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Multiplying Halves

This note was originally published at 8am on January 10, 2012. INVESTOR and RISK MANAGER SUBSCRIBERS have access to the EARLY LOOK (published by 8am every trading day) and PORTFOLIO IDEAS in real-time.

“Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.”

-Colin Powell

 

Politicians have been trying to spin multiplication theories for generations. From time to time, within their own groupthink tanks, these theories have become particularly influential – especially with the large percentage of the political-class that doesn’t do math.

 

In 1936, when he wrote the General Theory, John Maynard Keynes focused on what he infamously coined “The Multiplier Effect.” The theory was that every dollar spent by government would have a multiplier effect (greater than 1) rippling throughout the economy. Unfortunately, when Keynesian governments tried that in the late 1920s it didn’t work – and it hasn’t worked since.

 

Despite being proved wrong throughout the 1929-1933 period, Keynes, ever the master Storyteller, found a way to re-frame his vision of the elixir of a government-stimulated life. Keynes preached “that it is a complete mistake to believe that there is a dilemma between schemes for increasing employment and schemes for balancing the budget.” (Keynes Hayek, page 135)

 

What does 1 scheme multiplied by 2 more failed schemes equal? But these guys have to do something!

 

Fortunately, President Bill Clinton figured this out and wanted nothing to do with being labeled a Keynesian. President Clinton, like President Reagan, oversaw one of the 2 largest decades of employment growth in US history (by decade, the 1980s and 1990s saw between 18-22 million jobs added (net), respectively – Obama/Bush decade = net zero).

 

And Clinton did it with a balanced budget mandate…

 

Fact Check: Clinton’s Balanced Budget Act of 1997 led to the following Federal Budget results:

  1. 1998 = +$69B surplus
  2. 1999 = +$124B surplus
  3. 2000 = +$230B surplus

“… the first surplus in three consecutive years since 1947-1949, when Harry Truman was President. The debt had been reduced by $360B in three years with $223B paid in 2000, the largest one-year debt reduction in American history.” (Keynes Hayek, page 274-275)

 

I’m not a Republican or a Democrat. I’m just a man who wants to get this right. And, setting aside all of the other angles on this Presidential Election, I think that if Obama or Romney get the economic policy messaging right, they’ll win the election.

 

So far, President Obama has a lot of Reagan in his economic policy legacy (ballooning national debt balance and Keynesian spending). Romney’s got plenty of baggage too, but maybe he has a bigger opportunity to be the change Americans want to see in our economics.

 

Last night on The Kudlow Report, Larry asked me what I’d suggest Romney be (economically). My answer: ½ Clinton ½ Reagan.

 

Back to the Global Macro Grind

 

I’m coming into this morning’s US market open hot. I don’t mean Alabama Crimson Tide hot – I mean locked and loaded with the most Global Equity exposure I’ve had in well over a year:

  1. Long US Consumer Discretionary(XLY)
  2. Long US Consumer Staples (XLP)
  3. Long US Utilities (XLU)
  4. Long Chinese Equities (CAF)
  5. Long Hong Kong Equities (EWH)

But how hot is hot? Well, get out the calculators and tell me what your money is up or down if you sold all of your Asian and US Equity exposure between February and April of last year, and you tell me.

 

We all invest from the vantage point of what’s in our own accounts. This cochamamy storytelling of the Old Wall that there is an optimal “asset allocation” is as broken as Keynes personal accounts were when they crashed in 1929.

 

Money compounds. Anyone who does math with their own money gets that. Money also gets evaporated during big draw-downs (i.e. if you’re still long SP500 1565 from October 2007, you’re still down -18.2% from there and need to be up over +22% to get back to breakeven). That’s math too – it’s called geometric.

 

For my money, moving to a 24% total Global Equity asset allocation in an environment like this actually makes me really nervous. Maybe that’s why it’s working for 2012 YTD (Chinese Equities are already up +3.9% for the year). Maybe it’s not. All I know is that what I don’t know is what makes me nervous about being long anything tied to government decision making.

 

Maybe Powell was right about the force-multiplier of optimism. Maybe I’ve been right on the trust-divider of fear-mongering. All I know is that, combined with a Strong Dollar, the best of ½ Clinton ½ Reagan is a winner for me.

