Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Year of Living Dangerously

2009 will enter the history books as the first time that global GDP contracted.

It is possible that there was a world-wide fall in production during the Great Depression, but global statistics were not yet estimated at the time (as the IMF and the World Bank had not yet been created).

Another way to view it is that in 2009 more than 80 % of the countries of the world were in recession, something that had not occurred since the Great Depression.

The IMF’s World Economic Outlook (October 2009) estimates a fall in global GDP of -1.1 %.

The collapse in production would have been even worse, had it not been for the relative stability in China (GDP growth rate estimated at 8.5 %) and India (5.4 %).

The former “world economic engine”, the United States, had already entered in recession in December 2007, and will end 2009 with a -2.7 % contraction.

The contraction will be even more pronounced in Europe and Japan. In the euro zone, production will fall by -4.2 %; in UK by -4.4 %; and in Japan by -5.4 %.

The worst-performing economies worldwide are the Baltic states: -18.5 % in Lithuania, -18.0 % in Latvia, and -14.0 % in Estonia. These countries, together with Iceland, suffered a spectacular bursting of the real estate bubble, together with high levels of euro-indebtedness. Other countries with double digit contractions (depression?) were: Armenia (-15.6 %), Ukraine (-14.0 %), and Botswana (-10.3 %).

The stellar performers, apart from the aforementioned Chindia, were: Afghanistan (15.7 %), Qatar (11.5 %), Bhutan (8.5 %), Ethiopia (7.5 %), Azerbaijan (7.5 %) and Congo D.R. (7.4 %). However, in some of these cases (Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and Congo) this growth corresponds more to a recovery from their war-wracked economies.

Among the 30 OECD countries, only Poland (1.4 %), Australia (0.8 %) and South Korea (0.1 %) showed a (barely) positive growth.

The oil-exporting countries contracted by -2.1 %, whereas the net exporters of other products expanded by 2.6 %.

Latin recession

Latin America and the Caribbean are expected to contract by -2.5 % (after growing by 4.2 % in 2008). Mexico suffered a collapse of -7.3 %, as it was particularly affected by the fall in trade with the U.S.

Some Caribbean countries also suffered a severe recession (Antigua -6.5 %, Granada -4.0 %, Bahamas -3.9 %, Jamaica -3.6 %, Barbados – 3.0 %), due to the fall in tourism and the impact of hurricanes and other natural disasters.

Other Latin American countries with a dismal performance are Paraguay (-4.5 %), Argentina (-2.5 %), and Venezuela (-2.0 %; industrial production has already fallen in Venezuela by -12.4 % until June).

While quarterly GDP estimates are not yet available for the third quarter in Ecuador, GDP had fallen by -1.8 % until the second quarter, and more recently there have been severe energy shortages; thus, the contraction in GDP should reach 2 %. Unemployment in Ecuador has increased from 6.4 % in June 2008 to 9.1 % in September 2009, while investment (gross fixed capital) had fallen by 4.5 % until the second quarter.

Recovery, except for the Bolivarians

The IMF estimates a global growth rate of 3.1 % for 2010.

Among advanced economies, the best performers will be Singapore (4.1 %) and South Korea (3.6 %). China should recover a 9 % growth rate, and India 6.4 %.

The average for Latin America in 2010 will be 2.9 %. The stars in the Region will be Peru (5.8 %), Chile (4 %), Guyana (4 %), Paraguay (3.9 %) and Brazil (3.5 %).

However, the Bolivarians will continue to contract (Venezuela -3.4 %, Antigua -1.5 %) or show paltry growth rates (GDP declines in per capita terms): Nicaragua 1 %, Ecuador 1.5 %.

The four horsemen of the Apocalypse

A lingering effect of the crisis will be the increase in unemployment, together with an increase in poverty, hunger and malnutrition.

For the 30 OECD countries, average unemployment is expected to rise from 5.6 % in 2007 to 9 % in 2010 (8.6 % was already reached in September 2009). The recovery has a lagged effect on employment generation, as the initial effect is an increase in productivity, and reluctance by firms to hire long-term workers.

Latvia has reached a 19.7 % unemployment rate, and Spain is not far behind, with 19.3 %. The United States has breached the two digit barrier, at 10.2 %, the highest rate in 16 years.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that global unemployment could increase by 50 million workers, reaching a total of 230 million worldwide (a historical record). This is equivalent to 7.2 % of the workforce.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, the ECLAC and ILO estimate an average urban unemployment rate of 8.5 %, an increase of 2.5 million unemployed, for a total of 18.4 million urban unemployed. The highest levels observed were Colombia (12.6 %), Chile 10.2 %, Ecuador (9.1 %) and Argentina (9.1 %).

