Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea
The Daily Reckoning PRESENTS:As tensions with Iran continue to escalate, one can’t help but wonder how the United States will handle this one…pretty much any way you look at the situation, it’s a game of economic chicken. Justice Litle explains…
BETWEEN THE DEVIL AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA
“Finance has its own Peter Principle, by which a successful model will be adapted to progressively riskier cases until it fails.” – Roger Lowenstein, Origins of the Crash
Picture it: You are a top-level security adviser to the president of the United States. The issue at hand is whether or not to attack Iran, by military means or otherwise, in a last-ditch effort to prevent Tehran from obtaining nuclear weapons if United Nations channels fail (which they almost certainly will). Your fellow advisers are divided, leaving you to break the tie.
If you decide to attack, brute force is not the only choice – there is also an indirect option. The first action you can take is attempting to cripple Tehran by cutting off its supply of refined petroleum products, i.e., gasoline. (Ironically, while Iran is a major crude oil exporter, it does not have the necessary refinery capacity to meet internal demand for finished product.) If you choose to cut off Iran’s access to gasoline, this would in essence be a game of economic chicken: Either you cripple the regime and take away the mullah’s popular support by forcing economic implosion or they hang on and cripple you first by cutting off crude oil exports – a matter of who cries uncle first.
Iran’s Oil: U.S. Nuclear Attack
You are aware that if you attack Iran, the consequences could be dire no matter what happens. Along with the long-anticipated “super spike” that takes oil into triple digits, there would be the ramifications of an economic unraveling in Asia to contend with. China’s totalitarian leaders are dependent on rapid economic growth to maintain civil stability, and the central bankers of the region collectively hold $1 trillion-plus in dollar denominated assets. In short, if China implodes, it would not be a stretch to see the United States sucked into the vortex as the chain reaction leads to massive financial backlash. There is too much riding on the vendor-finance relationship, and the extreme amounts of leverage within the system (credit default swaps, mortgage-backed securities, excess dollar balances in central bank accounts etc.) have rendered the system fragile and unstable.
China’s leaders know all this, of course; if worst comes to worst, they can pull down the pillars of the temple. It would not be at all surprising for Beijing to have an unspoken understanding with Washington: “If we go down, you go down – our survival are your burden too.”
Iran’s Oil: U.S. Military Strike
Another option, of course, is conventional warfare – hitting Iran hard with military force. Such a course of action raises the stakes even higher. But the nuclear workshops cannot be taken out through air strikes alone; the mullahs have had too much time to “harden” their targets (make them tougher to destroy), and the facilities are anyway too dispersed and too well hidden to uncover without boots on the ground. Stretched as thin as the United States already is, and considering the moth-eaten financial state of the Western powers in general, physical invasion hardly seems an option at all. Nor does this take into account the potential backlash of the Islamic world any military efforts would bring about. We have seen a frightening preview of Muslim anger in the fury of the Danish cartoon row; giving the West such a preview, in fact, may be the political raison d’etre for the orchestrated outbursts in the first place.
The name of the game Tehran plays, then, is “How Crazy Are We – and Do You Really Want to Find Out?” Strategists seem to be of two minds on the subject: The first camp argues we should take Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at his frightening word and assume he really is driven by madman visions of ushering in a 12th Imam; the second camp argues that Iran is still a rational actor at heart, spewing out the fire-and-brimstone stuff for show. If the first camp’s assessment is correct, invasion could be warranted no matter the short-term cost, because the stakes are just as high as they could possibly be. If the second camp’s assessment is correct, coolheaded pressure and a firm backbone in the face of bluster – the equivalent of JFK staring down Khrushchev – could be the best course of action.
Iran’s Oil: No U.S. Action
Then there is the option of doing nothing, putting off the risks for another day… and virtually ensuring the proliferation of nuclear weapons across the Middle East. If Iran becomes a nuclear power, Saudi Arabia will follow, as will Egypt, Syria and so on. It has been pointed out that Iran has roughly 20 years worth of energy reserves left – in this, it is like an oil major spending down reserves (without the ability to replace them). The mullahs cannot sit idly by – at some point down the road, fiscal implosion awaits. Thus, nuclear capability could come in quite handy when it comes time for Iran to appropriate assets from one of its weaker neighbors. How would the first Gulf War have turned out against a nuclear-armed Saddam? Not a pleasant thought.
