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Archive for November, 2009

By John Mauldin

John Mauldin, Best-Selling author and recognized financial expert, is also editor of the free Thoughts From the Frontline that goes to over 1 million readers each week. For more information on John or his FREE weekly economic letter go to: http://www.frontlinethoughts.com/learnmore

I admit that of late my writings have had a rather dark tone. There are certainly a number of severe long-term problems that we must deal with, and they’re going to serve up a lot of economic pain. But the Thanksgiving weekend with the kids has me in a reflective mood, and one that has only served to underscore my long-term optimism. This week we look at why 2007 will not be the good old days we will yearn for in 20 years, after we briefly visit Dubai and the latest unemployment numbers.

Subprime Dubai

While we in the US spent our Thursday eating turkey and watching football, the rest of the world’s markets went into a downward spiral as Dubai announced it wanted its lenders to give the country a six-month moratorium on some $80-90 billion in debt. This has the potential to be the largest sovereign debt default since Argentina. Somehow this was a shocking development. (How can too much debt and real estate be a problem?) And by markets I mean gold, commodities, oil, stocks, and risk assets everywhere. They all went down. Today the US markets experienced their own sell-off, though not as deeply as the rest of the world.

As I wrote last Friday, the world is now negatively correlated with the dollar, and as money went into the dollar and US treasuries, everything else went down. Vietnam devalues, Greece is looking increasingly risky, Russia wants to devalue some more, the world is still deleveraging, etc. Is this another repeat of 1998, when Russia and the Asian debt crisis tanked the markets?

To get an answer, let’s look at some facts about Dubai. It is one of the Arab Emirates; but unlike its neighbor Abu Dhabi, oil is only about 6% of the economy. While the foundations of the country were built with oil, the country has diversified into finance, real estate, tourism, trading, and manufacturing. It is a small country, with a little under 1.5 million residents, but with less than 20% being natural citizens – the rest are expatriates.

The gross domestic product is around US $50 billion.
(Note: http://www.ameinfo.com/67802.html and then converting the currency. I found the numbers on various websites and services strangely at wide discrepancies. This seems close to a median number. I think the discrepancy is mostly people confusing the GDP for the United Arab Emirates as a whole, which includes Abu Dhabi, rather than just Dubai.)

Dubai has become a byword for thinking large. The world’s tallest building, underwater hotels, the largest manmade islands (plural), indoor snow skiing in the desert… For links to more information try this from Wikipedia: “The large-scale real estate development projects have led to the construction of some of the tallest skyscrapers and largest projects in the world, such as the Emirates Towers, the Burj Dubai, the Palm Islands and the world’s second tallest, and most expensive hotel, the Burj Al Arab.” The list goes on and on.

UBS suggests that the $80-90 billion in debt may not include rather large off- balance-sheet debt (where have we seen that one?). So, a country with a GDP of $50 billion borrows $100 billion. They build massive projects, which are now among the most expensive real estate in the world. The latest manmade island plans for one million people to buy property there. Seriously. Talk about Field of Dreams.

Then came the credit crunch. Property values dropped by as much as 50%. Sales, say the developers in understatements, have slowed. Seems there was a lot of debt used to speculate on real estate, not to mention buying Barney’s, Las Vegas casinos, banks, etc. And while US banks have little exposure, it seems England has about 50% or so of the debt, with the rest of Europe having the lion’s share of the remainder. Admittedly, the estimates seem to confuse the debt of Dubai with that of Abu Dhabi, so it is hard to know a reliable number, other than that European banks are the most exposed.

Now, here’s the deal. Abu Dhabi has the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, at over $650 billion. Dubai has a “mere” $15 billion. If they cared to, Abu Dhabi could write a small check and make all the problems disappear. It just seems that they are not ready to do that, at least not yet. Abu Dhabi already got the world’s tallest building on past debt problems.

