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Article from Outside the Box by John Mauldin

an article By Louis Gave

“Talking about the Russian Revolution, Lenin once said that there are decades when nothing happens and there are weeks when decades happen.” The last quarter of 2001 looks in retrospect like one of those exciting periods: three events occurred which set in motion the main economic trends of the ensuing decade. Successful investors latched on to at least one of these trends. The problem is, all three trends are now over. The investment strategies that worked over the past decade will not continue to work in the next. What comes next?

The three big events of 2001 were:

• The terrorist attacks of 9/11. This unleashed a decade of bi-partisan “guns and butter”policies in the US and produced a structurally weaker dollar.

• China joined the WTO in December 2001. China’s full entry into the global trading system signaled a re-organization of global production lines and China’s emergence as a major exporter. Export earnings were recycled into the mother of all investment booms, which drove a surge in commodity demand and a wider boom in emerging markets.

• The introduction of euro banknotes. The introduction of the common currency unleashed a decade of excess consumption in southern Europe, financed unwittingly by northern Europe through large bank and insurance purchases of government debt.

But today, all three trends have stalled—and this perhaps accounts for the discomfort and uncertainty we find in most meetings with clients. Indeed:

• US guns and butter spending is over. For the first time since 1970, real growth in US government spending is in negative territory:

• Chinese capital spending is slowing. China still needs to invest a lot more, but future growth rates will be in the single digits.

• Excess consumption in southern Europe is done. Money is clearly flowing out to seek refuge in northern Europe.

Thus, like British guns in Singapore, investors whose portfolios still reflect the above three trends are facing the wrong way. Instead of lamenting over the past, investors should be coming to grips with the trends of the future: the internationalization of the RMB, the rise of cheaper and more flexible automation, and dramatically cheaper energy in the US.

1- The internationalization of the RMB

China is now the centre of a growing percentage of both Asian, and emerging market trade (a decade ago China accounted for 2% of Brazil’s exports; today it is 18% and rising). As a result, China is increasingly asking its EM trade partners why their mutual trade should be settled in US dollars? After all, by trading in dollars, China and its EM trade partners are making themselves dependent on the willingness/ability of Western banks to finance their trade. And the realization has set in that this menage à trois does not make much sense. Indeed, for China, the fact that Western banks are not reliable partners was the major lesson of 2008 and again of 2011.

As a result, China is now turning to countries like Korea, Brazil, South Africa and others and saying: Let’s move more of our trade into RMB from dollars” to which the typical answer is increasingly Why not? This would diversify my earnings and make our business less reliant on Western banks. But if we are going to trade in RMB, we will need to keep some of our reserves in RMB. And for that to happen, you need to give us RMB assets that we can buy”. Hence the creation of the offshore RMB bond market in Hong Kong, a development which may go down as the most important financial event of 2011.

Of course, for China to even marginally dent the dollar’s predominance as a trading currency, the RMB will have to be seen as a credible currency—or at least as more credible than the alternatives. And here, the timing may be opportune for, today, outshining the euro, dollar, pound or even yen is increasingly a matter of being the tallest dwarf.

Still, China’s attempt to internationalize the RMB also means that Beijing cannot embark on fiscal and monetary stimulus at the first sign of a slowdown in the Chinese economy. Instead, the PBoC and Politburo have to be seen as keeping their nerve in the face of slowing Chinese growth. In short, for the RMB to internationalize successfully, the PBoC has to be seen as being more like the Bundesbank than like the Fed.

Following this Buba comparison, China has a genuine opportunity to establish the RMB as the dominant trade currency for its region, just as the deutsche mark did in the 1970s and 1980s. But interestingly, China seems to consider that its “region” is not just limited to Asia (where China now accounts for most of the marginal increase in growth—see chart) but encompasses the wider emerging markets. How else can we explain China’s new enthusiasm in granting PBoC swap lines to the likes of the Brazilian, Argentine, Turkish and Belorussian central banks?

