Prometheus, With the Cuffs On

They ought to give special parking places to anyone who studied business, economics or finance in the last 30 years. Higher education has lowered their I.Qs. Years of toil in academia have weakened their vision and taken the common sense right out of them. Keep reading…

Money carries no passport, but it slides through almost any border. It flies no flag, but it is welcome in almost every nation. It speaks no language, but when it talks, everyone listens. But for all its passe-partout appeal, money has more enemies than friends. And the biggest threat is probably is the financial industry itself.

"Don’t worry," the bright young man at a London private banking told us, "we maintain the highest levels of professionalism and use the most sophisticated tools of modern portfolio management."

That was just what we were worried about. What follows is a lament…and a complaint…about the current state of people in the financial métier: they have been disabled by their own theories…handicapped by their own greasy trade.

We were impressed by the man in front of us. Handsome, well-dressed, well spoken in three different languages, he had spent years learning the principles of economics, finance and business management. His palaver to prospective clients was flawless. Yes, he said, the research department is keenly searching for alpha…but it knows that 80% of performance comes from careful asset allocation, which the bank’s strategists have calculated based on risk/return analyses going back a hundred years. The expected return from Japanese equities over the next five years, for example, will be precisely 7.56%…but with an anticipated volatility of 20.43%.

But then we learned that we didn’t have to live with volatility. The firm’s analysts have done extensive research, he explained; they’ve been able to find many different asset classes that had equal and opposite volatilities.

When Japanese stocks bob in one direction, for example, the firm’s Ultra-leveraged Macro Opportunity Hedge fund weaves in another.

Just throw the mathematicians a bone; they’ll figure out how to put these things together so that you can optimize your return while minimizing your risk. Then, according to the math whizzes’ calculations, you could find yourself with a 90% probability that your $100 investment will grow to somewhere between $292 and $132 in year 10. This, it should be mentioned, is a "nominal" value. Even if the target is hit, the $132 may not even buy you a cup of coffee in London. It barely buys you one now.

So many numbers… 6s and 7s…5s and 4s…every number the Arabs ever invented is brought into service. But what do they really mean?

"Can you tell us what the price of oil will be next week," we began to torment our interlocutor. "Or, how about the dollar?"

"Of course not."

"Then, how can you make projections ten years out…on investments, all of which will be greatly influenced by the price of oil, the strength of the dollar, inflation rates and completely unforeseeable events?"

"Well, these are not predictions. They are projections, based on many years of experience. Our researchers are the best in the business, with degrees from Harvard, MIT and Oxbridge. Of course, no one knows what the future will bring…but these projections are the best output of modern portfolio management."

Pointing to a helpful chart supplied by the investment firm, we continued our interrogation:

"In the last 6 months, Merrill Lynch has had to write down an amount equal to almost half its book value? UBS has written off 40%. If these financial engineers were really able to project earnings and risk out to 2 decimal places, how come they couldn’t protect themselves from this blow up?"

They ought to give special parking places to anyone who studied business, economics or finance in the last 30 years. Higher education has lowered their I.Qs. Years of toil in academia have weakened their vision and taken the common sense right out of them.

A blind man could have seen the blow-up in sub-prime coming. But somehow, the geniuses missed it. What went wrong? The disabling infection may be understood by looking at how the hot shots handle risk. Of course, they don’t really have any way of knowing what real risk is; no one can know the future. For all we know, a plague will wipe us all out in the next three weeks. None of us knows what the price of oil will be next week…or next year…or 10 years from now. Nor do any of us know what real risks the oil market faces. War…weather…technological advance…who can say?

But rather than admit that it just didn’t know…the financial industry embarked on a staggering series of myths and conceits that must have taken the gods’ breath away.

Since they couldn’t know real risk, they substituted volatility as a proxy, which is a little like getting an inflatable doll to take your wife’s place at a dinner party; the conversation may be dull, but at least she won’t contradict you.

Once they had shut up risk, they could say whatever they wanted. They could pretend that price movements, for example, were like natural phenomena. It was absurd and everyone knew it. Prices depended on what people thought; volcanic eruptions did not. But Richard Fama put forward the Efficient Market Hypothesis in the 1960s as if he had stolen the gods’ fire. He claimed market data could be treated as if they were random fluctuations. If an earthquake had stuck Rome only twice in the last 100 years, the ‘risk’ of an earthquake was only 2%. For all they know, the streets of the Eternal City will rock and roll every day for the next 200 years…but this little subterfuge gave their mathematicians something to work with. Then, looking at price patterns as if they were seismic records, they could make all sorts of fantastic simulations…and come up with fancy new products, such as a Highly Leveraged, Sub-prime Debt Portfolio. Using historical norms, they pressed the junk credits together like potted meat and — in a miracle that would have floored Jesus – transformed it into Prime A.

