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Market Update – 18 Months In Review

2014 began with an intense implosion of overpriced tech stocks that destabilized players and set us up for nasty knock off effects. Months afterwards, energy names began to turn downward and started an at first slow descent; a black omen for anyone looking for a forward indicator.

Saudi Arabia decided to play the world’s worst move (effectively maiming OPEC), spiked the oil markets when they could least handle it, and sent oil into the abyss touching off a second massive sector implosion in oil and gas names. But not just oil & gas, as the market became terrified of economic stagnation led by fears out of Europe and Asia, and the entire energy sector followed oil down the hole.

We are now experiencing what I view as the third wave of the same phenomenon that began in early 2014, more than a year later, as the entire stock market collapses 10% in a short span of time, led by China’s markets and the intensely poor decision making of a command/control economy trying to have their cake and eat it too.

That being said, I haven’t yet seen any indication that the real economy is retracting.

Job growth seems present and in my own local markets where I have a good ear to the ground concerning hiring and pay policies, I am actually hearing talk of wage hikes. The last five years, our local job market at least was terrified of the HR monsters that were federal regulations (chiefly PPACA), not to mention we are still reeling from 2009 in some respects. But I think as we clear away from the implementation of these federal regulations, especially with rigid conservatives now holding fast against, we are going to start to see some wage growth. Employees are actually demanding it now, voting with their feet when they can.

This should do wonders for the economy.

With regards to oil specifically (which is chiefest of my concerns) the EIA is suggesting that the current imbalance between consumption and production of oil is 2 million barrels per day. This is the cause of our stockpiling and the foremost reason oil has sunk so far. Saudi Arabia’s move to curtail US production has been a failure and so far the long feared wave of insolvencies has held to a slow drip, even from the most precarious of businesses.

A 2 million barrel imbalance is not all that bad and I believe that, barring some sort of real demand destruction, we’ll just float along at these levels until the market becomes more comfortable with oversupply. I don’t think oversupply necessarily will force pricing lower as it would take a very specific set of circumstances which include not having a merger & acquisition brokerage occur. Yet we see M&A activity is very healthy in this current time period and I have to believe that if oil goes much lower you would see US markets consolidate aggressively.

Besides this, the global imbalance is equivalent to about one major oil producer globally. And in this current environment, we also should be aware that civil unrest is a powerful destabilizer of oil production (via civil war) with positive likelihood.

Sources of new supply are questionable. New well development at these oil prices are unprofitable and only large state sponsored development is probable. Yet, economic weakness is harming state budgets and may make it difficult to attain approval for unprofitable ventures. The largest foreign state controlled sources of oil are also some of the most sensitive to this oil price shock.

Altogether, I continue to believe that the most likely outcome in oil markets is unknowable yet still predictable production locations going offline from internal unrest. Venezuela is pegged as the most likely location for such an event, do to the extreme nature of their current state of affairs, and because their leadership is proven incapable of handling the situation. But Venezuela is hardly the only candidate; just the best.

Outside of that, the economic uncertainty that hit everyone’s radar earlier this summer is now coming back under control. Bond yields continue to subside across all major foreign issuers, and I would not be surprised if the EU crisis in particular remains hidden from view for another full two years.

Domestically, I expect monetary policy to remain accommodating, but would not be surprised if Yellen raises interest rates some token amount, to try and claim some victory for the Federal Reserve. I cannot expect how the market will react to his, but believe the raise will be mostly symbolic anyway, so any effects should be temporary in nature.

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Will The Fed Save Us?

The markets are in full on collapse mode. 3% declines is what 2009 was made of. Even 2011 I don’t recall as being this intense – although time mutes the pain.

But will the Fed arrive to rescue us? While I deeply hope for this outcome, I’m hesitant to count on it. I see several impediments to a Fed rescue.

The first is that Yellen was very intricately involved in the first set of rescues. Yellen is a dove; but she is a dove who believes in econometrics and the ability of a central authority acting under imperfect knowledge to do good in the economy.

