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Pie in the Sky – John Browne Commentary January 27, 2011

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Pie in the Sky

By John Browne

Following the huge gains made by Republicans in the midterm elections, it was widely expected that President Obama would use the State of the Union address to signal a major policy shift toward the center of the political spectrum. On the surface, at least, he appeared to do just that, hinting that he took budget management very seriously and that Americans should be prepared for shared sacrifice. However, as the final applause still echoed in the House chamber, many astute pundits were left trying to make sense of the many contradictory policy prescriptions the President proffered.

Classical political maneuvering dictates that when clouds are grey, politicians must offer good news, tell jokes, and remind us warmly of our childhood (or in Obama’s version, America’s triumph over Russia in the Space Race). Disclosure of specific measures should be avoided at all costs. President Obama followed these tactics closely.

While he did address plans to cut non-defence, discretionary federal spending – a small fraction of the overall budget – the President also announced his intention to increase spending on several existing and new initiatives. The scope of the new initiatives will surely eclipse the modest cuts pledged.

The President was careful to refer to all his spending plans as “investments.” The word is used in order to illicit a pleasant feeling among voters who instinctively favor capitalism over socialism, not because any thinking person expects these resources to be better allocated than they would have been by the market. Governments don’t make investments because they aren’t subject to profit-and-loss feedback. Governments provide public goods for which no profit can be measured or expected – or else we would just have the private sector take care of it. This disingenuous use of the word investment disguises the fact that the President simply intends to borrow even more money to spend on public-sector jobs.

The essential point is that while jobs in the private sector create wealth, public sector jobs actually consume wealth. When I was a Member of the British Parliament, I represented a county that spent the least amount per pupil on education of anywhere in the entire country. Yet, the achievement level of the students was by far the highest. It was vivid proof that it is not the amount of money that is crucial to success, but the quality of the spending. If the President were to lower taxation, cut the number of government regulations, and replace a political atmosphere of uncertainty with one of certainty, he might stand a chance of reviving wealth creation.

More seriously, the President made no mention of the massive debt problems facing US state governments, such as California and Illinois. The potential eruption of these debt and currency problems could well dominate investment strategies for 2011.

Yesterday, the Congressional Budget Office issued a highly embarrassing assessment that the federal deficit for 2011 would rise from the previously projected $1.1 trillion to $1.48 trillion. At a stroke, this nullified the President’s debt reduction plans. The CBO also pointed out that Social Security posted a $45 billion deficit in 2010 and will bleed more than $600 billion over the next ten years. I assume these estimates to be conservative. It is clear that the President, and the rest of Congress for that matter (with the possible exception of Congressman Paul Ryan whose austere recommendations have been ignored by most of his fellow Republicans), are dancing around the bonfire of our sovereign credit and hoping that their twirls will distract us from the conflagration.

Also yesterday, the Federal Reserve’s policy statement claimed that its massive stimulus plans are working, and that it will maintain both QE II and near-zero rates well into 2011. If the economy were indeed improving, as Messrs. Bernanke and Obama claim, why would the Fed and the Treasury need to keep administering life support? Clearly the White House and the Fed have little confidence in their own assertions; so, how should average investors react to more promises which are highly unlikely to be kept?

Rather than buying into Washington’s scripted recovery propaganda, investors should focus on the bottom line. Low interest rates are distorting the value of money and the key investment relationship between risk and reward. One side effect is that investors are being incentivized to favor equities over fixed income. A lack of viable alternatives has likely played an unsung role in supporting the current stock market rally.

Investors would be well-advised to retain a jaundiced view of all political statements, especially those of central bankers and politicians positioning themselves for the next election. In 2011, investors should focus their eyes not on the sky, but at the brick wall our Union is fast approaching.

John Browne is a Senior Market Strategist at Euro-Pacific Capital. He’s been a member of English Parliament, an advisor to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and currently serves as Lead Panelist for The Mangru Report. You can view all of his commentaries by CLICKING HERE NOW.

