How the World’s Most Powerful Company Really Works – and How It’s Transforming the American Economy
Author: Charles Fishman
WHY I READ THIS BOOK
I do not like Walmart, yet I shop there. It is messy and dreary, yet I plan a trip to Walmart every few weeks. It is expansive, yet crowded and claustrophobic. I feel like I’ve spent just as much time there looking for either a product or an employee to assist me as I have actually shopping. I try to minimize my time there but the trip always ends up over an hour and I’m beat by the time I leave. Why do I keep going back there? To make things worse, all these stories about Walmart’s secrecy and unethical business practices keep popping up. Yet that has not stopped me from shopping there. The fact that Walmart has become ubiquitous with middle-class (and poorer) shopping has led most people to subconsciously accept it. So what is going on with Walmart?
THE AUTHOR: CHARLES FISHMAN
It must take someone with guts to take on the Walmart behemoth; especially after you read the book and realize that for most of its history, Walmart has considered any type of publicity and media a threat to its business model. But Fishman has been known as an investigative reporter that attempts to bring to light the workings of institutions or groups that have been relatively unknown. According to the book’s website, Fishman has spent the past 20 years investigating organizations such as NASA and Walmart. He was also the first reporter to be allowed inside a Tupperware factory, and first in 30 years inside the nation’s only bomb factory.
In an attempt to understand the inner workings of Walmart Inc. and its effects on job creation, global economy, work environments, suppliers, competitors, communities and other issues, Fishman talks with everyone that might be affected by Walmart but Walmart itself. Due to the secrecy of Walmart and the lack of transparency in its statistics, Fishman is forced to rely specifically on his investigative acumen. What he finds out is that Walmart is the ultimate definition of a dichotomy, a contradiction that baffles all levels of society; from the individual to the community to the country to the global economy. On one hand, Walmart is unpretentious, is no frills, provides hundreds of thousands of jobs, provides the cheapest prices for consumers and has always stuck to its core values. However, on the other hand, it has a dictatorial grip on its suppliers and competitors, kills almost as many jobs as it creates, indirectly destroys local natural ecosystems, promotes cheap labor and unfair labor practices, has no transparency or guilt and chips away at the core values of the free market system. It pushes the limits of good and bad capitalism and is the poster child of globalization.
This book really does a good job of trying to understand the Walmart effect. However, although Fishman tries to stay neutral on the positives and negatives of the issue, it is more common that his investigations lead to a negative perception of the company. It’s hard not to have a more negative view after reading the book. There is only one major positive about Walmart, it provides the lowest prices for many of the things families need. However, this is a huge positive and is shown even more during this recession. Walmart’s growth in same store sales have been increasing for the past 22 months while Target’s have fallen the past eight months (Source: Walmart vs. Target: No Contest in the Recession, Time Online). It’s not even a contest and shows that this positive is all that consumers need to turn a blind eye on all the other issues. And for sure, there are a lot of other issues, which Fishman does a great job of detailing and bringing out.
The book flows really well, from the beginning to the end… although the last chapter is the required “so after all this investigative work, what should we do or care about Walmart to make this world a better place?” The first chapter is pretty much a summary of Walmart’s influence on society. The rest of the book goes into detail about each issue by discussing academic studies on the company dating back to the mid-1980s, successful and failed interviews with former supplier executives from big and small companies, the impact of Walmart on things we take for granted now (like deodorants that sell without the useless boxes they used to come in) and talking to opponents of Walmart, from environmental groups to factory workers of their suppliers.
The most damaging against Walmart has to be that a lot of the investigation leads to the same conclusion, Walmart is a big cheapskate. Which was fine when it was a small company, but now that it is the biggest in the world, this sense of being cheap at all costs seems somewhat unfair. Unfair to other companies and unfair to the ecosystems and poor countries’ lax labor laws it depends on to produce such massive quantities of products. Fishman tries hard to not take a position, but the writing is in the book. There are no positives about Walmart that can be concluded from the Chilean Atlantic salmon farms, or the countless companies mentioned in the book that went belly-up after becoming a supplier of Walmart. There’s just too many examples to list. And it’s quite obvious that even the large companies that work with Walmart are under the control of Walmart.
