Living in a Low Growth World

Posted on May 16, 2013

Michael Drury, Chief Economist, McVean Trading and Investments LLC – Reprinted with Author’s Permission

Perhaps the question we are asked most frequently is when things will get back to normal, meaning in most investors’ eyes the way they were before Lehman.  Unfortunately, our answer is “That bird has flown” and we are now dealing with, and will continue to deal with for many years, a very different environment.  The mainstay of that difference is a lack of trust between those that have money to invest and those that want to use it for risky undertakings, and, in particular, a lack of trust in the banking system that used to intermediate between these two groups.  The result is a glut of savings available to “safe” investments driving risk-free yields to very low levels.  However, the central banks, by buying bonds and manipulating long term interest rates lower, are introducing a significant risk of capital loss into even “risk-free” assets.  Investors are both moving and driven out the risk and yield curves, and returns on riskier investments are falling.  The decline in returns at the precise time many investors want to start spending investment income has pushed up prices for proven existing income flows.  Meanwhile, a combination of distrust and a reduced pool of money that will wait long periods before income is produced have generated fewer green-field investments in physical plant and equipment, resulting in a slower potential growth path for the economy.

We are neither monetarist nor Keynesian, but rather institutionalist and a storyteller.  We see the current situation as the culmination of a long path where growing reliance on banks and the central bank to maintain economic growth has run aground.  Both re-establishing trust and balance in the old system or building a new one will take time – likely many years … read the rest

Winds of Change: Banking

Posted on May 8, 2013

John Mason – Originally Published at Seeking Alpha – Reprinted with Authors Permission

Another Executive Leaves JPMorgan…” reads the headline of the business section in the New York Times. The question is, what is going on at JPMorgan Chase (JPM)?

The timing of this last leaving is raising questions. The latest major departure is Frank Bisignano, the co-chief operating officer. The questions are about the status of Jamie Dimon, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of JPMorgan, the “persistent executive turnover,” and the up-coming board meeting where a debate is raging about whether or not Mr. Dimon should hold both top positions.

To me, there are two reasons for the recent departure events. First, Mr. Dimon is in control and he does not like what has happened inside JPMorgan over the past two years or so, with “the London Whale” and other events that have tarnished the “bravo” image of Mr. Dimon and his bank. The activity going on inside the bank remind me of a “turnaround” operation!’

But, there is a second reason for the things that are going on. Mr. Dimon is moving JPMorgan into the future.

If this is true, then this whole effort is to move JPMorgan into the future in the face of the “hostile” regulatory environment that exists, in the face of the changes that information technology are forcing on the banking industry, and the changing nature of the financial industry.

If I were Mr. Dimon, my feeling would be that the current regulatory environment “sucks”!

Being John Mason, my feeing is that the current regulatory environment “sucks”!

In either case, the basic feeling is that I really don’t want to run a bank. I want to run something different.

Second, whatever is being done in the financial industry, the future of commercial banking…of finance … read the rest

Winds of Change: Energy

Posted on May 6, 2013

John Mason – Originally Published at Seeking Alpha – Reprinted with Authors Permission

In my last post I wrote about all the economic re-structuring that is taking place. Even though economic growth remains relatively tepid, changes are taking place in the economy that are going to dominate the future when the economy fully adjusts.

Maybe one of the reasons that the economy is growing so slowly is that the economy is going through a transition phase, like in the 1930s, where resources have to be re-allocated and re-structured in order for the economy to take off once again.

That is, resources are mis-located now relative to what is happening in the economy. For the economy to pick up its full head of steam, resources have to be re-aligned to fit what the economy is evolving into…not what it was. Economic policies that attempt to put resources…especially labor…back into the jobs they historically held…just doesn’t work!

Therefore, as I mentioned in the previous post, this re-structuring is creating tremendous opportunities for investment. But, one has to change ones perspective…and not focus on what was. This is why I found the recent article on the future of energy by Clifford Krauss in the New York Times so refreshing. The title to the article, to me, says it all, “By 2023, A Changed World in Energy.”

“If you could close your eyes for just a moment like Rip Van Winkle, and blink them open in 2023, you might see a very different energy world.

Electric cars may be popular. Solar energy could be cheap enough that millions of households and businesses deploy solar panels to generate their power needs. Fossil fuels will probably still dominate, but most trucks and many trains could run on natural gas rather than more polluting diesel. And the United States could be … read the rest

The Winds of Change Are Blowing

Posted on May 5, 2013

John Mason – Originally Published at Seeking Alpha – Reprinted with Author’s Permission

The world is changing. The world is changing because it must change. When the unemployment rate hits 27 percent, as it now stands in Spain, something more is going on than just a business cycle.

Unemployment is also above 27 percent in Greece. In Italy, the unemployment rate is close to 12 percent. In France, the unemployment rate is above 10 percent. The employment problems in these countries are not just cyclical, they are structural.

The same for the United States. Although the unemployment rate in the United States is under 8 percent, the startling figure concerning the U.S. labor market is that the labor participation rate has dropped below 64 percent, a figure not reached since the latter part of the 1970s when women were not as big a part of the workforce as they are now.

These structural forces are causing divisions between countries as the world tries to recover from the Great Recession and more. Angela Merkel, German Chancellor, “highlights eurozone divisions.” The unemployment rate in Germany is 5.4 percent.

But, as we know, the utilization of capital in the western world tends to be lower now, for this stage in the business cycle, that at any other time in the past fifty years. Western countries are not only not using the human capital that is available; it is not using the physical capital it possesses. The competitiveness of the eurozone is an issue that comes up over and over again.

Phillip Stephens writes in the Financial Times about The New Deal for Europe: More Reform, Less Austerity. “High unemployment in Europe is not just a reflection of recession. It often mirrors ossified labor markets that lock out young people and discourage investment and innovation.”

But … read the rest