The assumption that Israel could take care of the Tehran problem is similarly wishful thinking. Once again, air strikes would not do the trick alone, and Israel does not have the capability of initiating a full-scale ground invasion. A halfhearted strike would only incite greater desire for vengeance; even if Israel pulled off the impossible, dismantling all facilities and neutralizing the mullahcracy, there would still be the rest of the Middle East to deal with. It is about as close to a no-win situation as one can get.
One of the remarkable elements of this grave situation is how effectively the broad market has managed to ignore it, even though energy issues address the very core of modern life. The truly ugly what-if scenarios are no longer found at the tail end of an accidental chain of events; they are increasingly tied to a deliberate series of provocations, which increases the probability of their occurrence significantly. It could be said that the price of gold and oil reflects this reality – which is perhaps why the price of crude continues to bump along below $70 and why gold is in the high $500s…
But that does not explain the consistently low risk premiums and Pollyannaish attitudes elsewhere. In large part, we are still riding the global liquidity wave; the bluebird is on Mr. Market’s shoulder, with few, if any, worries in sight. In most cases, it is probably a good thing that Wall Street is so resilient – a tribute to the strength of capitalism that Mr. Market can shrug off painful or uncomfortable events. Toil we shall, shop we must, life soldiers on and so forth. Resilience in the face of hardship, though, is a different animal than recklessness in the face of risk.
Iran’s Oil: The Fed
Consider another pleasant scenari: You are the incoming chairman of the Federal Reserve. Alan Greenspan has passed the baton (which is actually a stick of dynamite, as an Economist cover recently depicted). You know that there are serious risks before you: As consumer spending grinds to a halt under the pressures of broad wage stagnation and ballooning mortgage payments, you may end up forced to stimulate (by cutting short-term rates) to save America from its backbreaking load of accumulated debt. On the other hand, with gold at multidecade highs and your inflation-fighting credentials still unproven, you will not be able to indulge your stimulus desires so easily. By a combination of choice and circumstance, you have relinquished the rhetorical power wielded so effectively by the previous chairman. With productivity figures headed in the wrong direction, you cannot justify policy as glibly as your predecessor once did.
And last but not least, you have a hawkish board looking forward to a democratic policy-setting environment, rather than the stifling autocracy that kept it muzzled for so long.
These two scenarios – the Iran and the Fed chairman questions – share an unpleasant characteristic: They both put the decision maker between the devil and the deep blue sea. There are no shortcuts or pat answers. Unfortunately, Wall Street and Washington are geared to supply pat answers, and to behave as if such answers have merit. This is why we hear about frivolous theories like the existence of financial “dark matter” to explain away our growing burden of nonproductive debt. It is why we see BusinessWeek touting the virtues of the “we think, they sweat” argument, blithely overlooking the fact that intellectual property gains apply to specific industries, not entire economies. It is why we pretend that the Bretton Woods II arrangement can go on forever, like a perpetual motion machine, and why we convince ourselves that it is our moral and God-given right to enjoy infinite credit lines.
All this comes back to market action by way of the Peter Principle. In his book Origins of the Crash, Roger Lowenstein sheds light on the concept:
“By the latter part of the ’80s, every investment bank – not just Drexel Burnham – was underwriting LBOs [leveraged buyouts], often with management participating. Many of the early buyouts succeeded, and there is no doubt that some achieved efficiencies and that Corporate America had been in need of a belt-tightening. But the details became steadily, then recklessly, more leveraged. Finance has its own Peter Principle, by which a successful model will be adapted to progressively riskier cases until it fails. Ultimately, borrowers such as Federated Department Stores (acquired by the blustery Robert Campeau) promised to pay far more in junk bond interest than they had in earnings. These later LBOs were – by simple arithmetic – doomed to fail.”
Different names, same game. Lowenstein was describing the buildup of market excesses that began in the ’80s, but the same basic logic applies to the situation today. Our entire economy, and arguably the market as a whole, has become a sort of massive LBO. The Peter Principle illustrates why a bad ending is virtually inevitable – we are determined to push our luck until it fails us. If our current debt load is not enough to do the job, we will accumulate more. If the most recent straw is not enough to break the camel’s back, then, by golly, we’ll get more straw.
Our markets will benefit from the stomach-churning volatility that is coming – in fact, they already have, and will continue to do so. Patience and perseverance will pay off in spades over the long haul. In the short to intermediate term, however, we will not be able to escape the downside entirely. Expect rough waters and plan accordingly.
for The Daily Reckoning
February 16, 2006
P.S. “We will not tolerate the construction of a nuclear weapon,” said President Bush of Iran in 1993. This veiled threat of attack is made ever more ominous by the presence of thousands of U.S. troops in neighboring Iraq.