There are some interesting stories in the book. The one I like best is about the company that decided supplying to Walmart was detrimental to its future existence, so it decided to end the relationship. However, Fishman argues that companies that don’t supply to Walmart are highly affected by them anyways because of the devastatingly low prices. Another interesting tidbit was that Fishman believes Walmart may hit a ceiling at some point and there could be, what he calls, Walmart saturation and exhaustion.
This is a very insightful book. Although there are only a few unbiased and encompassing studies on the Walmart effect, Fishman does a good job of investigating and doing his own research. This book sums up my initial motivation for reading about the world’s largets non-oil company. Walmart is such a dichotomy it’s really difficult to come to a conclusion on whether it is good for society or bad. It has changed so much of everything that it is beyond anyone’s control. Many of the numerous statistics in the book are downright unbelievable. The book is a quick read, very interesting to read and will make you think twice about globalization and also your personal moral responsibilities to it.
The book was written in 2006 and only talks about the perceptions and actions of Walmart in the context of 2005. The major views of Walmart has not changed since then. However, the signs of Walmart exhaustion have gone out the window now that we are in a recession and most people have turned even more to Walmart for cheap prices. Walmart also has done more to improve the negative perception against it. Just a few days ago Walmart announced that they would be awarding $2 billion dollars to their employees. If Walmart decides to also target the higher end products, like Target, this might create a whole slew of new problems.
What is going on with the world today? Many of the institutions and systems we grew up with and believed in have crumbled faster than a crumb cake in front of Santa Claus. This morning sports fans were shockingly (or not) met with news that one of the few remaining baseball superstars to not be tainted by the steroids scandal, Alex Rodriguez, failed an MLB steroids test in 2003. Considering that this news was corroborated by four independent sources, and based on past evidence of such news, this story likely has meat behind it. As the Barry Bonds’, baseball’s all-time home run king, steroids perjury trial heads to court, we wonder if there is anything sacred anymore in sportsmanship and fair play. The list now includes Bonds, Arod, Marc McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Roger Clemens and Raphael Palmeiro. All were heroes and idols to millions and millions of kids and sports fans.
Sports is nothing, however, compared to the deepening economic crisis affecting the country. But, then again we need to ask ourselves how did this country fall into such a dire situation in the first place? With news of unemployment reaching 7.6%, worst since 1982, most Americans are sensing a pessimism in the country and its leadership they have never felt before. Corporations that have long been stalwarts have wilted after years of trustworthy service. Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers and AIG, just to name a few. Even General Electric has fallen on tough times due to untrustworthy leadership expectations and financial exposure. Then there are the frauds of individuals, such Bernie Madoff, and corporations, such as Enron and Global Crossing.
Polar bear cub
Then there is the global warming and energy crises. Due to the irresponsible and rampant use of oil and other natural resources, and the irresponsible output of chemicals into the air, river and ground, the natural balance of Earth has come under question. Dire predictions of sea levels, global temperatures, forestation, glacial coverage, droughts and diseases have left us wondering is there any hope left? Will there exist a viable Earth in 100 to 200 years?
It is truly amazing that all three of these problems have one major thing in common. Greed. Greed. Greed. What is most disturbing is that the situations did not become problems until the ultimate greed kicked in. Arod was already a once in a generation baseball player back in high school. It is fair to say that he did not do steroids as a teenager as his body structure was simply too small. Bonds was a skinny player with the Pirates but was already a five tool player on the path to the Hall of Fame. McGwire was an amazingly talented rookie with the Oakland Athletics. Why did they feel the need to use steroids and become even better than they already were? Why risk already amazing career trajectories with such greed?