China’s attempt to move more of its trade into RMB is interesting given the current shifts in China’s trade. Indeed, although the US and Europe are still China’s largest single trade partners, most of the growth in trade in recent years has occurred with emerging markets. And China’s trade with emerging markets is increasingly not in cheap consumer goods (toys, underwear, socks or shoes) but rather in capital goods (earth- moving equipment, telecom switches, road construction services, etc; see China Bulldozes a New Export Market). In short, yesterday China’s trade mostly took place with developed markets, was comprised of low-valued-added goods, and was priced in dollars. Tomorrow, China’s trade will be oriented towards emerging markets, focused on higher value-added goods, and priced in RMB.

This would mark a profound change from China’s old development model: keeping its currency undervalued, inviting foreign factories to relocate to the mainland, transforming 10-20mn farmers into factory workers each year, and triggering massive labor productivity gains—gains which the government captures through financial repression and redeploys into large-scale infrastructure projects. But China’s change in development model may be less a matter of choice than of necessity.

2– Virtue from necessity: the rise of robotics

The first harsh reality confronting China is that the country is now the world’s single largest exporter. Combine that impressive status with the reality that the world is unlikely to grow at much more than 3% to 4% over the coming years and it becomes obvious that the past two decades’ 30% average annual growth in exports just cannot be repeated.

Beyond the limits to export growth, the other challenge to China’s business model is the second step, namely the transforming of farmers into factory workers. Not that China is set to run out of farmers (see The Countdown for China’s Farmers). But the coming years may prove more challenging for unskilled workers as robotics and automation continue to gather pace. Over the coming decade, cheap labor may not be the comparative advantage it was in the previous decade, simply because the cost of automation is now falling fast (see The Robots Are Coming).

Of course, factory and process automation is hardly a new concept. What is new is the dramatic recent shift from fixed automation to flexible automation.For decades we have had machines that could perform simple repetitive tasks; now we have machines that can be reprogrammed easily to perform a wide range of more complicated functions. With improved software and hardware, robots can do more, in more industries; and the purpose of automation has shifted from improving crude productivity (making more of the same things at lower cost) to more sophisticated targets like adaptability across product cycles, and improved quality and consistency.

One consequence of cheaper and more flexible automation is that some manufacturing that fled the developed world for cheap-labor destinations like China may return to the US, Japan and Europe, as firms decide that the benefits of low-cost labor no longer outweigh the advantage of better logistics and proximity to customers. Even if this does not occur, factories in places like China may become ever more automated (e.g.: electronics assembler Foxconn, Apple’s main supplier and one of the world’s biggest employers with some 1mn workers, has started to talk about building factories manned with robots). This then raises the question of what China’s hordes of manufacturing workers will do should Chinese factories automate and/or re-localize to the developed world. One obvious conclusion is that China’s leaders will thus have to deal with slowing growth through further deregulation, rather than stimulus and currency manipulation. The remedies of 2008 (large fiscal and monetary stimulus) will not work again.

This dilemma implies that the robotics trend dovetails with the RMB internationalization trend. To understand just why, it is important to recognize one aspect of policymaking which makes China unique: the country’s leaders wake up every morning pondering how to return China to being the world’s number one economy and a geopolitical superpower in its own right (few other world leaders harbor such thoughts). And ever since Deng Xiaoping, the answer to that question has typically been to sacrifice some element of control over the economy in exchange for faster growth.

Today, China faces the imperative of making just such a trade-off between control and growth: the old model of cheap labor and vast capital spending is near exhaustion, so the only way to sustain growth is to go for more efficiency, especially through financial sector reform. For China’s leaders, reform will be painful but the cost of missing out on the global power that comes with further growth would be even more painful. Hence we are convinced Beijing will eventually bite the financial reform bullet, and RMB internationalization is the leading edge of that reform. In that light, the creation of the RMB offshore bond market is an event of much greater significance than is currently acknowledged by the general consensus.