Not only that, but Iran controls the critical Strait of Hormuz, a geographical oil chokepoint through which 40% of the world’s oil travels in any given year. If Iran wanted to force an immediate oil pinch on the United States (or the world), shutting down this vulnerable transit bottleneck would be the way to do it.
Editor’s Note: Justice Litle is an editor of Outstanding Investments. He has worked with soybean farmers, cattle ranchers, energy consultants, currency hedgers, scrap metal dealers and everything in between, including multiple hedge funds. Mr. Litle also acted as head trader for a private equity partnership, and made contributions to Trend Following: How Great Traders Make Millions in Up or Down Markets, a popular trading book by Mike Covel (FT/Prentice Hall).
“Every dog has his day,” we said to Elizabeth.
We were trying to explain a minor triumph. Our book, Empire of Debt, was named by The Economist as one of the most important financial books of 2005. But when a husband tries to explain his successes to his wife, his arguments are limited. He cannot attribute it to genius, or even to virtue. She knows it isn’t true. All he can do is bark…and roll over.
When David Brooks writes in the NY Times about what great people NY Times readers are and how the United States is the world’s rising power not China, nor India, almost no one laughed…or rolled over. Instead, they perked up their ears and wagged their rear-ends; they liked the sound of it.
But every four-legged empire has its day, too.
The latest employment numbers reinforce this idea: just under one in 21 people are without work.
True: In America today, more people are working more hours than ever before.
False: They are better off for it.
We thank our dinner companion last night, financial strategist Simon Hunt, for pointing something out to us. He drew our attention to Elizabeth Warren, writing in Harvard magazine, who shows that the median family had only one wage earner in the early 1970s, who earned $41,670, in today’s money. Out of this, he or she paid the family’s regular, more or less fixed, expenses: taxes, mortgage payments, health insurance, car and gas payments, etc. Typically, these costs rose to 55% of monthly income. This left the family $1,630 to spend on food, clothes, entertainment and so forth.
Now, 30 years later – after the Reagan Revolution, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the disappearance of the last vestiges of the gold standard, and the biggest financial boom in history – the median family has two wage earners who, between the two of them, working nearly twice as much as before, earn around $73,770. But fixed costs have risen to 75% of income, leaving only $1,509 in “discretionary” spending.
Is there any doubt that U.S. economic progress is a swindle?
It’s not that we’re complaining. The U.S. economy has been good to us. We don’t want to be ungrateful. It’s thanks to the U.S. economy that we can afford to live in London and put our money into non-U.S. dollar assets! But being grateful doesn’t mean being blind. Nor does it mean forgetting about those other dogs whose day has not come.
The people who suffer the swindle are people who are stuck in the middle of it. For example: American couples, both working – with a large mortgage on a small house – toward the short end of the income stick. Those people, in the bottom 10%, have seen their incomes fall by nearly 2% in the last two years. These poor stiffs now work night and day…and earn less money. Their quality of life must have fallen sharply over the last generation, for they not only have less money, but they also have much less free time. They are the people who have been teased and trapped into carrying debt loads that crush them, who make mortgage payments with minimums that are now being reset, and who pay usurious rates on every dime they borrow.
Of course, it is none of our business, but we guess that even their health has deteriorated. With no one at home to prepare proper meals and no time to exercise, they eat poorly, get fat, and die young.
Again, we don’t mean to appear ungrateful. This weakness in American incomes is not exactly the fault of the U.S. economy itself or its working class lumps. All the world’s developed economies are being hounded by competition from overseas, where GDP growth rates are three times those of the United States, and where real wages doubled in the last 10 years. India, we read today, has 27 billionaires with a collective net worth of $106 billion. These trends are not likely to come to a halt anytime soon.
Americans work harder and longer than any people on Earth, says Brooks. They expect to rule the world. Alas, people don’t always get what they expect, or even what they think they deserve. They get what they’ve got coming.
Every dog has his day, we point out again. But the U.S. Empire’s day was probably yesterday.
More news from Aussie Joel and The Rude Awakening…
Eric Fry, reporting from Manhattan:
“Some commodity shares are more overvalued (or less undervalued) than others. That’s because the supply/demand factors influencing the price of crude oil, for example, are not identical to those influencing the price of soybeans.”
