Sunday, November 29, 2015
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European Debt Crisis

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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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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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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Greek Tragedies Are Classics No One Reads Anymore

So here we are again. Greece is back in the news, the country that was fixed to be broken to be fixed again to throw craps. Of course it was never really fixed at all, but that’s not the point here.

How is this time different? Is the EU more ready for Greece to go? Is Greece ready to actually man up and leave? Because if the answer to either of those questions is “no”, then you’re wasting my time.

If even one of those answers is “no”, somebody will get on their knees and we go right back to where we were, as if nothing ever happened at all.

Actually the more likely of those two outcomes here is the EU core finally tells Greece to take a hike (and I’m not suggesting either is about to happen at that). The EU has had more than five years to map the fallout and come up with a strategy. They also don’t exactly need a Greece so much as have one; looking for the best, least painful outcome. If you’ve ever had a bum relationship, then you know as well as I do that there comes a point when you leave that person out to dry and don’t come back.

Who is Greece going to turn to? Will they turn inwards to Greece? I’m skeptical that will yield results. Turning inward in Greece leaves them looking at a pretty lazy workforce loaded with corruption and a national culture that includes not paying taxes and almost completely shutting down on a government payroll. You’ll pardon my old fashioned free market predilections if I am inclined to mock that for what it’s worth.

So they turn outwards. To whom does Greece run?

The current fan fiction involves a Greece which runs lovingly into Putin’s open arms; a Putin who somehow isn’t almost out of foreign currency reserves from a collapsed crude oil price, has a reserve of nation building experience at his disposal, and isn’t laden with a secret foreign war in one of the last nations that decided to trust Russian power.

Greece would probably run to Russia if they got punted out of the EU, but I fail to see how that would improve things, or hold up for very long once the mushy promises at the onset started to drop unfulfilled. It would be a short lived affair.

And Greece has to know that, somewhere. People were terrified of Syriza (maybe myself included, I don’t remember). What have they done, besides cave in to every German demand? Germany keeps winning these fights because Greece has no bargaining chips. Which kind of stops making them fights.

So gun to my head, no one will even be mentioning this in three months. Black swans do happen so maybe I’m smoked. But we’ve been here three times now, and I’ll be damned if I get worked up for number four, so pull the trigger already.

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EURUSD Parity Is Nearly Here – A Quick Look Back

There was a time just a few years ago when it was quite fashionable to talk about the European Debt Crisis. Why, we would wake up in the morning, have a spot of tea, some toast and some eggs, then jabber on until noon of eurocrises and pending doom of “The Old World”.

Around that time, I made a prediction that the euro would trade to parity against the dollar. It wasn’t something I could really trade on, since the only available products were untrustworthy scams and the timeline was long and unpredictable.

Here’s the link to the last time I mentioned the call, back in 2012. I suspended it because the then idiot Tea Party freshmen decided to destroy the credibility of the US government and we were still in the middle of easing programs designed to destroy the US dollar.

But I warned then, the future would be full of sudden shocks where the EURUSD would be prone to collapse and near parity. Well, here we are, with the EURUSD rate just now hitting 1.07 today.

This is the key reason why our markets are so volatile right now; especially true for commodities. Oil doesn’t know up from down specifically. The balance of trade is being thrown off.

This ends with stability of currencies. We don’t need the old EURUSD range back per se. We just need the bleeding to stop so we can find a new equilibrium.

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The Big Question Then: How To Play EU QE?

The Swiss bank just announced that the ceiling they have been maintaining against the euro is to be dropped. That would make sense, since the euro is now trading below 1.17, down from almost 1.40 just earlier. In terms of the exchange rate, that had to be getting very expensive.

But the timing here should be viewed as a sign that the ECB is really about to start QE. This should be the stance because if they don’t, the impact would be minimal, but if they do you can’t be on the wrong side of the trade.

In terms of what this QE will look like…well, that is the question. What is the ECB going to buy? Not public debt, surely. How much more financing can these governments stomach with yields already negative in many countries. Even the worst countries, like Greece, are borrowing at rates that an average citizen would envy.

My guess here is two fold: (1) they buy up private financial assets similar to the mortgage program the Fed had in place, but that it will center on short term bonds, while also working with banks to create a long term financing window (EU companies and banks in particular have notoriously short term financing arrangements) and (2) they take the opportunity to absorb whatever mechanisms exactly they have been using, before now, to hide the massive debt loads that should have been coming due over the past three years.

If you forgot, Europe ended up pulling some master BS, using a combination of trade accounts to gobble up the garbage so that the markets wouldn’t have to see it default. I’m hazy on the exact specifics, but I would gamble that those imbalanced accounts are still outstanding; and my guess is they’re about to get totally monetized.

So the big question now is, where do you park money? I think that it would be very stupid to try and be short right now with central banks making big noise and seemingly readying the cannons.

If this is like past central bank action, then any longs will do – equity, commodities, debt, whatever you like. Oil could get a huge boost since it’s been so ravaged. ECB action will give the Fed room to play, especially if deflation keeps up. Yellen is no Bernanke…yet, but she also hasn’t been tried either. If the Fed coordinates, all boats get lifted.

But the safest low key play is probably just to hug U.S. dollars until things are a little more clear.

I am ~78% cash, with positions in CCJ, BAS and VOC, down roughly 3% in the first two weeks of the year.

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