Sunday, July 27, 2014

Free Webinar....How to Trade Options Like a Professional with John Carter

It's ON.....John Carters next free webinar is this Thursday, July 31st at 8:00 p.m. est

Just click here to get your reserved spot ASAP

In this free webinar John will share:

  *   What I’ve discovered about professional options traders that they don’t want you to know

  *   The idea of “options stacking” to structure your trade in a way that gives you the best possible odds of success

  *   How to plan your trading position around a setup instead of the other way around

  *   Why structuring your trades as a campaign around a setup will yield the maximum return while reducing your risk

  *   How to be proactive in your trading instead of reactive and much more

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Ray's Stock World

Free Webinar....How to Trade Options Like a Professional with John Carter

Thursday, July 24, 2014

When All You Have Left Is the Cost of Breakfast at McDonald’s

By Dennis Miller

When I was 20 years old, I sat through my first day of a business law course at Northwestern University. The professor began by writing two words on the blackboard (in the prehistoric days of blackboards and chalk): Caveat emptor. He raised his voice and said, “Let the buyer beware!” I’m here to echo his warning, but this time it’s about annuities.


Annuities are at the top of the list of complicated products that often profit insurance companies without adequately compensating the buyer in return. Put plainly, sometimes you don’t get what you thought you paid for.

And, while annuities are often described as a “transfer of risk,” which is basically correct, owning an annuity will not transfer the risk of one of the greatest hazard’s to a retiree’s financial security: inflation. Inflation isn’t the only risk to worry about—lack of liquidity and insurance company default should also top your list of concerns—but it can be the most treacherous for someone with an annuity heavy portfolio.

Will an annuity protect your lifestyle? In the short term, it might. If you believe the Federal Reserve when it says it will keep inflation at 2% or less, perhaps it will for a period of time. Even then, inflation will eat away at the buying power of your annuity payout fairly quickly. You are contractually guaranteed income; however, that does not guarantee your lifestyle.

To see the effect, my analysts and I charted the purchasing power of a single premium immediate lifetime annuity with installment refund, which pays $583.33 per month. We’ve compared several inflation scenarios: the currently tame 2% inflation rate; the long run average of about 3%; and the possibility of things getting considerably worse at 7% inflation. We’re not even talking about hyperinflation—just reasonable estimates.


Even at the low 2% inflation rate, your $583.33 benefit would only have the purchasing power of $392.56 after 20 years. In the 7% inflation scenario, the purchasing power would be down to $150.74. Let’s put this into context.

The average U.S. electricity bill is around $103.67. The average cellphone bill is $111. According to the USDA, an elderly household of two that’s being extremely thrifty could get its monthly grocery bill down to as low as $357.30 per month. In total, that’s $571.97 – leaving just enough for a McDonald’s breakfast.

Right off the bat, that isn’t so bad. The annuity takes care of the cellphones, the electricity, the groceries, and leaves a little extra. However, after 20 years at 2% inflation and a purchasing power of $392.56, the benefit would only be enough to pay for the thrifty grocery budget, leaving only $35.26 left over. Though your annuity benefits are the same, prices have risen, so now you have less purchasing power.

After 20 years of 3% inflation, it gets even worse. With $219.85 in purchasing power, you’ll have to weigh either purchasing 2/3 of your usual groceries against paying the electricity and phones. You won’t be able to do it all. By the third year, you will need to add funds to your annuity payment to cover those expenses.

And under the 7% scenario, you’ll only be able to pay for the electricity bill with less than $50 in purchasing power left over. That’s hardly the lifetime income most annuity buyers had in mind.

Furthermore, consider that our assumptions are a little optimistic. In all likelihood, your electricity and grocery bills will probably rise faster than the rate of inflation. If that’s the case, then you’d be in real trouble.
So, while annuities promise guaranteed income, they certainly do not guarantee what that income will afford you in the future.

Annuity policies can be structured with inflation protection, but those options are expensive in terms of the lower initial payments. With benefits starting so much lower, you would have to live an exceptionally long time to make them work out.

Depending on your circumstances, an annuity might play a useful role in your long-term financial plans. There is much to be said for transferring some risk to a quality insurance company. However, transfering one risk without planning for another could be catastrophic. Even something like a 5% inflation rider might not protect you if higher inflation rates become a reality. If a considerable portion of your portfolio is in annuities, then another portion needs to be balanced to fight inflation, with holdings such as precious metals.

While it’s impossible to make the risk of inflation go away, there are a few simple things you can do to minimize it:
  • Never hold a very large portion of your portfolio in annuities. If high inflation picks up you could be entirely cleaned out.
  • If you’re holding annuities, make sure that another part of your portfolio is geared to hedge against inflation.
Now, I’m not shouting caveat emptor just for the heck of it. As a retirement advocate and senior editor at Miller’s Money Forever my mandate is transparent financial education for seniors, conservative investors and anyone serious about building a rich retirement. That’s why my team of analysts and I have put together a free, comprehensive special report called Annuities De-Mystified—Three Simple Tools for Choosing the Right Annuity.

Get the full truth on annuities by downloading your complimentary copy of Annuities De-Mystified today.


Another must read from Adam J. Crawford....The Rise of Africa… and How To Play It
 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Beware of Flashy Stock Repurchases When The Market Is on The Rise

By Andrey Dashkov

Retail giant Bed Bath & Beyond just announced plans to buy back another $2 billion in shares, which the company will start doing after it completes its current share repurchase program. You’ve seen it before: Press releases emphasize that buybacks return value to shareholders, analysts sometimes rely on repurchases to spot a stock to write up next, and management likes to tout their focus on shareholder returns. But what’s the real story? Why would a company buy its own shares?


There are but a few situations when returning cash to shareholders instead of paying dividends or investing in new projects is prudent:
  • The company has largely exhausted investment opportunities that would generate a positive net present value (NPV).
  • The stock is trading below its intrinsic value; or
  • The tax on dividends is so high compared to the capital gains tax that it makes sense to boost the share price and let shareholders enjoy the extra return instead of receiving heavily taxed dividends.
When these situations happen we support repurchases. In the reality, however, managers often have their own reasons to buy back shares; let’s look at the more popular ones.

First, management’s compensation is often based on share price performance or earnings based metrics like earnings per share (EPS), which buybacks are designed to boost.

Second, higher share price increases the value of a company’s options. Managers are often shareholders, too, but unlike you and me, they have direct access to the Treasury. When managers own a lot of their own company’s stock, they may have too much skin in the game. This may skew their preferences toward increasing the share price at the expense of long term business growth.

Third, share buybacks became a standard (and often abused) signal to the market that: a) the company’s stock is undervalued, and b) that management takes care of the shareholders. Both of these statements may be correct in isolation, based on the company’s fundamentals and management practices. Nonetheless, a buyback should not convince you that either is true.

One additional reason is often overlooked. Many a CEO has been fired for an acquisition that did not work out. When the decision is made to dump the acquisition, it is accompanied by a write off against earnings, sometimes worth billions of dollars. Wall Street armchair quarterbacks are quick to point out how much better off shareholders would have been if they had just paid out what they lost in dividends. Buying back company shares, with all the accompanied hoopla, is less likely to be a career threatening move.

Linking the two subjects together makes for nice copy; however, keep it in perspective. For example, a technology company that realizes their product line is becoming obsolete will often make acquisitions to increase their product line market share, or move them into a new business with long term potential. Buying back company stock, then having to go into the market and borrow at high interest rates, might be the exact wrong move. The key is making the right acquisitions for the company to continue to grow and pay dividends for the next generation.

In fact, managers have proven to be pretty bad stock pickers even when they have only one stock to pick. As my colleague Chris Wood showed in A Look at Stock Buybacks, managements have bought shares of their own companies at pretty bad times in the past. Moreover, the expectations of higher valuation based on higher EPS did not always materialize. Even though a lot of investors use P/E as their main gauge of value (which they shouldn’t), there is no convincing evidence that buybacks can support high valuation multiples in the long term.

Your Bottom Line

 

History has shown that the only value-creating buybacks were the ones carried out when stocks were deeply undervalued. In those instances, the repurchases helped companies outperform the market. But overall the optimism and confidence inducing press releases that accompany buybacks should be taken with a huge grain of salt.

As a rule of thumb, beware of increased buybacks when the market is on the rise (everybody is an investment guru when everything is going up) or when management compensation is closely tied to the share price performance or earnings based metrics. Companies with better corporate governance may fare better when it comes to managing conflicts of interest, but there is a significant vested interest there that investors should be aware of. Don’t mistake noise for a sign is all.