For the rest of this story, and for more market insights, see today’s issue of The Rude Awakening
Bill Bonner with more thoughts from London…
*** “I’ve safely arrived in Dr. Richebächer’s apartment overlooking the Mediterranean,” reports our friend, Rick Barnard, who has traveled to the South of France to meet with the Good Doctor.
“Of course, Dr. Richebächer was eager to get to work. I had literally just put my bags down when he asked me to sit down for tea. Within minutes, we were discussing the difficult job Ben Bernanke has ahead of him. Not only is he in over his head, but he’s being pulled in many directions as the hawks and doves, as Richebächer calls them, make their case for the kinds of actions the new Fed chief should take.
“We’ve also touched on how he is one of the world’s last macroeconomists…”
*** Gold and oil are correcting. Simon Hunt expects the oil price to firm in the second half of 2006, after first falling to $45-50 a barrel. By the end of the year, he thinks oil could be trading at $80.
*** Another correction: In Tuesday’s issue, we stated, “It is the yield curve, now inverted, which means that a borrower can score cheaper money in the short term than they can in the long term.” We meant to say, “A borrower can now score cheaper money in the long term than they can in the short term.” We apologize, dear reader.
*** Byron King, writing from Pittsburgh, tells us that the oil problem is not going away.
It is getting worse:
“Princeton Geology Professor Ken Deffeyes has come out with a new statement about the timing of Hubbert’s Peak. According to his calculations, the world passed the geological peak of its oil production in December of 2005. Although I suppose that there may be some days or weeks in the future in which the world produces a bit more oil than on an average day of the past, I also think that it is time to say to all: ‘Welcome to the future.’ In his own words, Prof. Deffeyes says, ‘I can now refer to the world oil peak in the past tense. My career as a prophet is over. I’m now an historian.’
“I am sure that you all understand that Peak Oil is not just a geological phenomenon. Sure, it will be necessary to make technical changes in the ways that mankind derives and consumes its energy. There will be, absolutely, less oil and gas. Like it or not, there will be, absolutely, more conservation of a voluntary nature, and much more conservation of an involuntary nature as well. The term ‘demand destruction’ will take on entirely new meanings. We will probably use more coal, nuclear, biomass, solar water heaters and electricity panels.
“We will build different buildings, live in different arrangements, and value an entirely different set of skills and ethics. We will be colder in winter, hotter in summer, and probably hungrier more of the time, if not most of it.
“In the 20th Century, it was said, ‘distance was conquered.’ In the 21st Century, distance shall have her revenge, and the world will become a much bigger place.
“So, Peak Oil will profoundly change life as we know it at the tactile and material level, but Peak Oil will also be a psychological phenomenon. Most of what is familiar will change – probably dramatically and certainly rapidly, as mankind (at least, the ‘modernized’ form of the species) reverts to a much lower average state of available energy. How is one even to begin to think about this?”
*** The oil market is slippery with uncertainties. What if the United States attacks Iran? What if the world goes into a recession? What if technological breakthroughs reduce the need for oil…or what if new supplies are found? (More on this below…)
Gold, by contrast, stands solid. It is never consumed, and its usefulness derives from the simple fact that it is always there. The world’s supply increases about 2% per year. Neither ancient alchemy, nor modern science has ever found a way to counterfeit it. Nor has it ever been replaced, at least not for very long, by substitute, ersatz forms of money.
Generally, over the past 200 years, you could buy all the Dow stocks for the equivalent of five ounces of gold. Back in 2000, when the ratio had gone haywire – it took more than 40 ounces of gold to buy the Dow – we guessed that it would go back to more familiar territory as the years advanced. Now, it takes only about 20 ounces of gold to buy the Dow.
We have been waiting for the Dow to go down to bring itself more in line with gold. So far, the Dow has resisted. Of course, there is no law that says it has to go down. Stocks could remain where they are, while the general price level rises – especially the price of gold. Gold could rise to $2,000 per ounce – leaving the Dow unchanged – and still reassert the traditional relationship.
Our old friend, Marc Faber, reminds us that stocks can stay flat for a very long time. He says, “At the market low in 1921, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was no higher than it had been in 1899 – 22 years earlier – while nominal GDP had increased by 383% and real GDP by 88%. Similarly, by August, 1982, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was no higher than it had been in April, 1964, and was down by 70% in real inflation-adjusted terms.”