But it was all nonsense. The prices thought to be random weren’t random at all, but the consequence of practices, ideas, and institutions built up over centuries. Change the circumstances…and the numbers changed too. As Soros puts it, markets are ‘reflexive.’ In our words, prices are neither fixed nor random…but subject to influence. For example, it was observed that stocks outperformed bonds over the longterm. Stocks for the Long Run was the title of a best-selling investment book in 1994, which argued that stocks would make you rich if you held them long enough. This long-term reward was in return for investors’ willingness to take short-term risks; they called it the risk premium…which they defined, again, as volatility. Stocks were down in some periods, but always up over the long term. Thus, for a person who could wait, there was no risk at all.

By 1999, no truth was more obvious: stocks would make you rich. By then, the whole financial world was alight…stocks had risen three times since 1994 – to over 11,000 on the Dow by the end of the year. Now, it was time to pour on the gasoline. Another best-seller appeared that year: Dow 36,000.

No one seemed to notice that those data points that convinced investors that stocks were such a great investment were registered when people thought stocks weren’t so great. For much of the stock market’s history, investors had demanded higher dividend yields from stocks than they got from bonds – to make up for the risk. And they had rarely paid more than 20 times earnings. Yet, in 1999, the p/e ratio of the S&P rose over 32 – about twice the long term average. Circumstances had changed; the insight was no longer valid. And the fire went out.

The Dow may still go to 36,000, probably when a cup of coffee goes to $132. Last we looked, it was almost 10 years later and the Dow was back to where it ended 1999. During this time, too, the dollar has lost about 30% of its purchasing power…so the investor who believed in stocks for the long run is down about a third.

To be continued…

Enjoy your weekend,

Bill BonnerThe Daily Reckoning
March 14, 2008 — London, England

Bill Bonner is the founder and editor of The Daily Reckoning. He is also the author, with Addison Wiggin, of the national best sellers Financial Reckoning Day: Surviving the Soft Depression of the 21st Century and Empire of Debt: The Rise of an Epic Financial Crisis.

Bill’s latest book, Mobs, Messiahs and Markets: Surviving the Public Spectacle in Finance and Politics, written with co-author Lila Rajiva, is available now.

It was the Margin Call from Hell…

"Markets in turmoil after a fund fails," is the headline in today’s International Herald Tribune.

The price of gold has breached the important $1,000 level…and hit a new world record. And black gold too – oil – hit $110. The demand for gold coins is so strong that a local coin dealer says he is out of stock on a number of items.

The dollar fell, meanwhile…down below 100 yen (JPY), for the first time since 1995. The dollar index hit a new low of 71.94…and the euro (EUR) traded above $1.56.

It took investors a while to connect the dots, but now they seem to have the picture: the Fed’s big bank bailout will not really wipe out losses…nor make Wall Street more profitable; what it will do is save the big banks from going broke – if they’re lucky – while destroying the dollar.

"We’re in the helicopter phase now," says Howard Simons, a strategist at Bianco Research in Chicago. He’s referring to Ben Bernanke’s famous remark…that he would drop money from helicopters, if necessary, in order to avoid a deflationary meltdown. On Tuesday, Bernanke’s helicopters dropped $200 billion. By Thursday, the hedge funds were still failing. What’s worse, there are rumors that a big bank may be in big trouble.

We take a moment to explain how it works. The banks have lent a lot of money to hedge funds. The funds didn’t hedge…they gambled. As a result, many are now in trouble; they can’t repay the money.

The banks send out margin calls – asking for more cash from the hedge funds, but the funds don’t have it. This week, for example, the Carlyle Fund got the "Margin Call from Hell" from its bankers. The banks wanted $97.5 million. That didn’t seem like much a few months ago, but now money is getting hard to come by. Carlyle bet $31 for every single dollar it had in capital. With that kind of leverage, the managers stood to score a fortune if the markets went their way. But if prices went in the wrong direction, and the bets went bad, it didn’t take much bad news before the fund went broke.

So, Carlyle has gone belly up. It couldn’t make its margin call. And all over town, other fund managers are biting their nails…and refusing to pick up the phone. The bankers are pacing the room too. You know the old saying: when you owe the bank $100,000…you can’t sleep at night. But when you owe the bank $1,000,000, it’s the banker who can’t sleep. Well, a lot of bankers are now sleepless in Manhattan and London…wondering which of their clients will be able to repay…and which won’t. And the last thing the Fed wants is for some large bank to make the headlines with news that it is broke. That’s what the Fed is for, after all. It’s a banking cartel…designed to protect the banks from their own stupid mistakes.

Of course, the big mistake the banks made was lending money to people who lent money to people who lent money to people who couldn’t pay it back. The subprime mortgage lenders didn’t worry, because they sold their loans on to packagers who sold them on again – often ending up in the portfolios of highly leveraged hedge funds, to whom the banks had lent money. S&P now projects that the losses from subprime will rise to $285 billion, up about $20 billion from their last estimate. Our estimate is that the losses will top $1 trillion…and if you throw in the collateral damage, lower house prices, the bill will rise to more than $6 trillion.