When it comes to returning value to shareholders, we appreciate companies that invest in long term projects—or pay dividends. Despite the potential tax implications, the yield strapped investors may be better served with a special dividend these days than with a promise of a better price in the future.

Learn more ways to cut through press rhetoric by signing up for our free weekly e-letter, Miller’s Money Weekly, where my colleagues and I share timely financial insight tailored for seniors and conservative investors alike.

Sign up here, and we’ll send a complimentary copy straight to your inbox every Thursday



Get the complete schedule for the Premier Trader University free trading webinars....Just Click Here!
 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Hoisington Investment Management: Quarterly Review and Outlook, Second Quarter 2014

By John Mauldin

This week’s Outside the Box is from an old friend to regular readers. It’s time for our Quarterly Review & Outlook from Lacy Hunt of Hoisington Investment Management, who leads off this month with a helpful explanation of the relationship between the U.S. GDP growth rate and 30 year treasury yields. That’s an important relationship, because long term interest rates above nominal GDP growth (as they are now) tend to retard economic activity and vice versa.

The author adds that the average four quarter growth rate of real GDP during the present recovery is 1.8%, well below the 4.2% average in all of the previous post war expansions; and despite six years of federal deficits totaling $6.27 trillion and another $3.63 trillion in quantitative easing by the Fed, the growth rate of the economy continues to erode.

So what gives? We’re simply too indebted, says Lacy; and too much of the debt is nonproductive. (Total U.S. public and private debt rose to 349.3% of GDP in the first quarter, up from 343.7% in the third quarter of 2013.) And as Hyman Minsky and Charles Kindleberger showed us, higher levels of debt slow economic growth when the debt is unbalanced toward the type of borrowing that doesn’t create an income stream sufficient to repay principal and interest.

And it’s not just the US. Lacy notes that the world’s largest economies have a higher total debt to GDP ratio today than at the onset of the Great Recession in 2008, and foreign households are living farther above their means than they were six years ago.

Simply put, the developed (and much of the developing) world is fast approaching the end of a 60-year-long debt supercycle, as I (hope I) conclusively demonstrated in Endgame and reaffirmed in Code Red.
Hoisington Investment Management Company (www.Hoisingtonmgt.com) is a registered investment advisor specializing in fixed income portfolios for large institutional clients. Located in Austin, Texas, the firm has over $5 billion under management and is the sub adviser of the Wasatch-Hoisington U.S. Treasury Fund (WHOSX).

Some readers may have noticed that there was no Thoughts from the Frontline in their inboxes this weekend. As has happened only once or twice in the last 14 years, I found myself in an intellectual cul-de-sac, and there was not enough time to back out. Knowing that I was going to be involved in a fascinating conference over the weekend, I had planned to do a rather simple analysis of a new book on how GDP is constructed. But as I got deeper into thinking about the topic and doing more research, I remembered something I read 20 years ago about the misleading nature of GDP, and I realized that a simple analysis just wouldn’t cut it.

Rather than write something that would’ve been inadequate and unsatisfying, I decided to just put it off till next week. Your time and attention are quite valuable, and I try not to waste them. But there will be no excuses this weekend.

The conference I attended was organized by Great Point Partners, a hedge fund and private equity firm focusing on medical and biotechnology. I really had not seen the program until I arrived and did not realize what a powerful lineup of industry leaders would be presenting on some of the latest technologies and research. The opportunity was too good to pass up, as it is so rare that any of us get to sit down with people who are responsible for the science we all read about.

I had breakfast with a small group of 11 readers/investors one morning and learned a lot by asking them what their favorite investing passion was. Although everyone had concerns, they all had areas in which they were quite bullish. I find that everywhere I go. It was interesting, in that they all expected me to be far more negative about things than I am. I guess when you write about macroeconomics as much as I do, and there’s as much wrong with it as there is, you kind of end up being labeled as a Gloomy Gus. I am actually quite optimistic about the long-term future of humanity, but I’ll admit there will be a few bumps along the way. Given how many bumps there have already been, just in my own lifetime, and given that we seem to have gotten through them, I can’t help but be optimistic that we’ll get through the next round.

It was a fascinating weekend, made all the more so by my very gracious hosts, Jeff Jay and David Kroin, Managing Directors of Great Point. They and their staff made sure I could enjoy my time on Nantucket Island. It was my first visit to the area, and I hope it won’t be the last.

Last night I had dinner with Art Cashin, Barry Ritholtz, Jack Rivkin, and Dan Greenhaus. It was a raucous, intellectually enlivening evening, and our conversation ranged from macroeconomics to our favorite new technologies. Jack Rivkin is involved with Idealab, and one of his favorites is that he sees the eventual end of Amazon as 3-D printing becomes more available. Given how Bezos has adapted over the years, I’m not so sure. Jack and Barry will join me in Maine in a few weeks, where we will again join the debate about bull and bear markets.

Now let’s go to Lacy and think about the intersection of velocity and money supply and what it says about future growth potential. I have two full days of meetings with my partners and others here in New York before I return to Dallas, and then I get to stay home for a few weeks. There are lots of new plans in the works. And lots of reading to do between meetings. Have a great week!

Your hoping to be able to stay optimistic analyst,
John Mauldin, Editor
Outside the Box
subscribers@mauldineconomics.com



Hoisington Investment Management – Quarterly Review and Outlook, Second Quarter 2014

Treasury Bonds Undervalued

Thirty year treasury bonds appear to be undervalued based on the tepid growth rate of the U.S. economy. The past four quarters have recorded a nominal “top line” GDP expansion of only 2.9%, while the bond yield remains close to 3.4%. Knut Wicksell (1851-1926) noted that the natural rate of interest, a level that does not tend to slow or accelerate economic activity, should approximate the growth rate of nominal GDP. Interest rates higher than the top line growth rate of the economy, which is the case today, would mean that resources from the income stream of the economy would be required to pay for the higher rate of interest, thus slowing the economy. Wicksell preferred to use, not a risk free rate of interest such as thirty year treasury bonds, but a business rate of interest such as BAA corporates.



As chart one attests, interest rates below nominal GDP growth helps to accelerate economic activity and vice versa. Currently the higher interest rates are retarding economic growth, suggesting the next move in interest rates is lower.

To put the 2.9% change in nominal GDP over the past four quarters in perspective, it is below the entry point of any post-war recession. Even adjusting for inflation the average four-quarter growth rate in real GDP for this recovery is 1.8%, well below the 4.2% average in all of the previous post war expansions.

Fisher's Equation of Exchange

 

Slow nominal growth is not surprising to those who recall the American economist Irving Fisher’s (1867-1947) equation of exchange that was formulated in 1911. Fisher stated that nominal GDP is equal to money (M) times its turnover or velocity (V), i.e., GDP=M*V. Twelve months ago money (M) was expanding about 7%, and velocity (V) was declining at about a 4% annual rate. If you assume that those trends would remain in place then nominal GDP should have expanded at about 3% over the ensuing twelve months, which is exactly what occurred. Projecting further into 2014, the evidence of a continual lackluster expansion is clear. At the end of June money was expanding at slightly above a 6% annual rate, while velocity has been declining around 3%. Thus, Fisher’s formula suggests that another twelve months of a 3% nominal growth rate is more likely than not. With inflation widely expected to rise in the 1.5% to 2.0% range, arithmetic suggests that real GDP in 2014 will expand between 1.0% and 1.5% versus the average output level of 2013. This rate of expansion will translate into a year over year growth rate of around 1% by the fourth quarter of 2014. This is akin to pre-recessionary conditions.

An Alternative View of Debt

 

The perplexing fact is that the growth rate of the economy continues to erode despite six years of cumulative deficits totaling $6.27 trillion and the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing policy which added net $3.63 trillion of treasury and agency securities to their portfolio. Many would assume that such stimulus would be associated with a booming economic environment, not a slowing one.

Readers of our letters are familiar with our long-standing assessment that the cause of slower growth is the overly indebted economy with too much non productive debt. Rather than repairing its balance sheet by reducing debt, the U.S. economy is starting to increase its leverage. Total debt rose to 349.3% of GDP in the first quarter, up from 343.7% in the third quarter of 2013.

