Thursday, September 16, 2010

Wheels Coming Off Global Economy

Today may have been a watershed day for the demise of the global economy. There were any number of troubling events - most of which were completely overlooked by the computers making trades on US markets - that signal a major event could decouple governments from their economies, people from their money, banks from credits, and on and on...

Take, for instance, the activity in the Forex markets, where the Bank of Japan decided to intervene for the first time in six years, to keep the Yen from appreciating. The intervention actually took place on Wednesday, but it's effects will be far-reaching and continual. All currencies are seeking levels at which they can find comfort in trade - cheap imports, value on exports - but, not everybody can have it their way, obviously. These kinds of things lead to crises, political, economic and sometimes military.

But that's probably not going to get too many people worked up. Maybe the thought of foreclosures on the rise might suffice. The banks are apparently trying to manage the foreclosure process, in other words, slowing it down so that they don't create a glut of homes on the market and cause prices to fall even further.

It's a gamble that isn't likely to work out, however. Prices do what they're supposed to do. Mismanaged properties sell for less. Homes which were overpriced to begin with will find their correct level. Despite what the bankers holding most of the mortgages (Bank of America) believe, Americans are smarter than they think, and with an economy suffering from 20% real unemployment, keeping prices suspended artificially is probably more wishful thinking than prudent planning.

The real estate market has gone through this before, as in the past two years the flood of foreclosures was partially stemmed by various government programs and tax bribes, modifications and work-outs. Home prices fell precipitously, nevertheless. So, as with anything having to do with banks these days, we offer a hearty, "good luck with that!"

How about thinking ahead a bit, like how much you'll be taking in every month when you're retired? The news there isn't very rosy either. Here's a report that offers the sobering conclusion that at the end of 2008 (hey, that was almost two years ago!), public pension funds were experiencing a shortfall of anywhere between $1 Trillion and $4.4 TRILLION! That's a lot of money that people are unlikely to be receiving in their "golden years."

But, that's just the start of it. Of the more than 1700 publicly-traded companies which operate pension plans for employees almost all of them are seriously underfunded. "The assets of corporate pensions relative to their deficits, known as the funded ratio, fell to 70.1% in August..." says a report by the Milliman 100 Pension Funding Index.

And that's without even looking at Social Security or Medicare, both systems hopelessly bankrupt and already bleeding red ink. When baby-boomers begin retiring in droves in the next two to five years, the systems will be beyond repair and likely need major modifications, such as no COLA, raised retirement ages and lower benefits. (Ed. Note: Being 56 myself, this doesn't make me necessarily happy, though my choice to not pay into any kind of pension plan and avoid SS tax at all costs now seems a prudent maneuver.)

OK, had enough? How about chewing on an arcane document of the American Monetary Institute from 2004, delivered by Director Stephen Zarlenga to the British House of Lords, which outlines, among other things, how government issuing money (not the Federal Reserve, a private bank), without the backing of gold or silver, has been the most fruitful.

This shoots major holes in the argument that "gold is money," and a true store of value and all the other clap-trap that have made gold the most speculative, over-priced commodity on the planet. As I and some non-gold-infused friends like to say, "you can't eat a gold bar and you can't buy a candy bar with it", or, "try buying a loaf of bread with a Kruggerand. Ypu've have better luck buying the whole bakery."

So much for the bad news. There was some good news, somewhere, but nobody seemed able to locate it. Nonetheless, the computers trading US stocks (You do know that 70% of all trades are executed without human involvement, don't you?) managed to issue forth another split decision, with the Dow and NASDAQ up, but the S&P and NYSE down, that, in itself, troubling. market divergence is almost always a telling sign that a correction isn't far off. Making matters more complex and compelling, trading volumes were down to absurdly low levels once again, running at a rate 30% below last year.

Dow 10,594.83, +22.10 (0.21%)
NASDAQ 2,303.25, +1.93 (0.08%)
S&P 500 1,124.66, -0.41 (0.04%)
NYSE Composite 7,169.48, -10.31 (0.14%)

In opposition to the benign headline numbers, declining issues pounded advancers, 3419-2260. The number of new highs to new lows remained static and statistically insignificant, at 308-48.

NASDAQ Volume 1,703,297,625
NYSE Volume 3,354,712,000

Crude oil futures were slammed down $1.45, to $74.57, but gold made another all-time high, at $1,271.90. up $5.20. Silver kept climbing in stride, up 20 cents, to $20.74.

Now, if there's anything we should have learned from first, the tech bubble of the late 90s and second, the housing bubble of the 2000s, that when the object of the bubble is advertised heavily on TV - remember How about 125% home equiy loans? - it's usually safe to say the asset is overpriced and due for a fall. It happened with tech stocks. It happened with houses, so it's probably going to happen with gold (and probably silver) because of the rampant number of ads telling us to buy gold, cash in our gold and get gold or cash in some manner. It's a mania, pure and simple. Gold and silver have increased in value by 400% or more over the past decade. When will it end? Nobody really knows, but buying at these nosebleed levels is the stuff of fools. Real estate looks much better, especially if you're assigned to the basic tenet of all investing, "buy low, sell high."

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