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Political analysis required for investment decisions

Sunday, May 20th, 2012

We haven’t been writing for quite a long while and our dear readers may wonder why. One of the reasons is because today, economic and investment outcomes are increasingly being determined by politics instead of economics. Since we are no political analyst, we have very little to say. Back in 2006, when we first started this blog, we brought our readers through with great expositions on economic theory, particularly from the Austrian School of economic thought. Back then, economic analysis was the key to foresight. Today, the environment is different?there is a rising trend of government interventions, which results in more unintended consequences, which in turn led to more interventions. As Marc Faber said, having brilliant economic and financial analysis is not enough nowadays; we also need to enlist the help of political analysts in order to anticipate the next move by politicians.

As we all know, after months of calm in the financial markets, fear and panic are returning again, thanks to political upheavals in Europe. In this video, Stratfor made a very good point regarding the solution to this problem:

So, when ANZ’s CEO reckons that a euro-zone breakup is likely, he is in effect making a political judgment, which isn’t what bank executives are supposed to do in the first place. But we live in interesting times anyway, so this is hardly unreasonable. So, what will be the economic outcome for us in Australia should that happen? We don?t know but one thing we are sure: the euro-zone breakup is the most anticipated crisis. We have been talking about Greece since February 2010 (see European politicians hammered from both sides) and had repeatedly warned that the Greek crisis was far from over. So, we are not so concerned about this. That is not to say that we aren?t concerned at all, but we are saying this to remind our readers to keep things in perspective.

What we are more concerned are the unexpected and unanticipated mishaps. That could be war, geo-political tensions, which the financial markets are currently underestimating the likelihood. We have to include the economic (or rather, political) situation in China. It is well-known that China intends to transition its economy away from investment towards consumption. That will definitely result in Chinaslowing down and paring back their demand for Australia?s commodities. But as we said before, What Black Swan can hit China?, this too is also highly anticipated. But take note, the slowdown in the Chinese economy is a political event. The real estate crash that is happening inChina right now is an act of political will by the Chinese government. A lot of Chinese property developers are in financial trouble today because they failed to anticipate the determination of the Chinese government to burst the real estate bubble. Previously, the Chinese government was weak with regards to reining in the bubble and as a result, they lacked credibility when they announced the latest bubble-fighting policies. But unfortunately for the property developers, the Chinese government was serious this time and that was the Black Swan for them.

Regarding China, the million dollar questions that we would like to know are:

  1. Will the slowdown of the Chinese economy veer outside the designs of the Chinese government (i.e. crash)?
  2. When that happens, the Chinese government will definitely intervene. The question is, will they be successful in arresting the unanticipated crash?

In Australia, we already have our hands full dealing with the stress that is currently affiliating our economy (due to the effects of Peak Debt and the planned Chinese economic slowdown). A Chinese economic crash will be the trigger that breaks the straw.

Why you have to change your idea of ‘investing’ in the coming years to come

Wednesday, February 16th, 2011

The global economy is in a diabolical dilemma right now. If the world economy is paralysed by deflation (which is Bernanke’s nightmare), prices of many things will fall. For example, as we wrote in How to buy and invest in physical gold and silver bullion,

In the second half of 2008, the world experienced unprecedented asset and commodity price deflation. As noted earlier, oil prices fell from a high of almost US$150 to just over $30 over the space of months. Base metals and agricultural commodities plunged along with a panic in the stock market. The US dollar and US Treasury bonds surged (at one point, short-term US Treasury bonds had a negative yield). Statistically (in terms of price volatility), the panic in 2008 was worse than the crashes of 1929 and 1987.

Despite the mainstream commentary screaming “Disaster,” we believe such extreme deflation wasn’t that evil in the bigger scheme of things.

Why?

If you believe that burning fossil fuels causes climate change? or that Peak Oil is one of the greatest threat to humanity, wouldn’t such extreme deflation give planet Earth an urgently needed respite? Wouldn’t the collapse of global demand for goods and services save planet Earth for the sake of the next generation? Since 2008, the world witnessed a ‘recovery’ (that was brought about by massive money printing).

But what do we get out of that ‘recovery’?

Surging price inflation that threatens the poor with starvation and pushed many from middle-class to poor.

