The Catalysts Start to Catalyze
For a couple of years now it's been clear that the world was about to fall apart, with the only question being which local failure turns out to be the catalyst for a systemic breakdown. So many things were on the verge of blowing up...yet none of them did. The world's governments have engaged in a heroic period of "extend and pretend" that has kept the system together longer than seemed possible.
But now the game seems to be ending. It's still not clear which bomb will go off first, but a bunch of fuses have gotten very short indeed. Here's a survey of old crises that are finally coming to a head:
California and Illinois
These two U.S. states are bankrupt by any reasonable definition, but are somehow managing to pay most of their bills. Their political classes are dominated by public sector unions, so neither has tried the tough medicine of places like Wisconsin or New Jersey. Instead, they've used a combination of much higher taxes (Illinois) and accounting gimmicks as a means to much higher taxes (California) to delay the inevitable reckoning.
Both are reaping what they've sown. Illinois, after raising corporate and income taxes, now faces an exodus of businesses to more friendly climes like Indiana and Texas. The governor is doling out tax breaks to keep major employers, a practice that 1) sends those new taxes right back out the door and 2) leads every other company to demand the same treatment. Latest on the list is the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, the state's biggest financial institution. No end in sight but bankruptcy.
California desperately wants to raise taxes but can't get an increase through the legislature. Thanks to a recently passed referendum, lawmakers don't get paid unless they produce a budget, so they'll do so pretty soon. But without more tax revenues it will fill the gaping deficit with gimmicks like delayed payments. No one will be fooled. The only question now is whether there's room in Texas for all the California companies that will soon be leaving. Again, no end in sight but bankruptcy. Short munis and pretty much anything dependent on consumer spending, since the resulting public sector layoffs will devastate demand for cars and other luxuries.
The Middle East
As country after country blows up, the U.S. finds itself sucked into increasing numbers of "humanitarian" military operations that are, of course, really about protecting the flow of oil. It won't work. An oil crisis of some sort is coming. Buy energy stocks, from oil to clean tech, short everything else.
The U.S. budget
With America borrowing, in effect, its entire military budget from China, unemployment headed back to double digits even by Washington's fraudulent accounting, and neither party willing to really address the military/entitlements complex, the debt will keep piling up until it can't. The rating agencies are now, belatedly, threatening the US AAA rating, the loss of which would either drive interest rates back to their historical average of 5%-6% (sending interest costs out of control) or force the Fed to start buying all the bonds issued by Treasury (sending the money supply out of control). Result: imminent currency crisis. Buy gold and silver, short Treasuries.
After seeming to stabilize for a few months, housing is tanking again. Sales and prices are down, underwater mortgages are surging, home builder confidence is at new lows, and poor innocent Bank of America is stuck with trillions of bad paper that it's not accounting for. As home prices accelerate to the downside, look for huge bank write-downs, massive stock volatility, and maybe another bailout. Short anything in the financial sector.
Ah, the euro. Greece is imploding...riots in the street, the government is falling, and the Bundesbank and ECB can't agree on how to handle the coming default. This one is coming to a head very soon, to be followed by the other PIIGS countries -- assuming there's still a Eurozone to try to save. Short the European banks with the most Greek paper, load up on precious metals.
Does it matter which blows up first?
Not any more. They're all so close that just their prospect is enough to send capital running for cover. It's a nasty year no matter what. But then comes the next stimulus plan, which complicates the whole "short the world" thesis. The markets have been consistently fooled by this kind of thing, and there's no reason to believe that QE3 won't ignite another rally in risk assets. So monitor those shorts and be ready to close them out when CNBC starts hinting at a big pending announcement from Bernanke or Geithner. Shift the proceeds into precious metals, which will absolutely rocket when the next wave of fake liquidity hits the market.