Construction and real estate were as much as 25% of the economy. Let’s see. Large leverage with maybe $5 billion in interest in a $50 billion economy that is 25% construction? A construction and real estate-driven economy. A real estate bubble. Sound like California, Florida, Spain? How can this be a surprise, except that everyone expected big brother Abu Dhabi to pick up the check?

While Abu Dhabi did advance $5 billion earlier, Dubai is not letting that money out of the country. There are projects to be finished, you understand. From where I sit, this is just rather hard-headed negotiations, a restructuring of who owns what and who will get what assets. It will all settle out. Given the massive losses that world banks have already taken, this is rather small potatoes.

So why the reaction by the markets? Because I think many participants know that the potential for there to be a serious correction is quite real. When anything as relatively small as Dubai spooks the market, it should serve as a warning sign. The world has priced in 5% GDP growth for the US and much of the developed world in the equity and commodity markets. Either we have to get that or the markets are going to have to come back to the reality of what I think is going to be a much lower growth figure.

But in any event, one of the lessons to be learned is that investors should pay attention to where the leverage is. Unsustainable debt trends end in tears. They always do. Spain, Greece, Italy, the UK, and Japan will all have to face major restructuring in the next decade due to leverage. And we in the US will also find that we cannot grow debt at our current levels. Will we pare our debt willingly or be forced to by the market? Either way, it will make for a less than optimal economy over the coming years. Muddle Through, indeed.

 

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Here is a good blog article from The Telegraph.

“Watch out. This may be just the beginning. In the scale of things, the debt problems of Dubai are little more than a flea bite. Dubai’s sovereign debts total “just” $80bn, which counts for nothing against the trillions being raised by advanced economies to plug fiscal deficits.

Small wonder, though, that this minor tremor has sent such shock waves around the wider capital markets. The fear is that threatened default in this tiny desert kingdom is just a harginger of things to come for government debt markets as a whole. According to new estimates by Moody’s, the credit rating agency, the total stock of sovereign debt worldwide will have risen by nearly 50 per cent between 2007 and 2010 to $15.3 trillion. The great bulk of this increase comes not from irrelevant little states like Dubai, but from the big advanced economies – America, Europe, and Japan.

Perversely, they are for the time being beneficiaries of the “flight to safety” that trouble in Dubai has sparked. Government bond yields in the major advanced economies have fallen in response to the crisis in the Gulf. If experience of the banking crisis, when investors removed their money from one bank only to find that the one they had put it into looked just as dodgy, is anything to go by, this effect will not last.”

Read the full article here.

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A Day of Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving to all. May you and your family be healthy, be safe and enjoy.

We also give thanks to our troops and pray for their safety and getting their mission accomplished.

On this Thanksgiving, we say “thank you” to our forefathers for founding this Judeo Christian nation, and giving us our Constituion and the values of life, liberty and the pursuit of goodness.

Best wishes and enjoy family

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Sounds to me like Tesla is going public. Here is some coverage on the topic from The GreenBeat blog at WSJ Online.

“Rumors are swirling today that Tesla Motors is seriously considering an initial public offering sometime soon. The talk has been tracked to two anonymous sources, who say the six-year-old company could cash in big on the battery-powered car trend before electric and hybrid models from companies like General Motors, Mitsubishi and Nissan make it to market.

Tesla has officially denied the prediction, calling the IPO chatter “rumor and speculation.” That said, going public in 2010 would give the San Carlos, Calif. company several distinct advantages. First, it would solidify its position as the electric car player to watch. It’s already been casually anointed as the leader by industry observers and the Department of Energy, which granted it $465 million in stimulus funds in its first round of low-interest loans for advanced transportation projects. Second, it could use the sale to raise money to get its hotly anticipated Model S sedan out the door by its 2011 due date.

Tesla is one of several cleantech companies anticipated to go public as soon as next year. When A123Systems shocked the market with its blockbuster IPO in late Sepember (its share price jumped 50 percent on opening day), many analysts, including the Cleantech Group, said that the biggest public offerings in 2010 will probably come out of the green sector. In addition to Tesla, solar system maker Solyndra — which received $535 million in loan guarantees from the DOE in March — and smart grid communications provider Silver Spring Networks have also been named as likely candidates.”