The One-Sided Compromise – Guest Commentary By John Browne October 29, 2010

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The One-Sided Compromise

By: John Browne

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Last weekend, the G-20 finance ministers met in South Korea to find areas of agreement in preparation for the main G-20 gathering in November. The Chinese rebuffed renewed American pleas for them to revalue their yuan. They rejected Secretary Geithner’s suggestion of a four percent cap on current account surpluses. However, in return for accepting America’s continued dollar debasement, the Chinese did agree to “look into” a revaluation of the yuan and the management of trade surpluses. They also agreed to an international self-policing regime to curb currency manipulation. This ‘one-sided’ compromise was hailed in the Western media as a triumph for Mr. Geithner. The US stock markets and dollar rallied. All looked good for the election season in November.

Unfortunately, compromises are never one-sided; they are only construed as such. Though the reporting failed to emphasize it, Mr. Geithner actually agreed to a massive shift of monetary power in exchange for China’s empty concessions. The shareholdings and board composition of the huge and powerful International Monetary Fund (IMF) have now been shifted. China will now become the third largest shareholder of the IMF and the developing economies will get a six percent larger voting share. Two European states will lose their seats on the IMF’s board in favor of developing countries.

Meanwhile, China, supported by Russia, India, and even Brazil, continued to lobby hard for the US dollar’s privileged role as the international reserve currency to be replaced by a wide basket of currencies and gold. To this end, the IMF has recently been given additional “emergency” lending facilities. These could be used in a coming sovereign default crisis to ‘bail out’ Western countries, at which point they would be unable to resist global economic governance under the guise of the reformed IMF.

In short, Secretary Geithner’s “victory” at the G-20 was one only King Pyrrhus could love.

But the blame cannot be laid entirely with Mr. Geithner. The fact that he left the meeting at least saving a bit of face for his delegation is a monumental achievement, considering the dismal condition of the US economy.

Fed Chairman Bernanke appears desperate to flood the United States with another round of quantitative easing (QE-2). In a $13 trillion economy, a release of anything less than $1 trillion would not be seen as effective. Remember, the Fed already injected over $1 trillion after the credit crunch – and we are still in recession. How much will it take to right this listing ship?

When Geithner pledged to China a “gradual” debasement of the dollar, it is astonishing that they didn’t laugh him out of the room.

If he were to make good on his pledge and convince Bernanke to cut QE-2 to, say, $500 billion, the US GDP and stock markets would almost certainly begin to contract. This would threaten the banking system with a second crisis borne out of the ashes, or toxic assets, of the first.

For a frame of reference, the US home mortgage market is valued at some $10.6 trillion. Indeed, foreclosures and past-due loans amount already to some 14 percent of the market, or about $1.5 trillion. Of this staggering figure, the loans delinquent or in foreclosure to which the top three banks (Bank of America, Wells Fargo and JP Morgan) are exposed amount to more than $600 billion, an amount roughly equal to the original TARP bailout fund.

At the same time, thanks to falsely low interest rates, the banks’ net interest margins, or the difference between what they earn in loan interest and what they pay to their creditors, are being squeezed severely, while their non-interest earnings are falling, due to lower economic activity and the prohibitions contained in FinReg.

Finally, there is the murky question of how exposed the banks are to the massive derivatives market, a house of cards with a shaky foundation.

As we have described for several years, the US economy is virtually locked into a long arc of decline. There are no politically palatable solutions to this quandary. Until Americans are ready to take their lumps and accept a steep drop in their standard of living, the US government will have no leverage with the creditor nations and no ability to keep its promises. Therefore, we should celebrate when China even gives our Treasury Secretary an audience.

If China does manage to topple the US dollar from its perch as the international reserve currency, our economy will very likely move into free fall as decades of inflation come pouring back into the country. We will be forced to live within our means or face hyperinflation. Losing a few votes at the IMF is a small cost to delay this eventuality, but it also puts us one step closer to it.

John Browne is a Senior Market Strategist at Euro-Pacific Capital. He’s been a member of English Parliament, an advisor to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and currently serves as Lead Panelist for The Mangru Report. You can view all of his commentaries by CLICKING HERE NOW.

Regulation Nation – Outsourcing in America – The Mangru Report Episode 21 October 26, 2010

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As election season is in full gear, and politicians ramp up the political rhetoric on how outsourcing has killed jobs in America, The Mangru Report Panel of experts takes a hard look at whether outsourcing is a negative or a positive thing for America.