The increase in unemployment is reverting the significant decline in poverty rates that had been observed in recent years. Based on a daily $1.25 poverty line (adjusted by purchasing power parity, PPP), extreme poverty had declined from 1.8 billion in 1990 to 1 billion in 2008, thanks mainly to reductions in China, Brazil, India and East Asia.

Based on a $2 per day poverty line (PPP-adjusted), poverty should increase to 39 % in 2009, or 2.2 billion people, an increase of 64 million people.

In Latin America, poverty ($2 PPP per day poverty line) is likely to increase by 1.1 %, an absolute increase of 8.3 million people. This also reverts a downward trend: from 240.6 million in 2002 to 181.3 million in 2008.

The World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that hunger will afflict more than 1 billion people world-wide, an increase from 846 million in 2007.

The crisis in developed countries has also led to a reduction in remittances to Latin American and Caribbean countries, estimated by the Multilateral Investment Fund at 11 % in 2009. This is the first time that remittances have fallen since the MIF began to track them in 1999.

Stimulating policies

The OECD countries adopted a variety of stimulus packages, including the financial system bailouts; increase in public investment in infrastructure; subsidies to create (or conserve) jobs; extension to unemployment insurance; subsidies for investment in R&D, and in particular “green technologies”.

Six advanced economies (South Korea, the US, Australia, Japan, Turkey and Canada) introduced fiscal stimulus packages for 4 % of GDP or more. China (19 %) and Russia (8 %) went even further.

Part of the stimulus packages were geared towards “green technologies”, aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Among other countries, this included Australia (AUD 5.7 billion, 0.48 % of GDP); Canada (CAD 2.8 billion, 0.18 % of GDP); Germany (5.7 billion euro, 0.2 % of GDP); and the US (US$ 59 billion, 0.41 % of GDP).
Brazil, Chile and Mexico also extended unemployment insurance or subsidies to generate jobs.

Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Peru also launched stimulus packages of fiscal investment in public works, worth a total of US$ 25 billion (or nearly 1 % of GDP).

The IMF indicates in its Regional Economic Outlook that Argentina, Ecuador and Venezuela did not have the capacity to adopt counter-cyclical polices as Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Peru did), because they had observed a pro-cyclical expansion in public expenditures before the crisis struck (Ecuador, for example, dismantled in 2007, under Correa, its “rainy day fund” based on oil income; in stark contrast with Chile’s copper sovereign wealth fund).

Venezuela and Ecuador, in particular, did not have fiscal space to launch a counter-cyclical policy. According to the World Bank, they suffered from an initial fiscal deficit; high dependence on exports of commodities; public expenditure rigidity; restrictions in access to external finance; and high financial costs.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Investment competitions in France

I have entered two investment competitions sponsored by the magazine "Capital", capital.fr, in France.

One is to invest a fake 5 million euro portfolio in different currencies. In order to do so, you create a "demo" account in RTFX, through the magazine competition page, and buy or short seven different currency combinations (only major currencies, unfortunately - otherwise, I would be buying Australian and Canadian dollars :-)

The accounts with the top 20 performances win a total of 27,000 euro each month, which is then placed in a real account.

At the end of the competition, 100,000 euro is divided amongst the best 15 performers.

It is fun, and after a couple of hours of competition, I have won about 3,000 (fake, alas) euro - betting against USD, GBP and JPY, and in favor of EUR and CHF - no great science, there.

The same magazine has another competition, in which you invest 1,000 real euro in French stocks and bonds. The top 20 investors each month share 40,000 euro in prizes. To participate in this competition, you have to fill out a long questionnaire, and send a check (or transfer) for 1,000 real euro.

This is a fun way to practice your investment skills.

By the way, why is the plural of euro "euro"? In other languages, euros is used!

Saturday, October 31, 2009

My picks for world's scariest stocks

The Motley Fool (fool.com) has an entertaining contest going on right now, to find the "World's Scariest Stock":


My own vote:

SCARY: Crocs, Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac, Palm, Research in Motion and Sirius XM Radio (Palm and RIM basically because, in the long run, they will not be able to compete with Apple and Google).

SCARY AWESOME: Baidu, First Solar, Goldman Sachs and Pfizer.

It is interesting to note that of last year's top 10 scariest stocks, only Citigroup and First Solar underperformed the market. Starbucks actually returned 80 %, whilst Dendreon (a biotech company) returned nearly 500 %!

Happy Halloween!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Mexico, Argentina and Venezuela in severe recession; Peru and Uruguay still growing

The IMF has published its World Economic Outlook (October 2009).


It is forecasting a contraction of -2.5 % for Latin America (on average), and a recovery of 2.9 % in 2010.

The only two countries forecast to show growth in 2009 are Peru (+1.5 %) and Uruguay (0.6 %).

