1) The rating agencies have been running like crazy. They do that when they are behind the curve. Whether it is Moody’s on subprime, or S&P on Alt-A lending, the downgrades are coming in packs. Then there are difficulties with the debts of real estate partnerships, like LandSource Communities Development, which is likely to file for insolvency, together with some residential developers.

2) Now, there have been a few summary pieces on how the rating agencies changed as the housing boom moved on. Here is one from the New York Times, and one from the Wall Street Journal. As I had commented long before in my writings at RealMoney, the rating agencies were co-dependent with those that paid them. That said, it would be hard to construct a system that would not be that way. Buyers don’t have a concentrated interest in ratings. Issuers so.

3) If I were Ambac, I would be doing all that I could to allege fraud on contracts where representations and warranties were not upheld. Ambac is fighting to survive.

4) Mortgage insurers — it is the best of times, if you survive, because you are the almost the only game in town for those wanting to do low down payments, and rates for mortgage insurance are way up. But, it is the worst of times, housing prices are falling, rating agencies are downgrading, and defaults on insured mortgages are rising.

5) Foreclosures:

6) Gotta love OFHEO, which is trying to rein in the GSEs during a lending crisis. Even though they may have traction, I don’t see how they tighten the regulations during a crisis.

7) For that matter, consider the lenders. Countrywide seemed to purposely ignore the creditworthiness of borrowers as they jammed it out the door lent on mortgages. Even with all this, mortgage lenders are complaining that new regulations will make mortgages less affordable. What they mean is that they will issue fewer mortgages, and they will make less profit. Please, let’s stop making it easy for those that can’t afford a home to take the risk of buying one. Higher mortgage rates are bad in the short run, but good in the long run.

8 ) Dr. Jeff reluctantly asks what inning we are in on housing. I understand that it is an overused metric, but it is overused for a reason. Nine is an intuitive number — are we halfway through? Fifth inning. One-quarter? Third. Almost done? Eight or ninth. He also makes a simple request to those of us who opine on the housing slump, to be more definite in what we say, provide more data, and what will be signs that the troubles are turning.

I need to set up some housing recovery googlebots to scan for me, but my guess is that we are in the fifth inning of the troubles. When I get more definitive guesses/answers to the questions, I will post.

9) Delinquencies:

10) Home prices continue to fall, and estimates to the nadir (cycle low) range between 0-50%, with 10-20% being the most common.

11) Falling home prices will lead to many more foreclosures in prime loans, and of course Alt-A and subprime. Foreclosures happen when a sale would result in a loss, and a negative life event hits — death, divorce, disaster, disability, and unemployment.

12) Second-order effects:

As we were driving down the highway Monday evening, back from our oldest daughter’s symphony concert at U-MD, my wife and I began talking about teaching children about money.  We homeschool, so we have to consider a lot in training our children for the real world.

Some of my children have an interest in the market, some don’t. Personalities differ, but you want to give them some core knowledge that everyone can use. There have been people in our home school get-togethers who when they find out I am an investor, they ask “Do you know of any good books on the stock market for kids?” Lamely, I suggest the out-of-print book by Ken Fisher’s son, Clayton, which is pretty good, but I didn’t think it was definitive.  One has complained to me about the Stock Market Game, which seems to teach speculation, not investment.

That’s true of most stock market contests — the only exception I can think of was the Value Line contest back in 1984 . I managed to place in the top 1%, but not high enough to win. That contest forced you to pick 10 stocks from ten different groups for six months. The stocks were sorted by price volatility deciles, so you had to pick some volatile stocks and tame stocks. The stocks were equal weighted, and there was no trading. Great contest — I would love to run something like that. I have suggested it to The Street.com, but no dice. Hey, maybe Seeking Alpha would like to try it! Nominal prize money, but there would be bragging rights!  (Abnormal Returns, this could work for you as well…)

My wife tells me to think about it. Well, today, as I’m going through my personal e-mail, I run across a note from the Home School Legal Defense Association promoting the National Financial Literacy Challenge. Timely, I think. They are having a competition based off of the national standards published in 2007 by the Jump$tart Coalition for Personal Finance.

