Monday, October 19, 2009

Notes and Commentary on "Crash Proof 2.0" Part 1

p. vii: “More importantly, while most believe that the economic collapse is over, the reality is that it has only just begun. What we have witnessed thus far are merely the events that have set the collapse in motion. It will take some time for all the dominoes to fall. But fall they will, perhaps even more spectacularly now than how I initially envisioned back in 2005.”

p. viii: “…you to see that our problems today are the consequences of pernicious fundamental trends that I have recognized and warned about for years.”

Maybe. They were not really in the book. He did warn about the residential real estate mess. Credit to Schiff. Lots of credit to Schiff. I think that he has shown some ability there.

Yet, the thesis of the book, the collapse of the dollar, has not occurred. We’ll see what he has to say.

Chapter 1, p. 24: 2009 UPDATE

p. 27: “…and provide the capital investment that entrepreneurs need to create jobs and finance the production of exportable goods.” ???? Where did this emphasis on exportable goods come from? Why does he get so excited about exportable goods? Why does “exportable” matter? Why not just goods, goods for everyone?

I need to say that the sections that I am not commenting about are at least decent, and often good.

p. 29: “But buying stuff we couldn’t afford with money we didn’t have was what got us into this fix.” While this is true, it is superficial. I fear that as long as he focuses on consumer oriented thinking, he will be letting our opponents off. What he needs to focus on, which he has elsewhere, is the inflation that underlies the consumer spending. Much of this behavior is driven by the cheap money policy and the mistaken notion that the key factor in an economy is consumer demand. With an emphasis on production and the manipulation of the money supply stopped, people would not benefit from over spending and the practice would be less prevalent.

“Rather than encouraging American borrowers to once again tap the savings of foreigners….” We weren’t getting the savings of foreigners, we were getting our own previously made inflation dollars back. This is one of his worst statements in that, one, he is claiming something that sounds so vile and, two, he says it with no support, in this case, with not even a supporting explanation. I expect that he is referring to the U.S. federal debt that is purchased by foreign central banks with dollars they hold in their reserves. These dollars come into the local economy as exports are sold to the U.S. The exporter then trades his dollars to the central bank in exchange for local currency. As long as the local currency is not being inflated for this exchange, then the process to then is neutral. The problem comes when the central bank just holds the currency instead of allowing it to continue ciruclarating in international commerce. This is a drain on the local economy. But these are still dollars created by inflation. When the central bank then buys U.S. federal debt, it is putting our inflated dollars back into our economy, which is then spent as “real dollars” here, and will tend toward pushing up prices. It is still difficult to see how we are tapping into the savings of foreigners.

At the end of the page he actually said, “worst-case scenario” regarding the “crash” he has been predicting with each book. That means that the outcome that he has been using to frighten his readers is now regarded as a worst case.

p. 31: “I have always said, however, that it wouldn’t happen overnight.” Ahhh. Please show me where in the first book that was said. In this book he seems to be encompassing all of what he has said anywhere as opposed to just Crash Proof. What is a crash but an overnight event.

p. 32: “It’s absolutely unarguable that they [foreign economies], not we, are the engine of economic growth.” This very arguable statement is an assumption that undermines his entire argument. If he recognized that there is a strong foundation still in the U.S., he would be a better analyst and predictor. He is good in some respects. He could be better. Schiff is an intelligent man. I do not understand why he would make this statement and provides no support. As I say, I have not looked at everything he has written or said, but in what I have seen, including his most public presentation, Crash Proof, he offers little evidence to support his conclusions.


Chapter 2, p. 53: 2009 UPDATE

“Clearly recent events have proven my point: Wall Street, the U.S. government, and the mass media have been using manipulated data to foster a falsely optimistic view of a ….” I don’t see where he gets this. It isn’t the data that confuses those people. It didn’t confuse Schiff. What confuses most people are their ideas, their philosophy. Schiff’s confusion on this point is a reason why I am not impressed with the claims by his supporters that Schiff is a defender of reason or a follower of Ayn Rand. He just doesn’t demonstrate a recognition of the importance of ideas. His point here is that if these people looked at good data they would act differently. No, they wouldn’t.

He does end the paragraph with the accurate point: “Even more distressing, to my mind, is that the experts did not actually understand the problems threatening our economy.” That is correct. I wish he would show that he, Schiff, knows why those experts did not understand.

p. 58: “Note, too, that a 1 percent fed funds rate provided the stimulus that sparked the housing bubble and made teaser rates so enticingly low.” While this is technically true, it is not really helpful. I mean, how does the Fed keep the rate at 1 percent and how does that “provide the stimulus”? Without that information I think many people, including many who reasonably agree with him, are left with a floating abstraction. It needs to be explained.

p. 61: “…our economy is fundamentally broken.”

