The Economic Silly Season

By: John Mauldin | Fri, Jun 13, 2003
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It seems to be the economic silly season. This week we will explore some of the more absurd ideas to make their way to my reading material this week. I call these to your attention not to make fun of them (well, maybe a little), but because they offer an excellent opportunity for enlightenment. We will look at Japan's plans to tax cash (not profits or interest but actual cash in your bank account), Yahoo selling bonds with no interest, Greenspan buying insurance, Freddie Mac and the NASDAQ going to 14,500 by the end of the decade. We won't even have time to get to poor Martha Stewart.

As a side note, I will be in New York in two weeks, June 23-25 where I will be conference co-chair and speaking at the annual Hedge Fund Forum. I will also be on CNBC with Ron Insana, tentatively scheduled at either 5 or 6 PM Eastern on Tuesday the 24th. I still have some time to meet with clients and potential clients. I will also be in San Francisco in mid-August. Details below.

What is He Smoking?
This week's theme got a great start when a reader sent me Harry Dent's latest special report, "What Happened on the Way to the Roaring 2000's?" Let me quote:

"Just as the "tech wreck" in the newly emerging auto industry was a golden opportunity for investors 80 years ago, today's investors have the greatest buying opportunity of this entire economic boom, perhaps of a lifetime, right now...Our most likely forecast shows that the NASDAQ could reach 13,000-14,500 by the top of this boom, 6 or 7 years from now, which is more than ten times from its low of 1114 in October 2002." (

Harry Dent wrote the best-selling book, The Roaring 2000s, predicting an economic boom and a soaring stock market based upon Baby Boomer demographics. (My publisher and I dream of my forth-coming book doing half as well.) Dent does some very interesting research. But the above forecast could use a large dose of reality, as we will see.

Let's rewind the tape to late 1999. I can't remember whether it was Las Vegas or San Francisco, but both Dent and I were speaking at a large investment conference. I spoke first, telling the some 3,000 attendees there was a recession in our future and the market was headed down. Small (but polite) applause at the end of the speech.

Dent spoke a few minutes later, making fun of the doom and gloom speakers who were on the podium earlier. We just didn't get it. He showed us lots of charts which clearly demonstrated the markets and the economy were going nowhere but up. Technology was in its innovation stage, ready to explode. He quoted Schumpeter. The performance of Harley-Davidson was the clincher. Lots of (very enthusiastic) applause.

Fast forward to today. There has been a small bump on the road to the Roaring 2000s. Dent tells us that has merely slowed things down, but now we are back on track. Starting with this year and going into 2004, the consumer is coming back. Technology is once again going to drive the markets to new heights. Climb on board.

Let's examine his arguments and then see the logical and, in my opinion, absurd conclusions.

Dent points out that GM dropped more than 75% from late 1919 to early 1922. GM then went on to rise more than 22 times at its height in 1929. At the time, automobiles were the "new, new thing." Even with a shakeout of automobile companies which saw many fail, the market still experienced a boom. Coincidentally, we are having a shakeout of technology companies today.

He then overlays the chart of GM from 1912 to 1922 with the chart of Intel from 1992 through 2002. Again, coincidentally, they match.

Then we leap to the conclusion that since GM went up 22 times after its crash the technology markets are poised to do the same. Quote: "We fully expect a generation of technology giants in today's new economy to parallel GM's spectacular rise. Who wouldn't leap at the chance to see their investments grow as much as 22 times in the next 6 to 7 years?"

He begins Part Two of his report telling us that the internet, mobile phones and broadband are going to drive this explosion. He shows the "S" curve for these innovations. This is the very sound and reasonable theory that suggests innovations (cars, phones, TV, electricity, railroads) start out slowly then slowly rise until the point where their growth is dramatic, often changing the entire economic structure, until the growth flattens out as everyone is now using the technology. (Once a technology has been universally adopted, future growth in that sector is closely connected to overall economic growth.)