So I look at the standards, and I think, “These are pretty detailed… how can you turn this into a usable curriculum?”  I print them out and read a little bit of them to my wife Ruth, who says, “Typical for those that set standards, and aren’t teachers; you can’t work with that stuff.”  My wife was a high school teacher, and despite that hindrance, she still homeschools well.  But she knows the troubles that come to public school teachers as mandates come down from on high.

She asked me, “What would you recommend, then?”  I thought about it and said that the personal finance book that I reviewed recently, Easy Money, would be a good book for high school seniors to read.  It’s not a complex book at all.  Afterward I would discuss it with them.  She asked me why I hadn’t done that for our older two children and I said, “It was published after they went to college.  I’ll ask them to read it this summer.”

For investing, I still think that Buffett’s Annual Reports are understandable to most teens.  Marty Whitman is easy to read as well.  But I always liked Ben Graham, and I think The Intelligent Investor is accessible to the average teenager.  Good investing is not complex… but often we make it so.

Full disclosure: if you enter Amazon from my links and buy anything, I get a small commission.  It is my substitute for the tip jar, and it doesn’t increase your costs at all.

I find it interesting that some former senior people at the Fed are breaking the “code of silence.”  I don’t mean that those that leave the Fed go totally silent, but they are usually supportive of the current Fed if they speak.  Even Greenspan, who pushes his own legacy, is largely supportive of Bernanke.  But with Volcker speaking out, others are emboldened, like Vincent Reinhart.  I don’t know exactly what Reinhart said in his speech yesterday, but I would bet that it is similar to what he wrote here.

Some of his comments are similar to what I wrote in point 1 of this blog post of mine:

1) How to do a bank/financial bailout: a) wipe out common and preferred equity and the subordinated debt (and offer some warrants to the debtholders).  Make the senior debt take a haircut of 50% (and offer warrants), and the bank debt a haircut of 20% (and offer warrants). Capital is offered in exchange for the equity interest, together with some senior financing pari passu with the banks.  If the management and other stakeholders do not like those terms (or something like them), then don’t bail them out.

Now, realize I’m not crazy about “lender of last resort” powers being in the hands of the government, but if we’re going to do that, you may as well do it right, and bail out depositors in full, while having others take modest to large haircuts.  There is no reason why the government/Federal Reserve should bail out common or preferred equityholders, and those that bought risky debt should pay part of the price as well.  This should only be done for institutions where significant contagion effects could affect other financial institutions.  The objective is to create a firewall for depositors, and the rest of the financial system.

There were better ways to achieve the protection of the derivatives market the the Fed wanted to achieve.  Take a page out of the playbook of the insurance regulators that are sweating over the financial guarantors.  Are they worried about the holding companies that own the operating insurers?  No, they are only worried about the operating insurers.  In the same way, the Fed didn’t need to sell off Bear Stearns, and (in a way) backstop the sale.  All they needed to do was say that they would provide credit to the derivatives arm if Bear failed.

Hindsight may be 20/20, but the Fed neglects Bagehot’s rule to lend infinitely at a penalty rate in a crisis.  The penalty has not been there.  Beyond that, Reinhart points to the ways that the Fed is taking credit risk onto its balance sheet, which limits its flexibility.

Can that credit risk have negative impacts on the Fed?  Yes, but maybe those effects aren’t big.  The Fed is a profitable institution.  How profitable?  Who gets the profits?  Well, the US Treasury gets the profits, essentially unifying the Fed with the US government in an economic sense.  From fiscal 2005-2007, the Fed earned $18.1, 21.5, and 28.5 billion respectively.  Any losses from credit risk will diminish what the Fed dividends back to the US Treasury, which will raise borrowing and taxes.  So the impact is minor, in one sense — you can destroy the value of the US Dollar, but the Fed is an arm of the US Government in an economic sense.  It dies only when the US Government dies, or when the US Government eliminates it (hey, it’s happened before in US history).

One thing about Jim Cramer, he is quotable.  Take this short bit from his piece, Graybeards Get It Wrong on Financials.