On the other hand, Mexico will fall by -7.3 % (and that might be an underestimation.

Argentina will contract by -2.5 %, and Venezuela by -2.0 %. Although these, again, could be underestimates.

"Especially significant export revenue losses were experienced by the energy-intensive economies of Bolivia, Ecuador, and Trinidad and Tobago".

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Crank theories and Austrians

The Financial Times has an interesting article about the "unconventional schools of thought" on investing, also known as "crank theories".

These would be "fund managers, brokers and advisers who distrust the whole structure of the economy and markets and believe that returns can only be made by exploiting the inherent flaws".

One of these, Peter Schiff, is advising his clients

"to avoid any dollar-denominated assets and to invest in overseas stocks and bonds, particularly in Asia and especially in companies that do not have significant exposure to the US. Commodities and precious metals are also recommended".

This seems to be too extreme. While a heavy degree of diversification is always in order, completely divesting from dollar-denominated assets, as well as U.S. equities and bonds, is absurd.

I have recommended, of course, investing a (small) portion of your portfolio in commodities and precious metals, although at $1015+ a troy ounce, gold may be in a mini-bubble.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Too many people?

There is an interesting debate in "The Economist" on whether there are too many people on planet Earth.

My perspective: All of the current crises (financial, economic, energy, climate change, food, water) are, in essence, expressions of the excessive population of the world, which will only grow worse as the 9.2 billion population figure is reached.

In some cases (food, energy, climate change) the connection is rather obvious. Prices are rising as demand outstrips supply. Greenhouse gas emissions are increasing as the population produces and consumes more and more. Other asset bubbles (housing, financial assets) are also related to the growing pull of demand.

It was appropriate that one of President Obama's first actions was to overturn Bush's ban on funding and promoting population control activities. But, as others have noted (for example, an article in Newsweek last week), perhaps it is too late to revert global warming.

A bottom to house prices?

Paul Krugman blogs that the end is in sight for the bursting of the house price bubble.

He quotes an entry in the "Calculated Risk" blog, which states that:

"especially [in] the mid-to-high priced bubble areas, there will be further price declines... It seems there are many more foreclosures coming. Some of this depends on the success of the modification programs, but the Q2 MBA delinquency report shows a growing number of homeowners in the problem pipeline".

Krugman himself thinks that:

"In 2005-6 it was a slam-dunk prediction that housing prices were headed for a huge fall; that was obvious to everyone except the likes of Alan Greenspan and everyone else who mattered (and a few who didn’t, like Larry Kudlow.) At this point, squinting hard at various measures suggests that housing prices are still a bit high, but we’re within debating range. Home prices could stabilize not too far from here".

"The Economist" also sees signs of continuing trouble:

"the recovery’s foundations look shaky. Rising joblessness will continue to weigh on demand for homes. The unemployment rate, currently 9.4%, is expected to peak at more than 10% some time next year... Consumer confidence remains fragile... For those seeking a mortgage, credit is still hard to come by... With 1.8m homes already in foreclosure, a “similar amount” may be heading that way... the rise in negative equity — when a borrower’s mortgage debt exceeds the value of his home— is also fuelling foreclosures, not least because many would rather walk away than keep making payments on a home that is worth much less than the sum owed on it. Zillow.com, a property-information service, estimates that 23% of homes with mortgages are underwater. Others put it higher. A staggering 60% are submerged in Las Vegas. Deutsche Bank’s securitisation team expects negative equity to peak at 48% of total homes by 2011. That may be too pessimistic, but all agree that the number will rise further".

"The Economist" concludes that: "
Most economists expect them to fall by a further 5-10 percentage points, to their long-term trend line at roughly 40% below their peak, and not to reach bottom until some time in 2010. The pessimists predict they will go crashing through the trend-line to as little as half their 2006 high.

Personally, I think prices will continue to fall, especially in metropolitan areas where they had more than doubled in the 2000-2006 period (Miami, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., San Diego, Las Vegas, etc.).

Monday, August 24, 2009

Top sectors by Return on Equity

Cigarrettes and alcohol I can understand, but why would "Information & Delivery Services" have the top Return on Equity (ROE) by sectors?


Top companies by market capitalization in this sector are Dun and Bradstreet (DNB), FactSet Research Systems Inc. (FDS), DST Systems Inc. (DST), and Interactive Data Corporation (IDC). I guess something about providing financial information generates efficiency!

Number 2 on the ROE ranking is cigarettes; third is "Aerospace/Defense - Major Diversified"; and in the seventh slot we find "Beverages - Wineries & Distillers"


I guess the sin investments (alcohol, tobacco, gaming, defense) are worth another look - although the FocusShares ISE SINdex Fund (PUF) is closing. There is a mutual fund in this sector, VICEX.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Investing for the really long-term (or, profiting from baby boomers)

I was checking my portfolio today, and, other than rejoicing that I am back in the green overall, I noticed that my best single investment was in Sunrise Senior Living Inc. (SRZ), with a gain of 500 %!