The trouble with that perspective is that it so frequently is revealed to be wrong. This is the central point of non-linearities in real dynamic systems, which is fundamental to the work of the Austrian economists.

Where I am afraid we are going to run into trouble is by sanctioning the first round of interventions, Yellen the dove had a buy-in on the outcomes. If she intervenes, it will cast doubt on the first round of Fed actions. Will Yellen be able to do such a thing just to protect the stock market? Or will she tell herself everything is fine, to shore up the belief that she and her peers knew what they were doing in the first round?

My second concern is that, although the market is in a state of anguish, the economy is not clearly following the path yet. A major shift in stock ownership occurred alongside the Great Recession, and so the regular citizen may be more insulated to negative stock performance than five years ago.

It might be just us out here.

Would the Fed intervene to save professionals? How much bearing does this even have on the average blue collar citizen? I am concerned that the severity of the Great Recession means the knockoff shock waves may not justify additional aid.

Of course, on the other side of things, the stock market is still heavily owned by politically connected and economically powerful persons. That has never hurt much in the past. I’d say that’s still a positive, the current and apparent political upheaval against such behavior notwithstanding.

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Big Europe Makes The Move…Hopelessly

This weekend, the Eggs Benedict Presidency himself, Mr. Francois Hollande, is calling for a new government to unite all of Europe. This is the last ditch effort of redlining welfare states to avoid change. If they can create a unified government, the Greeks, Spanish, Italians and French can have a fair shot of papering over their floundering social nets without being forced to undertake any meaningful reforms.

And they have no chance of pulling it off. The mood has decidedly swung against “Europe”. Plus Germany isn’t that stupid.

But it’s quite amazing that we’ve gotten to this point at all and it’s worth spending a few minutes talking about the progression itself. Because just fifty years ago, it would have been unthinkable for an elected leader of a European country to call for full integration of the continent.

It’s worth starting the narrative after the end of World War 2; mostly because so many people were dead at that point that it was essentially a complete reset of the culture anyway. History before World War 2 exists as a sort of odd, discolored picture in time…one who’s inhabitants are almost forgotten.

And as Europe began to pick up the pieces, ghastly images began to emerge of a culture that did unspeakable acts. The death and carnage was so pervasive that it had the almost singular effect of destroying one of the more popular scientism movements – eugenics – practically overnight. As word of the concentration camps that the Axis had erected spread, very uncomfortable associations between our own work with forced sterilizations and gene and culture control here at home began to creep up, and almost instantaneously no one had ever believed in eugenics (despite it being almost blasphemy to argue against it just years early). Michael Crichton had a very excellent speech on this subject and if you haven’t read it, I recommend it in its full form.

And a major knock off effect of this self reflection was a Europe which had become more afraid of its own citizens than ever. I recently read another article (I couldn’t track it down, leave a link if you know the one) that I feel convincingly argued that much of the current EU form was erected to overrule democracy in favor of technocratic decision making by an “enlightened” class. If you want an example of how this plays out, consider that in the UK upwards of half of all new laws originate from Brussels. Lawmaking of this variety clearly denies basic rights of representation; and indeed that is the whole point.

Per this argument, the EU’s terror of its own citizens – which is at the heart of the EU rule making process – is a cultural development in response to the acts of populist movements across Europe in the prior generation.

But this is something of a contradiction. It wasn’t exactly democratic actions that committed those atrocities. Certainly a very vocal and nationalist undercurrent of supporters set those things in motion. But talking to the survivors of those years, one fairly consistent theme is that the common citizens that formed the backbone of the democracies had almost no idea of what was going on.

Rather, it was the very same form of technocrats, withholding information and utilizing propaganda, that had carried out the worst human rights violations. A lack of information stifled the ability of democracy to react, until much later, after the veil of ignorance was lifted by warfare, and the sights and accounts were allowed to flow through the populace.