3– Cheap US energy

Along with the possibility of manufacturing returning to the developed world from China and other low labor-cost countries, another key trend of the coming decade should be the gradual achievement of energy independence by the US. Given the discoveries of the past few years in the exploitation of shale gas and oil, and assuming the existence of political will to invest in reshaping US energy infrastructure, such a development is now within reach.

These large natural gas discoveries have two potential global impacts. First, the combination of low-cost automation and low-cost energy could encourage manufacturers to locate their plants not in countries with the lowest labor cost, but in those with the lowest energy cost. For example, on a recent visit to Germany we kept hearing how chemical plants would have a tough time competing with American plants if the price of US natural gas stayed below US$2.50. In fact, with Germany having decided to pull away from nuclear and bet its future on high-cost wind power, energy- intensive industries in the country could be in for a challenging decade.

Second, the return to manufacturing and energy independence should lead to sustained improvement in the US trade deficit. Energy imports account for around half of the US trade deficit (while the other half is broadly manufactured goods from China). Today the US, through its trade deficit, sends roughly US$500bn worth of cash to the rest of the world every year. This money helps grease the wheels of global trade since more than two-thirds of global trade is still denominated in dollars. But what will happen if, in the next ten years, the US stops exporting dollars, thanks to its new strengths in manufacturing and cheap energy? In such a scenario, the dollars would run scarce.

In fact, this may already be happening. This would explain why the growth of central bank reserves held at the Fed for foreign central banks has been in negative territory for the past year—and why, over the past two quarters, the Fed has been exceptionally generous in granting swap lines to foreign central banks (notably the ECB).

This does not make for a stable situation. And given that the RMB is unlikely to replace the dollar as the principal global trading currency for many years to come (see History Lessons and the Offshore RMB), the likely combination of expanding global trade and a shrinking US trade deficit should mean that either the dollar will have to rise, or US assets will outperform non-US assets to the point where valuation differnces make it attractive for US investors to deploy dollars abroad (since US consumers won’t).

4– Conclusion

Obviously, we do not claim to have identified all the big trends of the coming decade. The next several years will doubtless deliver many more important changes and investment opportunities (monetization of Japan’s debt and a collapse in the yen? Demographic challenges in numerous countries? Reform and modernization in the Islamic world? Political upheaval and regime change in Iran? Water shortages in China, India and other Asian countries? Possible energy independence for India through thorium-based nuclear energy plants?). But we are nonetheless confident on these main points:

• The three key macro trends of the past decade have come to a screeching halt. This explains why financial markets seem to lack conviction and direction.

• The internationalization of the RMB and the birth of the RMB bond market is likely to be one of the most important developments of the decade. The closest analogy is the creation of the junk bond market by Michael Milken in the 1980s. Interestingly, just as in the early 1980s, few people are taking the time to work through the ramifications of this momentous event. Understanding this new market will prove essential to understanding the world of tomorrow.

• The likely evolution of the US from record high twin deficits to much smaller budget and trade deficits should help push the dollar higher over the coming years. And this in turn will have broad ramifications for a number of asset prices.”

Contact john at: JohnMauldin@2000wave.com.

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On a weekly basis I receive John Mauldin’s -” Outside the Box” update.  This is excellent commentary on the market, business and life.   Recently, a friend and I attended a Joh Mauldin sponsored investment seminar and we found it to be interesting, intriguing and we met some outstanding international guest speakers.

John was Chief Executive Officer of the American Bureau of Economic Research, Inc., a publisher of newsletters and books on various investment topics, from 1982 to 1987. He was one of the founders of Adopting Children Together Inc., the largest adoption support group in Texas. He currently serves on the board of directors of The International Reconciliation Coalition and the International Children’s Relief Fund. He is also a member of the Knights of Malta, and has served on the Executive Committee of the Republican Party of Texas.

He is a frequent contributor to numerous publications, and guest on TV and radio shows as well as quoted widely in the press.