One of the loudest and most pervasive themes by a lot of the graybeards is that there is still much more pain ahead in the financials.Let me explain why that is wrong. First, the group is down from a year ago. It’s been hammered mercilessly.

More important, every time the stock market rallies is another chance for these companies to refinance.

Remember, as they go up, the companies are in shape to tap the equity market again because those who bought lower are being rewarded, psyching others to take a chance. In fact, other than the monoline insurance faux bailouts, people who pony up are doing pretty well.

Now, he might be right, and me wrong on this point (with my gray beard, though I am younger than he is).  But let me point out what has to go right for his forecast to be correct.

1) The inventory of vacant homes has to start declining.  Still rising for now, another new record.  Beyond that, you have a lot of what I call lurking sellers around, waiting to put more inventory out onto the market, if prices rise a little.  They will have to wait a while, and many will lose patience and sell anyway.  There is still to much debt financing our housing stock, and though most of the subprime shock is gone, much of the shock from other non-subprime ARMs that will reset remains.  Will prices drop from here by 20%?  I think it will be more like 12%, but if it is 20% there will be many more foreclosures, absent some change in foreclosure laws.  Foreclosures happen when a sale would result in a loss, and a negative life event hits — death, divorce, disaster, disability, and unemployment.

2) We still have to reconcile a lot of junk corporate debt issued from 2004-2007, much of which is quite weak.  Credit bear markets don’t end before you take a lot of junk defaults, and we have barely been nicked.  Yes, we have had a sharp rally in credit spreads over the last five weeks, but bear market rallies in credit are typically short, sharp, and common, keeping the shorts/underweighters on their toes.  You typically get several of them before the real turn comes.

3) We have not rationalized a significant amount of the excess synthetic leverage in the derivatives market.  With derivatives for every loser, there is a winner, but the question is how good the confidence in creditworthiness between the major investment banks remains.  Away from that, Wall Street will be less profitable for some time as securitization, and other leveraged businesses will recover slowly.

4) Credit statistics for the US consumer continue to deteriorate — if not the first lien mortgages, look at the stats on home equity loans, auto loans, and credit cards.  All are doing worse.

5) Weakness in the real economy is increasing as a result of consumer stress.  Will real GDP growth remain positive?  I have tended to be more bullish than most here, but the economy is looking weaker.  Let’s watch the next few months of data, and see what wanders in… I don’t see a sharp move down, but measured move into very low growth in 2008.

6) What does the Fed do?  Perhaps they can take a page from Cramer, and look at the progress from private repair of the financial system through equity and debt issuance.  It’s a start, at least.  But the Fed has increasingly encumbered is balance sheet with lower quality paper.  Two issues: a) if there are more lending market crises, the Fed can’t do a lot more — maybe an amount equal to what they have currently done.  b) What happens when they begin to collapse the added leverage?  Okay, so they won’t do it, unless demand goes slack… that still leaves the first issue.  There are limits to the balance sheet of the Fed.

Beyond that, the Fed faces a weak economy, and rising inflation.  Again, what does the Fed do?

7) Much of the inflation pressures are global in nature, and there is increasing unwillingness to buy dollar denominated fixed income assets.  The books have to balance — our current account deficit must be balanced by a capital account surplus; the question is at what level of the dollar do they start buying US goods and services, rather than bonds?

8 ) Oh, almost forgot — more weakness is coming in commercial real estate, and little of that effect has been felt by the investment banks yet.

As a result, I see a need for more capital raising at the investment banks, and more true equity in the capital raised.  Debt can help in the short run, but can leave the bank more vulnerable when losses come.  The investment banks need to delever more, and prepare for more losses arising from junk corporates and loans, housing related securities, and the weak consumer.

1) I think Ambac is dreaming if they think they will maintain their AAA ratings. Aside from the real deterioration in their capital position, they now face stronger competition. Buffett got the AAA without the usual five-year delay because he has one of the few remaining natural AAAs behind him at Berky. (Political pressure doesn’t hurt either… many municipalities want credit enhancement that they believe is worth something.)

