Not So Dismal

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Archive for October 2008

He Has Them Where He Wants Them

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John McCain wasn’t kidding when he made that statement. The reality is that his campaign faces such certain doom that it would seem Obama has already been the president for several months. McCain is a specialist in rising like a phoenix at the least likely (and last possible) moment, and this is the perfect opportunity for his greatest performance. The elements are in place for such a stunning reversal of fortune to occur. This isn’t to say that it’s likely, just that it’s possible, which is in and of itself a feat given how far the conventional wisdom has gone to write him off at this point.

Two things must happen for McCain to pull out a squeaker. First, note that a stunning fourteen percent of voters remain persuadable at this late hour, only four days until the general election. You have to love the incredulosity of the Associated Press report that claims, “a stubborn wedge of people…somehow, are still making up their minds about who should be president.” After all, what could keep them away from Obama? It all comes down to money. When the economy looks a little bad, I believe that voters tend toward a more liberal philosophy to “fix it”. Yet when faced with a market selloff like the one hopefully just behind us, more of an every-man-for-himself mindset begins to set in. Given this newfound personal insulationism in the face of dwindling retirement accounts, voters are becoming more wary of what they perceive as the Obama threat of raising taxes. They feel they simply can’t afford to give up one more dime. The Obama campaign’s fuzziness on the high-end number for their redistributive tax credit doesn’t help because it leaves the middle-class receptive to McCain’s argument that their tax hikes will creep down the line, leaving tax credits only for those that barely pay taxes to begin with.

Secondly, the almost absolute assumption of Barack Obama’s inauguration on January 20, 2009 could potentially depress turnout on election day. Even though excitement seems high for the Obama ticket, if too many of his supporters figure that he will win by such a landslide that their vote is not required, we may see a stunning reversal from arguably accurate poll numbers to actual numbers at the poll. That, however, assumes strong turnout for McCain, which is a problem. But if enough undecideds swing toward the more conservative choice and enough Obama supporters simiply write off victory as inarguable, John McCain may yet find a way to pull off what would be, perhaps, the greatest upset in the history of the presidency.

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Written by caseyayers

31 October, 2008 at 10:16 am

Why Oil Is Tanking

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It’s all about what I call Illusory Perceived Demand. At least that’s what the run-up was all about. The reality is that oil is much closer to its true price. Part of the reason that it has fallen is also attributable to the dollar, which has been remarkably strong given the Treasury’s efforts to completely discredit it as a legitimate currency as of late. But we’ll talk about the incredible inflationary cycle that we’re about to undergo another time.

For now, let’s focus on oil, which was fallen as of today to under $70/barrel, from a high of around $150 as recently as this summer. In the past month alone, the value of crude has fallen by more than thirty percent. So why is oil falling so quickly?

It’s easy to blame the Hedgies, day-traders and speculators, and to say that because they have now been forced out of the market, prices are swiftly falling back to “real” values. But speculators did not cause this, or at least not the type of speculator you have in mind. Rather, actual consumers of oil, the type that purchase these contracts on futures markets, drove up the prices in a bit of a panic. Speculation-in-earnest, not greedy speculation, is the issue here.

The mentality on the futures market has been, until recently, that a massive, amorphous being called CHINA would absorb each and every drop of oil in the world unless Western companies could thwart them by consistently raising the stakes. Because “China” would pay almost anything to continue its stunning growth trend fueled largely by oil, American companies perceived that there was a massive and unquenchable demand afoot that forced them to pay ever-higher premiums to receive the oil they needed to operate. So they accepted rapidly rising oil prices as a geopolitical absolute, and continued to suck down as much of the stuff as they could possibly afford (to the economics student, right up to where marginal cost equals marginal revenue, most especially in the airline industry).

But the reality that is now prevailing in the commodities market is that China is not, indeed, insatiable. Furthermore, their economic system, although difficult for many to understand, doesn’t result in an unlimited supply of wealth with which to buy energy. Further still, their growth is not a phenomenon that will continue to gain speed no matter what. Just as America and Europe are undergoing a recessionary period at this point thanks to the recent liquidity crisis, China is facing a rocky road. Perhaps China is even worse off than America, for instance, since China is so dependent upon Western consumption to maintain its level of growth.

So the boggart has been put back in the armoire, and appropriately so: by enough people standing up to declare the current situation to be ridiculous. The market is soaked in oil, with new production coming out of every spigot at this point. Even the largest nightmares are eventually wiped away as the rational thinkers in the market begin to wake up and question exactly what makes oil almost thrice as valuable as it was just a couple years ago. China is, in fact, a normal player on the world stage, following the same rules of consumption that the rest of us follow. And oil is not in such dire low supply as to be gone within a decade. Even worse for the naysayers, watching oil prices fly so high resulted in many new fields and techniques being discussed anew for where additional oil may reside but be too expensive presently to drill out.

This isn’t to say “Drill Here Drill Now” is the end-all solution to long-term energy needs for this country or the world. Gas will not be, though, obsolete by this time next year. The decision to move to new sources of energy en masse will be made either politically, where citizens decide that they prefer short-term economic inefficiencies for purposes of national security or environmental wellfare, or it will be made economically, when oil supplies truly are outstripped by demand in the long-run.