Houses in Southern California lost 17.9% over the past 12 months. The median price has sunk to $408,000. In the summer, the median price was over $500,000.

As expected, by us, retail sales slumped last month. Unemployment rose to a two and a half-year high. And America’s CFOs think the country is already in recession.

But today’s big question is this: will the feds succeed?

First, there is the practical issue of how lending to impaired banks in the middle of a credit crunch actually stimulates the real economy. The presumption is that there are worthy projects – new factories, business expansions, new technological developments, new employees to be hired – just waiting for credit from the banks. Now, with their balance sheets restored (they laid their subprime-infected credits off on the Fed in return for Treasury bonds)…they’ll be able to lend again; that’s the theory.

But what new factories? Who’s hiring? What businesses are expanding? The country is in a recession, for Pete’s sake. Besides, in the late stages of a credit bubble, few people borrow to actually expand the economy. The borrowers, instead, are hedge funds and speculators – just the people the banks are now afraid of. That’s just the way a credit cycle works. At first, the borrowers are solid…with sensible plans for the money. Each dollar they borrow results, say, another 75 cents to the nation’s GDP. But as the cycle goes on, the borrowers become more and more reckless. Asset prices tend to move up quickly, so the borrowers figure they can’t lose…and the lenders figure they have nothing to worry about because the collateral is becoming more and more valuable. As credit quality declines, each additional dollar borrowed adds less and less to the real economy. By the end, it may take an extra $10 worth of credit to produce a single extra dollar of GDP.

We take it as a given, at this stage, that more lending from the Fed cannot actually improve the real economy. In fact, it makes it worse – propping up failing companies, increasing speculation, misallocating resources, and adding to debts that will have to be paid, one way or another, by somebody or another, eventually. A better question is – how much damage will the feds do to the real economy?

*** Does the rally on Wall Street indicate a new bull market? Nick Parsons, a strategist in London, notes that there have been 20 rallies of 3% or more in the last eight years. Of those, 19 took place during the bear market of 2000-2003.

*** We’re getting tired of thinking about this situation. The Fed bailout…the credit crisis…inflation/deflation…whether to move money out of the dollar immediately…the conceits, pretensions, and delusions of the financial industry…the cockamamie economics of modern central banking… Our head is spinning…

But, we can’t think of anything else…

In order to pump $200 billion into the banks’ balance sheets, the money has to come from somewhere else. In this case, it comes directly from the Fed’s balance sheet – and represents about a third of it. So, if this doesn’t do the trick, the Fed has used up a lot of money for nothing.

To the extent this is "real" money – it also represents resources that would otherwise be used elsewhere, say building bridges or feeding poor people. To the extent that it is phony money – it merely adds to the world’s supply of dollar impersonators, reducing the value of each and every one.

Either way, the real economy suffers – either from inflation…or from misallocated resources. But the two have different results. In the former case, you can expect rising prices…in the second, you have to expect some Japan-like slump, with falling prices for capital assets.

So what will we get? Probably what we’re getting now – both.

*** Our guess is that the world’s financial authorities will try to halt the drop of the dollar. It is becoming dangerous…and costly. China, Russia, Japan…and the Gulf states have huge piles of dollars. When the buck goes down, they lose billions. The Arab countries typically link their own currencies to the dollar; oil is marked to market in dollars, so they tend to be dollar-based economies whether they like it or not. But they are beginning to wonder…and beginning to look for alternatives. Meanwhile, Japan suffers as the yen rises. Not only does the country have one of the largest reserves of dollars in the world, it is also a major exporter to the US. A higher yen gives the nation a competitive disadvantage. Don’t be surprised if some coordinated buying of dollars by central banks produces a bounce in the greenback.

*** Now, we turn our attention to another subject: Eliot Spitzer.

We never liked the guy, frankly. He is a sanctimonious, vulgar, opportunistic bully, in our opinion.

Still, his latest travails make us feel a little sorry for him. What a pitiful fellow. Using his wife as a prop, he appeared before the cameras and apologized. Why couldn’t he have a little class?

It reminded us of the story attributed to Huey Long; it is the story of a southern politician who appears on the capital steps, holding up a copy of the local newspaper.

"Look at this," he says, wearing a white suit and pointing to the headline. "It says here that I was seen coming out of the Bide-Away Motel at 5AM after sleeping with a known prostitute.

"Well, I’m here to tell you this morning that every word of this allegation is false…

"First, it wasn’t the Bide-Away Motel; it was the Lincoln Hotel in the middle of town. And she wasn’t a ‘known prostitute.’ I never met her before in my life.

"And it wasn’t 6AM…I never get up that early. It was 7AM."

Then, with a sly grin…

"And we didn’t sleep a wink…"