Dumb, Dumber, Dumbest
“What has happened? The world’s luckiest people seem have drawn the wrong conclusions; the wit seems to have gone out of them. They take even the smallest downturn for a buying opportunity. Still no recession; property prices down less than 10%; stocks near an all-time high; officials say the worst is over – and they believe them!
“Down here in the sunny Argentine it is a different story. While creditors compete for a chance to lend money to English speakers, who bothers to offer credit south of the Rio Plata? Lenders down here have gotten smart; they ask questions. They know how fast money can move. They wonder if they’ll ever get it back…and what it will be worth when it returns.”
October 29, 2007
Short Fuse, the weary world traveler, is on yet another flight across the country this morning. And as such, we turn back to your humble DR editor, for a few more words of note…
When the war in Iraq began we passed along a guess that it would cost more than $1 trillion. The number seemed so large, that even we could scarcely believe it. Now, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the war is on schedule to cost $2.7 trillion by 2017.
Who’s got that kind of cash? Maybe the Chinese will lend us some.
If not, what will we do? Oh, here’s an idea…let’s print it! It’s hard to see any alternative. With the Baby Boomers retiring…the middle class so deeply in debt…and the U.S. government committed to expenses it can’t afford, what else would you expect?
How did the German hyperinflation of the ’20s get started? Most historians recollect the heavy reparations payments required by the Versailles Treaty. Germany didn’t have the money. But Germany had other problems too. By that time, Germany was already a proto-welfare state, like the United States today. Bismarck had already set up the system that provided small benefits to the working classes and big contracts to major industries. Germany had pensioners then too…and ex-soldiers with missing limbs, plenty of them. With so much of their wealth needed to pay foreign debts, they had no choice – or so they believed – but to inflate the currency to take care of domestic commitments.
Many years later, Argentina fell into the same trap. Heavy foreign debts. Big domestic obligations. It, too, chose the printing press as the best way out.
Could that happen in the United States? Who knows?
Here is a trick question, dear reader: Who is more successful, Bill Gates or Warren Buffett?
The answer: it depends entirely on what you mean by success…
We had an idea this past week…that life imitates academia…that is, that over time people begin to act like crackpot professors say they’re s’posed to act.
During the Middle Ages, people had a very different idea of what life was all about. We don’t know much about it, but we imagine that money played a much more minor role. People worried about dying…and getting into heaven. They were obsessed by the nature of God…and spent time arguing about “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.” They must have thought about how much money they had, too…but you don’t see many of the authors of the period worrying about it.
Today, go into any bookstore and you’ll find a whole rack of books devoted to how many dollars you can make by investing in this or that…or how you can make a success of your business by doing this or that…or how you can be a better performer in business, sports, or almost anything by doing this or that.
In all of these pursuits, two things are supremely important: using your time ‘efficiently’…and measuring results.
No one worries about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, because it isn’t efficient to do so – what’s the point? And it isn’t measurable. There’s no way to put it to the test. In today’s world, people do things that have measurable results. If there’s no way to tell if you’re making progress…or using your time efficiently…or making more money…forget it! The only thing that counts is everything you can count. Life itself has gone digital. How much do you weigh? What is your cholesterol count? What rate of return does your portfolio have? How much did you sell your house for?
In other words, people act more like the economists say they’re supposed to act…like the people economists say they are supposed to be – rational profit optimizers.
So, if you are asked who is more successful, Buffett or Gates, you tend to look directly at the bottom line – as the measurable results – at how much money each one has made. That is almost the only success that people today can understand.
And yet, there are many other ways to look at success…and many things in which numbers don’t count…
The Daily Reckoning
Now a quick word from Dave Gonigam in the Desidooru Saloon…
“Yowza. The National Hurricane Center is tracking a tropical storm right now, but it’s nowhere near the Gulf of Mexico, nor is it projected to enter the Gulf. But these other storms must be pretty powerful regardless:
“‘The company shut output of 200,000 barrels at noon New York time Sunday and was planning to idle wells that produce a further 400,000 barrels by midnight Sunday in Mexico, said Ramirez, the company spokesman. The wells are to be closed until at least Tuesday, Ramirez said, without elaborating.
“‘The closure was in the Bay of Campeche, the same area where 21 workers died after another storm last week caused an oil rig to hit a platform.'”
We came to Germany this past weekend to celebrate an old friend’s 50th birthday. He’s “the Warren Buffett of Bonn” says the local press.
The party began in the morning with a champagne toast…and ended in the late afternoon, with a cruise on the Rhine. Floating down the river, we had a thought: “How successful is Warren Buffett, really?” we wondered. More below…
Today, we open the paper. We connect to the Internet. We look to see what has happened in the financial world.
Stocks rallied last week. The dollar fell.
The old buck hit a new record low against the euro. Against gold, it fell $16.50 on Friday alone – down to $787 per ounce. (Which is to say, the price of gold rose.)
Analysts blamed the fall on a rate cut they said was likely this week.
What more can we say about this? Will the Fed cut rates? Will the dollar fall further? Will gold hit $800? $900…or more?
The answer to all these questions is, “Yes, of course.”
It is the timing we are uncertain about.
It makes us nervous to see so many negative comments on the dollar. Yes, the greenback is going down. But things never tend to work as neatly as we expect. It’s hard to believe that speculators haven’t already caught on to the dollar’s fall. It’s hard to believe they haven’t gotten ahead of it.
Most people, however, are long the dollar…not short. They’re holding U.S. dollar assets because they believe they can earn a positive, safe return on them. Or because they earn dollars. Or because they spend dollars. Many speculators borrow yen or Swiss francs, exchange the money for dollars, and buy dollar assets. If the dollar falls, they lose money. But they’re convinced the dollar will go back up. In fact, a Bloomberg survey tells us that the median forecast for the dollar is that it will soon return to $1.40 per euro, rather than today’s $1.43.
How do they remain so bullish? U.S. stocks are up this year…but they are still among the worst performing in the world. The dollar is down 8% against its major trading partners. And now the foreigners are nagging us about our subprime problems…and how we’re a threat to the entire global economy.
There are always surprises. It would be a surprise to many to see the dollar rally. But it might be even a bigger surprise to see it collapse. Among all the forecasts we’ve read almost all call for a gentle decline of the U.S. currency…leading to strong exports from America to the rest of the world. But what if the big surprise was that the dollar suddenly dropped to $1.50 per euro…and the price of gold shot up over $1,000?
We’re not predicting it, dear reader. Many times we’ve tried to look into the future, but we’ve never got the hang of it. So, we just take it as it comes along with everyone else.
But what a shock it would be!