2) I read through the documents from the Senate hearings on the rating agencies, and my quick conclusion is that there won’t be a lot of change, particularly on such a technical topic in an election year. And, in my opinion, it would be difficult to change the system from its current configuration, and still have securitization go on. Now, maybe securitization should be banned; after all, it offers an illusion of liquidity liquidity in good times, but not in bad times, for underlying assets that are fungible, but not liquid.

3) I am not a fan of Fair Value Accounting. But if we’re going to do it, let’s do it right, as I suggested to an IASB commissioner several years ago. Have two balance sheets and two income statements. One set would be fair value, and the other amortized cost. It would not be any more work than we are doing now.

4) Now, some bankers are up in arms over fair value, and I’m afraid I can’t sympathize. If you’re going to invest in or borrow using complex instruments that amortized cost accounting can’t deal with, you should expect the accounting regulations to change.

5) Just because you can classify assets or liabilities as level 3 doesn’t mean the market will give full credibility to your model. Accounting uncertainty always receives lower valuations. It as if the market says, :These assets will have to prove themselves through their cash flows, we can’t capitalize earnings here. The same applies to the temporary gains from revaluing corporate liabilities down because of credit stress. If the creditworthiness recovers, though gains will be reversed, and good analysts should lower their future earnings estimates when bond spreads widen, to the degree that present gains are taken.

6) The student loan market is interesting, with so many lenders dropping out. This is one area where the auction-rate securities market initially hurt matters when it blew up, but there was a feature that said that the auction rate bonds could not receive more than the student lenders were receiving. So, after rates blew out for a little while, now some the auction rate bonds are receiving zero (for a while).

7) After yesterday’s post, I mused about how much the high yield market has come back, and with few defaults, aside from those that should have been dead anyway. With liquidiity low at some firms, there will be more to come. Personally, I expect spreads to eclipse their recent wides as things get worse, but enjoy the bear market rally for now.

8) Many munis are still cheap, but the “stupid cheap” money has been made. Lighten up a little if you went to maximum overweight.

9) What’s the Big Money smoking? They certainly are optimistic in this Barron’s piece. One thing that I can find to support them is insider buying, which is high relative to selling at present. And, even ahead of the recent run, hedge funds (and many mutual funds) had been getting more conservative. Guess they had to buy the rally. On the other side, there is a sort of leakage from DB plans, as many of them allocate more to hedge funds and private equity.

10) Does large private equity fund size lead to bad decision making? I would think so. Larger deals are more scarce, and so added urgency comes when they are available. Negotiating for such deals is more intense, and the winner often suffers the winner’s curse of having overbid.

11) I am not a believer in the shorts being able to manipulate the markets as much as some would say. It’s easier to manipulate on the long side. Here is a good post at Ultimi Barbarorum on the topic.

12) Financials are the largest sector in the S&P 500.  Perhaps not for long… they may shrink below the size of the Tech sector at current rates, or, Energy could grow to be the largest.  Nothing would make me more skittish about my energy longs.  The largest sector always seems to get hit the hardest, whether Financials today, or Tech in 2000, or Energy in the mid-90s.

I just upgraded the blog and all of its software to WordPress 2.5.1. It should allow me to do more with the blog in terms of format flexibility and a few other things. It should improve the overall stability of the blog, as well as a few things that should make the blog harder to hack. Oh, I got my descriptive permalinks back. Yay! 🙂

If you notice anything going wrong, or if you have a suggestion for the blog, please let me know. I have tried to get clicking on the top banner to return to the front page, but I am afraid I can’t figure it out. On a positive note, I’ve never had a spam problem at my blog. Between Akismet and moderating all initial comments, I have been able to screen all spam. We’ll see how well that works in the future.

One more note: I get a lot of spammers that register for my blog from Russia and Poland. If you are based in Russia or Poland, and are a true reader of my blog, send me a note, because I am going to block certain domains from registering at my blog.

The bond market has had quite a shift since the last Fed meeting. What are the common themes?

