Trend: Governments that have focused only on short-term problems are facing some grim realities as neglected long-term problems expand exponentially.
Below are some excerpts from a speech by David Einhorn, President of Greenlight Capital. He describes some of the trends that worry him and the events that got us into this situation. For the first time, he suggests holding gold to protect capital. He is renowned for shorting Lehman Brothers before the financial crisis after uncovering the problems that the ratings agencies ignored.
Presently, Ben Bernanke and Tim Geithner have become the quintessential short-term decision makers. They explicitly "do whatever it takes" to "solve one problem at a time" and deal with the unintended consequences later. It is too soon for history to evaluate their work, because there hasn't been time for the unintended consequences of the "do whatever it takes" decision-making to materialize.
In the context of the recent economic crisis, a highly motivated and organized banking lobby has demonstrated enormous influence. Bankers advance ideas like, "without banks, we would have no economy." Of course, there was a public interest in protecting the guts of the system, but the ATMs could have continued working, even with forced debt-to-equity conversions that would not have required any public funds. Instead, our leaders responded by handing over hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars to protect the speculative investments of bank shareholders and creditors. This has been particularly remarkable, considering that most agree that these same banks had an enormous role in creating this mess which has thrown millions out of their homes and jobs.
...Americans understand that the Washington-Wall Street relationship has rewarded the least deserving people and institutions at the expense of the prudent. They don't know the particulars or how to argue against the "without banks, we have no economy" demagogues. So, they fight healthcare reform, where they have enough personal experience to equip them to argue with Congressmen at town hall meetings. As I see it, the revolt over healthcare isn't really about healthcare, but represents a broader upset at Washington. The lack of trust over the inability to deal seriously with the party goers feeds the lack of trust over healthcare.
Twenty-five years ago the government dismantled AT&T. Its break-up set forth decades of unbelievable progress in that industry. We can do that again here in the financial sector and we would achieve very positive social benefit with no cost that anyone can seem to explain.
The proposed reform takes us in the polar opposite direction. The cop-out response from Washington is that it isn't "practical." Our leaders are so influenced by the banking special interests that they would rather declare it "impractical" than roll up their sleeves and figure out how to get the job done.
The bailouts have installed a great deal of moral hazard, which in the absence of radical change will be reinforced and thereby grant every big institution a permanent "implicit" government backstop. This creates an enormous ongoing subsidy for the too-big-to-fails, as well as making it much harder for the non-too-big-to-fails to compete. In effect, we all continue to subsidize the big banks even though we keep hearing the worst of the crisis is behind us.
In addition, the now larger too-big-to-fails are beginning to take advantage of developing oligopolies. Even as the government spends trillions to subsidize mortgage rates, the resulting discount is not being passed to homeowners but is being kept by mortgage originators who are earning record profits per mortgage originated. Recently, Goldman upgraded Wells Fargo partly based on its ability to earn long-term oligopolistic mortgage origination spreads.
Rather than deal with these simple problems with simple, obvious solutions, the official reform plans are complicated, convoluted and designed to only have the veneer of reform while mostly serving the special interests. The complications serve to reduce transparency, preventing the public at large from really seeing the overwhelming influence of the banks in shaping the new regulation.
In dealing with the continued weak economy, our leaders are so determined not to repeat the perceived mistakes of the 1930s that they are risking policies with possibly far worse consequences designed by the same people at the Fed who ran policy with the short-term view that asset bubbles don't matter because the fallout can be managed after they pop. That view created a disaster that required unprecedented intervention for which our leaders congratulated themselves for doing whatever it took to solve. With a sense of mission accomplished, the G-20 proclaimed "it worked."
Over the next decade the welfare states will come to face severe demographic problems. Baby Boomers have driven the U.S. economy since they were born. It is no coincidence that we experienced an economic boom between 1980 and 2000, as the Boomers reached their peak productive years. The Boomers are now reaching retirement. The Social Security and Medicare commitments to them are astronomical.