This, of course, is by no means average, and you should not be able to reproduce it (I bought it at 37 cents per share). However, the basic principle, of investing in companies or indices that will benefit from the ageing baby boomers, is, I believe, a sound long-term strategy.

What other broad sector indices could you buy:

- Powershares Dynamic Leisure ETF (PEJ)
- iShares Nasdaq Biotechnology Index Fund (IBB)
- iShares Dow Jones US Healthcare Sector Index Fund (IYH) (although, in the short term, might show some volatility based on the health sector reform plans).
- Dow Jones US Healthcare Providers Index Fund (IHF)
- Market Vectors Gaming ETF (BJK) (can't quite figure out why seniors love casinos so much).

This CNBC article picks up on the topic, recommending, for example "Ventas [VTR] and Senior Housing Properties Trust [SNH], both of which are real estate investment trusts weighted toward nursing homes". They also recommend Starbucks and Barnes and Noble, as "Baby boomers also will seek out casual leisure places".

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Yet another take on "Why Economics Failed"

Yet another take on "Why Economics Failed".

- "I am wholly unconvinced most macroeconomic theory can ever hope to make consistently accurate predictions. There are entirely too many variables, and people just aren't as rational as economists like to assume they must be".

- "the concept of rationality even exaggerates rationality. Even with good information, people often make stupid decisions based on emotion. I would even argue that generally people are more emotional than rational -- and that's a huge problem for modern economics".

On the other hand, truly modern economics takes into account behavioral factors and irrational behavior of some economic agents.

Why is the yen rising?

Can someone please explain to me why the yen keeps rising?

The ratio of public debt to GDP is approaching 200 %, more than twice the OECD average.

Public finances are in disarray, the ruling "Liberal Democratic Party" will soon lose power, the economic rebound is very weak, exports and industrial output have not recovered, and Japan is losing market share to other Asian companies.

Even with a slip today versus major currencies, the yen seems to be grossly overvalued. I would expect the euro to strengthen, in particular due to the improving economic fortunes of Germany and France, and their relatively modest stimulus packages (and deficit).

But I would still suggest investing in inflation-protected equities, as mentioned in a previous entry.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Economy on the rebound

The green shoots are taking hold.

The Economist cover story focuses on the Asian rebound.

Germany and France have crept out of recession, growing by 0.3 % in the second quarter.

The U.S. showed a much slower contraction (-1.0 %) in the second quarter.

And the manufacturing sector is definitely on the mend:

"surveys of managers on the "front line" in the sector in the UK, the US and the eurozone released yesterday all show a marked improvement in sentiment in what has been the hardest pressed part of the global economy".

In the US, "the ISM confidence index improved for the seventh consecutive month in July, increasing to 48.9 from 44.8 in June, well above the market's expectations for a 46.5 reading and the record low of 37.4 set last November. Again, the figures attracted cautious optimism form observers. Julia Coronado, economist at BNP Paribas said; "We continue to expect modest growth in economic activity in the second half of the year as the record correction in inventories slows and the auto sector reopens after an extended shutdown. That said, we expect growth to be subdued as consumer and business demand are expected to recover more slowly than in previous cycles."

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Jon Stewart spanks Jim Cramer

Jon Stewart demolishes Jim Cramer in this extended version of his interview on "The Daily Show":


Jon castigates Cramer for constantly switching positions on stocks, and in particular for his role in the "shady hedge fund days", showing videos in which Cramer indicates that it was easy to manipulate markets by spreading misinformation.

"You knew what the banks were doing, and yet were touting it for months and months, the entire network was; so now to pretend that this was some sort of crazy, once-in-a-lifetime tsunami, that nobody could have seen coming, was disingenuous at best, criminal at worst", states Stewart.

"I understand that you want to make finance entertaining, but it's not a ... game," Stewart told Cramer. Cramer responded "Should we have been constantly pointing out the mistakes that were made? Absolutely. I truly wish we had done more."

Someone (kinoptikation) comments "wish to see Jon Stewart pick up the topic on why this guy is still on CNBC and going on Morning Joe attacking, once again, The Daily Show... Jim Creamer should be unemployed by now, please make it happen".

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Jim Cramer is wrong

My comment on Cramer's Mad Money - Paul Krugman Is Wrong

I'll pick Krugman over Cramer any time.

As far as I know, Mr. Cramer does not have any qualification of any sort to perform economic or financial analysis; whereas Dr. Krugman has a Ph.D. in Economics and won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2008.

I read in Wikipedia that Mr. Cramer does have a Law Degree from Harvard.