It is possible to cast an increase in debt in positive terms since it suggests that banks and other financial intermediaries are now confident and are lowering credit standards for automobiles, home equity, credit cards and other types of loans. Indeed, the economy gets a temporary boost when participants become more indebted. This conclusion was the essence of the pioneering work by Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk (1851-1914) and Irving Fisher which stated that debt is an increase in current spending (economic expansion) followed by a decline in future spending (economic contraction).

In concert with this view, but pinpointing the negative aspect of debt, contemporary economic research has corroborated the views of Hyman Minsky (1919-1996) and Charles Kindleberger (1910-2003) that debt slows economic growth at higher levels when it is skewed toward the type of borrowing that will not create an income stream sufficient to repay principal and interest.

Scholarly studies using very sophisticated analytical procedures conducted in the U.S. and abroad document the deleterious effects of high debt ratios. However, the use of a balance sheet measure can be criticized in two ways. First, income plays a secondary role, and second, debt ratios are not an integral part of Keynesian economic theory.

We address these two objections by connecting the personal saving rate (PSR) which is at the core of Keynesian economic analysis, and the private debt to GDP ratio that emerges from non-Keynesian approaches. Our research indicates that both the “Non Keynesian” private debt to GDP ratios, as well as the “Keynesian” PSR, yield equivalent analytical conclusions.

The Personal Saving Rate (PSR) and the Private Debt Linkage

 

The PSR and the private debt to GDP ratio should be negatively correlated over time. When the PSR rises, consumer income exceeds outlays and taxes. This means that the consumer has the funds to either acquire assets or pay down debt, thus closely linking the balance sheet and income statement. When the PSR (income statement measure) rises, savings (balance sheet measure) increases unless debt (also a balance sheet measure) declines, thus the gap between the Keynesian income statement focus and the non-Keynesian debt ratio focus is bridged.



The PSR and private debt to GDP ratio are, indeed, negatively correlated (Chart 2). The correlation should not, however, be perfect since the corporate sector is included in the private debt to GDP ratio while the PSR measures just the household sector. We used the total private sector debt ratio because the household data was not available in the years leading up to the Great Depression.

The most important conceptual point concerning the divergence of these two series relates to the matter of the forgiveness of debt by the financial sector, which will lower the private debt to GDP ratio but will not raise the PSR. The private debt to GDP ratio fell sharply from the end of the recession in mid-2009 until the fourth quarter of 2013, temporarily converging with a decline in the saving rate. As such, much of the perceived improvement in the consumer sector’s financial condition occurred from the efforts of others. The private debt to GDP ratio in the first quarter of 2014 stood at 275.4%, a drop of 52.5 percentage points below the peak during the recession. The PSR in the latest month was only 1.7 percentage points higher than in the worst month of the recession. Importantly, both measures now point in the direction of higher leverage, with the PSR showing a more significant deterioration. From the recession high of 8.1%, the PSR dropped to 4.8% in April 2014.

Historical Record

 

The most recently available PSR is at low levels relative to the past 114 years and well below the long-term historical average of 8.5% (Chart 3). The PSR averaged 9.4% during the first year of all 22 recessions from 1900 to the present. However this latest reading of 4.8% is about the same as in the first year of the Great Depression and slightly below the 5% reading in the first year of the Great Recession.



In Dr. Martha Olney’s (University of California, Berkeley and author of Buy Now, Pay Later) terminology, when the PSR falls households are buying now but will need to pay later. Contrarily, if the PSR rises households are improving their future purchasing power. A review of the historical record leads to two additional empirical conclusions. First, the trend in the PSR matters. A decline in the PSR when it has been falling for a prolonged period of time is more significant than a decline after it has risen. Second, the significance of any quarterly or annual PSR should be judged in terms of its long term average.

For example, multi-year declines occurred as the economy approached both the Great Recession of 2008 and the Great Depression of 1929. In 1925 the PSR was 9.2%, but by 1929 it had declined by almost half to 4.7%. The PSR offered an equal, and possibly even better, signal as to the excesses of the 1920s than did the private debt to GDP ratio. Both the level of PSR and the trend of its direction are significant meaningful inputs.

John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946) correctly argued that the severity of the Great Depression was due to under-consumption or over saving. What Keynes failed to note was that the under consumption of the 1930s was due to over spending in the second half of the 1920s. In other words, once circumstances have allowed the under saving event to occur, the net result will be a long period of economic under performance.
Keynes, along with his most famous American supporter, Alvin Hansen (1887-1975), argued that the U.S. economy would face something he termed “an under-employment equilibrium.” They believed the U.S. economy would return to the Great Depression after World War II ended unless the federal government ran large budget deficits to offset weakness in consumer spending. The PSR averaged 23% from 1942 through 1946, and the excessive indebtedness of the 1920s was reversed. Consumers had accumulated savings and were in a position to fuel the post WWII boom. The economy enjoyed great prosperity even though the budget deficit was virtually eliminated. The concerns about the under employment equilibrium were entirely wrong. In Keynes’ defense, the PSR statistics cited above were not known at the time but have been painstakingly created by archival scholars since then.

Implications for 2014-2015

 

In previous letters we have shown that the largest economies in the world have a higher total debt to GDP today than at the time of the Great Recession in 2008. PSRs also indicate that foreign households are living further above their means than six years ago. According to the OECD, Japan’s PSR for 2014 will be 0.6%, virtually unchanged from 2008. The OECD figure is likely to turn out to be very optimistic as the full effects of the April 2014 VAT increase takes effect, and a negative PSR for the year should not be ruled out. In addition, Japan’s PSR is considerably below that of the U.S. The Eurozone PSR as a whole is estimated at 7.9%, down 1.5 percentage points from 2008. Thus, in aggregate, the U.S., Japan and Europe are all trying to solve an under-saving problem by creating more under-saving. History indicates this is not a viable path to recovery. [reference: Atif Mian and Amir Sufi,. House of Debt, University of Chicago Press 2014]
Japan confirms the experience in the United States because their PSR has declined from over 20% in the financial meltdown year of 1989 to today’s near zero level. Japan, unlike the U.S. in the 1940s, has moved further away from financial stability. Despite numerous monetary and fiscal policy maneuvers that were described as extremely powerful, the end result was that they have not been successful.

U.S. Yields Versus Global Bond Yields

 

Table one compares ten-year and thirty year government bond yields in the U.S. and ten major foreign economies. Higher U.S. government bond yields reflect that domestic economic growth has been considerably better than in Europe and Japan, which in turn, mirrors that the U.S. is less indebted. However, the U.S. is now taking on more leverage, indicating that our growth prospects are likely to follow the path of Europe and Japan.



With U.S. rates higher than those of major foreign markets, investors are provided with an additional reason to look favorably on increased investments in the long end of the U.S. treasury market. Additionally, with nominal growth slowing in response to low saving and higher debt we expect that over the next several years U.S. thirty year bond yields could decline into the range of 1.7% to 2.3%, which is where the thirty year yields in the Japanese and German economies, respectively, currently stand.

Van R. Hoisington
Lacy H. Hunt, Ph.D.
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Great new video, #3 of Bill Poulos's "Portfolio Prophet" trading lab series is now ONLINE!
 

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Using Supply and Demand to Beat the Market: An Interview with Fund Manager Charles Biderman

By Dan Steinhart, Managing Editor, The Casey Report

It’s an investing strategy so simple, you’ll wonder why you didn’t think of it. Like any other market, the stock market obeys the laws of supply and demand. Reduce supply, and prices should rise. Therefore, companies that reduce their outstanding shares by buying back their own stock should outperform the market.

That’s the basic theory that Charles Biderman, who was recently featured in Forbes and is chairman and founder of TrimTabs Investment Research, follows to manage his ETF, TrimTabs Float Shrink (TTFS).
And it works. Since its inception in October 2011, TTFS has beaten the S&P 500 by 15 percentage points. That’s no small feat, especially during a bull market. Most hedge fund managers would sacrifice their firstborns for such stellar performance.

There are, of course, nuances to the strategy, which Charles explains in an interview with Casey Research’s managing editor Dan Steinhart below. For example, companies must use their own money to buy back shares. Borrowing for buybacks is a no no.

It’s also worth mentioning, you can meet and learn all about Charles’ strategy in person. He’ll be available at  Casey Research’s Summit: Thriving in a Crisis Economy in San Antonio, TX from September 19-21 where he’ll be working with attendees to teach them how to beat the market using supply and demand analysis.