When the government calculates its debt and deficit it does so on a cash basis. This means that deficit accounting does not take into account the cost of future promises until the money goes out the door. According to shadowstats.com, if the federal government counted the cost of its future promises, the 2008 deficit was over $5 trillion and total obligations are over $60 trillion. And that was before the crisis.
Over the last couple of years we have adopted a policy of private profits and socialized risks. We are transferring many private obligations onto the national ledger. Although our leaders ought to make some serious choices, they appear too trapped in short-termism and special interests to make them. Taking no action is an action.
The failure of Lehman meant that barring extraordinary measures, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs would have failed as the credit market realized that if the government were willing to permit failures, then the cost of financing such institutions needed to be re-priced so as to invalidate their business models.
I believe there is a real possibility that the collapse of any of the major currencies could have a similar domino effect on re-assessing the credit risk of the other fiat currencies run by countries with structural deficits and large, unfunded commitments to aging populations.
Now, the question for us as investors is how to manage some of these possible risks. Four years ago I spoke at this conference and said that I favored my Grandma Cookie's investment style of investing in stocks like Nike, IBM, McDonalds and Walgreens over my Grandpa Ben's style of buying gold bullion and gold stocks. He feared the economic ruin of our country through a paper money and deficit driven hyper inflation. I explained how Grandma Cookie had been right for the last thirty years and would probably be right for the next thirty as well. I subscribed to Warren Buffett's old criticism that gold just sits there with no yield and viewed gold's long-term value as difficult to assess.
However, the recent crisis has changed my view. The question can be flipped: how does one know what the dollar is worth given that dollars can be created out of thin air or dropped from helicopters? Just because something hasn't happened, doesn't mean it won't. Yes, we should continue to buy stocks in great companies, but there is room for Grandpa Ben's view as well.
I have seen many people debate whether gold is a bet on inflation or deflation. As I see it, it is neither. Gold does well when monetary and fiscal policies are poor and does poorly when they appear sensible. Gold did very well during the Great Depression when FDR debased the currency. It did well again in the money printing 1970s, but collapsed in response to Paul Volcker's austerity. It ultimately made a bottom around 2001 when the excitement about our future budget surpluses peaked.
Prospectively, gold should do fine unless our leaders implement much greater fiscal and monetary restraint than appears likely. Of course, gold should do very well if there is a sovereign debt default or currency crisis.
A few weeks ago, the Office of Inspector General called out the Treasury Department for misrepresenting the position of the banks last fall. The Treasury's response was an unapologetic expression that amounted to saying that at that point "doing whatever it takes" meant pulling a Colonel Jessup: "YOU CAN'T HANDLE THE TRUTH!" At least we know what we are dealing with.
When I watch Chairman Bernanke, Secretary Geithner and Mr. Summers on TV, read speeches written by the Fed Governors, observe the "stimulus" black hole, and think about our short-termism and lack of fiscal discipline and political will, my instinct is to want to short the dollar. But then I look at the other major currencies. The Euro, the Yen, and the British Pound might be worse. So, I conclude that picking one these currencies is like choosing my favorite dental procedure. And I decide holding gold is better than holding cash, especially now, where both earn no yield.
Along these same lines, we have bought long-dated options on much higher U.S. and Japanese interest rates. The options in Japan are particularly cheap because the historical volatility is so low. I prefer options to simply shorting government bonds, because there remains a possibility of a further government bond rally in response to the economy rolling over again. With options, I can clearly limit how much I am willing to lose, while creating a lot of leverage to a possible rate spiral.
For years, the discussion has been that our deficit spending will pass the costs onto "our grandchildren." I believe that this is no longer the case and that the consequences will be seen during the lifetime of the leaders who have pursued short-term popularity over our solvency. The recent economic crisis and our response has brought forward the eventual reconciliation into a window that is near enough that it makes sense for investors to buy some insurance to protect themselves from a possible systemic event. To slightly modify Alexis de Tocqueville: Events can move from the impossible to the inevitable without ever stopping at the probable.
As investors, we can't change the course of events, but we can attempt to protect capital in the face of foreseeable risks.