I also read the following: "On February 29, 2000, about one week before the historic all-time high of the NASDAQ Composite index, Cramer delivered his "The Winners of the New World" speech at the 6th Annual Internet and Electronic Commerce Conference and Exposition in New York. In this speech, Cramer recommended 10 stocks and went on to say "I wouldn't own any other stocks in the year 2000". By 2009, all of the mentioned companies have either gone out of business, have been taken over by competitors or trade at fractions of their 2000 stock price".

Here is the 2000 article, in case you still want to buy these stocks:


Another take on fast food

Another take on fast food:

Fast Food Restaurants Have Right Menu for Recession

Main points:

- "quick-service operators such as McDonald’s (MCD), Burger King (BKC) and Wendy’s (WEN) may enjoy a comparative advantage that helps them navigate the weakness better than their competitors in the casual-dining and higher-end segments, according to Moody’s Investors Service".

- "A recent analysis by restaurant industry consultant John Gordon showed a mixed picture for fast food restaurants, with McDonald’s, Chipotle (CMG) and Steak N Shake (SNS) faring better than Yum Brands (YUM) and than Darden’s (DRI) Red Lobster and Olive Garden. All were faring much better than fine dining , where sales are down some 15% from a year earlier".

Given that Jim Cramer is recommending Wendy's, I guess I will take a contrarian view and suggest that MCD and YUM have greater room for an upswing.

Top 300 money managers lost, on average, 23.4 % in 2008

If you lost less than 23.4 % last year, then you are in good company.

Institutional Investor has just published that the U.S.’s 300 largest money managers (the II300 ranked by the magazine) "saw its total assets tumble by 23.4 percent last year, to $26.7 trillion. The hardest hit asset classes were the riskiest — equity, which fell 41.3 percent, and alternatives, which fell 26.1 percent. Bonds, normally the darling of investors when stocks are in a tailspin, also fell, by 9.3 percent. The only asset class that actually grew last year was cash equivalents — and even then by only 3.9 percent, to $5.47 trillion".

Giffen goods, potato effect and Wal-Mart

Giffen Goods are a type of inferior goods for which demand falls as prices rise.

As consumers income rises, they are able to afford better quality goods.

The typical examples are matches (replaced with lighters), or basic staple foods (such as potatoes). As your income increases, you replace basic staples with meat, or higher quality grains, fruits and vegetables.

Why bring this up?

Because with the ongoing recession, the companies, brands and products which tend to cater to lower-income families are usually strengthened.


- Wal-Mart (WMT) (it never really fell of the cliff with the collapse of the stock market, but has risen from $46 to $50 since February.

- McDonald's (MCD) (likewise, has risen from $46 to $56 since March).

- Costco (COST) (up from $38 in March to $48 today).

- Yum! Brands (YUM), which is Pizza Hut, KFC, Taco Bell, Long John Silver and A&W (up from $21 in December to $35 today).

These stocks are counter-cyclical, insofar as they would tend to go up when the economy is going down.

On the other hand, the fast-food chains may face some additional regulatory or legal hurdles if the movement against fat, low-nutrition and high-calorie (junk) food continues to build strength.

There are even proposals to tax junk food, although, as The Economist argues, this may not have the effect that is sought ("Like the foods they aim at, fat taxes look appetising but can have nasty effects").

In any case, within a strategy of risk diversification, including some of these stocks in your portfolio may make sense.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Hybrid and electric cars, and the lithium rush

McKinsey Quarterly has an interesting analysis on electric cars.

Electrifying cars: How three industries will evolve
Upon entering the mainstream—in a few years or a couple of decades—electrified cars will transform the auto and utilities sectors and create a new battery industry. What will it take to win in a battery-powered age?

My vote? Toyota (TM) will continue to lead the way, with plug-in hybrids and pure electric cars. Other car companies to watch are: Honda, Nissan, Hyundai, Renault, BMW and VW.

Other potential winners:

- lithium mining companies, including Talison Minerals (Australia), SQM (Chile), Chemetall (Germany), FMC Corp. (US); Western Uranium Corp (Canada); Admiralty Resources (Australia); Mitsubishi (Japan); Sumitomo (Japan).

- battery producers, including BYD China, Actacell Li, and NEC (Japan).

Additional information in the USGS 2007 Minerals Yearbook for Lithium.

Here an interesting presentation by TNR on the Lithium market.

Here a note explaining that Bolivia insists on mining lithium through its state-owned enterprise, COMIBOL, which has meant that the country with the largest lithium reserves in the world is not producing any at the moment.

Another note indicates that "The socialist government of President Evo Morales is currently in talks with mining groups Mitsubishi and Sumitomo of Japan and France's Bollore to exploit the deposits".