And so it is also worth considering that it would be exceedingly difficult for any atrocity on the scale of the early 20th century to happen again in our history, so long as the information sharing which is reshaping our society is allowed to spread unhindered. With so much access to free information, even unwilling participants accessory to such crimes would be able to anonymously spread the word.

Which leaves the EU in its current form of stifling, undemocratic processes. And one has to wonder, “what’s the point of this?”

The EU is predominantly about the euro, which is the second layer of trouble. The modern welfare state also evolved in response to the end of the World Wars; a period of time when starvation and economic poverty was running rampant across war torn nations and when modern political movements were asking how they could avoid letting events like that ever replay themselves. The proposed solution was to directly aid citizens, which would have the secondary effect of giving everyone an incentive not to participate in forms of political upheaval or risk losing those benefits.

But the heart of the welfare state is a type of nationalism; open borders and free moving populations make for trouble when trying to run national benefits.

Which makes it so odd that welfare states in the 90’s decided to adopt a common currency that they have no direct control over. The welfare state de facto playbook is to address any inevitable economic stagnation, recession or depression with new economic equilibrium, rather than economic reform. The entire point of practical political welfare is to entrench interests of a political majority and avoid challenges. The other guys get to deal with economic variability. See public sector labor unions for an idea of how that works.

By switching to the euro, perhaps unknowingly, the welfare state model sold out its most powerful tool to achieve that outcome. Modern problems are very much a product of adopting the euro. Pro-welfare commentators in the media take it a step further by pinning the fault of those problems on the euro as well. That belies a bias towards a welfare model of government. You could easily argue that the welfare model is itself the problem and that the euro was just a monumentally stupid strategic move on the part of the major players. In either case, the common currency without political union is causing fissures to form across Europe, for the better part of 5 years now. We’ve sort of beat this theme to death by now, so I’ll cut more commentary short here.

And so now, in 2015, we have the president of France actually considering a political union with old cultural enemies Germany and the UK, and Greece immediately trying to undo the effects of a referendum they themselves wanted to have. It’s almost preposterous, if not for the desire to preserve the welfare programs. That’s the only driving force holding this thing together at this point.

So on a warm weekend in July, Francois Hollande is making a last ditch and desperate appeal that amounts to selling out everything French about France, just to avoid the discomfort of some relatively modest cuts and the bravery required to trust his own citizens.

You have to wonder if even Friedman would have seen that coming.

In short order, as the euro collapses towards dollar parity, this call will be picked up by the globalists here in the US as well. It will be their one chance, for perhaps hundreds of years, to stitch the US into the European framework. God willing we crush them without much trouble when that happens.

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Refreshing Day

European bonds are now back under control and the EURUSD refuses to cede $1.10. This may sound circumstantial but I read it as a line in the sand which is not being crossed.

The Greek referendum was a major joke. No one will ever take Syriza seriously again. You cannot force a referendum like that, then just turn right around and bend over. Greece will be the butt of jokes for 100 years. I mean, we still make fun of the French for losing wars, don’t we? ‘Greek negotiating’ is now a dark punch line.

Oil dropped $10 in a hurry, but it is still only testing the old lows. I’m getting some constructive information from the oil field services sector. BAS reports that some numbers have rebounded (albeit new drilling activity is practically nonexistent).

So I guess what happens next is all about China.

The Chinese market collapse would have been the start of something serious in the US; but China is not the US. China remains at a junction, where they need to decide what they want to be when they grow up. If they decide that the Red Revolution is still their destiny, then they’ll keep pulling moves like they did last week. But that is not the recipe for a successful world power and each of us knows it.

China’s path forward is to embrace the capitalism spirit. That means letting crashes do what they will and not threatening to behead people for having private property rights.

For now though, we may have been spared something worse. Chinese stocks are not widely connected to their overall economy yet (America would be in another recession if that had happened here and so would maybe a tenth of the planet).

So for China, they are still executing the transfer towards a more free and secular society (at least on their word anyway) and this damage may yet be passed over. And Chinese stocks globally are taboo and I would be ashamed if it were discovered that I owned any, so my guess is foreign exposure is going to be reasonable. Not non-existent, but reasonable.