Read the full article here.

GigaOm also covers this topic saying:

“Last Friday, buzz about an imminent IPO for electric car startup Tesla Motors hit the Interwebs, courtesy of two anonymous sources familiar with the plans who spoke with Reuters. As in several previous stories about its possible plans for a public offering, the company has declined to comment.

But if and when Tesla goes through with its long-discussed goal of going public, it could be the biggest and possibly the first public offering for a U.S. car company since Ford Motor’s IPO more than 50 years ago. The event will also offer a glimpse at the role IPOs will play in the nascent green car market — is the classic venture capital model (invest early and find a big exit in the form of an acquisition or an IPO) viable for this sector, or will a green-car IPO be more about feeding big capital needs and branding?

Hopes for a Google-like moneymaker in cleantech (Google took only $25 million in venture capital to make millionaires of 1,000 employees and billionaires of its two co-founders in a wildly successful IPO) have already started to fade for some in the sector. Stephan Dolezalek, managing director of VantagePoint Venture Partners, which has invested in Tesla, told Reuters in September that public offerings now serve more as “financing events” for alternative energy and other cleantech startups rather than a way for investors and founders to cash in on equity.”

Read their version here.

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Here is an article from Wall Street Journal worth reading.

“President Barack Obama took office promising to lead from the center and solve big problems. He has exerted enormous political energy attempting to reform the nation’s health-care system. But the biggest economic problem facing the nation is not health care. It’s the deficit. Recently, the White House signaled that it will get serious about reducing the deficit next year—after it locks into place massive new health-care entitlements. This is a recipe for disaster, as it will create a new appetite for increased spending and yet another powerful interest group to oppose deficit-reduction measures.

Our fiscal situation has deteriorated rapidly in just the past few years. The federal government ran a 2009 deficit of $1.4 trillion—the highest since World War II—as spending reached nearly 25% of GDP and total revenues fell below 15% of GDP. Shortfalls like these have not been seen in more than 50 years.

Going forward, there is no relief in sight, as spending far outpaces revenues and the federal budget is projected to be in enormous deficit every year. Our national debt is projected to stand at $17.1 trillion 10 years from now, or over $50,000 per American. By 2019, according to the Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) analysis of the president’s budget, the budget deficit will still be roughly $1 trillion, even though the economic situation will have improved and revenues will be above historical norms.

The planned deficits will have destructive consequences for both fairness and economic growth. They will force upon our children and grandchildren the bill for our overconsumption. Federal deficits will crowd out domestic investment in physical capital, human capital, and technologies that increase potential GDP and the standard of living. Financing deficits could crowd out exports and harm our international competitiveness, as we can already see happening with the large borrowing we are doing from competitors like China.”

Read the full article here.

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Here is an article from Rich D’Amaro, Chairman and CEO of Atlanta-based Tatum LLC, the nation’s largest executive service firm focused primarily on the Office of the CFO, has developed a list of six tips which should serve as a basic guide for financial executives in the coming months.

1. Identify and Maintain Your Strengths, and Your Best Customers

Identify the strengths that have enabled your success to date, and those that will be important in the future. Which capabilities and skills are most critical? What distinguishes your ability to serve customers effectively? Identify your highest-margin customers, and understand what you are “doing right” for them. Develop a game plan to protect and build on the strengths that have allowed you to be indispensable to these customers. Rather than cutting costs across the board, think about how you can shift resources to retain these high-margin customers, and attract more customers like them.