John is the President of Millennium Wave Advisors, LLC (MWA) which is an investment advisory firm registered in multiple states. John Mauldin is President of Millennium Wave Securities, LLC a FINRA registered broker-dealer. MWS is also a Commodity Pool Operator (CPO) and a Commodity Trading Advisor (CTA) registered with the CFTC, as well as an Introducing Broker (IB).

For those seeking personal and business references, pictures of his family or further information, we would refer you to the Gallery section of his website;  www.johnmauldin.com and you can also email him at johnmauldin@investorsinsight.com

From John Mauldin – ” Outside the Box “

This week we will look at two shorter essays for this edition of Outside the Box. The first is some thoughtful words by Tom Au on whether or not we have put in a true bottom for the market. I particularly want you to read his thoughts on what earnings will look like going forward, and whether we can get back to the highs in corporate earnings we saw in 2006.

Tom is the executive vice-president of R. W. Wentworth, a contributor to Real Money at www.thestreet.com and the author of “A Modern Approach to Graham and Dodd Investing”

In last Friday’s letter I mentioned an article by William Hester, CFA, who is the Senior Financial Analyst at the Hussman Funds. (www.hussmanfunds.com) While I quoted a few paragraphs from his essay, on reflection I think I will re-produce it below, as this is a very important concept. I have written in past letters and in Bull’s Eye Investing about how powerful a driver earnings surprises can be (both positive and negative). Powerful bear and bull markets develop when there are numerous surprises in the same direction, re-enforcing market psychology.

So, read Hester’s essay with the knowledge of what Au writes about earnings. I think the two make a very powerful, thought-provoking concept. And I am off to Europe.

John Mauldin, Editor

Outside the Box

Do you think that the crash is over, as certain former bears do? This question arises as we have breached the first downside target, of Dow 7000, based on my proprietary investment value model, that was first published in thestreet.com October 24, 2007. It was less a forecast than an evaluation. The Dow has now vindicated this model by reaching “fair value,” as one would expect from a simple definition. Does that represent a base for a new bull market? Or is it just one more stop to the nether regions?

To understand my model, note that a stock can be analyzed as a combination of a bond plus a call option. My proprietary investment value metric for a stock is book value plus ten times dividends. That is a Ben Graham like construct that treats stocks almost like bonds, and gives no effect to growth over and above the pro rata return from the reinvestment of retained earnings. On the other hand, many investors prize stocks, particularly tech stocks, for their “optionality,” the hypothetical ability to generate “positive surprises” over and above what economic theory would support. At bottom, the belief in the new economy was a belief in “optionality,” that random positive events that occur from time to time, and did so with particular frequency in the 1990s, will become a recurring fixture of the economic landscape.

But such a process can also work in reverse, as it has recently. We are now experiencing what my colleague Robert Marcin calls the Great Unwind. A turbocharged economy is most likely to become “unstuck” when the conditions that initially favored it no longer exist. When this happens, an economy can grow as much below trend as it was formerlyabove trend, a fact that is likely to be reflected in the financial markets. History is not very encouraging on this score. In past downturns, such as those of 1932 and 1974, the Dow troughed at one half of my investment value metric, reflecting then-prevailing investor beliefs for negative optionality; that the economy will be worse than normal economic forces would dictate. With investment value at 7000 (actually a rounded version of 6600) on the Dow, half of that would be 3300. And during the 1930s, this metric actually fell, meaning that the “ultimate” low could be half of a number lower than 6600.

So having completed a first downleg, the market is now working on a second one. And this would be fully reflective of economic forces. For instance, financial earnings used to represent some 40% earnings (if you count the financing arms of some old line “industrial” companies such as General Electric and General Motors). Thus, they made up $32 of what used to be normalized S& P earnings of $80. But most of those financial earnings have disappeared. That, by itself, would take the S&P earnings into the $50s.. But how many of those non-financial earnings (of $48) were tied to the finance bubbles such as the homebuilding and the “housing ATM?” At least 10%, or around $5, and that is being conservative. Thus, normalized S&P earnings are likely to be no more $50 a share, if that.