 

My immediate-term support and resistance levels for Gold, Oil (Brent), EUR/USD, US Dollar Index, Shanghai Composite, and the SP500 are now $1592-1645, $111.89-115.61, $1.26-1.29, $80.41-81.61, 2178-2295, and 1269-1291, respectively.

 

Best of luck out there today,

KM

 

Keith R. McCullough
Chief Executive Officer

 

Multiplying Halves - Chart of the Day

 

Multiplying Halves - Virtual Portfolio



THE POWER OF CIRCUMSTANCE

“If we had 8% unemployment, Keynes would be back.  We must remember that economists are not necessarily the creatures of great thought but of circumstance.  Keynes would not have written ‘The General Theory’ except in the Great Depression.”

-John Kenneth Galbraith, 1999

 

Today’s quote of the day is typical of Galbraith; he expressed his views with a masterful economy of language.   Ten years after Galbraith made his prediction that Keynes would be back in vogue if unemployment reached 8%, his prophecy came true.  Robert Skidelsky began writing “Keynes: Return of the Master” – on January 1st, 1999 – as unemployment was just under 8% and trending higher.  The Wall Street Journal also devoted a full-page spread to Keynes a week after Skidelsky put pen to paper. 

 

It’s difficult to understand the motivations of academic economists.  The measure of success for an economist, some might argue, is whether or not one’s theory stands the test of time and remains part of future policy debates.  The difficulty with this, as Skidelsky highlights, is that circumstances may permit your ideas to be heard outside of academia but they will almost certainly demand that theories will, as policies, be applied in a vulgarized form.  The discrediting of economists in recent times has prompted many public figures to disavow all ties with the profession; Tim Geithner is just one example.

 

Despite the provocative title of his aforementioned book, Skidelsky is realistic and honest about the role of circumstance in the ascension of Keynes and others to the throne of economics that some would place them on, stating that “just as Keynes succeeded politically because unemployment was the problem of the 1930s, Friedman succeeded politically because inflation was the problem of the 1970s.”  The rise of Barrack Obama and, perhaps, the ever-perseverant Mitt Romney are also permitted more by the fickle preferences of their time than the genius of their ideas.  Thankfully, politicians and the policies they implement are answerable to voters.  One long term positive emerging in the United States is what could be called the bottoming process of political participation in this country.  Obama’s engagement of the youth vote through social media was a political revelation of a scale not seen since Reagan went public with his appeal for voters to contact their state representatives to support Federal Tax Reduction Legislation in July 1981.  The Great Communicator understood the value of engendering a feeling of inclusivity among the electorate and he warned Congress of the importance of public opinion, also in 1981, by quoting Teddy Roosevelt’s message to Congress 80 years prior, “The American people are slow to wrath but when their wrath is once kindled, it burns like a consuming flame.”  The aftermath of the Great Recession has bred a new strain of voter: young, confused and dissatisfied with their vision of the future.  The internet is greasing the wheel of mobilization as circumstance drives voters to wonder what factors are behind the country’s predicaments and how they can be changed.

 

A Gallup poll conducted in July 2011 posed the following question to Americans: What do you think is the most important problem facing this country today?  The top three responses were “economy in general”, “jobs”, and “federal debt/deficit”, making up 31%, 27%, and 16% of the responses, respectively.  While Obama has recorded some significant coups in terms of the War on Terror and has taken pride in health care legislation passed on his watch, what the vast majority of Americans want is the economy to be back on track.  The longer the “Jobless Recovery” continues, the less relevant other topics become.

 

We believe that a strong dollar is the first step to rejuvenating American confidence. 71% of GDP is consumption and a stronger dollar increases purchasing power.  GDP growth has strengthened sequentially as the greenback appreciated and we expect that to continue.  Politicians in Washington need to recognize the strong dollar and the impact it has had on the economy recently.  The short term impact for jobs has been unmistakably positive.

 

Our Chart of the Day highlights this point clearly.  The two meaningful positive moves in the US Dollar Index since 2009 have coincided with improvements in employment growth.  One of the many positives of democracy is that, in the end, the mandate is made clear.  The People’s directive to Washington, D.C. is to create jobs.  Economists that debate the optimal method by which to achieve this end are not incentivized to compromise.  There are neither direct consequences of their words nor any clock hurrying them through their thought processes.  Politicians are not being afforded such shelter from scrutiny.  To compromise is the most human of actions and, whether they like it or not, many political figures in Washington are going to be forced to do just that from now on.  The circumstances – and the People – demand it.

