over time by avoiding the major collapse that is coming, even if it is another year away. As Spitznagel wrote, it's counterintuitive, like many of the teachings of the Dao.

Many advisers can find good value stocks when the market is high, but keep in mind what Benjamin Graham wrote about buying unloved stocks when the market is high. Investors won't love those stocks more when the market collapses. They will drop with the crowd.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Financial Bull Riding in paperback

Laissez Faire Books has published a paperback version of Financial Bull Riding in addition to the ebook and audio book. But the paperback is available only through Amazon here right now. Reviews of the book by anyone who has read it would be nice.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Forecasting Failure


The latest revision of GDP for the first quarter of this year caught most economists by surprise. A decline of 2.9% is the worst since the latest recession. Surprising most economists shouldn’t surprise anyone. The Laissez Faire newsletter alerted me to studies by the IMF economists Hites Ahir and Prakash Loungani on the abilities of private and public sector economists to forecast recessions. In short, their records are almost perfect, failure that is.

The photo of the Queen with the comment “Why did no one see this coming?” comes from a presentation at George Washington University on forecasting by the two economists. In a second photo, a London School of Economics representative responds, “Ma’am, to see this one coming would have ruined our perfect record of failure to see it coming.”