Similarly, the financial companies that have gone bankrupt or bought up were very viable and successful companies (some for over a hundred years) before the ARMs and hedge funds became en vogue. Why the greed to do such risky investments in order to raise the bottom line and stock price? Was it all due to increasing stock compensation packages of executives? Was it all worth it? To dupe millions of unknowing citizens just for more personal money? What about Madoff? An already well-respected and wealthy investor; what caused him to risk everyone’s money (including hundreds of other wealthy individuals and companies), just to make more money for his firm?
Finally, the earth has remained relatively stable ever since the existence of man. However, since the Industrial Revolution and especially since the widespread use of combustible engines, there has been this disregard for the side effects of using such resources. Coupled with research in biochemistry and synthetic compounds, the effects of pesticides, mercury, lead and carbons have led to a precarious global balance. Millions of animal species extinct or on the brink of survival.
Are humans, the supposedly most “intelligent” species with opposable thumbs, in fact, the dumbest species ever? Just imagine outsiders writing about the history of man and what they would write about, especially the past 150 years. Just imagine what they would write about western civilization. Just imagine what they would say about the population numbers. Or about technology and medical research? Is this the final goal of evolution? We have reached the ultimate in special survival… our only enemy is ourselves? The whole purpose of natural selection is the survival of the strong. However, part of natural selection is natural balance. A species never wants to become too powerful because then their food sources and natural enemies would disappear. Humans have, in essence, overcome both these natural laws. Through natural selection (our brains and opposable thumbs) we are far and beyond the most powerful species. In a relatively short time, our population and power increased beyond control. Humans have no more natural enemies. The machines we have created are unmatched and only destructible amongst ourselves. So what does this all mean?
The human world does not have a checks and balance system. Nature and other species have always acted as the equalizers. The closest thing that comes to that is the United Nations, and everyone knows how ineffective it is. Additionally, idealistic political systems such as communism and socialism have proven futile. Even checks and balance systems, such as the one in the United States, has a limited efficacy, as witnessed by the politics, lobbyism and other issues. Nature is having a difficult time balancing the effects of human greed and power. Diseases and natural disasters are becoming minimal in damage due to medical research and better disaster predictions. Without any natural enemies, we are left to govern ourselves and our future. As exciting of a possibility that is, the track record of that has been phenomenally pathetic.
What’s going on with gold today? Gold prices touched above $900/oz today and by mid-noon was trading over $40 higher to $899 an ounce on February deliveries. The highest levels since October of 2008. As of 12:52pm, the SPDR GLD is up over $4.00 to above $88 (4.00+%). The volume of 24 million at 1pm is already twice as much as the average daily volume of 12 million. What is also surprising is that the EURO to Dollar index is dropping today, signifying a strengthening US Dollar. In most cases, these two measures should move inversely proportional to each other (Well, technically, gold rises when the EURUSD=X also rises). So what to make of this move today?
One, it’s easy to say that the huge movement up is all due to the stream of negative economic news. Most daunting was the release of Britain’s GDP, showing the country’s most severe contraction in nearly 29 years. Which also officially pulled the UK into a recession. Additionally, bad earnings from a stream of companies have made today a safe-haven buying day, which lends credence to why both the gold and silver prices are rising, and why the US Dollar is also rising, due to an influx in US Treasuries buying.
However, there are two technical signals that are also resonating quite nicely with the tech gold bugs. Let’s first look at the trading band GLD has been trading in since it’s low back in Nov 2008. I have drawn in the magenta bottom trading boundary which GLD prices essentially hit three times (11/08, 12/08 and 01/09). I have also drawn in the magenta top trading boundary which GLD prices hit twice (end of 11/08, 12/08). In order to keep within this linear rising trading band, GLD would have had to make a move to the upside in the next week or two. Today’s rise only keeps GLD within this trading band and does not signify a breakout. However, because it is a rising trading band, then that bodes well that GLD will continue to rise in the coming weeks. Should it break above the top trading band, we might see a very strong move upwards and well past $100/share. If it breaks below the bottom trading band, then the fundamental breaks and we can see GLD once again test its lows in Nov 2008. Because there is strong buying interest today, this bodes well for GLD.