 

Have a great weekend,

Rory Green

 

THE POWER OF CIRCUMSTANCE - strong dollar

 

THE POWER OF CIRCUMSTANCE - VP 1 13


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INITIAL CLAIMS RISE IN THE EARLY INNINGS OF 2012

Initial Claims Rise

The headline initial claims number rose 27k WoW to 399k (up 24k after a 3k upward revision to last week’s data).  Rolling claims rose 7.75k to 382k. On a non-seasonally-adjusted basis, reported claims rose 102k WoW to 642k.

 

We've pointed out that there are two very important relationships to be cognizant of when looking at claims. The first stems from the observation that claims tend to begin falling from week 36 through year-end and then reverse in the first 1-2 months of the new year. This morning's print is consistent with that trend as this was the first print of 2012. The second relationship to watch is the relationship between the the S&P and claims, as shown in our chart below. Over the last two years we've noted that these two series move in tandem and that any divergence between the two is short lived.

 

Full mean reversion from the claims side implies a level around 410k. Conversely, should claims stay flat and the S&P revert, our model implies that the index would need to go to ~1350 to close the gap.

INITIAL CLAIMS RISE IN THE EARLY INNINGS OF 2012  - Rolling

 

INITIAL CLAIMS RISE IN THE EARLY INNINGS OF 2012  - Raw

 

INITIAL CLAIMS RISE IN THE EARLY INNINGS OF 2012  - NSA chart

 

INITIAL CLAIMS RISE IN THE EARLY INNINGS OF 2012  - S P 07 11

 

INITIAL CLAIMS RISE IN THE EARLY INNINGS OF 2012  - Claims and Fed

 

2-10 Spread

The 2-10 spread tightened 4 bps versus last week to 168 bps as of yesterday.  The ten-year bond yield decreased 7 bps to 191 bps.

 

INITIAL CLAIMS RISE IN THE EARLY INNINGS OF 2012  - 2 10

 

INITIAL CLAIMS RISE IN THE EARLY INNINGS OF 2012  - 2 10 QoQ

 

Financial Subsector Performance

The table below shows the stock performance of each Financial subsector over four durations. 

 

INITIAL CLAIMS RISE IN THE EARLY INNINGS OF 2012  - Subsector performance 2

 

Joshua Steiner, CFA

 

Allison Kaptur

 

Robert Belsky

 

Having trouble viewing the charts in this email?  Please click the link at the bottom of the note to view in your browser. 


The Resiliency of Oil


Conclusion:  Despite a strengthening U.S. dollar, the price of oil has not corrected.  This is a function of heightened geo-political risk, maxed-out Saudi Arabian production, and the U.S. insistence on using oil as a foreign policy tool against Iran.


Many of our key investment themes, and really macro asset allocations, over the past couple of years have been related to the direction of the U.S. dollar.  Specific to commodities, dollar up has consistently meant commodities down.  Recently, that correlation has weakened with oil.  In fact, both Brent crude and the U.S. dollar have broken into Bullish Formations on our quantitative models.

 

Given the recent rhetoric from Iran related to the Strait of Hormuz, the strength in the price of oil is not totally surprising.  In December, Iran threatened to shut the Strait of Hormuz if sanctions were imposed on its oil exports.  Subsequent to that announcement, Iran held a series of naval maneuvers over a period of ten days, ending on January 3rd, just east of the strait. 

 

Today, the latest gauntlet was thrown down over Iranian oil.  After meetings with U.S. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, the Japanese indicated that they intend to reduce their imports of Iranian oil, which stand at roughly 10% of their total imports.  Behind China at 20%, Japan is the second largest importer of Iranian oil at approximately 17% of total Iranian exports.  China, on the other hand, has been reluctant to cut its use of Iranian oil, though Premier Wen Jiabao is making his first trip to Saudi Arabia this weekend, which can be seen as an affront to Iran.