“But we spent an excessive amount of money on consumer goods with the result that we don’t have the manufacturing bases….” Still don’t see how spending on consumer goods, excessive or otherwise, or importing a lot of it destroys our manufacturing base.

His basic point in this section is correct. We have not learned from our previous mistakes.

“When the problems predictably worsen, let’s hope Washington finally learns the proper lesson.” He is right about the lesson to be learned. But he doesn’t understand that Washington as it is now constituted (and the last administration as well) is incapable of learning.

Chapter 3, p. 83: 2009 UPDATE

p. 84: “…where I had predicted earlier that the Dollar Index would likely bottom out at around 40, I now see a bottom closer to 20 or maybe even lower.” It was around 70 in March, 2008. He does say when or how fast. The timeline would be the difference between a crash and a decline. I do not disagree with a decline, a continuing decline. I wouldn’t begin to suggest a number. A crash won’t happen. Strategies for retaining value in your assets would differ between a crash and a decline. A slower decline would offer some chances to do something about it, if we had the opportunity. A swift decline or a crash would bring us to a desperate situation.

p. 85: “As our trading partners see it, they were watching their best customer go down the tubes, and their first reaction was to come to its rescue.” Yes. And the fact that they have $10 T in dollars and bonds. They are not going to want to see that go down the tubes either. Which has been my point.

This section is an excellent description of the interrelatedness of our world economy. The U.S. is a very significant part of it. Schiff’s decoupling would shrink the world economy drastically, and the consequences he relates in this section would happen again. His tag line that they should stop manufacturing for us and do it for themselves is so screwy.

p. 88: “The problem is that too many people lack the sophistication to understand why [foreigners supporting the U.S. dollar and selling goods to the U.S. is harmful].” Again, he shows that he does not understand the importance of ideas. The currency and bond traders of the world, the manufacturers and exporters of the world, and businessmen, wealthy people, and so on, are not unsophisticated. To the extent that they are making bad decisions as envisioned by Schiff, they are miss-trained. They have bad philosophies. But, to some extent, they are making some reasonable decisions, since Schiff is incorrect in claiming that the U.S. is an economy without foundation.

p. 89: The last sections are reasonably good. The bond market is going to see higher interest rates, even if the Fed tries to support low interest rates. There will just be too many bonds. The Fed will have to flood the market with credit. Schiff does not mention this but things will be rockier as Obama’s plans play out. After that we will get the huge increases in Social Security and Medicare spending, and we will have taxes that will take up every bit of capital and discretionary spending.

“When this rally ends, the bottom is going to fall out of the dollar.” So we are back to the collapse. Well, I think that the post-panic government actions, plus Obama’s programs could do it. Interestingly, Schiff has not mentioned Obama’s programs directly. He is focused only on the bailout. He hasn’t mentioned Social Security and Medicare.


Chapter 4, p. 118: 2009 UPDATE

p. 122: “If we were still on a gold standard, as was the case during the 1930’s….” While technically we were on the gold standard in the 30’s, it was not a real one. FDR famously sat down with one of his “economics” advisors every morning and decided what the gold price should be. There was also lots more gold than there were gold certificates, meaning the Fed could make as much money as it wanted, and did.

Schiff constantly refers to inflation in terms of “printing presses”. I think that this is so misleading to people. It is so simplistic. I understand that using accurate terms is more cumbersome, but accuracy and precision of language is important.

p. 123: “…and now that we are in a downturn, we have even more inflation because the money supply is growing even faster.” Is it? I know it will. But it isn’t now. Credit is still dead; no lending is going on. This is why his using the term “printing press” is a problem. He is not using in his descriptions what he does know, that inflation in the U.S. is caused by bank credit expansion, and the lowering of the dollar because of the size of the foreigner dollar holdings the exist because of credit expansion in the past. So he knows that, although the Fed is certainly trying to get banks to lend, they aren’t. Thus, there is no inflation now. That will reverse, and with the amount of new government debt, the idea of stimulus, and the goal of low interest rates, bank lending will pick up, grow and grow and grow. Inflation. It will burst out somewhere.

“Many argue that all this money printing is not inflationary as it merely replaces the money lost due to debt defaults. However, this na├»ve view fails to account for the loss of output represented by defaulted loans.” ????? The loans were mortgage-backed securities based on loans to people who couldn’t make their payments. Where is the loss of output? My problem is that I do not see the connection between these two sentences. He does not deny that the bail-out money is replacing reserves and capital, and is not particularly inflationary (it is not good for us). And a recession has a loss of output. Is he saying that since there was a loss of output that there should be less money in the system? Is this loss of output permanent? I am not seeing these connections.

p. 125-6: “Why Inflationary Pressures Will Prevail” This is a very curious section. He talks quickly about a vast array of economic actors, including commodities, consumer goods, credit, farms and mines, retailers, etc. But nowhere does he talk about the Fed and its money machine? When someone tries to declare what is going to happen at this level of detail, they are always wrong, because the number of actors and factors is too large. He needs to stay on the broader level on which he usually works.