This leads me to guess that the China crash will be a one off.

The real damage is the permanent shredding of credibility that China’s leadership is undergoing by trying to dictate a market outcome. That’s stupid and doesn’t work and really highlights the problem the Chinese are going to have maturing past the technocrat paternalism that has barely been keeping it together up to now (see Chinese stocks as taboo, my refusal to own any).

Globally, if we’re going to keep hitting new highs, we need China to hold water. That means the China boys pulling their pants up, leaving that Marx childishness behind them, and pushing forward towards Western finance. Stumbling now would not be a good sign for global trade, which could be a real issue if the markets reopen and the Chinese people themselves decide their Emperor is ass naked.

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This Is Nothing

I was on a tropical island beach in the Gulf of Mexico during the first Greek crisis back in 2010. It was one of those tranquil weeks where you check in once during the morning and once at night, just to stay abreast of the world.

That morning I had skipped the internet check in altogether and just proceeded directly to the ocean to have morning breakfast with mimosa. After breakfast (if you count the next three hours of mimosa as part of breakfast) I proceeded inside.

I will never forget this short journey back to the residence where I was staying, as it was marked with a black omen. The backyard, you see, was guarded jealously by a spring loaded door hinge, which took its duties quite seriously. I had been careful to avoid its wrathful impertinence before now, but on this occasion could not evade the blow it dealt me. Bleeding copiously from the back of my heel, I left a trail of thick, ruby red blood towards the house.

After I was bandaged up, I realized that was the least amount of blood I would shed that day.

The losses from the original Greek crisis and the panic that followed were intense. The volatility cannot be understated, with the VIX ramping from the mid teens to over 40 in a matter of a few short weeks. The world “contagion” was being used by taxi drivers in day to day conversation.

This is nothing.

We have had 5 long years to prepare for this. If any institutions are holding Greek debt as leverage against other positions, they are the world’s biggest idiots. They would deserve to lose everything. In fact, given the zeal with which central banks have been policing finance lately, I’m not sure such a hypothetical institution could even exist in the first place.

Greek debt has been aggressively purchased and stored away in the vaults of the public, where it can be ignored for the next three decades.

I originally thought we were pretty screwed when the first European Debt Crisis hit the waves. Average maturities of European countries were something incomprehensibly stupid, like 2 years. There was no organization of the central banks. No mandate by the ECB to intervene. No control of the euro. I bet against them and then I lost.

If we were going to collapse from European incompetence, that was the time to do it.

My guess is, although Greece seems finally ready to go, this is more a blow to the reputations of the morons that started the EU project than it is to the financial system, at this point in time.

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I Am Betting On The Status Quo

This has been a very difficult past 12 months for me. It’s not just the losses from the oil markets cratering like that. The other issue is that I am looking around, now 6 years since the end of the last recession, and I just cannot quite figure out what comes next.

I usually have a pretty good handle on which way the wind is blowing. Some sort of overarching theme about what the next 5 years have in store for them. That thesis was the emergence of an American oil powerhouse that shattered old regimes. And that has sort of played out, albeit not like I expected.

But what else is going on? European countries seem keen on not burning down EU administrative buildings, which is what it would take to really break up that bureaucracy, seeing how no party in Europe appears to have the balls to hold referendums. But you can’t necessarily bet on Europe either. In my 401K, I’ve been nibbling on European indices and mutual funds since at least 2011, but there’s nothing in particular I would invest in. Nothing worthy of iBankCoin.

And what else is happening? Technology continues to undergo a multi-decade of fast paced evolution. The thing about evolution; it’s a violent, messy process. Not conducive to buy and hold at all. The consumers get rich with wonderful goods while the investors get ground to bits by emerging players and turnover. There’s only a few walls in that village, and they have a high premium attached.

My biggest reservation is that I once mapped out frequencies of recession in America, and we are fast coming due for one.

So what are your thoughts? What will the second half of this decade bring?

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