Unfortunately, the huge run-up and present crash of oil prices is not that dissimilar from the scenario we’ll see when all of this unabsorbed liquidity catches up with the markets. The idea that credit is unavailable is almost absurd. Rather, bankers are claiming that the liquidity flowing out of the fire hydrants is poisoned. When the market quits thrashing about in hysterics and sets to the task of absorbing these funds, they will find money laying about in true excess. This will lead to massive inflation, unless the Fed can perfectly thread a needle that’s almost impossible to read. But we’ll cover that later.

Written by caseyayers

22 October, 2008 at 3:38 pm

Charlton Heston on America’s Energy Future

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Gotta love the prescience.

Written by caseyayers

15 October, 2008 at 11:02 pm

Cheap Macs Aren’t the Point

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Here’s an excellent article from Daring Fireball’s John Gruber on why the “$800 Macbook”, a concept that began as literally one man’s rumor and grew into some sort of backwards conventional wisdom, was not announced at yesterday’s Apple event. One stat in particular that is so telling as to Apple’s philosophy toward their product line: the Mac had 18% of US marketshare, but 31% of revenue share for the industry. Where others are commodities, Macs are not. This makes Apple more protected in a period of economic uncertainty like the one we face today than, say, Dell because with the Mac, it never comes down to price. “PCs” are inferior goods (in the economic sense), but Apple’s most loyal customers are the ones that have nowhere else to turn. The creatives and professionals rely heavily on the type of tools that either only exist or exist in their best forms under OS X, an operating advantage that no other company can have.

[Disclaimer: I own AAPL shares.]

Written by caseyayers

15 October, 2008 at 3:54 pm

Bailout 2.0

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From today’s Politico Arena question, which is “Bailout II: Does the New Plan Sound Better Than the Old? What else must happen?”

It’s “better”, but only insofar as it’s shoving open the credit markets.

One of the weapons that has helped most in the past few days is one that is hardly being mentioned: FASB, an accounting standards organization, released changes regarding mark-to-market accounting for illiquid assets, suggesting that it might be okay to value mortgage packages and other securities that simply aren’t being traded at their cash value, rather than at the bidding price. This is important because the bidding price is far below both the actual hold-to-maturity value of these securities and even discounted prices many companies might accept to simply get rid of them. If the change is enough to allow auditors the latitude to sign off on less paranoid financial statements, then we may see that many companies on the cusp of problems are, in fact, doing okay from a cash flow perspective.

But the crush of new money bursting through the gates remains a big part of this, to be sure. And that’s what should be most concerning: this money may be useful to break open the clogged pipes, but now the fear should be focused on when they burst. In other words, having hundreds of billions of new dollars in the market that aren’t really needed will lead to massive inflation, and sooner than many people think.

Written by caseyayers

14 October, 2008 at 8:34 am

Government’s Role in Stability

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My answer to today’s Politico Arena question, “What can government do right now to stabilize markets or reassure the public? Bonus question: How low will the Dow go?”

The best thing government can do to stabilize the market is to declare fully, and with the greatest finality possible for such a tenuous situation, the level to which they intend to continue meddling in the markets. The reason we keep seeing day after day of multi-hundred swings this way and that is that noone can price the market. There are too many shadowy variables for traders to really get their hands around this thing.

Protect all deposits to an unlimited value. This should help to stop any runs on banks in their tracks. Provide short-term liquidity to businesses that prove both creditworthy under normal circumstances and unable to obtain credit in these troubled times. Don’t buy stakes in banks, don’t keep throwing money blindly at the sector. Doing this does very little to truly help break the credit logjam; rather, the money is simply being brought in by the truckload to any destination that might have given the slightest hint of illiquidity. This will lead to massive inflation later when we finally figure out that smaller, far more targeted sets of money, such as those the Fed auctions using its term lending facilities, were the smarter solution.

The Dow will go as low as fear can take it. But salvation here lies in greed: already valuations on some companies are absurdly low. Many companies with no exposure whatsoever to housing and with more than enough cash on hand to survive any credit freeze have been trashed. Somewhere between 7000 and 7500, the bargains will become too great to ignore for the savvy investors.

Written by caseyayers

10 October, 2008 at 8:48 am

Stop the Bailout Train

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In response to today’s Politico Arena question, “Does McCain’s ‘Homeowner Resurgence Plan’ announced at the debate make sense?” (Text of plan from the campaign’s website can be found here.)

The problem with the McCain campaign’s proposal is that it favors certain types of investment (namely, housing and real estate) and does so with taxpayer money. What compensation is to be given to those that own Apple or Google stock, with both companies’ market capitalization nearly sliced in half in the past year? Will there be a bailout for stock market investors that were “misled” into buying at prices that make the investment seem unpalatable today?

Government assistance in guaranteeing low interest rates is still an affront to the free market, but a more necessary and less harmful one. It is true that many homeowners were misled into accepting deceptive mortgage terms, and many families may be willing to continue to pay down the original principal of the loan if their payments at the very least do not go up from here.

Free market adjustment of mortgage values should be encouraged, too. Homeowners have every right to simply walk away from the mortgage they signed. The banks that hold these loans will often be very willing to rewrite mortgages to lower values on their own accord, rather than assume the responsibility of the property and be left with a house they may not resell for a long time.

Involving the federal government in yet another facet of a problem that, at its origin, is the result of artificially low interest rates will only serve to increase the national debt, lower the dollar’s prestige, and accelerate the rate of inflation, only further penalizing those that continue to pay their mortgages or invested in assets other than real estate.

Written by caseyayers

9 October, 2008 at 8:08 am