And Charles is just one of many all stars on the faculty for this summit—click here to browse the others, which include Alex Jones, Jim Rickards, and, of course, Doug Casey.

Also, you can still sign up for this Summit and meet some of the world’s brightest financial minds and receive a special early bird discount. You’ll save $400 if you sign up by July 15th. Click here to register now.
Now for the complete Charles Biderman interview. Enjoy!


Using Supply and Demand to Beat the Market: An Interview with Fund Manager Charles Biderman

Dan: Thanks for joining us today, Charles. Could you start by telling us a little bit about your unique approach to stock market research?

Charles: Sure. I’ve been following the markets for 40 years. Everybody talks about earnings and interest rates and growth rates and what the government is doing. But here’s the thing: the stock market is made up of shares of stock. That’s it. There is nothing else in the stock market.

So my firm tracks the supply and demand of the stock market. The number of shares outstanding is the supply. Money is the demand. We discovered when more money chases fewer shares, the market goes up. Isn’t that shocking?

Dan: [Laughs] Not very, when you put it that way.

Charles: Whenever I talk with individual investors, I tell them that there’s only one reason for them to listen to me: that they think I can help them beat the market. I’ve spent 40 some years looking at markets in a different way than other people. I’ve found that the market is like a casino: it has a house and players. You know the house has an edge, because if it didn’t, the stock market wouldn’t exist.

Who is the house in the stock market? Not brokers, or even high frequency traders. Companies are the house. As investors, we’re playing with their shares, and the companies know more about them than we do.
I’ve discovered that companies buy back their own shares because they think the price is heading higher. So when a company buys back its own shares using its own money, you should buy that stock too. But only if the company uses its own money. Borrowing money to buy shares is a no-no.

Conversely, when companies are growing their shares outstanding by selling stock to raise money, they don’t like where their stock price is headed. If they don’t want to own their own stock, you shouldn’t either.
My basic philosophy is to follow supply and demand of stocks and money, and you can’t go wrong.

Dan: Your theory has worked very well in practice. Your TrimTabs Float Shrink ETF (TTFS) beat the S&P 500 by an impressive 12 percentage points in 2013. And that’s really saying something, considering how well the S&P 500 performed.

Charles: Yes, and we’ve outperformed the S&P 500 over the past year as well.

Dan: What specific investment strategies did you use to generate that return?

Charles: Our fund invests in 100 companies that are growing free cash flow—which is the money left over after taxes, R & D, capital expenditures, and dividends—and using it to buy back their own shares.
We modify our holdings every month because we’ve discovered that the positive effects of buybacks only last for a short time. So when a company stops shrinking its float, we kick it out. Our turnover is about 20 stocks per month.

Dan: The supply side of the equation seems pretty straightforward. What do you use to approximate demand? Money supply numbers?

Charles: Sort of. Institutions own around 80% of the shares of the Russell 1000, so we track the money that flows through them into and out of the stock market.

We also track wage and salary growth. We’re not interested in income generated by government actions, but rather by the wages of the 137 million Americans who have jobs subject to withholding. Money for investment comes from income. People can only invest the money they have left over after they cover expenses.

Income in the U.S. is currently around $7.5 trillion per year. That’s an increase of around $300 million over last year, or a little under 3% after inflation. That’s not sufficient to generate money for investment.

However, the Fed’s zero interest rate policy has showered companies with plenty of cash to improve their operations. As a result, many industries have record high profit margins. But at the same time, most management teams are still afraid to reinvest their profits into expanding their businesses because they don’t see final consumption demand growing. So these companies have been buying back their shares instead. The total number of shares in the market has declined pretty much consistently since 2010.

An investment institution typically targets a specific percentage of cash to hold, say 5%. So when a company buys back its own stock from these institutions, the institutions now have more money and fewer shares. To meet their cash allocation target, they have to go out and buy more shares. So the end result is more money chasing fewer shares.

This is why we’ve been experiencing a “melt-up” in the market. It has nothing to do with the economy—it’s solely due to supply and demand. And as buybacks continue, stock prices will continue to rise.

The caveat is that unless the economy recovers in earnest, the gap between stock prices and the real-world economy will continue to grow. At some point, it will get too wide, and we’ll get a bang moment similar to the housing crisis, when everyone realized that housing prices were too far above their underlying value in 2007.

Dan: Do you monitor macroeconomic issues as well?

Charles: Yes, but as I like to say, all macro issues manifest as supply and demand eventually. Supply and demand is what’s happening right now. All of those other inputs get us to “now.”

Dan: I understand. So you’re more concerned with the effects of supply and demand than the causes.

Charles: Right. Price is a function of the world as it exists right now. If you don’t have cash, it doesn’t matter how fantastic stock market fundamentals look. Without cash, you can’t buy, no matter how compelling the value.

Dan: Could you share a preview of what you’ll be talking about at the Casey Research Summit in San Antonio?

Charles: I’ll be giving specific advice to individual investors on how to beat the market. Outperforming the overall market is very difficult to do, and earnings analysis and graphic analysis has never been proven to do it over a long period. Supply and demand analysis has. So I will work with attendees and show them how to apply those strategies to beat the market going forward.

Dan: Great; I look forward to that. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Charles: The phrase “disruptive technology” is popular today. I think investing on the basis of supply and demand is a disruptive technology compared with other investing strategies, most of which have never really worked. Cheap, broad-based index funds are so popular because very few investing strategies offer any real edge. I believe supply and demand investing gives me an edge.

Dan: Thanks very much for sharing your insights today. I’m excited to hear what else you’ll have to say at our Thriving in a Crisis Economy Summit in San Antonio.

Charles: I’m looking forward to the Summit as well. I hope the aura of the San Antonio Spurs’ victory will rub off on all of us.

Dan: Me too. Thanks again.




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Monday, July 7, 2014

Gold Option Trade – Will Gold Continue to Consolidate?

Until recently, the world has forgotten about gold and gold futures prices it would seem. A few years ago, all we heard about was gold and silver futures making new highs on the back of the Federal Reserve’s constant money printing schemes.

However, after a dramatic sell off the world of precious metals it became very quiet.


Gold prices have been in a giant basing or consolidation pattern for more than one year. As can clearly be seen below, gold futures prices have traded in a range between roughly 1,175 and 1,430 since June of 2013.


Chart1


The past few weeks we have heard more about gold prices as we have seen a five week rally since late May. I would also draw your attention to the fact that gold futures also made a slightly higher low which is typically a bullish signal.


At this point in time, it appears quite likely that a possible test of the upper end of the channel is possible in the next few weeks / months. If price can push above 1,430 on the spot gold futures price a breakout could transpire that could see $150 or more added to the spot gold price.


Clearly there are a variety of ways that a trader could consider higher prices in gold futures. However, a basic option strategy can pay handsome rewards that will profit from a continued consolidation. The trade strategy is profitable as long as price stays within a range for a specified period of time. Ultimately this type of trade strategy involves the use of options and capitalizes on the passage of time.


The strategy is called an Iron Condor Strategy, however in order to make this trade worth while we would consider widening out the strikes to increase our profitability while simultaneously increasing our overall risk per spread. Consider the chart of GLD below which has highlighted the price range that would be profitable to the August monthly option expiration on August 15th.


Chart2


As long as price stays in the range shown above, the GLD August Iron Condor Spread would be profitable. Clearly this strategy involves patience and the expectation that gold prices will continue to consolidate. This trade has the profit potential of $37 per spread, or a total potential return based on maximum possible risk of 13.62%. The probability based on today's implied volatility in GLD options for this spread to be profitable at expiration (August 15) is roughly 80%.


Our new option service specializes in identifying these types of consolidation setups and helps investors capitalize on consolidating chart patterns, volatility collapse, and profiting from the passage of time. And if you Advanced options trades are not your thing, we also provide Simple options where we buy either a call or put option based on the SP500 and VIX. The nice thing about buying calls and puts is that you can trade with an account as little as $2,500.


If You Want Daily Options Trades, Join the Technical Traders Options Alerts

See you in the markets!

Chris Vermeulen

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Sunday, July 6, 2014

Low VIX and What It Means to Your Trading....Our Next Free Webinar

You are invited to attend our next free webinar, presented by former CBOE floor trader Dan Passarelli on Tuesday July 15th at 4:30 EDT. Dan's focus for this webinar will be "Low VIX and What It Means to Your Trading".