GLD trading band since Nov 2008 low
The second bullish signal might prove stronger than the above signal. Let’s look at the 50-day EMA and the 200-day EMA for GLD since 2005. Something is happening here that hasn’t been seen since September of 2005 when gold began it’s next bullish leg up from the $400s/oz to $1000/oz. The 50-day EMA breaking above the 200-day EMA. Although the below chart does not show it, today’s bounce up definitely will push the 50-EMA above the 200-EMA. This is a strong signal and it is coupled with strong volume, which shows buying conviction on the upside. When two long EMAs cross each other they signal long-term trends. You can see that when the 50-EMA crossed under the 200-EMA back in Sept of 2008, GLD dropped for a few months. This break back above 200-EMA could signal strong upside for GLD prices. Coupled with the trading band shown in the first chart, and we major bullish signals for gold in the next few weeks. As in my 2009 Predictions in my previous post, I expect gold to top $1000/oz at some point this year, possibly in February.
Here are my 2009 predictions. None that are too far out there. Just a basic assessment of what I think might happen in 2009.
Barack the Celebrity
Obama’s approval ratings remain historically high but lower than the inauguration euphoria – Obama’s ability to inspire change and leadership at such a dour time in America gives him public leeway not seen since, well, 9/11. However, Obama’s pragmatism will help him keep the country on course and inspired throughout 2009. He has already made key changes in ethics regulations and state diplomacy in his first days in office. The only thing that will stop him will be… Congress.
Don’t expect much from Congress – Congress had lower approval ratings than President Bush in 2008, even with the Democratic majority and push for change. Expect the same from Pelosi and Reid, who are not strong leaders and have plenty of personal ambitions to prove Congressional strength to the Executive strength. Couple with the Republicans fight for relevancy, expect a 2009 of posturing and tit-for-tats. 2010 seems like a better year for Congress because the public will side with Obama over the frustrating bureaucracy in Congress in 2009.
The market moves sideways – There will be strong forces pulling the economy from both the recession side and the growth side. It is what I call the economic paradox. As the economy falls, oil prices drop and the US Dollar rises (somewhat surprisingly). However, as global growth resumes, oil demand and commodity prices rise again and the US Dollar falls (since investors will begin investing in riskier assets instead of US Treasuries). Both are problems for America. Obama seems focused on passing bills and bailouts that will help light a fire under the economy, especially job market. However, the more he does the more inflation becomes a risk. Expect several major rises and several major slides, but by the end of 2009, the Dow Jones will still be in the 7500-9000 range.
Gold surpasses $1000/oz again – Because of the economic paradox, gold will continue to maintain its safe haven status in 2009. One of these days, gold will surpass $1000/oz again. In looking at the GLD chart, gold hit a low in mid-Nov 08 and has since built a nice rising linear resistance that it bounded in early Dec 08 and mid Jan 09. If gold breaks the upper linear resistance of $900/oz expect $1000/oz in Feb 09. If it does not expect a pullback. Aside from the technicals, 2009 is still a year of unforeseen economic strife and that will keep the price of gold high. Depending on where the economic paradox is at the end of 2009, gold will either be well above $1000/oz or testing it’s multi-year lows of $700/oz again.
Gold (GLD) prices from Jan 2008 to Jan 2009 (12-EMA green, 50-EMA red)
There will only be one viable American automaker by year’s end – The Big Three is already, in essence, the Small Two. Chrysler’s recent gift of 35% stake to Fiat for its access to technology and services is a desperation move to prove to the U.S. government that it has a viable plan to survive. However, the U.S. government is not going to perpetually support a half-foreign owned company at taxpayers expense. As for GM and Ford, 2009 will still be a very tough market. Any uptick by buyers will simply be for fuel efficient cars built by Toyota, Honda and even Hyundai. GM is effectively surviving on federal assistance, which runs out every few months. A radical solution has to found soon. Don’t fret though, because of the uniqueness of this market, hopes abound for small automakers that can make a difference in “green” vehicles.