The problem comes at payback time. For instance, much of the borrowing was tied to the housing market, on the bogus theory that houses could be made twice as valuable (as a multiple of rent) as they were for all of American history if prices could be kept on steady incline. The problem was that valuations collapsed when house prices fell, or even failed to rise, bringing down the market with it. To make up the shortfall, the U.S. economy now has to consume less than it produces, for a time. But the formerly virtuous circle became a vicious circle when falling prices (and consumption) led to falling production in a self-reinforcing process of the kind best described by George Soros in the Alchemy of Finance. This is a process called underabsorption, which in its strongest form, is called disintermediation. When a major part of the economy becomes “unstuck, the rest of it doesn’t merely go into retrograde. It has to fall apart also to keep pace.

But I can live with $50 trough earnings, say many. And at historical multiple of 14-16 times trough earnings, the S&P should stop its downside in the 700-800 range. But the point is, they’re not trough earnings, they are the “new normal.” And in the current “slow” (zero or worse) growth environment, a trough P/E of 6-8 times earnings is more likely. Put another way, we are about to get the worst of all worlds; below trend earnings, below trend growth from a depressed base, and below trend P/E, after having gotten the best of all worlds, astronomical P/Es on above-trend and rapidly growing earnings, about a decade ago. Warren Buffett now agrees, saying that we will get “almost the worst of all possible worlds…”

The bears-turned-bulls have taken the latter stance because the market now reflects at least a severe recession. One such commentator likened the recent market to 1938-1939, and feels that the latter represents a bottom. But the 1930s bottom was 1932, not 1939, which is to say that the market probably has further to fall. Having correctly dodged the “overvaluation” bullet earlier, the new bulls pin their hopes on the prospect that the current market represents everything bad short of the 1930s Depression. Unlike us, they aren’t willing to grasp the nettle that the current crisis will likely be as bad as anythingincluding the Great Depression.


A Stock Market Rebound Closely Linked with Economic Data Surprises

by William Hester, CFA – April, 2009

There are several ways to interpret the economic data in March, most of which came in above what economists were expecting. Some analysts concluded that the worst is over for the economy, and a rebound is ahead. Others suggested that the economy is still contracting, but at a slower rate for now. In any case, economists have overestimated the economy’s rate of contraction lately. The rebound in the stock market has been at least partially fueled by economic data that consistently came in better than expected last month. Some part of this rally is likely relying on the continuation of these “positive” surprises.

To track the trends in economic performance, we keep an ongoing tally of how data is announced relative to expectations ˆ a method of analysis originally inspired byBridgewater Advisors . Economic data that surpasses expectations gets added to a 3-month running total. Data that comes in weaker than expected gets subtracted. A rising line means that economic data is generally coming in above expectations, while a falling line means that the data has disappointed. A descending line could be the result of an economy that is not expanding as quickly as economists predict or ˆ like in 2008 ˆ it could be the result of an economy that is contracting at a faster rate than expected. In the first graph, and the others below, I’ve isolated only the data that measures the growth in the economy, leaving out measures that track the rate of inflation and sentiment. The first chart below shows the surprise line for growth-related economic data since last August, just prior to the passing of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act, from which the first version of the TARP was born.

jmotb041309image001

There’s nothing quite like pointing out how bad a shape the economy is in to get people acting like the economy is in bad shape. During the early part of last summer the economy was actually holding up better then what was generally expected. But during the final quarter of last year, the economic surprise line (in blue) collapsed. Data persistently came in below expectations, which created the steepest drop in the line tracking economic performance versus expectations in the available data.

The red line in the graph above tracks the S&P 500 Index and it shows that stocks have recently closely tracked the trend in data surprises. The market fell along with the deteriorating surprise line last year, rallied slightly prior to improved news in December, and then rolled over again as the news weakened versus expectations in late January. In March the market rebounded along with a more pronounced persistence in favorable economic news versus expectations.