Many traders are having a tough time making money in this market. Why? Low VIX. Professional traders use the VIX as a guide to gauge potential option profits. Attend this webinar with Dan and learn what the VIX is telling us about your trading this summer.

Don't miss this special webinar.

Just click here to reserve your seat now

See you Tuesday July 15th!

Ray's Stock World

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Wednesday, July 2, 2014

5 Simple Rules to Evolve Past the Hot Stock List

By Andrey Dashkov

If you’re a typical small time investor, chances are you prefer to let a team of analysts fuss about such irksome things as correlation and beta. Maybe you’ve bought a stock because your brother in law gave you a hot tip, maybe you heard something about it on a financial news show, or maybe you just loved the company’s product.


Friends often ask me for “hot stock tips”—which is like walking up to someone at the craps table and asking what number to bet on. An accomplished craps player will have position limits, stop losses, income targets, and an overall strategy that does not hinge on one roll of the dice. You need an overall strategy long before you put money down.

So, what do I tell those friends asking for hot stock tips? Well, that they can retire rich with a 50-20-30 portfolio:
  • Stocks. 50% in solid, diversified stocks providing healthy dividends and appreciation.
  • High Yield. 20% in high yield, dividend paying investments coupled with appropriate safety measures. These holdings are bought for yield; any appreciation is a nice bonus.
  • Stable Income. 30% in conservative, stable income vehicles.
Unless you’re starting entirely from scratch, you should review your current portfolio allocations, identify where you’re over or underallocated, and then look for investments to fill those holes. In our portfolio here at Miller's Money Forever, we separate our recommendations into StocksHigh Yield, and Stable Income to help you do just that.

The Art of the Pick

 

By the time an investment lands in our portfolio, we’ve already run it through our Five Point Balancing Test. When your boasting brother in law tempts you with a “can’t-miss opportunity” or some pundit touts a hot tech company on television, you can come back to these five points, again and again.
  1. Is it a solid company or investment vehicle? Investing your retirement money safely is a must. How do you know if a company is solid? Take the time to validate essential company information, particularly when the recommendation comes from a source with questionable motivation.
  2. Does it provide good income? A good stock combines a robust dividend and appreciation potential.
  3. Is there a good chance for appreciation? There are two types of appreciating stocks: those that rise because of general market conditions and those that rise further because of the way management runs the business. We want both.
  4. Does it protect against inflation? High inflation is one of the biggest enemies of a retirement portfolio.
  5. Is it easily reversible? Ask yourself, “Can I quickly and easily reverse this investment if something unexpected occurs?” The ability to liquidate inexpensively is critical to correcting errors.

Marking the Bull’s Eye So You Can Hit It

 

It’s worthwhile to write down your goal—including an income target and the price at which you’ll sell if things head south—with every investment. After all, if you can’t see the bull’s eye, how will you know if you’ve hit it? Buying any investment because a trusted adviser, newsletter, or pundit recommended it is not a good enough reason. Buying because your portfolio has a hole, you understand the company, the investment vehicle, the risks, and the potential is.

Remember, retiring rich means having enough money to enjoy your lifestyle without money worries. Do your homework on every investment and you’ll make that pleasant thought your life’s reality. Every week, the Miller’s Money team provides no nonsense, practical advice about the best ways to invest for your retirement in  Miller’s Money Weekly Sign up here to receive it every Thursday.

The article 5 Simple Rules to Evolve Past the Hot-Stock List was originally published at Millers Money


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Sunday, June 29, 2014

Thomas Edison’s Dream Smashed

By Adam J. Crawford, Analyst

The incandescent light bulb was invented in the very early 1800s, but at that time was a device too crude and impractical for mass adoption. Over the next 80 years, at least 20 inventors contributed to its improvement, until, in 1880, Thomas Edison developed and patented a bulb that would last a miraculous 1,200 hours. Edison’s product was the first to offer the levels of functionality, durability, and affordability necessary for widespread commercial appeal. That’s why he gets credit for inventing the light bulb, even though he was decades late to the party.


Some 130 years after Edison’s patent was approved, the incandescent light bulb has basically the same features… a filament inside a glass bulb with a screw base. And for all those years, it’s been doing yeoman-like work providing clean, quality lighting (compared to the candles and oil lanterns of the 19th century), in millions of homes and offices. Today, however, the incandescent light bulb is on its way out… and a multibillion-dollar industry will be forever changed.

Done In by Inefficiency

The incandescent bulb, though very effective, is notoriously inefficient. To understand why, one need only understand how it produces light. The filament (or wire) inside a bulb is heated by an electric current until it becomes so hot it glows.

The problem: only about 10% of the energy used by an incandescent bulb is converted into light; the rest is dissipated as usually unwanted heat.

This is a problem, not just for the homes and businesses using these bulbs, but also upstream at the power plants that produce the required energy. In an era when producers are wondering how they’re going to keep up with the surging demand amidst rising fuel costs and concern about the environmental impact of energy production is running high, such inefficiencies are frowned on.

Governments, of course, have the ability to put muscle behind their frowns… and they’re doing just that. In 2013, it became illegal in the United States to manufacture or import 75 and 100 watt incandescent bulbs. 40 and 60 watt bulbs were added to the ban in January of this year. The U.S. isn’t the only government actively limiting the use of incandescent bulbs. The European Union, Canada, Brazil, Australia, and even China are among many that have phase out programs aimed at forcing users to convert to an alternative technology.

For household applications, that primarily means a switch to those twisty shaped compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), or the newest competition in town, light emitting diodes (LEDs).

A CFL’s spiral tube contains argon and mercury vapors, and they are far more efficient than the old Edison bulb. When an electrical current is passed through the vapors, invisible ultraviolet light is produced. The ultraviolet light is transformed into visible light when it strikes a fluorescent coating on the inside of the tube.. all at about one fourth the electrical cost for an equivalent amount of light from an incandescent lamp.

LEDs, in contrast, don’t use commonplace materials. Rather, they’re made from somewhat exotic semiconductor materials, like indium and gallium nitride. When an electrical current is passed through these semiconductors, energy is released in the form of particles called photons—the most basic units of light in physics, i.e., light’s equivalent of individual electrons. In the process, little is lost to heat and the materials take minimal wear, making for another very efficient light source, and one that lasts far longer than its competitors.

Comparing the Alternatives

Right now, LED bulbs are relatively expensive to produce. That’s because a bulb is not just a bulb when it comes to LEDs—it can’t be made brighter by just putting in a thicker filament or tube. Instead, each bulb is a complex web of up to dozens of small diodes, each roughly the size of a pinhead, wired together and to a ballast that regulates the electricity flowing through them.

When compared head to head with incandescent and CFL light bulbs, LEDs come out the clear winner in operating costs. But even with millions of these bulbs now shipping to Home Depot, they still fall down on initial cost:

60-WATT
Equivalent
Incandescent
CFL
LED
Lumen 880 800 800
Life (hours) 1,000 8,000 25,000
Initial cost $1.19 $5.00 $9.98
Yearly operating cost $7.23 $1.81 $1.45


However, when you add up those advantages over that 25,000 hour lifetime, then the advantages start to become clear:


60-WATT
Equivalent
Incandescent
CFL
LED
Yearly
operating cost
$7.23 $1.81 $1.45
Years 23 23 23
23-year
operating cost
$166.29 $41.63 $33.35
Initial cost $1.19 $5.00 $10.00
Replacement
cost
$28.56 $10.00 $0.00
Total cost $196.04 $56.63 $43.35

As you can see, to produce roughly the same lumens (a measure of the amount of visible light emitted by a source), both CFLs and LEDs are hands-down more economical than incandescent bulbs.

Of course, in a residential scenario where a bulb is run for maybe three hours a day, it would take about 23 years to realize that big a savings. But put them in place in a commercial or industrial setting like the hundreds of lights running 24 hours a day in the local Walmart, and the savings add up quickly.

Still, why are we so bullish on the prospects for LEDs if they barely edge out their CFL competitors over tens of thousands of hours?

The first difference is environmental. CFLs have the inherent disadvantage of containing mercury, a toxic metal that poses health and environmental risks. Break one of these bulbs and you have a biohazard on your hands. There’s a real cost to recycling these bulbs and containing the mess from those that are just tossed in the trash heap. It’s a cost that will certainly be shifted back to consumers of the bulbs if environmental legislation continues on its same path.