For example, as Food prices at dangerous levels, says World Bank reported,

The World Bank says food prices are at “dangerous levels” and have pushed 44 million more people into poverty since last June.

This, our dear readers, is just the beginning of a more serious global food crisis. Australia’s CSIRO scientist, Julian Cribb wrote a very sobering book, The Coming Famine: The Global Food Crisis and What We Can Do to Avoid it. As this New York Times book review wrote,

Like many other experts, he argues that we have passed the peak of oil production, and it?s all downhill from now on. He then presents evidence that we have passed the peaks for water, fertilizer and land, and that we will all soon be made painfully aware that we have passed it for food, as wealthy nations experience shortages and rising prices, and poorer ones starve.

This is the price that the this and the next generation will have to pay if we keep up the current way of exploiting planet Earth for the sake of economic ‘growth.’ Hardly surprisingly, a recent Wikileaks revealed that Saudi Arabia cannot pump enough oil to keep a lid on prices.

Dear readers, don’t you see that this economic ‘recovery’ is an illusion?

The ultra-rich, on the other hand, have less to worry about starvation and more to worry about how to preserve the purchasing power of their existing surplus wealth. Some of them will rush to hoard agricultural land and commodities, which will exacerbate the plight of the poor.

The middle-class will see their standard of living being eroded by rising food and energy prices. As we wrote in April 2007, Smart money in alternative energy?Part 1: current energy quandary,

The most important ingredient that drives the efficiencies, comforts, automation and wonders of today?s modern way of life is energy. The trains, cars, ships and aeroplanes that transport massive quantities of people and goods over vast distances quickly require energy in the form of fuel. The heavy machines that do heavy physical work far beyond the scope of human labour require energy too. The powerful computers that process and store vast amount of data and information as well as automate mental labour requires energy in the form of electricity. The heating in winter and cooling in summer of our abode requires energy too. Take energy away and our modern way of life will very much grind to a halt and bring us back to the hard life of our ancestors. In fact, contemporary life rests on the premise of abundant and cheap energy. Therefore, whoever controls the supply and provision of energy controls power and wealth.

When energy prices go up, the prices of everything else will go up. When the prices of everything else go up, your standard of living will go down.

Some of the poor, who are already spending a large portion of their income on food, will have to starve. But before that will happen, we will witness increased incidence of revolutions, wars and conflicts. What we see in Tunisia and Egypt is just the beginning- there will be more.

Dear readers, after reading all these, wouldn’t you come to the realisation that this will have grave implications on the idea of ‘investing.’ Normally, investing is associated with ‘making’ money. But in the context of surging price inflation, ‘making’ money becomes meaningless as the value of money diminishes.

In the next article, we will talk more about this implication. In the meantime, have a think about it.

How the government rip you off with hidden taxes when you go shopping

Sunday, December 19th, 2010

In Australia, one of the major secular trends that is happening is the growth of online shopping. More and more consumers are discovering the joys of bargain hunting through the Internet, thereby bypassing the traditional bricks-and-mortars retailers in the local shopping malls.

One of the pet complaints by Australian retail businesses is that they are unfairly burdened by the need to pay GST. Australian consumers avoid GST by buying from overseas web site. Worse still, the strong Australian dollar makes overseas products even cheaper.

So, is GST really the root of the problem for Australian retailers who find themselves increasingly unable to compete with foreign web sites?

Well, let’s hold a thought experiment. Imagine that all the goods at your local retailers are reduced by 10% (which is the GST amount). Will that make your local retailers more competitive than their overseas online competitors? Will that make you switch from buying from overseas web site to your local retailer? If the answer is “No,” then it means that we have a structural problem in Australia.

For one, consumers are complaining that the range of products sold by our local retailers are too small. In other words, they can’t get what they want locally and therefore, have to shop in foreign web sites to get them.

More importantly, many goods sold by foreign web sites are very much cheaper than identical ones sold at your local shopping mall, even after you include shipping costs. For example, when you compare the prices at your local Dymocks bookshop and Book Depository, you will find that the latter is much cheaper (by the way, if you shop at Book Depository through our link, you will help us and help yourself financially). That means that even if the government can somehow enforce GST on foreign online retailers, our local retailers will still bleed.

