Blog Archives

Don’t Be Too Sure

If there is anything that characterizes this moment in history, it’s complacency: everyone’s so sure that current trend lines will continue, onward and upward, and risk has been tamed for the foreseeable future.

Don’t be too sure.

1. Don’t be too sure that the coronavirus will blow over and have no effect on global growth.

2. Don’t be too sure that “the Fed has our back” so stocks will always resume their steady climb after every spot of bother.

3. Don’t be too sure that the official Chinese pronouncements that the coronavirus is contained are actually accurate.

4. Don’t be too sure that there won’t be a second and far more lethal advance of the coronavirus once all the overseas Chinese who went home for Lunar New Year return to their jobs in the U.S., Europe, Southeast Asia, etc.

5. Don’t be too sure that people will respond to the natural fears of the coronavirus by rushing out to buy a new iPhone, vehicle, etc.

6. Don’t be too sure that bubbles in over-valued stocks and housing won’t pop.

7. Don’t be too sure that global tourism won’t take a body-blow from the spread of the coronavirus.

8. Don’t be too sure that the risks of the coronavirus spreading can be assessed by anyone with any accuracy.

9. Don’t be too sure that the U.S. economy is bullet-proof and so President Trump is a shoo-in for re-election in November 2020.

10. Don’t be too sure that the citizenry’s tolerance for Fed-driven wealth-income inequality is as limitless as the Fed’s balance sheet.

11. Don’t be too sure that the super-low unemployment rate is a reliable measure of business confidence or the health of millions of small businesses.

12. Don’t be too sure that the Fed’s vaunted “wealth effect” won’t reverse.

13. Don’t be too sure that all risks are known and have been discounted.

14. Don’t be too sure that the global health system is capable of dealing with the spread of the coronavirus.

15. Don’t be too sure that central banks’ lowering interest rates is going to reverse a global recession.

16. Don’t be too sure your favored tech stock won’t crater as over-valuation mania is replaced by fear.

My recent books:

Audiobook edition now available:
Will You Be Richer or Poorer?: Profit, Power, and AI in a Traumatized World ($13)
(Kindle $6.95, print $11.95) Read the first section for free (PDF).

Pathfinding our Destiny: Preventing the Final Fall of Our Democratic Republic ($6.95 (Kindle), $12 (print), $13.08 ( audiobook): Read the first section for free (PDF).

The Adventures of the Consulting Philosopher: The Disappearance of Drake $1.29 (Kindle), $8.95 (print); read the first chapters for free (PDF)

Money and Work Unchained $6.95 (Kindle), $15 (print) Read the first section for free (PDF).

If you found value in this content, please join me in seeking solutions by becoming a $1/month patron of my work via patreon.com.

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Onward to Stock Market Nirvana… Or Not

At long last, we have reached the Nirvana of consensus: the stock market is heading to new all-time highs. Even the perma-Bear camp seems to have accepted the inevitability of new all-time highs ahead: The FANG stocks are hitting new highs, the Russell 2000 Small-Cap Index is hitting new highs, and the laggard S&P 500 is sure to catch up to its peers, as it climbs the ladder of higher lows. Once again we’ve reached the Nirvana of ever-higher stock valuations.

Or not. That troublesome kid watching the naked Emperor ride past in his imaginary finery keeps muttering about rising wedges. Consider the Russell Small-Cap Index (RUT):

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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Market Complacency / Euphoria

A relatively reliable measure of complacency/euphoria in the stock market just hit levels last seen in late January, just before stocks reversed in a massive meltdown, surprising all the complacent/euphoric Bulls.

The measure is the put-call ratio in equities. Since this time is different, and the market is guaranteed to roar to new all-time highs, we can ignore this (of course).

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Following in Ancient Rome’s Footsteps: Moral Decay, Rising Wealth Inequality

There are many reasons why Imperial Rome declined, but two primary causes that get relatively little attention are moral decay and soaring wealth inequality. The two are of course intimately connected: once the morals of the ruling Elites degrade, what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine, too.