Further still, over its life, an LED bulb is already 25% more economical than a CFL. When compared to an incandescent bulb, either is a huge cost winner. But when it comes down to dollars and cents, the LED wins today. The only reason not go that route is the big upfront cost difference, which when buying tens of thousands of bulbs at a time (as many commercial companies do) can be a hard pill to swallow.

However, the cost of LEDs has been falling fast in recent years and will continue to do so. In 2011, a 60 watt equivalent LED bulb retailed for about $40. In 2012, the price fell below $20. Today, it’s less than $10.

As volumes increase and competition among manufacturers and retailers intensifies, prices will continue to fall. Some industry analysts see a $5 LED on the near horizon. We wouldn’t bet against it.

The price could go even lower if manufacturers can successfully implement a cost-reduction break through. Specifically, LED devices are built on expensive aluminum oxide substrates. But manufacturers are working on ways to build on substrates made of silicon, which would substantially reduce defects and thus costs. As prices drop, and if environmental law hits mercury laced CFLs next, LED’s cost advantage will start to widen significantly.

Inflection Point

This all means that the LED’s time has arrived. According to IHS, a global market and economic research firm, unit shipments of LED lighting devices will grow at a compounded annual rate of 40% between now and 2020.


In 2011, the size of the global lighting market was about $96 billion, and LED devices accounted for about 12% of that amount. By 2020, McKinsey & Company projects, the size of the market will be $136 billion, of which 63% will be attributable to LEDs.

With the LED bulb, we have a trend that’s been in the making for several years… and it’s now ready to surge. How should an investor play it? Certainly not with a blindfold and a dartboard, or a whole sector buy like an ETF, because not all participants in this market will prosper.

Some will not be a pure enough play to benefit, or will be cannibalizing their own incandescent and CFL business… like GE and Phillips. Others will find themselves producing a commodity with ever thinning margins… like Cree. And others still already have much of the anticipated growth priced into their shares.
However, we scanned the field and found a company that is well positioned to benefit from the growth of the LED market while, at the same time, actually improving its margins.

We believe this company’s stock is undervalued. That’s why we’re recommending it in the next issue of BIG TECH

For access to this recommendation and many more, simply sign up for a risk free trial of BIG TECH. 

If you decide to keep your subscription, it will only cost a mere $99, nothing compared to the profits just this one investment should bring. But, if for any reason you’re unsatisfied, simply cancel to receive a prompt, courteous, and complete refund of the entire subscription price. You have 3 full months to make up your mind.

The article Thomas Edison’s Dream Smashed was originally published at Casey Research



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Friday, June 27, 2014

The Four Horsemen of the Geopolitical Apocalypse

By John Mauldin


Ian Bremmer, NYU professor and head of the geopolitical consulting powerhouse Eurasia Group, consults at the highest levels with both governments and companies because he brings to the table robust geopolitical analysis and a compelling thesis: that we are witnessing “the creative destruction of the old geopolitical order.” We live, as his last book told us, in a “G-0” world. In today’s Outside the Box, Ian spells out what that creative destruction means in terms of events on the ground today. As Ian notes, the most prominent feature of the international landscape this year has been the expansion of geopolitical conflict. That expansion is gaining momentum, he says, creating larger-scale crises and sharpening market volatility. Hold on to the reins now as Ian take us for a ride with the “Four Horsemen of the Geopolitical Apocalypse.”

We’ll follow up Ian’s piece with an excellent short analysis of the Iraq situation from a Middle East expert at a large hedge fund I correspond with. Pretty straightforward take on the situation with regard to ISIS. This quagmire has real implications for the world oil supply. (It appears that the Sunni rebel forces are now in complete control of the key Baiji Refinery, which produces a third of Iraq’s output.)

Back in Dallas, it’s a little hard to focus on geopolitical events when seemingly all the news is about ongoing domestic crises. But the outrageous IRS loss of emails doesn’t really affect our portfolios all that much. What happens in Iraq or with China does. There’s just not the emotional impact.

One domestic humanitarian crisis that is brewing just south of me is the massive influx of very young children across the U.S.-Mexican border. When this was first brought to my attention a few weeks ago, I must admit that I questioned the credibility of the source. We have had young children walking across the Texas border for decades but always in rather small numbers. The first source I read said that 40,000 had already come over this year. I just found that to be non credible, but then with a little reasonable research it not only became believable but could be a bit low – it looks as many as 90,000 children will cross the border this year.

What in the name of the Wide Wide World of Sports is going on? First of all, how do you cover up something of this magnitude until it is a true crisis? When the administration and other authorities clearly knew about it last year? (The evidence is irrefutable. They knew.)

I am the father of five adopted children. In an earlier phase of my life, I was somewhat involved with Child Protective Services here in Texas. It was an emotionally difficult and heartrending experience. (One of my children came out of that system and three from outside of the United States). I have no idea how you care for 90,000 children who don’t speak the language and have no connection to their new locale. Forget the dollar cost, which could run into the tens of billions over time. These are children, and they are on our doorstep and our watch. You simply can’t ignore them and say, “They are not supposed to be here, so it’s not our responsibility.” They are children. Someone, and that means here in the U.S., is going to have to figure out how to take care of them, even if it is only to learn why they try to come and figure out where to send them back to. And frankly, trying to to send them back is going to be a logistical and legal nightmare, not to mention psychologically traumatic to the children.

Maybe someone thought that waiting until there was a crisis to let this information slip out (and we found out about it because of photos posted anonymously of children packed together in holding cells) would create momentum for immigration reform. And they may be right. But I’m not certain it’s going to result in the type of immigration reform they were hoping to get.

I have to admit that I’ve been rather tolerant of illegal immigrants over the course of my life. There are a dozen or so key issues that I think this country should focus on, but I’ve just never gotten that worked up about illegal immigration. The simple fact is that everyone here in the US is either an immigrant or descended from immigrants. It may be, too, that I’ve hired a few undocumented workers here and there in my life. As an economist, I know that we should be trying to figure out how to get more capable immigrants here, not less. What you want are educated young people who are motivated to create and work, not children as young as four or five years old who are going to need housing, education, adult supervision, health care, and most of all a loving environment where they can grow up.

It is one thing for undocumented workers to come across the border looking for jobs or for families to come across together. It is a completely different matter when tens of thousands of preteen children come across the border without parents or supervision. They didn’t get across 1500 miles of desert without significant support and a great deal of planning. This couldn’t be happening without the awareness of authorities in Mexico and the Central American countries from which these children come, and if this is truly a surprise to Homeland Security, then there is a significant failure somewhere in the system.

And if it was not a surprise? That begs a whole different series of questions.

This is a major humanitarian crisis, and it is not in the Middle East or Africa. It is on our border, and we need to figure out what to do about it NOW!

I don’t care whether you think we need to build a 20 foot high wall across the southern border of the United States or give amnesty to anyone who wants to come in (or both), something has to be done with these children. It is a staggering problem of enormous logistical proportions, and we have a simple human responsibility to take care of those who cannot take care of themselves.

And on that note I will go ahead and hit the send button, and let’s focus on the critical geopolitical events happening around the globe. Iraq is a disaster. Ukraine is a crisis. What’s happening in the China Sea is troubling. It just seems to come at you from everywhere. Even on a beautiful summer day.

Your stunned by the magnitude of it all at analyst,
John Mauldin, Editor
Outside the Box


(From Ian Bremmer)

Dear John,
We're halfway through 2014, and the single most notable feature of the international landscape has been the expansion of geopolitical conflict. why should we care? what's the impact; what does it mean for the global economy? how should we think about geopolitics? My thoughts on the topic, looking at the four key geopolitical pieces "in play"–in Eurasia, the middle east, Asia, and the transatlantic.

Geopolitics

 

I've written for several years about the root causes of the geopolitical instability the world is presently experiencing. a new, g-zero world where the united states is less interested in providing global leadership and nobody else is willing or able to step into that role. that primary leadership vacuum is set against a context of competing foreign policy priorities from increasingly powerful emerging markets (with very different political and economic systems) and a Germany-led Europe; challenges to the international system from a revisionist Russia in decline; and difficulties in coordination from a proliferation of relevant state and non state actors even when interests are aligned. all of this has stirred tensions in the aftermath of the financial crisis: instability across the middle east after a stillborn Arab spring; a three-year Syrian civil war; a failed Russia "reset"; rising conflict between china and japan; fraying American alliances with countries like Brazil, Germany, and Saudi Arabia.