Dent is right about the future growth of these technological innovations. They will grow dramatically. But will they drive the NASDAQ to grow 10 times in just a few years? That is where we part company.

There are some very large differences between 2002 and 1922. In no particular order:

1. The P/E (Price to Earnings) ratio of the S&P 500 in 1921 was 5.4 rising to all of 8 in 1922. The P/E of the NASDAQ today is either 227 or 139 or 36, depending upon who you ask. More on these numbers later. (The 227 figure is from that doom and gloom publication, The Wall Street Journal.)

The stock market was coming off a decades long bear market. The S&P 500 in 1921 was almost exactly where it was 20 years earlier. Investors had actually seen a compounded negative 1% growth for the 20 year period.

In short, there is no comparison between the value of the market in 1922 and 2002. We are talking historical extremes. Dent is suggesting that the next bull market is going to start from the highest valuations in history. Such an event has never happened.

2. Dent tells us, "But most important, this transformation of the Internet will accelerate the emergence of the bottoms-up or consumer-driven network corporation we describe in Part 3 of The Roaring 2000s. This revolutionary business model will usher in a new era of productivity just as Alfred Sloan's new corporate model at General Motors did starting in the early 1920s."

The problem is that so far this decade, corporations are using this increased productivity to lay off employees. Further, the internet is making it possible to send jobs to lower cost countries like India and Ireland.

Last week I did an interview with a journal called The Analyst, published by the Chartered Financial Analysts of India. As a result I received a very interesting email from a businessman in India asking if I would be interested in working together:

"Ours is a new setup with 130 MBAs who analyze companies, both Indian and US. We have a state of the art infrastructure in (city) India from where we can render any kind of analysis and research on any company and industries." He went on to describe the firm's abilities. Needless to say, the costs would be lower. Much lower.

(Given thoughts of Jack Grubman and Mary Meeker, I think the analysis would also be better. But that's another story.)

Software? Analysis? Online help? Engineering? How many jobs will be sent to foreign shores?

As Dent says, and I agree, "...the Internet today is a disruptive technology. It has already begun changing the way we work, consume and live. The revolution is ahead of us, not behind."

The problem is that it is not altogether clear the disruption will be along the same lines as that of automobiles. Automobiles were not made in India nor shipped from Japan nor designed in Ireland in the 1920's. Long time readers know that I am not a pessimist about the future of our country. I think we will develop jobs and growth and "muddle through." But the internet is not going to cause a net-net explosion in jobs.

I recall a recent article entitled "IT Doesn't Matter" by Nicholas G. Carr in the Harvard Business Review. Michael Lewitt in his HCM Market Letter made a rather brilliant summary of the article, ending with this (IT stands for Information Technology):

(7)"[T]here are many signs that the IT buildout is much closer to its end than its beginning." Among the reasons: First, IT's power is outstripping many of the business needs it fulfills. Second, the price of essential IT functionality has dropped to the point where it is basically available to anyone. Third, there is more than enough fiber-optic capacity to accommodate further build-out.

(8)Another reason Mr. Carr gives for believing the IT build-out is nearing its end is the fact that major IT vendors like Microsoft and IBM, are trying to position themselves as IT utilities, "companies that will control the provision of a diverse range of business applications over what is now called, tellingly, 'the grid.'" This will contribute to further price deflation and is a development that bears close consideration by investors.

3. It is all well and good to pick the chart of GM to compare to Intel. That is 20-20 hindsight. In1922 there were scores of automobile companies which did not make it until 1929. If you had picked one of those, the comparison would not look so pretty. This is called data mining: looking for some bit of data which makes your point rather than letting the data inform your beliefs.

Let me throw caution to the wind. I firmly believe there will be several technology companies which will grow 10 times in the next 6-7 years. My problem is that I have no clue as to which ones they are.

I will tell you this: I seriously doubt it will be a technology giant (Dent's term) from the NASDAQ 100. I can see how a firm can grow from $100 million in sales to $1 billion in the next 6-7-10 years. How does Cisco, or Yahoo or Juniper grow 10 times in 6-7 years? They are already huge. Will they take 100% market share? Will the market for routers and sorters even be ten times Cisco's current sales in 7 years? Even John Chambers would not dare utter such a thing.