The Mangru Report Panel of Experts composed of Anthony Pulieri (Joseph Glenn Commodities), John Browne (Euro Pacific Capital), and Jim Knight (The Knight Group) discuss the differences in wages in foreign countries, the influence of unions, unfair government subsidies from foreign nations, the difference in technical skills between the U.S. workforce and countries like China & India, backwards tax incentives that keep U.S. jobs overseas for fear of high U.S. taxation, the influence of cheaper goods and it’s effect on the U.S. standard of living, and why companies are moving more of their operations overseas.

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Taxation By Representation on Sugary Drinks Ban for New York City – The Mangru Report October 19, 2010

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After Congress failed to pass a 10 cent tax on sugary drinks such as soda, New York City united behind Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Gov. David Patterson is now trying to implement a sugary drink ban in New York City for all food stamp recipients. Patterson and Bloomberg contend that all of the public spending on healthcare and the links to diabetes and other diseases justifies the government ban.

Opponents of the measure say that this is just another nanny-state solution by New York, and that this is another case of class warfare, with the less fortunate being targeted.

Watch The Mangru Report Panel of Experts composed of John Browne (Euro-Pacific Capital), Paschal Liguori (Premier Estate Properties), and Florida House of Representatives Majority Leader Adam Hasner debate both sides of the issue and look at the real costs at hand.

Healthy School Lunches – Taxation By Representation – The Mangru Report on Fox Business October 12, 2010

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As Congress continues to debate a new bill to implement healthy school lunches across the country (HR 5504, Improving Nutrition for America’s Children Act), The Mangru Report panel of experts composed of John Browne (Euro-Pacific Capital), Anthony Pulieri (United Bullion Group), and Jim Knight (The Knight Group) discusses the merits of the bill and whether this is solving an epidemic problem or just more government spending.

The panel also weighs whether the healthy school lunches should be income based as opposed to being distributed to all students, whether food stamps should be cut to pay for it, whether physical fitness programs should accompany the healthy lunches, and whether the government should be intruding further into our lives.


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Commodity Corner – Brazil’s Big Oil Bet – The Mangru Report on Fox Business – Episode 20 October 10, 2010

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While most people in America have been focusing on an upcoming General Motors (GM) IPO that was supposed to be some $70 billion dollars, it seems that Brazil has beat us to the punch. Recently, state-run Brazilian oil giant Petrobras (NYSE: PBR) raised some $70-75 billion in a secondary stock offering that was completed late September to finance the company’s growth and expansion, in particular new offshore deposits of oil found off the coast of Brazil.

Watch Dan Mangru and the Mangru Report Panel of Experts composed of John Browne (Euro-Pacific Capital), Anthony Pulieri (United Bullion Group), and Michael Solomon (Author, Where Did My America Go?) discuss whether the $75 billion was a good bet on Petrobras, whether the incoming Brazilian government will take Petrobras in a more socialist direction, and how the U.S. is invested in offshore oil in Brazil but not in America.

 

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War On Your Dollar – Bernanke’s September Surprise – The Mangru Report on Fox Business – Episode 20 October 7, 2010

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Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke recently announced that the recovery was not as strong as originally thought, the U.S. did not have enough inflation, and that the Fed would increase it’s debt purchases & inject more money into the system.

Watch Dan Mangru, John Browne (Euro-Pacific Capital), Anthony Pulieri (United Bullion Group), and Michael Solomon (Author, Where Did My America Go?) discuss how the dollar is being devalued, how Bernanke has created the perfect storm for gold, why China is not buying U.S. debt, and whether there is too much hype and excitement in the gold market.

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A Candid Appraisal of the Recovery – John Browne Commentary October 1, 2010

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A Candid Appraisal of the Recovery

By John Browne

Over the last two weeks, seemingly good economic news offered some shreds of optimism to a stock market that was desperate for a pick-me-up.

The week before last, the National Bureau of Economic Research declared that the US recession had ended back in June 2009. At the beginning of last week, news came in that month-on-month retail sales had risen by 0.4 percent. Combined with successful government debt auctions in the eurozone, increasing expectations that Republicans will take back the House (thereby blunting the leftward drift of Washington), and hopes that a new round of quantitative easing will pump up growth, mainstream analysts are developing a feeling of near-euphoria.