And yet geopolitical concerns haven't particularly changed our views on global markets. each conflict has been small and self contained (or the spillover wasn't perceived to matter much). Geopolitics has been troubling on the margins but not worth more than a fret.

That's about to change. though perceived as discrete events, the rise of these geopolitical tensions are all directly linked to the creative destruction of the old geopolitical order. it's a process that's gaining momentum, creating in turn larger-scale crises and broader market volatility. we've now reached the point where near to mid-term outcomes of several geopolitical conflicts could become major drivers of the global economy. that's true of Russia/Ukraine, Iraq, the east and south china seas and U.S./Europe. in each, the status quo is unsustainable (though for very different reasons). and so, as it were, the four horsemen of the geopolitical apocalypse.

Russia/Ukraine

 

The prospect of losing Ukraine was the last straw for a Russian government that has been steadily losing geopolitical influence since the collapse of the soviet union over two decades ago. Moscow sees NATO enlargement, expanded European economic integration, energy diversification and the energy revolution as direct security threats that need to be countered. Ukraine is also an opportunity for the Kremlin...for president Putin to invigorate a flagging support base at home.

Putin intends to raise the economic and military pressure on Kiev until, at a minimum, southeast Ukraine is effectively under Russian control. the Ukrainian government's latest effort in response, a unilateral week long cease fire in the southeast, was greeted with lukewarm rhetoric by Putin and rejected by Russian separatists in the region, who escalated their attacks against the Ukrainian military. meanwhile, thousands of Russian troops recently pulled back from the Ukrainian border have now been redeployed there, bolstered by Putin ordering 65,000 Russian troops on combat alert in the region.

The choices for Kiev are thankless. if they press further, violence intensifies and Russian support expands, either routing the Ukrainian military, or taking serious losses and requiring direct "formal" intervention of Russian troops. if they back off, they lose the southeast, which is critical for their internal legitimacy from the Ukrainian population at large. all the while the Ukrainian economy teeters with much of their industrial base off line, compounded by Russian disruptions on customs, trade, and gas supply.

The growing conflict will lead to further deterioration of Russia's relationship with the united states and Europe: gas flow disruptions, expansion of defense spending and NATO coordination with Poland and the Baltic states, turbulence around Moldova and Georgia given their European association agreements this week...and "level 3" sectoral sanctions against Russia. that in turn means a serious economic downturn in Russia itself...and knock-on economic implications for Europe, which has far greater exposure to Russia than the united states does.

For the last several years, the major market concern for Europe was economic: the potential for collapse of the euro zone. that's no longer a worry. the primary risk to Europe is now clearly geopolitical, that expanded Russia/Ukraine conflict hurts Europe, in worst case pushing the continent back into recession.

Iraq

 

Like so much of the world's colonial legacy, many of the middle east's borders only "worked" because of the combination of secular authoritarian rule and international military and economic support. that was certainly true of Iraq–most recently under decades of control by the Baath party, beginning in 1963. Saddam Hussein's ouster forty years later by the united states and Great Britain, combined with the dismantling of nearly all of the military and political architecture that supported him (in dramatic contrast to, say, the ouster of Egypt's hosni Mubarak) undermined Iraq's territorial integrity. since then, Iraqi governance could still nominally function given significant American military presence and military and economic aid. once that was removed, there was little left to keep iraq functioning as a country.

Sectarianism is the primary form of allegiance in iraq today, both limiting the reach of prime minister nouri al maliki's majority shia government and creating closer ties between iraq's sunni, shia and kurdish populations and their brethren outside Iraq's borders. extremism within iraq has also grown dramatically as a consequence, particularly among the now disenfranchised sunni population--made worse by their heavy losses in the war against bashar assad across the largely undefended border with syria. the tipping point came with the broad attacks by the islamic state of iraq and syria (isis) over the past fortnight, speeding up a decade-long expansion of sectarian violence and ethnic cleansing between iraq's Sunni and shia. the comparatively wealthy and politically stable Kurds have done their best to steer clear of the troubles, seizing a long sought opportunity for de facto independence.

The American response has been cautious. domestic support for military engagement in Iraq diminished greatly as the war in Iraq continued and the economic and human costs mounted. obama repeatedly promised an end to the occupation and considered full withdrawal a major achievement of his administration. there's little domestic upside for taking responsibility in the crisis. obama's position has accordingly been that any direct military involvement requires a change in governance from the Iraqis--initially sounding like a unity government and increasingly evolving into the replacement of prime minister maliki. the pressure on maliki has gained momentum with shia grand ayatollah ali al-sistani calling on the iraqi prime minister to broaden the government to include more kurds and sunnis.

But Maliki, having successfully fought constitutional crises and assassination attempts, to say nothing of decisively winning a democratic election, is unlikely to go. isis poses a threat to the unity of the iraqi state, but not to maliki's rule of iraq's majority shia population, which if anything now stands stronger than it did before the fighting. and maliki's key international sponsor, iran, has little interest in forcing maliki into compromise as long as there's no threat to baghdad: they see themselves in far better strategic standing with a maliki-led iraqi government where they exert overwhelming influence, than over a broader government where they're one of many competing international forces. further, even if maliki were prepared to truly share power with iraq's kurds and sunni (something made more likely by the informal "influence" of 300 us military advisors now arriving in baghdad), he's unlikely to see much enthusiasm responding to that offer. the kurds are better off sticking to nominal (and a clearer road to eventual formal) independence; and sunni leaders that publicly find common cause with maliki would better hope all their family members aren't anywhere isis can find them.
absent american (or anyone else's) significant military engagement, the iraqi government is unlikely to be able to remove isis from leadership and, accordingly, reassert control over the sunni and kurdish areas of the country. that will lead to a significant increase in extremist violence emanating from the islamic world, a trend that's already deteriorated significantly in recent years (and since obama administration officials announced that cyberattacks were the biggest national security threat to the united states--a claim president obama overturned during his west point speech last month). since 2010, the number of known jihadist fighters has more than doubled; attacks by Al Qaeda affiliates have tripled.

The combination of challenging economic conditions, sectarian leadership, and the communications revolution empowering individuals through narrowing political and ideological demographic lenses all make this much more likely to expand. that's a greater threat to stability in the poorer middle eastern markets, but also will morph back into a growing terrorist threat against western assets in the region and more broadly. that creates, in turn, demand for increased security spending and bigger concerns about fat tail terrorism in the developed world, particularly in southern and western europe (where large numbers of unintegrated and unemployed islamic populations will pose more of a direct threat).

The broader risk is that sunni/shia conflict metastasizes into a single broader war. isis declares an islamic state across sunni iraq and syria, becoming ground zero for terrorist funding and recruitment from across the region. the saudi government condemns the absence of international engagement in either conflict and directly opposes an increasingly heavy and public iranian hand in iraqi and syrian rule. the united states completes a comprehensive nuclear deal with iran and declares victory (but doesn't work meaningfully with teheran on iraq), steering clear of the growing divide between the middle east's two major powers. the gulf cooperation council starts to fragment as members see opportunity in economic engagements with Iran. Iranian "advisers" in Iraq morph into armed forces; Saudi Arabia publicly opposes isis, but Saudi money and weapons get into their hands and an abundance of informal links pop up. militarization grows between an emboldened Iran and a more isolated, defensive Saudi Arabia. that's when the geopolitical premium around energy prices becomes serious.

East/South China Sea

 

Ukraine and Iraq are the two major active geopolitical conflicts. but there are two more geopolitical points of tension involving major economies that are becoming significant.