The stimulus and Infrastructure ETFs

Most OECD countries are promoting economic stimulus packages focused on infrastructure.

See, for example, "Economic stimulus packages, Innovation and Green Growth:
New opportunities for PPPs

"When it comes to “Measures relating to innovation and long term growth”, OECD and non-OECD economies focus on the following themes in existing economic stimulus packages:
· Improving the infrastructure (e.g. roads, mass transit, information and communication technologies [ICT]).
· Support for science, research and development (R&D) and innovation.
· Investment in human capital, education/training (including schools, teachers).
· Promoting the investment in and uptake of green technologies and innovations to foster energy efficiency and sustainable economic growth.
· Support for innovation and entrepreneurship (including support for innovation and investment in small and medium-sized enterprises [SMEs], venture capital, etc.)".

How can an average investor take advantage of this stimulating package?

- investment in alternative energy and green technologies (alternative energy ETFs discussed in a previous post; another option: PowerShares "CleanTech" PZD)
- investment in R&D related companies (for example, the Claymore/Ocean Tomo Patent ETF OTP)
- investment in small-cap companies (for example, Vanguard Small-Cap ETF VB). Other suggestions from the Motley Fool here.

And, finally, investment in infrastructure ETFs. Here are a few options:

- ISE Global Engineering and Construction Index Fund (FLM)
- PowerShares Emerging Markets Infrastructure Portfolio (PXR), with greater concentration in emerging markets and natural resources.
- iShares S&P Global Infrastructure Fund (IGF)
- SPDR/FTSE Macquarie Global Infrastructure Fund (GII) (with a heavy emphasis on utilities, 90 % of holdings)
- PowerShares Dynamic Building & Construction Portfolio (PKB)
- Powershares Water Resources (PHO)

Here a couple of recent articles on the topic:

- ETFs for Infrastructure. Obama's plan for new U.S. spending could benefit funds that hold construction, engineering and alternative-energy stocks

- 5 Infrastructure ETFs That Could Enhance Your Portfolio

- First Trust Launches ETF With Infrastructure Twist

- EM Infrastructure Index Launches

Monday, August 10, 2009

Inflation protected portfolio

Even though most (but not all) countries are now going through a phase of very low inflation, or even deflation, this will surely not last long.

Among major economies, annual inflation rates vary between a low of -1.8 % in Japan and +12.0 % in Russia (+27.4 % in Venezuela).

However, budget deficits are also reaching critical levels, due to the stimulus plans and the bailouts of financial institutions: 13.7 % of GDP in the US, 14.4 % in the United Kingdom, 13 % in Iceland, 9.8 % in Spain, etc.

Thus, inflation should start to pick up in a few months (and crude oil - the benchmark West Texas Intermediate - has already passed the US$ 70 per barrel level).

Thus, I recommend this note written in May 2008, as the recommendations are still valid.

These included:

- Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS) (or the iShares Lehman TIPs Bond ETF, TIP)
- SPDR Gold Trust ETF (GLD)
- Broad-based commodity index ETFs (such as PowerShares DB Commodity Index Tracking DBC).
- Agricultural commodity index ETFs (for example, PowerShares DB Agriculture DBA; Market Vectors Agribusiness MOO; or E TRACS UBS Bloomberg CMCI Food ETN FUD)
- Canada ETF (EWC), mostly commodity producers
- Pacific ex-Japan ETF (EPP). Includes Australia and New Zealand, also big commodity producers.

I would add the Market Vectors Gold Miners ETF (GDX), and other basic metals: PowerShares DB Base Metals DBB, iShares Silver Trust SLV, iPath DJ AIG Nickel JJN, or iPath DJ-AIG Copper Total Return Sub-IndexSM ETN JJC.


Inflation-proof investing

By Dr. Marvin Appel, Dr. Marvin Appel

Last Update: 12:01 AM ET May 1, 2008

Alternative Energy ETFs

There are several alternative energy electronically-traded funds (ETF), that enable you to invest in these sources of renewable energy.

Many countries, including the United States, are promoting this sector, through subsidies, research support and preferential regulatory treatment. It can receive a further boost based on the outcome of the Copenhagen conference on climate change this December.

Some ETFs to consider:

- PowerShares WilderHill Clean Energy (PBW)
- PowerShares Global Wind Energy Portfolio (PWND).
- PowerShares Global Clean Energy (PBD)
- PowerShares WilderHill Progressive Energy Portfolio Fund (PUW).
- Van Eck Market Vectors Solar Energy (KWT)
- Claymore/MAC Global Solar Energy (TAN)
- First Trust ISE Global Wind Energy Index Fund (FAN)
- Van Eck Market Vectors Global Alternative Energy ETF (GEX)

Here is a more extensive list, that includes nuclear energy (not so environmentally friendly due to nuclear waste, but good for cutting back on greenhouse gas emissions).