p. 126: “The Real Game Changer” This analysis of the value of the dollar in international trade is correct, but I wonder at the size of the impact. I think the bigger impact within the country will be the Federal budget, the higher interest rates, and most important, the Fed’s actions. The fall of the dollar will have its impact, but will not be as big as Schiff thinks. He seems to go back and forth as to what is most important. But he always returns to the value of the dollar in international trade. I wonder why? The reason that I say that it will not be as big a deal as he thinks is that international trade is not a large segment of our economy. We have already seen a nearly 50% drop in the value of the dollar against the Euro and the Yen, even the Canadian Dollar is much stronger against our currency, but we have seen little effect within the country. Perhaps he is expecting the U.S. government debt to have fewer buyers. This idea ignores the trillions of dollars that will still be out there and the very few places that it can be placed.
The one way in which his analysis could be correct is if some major holder dumps their dollars. The major players include England, the Euro Block, Japan, China, probably Canada, and maybe one or two of the oil producing countries. One of them would have to decide to start selling their large holdings of dollars. One of the first events would be the other countries buying to protect their vast holdings of dollars.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Crash Proof, 2.0; Review

Peter Schiff’s newly published book has an unusual organization. It is the original Crash Proof, exactly as originally published, with updates written in 2009 at the end of every chapter. He has changed none of his positions. At least some of his positions and predictions came to pass. He crows about this repeatedly. I don’t hold this against him, mind you. In fact, in his business, where often even if the market goes the way you predicted, you are wrong about why, so everyone is wrong. Being right significantly is worth crowing about.

Since the whole original book is intact, all of my original problems remain. I will not repeat them (see the original review on this blog).

The “Updates” generally extend the ideas in the original text, including the ones with which I disagreed. In some cases, he makes clearer what those ideas are, and why his original ideas are not quite right.

I thought that the following quotation demonstrates what may be his biggest confusion: “…but I’m also surprised at the extent to which the European Central Bank (ECB) and other foreign central banks have adapted inflationary policies.” (p. 313) He has consistently treated the U.S. as a country that acts differently than every other country. Yet the concept of the central bank and how it should function is a European invention. The fiscal policy that our country follows was created by our old friend Keynes, an Englishman. All of the central bankers in the world went to the same schools, read the same texts and authors, and talk and communicate all the time. Why does he think that they wouldn’t all act the same?

Even worse is the following: “I’m talking prosperity and growth unlike anything we could imagine when those nations had their wings freighted with the United States' excessive debt and trade imbalances.” Does Schiff realize that all of these countries are less free than the U.S. was prior to the 60’s? Why is just not selling to the U.S. going to bring on the days of milk and honey?

Also wrong about that quotation is that the trade imbalance is the result of foreigners holding on to our dollars. If they had not held on to the dollars, the foreign central banks would not be faced with the problem with where to put the money, and they would not be funding our debt. If other nations, especiall China in recent years, had spent the money, the dollar would be much lower, we would have had to finance our own debt and interest rates would have had to be higher and there would have been more restraint. I'm not saying that our problems are the fault of other nations. They are responsible for the number of dollars they hold on to.

A criticism concerning understanding the book comes from the fact that Schiff has written and talked (audio and video posts) a great deal on the web. His stronger supporters are familiar with this material. I have read one or two things, seen two or three short videos, and heard one audio piece that went on for about an hour. In the online material somewhere, Schiff has developed some ideas that did not appear in the first book, but he mentions briefly in the 2.0. Most importantly among them is the idea of “decoupling”. This is very important in Schiff’s thinking, but it is not explained in his book. I do not think that I can adequately present the idea with its supporting argument. Generally what decouples is the Asian economies from U.S. purchases and government debt. As a result they have “prosperity and growth unlike anything we could imagine”.

I disagree. To have that growth in mature economies, they would have to have freedom. The reason they got there was the support of the country that was, and hopefully will be again, the freest in the world, the U.S. If the U.S. hadn’t existed, they would not have cleared the 19C.

The last three chapters contain advise as to how an investor can protect himself and perhaps even profit while the U.S. economy suffers. There is some interesting advise there. Schiff does recognize the major issues, e.g., timing and changes in the laws. As with my above comments, I don’t think that he realizes that what happens in the U.S. is going to have significant adverse effects elsewhere. (In my notes that I will publish after this review I discuss what would have to happen in the “decoupling”). Without considering what could happen in other countries, I think that Schiff’s discussion lacks completeness. It is still worth reading, if you keep both the shortcomings in mind.

I also think that his comments on Treasury Bonds and the actions by the Fed are decent.

Actually, if it weren’t for his shortcomings regarding the rest of the world, he would be good. Certainly much better than most of what you can find these days.