2. Capture Market Share: Consider Opportunistic Acquisitions

Recessions reshape industries faster than good times do, creating opportunities for those with the vision and ability to seize them quickly. Studies have shown that companies have twice the opportunity to change their relative position in an industry during a recession compared to growth times. Keep an eye on competitors, and stand ready to capture market share as other players allow cost cutting to damage their service and quality, or fail outright. Market valuations are still down for strong and weak companies alike, and companies with resources to acquire complementary rivals will earn higher returns than they can with internal, organic growth. Of course, acquire only companies that support your ability to be the best in the world at what you do, and work aggressively to capture synergies. New opportunities may also exist to gain new alliance partners, to move into adjacent markets, to adopt new pricing models, or to enter new channels. Some of these opportunities may be created by the failure of competitors, and some may be created by a new customer appetite for solutions that show measurable ROI or reduce risk.

3. Manage Liquidity As Closely As Profitability

Your company has been dealing not only with negative growth but also with liquidity constraints. During good times you may not have obtained sufficient lines of credit to sustain your company through economic adversity. Trying to maintain liquidity on a smaller revenue base can be crippling. Every balance sheet dollar has to be turned over faster to contribute to working capital. Maximize cash flow by matching inventories to sales and collecting from customers faster. Take advantage of increased supplier willingness to share risk and to provide favorable terms.

4. Keep Core Activities In-House, and Outsource Everything Else

Build and protect those “core” capabilities that differentiate you, while aggressively outsourcing anything non-core. Depending on your business, non-core activities may include IT maintenance, human resources administration, benefits and payroll, accounts receivable and payable, manufacturing, distribution or sales. You’ll get the benefit of service provider expertise and economies of scale, and will pay only for services you need. The biggest benefit of outsourcing, however, is that it shifts your focus, resources and capital toward serving your clients’ higher value needs and building your competitive advantage.

5. Create New Metrics and Manage by Them

Tight economics put a premium on your ability to understand and model the relationships between revenues, costs and margins. Think about metrics that focus on the building blocks of revenue and sustaining market share, including sales pipeline, customer satisfaction, pricing and market penetration. Metrics should look beyond core financials to provide management with insight into market dynamics such as market share trends. The good news is that the enhanced metrics you need during challenging times will help you manage more profitably and efficiently in good times as well.

6. Communicate and Reenergize!

A downturn is a scary time for all your constituencies. You now need to begin the process of re-energizing your employees and creating new trust among all your constituencies. Frequent and honest communication will go a long way toward maintaining a calm and motivated workforce. Create regularly scheduled forums to listen to concerns, and to update employees on the state of the company and on their roles in achieving new company objectives. Studies show that employees are motivated far more by a sense of shared purpose than by compensation. Create that shared purpose and reinforce it daily. Lead your company out of the recession with realistic confidence, candor and a renewed sense of direction.

About Tatum, LLC

Companies turn to Tatum when critical business challenges arise because we immediately deliver financial and technology operational expertise via solutions tailored to the Office of the CFO. We understand the urgency of NOW and we leverage nearly 1,000 executives and consulting professionals nationwide to accelerate results to create more valueâ„¢. For more information, visit http://www.tatumllc.com.

 

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Here is realitycheck article from NY Dailynews.

“Think the worst is over? Wrong. Conditions in the U.S. labor markets are awful and worsening. While the official unemployment rate is already 10.2% and another 200,000 jobs were lost in October, when you include discouraged workers and partially employed workers the figure is a whopping 17.5%.

While losing 200,000 jobs per month is better than the 700,000 jobs lost in January, current job losses still average more than the per month rate of 150,000 during the last recession.

Also, remember: The last recession ended in November 2001, but job losses continued for more than a year and half until June of 2003; ditto for the 1990-91 recession.

So we can expect that job losses will continue until the end of 2010 at the earliest. In other words, if you are unemployed and looking for work and just waiting for the economy to turn the corner, you had better hunker down. All the economic numbers suggest this will take a while. The jobs just are not coming back.

There’s really just one hope for our leaders to turn things around: a bold prescription that increases the fiscal stimulus with another round of labor-intensive, shovel-ready infrastructure projects, helps fiscally strapped state and local governments and provides a temporary tax credit to the private sector to hire more workers. Helping the unemployed just by extending unemployment benefits is necessary not sufficient; it leads to persistent unemployment rather than job creation.”

Read the full article here.

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