Yankees back in business – Sorry non-Yankees fans, but 2009 is appearing to be the Year of the Yankees. A new stadium, a team salary in excess of $200 million, a re-focused Arod with Mark Texeira pushing him, injury free Posada, Matsui and Chamberlain? It’s gonna be a great three-team AL East battle all summer. Yankees will win the division and make it to the World Series once again.
Another story from the arrogance and incompetence of the Bush administration. Today, Vice President Dick Cheney was quoted in an AP interview,
In an interview with The Associated Press, Cheney also said that Bush has no need to apologize for not foreseeing the economic crisis.
“I don’t think he needs to apologize. I think what he needed to do is take bold, aggressive action and he has,” Cheney said. “I don’t think anybody saw it coming.”
The last part is what really got me mad. A LOT, and I mean A LOT of people saw this economic crisis coming. Let’s take a quick look at some of the groups of people that saw this coming:
1. Gold bugs – Gold investors have been preparing for this economic crisis since the crash of the dot com era. Gold has steadily risen from the mid $200s/oz to a high of $1000/oz, and now at ~$850/oz today.
2. Currency investors – The euro to dollar ratio was at 0.85 at the beginning of the dot-com crash in 2001. Since then it has flipped and risen so quickly to 1.60 in early 2008. Most people familiar with the dollar index, fiat currencies and supply/demand saw this as a huge omen of future economic turmoil. It was only a matter of when.
3. Housing investors – The term housing bubble was surmised to be occurring well before the height of the housing bubble. Many people burned by the dot-com era and became fiscally responsible saw the non-stop rise in housing prices as a major deja vu.
4. Economists – There have been so many books written on this exact economic crisis in the past ten years, of which two have been reviewed on this blog (Crash Proof, The Coming Economic Collapse). Anyone who has read one of these books realized that the American economic system has been living on borrowed time and money.
5. Historians – History comes in cycles because the leaders don’t learn from history. The Iraq War and the recession afterwards first played in the first Bush administration. Instead of learning from it, the younger Bush repeated the exact same historical events.
6. Most sane people – I saw this economic crisis coming a few years ago when I started reading about the US economic system. A lot of my friends saw it coming. A lot of people knew that we only got out of the tiny recession after the dot-com crash and 9/11 because Greenspan and the Feds loosened the credit spigot and money-printing machine. What ensued was the housing bubble and more mortgaging of America’s future.
If all these people, including lots and lots of Americans saw the economic crisis coming, you are telling me the Feds and the economists that govern this country didn’t see it coming? Please… They just chose to look the other way. Why not? They are rich. There is no accountability. Leave it to the next administration or future generations to clean up the mess.
It’s really absurd that Dick Cheney deflects the Bush administration’s responsibilities by claiming that NO ONE SAW IT COMING. To put it nicely, the arrogance, narrow-mindedness and stupidity of the outgoing administration continues. The Bush administration continues to hope that in time history will judge them nicely, but I believe this second recession under their watch pretty much locks in their incompetence regardless of how well Iraq or Afghanistan turn out.
10. Yahoo rejects Microsoft’s $45 billion takeover offer – February 11, 2008. This one has to rank as one of the most stupid business decisions ever. Since Yahoo practically started the internet search business back in the 1990s, they have quickly given up their dominant position to Google in the past ten years without a major fight. By the middle of 2007, Google had a 53.6% market share of the search engine business, versus Yahoo’s rapidly shrinking 19.9%. Microsoft’s $44.6 billion in cash and stock offer was literally a lifeboat and gave Yahoo the best chance for long-term survival. Yahoo rejected the offer and a later offer in May valued each Yahoo share price at $33. Yahoo’s share price had been languishing around $19 in recent years. Yahoo’s CEO and founder Jerry Yang demanded $37/shr! Eventually Microsoft got tired of Yahoo’s demands and pulled all negotiations off the table. What is Yahoo today, end of 2008? The share price is $13.03 and Yang was ousted in November. Although Microsoft still has lukewarm interest in Yahoo’s search business, the main opportunity for Yahoo has passed.