  • Outperformance of credit, especially high yield.
  • Return of the carry trade.
  • Tax-free Munis have run.
  • Underperformance of Treasuries (longer= worse), and foreign bonds, particularly carry trade currencies like the Yen and Swiss Franc.

The willingness to take risks in fixed income has returned, particularly in the last two weeks. I don’t want to tell you that this is a trend that won’t reverse… it might reverse. Remember that bear market rallies tend to be short and sharp, and that the credit bear market in 2000-2002 had several legs. Leg one may be over for this credit bear market, but that doesn’t mean the credit bear market is over; there are still too many unresolved credit issues in housing, builders and investment banks.

Now, to flesh out the changes, I looked at the total returns on 15 major ETFs in different sectors of the bond market. Here are the returns since 3/19:

  • HYG — High yield Corporates + 4.47%
  • DBV — Carry trade fund +2.83%
  • MUB — National Municipals +1.10%
  • LQD — Investment Grade Corporates +0.99%
  • FXE — Euro currency Trust +0.29%
  • BIL — Treasury Bills -.06% (Negative on T-bills?!)
  • AGG — Lehman Aggregate -1.03%
  • SHY — Short Treasuries -1.18%
  • TIP — TIPS ETF -2.85%
  • IEI — 3-7 yr Treasuries -3.41%
  • FXF — Swiss Franc Currency Trust -3.44%
  • BWX — Intl. Gov’t Bond Fund -3.49%
  • IEF — 7-10 yr Treasuries -3.74%
  • TLT — 20+ Treasuries – 4.87%
  • FXY — Yen Currency Trust -5.30%

What a whipping for safe assets. Perhaps the Fed will be happy that they helped engineer the whacking. Then again, the TED spread is still high, and the change might just be a normal shift in sentiment after the panic leading up to the last FOMC meeting. Interesting to see both the return of the carry trade and credit spreads outperforming the move in Treasuries.

For those that follow my sector recommendations, I would be lightening, but not exiting credit positions in the near term. I’m in the midst of considering my other sector recommendations, and will report on this soon. For more on this topic, refer to:

Before I close, one large negative area where there is excess supply: preferred stock of financial companiesThere is a lot floating around from balance sheet repair efforts where they didn’t want to dilute the common.  (That’s the next act.)  I would stay away for now, but keep my eyes on selected floating rate trust preferreds, to leg into on the next leg down.

A word before I start: I’m averaging two book review requests a month at present. I tell the PR people that I don’t guarantee a review (though I have reviewed them all so far), or even a favorable review. They send the books anyway.

Included in every book is a 2-6 page summary of what a reviewer would want to know, so he can easily write a review. Catchy bits, crunchy quotes, outlines…

I don’t read those. I read or skim the book. If I skim the book, I note that in my review. Typically, I only skim a book when it is a topic that I know cold. Otherwise I read, and give you my unvarnished opinion. I’m not in the book selling business… I’m here to help investors. If you buy a few books (or anything else) through my Amazon links, that’s nice. Thanks for the tip. I hope you gain insight from me worth far more.

If I can keep you from buying a bad book, then I’ve done something useful for you. I have more than enough good books for readers to buy. Plus, I review older books that no one will push. I hope eventually to get all of my favorites written up for readers.

Enough about my review process; on with the review:

When the PR guy sent me the title of the book, I thought, “Oh, no. Another investing formula book. I probably won’t like it.” Well, I liked it, but with some reservations.

The authors are a father and son — Gerard Appel and Marvin Appel, Ph. D. They manage over $300 million of assets together. The father has written a bunch of books on technical analysis, and the son has written a book on ETFs.

Well, it is an investing formula book… it has a simple method for raising returns and reducing risks that has worked in the past. The ideas are simple enough that an investor could apply them in one hour or so every three months. I won’t give you the whole formula, because it wouldn’t be fair to the authors. The ideas, if spun down to their core, would fill up one long blog post of mine. But you would lose a lot of the explanations and graphs which are helpful to less experienced readers. The book is well-written, and I found it a breezy read at ~200 pages.