- http://seekingalpha.com/article/30119-green-and-alternative-energy-etfs

Some analysis on these ETFs:

- http://seekingalpha.com/article/154323-solar-etfs-are-heating-up

- http://www.etfguide.com/commentary/575/Is-Alternative-Energy-Dead?/

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Worst performing decade for large-cap stocks

Incredible - the worst performing decade for large-capitalization stocks in the United States since 1926 was ... the last decade!

"From 1999-2008, U.S. large-cap stocks "returned" a compound annual average of negative 1.38%."


It's Already Worse Than the Depression
By Robert Brokamp

Joseph Stiglitz on the risk of excessive intervention

Very interesting reflections, especially given that they come from Joseph Stiglitz, which some interventionists (for example, the Chavistas in Latin America) look up to.


Wall Street’s Toxic Message
When the current crisis is over, the reputation of American-style capitalism will have taken a beating—not least because of the gap between what Washington practices and what it preaches. Disillusioned developing nations may well turn their backs on the free market, warns Nobel laureate Joseph E. Stiglitz, posing new threats to global stability and U.S. security."

"Old-style Communism won’t be back, but a variety of forms of excessive market intervention will return. And these will fail. The poor suffered under market fundamentalism. But the poor will suffer again under these new regimes, which will not deliver growth. Without growth there cannot be sustainable poverty reduction. There has been no successful economy that has not relied heavily on markets."

Neither a borrower nor a lender be

"Neither a borrower nor a lender be, For loan oft loses both itself and friend, And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry." –Hamlet, I.iii (Shakespeare) ~ Quote of the day

What went wrong with economics?

Another article criticizing the economics profession:


What went wrong with economics
Jul 16th 2009

My comment: I don't think it was "Economics" that went wrong, but rather the libertarians, market fundamentalists, and rational and efficient markets theorists (aka Alan Greenspan and the Chicago School).

The deregulation of financial markets was the problem, not the solution (as Krugman, Shiller, Akerlof, Stiglitz and other Nobel-prize-winning economists have pointed out).

I would highly recommend the book "Animal Spirits", by Akerlof and Shiller:

Akerlof and Shiller mention greed and corruption among their "animal spirits".

Many economists saw the crisis coming

My comment to the article "What is the point of economists?", published on the Financial Times.

The premise of the article is false. Many economists saw the crisis coming, expressed their concerns, proposed regulatory and policy responses, and bemoaned the dominant paradigm in macroeconomics (market fundamentalism, i.e. those who believe the markets are always efficient and rational).

Among the many economists who foretold the crisis are Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, Robert Shiller, Nouriel Roubini, Brad Setser, Wynne Godley and Alex Izurieta. Numerous quotes are evidence of this (see, for example, http://www.internetional.se/usd.htm).

Paul Krugman, in 2005, said "if the process doesn't go smoothly - if, in particular, the housing bubble bursts before the trade deficit shrinks - we're going to have an economic slowdown, and possibly a recession". Godley and Izurieta wrote (in the Financial Times, no less), that "if the balance of payments deficit continues to rise and if private saving does not deteriorate further, either fiscal policy will have to be progressively relaxed so the budget balance deteriorates even more, or the economy will face chronic stagnation, with dire consequences for the rest of the world" (December 2004, http://www.ft.com/cms/s/1/f83856aa-449a-11d9-9f6a-00000e2511c8.html).

So, it seems, the only economists that didn't see this coming were Greenspan, Lucas, the Chicago School economists, and the Bush administration economic team

Friday, August 7, 2009

”To buy when others are despondently selling ... pays the greatest reward”

Although I do not share his interest in spiritual matters, I do believe in Sir John Templeton's approach to investing: buy low, and hold.

While standard stock-buying advice is “buy low, sell high”, Templeton took this strategy to the limit, by picking countries, sectors, and companies precisely at the moment when they were hitting rock-bottom, or what he called “points of maximum pessimism.”

It is said that he made his fortune by buying shares in each of the 104 companies listed at one dollar or less in the New York stock exchange when the Second World War began in 1939 (nowadays, this would be better accomplished by buying a broad electronically-traded fund, ETF; for example, the iShares Russell 3000 Value Index ETF, up 58 % since March 9, 2009).

Templeton sold significant holdings before the technology bubble burst in 2000, and warned several years ago that real estate prices were dangerously high (as did I, I should immodestly add).

Here are some obituaries published when he passed away (on July 8, 2008).


Some of his aphorisms and sayings:

- ”To buy when others are despondently selling and to sell when others are greedily buying requires the greatest fortitude and pays the greatest reward”.

- ”Bull markets are born on pessimism, grow on scepticism, mature on optimism and die on euphoria.”