9. Housing prices continue to go down town – It’s amazing how so many analysts and normal people knew that the meteoric rise of housing prices was due to risky ARMs and other loans that were impractical and ticking time bombs. It’s amazing the federal government did not see this coming or chose to not do anything about it. Because of the dot com bust from a few years ago and the recession soon after, the Feds turned a blind eye and let free credit run rampant. The bomb went off in 2006, and median housing prices have gone on a free-fall from an inflation-adjusted high of $275,000 in 2005 to near $200,000 at the end of 2008. It will take a good while to sort this thing out. Housing prices are still historically high and with high unemployment rates, increasing foreclosures will continue to flood an already over-supplied realty market.
8. Unemployment rate – The United States has been pretty lucky in terms of unemployment rates for the past two decades or so. Ever since the recovery from the high inflation, 9.0+% unemployment rates of the early 1980s, the rate has stayed well below 8.0%. Since 1995, the rate has performed even better, only touching above 6.0% once during the short recession recovery in 2003. In January 2008, the rate was around 5.0% but had already been steadily rising throughout 2007. Since this January, the rate has put on the rocket boosters and is now at 6.7% nationally, with no signs of slowing down. Several states, such as Michigan (9.6%) and Rhode Island (9.3%) already have unemployments rates above 9.0%! Another five states have rates above 8.0%! Stats were from Nov 2008 and look to be higher when December stats come out.
7. What happened to the commodities bull market? – Oil, gold, silver, platinum and copper. All were at multi-decade highs in 2007 and even in 2008. Since then? Crude oil prices have dropped from $150+/bl to $37/bl! Most commodities lost more than half their values. Exchange-traded funds such as SLV, GSG, and XLE all dropped more than 50%. The one exception so far has been gold. Although gold prices have dropped from a high over $1000/oz, they have not dropped below $700/oz, and have recovered into the $800s since then. Gold is an unique commodity and it appears that it mostly trades as a safe-haven currency than a physical commodity. In looking at the chart of GLD (below), gold prices have solidly bottomed out at $70/shr and is looking like it will have a strong 2009.
6. Remember the $168 billion original stimulus package? – That amount seems so little nowadays especially when Obama is bandying around an $800B to $1 trillion stimulus package. Add to that the $750B bailout package given to financial companies and automobile companies. This is a year of bailouts and stimuluses and so far they have not helped the economy. Instead, the state of the economy is at its worst at the end of 2008. The expected package by Obama will be an early focus of the Obama administration. I think most people could use an extra few hundred dollars in their pockets.
5. The survival of American automobile companies – General Motors, Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler became the poster child of the current economic crisis hitting main street. On display was the millions of jobs, especially blue-collar jobs, in America at risk of disappearing due to the recent decades of mismanagement, overhead and foreign competition of the US auto industry. With the finance industry easily getting a $750B bailout, it seemed absurd that an industry that for decades represented hard working Americans and unions had to literally beg for a few billion dollars to survive. It was obvious where the attention of politicians were. Although Bush recently said that $18B of the $750B bailout would be immediately used to prop up GM and Chrysler, the long fought battle was wasted time and energy by the attention garnering and bureaucratic Congress.
4. Bernard Madoff arrested on $50B Ponzi fraud scheme – When the $50 billion Ponzi fraud scheme by Bernard Madoff was revealed in early December, it was the main headline of major news websites for a mere few hours. Since then, as more details trickle out, the fraud continues to take a back seat to the macro-economic recession covering the globe. In any other year, the news of a legendary and consummate businessman (and a former NASDAQ chairman) being arrested for a fraud-scheme covering possibly the largest dollar amount in Wall Street history would ripple for weeks, if not months. However, with white collar crimes dominating the post-dot-com era (Enron, Worldcom, Martha Stewart, Tyco and the 2008 unraveling of the hedge fund industry), the public is now immune to financial fraud. Quite unfortunate. (See here for What is a Ponzi scheme)
Corporate bankruptcies on the rise in 2008.