 

The strategic relevance of the Strait of Hormuz is that more than one-fifth of the world’s oil is transported through the strait, which is 34 miles wide at its narrowest.  As oil is transported out of the Persian Gulf it passes through the Strait of Hormuz before crossing in the Arabian Sea.  Every day, about 14 tankers carrying 15.5 million barrels of crude oil pass through the strait.

 

The Resiliency of Oil - hormuz pic

 

On “Face the Nation” this past Sunday, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Martin Dempsey was very specific in stating that the U.S. was prepared to act aggressively should Iran attempt to block the strait.  General Dempsey stated:

 

“They’ve invested in capabilities that could, in fact, for a period of time block the Strait of Hormuz.  We’ve invested in capabilities that ensure if that happens, we can defeat that.”  

 

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta echoed these comments and also indicated that efforts by Iran to build a nuclear weapon would also constitute a “red line”, which implies potential the need for U.S. retaliation.

 

On the subject of nuclear weapons, according to the Iranian newspaper, Kayhan, Iran has started to enrich uranium at its Fordo production facility.  The Fordo plant is built into the side of a mountain near Qom, a Muslim holy city, which is located just south of Tehran.  (Ironically, the Fordo location is also believed to be the site of the largest number of fatalities in the Iran-Iraq war.)  This site was disclosed in 2009 and has been at the epicenter of the debate over whether Iran is on the path to nuclear weapons, or merely using this enrichment for energy purposes.  We’ve posted a satellite image of the site below.

 

The Resiliency of Oil - 2

 

Coincident with the strong language voice this weekend on “Meet the Press” by the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Council on Foreign Relations publication, “Foreign Affairs”, featured an article by former Pentagon defense planner Matthew Kroenig titled, “Time to Attack Iran”.  According to the article:

 

“But skeptics of military action fail to appreciate the true danger that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose to U.S. interests in the Middle East and beyond.  And their grim forecasts assume that the cure would be worse than the disease -- that is, that the consequences of a U.S. assault on Iran would be as bad as or worse than those of Iran achieving its nuclear ambitions.  But that is a faulty assumption.  The truth is that a military strike intended to destroy Iran’s nuclear program, if managed carefully, could spare the region and the world a very real threat and dramatically improve the long-term national security of the United States.”

 

His conclusion is simply that the U.S. has little choice but to attack, and the time to do so is now.

 

Obviously, Kroenig’s view is more aggressive than the administration’s in terms of how to deal with Iran, and his essay shouldn’t be construed as carrying water for the administration, despite being a former advisor to the Secretary of Defense.  Regardless, if the resilience of the price of oil, strong actions by the Iranians, and strong language by the Americans are telling us anything, it is that the Iranian issue is not going away in the short-term. 

 

In the scenario that military action is taken against Iran, the risk management question to ponder is: what will the impact on the price of oil be?  As a proxy, in the two charts below, we evaluated how the price of Brent reacted in the six months leading to Gulf Wars I and II and the six months preceding.   In Gulf War I, the price of oil ran up into the event and then almost doubled as the invasion ensued, but six months later was lower than the price at the start of the war.  In Gulf War II, which was slightly different given the long anticipatory period, the price of Brent actually sold off on the news and six months later was basically at the same price.

 

The Resiliency of Oil - brent.gwi

 

The Resiliency of Oil - brent.gwii

 

 

Currently, at least based on mainstream reports, an invasion of Iran is not being seriously contemplated, but rather the likely action, if any, would be a strategic strike, so it is perhaps somewhat inaccurate to compare the Gulf Wars to a potential action in Iran.  Conversely, though, Iran is a much more critical player in the world oil supply.  Specifically, after Saudi Arabia and Canada, Iran has the third most reserves globally, about 10% of the world’s total.  As well, Iran is the third largest oil exporter after Russia and Saudi Arabia.

 

The heightened rhetoric relating to Iran comes at a time when Saudi Arabia is reportedly pumping close to capacity at 10 million barrels per day.  This means that there is very little spare capacity in the event of either the Iranians closing, even if for a period of time, the Strait of Hormuz, or a strategic strike against Iran that shutters some of their production.  Thus, we shouldn’t be surprised by the resiliency in the price of oil, particularly Brent.

 

Daryl G. Jones

Director of Research


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