4. Even if there are numerous small companies which grow ten times, the statistical impact upon the NASDAQ will not be that great. To see the type of growth Dent is projecting, we would need to see scores of the largest companies grow not ten times, but 20-30 times or more to make up for the companies which will not grow more than GDP plus inflation, or about 50% (at best!), over that time.

Look at the members of the current NASDAQ 100. Only about 55% or so (rough calculation) are indeed technology firms. Many have nothing to do with the internet, mobile phones or broadband. The other non-technology companies, while excellent businesses, do not have such out-sized growth prospects. Can Costco grow 10 times? Whole Foods? Amgen? Starbucks? Bed, Bath and Beyond? Paychex? Could any of these firms double? Sure. It could happen. But if they merely doubled, then some other NASDAQ firm of the same relative size will have to grow 18 times to make up the difference in order for the index to grow ten times. (Thus making the average of the two 10 times growth.)

5. Now, let's look at the statistical implications of what Dent is saying. Today (June 12) the NASDAQ is at 1653. For the NASDAQ to grow to 13,000 in 7 years would mean a compounded growth rate of 29% every year for seven years. If it reached his upper target of 14,500 in just 6 years, the compounded growth rate would be 36%! This means a doubling of the NASDAQ every two years!

I believe that means that if there was even one slightly negative year in the next 6, that the next year would have to be a straight up 100% double to stay on target for 14,500.

6. As noted above, the P/E ratio of the NASDAQ is in nose bleed range. If you look on page two of the Wall Street Journal, Money and Investing Section, in the upper right hand corner, there is a reprise of the previous day's market action. The very top right corner number is the trailing 12 month P/E ratio of the NASDAQ 100 at the current market price. Today that number is 227 based upon reported earnings.

The estimated P/E ratio for the next 12 months is 36. The Thompson First Call estimate is 32, based on pro forma earnings or EBBS (Earnings Before Bad Stuff).

(I wonder what the MBAs in India would estimate? I think I would make a blind bet that they are far more accurate than the consensus estimates from the analysts surveyed by Thompson First Call. I note that not one - nada- zippo- stock on the NASDAQ 100 is rated a consensus sell.)

My friend Carl Swenlin of (a very valuable and highly recommended data and chart service) privately tracks his own version of the NASDAQ 100 P/E. He thinks it might be 139, but he hastens to point out the number is worthless because so many companies in the NASDAQ 100 don't make a profit. I went to his site to count. 28 companies out of 100 failed to make a profit over the last 12 months. That is before we deduct stock options. His number is based upon averages and is not market cap weighted.

(Remember the study we did showing that if you exclude Microsoft, the remaining 14 of the top 15 NASDAQ 100 stocks failed to make a combined profit in 2001 once you excluded stock options?)

For Dent to be right, earnings will have to grow over 30% compound a year for an ENTIRE INDEX for seven years. I am not even going to bother to check the record. There has never been a time when a major broad-based index has seen average real earnings grow 30% a year for seven years.

Either that growth happens, or the P/E ratio will have to get worse. It will have to rise to levels that will make the last NASDAQ bubble seem like a blip. Can it rise to 500? Will investors forget so soon the last bubble?

The Trillion Dollar Company?
7. Dent is suggesting the market cap for the NASDAQ will be more than the entire GDP of the United States in 7 years. Depending upon where you start and finish, he is suggesting growth to well north of $15 trillion for the total worth of the NASDAQ market. Microsoft is currently 10% of the total NASDAQ market cap. Will Microsoft grow to a market cap of $2 trillion? Will Cisco be worth $1 trillion? Can Intel rise to $1.25 trillion?

For Dent to be right, those companies would have to rise to such levels, and scores more would have to rise along with them. If these companies do not grow to such levels, then which companies are? To get to $15 trillion, you have to have some VERY large companies in the mix. We are talking companies of a size and scale which dwarf anything we have today, or even at the height of the Bubble.