Although it hard to begrudge the punch drunk for grasping at a little hope, investing is a dispassionate endeavor that calls for close and realistic analysis. In that spirit, let’s dig deeper into the recent ‘good news.’

First, the single month’s rise in retail sales was a blip on what has been a long-term downtrend. Furthermore, retail sales in August typically get a large boost from seasonal ‘back to school’ spending. This year, retail sales were boosted further by temporary tax incentives and vendor discounts.

Second, the successful auction of debt from worrisome eurozone countries, like Ireland, only served to further camouflage the ongoing risk of sovereign default by these states. None of them have committed to a comprehensive program of austerity and market liberalization – Ireland maintains a ‘too big to fail’ doctrine while Greece is on the verge of riots from its so-far modest efforts at privatization. None of the PIIGS would have had successful bond sales if Germany hadn’t been pressured into becoming a ‘sovereign of last resort’ for the whole currency area.

Apart from health of the weakest nations, a more important issue is understanding how sovereign debt is analyzed by investors in the first place. Those who consider buying government debt have for many years relied on backward-looking measurements such as debt-to-GDP to analyze the investment quality.

But that’s only half the picture, and oftentimes it’s even less than that. It does not include off-balance sheet items such as unfunded pensions, social security payments, or health obligations. For the US, I estimate this total debt amounts to some $134 trillion – nearly ten times the ‘official’ figure.

On a deeper level, using the public debt-to-GDP ratio to assess sovereign solvency implies that governments have access to the entire annual production of their economies. In reality, they have access only to that portion which is taxable. As taxes increase, there are natural limits imposed by increasing inefficiency and avoidance behaviors. Therefore, ‘net GDP,’ the portion available to the government for debt service, is significantly smaller than the gross GDP of the nation.

With real government debts, including off-balance sheet items, far larger than officially recognized and net GDPs far smaller that top-line GDP, the solvency of many sovereigns should be considered dubious at best.

For example, the debt-to-GDP ratio of the United States is currently 65 percent, which puts the country towards the solvent end of the debt spectrum among developed Western nations. However, the real debt-to-net GDP ratio is a staggering 358 percent, making the US the most insolvent nation in the group, behind even Greece!

In the interest of brevity, I will only touch on the fact that the above number is actually still an underestimate. It does not account for the portion of gross GDP claimed by state and municipal governments to service their debts. After all, all levels of government tax the same base. So, the effective portion of GDP available to the US federal government is even smaller still.

The third problem with the late round of ‘good news’ is that while a GOP sweep of House races looks likely, it is unlikely to make a large impact on policy. It is doubtful that the small number of freshman GOP Representatives will be able to win over their more mature, big government-minded colleagues. Any pending GOP ‘small government’ revolution will be heavy on talk and short on accomplishments.

It should come as no surprise that the Republicans’ “Pledge to America” lacked specific commitments for cost-cutting. Republicans are terrified of becoming the party of austerity, and the next Republican President will want to avoid being seen as ‘Hoover 2.0’. Therefore, any structural changes will come slowly – and perhaps too late.

Finally, whatever actions the Fed takes in the name of further stimulus will have the same unintended consequences as all previous stimulus efforts. Long-term sustainability will be sacrificed in favor of a short-term boom. Since World War II, the underlying strength of the US economy has allowed the central bank to get away with this strategy, as the economy simply outgrew the inefficiencies caused by monetary manipulation. But what happens when we are in a period of secular decline?

So we see that Wall Street is again playing the part of Pangloss. Unfortunately, their purported inklings of a renewed rally in the US markets do not stand up to candid appraisal.

John Browne is the Senior Market Strategist for Euro-Pacific Capital and a featured panelist on The Mangru Report on Fox Business.  To view his previous commentaries please click here.

Buy and Hold Still Holds – John Browne Commentary September 5, 2010

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Buy and Hold Still Holds
By:John Browne
Thursday, September 2, 2010

As Americans have justifiably lost faith in the stock market, the classic buy-and-hold investment strategy has fallen from favor. The problem is that retail investors are wrongly equating the performance of stocks as a class with the trajectory of American stocks in particular. Fortunately, buy-and-hold still works in many parts of the world. If you are an American, just don’t try it at home.