- “The four most expensive words in the English language are ‘This time it’s different.’”

- "How little we know, how eager to learn”.

- "In my 45-year career as an investment counselor, humility did show me the need for worldwide diversification to reduce risk".

Buy low, sell high, and other basic investment advise

Given the collapse of the stock markets, now is the time to buy (buy low, sell high, remember?).

However, it is also important to keep in mind basic investment advise, such as the need to diversify risks (between types of assets, sectors, geographically, etc.).

1) Don't invest any cash you will need in the next 3-4 years (keep that money in a high-yield savings acct. or Certificate of Deposit, in an institution guaranteed by the FDIC; for example, INGDirect.com). Certainly don't borrow money to invest!

2) Of the difference, invest one third in broad sector or geographic stock indices (not individual companies). You can do so through Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs) at sharebuilder.com

3) Another third you can invest in broad bond indices (I particularly like TIPS, Treasury Inflation Protected Securities, which are protected for inflation, as the name suggests). Also available as ETFs.

4) The rest you can invest in commodity-linked ETFs (such as gold, energy, minerals, etc.), sustainable energy and sustainable development ETFs, or in "social lending" sites such as prosper.com and upstart.com (but lend only to low-risk borrowers, classified AA, A or at minimum B).

5) If you have kids that will go to college, start a College Savings Plan account (preferably a pre-paid tuition program like Virginia's VPEP; or a 529 Plan).

6) If you are elegible, start a Roth Individual Retirement Account (IRA) (you can also do so through sharebuilder.com), which has tax advantages (direct contributions can be withdrawn tax free at any time).

Top 15 economics and finance blogs

Top 15 economics blogs (i.e., competitors).

1. http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/ (Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize 2008, Princeton U.; one of Time magazine's top 25 blogs, together with Freakonomics)

2. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/author/joseph-e-stiglitz/ (Joseph E. Stiglitz, Nobel Prize 2001).

3. http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/ Brad DeLong (UC-Berkeley)

4. http://economistsview.typepad.com/ Mark Thoma (U. of Oregon) (which also includes a very comprehensive list of economists blogs on the right side column; he was my Professor at UofO).

5. http://rodrik.typepad.com/ Dani Rodrik, Harvard U. (on development economics)

6. http://freakonomics.com/blog/ run by Steven Levitt (U. of Chicago) and Stephen Dubner (journalist), co-authors of the book.

7. http://www.econbrowser.com/ James Hamilton, UCSD; and Menzie Chinn, U. of Wisconsin (also an extensive list of blogs on the right hand column).

8. http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/ (Felix Salmon, on Finance and Economics)

9. http://angrybearblog.com/ (“Slightly left of center economic commentary on news, politics, and the economy.”, run by a group of economists and finance Ph.D.s)

10. http://www.economonitor.com/analysts/ (RGE Analysts, Chairman Nouriel Roubini, NYU).

Media sites:

11. http://www.ft.com/intl/comment/blogs (Financial Times blogs. They are all great. Especially Buiter, Crook, Wolf, and Alphaville)

See, in particular, the Economic Forum: http://blogs.ft.com/economistsforum/

12. http://www.economist.com/blogs/freeexchange/ (Economics blog on The Economist)

13. http://www.businessweek.com/blogs/econochat EconoChat captures Tom Keene's thoughts on economics, finance and investment

14. http://seekingalpha.com/ (More financial than economics)

15. http://business.time.com/category/curious-capitalist/  Rana Foroohar is TIME's assistant managing editor in charge of economics and business.

Honorable mention.  http://www.progressive-economics.ca/  Progressive Economics Forum.

I would have added Brad Setser (http://blogs.cfr.org/setser/), but he has joined the Obama administration.

Here are competing lists:

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124769381962047691.html (Wall Street Journal)

Whose economics blog is: http://blogs.wsj.com/economics

http://content.time.com/time/business/article/0,8599,1873144-3,00.html (Time CNN)

http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/industry_sectors/media/article1923706.ece (The Times, UK).

http://www.econolog.net/stats.php?area=blogs  (Palgrave).

http://www.intute.ac.uk/blog/2008/03/12/favourite-blogs-economics/ (Intute, UK).

UPDATE:  Links have been updated as of December 2013.

New blog will focus on Economics, Finance, Investment, Business and Public Policies

This blog will focus on the following topics:

- Economics, in particular Macroeconomics and the Economic Crisis
- Finance, and specifically on the Financial Crisis and the solvency of the financial system.
- Investment, including general ideas on how small investors could channel their resources.
- Business, with particular attention to business sectors, business cycles, and major corporations.
- Public Policies, with special attention on how the major economies of the world are dealing with the economic and financial crisis; with climate change; and promoting sustainable growth and renewable energy.