8. I won't even touch overcapacity in the technology world which will hold down growth and profits, the coming turmoil in telecom from the WorldCom debacle, the huge amount of excess fiber, the massive investment that must be made to build out the broadband world, etc. etc. This is not the stuff from which steady and historically high profit growth will come.

The lesson, dear reader, is to be VERY careful when anyone shows you a chart showing you the road to riches. Conversely, when someone shows you a chart showing the similarities between the Nikkei (Japan) and the Dow, suggesting the market is going to drop another 70%, smile politely and walk away.

The market may well drop 70%, or may rise 70%. But it will not be because of some mystical hypothetical connection between two charts which are apples and oranges. I continue to search for the study, which I read years ago, showing the most correlated predictor of the S&P 500, from among 500 sets of variables, was the price of butter in Bangladesh.

It matters not if it were true or false. The point is that there are precise correlations between two sets of variables which are entirely random and have no fundamental impact upon each other. The correlation is pure coincidence.

There is simply no basis for comparing GM in 1922 to Intel in the last ten years. And then to suggest the NASDAQ (a very broad index) will follow the same path as GM (a single lucky stock pick) is, well, absurd. The two are not even closely related.

A large number of people follow Dent, as his books and writing are compelling. It seems so logical: The large number of Baby Boomers means more consumer spending until they retire. This will foment unprecedented growth in both the economy and the stock market. Look at the charts. I am sure Dent is well meaning and sincere. But his math, not to mention the logic, is simply AWOL in these reports.

Japan Taxes Cash
Once again I point your attention to the Bank of Japan, the most incompetent central bank in the world. Although they repeatedly announce their intention to lower the value of the yen and bring back inflation, they have failed miserably at both. It is a basic tenet of conservative economic theory that central banks should be able to destroy their currency and cause inflation. Central banks throughout history have demonstrated that ability.

It is not for lack of trying. Last year, the BOJ announced they would buy 3 trillion yen worth of stocks from banks. This should have two salutary effects: it would take shares from banks who could not sell them in the open market without further driving down prices and it would put cash into the banks which could then make loans, thus spurring the economy.

Greg Weldon noted Tuesday that the BOJ has been aggressively buying stocks. From a point of zero in December, they have now purchased almost half (1.4 trillion yen) in less than five months. Not surprising, the Nikkei is up 17%. Dennis Gartman noted yesterday that Japanese banks are becoming reluctant to sell, as they see the BOJ physically pulling stocks upward and want to sell their shares at higher prices. (You can subscribe to Weldon at

Weldon goes on to note that The Bank of Japan is also monetizing the national debt, purchasing 45 trillion of government debt in just 5 months, which is an annual rate of increase of 20%!

Then he gives us this hat trick of analysis: bank lending over the last year has dropped 2.2% and is dropping at an accelerating pace. All that liquidity is still not finding a home in the loan portfolio. Deposit growth at banks is non-existent, down sharply from just April. Finally, there are HUGE outflows of yen leaving Japan and buying foreign currencies, bonds and stocks.

Clearly, the Japanese people are beginning to believe the BOJ is going to take the yen down. Or are they looking over their shoulder at the latest government proposal?

From Dennis Gartman's always interesting letter (I can't make this stuff up):

"It now appears that the government is about to institute... or at least is debating... the possibility of putting into effect one of the strangest and most radical "reforms" we have had seen in our thirty years of watching markets. The government is about to tax cash and savings accounts... not the earnings on the savings, but the savings themselves. According to the Shukan Gendai, the government is debating imposing a 3-55 confiscatory tax on all deposits that sit idle.

"...In Japan, radical reform of the banking system in support of economic growth and an end to deflation is not only not a vice, it is a virtue. The governments intention, with the radical tax proposal, obviously is to drive these hoarded savings accounts out into the world of proper investment. The intention is to force cash out from under the proverbial mattress and out from inside the tin can buried in the yard back into the stock market, back into the real estate market, and back into consumption. With something on the order of $10-15 trillion in savings, if even half of the money finds its way into investment, the impact shall be stunningly material.

