Ack! Contrarian Overload

When I was a teenager “Alternative Rock” was just coming on the scene. In the early days, Alternative Rock was just that- the alternative to the music that was consumed by the masses. But then people decided that Alternative Rock was cooler than Pop Rock and suddenly there was a movement en masse out of pop and into alternative. The result was that the term “alternative” became increasingly ironic because it was, in fact, simply the new pop marching under a different label. Rebellion, as they say, is best done through conformity.

The reason I bring this up is because I’m starting to feel that way regarding investing and the mainstream media. A couple of years ago economic contrarians where the lepers of the financial media. Everyone seemed to know that the stock market was the place to be, as Dr. Jeremy Siegel wrote, for the Long Run. After all, the Federal Reserve was firmly in control of the economy, and they would never let a prolonged market downturn occur. 

People aren’t saying that anymore. Last week the New York Times ran a story saying that the ten year period ending last month was the worst for stock market returns in the history of the S&P. As the story said, if you factored in Consumer Price Inflation, the S&P returned a negative 40.4% over that ten year period. Now media pundits are lining up to say that the economic troubles we are in are going to get worse still. A friend of mine just forwarded me an article saying that, if the stock market were to return to historical bear market averages for price-to-earnings, that the S&P would soon see levels of around 500 or so- a decline of another 40%. Continue reading Ack! Contrarian Overload

Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Shock Jock

For those of you who don’t know, I listen to some pretty salty radio. Specifically, I listen to both Howard Stern and Bubba the Love Sponge on Sirius Satellite radio and, while I can’t specifically recommend shock radio for everyone, I can say that both shows have, in addition to a lot of material many would find objectionable, a healthy amount of intelligent dialogue. Both shock jocks have gotten increasingly more political over the last handful of years as both were targeted by George Bush’s FCC chairman Michael Powell with the largest fines in radio history. Having both found their home on sensor free satellite radio, they now both routinely comment on the absurdity of the “War on Terror” as well as favoring Barrack Obama in the Presidential race.

Having been so financially touched by the latest administration, politics has become personal issue for them. I find the politics of the Bubba show particularly interesting as he is not a traditional Democrat but rather someone like myself who has developed a Democratic sympathy out of utter dislike for the policies of the Republican party. Yesterday on the Bubba show, the topic of the housing crisis came up. Specifically they were discussing John McCain’s recent proposal that the government simply buy up all of the troubled mortgage’s and have the government renegotiate better terms with the home owners so as to keep everyone in their homes. Brent, the producer, pointed out that he had reread Ron Paul’s A Foreign Policy of Freedom and that the book had predicted both the housing crisis as well as the government’s bailout of it. Bubba then went on to say words to the effect that:

If they want to stabilize housing prices here’s what they need to do. Stop all this bailout <stuff> and just lower the price. Eventually, the price will get lower to those of us that have some spare change will go out and buy the house as an investment property and fix it up. Crisis solved.

This reinforced in my mind the utter simplicity of classical economic theory because Bubba, who did not even go to college, was doing a wonderful job as describing the effects of Say’s Law. Jean-Baptist Say (1767-1832) was a French economist who attacked the Mercantilist notion that recessions were caused by a shortage of money. Instead, Say argues that money is merely a medium of exchange and one can not actually buy anything without first supplying something else (i.e. a worker must first supply his labor in order to get its money’s worth to then buy goods) that it is not money that is in short supply but other goods. According to Say, a generalized over-production was simply not possible, while a specific overproduction of one given good certainly was. Thus Say’s solution was to allow the markets of goods and services to find their own clearing price and that that would quickly bring an economy back to stability and further help orient the markets production of goods and services towards what the society actually valued. 

Say’s law was attacked by Keynes who theorized that a generalized over-production was not only possible, but that it would tend to be persistent unless the government took action. It is Keynesian theory that lies behind John McCain’s plan, but Keynesians will quickly admit that if Say’s law is correct, that all of Keynes’s theories will fall apart. William Hutt’s A Rehabilitation of Say’s Law points out the how Keynes seemingly intentionally misstated Say’s Law in order that he might then attack it and how Keynes’s misstatement still seems to be accepted by most modern economists as the law itself when it, in fact, is not. 