The US market is in sorry shape. The Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500 are presently no higher than they were 12 years ago. If you factor in 12 years worth of inflation, then these results are abysmal. Although American stocks have gone nowhere, extreme economic stress has nevertheless created huge swings of volatility. During the past decade, US stocks have surged 50%, plunged by similar amounts, and then risen and fallen again.

To be a successful player in such a volatile, directionless market requires the kind of knowledge and vigilance that only the best financial professionals possess. The key to trading is the flexibility to make very short-term movements in and out of stocks and sectors, combined with rigorous sell discipline. Oftentimes it means placing a short-term bet on a company and sector even if one believes the move makes no long-term sense. As these capacities are not common among retail investors, who can blame them for heading to the exits?

While attention is often showered on the traders who find success with short-term momentum plays, less attention is paid to fundamental economic growth, which is, after all, the main reason that rank-and-file investors profit from the market. A growing economy lifts all boats, and brings buy-and-hold investors along for the ride.

In recent times, the long-term trend of a massive shift in growth from American and European developed economies to emerging economies, especially to China, has benefitted greatly the buy-and-hold strategies of investors following that mega-trend. I believe that this trend will likely continue over the long-term. I also believe that emerging-market stocks will not be as vulnerable to the next downturn in US stocks as they were in 2008.

Recent conclusions from a number of high-profile research organizations support this forecast. According to IMF estimates, developing economies’ debt will average about 40 percent of their gross domestic product this year, compared with 107 percent in advanced economies. The IMF believes that this comparatively lower debt burden will help the developing economies grow 6.4 percent as a group in 2011, greatly surpassing the 2.4 percent expansion expected in the developed world.

According to Morgan Stanley, emerging-market companies are finding better opportunities to reinvest their earnings, producing a return on equity of 14.8 percent, compared with 10.2 percent in the developed world. *

However, despite this tremendous growth and profitability, shares in the emerging markets remain at attractive valuations relative to the mature economies. In fact, data compiled by Bloomberg shows that for the past decade, except for the 10-month period ending in May 2008 (right before the crisis began), emerging-market shares consistently traded at lower earnings multiples than developed markets. The MSCI Emerging Markets Index has traded at an average discount of about 30 percent to the MSCI World Index during the past 10 years, the data show.  *

Buy-and-hold remains a viable strategy for foreign stock investing at current valuations. The popular alternative, keeping savings in US bank accounts and bonds, is an increasingly risky strategy, in my opinion. While a natural recession would benefit savers and bondholders, as decreasing prices make a penny saved into a penny earned, the US government is determined to continue intervening in the market.

Washington, whether it is controlled by Democrats or Republicans, is unlikely to ever suffer the political consequences of stepping back in the face of recession. So, even while some form of austerity is sorely needed, it is extremely unlikely to be enacted.

Instead, more useless economic stimulus is likely to materialize. While huge infusions of government spending will create the short-term illusion of recovery, the result most likely will be greatly increased taxes, massive debt increases, a further lurch from private-sector wealth creation toward public consumption – and, finally, debasement of the US dollar.

So, retail investors sitting in US bonds and bank accounts will ultimately pay a steep price through inflation. The answer, it seems, is not to abandon stocks, but rather US stocks. Not to abandon buy-and-hold, but to adopt buy-and-hold-elsewhere. And if you were never a stock buyer, there’s always the security of physical precious metals.

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Another Stimulus – The Mangru Report – Episode 14 August 25, 2010

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Just when you think you’ve seen one stimulus too much… the White House and their crew of cronies are now calling for even more government spending in the form of a new stimulus.  Watch as The Mangru Report Panel of Experts led by John Browne of Euro-Pacific Capital, Anthony Pulieri of United Bullion Group, Alan Stone of Wall St. Research, and Jim Whelan of The James R. Whelan Agency.

This segment was sponsored by First Hour Trading you can download their FREE report “How to make enough money in the first 59 minutes of trading…” at www.firsthourtradingtv.com