"The Swiss tried this back in the early 70's when the US dollar was plunging, the franc was rising and as money flowed into Swiss bank accounts with abandon. The Swiss wanted to stem the franc's rise, and did so very effectively by imposing a tax on the deposits there. For a while, despite the newly imposed tax, capital still flowed to Switzerland; but eventually the tax had its desired effect. Eventually the inflow became an outflow. Eventually, the Franc fell; order was restored and sense and sensibility reigned. It took months, but the government's intention was finally achieved. We do not think this shall take months in Japan for the same effect to be made evident. Merely the discussion of such a new law shall be sufficient to chase a goodly sum of money out from deposits and into consumption and/or equity investment in shares or real estate. The actual imposition of such a tax would have a compelling, material, bullish effect upon share prices in Japan."

Weldon's analysis tells us it already is having that effect. The Japanese have made it clear they want the yen to drop from 117 to 140 (and some credible figures suggest 160). They are pulling out the stops to make such a move happen.

Back at The Fed Ranch
While many roll their eyes at my repeated references to Japan, I think it is instructive for us to see what our own Fed may do in the fight against the evil of deflation. If nothing else, we have a laboratory to see what does not work.

The Fed is between the devil and the Deep Blue Sea. Yesterday, the very influential Professor Robert Shiller (Yale), in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, called on the Fed to act in advance of the appearance of outright deflation.

"There is a risk that Mr. Greenspan will make the same mistake that Masaru Hayani, the governor of the Bank of Japan until March, made: going too slow. Mr. Greenspan understands where Mr. Hayami went wrong, but in the difficult environment, he might make the same mistake for fear of expanding too fast and causing a bout with higher-than-desirable inflation. Given the lack of knowledge about heterodox monetary policy, there is a variety of possibilities, including a deflation of short duration, a deflation of several years or a sudden increase in inflation.

"The Fed ought to start experimenting with such heterodox policies now. Given the vulnerability of economic confidence, it is probably wiser to risk erring on the aggressive side, pushing policies toward inflation. But even if the Fed does this as well as can be expected, a problem of deflation might well be transformed into a problem of stagflation for a while - not a nice option either. The economic problems, rooted in the human response to the nascent information technology of our age, will not be so easily vanquished."

It has been my stated opinion for quite some time that the "best" and most probable result we will see will be stagflation.

We have this quote from the Vice-Chairman of the Fed, Mr. Roger Ferguson, Jr. He clearly tells us where they are going (emphasis mine):

"...a more effective approach to combating deflation...would be for a central bank to stimulate aggregate demand by lowering interest rates further out along the maturity spectrum. A central bank could expand its open market purchases of longer-term government securities, in sizeable quantities if necessary, to drive term premiums lower....Alternatively, as economists have long recognized, a central bank could influence expectations of future short-term interest rates directly by committing to keeping the policy interest rate at zero for a specified and relatively long period of time...

"..Finally, the time the Bank of Japan implemented the quantitative easing framework in March 2001, yields on long-term government securities had already reached a very low level. In the United States today, by contrast, the relatively steep Treasury yield curve affords greater scope for reducing longer-term interest rates."

Bernanke, Poole, Greenspan and other Fed officials are very clear as to their policy: They are going to take the long end of the yield curve down further. Thus far, simply giving an implicit "put" to the market on the short end of the curve has helped lower long rates. When this stops working (and it will) they will move to physically lower rates by buying longer term bonds. The conclusion is that mortgage rates are going lower, interest rates are going down and retirees are going to have to figure out how to get yield somewhere other than treasury notes and bonds.

My prediction in the fall of 1998 for 5% 30 year mortgage rates now seems rather tame. Should I have said 4.5%? While I thought I could see the Fed response to a slowing of the economy, I cannot remember anyone expecting the level of rhetorical and actual response we are seeing now.