In Asia, it's the consequences of (and reactions to) an increasingly powerful and assertive china. the growth of china's influence remains the world's most important geopolitical story by a long margin. but, at least to date, china's growth is mostly an opportunity for the rest of the world. for the middle east, it's the principal new source of energy demand as the united states becomes more energy independent. for Africa, it's the best opportunity to build out long-needed infrastructure across the continent. for Europe and even the united states, it's a critical source of credit propping up currency, and a core producer of inexpensive goods. that's not to argue that there aren't significant caveats in each of these stories (or that those caveats aren't growing--they are), but rather that overall, china has been primarily perceived as an opportunity rather than a threat for all of these actors, and so it remains today.

for asia, a rising china has been seen more clearly as a double-edged sword. the greater comparative importance of the chinese economy has translated into more political influence (formal and informal) for beijing, at the expense of other governments in the region. meanwhile, china's dramatic military buildup has fundamentally changed the balance of power in asia; it's had negligible interest elsewhere.
china's military assertiveness has also grown in its backyard. in other regions, china continues to promote itself as a poor country that needs to focus on its own development and stability. in east and southeast asia china has core interests that it defends, and it is increasingly willing to challenge the status quo as its influence becomes asymmetrically greater.

that's been most clear with vietnam, where china first sent one oil rig to drill in contested waters directly off vietnam's shore--accompanied by several hundred chinese fishing vessels. they announced last week that they are repositioning four more. unsurprisingly, the vietnamese response has been sharp--anti-chinese demonstrations, violence, increased naval presence in the region, and coordination with the philippines.
none of that creates significant political risk on its own: vietnam isn't an ally of the united states and so engenders less support and response from washington than the philippines or japan...which is precisely why beijing has decided that's the best place to start changing the regional security balance.

but tokyo feels differently. the japanese government understands that a rising china is longer term a much more existential threat to its own security position in asia, and it isn't prepared to wait to raise concern until its position weakens further. so prime minister shinzo abe has declared his security support for vietnam. for america's part, obama has jettisoned the official "pivot" to asia. but the administration continues to believe that america's core national security interests, now and in the future, are in asia; and if china significantly escalates tensions in the east and south china seas, the united states is not likely to sit as idly by as they have on syria or ukraine.

the good news here is that--unlike with the countries driving the tensions in eurasia and the middle east--china has solid political stability and isn't looking for international trouble. but the realities of chinese growth, coupled with strong leadership from japan and (over time) india, along with the persistence of a strong american footprint are contributing to a much more troublesome geopolitical environment in the region.
the principle danger to the markets is what happens if the chinese government no longer holds that perspective. president xi jinping's commitment to transformational economic reform has been strong over the first year of his rule, and he has gotten surprisingly little pushback from the country's entrenched elites. but the uncertainty around china's near- to medium-term trajectory is radically greater than that of any of the world's other major economies. should significant instability emerge in china, very plausible indeed, china's willingness to take on a far more assertive (and risk-acceptant) security strategy in the region, promoting nationalism in the way putin has built his support base of late, would become far more likely. and then, the east and south china seas move to the top of our list.

U.S.-Europe

 

finally, the transatlantic relationship. advanced industrial economies with consolidated institutions and political stability, there's none of the geopolitical conflict presently visible in the middle east, eurasia, or asia.

geopolitical tensions have long been absent from the transatlantic relationship, the great success of the nato alliance. for all the occasional disagreement in europe on us military and security policy both during the cold war and since (the war in iraq, israel/palestine, counterterrorism and the like), european states never considered the need for broader security ties as a counterbalance for nato membership.

but the changing nature of geopolitics is creating a rift between the united states and europe.
american global hegemony had security and economic components, and it was collective security that had been the core element holding together the transatlantic alliance. that's no longer the case--a consequence of changing priorities for the americans and europeans, and an evolving world order (russia/ukraine a major blip, but notwithstanding). the transatlantic relationship is much less closely aligned on economics.

it's not the conventional wisdom. most observers say that, after bush, american policy looks more european these days--less militarist, more multilateralist. but actually, us foreign policy isn't becoming more like europe, it's becoming more like china. it's less focused on the military, except on issues of core security concern (in which case the united states acts with little need to consult allies), while american economic policy tends to be unilateralist in supporting preferred american geopolitical outcomes--which is seen most directly in us sanctions behavior (over $15bn in fines now levied against more than 20 international banks--mostly european) and nsa surveillance policy (with no willingness of the us to cooperate in a germany requested "no spying" mutual agreement)

transatlantic economic dissonance is also in evidence in a number of more fundamental ways: america's "growth uber alles" approach to a downturn in the economy, compared to germany's fixation on fiscal accountability. europe's greater alignment between governments and corporations on industrial policy, as opposed to a more decentralized, private-sector led (and occasionally captured) american policy environment. a more economy-driven opportunistic european approach to china, russia and other developing markets; the us government looking focused more on us-led/"universalist" principles on industrial espionage, intellectual property, etc.

as the g-zero persists, we will see the united states looking to enforce more unilateral economic standards that the europeans resent and resist; while the europeans look to other countries more strategically as counterbalances to american economic hegemony (the german-china relationship is critical in this regard, but that's also true of europe's willingness to support american economic policies in russia and the middle east). all of this means a much less cooperative trans-atlantic relationship--less "universalism" (from the american perspective) and less "multilateralism" (from the european perspective). more zero-sumness in the transatlantic relationship is a big change in the geopolitical environment; a precursor to true multipolarity, but in the interim a more fragmented and much less efficient global marketplace.

* * *

so that's where i see geopolitics emerging as a key factor for the global markets--much more than at any time since the end of the cold war. there's some good news and bad news here.

the good news is none of these geopolitical risks are likely to have the sort of market implications that the macro economic risks did after the financial crisis. there are lots of reasons for that. a low interest rate environment and solid growth from the us and china--plus the eurozone out of recession--along with pent up demand for investment is leading to significant optimism that won't be easily cowed by geopolitics. the supply/demand energy story is largely bearish, so near-term geopolitical risks from the middle east won't create sustained high prices. and markets don't know how to price geopolitical risk well; they're not covered as clearly analytically, so investors don't pay as much attention (until/unless they have to).

the bad news...that very lack of pressure from the markets means political leaders won't feel as much need to address these crises even as they expand, particularly in the united states. this is another reason the world's geopolitical crises will persist beyond a level that a similar economic crisis would hit before serious measures start to be taken to mitigate them. these geopolitical factors are going to grow. now's the time to start paying attention to them.

* * *
every once in a while, it's good to take a step back and look at the big picture. hope you found that worthwhile. i'll surely get back in the weeds next monday.

meanwhile, it's looking like a decidedly lovely week in new york.
very best,
Ian

From intel sources:

Dislodging ISIS Will Be a Difficult Task

 

The ISIS advance toward Baghdad may be temporarily held off as the government rallies its remaining security forces and Shia militias organize for the upcoming Battle for Baghdad. There is a rather clear reason why the ISIS leader has renamed himself Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, meaning the Caliph of Baghdad . ISIS will at a minimum be able to take control of some Sunni neighborhoods in Baghdad shortly and wreak havoc on the city with IEDs, ambushes, single suicide attacks, and suicide assaults that target civilians, the government, security forces, senior members of government, and foreign installations and embassies. Additionally, the brutal sectarian slaughter of Sunni and Shia alike that punctuated the violence in Baghdad from 2005 to 2007 is likely to return as Shia militias and ISIS fighters begin to assert control of neighborhoods and roam the streets.

Even if Iraqi forces are able to keep ISIS from fully taking Baghdad and areas south, it is unlikely the beleaguered military and police forces will be able to retake the areas under ISIS control in the north and west without significant external support, as well as the support of the Kurds.

ISIS and its allies are in a position today that closely resembles the position prior to the US surge back in early 2007. More than 130,000 US troops, partnered with the Sunni Awakening formations and Iraqi security forces numbering in the hundreds of thousands, were required to clear Anbar, Salahaddin, Diyala, Ninewa, Baghdad, and the "triangle of death." The concurrent operations took more than a year, and were supported by the US Air Force, US Army aviation brigades, and US special operations raids that targeted the jihadists’ command and control, training camps, and bases, as well as its IED and suicide bomb factories.

Today, the Iraqis have no US forces on the ground to support them, US air power is absent, the Awakening is scattered and disjointed, and the Iraqi military has been humiliated badly while surrendering or retreating in disarray during the lightning fast jihadists' campaign from Mosul to the outskirts of Baghdad. This campaign, by the way, has been remarkably and significantly faster than the U.S. armored campaign advance to Baghdad in 2003 . The US government has indicated that it will not deploy US soldiers in Iraq, either on the ground or at airbases to conduct air operations.  Meanwhile, significant amounts of US made advanced armaments, vehicles, ammunition, and diverse military equipment have fallen into ISIS jihadists’ hands .

ISIS is advancing boldly in the looming security vacuum left by the collapse of the Iraqi security forces and the West's refusal to recommit forces to stabilize Iraq. This has rendered the country vulnerable to further incursions by al Qaeda-linked jihadists as well as intervention by interested neighbors such as Iran. Overt Iranian intervention in Iraq would likely lead any Sunnis still loyal to the government to side with ISIS and its allies, and would ensure that Iraq would slide even closer to a full-blown civil war and de facto partition, and risk a wider war throughout the Middle East.

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