I will summarize the approach, though. They use a positive momentum strategy on three asset classes — domestic equities, international equities, and high yield bonds, and a buy-and-hold strategy on investment grade bonds. They apply these strategies to open- and closed-end mutual funds and ETFs. They then give you a weighting for the four asset classes to create a balanced portfolio that is close to what I would consider a reasonable allocation for a middle aged person.

Their backtests show that their balanced portfolio earned more than the S&P 500 from 1979-2007, with less risk, measured by maximum drawdown. Okay, so the formula works in reverse. What do we have to commend/discredit the formula from what I know tend to happen when formulas get applied to real markets?


  • Momentum effects do tend to persist across equity styles.
  • Momentum effects do tend to persist across international regional equity returns.
  • Momentum effects do tend to persist on high yield returns in the short run.
  • The investment grade buy-and-hold bond strategy is a reasonable one, if a bit quirky.
  • Keeps investment expenses low.
  • Gives you some more advanced strategies as well as simple ones.
  • The last two chapters are there to motivate you to save, because they suggest the US Government won’t have the money they promised to pay you when you are old. (At least not in terms of current purchasing power…)


  • The time period of the backtest was unique 3/31/1979-3/31/2007. There are unique factors to that era: The beginning of that period had high interest rates, and low equity valuations. Interest rates fell over the period, and equity valuations rose. International investing was particularly profitable over the same period… no telling whether that will persist into the future.
  • I could not tie back the numbers from their domestic equity and international equity strategies in the asset allocation portfolio to their individual component strategies.
  • I suspect that might be because though the indexes existed over their test period, tradeable index funds may not have existed, so in the individual strategy components they might be done over shorter time horizons, and then used indexes for the backtest. This is just a hypothesis of mine, and it doesn’t destroy their overall thesis — just the degree that it outperforms in the past.
  • They occasionally recommend fund managers, most of whom I think are good, but funds change over time, so I would be careful about being married to a fund just because it did well in the past.
  • If style factors or international regional return factors get choppy, this would underperform. I don’t think that is likely, investors chase past performance, so momentum works in the short run.
  • Though you only act four times a year, that’s enough to generate a lot of taxable events if you are not doing this in a tax-sheltered account.
  • It looks like they reorganized the book at the end, because the one footnote for Chapter 9 references Chapter 10, when it really means chapter 8.

The Verdict

I think their strategy works, given what I know about momentum strategies. I don’t think it will work as relatively well in the future as in the past for 3 reasons:

  • There is more momentum money in the market now than in the past… momentum strategies should still work but not to the same degree.
  • International investing is more common than in the past… the payoff from it should be less. There aren’t that many more areas of the world to go capitalist remaining, and who knows? We could hit a new era of socialism abroad, or even in the US.
  • Interest rates are low today, and equity valuations are not low.

Who might this book be good for? Someone who only invests in mutual funds, and wants to try to get a little more juice out of them. The rules on managing the portfolio are simple enough that they could be done in an hour or two once every three months. Just do it in a tax-sheltered account, and be aware that if too many people adopt momentum strategies (not likely), this could underperform.

Full disclosure: If you buy anything from Amazon after entering through one of my links, I get a small commission.

1)  Let’s start out with my forecast.  I’ve given it before, but it has become the conventional wisdom — at the next FOMC meeting at the end of April, the Fed will cut by 25 basis points.  They will make the usual noises about both inflation and economic weakness, as well as difficulties in the financial system, and comment that they have done a lot already — it is time to wait to see the power flow.  The only difficulty is whether we get another blowup in the lending markets that affects the banks.  We could see Fed funds below 2% in that case, but absent another crisis, 2% looks like the low point for this cycle.  Now all that said, I think the odds of another crisis popping up is 50/50.  We aren’t through with the decline in housing prices, and there are a lot of mortgages and home equity loans that will receive their due pain.

2) One interesting sideshow will be how loud the hawks will be opposing a 25 basis point cut.  We have comments from voting members Plosser and Fisher already. Price inflation is a real threat to them, and one that is closer to the Fed’s core mission than protecting the financial system.