As to next week's Fed meeting, will they cut 25 or 50 basis points. While the market thinks 50, I think 25. Neither will help all that much. I find it difficult to believe they would cut beyond 0.75, so they are close to the end of their ability to cut. (Below 0.75% makes money market funds actually lose money.)

Today's data will help insure the cut. With consumer confidence down, exports down, trade deficit up and wholesale prices in clear cut deflationary territory, bringing thoughts of outright deflation to consumer prices, the Fed is going to be under increasing pressure to act.

The cuts are now of value primarily for the psychological factor. Thus, I think Greenspan will save one more rate cut bullet rather than spending them both next week. After that they have to start working on the longer end of the yield curve.

There Is No Free Lunch at the Fed
Lower interest rates make life difficult for insurance companies, who have to raise rates because their investments do not yield as much. Pension funds go further into deficit, requiring more contributions from businesses and governments. I talk daily with retired clients who are more than a little frustrated at the low returns on their retirement funds. Yet buying long term bonds today as an investment is the wrong thing to do. Reaching for yield or chasing a "bull" market are going to be a very hazardous propositions, and all too many investors are doing so.

(Long term bonds as a "trade" still makes sense. But you do not want to be holding the "Old Maid" when rates start to rise. They will fall in value quicker than you can possibly imagine.)

This makes it all the more imperative that Congressman Baker rein in Freddie Mac before it becomes a real problem. If the mortgage market becomes embroiled, it could have serious, very unpleasant, consequences for the economy. Fix the problem quickly. Light is typically a good solution.

Freddie is for all intents and purposes a huge hedge fund. That is how they have made such outsized profits. I do not think there is a problem within the portfolio, as they have a huge advantage over private hedge funds who play in the mortgage bond world. They have ultimate insider knowledge, cheap funds, and implicit government guarantee and they make their own market. Who wouldn't want to own that fund?

I talked with several of my friends who run hedge funds which specialize in mortgage bonds. The Freddie "problem" so far has not hurt the value of the bonds, which are ultimately still a call on the value of the homes of those who have the mortgage. But a crippled Freddie could make it more difficult to get mortgages, which could be a big problem.

The "problem" that has come out is that they have been understating earnings. They are "banking" some of today's earnings for use in a less rosy future. Baker should see Freddie (and Fannie) come under some regulatory authority who can understand their extraordinarily complex business. If the regulator cannot spell derivatives, they should not be allowed within miles of Freddie or Fannie. They will do more harm than good. Prudent management of Freddie and Fannie requires they use derivatives to manage their portfolios. They should do so openly in a very clear manner. This will of course make their profits less, as they then cannot take unfair advantage of the market.

That is as it should be. As a Government Sponsored Entity, it is not their primary purpose to make money for investors. They are first and foremost responsible for an orderly mortgage market. That should come first.

I will have to stop here, as I am over-long already. Maybe we will deal with the apparent absurdity of "no-no" bonds next week, which are bonds that pay no interest and are the latest rage on Wall Street. The list of absurdities from just this week would make a book, and I have yet to finish the one I am working on, but I get ever closer.

If you would like to meet in New York or San Francisco, simply reply to this email and I or my staff will contact you.

The Horde Descends Upon Austin
It is time for the annual Mauldin family summer migration. This year, 6 of 7 kids, sundry spouses and boyfriends will once again descend upon Gary Halbert's humble cabin and fabulous manse on Lake Travis in Austin (or more precisely Spicewood, Texas) for a long weekend of water and food. I like boats, especially when my friends own them. This is the one event more anticipated by my kids than any other, and as I realize that Gary has been hosting this trip for more than a decade, I do get somewhat nostalgic as I look at the old pictures.

My family has seen real growth over the last ten years, both in numbers and love. Like gold, this is a store of value that no central banker can inflate away. Enjoy your week.

Your going off his diet for the weekend analyst,


John Mauldin

Author: John Mauldin

John Mauldin

John Mauldin

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