So, if you accept the theory that this is a structural problem, what could it be? Recently, we found this very interesting comment that may possibly answer this question,

How can local retailers compete with overseas retailers when their operating cost here are significantly higher than overseas. The biggest single cost, after labour, is commercial and retail rents, which are at least 50% higher here than overseas … this is reflected in the price of the goods.

The enquiry should centre around why retail rents have skyrocketed in Australia, and why the institutional property owners force retailers and small business to pay extremely high rents. Try starting a small business here when you have to pay $200- $400 per sq metre in suburban Sydney, yet in the US, the same premises rent out for $50 – $150 per sq metre.

The Government is complicit in that it has a vested interest for property values to be as high as possible to ensure the land tax revenues keep coming in … Australians are being taxes artificially at all levels in the community .. from the goods they buy to the cost of electricity .. behind all of these costs are hidden government fees.

So, this is another example of unintended consequences of the property bubble in Australia.

Something fishy happening in the physical gold and silver market

Thursday, December 9th, 2010

Have you noticed something fishy going on in the silver market? Take a look at this chart:

gold_1_year_silver

This chart shows the ratio of gold to silver prices over a period of a year. As you can see from the trend, silver is getting more and more expensive relative to gold since before September. If you extend the period to 36 years, you will see this:

gold_all_data_silver

The latest move is pretty major, even when you see it from a time-frame of 36 years.

So, what is the story behind this major move? Remember what we wrote in page 59 of our book, How to buy and invest in physical gold and silver bullion? There, we wrote about the possible fuses that can ignite silver prices. In that section of our book, we mentioned the colossal short silver positions of JP Morgan.

Well, according to J.P. Morgan and the Great Silver Caper,

?A viral campaign (Crash JP Morgue Video [below]) to buy a physical silver and ?crash? the bank is now spreading like wildfire on the Internet,? SFGate reports

Even more fishy is that the futures market for gold and silver are in backwardation (see Investors to Silver: ?Let?s Get Physical?). In case you do not know what "backwardation" means, you may want to take a read at How futures price affect market price. What does this mean?

Well, in theory, backwardation is not supposed to happen. But if it happens in reality (as it is happening right now, which is rare), it is a sign of distrust in the paper gold/silver markets as traders/investors are queuing up to take physical delivery of the precious metals.

Another interesting observation: as you know, we are an affiliate partner of GoldMoney.com. We noticed that all the customers that we referred to them are buying silver. We have yet to see a gold purchase.

Note: This article is not financial advice. Take it as a piece of juicy ‘gossip’ from the financial markets that we are passing to you.

The #1 reason why gold prices collapsed this week

Thursday, October 21st, 2010

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Expectation of US Dollars (USD) printing creates an Australian Dollar (AUD) bubble?

Sunday, October 10th, 2010

Everyone on the streets know that the Australian Dollar (AUD) is rampaging towards parity with the US Dollar (USD). Joining the media circus, some forex pundits are even prophesying that the AUD could reach $1.20 against the USD. The masses in Australia are cheering because it is now cheaper to buy stuffs overseas due to the ?strong? AUD. Politicians (Wayne Swan) are cheering because it is a great excuse to brag about the ?strength? of the Australian economy under the stewardship of their political party. Businesses that has their costs paid directly or indirectly in terms of USD are cheering (e.g. retail import). Businesses that receive their revenue in terms of USD (directly or indirectly) are in pain (e.g. mining, tourism).

We wouldn?t be surprised if the next round of readings for consumer confidence in Australia will show a marked increase. We have no doubt that this in turn will add fuel to more cheering by politicians and the media circus.

But as contrarian investors, you have to understand the context and big picture behind the surging AUD. Do not be like the masses by being caught up with the euphoria. Instead, be prepared and even profit for what is to come.

Firstly, it is not just the AUD that is rising against the USD. The euro, yen, base metals, gold, silver, etc are also rising too. However, the expectation of more interest rate rises by the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) is acting like rocket boosters to the already rising AUD (see Return (and potential crash) of the great Aussie carry trade). In other words, it is more of the USD that is deprecating, not the AUD appreciating. As we wrote in What if the US fall into hyperinflation? on April 2008,

Now, in this age of freely fluctuating currencies, the currency?s value is a relative concept. For example, a falling US dollar implies a rising Australian dollar. Therefore, one way to ?maintain? the value of the US dollar relative to the Australian dollar is to devalue the Australian dollar. Perhaps this is the route that central bankers will concertedly take to instil ?confidence? in the US dollar in order to create the illusion that the US dollar is still a reliable store of value? Well, they can try, but growing global inflation and skyrocketing gold price relative to all currencies will be tell-tale signs of such a dirty trick.