The data released in March was better (or less negative) than expected on a number of fronts. The slowdown in spending eased, there was temporary relief in the new and existing homes sales data, and sentiment measures mostly halted their steep decent of recent months. But while much of the data was surprising relative to expectations, it’s difficult to point to any piece of data that was surprisingly strong (outside of some of the volatile data series like, for example, durable goods). New homes sold at an annual rate of 337 thousand versus 300 thousand (and a peak of 1.4 million). GDP was revised to -6.3 percent versus an estimate of -6.6 percent.

Much of the excitement in the stock market ˆ at least that is related to the current performance of the economy – seems to be centered on an economy that is performing less badly than expected. The risks here seem to be that if the trends in data surprises change, so could investor’s attitudes toward stocks that are currently overbought on a number of measures.

There are a couple of reasons why the trend in the rate of data surprises could change. The first is that trends in economic surprises are very prone to reversals. The chart below shows a longer-term picture of the changes in the trends in economic data surprises. The one thing that stands out looking at the graph is that the trends in surprises often reverse abruptly. When the estimates of economists fall behind in an expanding economy – underestimating its strength – expectations are adjusted upward. These estimates eventually become too optimistic. The same can be said of an economy that is contracting more quickly than expected. And the data shows that the more pronounced their forecast errors ˆ the more abruptly economists begin to overestimate the economy’s recent trend.

jmotb041309image002

Another reason why the economic news may begin to disappoint at some point is that recoveries rarely proceed smoothly. The trends in month-to-month and quarter-to-quarter data tend to lurch forward and backward as the economy regains its footing (and at times, like in 1982, the economy can fall right back into recession).

One recent example of this was in 2002, which is shown in the graph below. The trends in economic data versus expectations were persistently better than expected from late 2001 as the economy emerged from recession that year through late spring of 2002. The S&P 500 surged by more than 20% from its 2001 low as the economy began to regain its footing and offer up positive data surprises. But by the summer of 2002 the rebound proved not robust enough when compared with economist’s expectations, and the surprise line rolled over. With stocks not yet at valuation levels that were attractive to investors, the S&P plunged along with the data surprise line.

jmotb041309image003

It’s important to note that this was during a period where the economy was, in hindsight, no longer in recession, and where there were many measures that showed the economy was growing again. But the market was still tripped up at least partly because expectations had moved ahead of the economic recovery. The bear market remained unfinished, and stocks fell to new lows. This may turn out to be an important risk over the next couple of months. The economic data is certain to be uneven, which in turn may cause investors to begin to question whether an economic recovery is really at hand. Risks will likely be higher at points where the market is overbought.

Investors tend to punish economic disappointments much more strongly during bear markets than during bull markets. The graph below, which shows the S&P 500 and the surprise line from 1998 to 2002, highlights this tendency.

jmotb041309image004

Although it’s just a portion of one cycle ˆ the late stages of an expansion and a mild recession, it’s worth noting how stocks performed in response to economic data surprises. In the last part of the 1990’s bull market, a rising economic data surprise line mostly fueled rallies. Data worse than expected weighed on performance ˆ often causing shallow declines like in 1998 and late 1999. Conversely, during the 2000-2002 bear market, disappointing economic data coincided with steep declines in equity prices, while positive surprises usually eased the market’s deterioration.

These trends were also evident during the market’s advance from 2003 through 2007, but were somewhat less dependable. During that period, the trends in the surprise data were shorter and more variable than the market’s slow, persistent advance. Since last summer, the correlation between the two has tightened considerably. In fact, the correlation between the S&P 500 and the data surprise line has climbed above .80, implying that investors are keeping a close eye on how data comes in relative to expectations.

If the high correlation between stock prices and data surprises holds, the recent rally in stocks might be tested. Even if the economy has bottomed, it’s very likely that the eventual recovery will prove to be uneven, causing the flow of positive surprises to be uneven. During these periods, the risks to stocks will be greatest when the market is overbought and investors have priced in high expectations of positive data surprises continuing.

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