Say’s law is obvious. So much so that it was unintentionally state by Bubba when describing the John McCain’s housing plan. To allow the economy to quickly realign itself with the actual wants and needs of society, we need to allow the value of housing, bank stocks, and collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) to find their own price rather than have the government move in to buy these products. Do not believe the argument that the “credit markets are frozen” and that no one will buy CDOs at any price. That is simple nonsense. I guarantee that if CDOs are allowed to fall enough in price, eventually they will find a market clearly price and the market will unfreeze itself. The problem is that this market clearing price is probably far below where the banks have it marked on their balance sheets. So you see, the problem is a political one, not a defect of the market itself. 

All in all, I think we would do well to follow the simple logic of Bubba and his crew. Allow the market to find it’s own market clearing price, and let the chips fall where they may.

Restaurant at the End of the Empire

The American stock market is continuing to melt down. At one point yesterday the Nasdaq was down over 9% and the Dow was down over 8%. Stark numbers indeed. So far today both indexes are down over another 4%. Gold was up both days. This is turning into the mother of all bear markets, and I must confess I am enjoying watching the carnage unfold exactly how my book describes. We bears love nothing more than saying, I told you so.

Unfortunately, most Americans do not seem content to just let the collapse happen without doing something foolish and tragic. CNN reported yesterday that a man with an MBA in Finance killed himself, his wife, his mother-in-law, and their three children. A story which makes me miss the old days of the depression when husbands merely killed themselves so that their family would have the life insurance money. I would guess that the majority of Americans are not crazy enough to do something like that. Instead they suffer from a milder form of insanity that prompts them to look to the government to help them through this crisis. This seems strange to me because most Americans seem to realize, at a gut level anyway, that it was the government that got them into this mess in the first place. 

Without the government’s fiat money, further exacerbated by the government created Federal Reserve, and the cozy attitude of deregulation when it came to Wall Street firms (and their lobbyist’s money) this crisis simple could never have gotten this out of hand. But now the people are looking to the very culprit who caused the problem to fix it somehow. This scares me far worse than the collapse of our economy. “Desperate times calls for desperate measures” would seem to be the slogan of government intervention, and Obama, our next President, has been preaching all of the rhetoric of the next FDR. 

I sincerely believe that Barrack Obama is a good man. He seems honest, decent, and concerned. But he also seems to be operating out of the wrong tool-box. It seems to me that he looks at the mess we’re in and doesn’t see how the powers that were given to the government to solve the crises of yesteryear have simply made far bigger ones today. Instead he looks out at society and feels that the power has been held by the wrong hands. If only the power were taken from those hands and put into wiser ones, this crisis could be solved. I believe Obama’s administration will see a replay of many of the failed policies of The New Deal. The New New Deal. And that’s really got me worried. 

Obama will inherent a country that is overrun by inflation, but instead of return to sound money I expect to see laws passed that aim at price controls. Unemployment will be on the rise, so I expect Obama to embrace more public works programs. The prices of housing and the stock market will be falling, so I expect the government will attempt to enter into some sort of price maintenance program. I expect that each of these policies will be tried, and, just as always happens, each of these policies will fail. The situation will become even more desperate as angry mobs start to demand action. What happens next… I do not know.

One thing I do know, the American Empire will not survive this crisis. As has already been predicted by international voices as diverse as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the German Minister of Finance. I can only hope that we allow our empire to go into that long good night gracefully and with dignity. Perhaps have a wake where we can sit around and talk about the good times: reminisce about when we saved the world from Fascism; speculate about how things might have been difference if we had taken different actions during the Cold War; laugh out loud at the absurdity of our “War on Terror.” That is a fitting end to an empire. Not going out in a blaze of glory as we muster up our military for one last hurray, but instead having a sense of good humor about the thing. To celebrate the event, and not fight it. I can only hope.