Already, the Japanese central bank are cutting interest rates, taking token measures to intervene in the forex market to weaken the yen and even talking about buying government bonds (i.e. ?printing? money). Basically, the Japanese want to devalue the yen. For Australia, we would hazard a guess that one of the major contributing reasons why the RBA did not raise interest rates last week is because of the surging AUD (that was also the suggestion of one of the economists in CommSec).

To put it simply, the depreciating USD is creating a bubble-like conditions for the currencies of foreign countries. That is problematic, not the least because it is making their exports uncompetitive (just ask any Australian mining company). What is the solution for these countries? Devalue their currencies too (if it can be done without the masses being aware, all the better).

The next question is: why is the USD depreciating?

The reason is simply because of the expectation that the Federal Reserve is going to embark on a second round of massive money printing (see Bernanke warming up the printing press). What is the background behind the Federal Reserve?s money printing idea? To answer this question, we would refer to the late Professor Murray Rothbard?s book, Mystery of Banking:

In Phase I of inflation, the government pumps a great deal of new money into the system, so that M increases sharply to M?. Ordinarily, prices would have risen greatly (or PPM fallen
sharply) from 0A to 0C. But deflationary expectations by the public have intervened and have increased the demand for money from D to D?, so that prices will rise and PPM falls much less substantially, from 0A to 0B.

Unfortunately, the relatively small price rise often acts as heady wine to government. Suddenly, the government officials see a new Santa Claus, a cornucopia, a magic elixir. They can increase the money supply to a fare-thee-well, finance their deficits and subsidize favored political groups with cheap credit, and prices will rise only by a little bit!

It is human nature that when you see something work well, you do more of it. If, in its ceaseless quest for revenue, government sees a seemingly harmless method of raising funds without causing much inflation, it will grab on to it. It will continue to pump new money into the system, and, given a high or increasing demand for money, prices, at first, might rise by only a little.

Murray Rothbard wrote this book more than 25 years ago. Yet, it is pertinently relevant for today?s context. The US government?s budget is in great deficit. It will get worse as they have to spend even more money to prop up and stimulate the economy. The current environment of deflationary expectations is providing an excellent cover for Bernanke to print money (see Bernankeism and hyper-inflation).

But as Murray Rothbard continued,

But let the process continue for a length of time, and the public?s response will gradually, but inevitably, change. In Germany, after the war was over, prices still kept rising; and then the postwar years went by, and inflation continued in force. Slowly, but surely, the public began to realize: ?We have been waiting for a return to the good old days and a fall of prices back to 1914. But prices have been steadily increasing. So it looks as if there will be no return to the good old days. Prices will not fall; in fact, they will probably keep going up.? As this psychology takes hold, the public?s thinking in Phase I changes into that of Phase II: ?Prices will keep going up, instead of going down. Therefore, I know in my heart that prices will be higher next year.? The public?s deflationary expectations have been superseded by inflationary ones. Rather than hold on to its money to wait for price declines, the public will spend its money faster, will draw down cash balances to make purchases ahead of price increases. In Phase II of inflation, instead of a rising demand for money moderating price increases, a falling demand for money will intensify the inflation.

Given the large and exponentially growing debt of the US government, monetary inflation is the only path they can take as far as the eye can see.

There is a lot more in Professor Murray Rothbard?s Mystery of Banking if you want to learn how money and credit are related to each other through the banking system work. You can read a sample of this book here (at the right of that page, click on the ?Read First Chapter Free? button).

Has gold reached its zenith?

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010

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What can you do to protect yourself from increasing currency volatility?

Sunday, September 19th, 2010

Six months ago, we wrote about America’s consideration to label China as a “currency manipulator” in Watch April 15 2010: simmering tensions between US and China. Just before the deadline, China appeared to make a little concession about their RMB, thus avoiding the “currency manipulation” label.