I’ve previously covered two other key characteristics of an empire in terminal decline: complacency and intellectual sclerosis, what I have termed a failure of imagination.

Michael Grant described these causes of decline in his excellent account The Fall of the Roman Empire, a short book I have been recommending since 2009:

There was no room at all, in these ways of thinking, for the novel, apocalyptic situation which had now arisen, a situation which needed solutions as radical as itself. (The Status Quo) attitude is a complacent acceptance of things as they are, without a single new idea.

This acceptance was accompanied by greatly excessive optimism about the present and future. Even when the end was only sixty years away, and the Empire was already crumbling fast, Rutilius continued to address the spirit of Rome with the same supreme assurance.

This blind adherence to the ideas of the past ranks high among the principal causes of the downfall of Rome. If you were sufficiently lulled by these traditional fictions, there was no call to take any practical first-aid measures at all.

A lengthier book by Adrian Goldsworthy How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower addresses the same issues from a slightly different perspective.

Glenn Stehle, commenting on 9/16/15 on a thread in the excellent websitepeakoilbarrel.com (operated by the estimable Ron Patterson) made a number of excellent points that I am taking the liberty of excerpting: (with thanks to correspondent Paul S.)

The set of values developed by the early Romans called mos maiorum, Peter Turchin explains in War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires, was gradually replaced by one of personal greed and pursuit of self-interest.

“Probably the most important value was virtus (virtue), which derived from the word vir (man) and embodied all the qualities of a true man as a member of society,” explains Turchin.

“Virtus included the ability to distinguish between good and evil and to act in ways that promoted good, and especially the common good. Unlike Greeks, Romans did not stress individual prowess, as exhibited by Homeric heroes or Olympic champions. The ideal of hero was one whose courage, wisdom, and self-sacrifice saved his country in time of peril,” Turchin adds.

And as Turchin goes on to explain:

“Unlike the selfish elites of the later periods, the aristocracy of the early Republic did not spare its blood or treasure in the service of the common interest. When 50,000 Romans, a staggering one fifth of Rome’s total manpower, perished in the battle of Cannae, as mentioned previously, the senate lost almost one third of its membership. This suggests that the senatorial aristocracy was more likely to be killed in wars than the average citizen….

The wealthy classes were also the first to volunteer extra taxes when they were needed… A graduated scale was used in which the senators paid the most, followed by the knights, and then other citizens. In addition, officers and centurions (but not common soldiers!) served without pay, saving the state 20 percent of the legion’s payroll….

The richest 1 percent of the Romans during the early Republic was only 10 to 20 times as wealthy as an average Roman citizen.”

Now compare that to the situation in Late Antiquity when

“an average Roman noble of senatorial class had property valued in the neighborhood of 20,000 Roman pounds of gold. There was no “middle class” comparable to the small landholders of the third century B.C.; the huge majority of the population was made up of landless peasants working land that belonged to nobles. These peasants had hardly any property at all, but if we estimate it (very generously) at one tenth of a pound of gold, the wealth differential would be 200,000! Inequality grew both as a result of the rich getting richer (late imperial senators were 100 times wealthier than their Republican predecessors) and those of the middling wealth becoming poor.”

Do you see any similarities with the present-day realities depicted in these charts?

And how many congresspeople served in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan?

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Thank Goodness Everything’s Fixed

Thank goodness everything’s been fixed. Now that the bigshots in the Eurozone have given Greece the Humphrey Bogart treatment– When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it, Bogart’s line as he bullied Peter Lorre in The Maltese Falcon–and a chastened Greece is in line for another 17 billion, or is it 17 trillion, I’m losing track of the numbers … but anyways, it’s all fixed, and squeezing Greek pensioners was the trick needed to save Europe from itself.

Now everyone can get back to their summer vacations and the good life resumes. It doesn’t get much better than this.

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