3)  Okay, give the Fed some credit regarding the TSLF, which is now almost not needed.  The TAF is another matter — there is continuing demand for credit there.  It will be interesting to see when the Fed will stop the the TSLF, and what happens when they try to unwind the TAF.  As it seems, some banks still need significant liquidity from the TAF.

4) Indeed, if the Fed is lending to investment banks, it should regulate them.  I would prefer they didn’t lend to investment banks, though.  Better they should lend to commercial banks that are negatively affected by investment bank failures, and let the investment banks fail.  After all, there is public interest in the safety of depositary institutions, but I’m not sure that if the investment banks disappeared, and the commercial banks were fine, that the public would care much.  It certainly would teach the investment banks and the investing public a real lesson on overdoing leverage.

5)  Okay, so LIBOR rises after it seems that some bankers have been lowballing the rate in an effort to show that they are not desperate for funds.  Significant?  Yes, the TED spread has widened 12 basis points since then.   I’m sure that borrowers with mortgages that float off LIBOR will be grateful for the scrutiny.

Having been in similar situations in the insurance industry regarding GIC contracts, I’m a little surprised that the BBA doesn’t have some requirement regarding honoring the rate quote up to some number of dollars.  On the other hand, can’t they track actual eurodollar trading the way Fed funds gets done, and then just publish an average rate?

6) Onto the last three points, which are the most controversial.  You know that I think the core rate of inflation is a bogus concept.  If you are trying to smooth the result, better to use a median or a trimmed mean, rather than throwing out classes of data, particularly ones that have had the highest rates of inflation.  Given the inflation that is happening in the rest of the world, I find it difficult to believe that we are the only ones with low inflation, unless it is an artifact of being the global reserve currency.

7) I was quoted at TheStreet.com’s main site regarding the Fed. I think that the Fed is caught between a rock and a hard place, but I am not as pessimistic as this piece.

8 ) Finally, how do the actions of the Fed get viewed abroad?  Given the fall in the US Dollar, not nearly as favorably as the press coverage goes in the US.  Do I blame them? No.  They sense that they are losing economic value to the US, and that they are implicitly subsidizing us.  No wonder they complain.

Sometimes we forget how bad it can be, and then we howl over minor bad times in the markets. We may be past a mania in residential housing, but we have not really experienced a panic or crash yet. People squeal over how bad the equity market is, but recently we haven’t had anything like the 2000-2002 experience, much less the 1973-1974 or 1929-1932 experience.

Two books come to mind when I think about disaster in a non-fear-mongering way: Manias, Panics, and Crashes, by Charles Kindleberger, and Devil Take the Hindmost, by Edward Chancellor. They take two different approaches to the topic, and those approaches complement each othe, giving a fuller picture. Chancellor takes a historical approach, while Kindleberger deals with the structures of financial crises.

From Chancellor, you will see that manias and their subsequent fallout are endemic to Western culture. Someone living a full life over the last 300+ years would see one or two big ones, and numerous small ones. Relatively free societies give people freedom to make mistakes. Given the way that people chase performance, we can all make mistakes as a group, with large booms and busts. Much as the regulators might want to tame it, they can pretty much only affect what kind of crisis we get, and not whether we get one. He is somewhat prescient in suggesting that the leverage inherent in derivatives post-LTCM could be the next crisis. This book is a better one if you like the stories, and don’t want to dig into the theories.

But if you like trying to place the manias, panics, and crashes on a common grid, to see their similarities, Kindleberger has written the book for you. In it he draws on a number of common factors:

  • Loose monetary policy
  • People chase the performance of the speculative asset
  • Speculators make fixed commitments buying the speculative asset
  • The speculative asset’s price gets bid up to the point where it costs money to hold the positions
  • A shock hits the system, a default occurs, or monetary policy starts contracting
  • The system unwinds, and the price of the speculative asset falls leading to
  • Insolvencies with those that borrowed to finance the assets
  • A lender of last resort appears to end the cycle

I liked them both, but I am an economic history buff, and a bit of a wonk. The benefit of both books is that they will make you more aware of how financial crises come to be, and what the qualitative signs tend to manifest during the boom and bust phases of the overall speculation cycle.

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