Today, currency tension between the US and China is rising again. The little concession that the Chinese government made was simply not enough. American lawmakers are getting impatient and are itching to enact laws to slap China with trade sanctions. Should that happen, it will be the beginning of a damaging trade war between the world’s largest economies. Their charge is that China’s artificially low currency is responsible for (or at least contributed to) America’s economic woes. But as we wrote in Watch April 15 2010: simmering tensions between US and China,

But the mob wants to find a scapegoat to blame for their woes. It so happens that the most convenient scapegoat is China (specifically, China?s policy of artificially holding its currency down) because at this point of the cycle, China is looking very good. It is perceived that this policy worsen America?s unemployment rate. By implication, it is perceived that with China?s official unemployment rate much lower, China is ?prospering? at America?s expense.

Currency tensions between China and the US are nothing new. As we wrote in that article, it’s been around for the past 3 to 4 years. Many times, the rhetoric about America labelling China a “currency manipulator” came and went away without eventuating into reality. However, that does not mean that it will never happen. As America’s economic woes worsen, the pressure to find a scapegoat will increase. As a result, the probability of a trade war will increase.

The Chinese, on the other hand, are not standing idle, waiting for a trade war to happen. For starters, they are establishing trade and investment links with Asia, Middle-East and Africa. Secondly, it is no secret that they have been diversifying their colossal hoard of reserves away from the US dollar. Given the well-known intention of the Federal Reserve to print more money, diversification has become increasingly urgent. But that in itself is not easy because given the colossal size of the money involved, any whispers and hints about any particular Chinese diversification strategy will move the markets quickly in a big way. For example, the recent rumours that China was buying up Japanese government bonds probably helped to contribute to the surging yen. As a result, the Japanese government became very unhappy because a very strong yen will negatively impact on their export-oriented economy. In response, the Japanese government may take concrete actions (beyond just talking about it and taking token measures) to weaken the yen, in which the end result is more Japanese purchase of US government debt.

In such an environment of competitive currency devaluation and price volatility, what should investors and savers do?

To us, it is clear that having all your savings and investments confined to a single country or currency is an increasingly risky proposition. Currency exchange rates will become more volatile, with implications on asset values, price inflation and economic growth (see Real economy suffers while financial markets stuff around with prices). For example, in Japan, real businesses are suffering as a result of the rising yen. The Germans, on the other hand, are secretly gloating whenever the euro weakens. In Australia, should the banking system fall into a crisis as a result of the bursting of the property bubble, the consequence of a resulting collapsing Australian dollar will be price inflation (see Can price inflation occur in the midst of debt deflation?).

If currency volatility goes to the extreme, investors will even have to question the idea of national currency as a store of value. So, what can investors and savers practically do to mitigate against this?

Quite some time ago, we talked to the guys at GoldMoney.com and learnt of how a lot of their clients (presumably the “rich”) use them. In case you do not know, GoldMoney.com (a regulated company operating in the financial services industry) enables

… you to hold gold, silver & platinum that is fully insured and stored securely in specialised bullion vaults in London, Zurich and Hong Kong. All metal is owned directly by you with no counterparty risk.

You can “easily buy gold, silver & platinum and take delivery of physical bars of gold.”

What their clients did was to use their GoldMoney.com account as a conduit to link their bank accounts all over the world. This strategy makes sense as it gives investors and savers the flexibility to shift their savings all over the world, using gold, silver and platinum as an anchor for the store of value. In an environment of currency volatility, this flexibility is a valuable aid in helping to protect your hard-earned savings from hare-brained government interventions.

However, for those who are ultra-pessimistic and distrust any assets that have any hints of paper, the only way to go is to take possession of physical gold and silver (see How to buy and invest in physical gold and silver bullion).

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Wednesday, September 1st, 2010

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Sunday, August 15th, 2010

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They are launching Trend TV! What is it? A little bit of background…

Before the Internet…

When TV was first invented by John Logie Baird (1888-1946) back in 1925, it revolutionized communication. Shortly afterward it became a mainstay of popular culture. TV changed the world and how we view information, not unlike what is happening on the Internet today.

But do you know what TV was supposed to do?

It was going to educate the world; that was the whole purpose of TV back then. Somehow the message got twisted and the educational aspect of TV was quickly forgotten and lost forever.

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