3. Bankruptcies and those near it – It has been a sad year for many corporations as they head towards bankruptcy. Many of them well-known with years of solid profits. The list continues to grow and the impact of the recession on the consumer and his/her buying habits is only beginning. Circuit City, Linens ‘N Things, KB Toys, Frontier Airlines, Mrs. Field Cookies, Steve & Barry’s, Whitehall Jewelers, Mervyns, Sharper Image and Waffle House are some of the big name bankruptcies. And this list doesn’t even mention financial companies, which I discuss in #2. See this list for a more comprehensive list of corporate bankruptcies in 2008.
2. The demise of the hedge fund and mortgage finance industry – The derivatives market has become a multi-billion (if not, trillion) dollar investment industry that is complicated and largely misunderstood, even by the most astute financial advisors. Derivatives, as its name suggests, are investment products that are created off of actual traditional investment products. That means their intrinsic value is conjured up and their existence puts them closer to full-blown gambling. The current financial laws and oversight are not suited for such trading. Over the years hedge funds and derivatives took on more and more of the investment strategy of major financial corporations. Derivatives that were based on risky mortgages and insurance eventually collapsed as housing prices plummeted with lendees’ inability to pay the mortgages. The result has been a credit lockup unforeseen in decades. Major financial companies toppled and its effects are still not fully known. Major companies that totally collapsed include Bear Sterns, Lehman Brothers, Washington Mutual, ANB Financial, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and AIG. See this list for a more comprehensive list of financial collapses in 2008.
KBW Philadelphia Bank Index - performance since 2004
U.S. Recessions since WWII (Courtesy of CNN)
1. Recession or Depression – Which leads to the number one financial news in 2008. Are we in a deep and difficult recession or a depression? In early December, it became official that the U.S. went into a recession in December 2007. To some analysts, this is good news because it means we are closer to coming out of it. As you look at the chart on the right, most recessions last around one year. Based on the official Dec 2007 start date, historically we would already be on the tail end of the recession. However, to other analysts, this is bad news because the worst is yet to come, and we are already twelve months into it. With no light seemingly at the end of the tunnel, these analysts portend a long recession. Bad news from around the world keep coming in and the bottom of the current economic crisis still has not occurred. Oil prices continue to drop, gold prices have since rebounded (bad for economy), and the dollar index has begun dropping again. Signs of major inflation on the horizon are evident, especially with the massive bailouts and the Feds lowering the overnight interest rate to its lowest level ever, 0%-0.25%.
The entire 2008 Top 10 in Finance is all bad news. Most of them have to do with the current economic crisis. The key hope is that the Bush administration is finally over and 2009 brings a more adept and intellectual administration that will do just about anything to get America out of the economic dump. An administration that seems focused on the middle class and job creation. However, with it comes more and more national debt and the mortgaging of the future. There seems to be no alternative. This will most likely lead to long-term inflation when countries such as China, India, Russia and other Asian countries continue their rise to redefine the existing economic world order. This is not to say that the United States is doomed to be a second-bit player, as we know that is unlikely. However, the country needs to refocus on what made it a superpower in the first place, investments in technology, jobs, science, and innovation.
Over the past few weeks I have received emails from all the presidents of my alma maters regarding the respective university’s financial situation in this rapidly deteriorating economy. The emails all had the exact same outline. The serious tone was set right away. Followed by a reassurance of “don’t worry, the university has a good handle on the situation”. That the financial trustees have invested wisely and haven’t done as badly as most other colleges. Then by another serious tone that the university endowment will inevitably be smaller at the end of the year, and to what extent it is not clear yet.
However, all universities have some envy with Harvard University’s financial position. Check out the endowment figures on Wikipedia. They have the largest endowment in the world, by far. In 2007 they had a $34.635 billion endowment, which completely dwarfs the second largest endowment, Yale University, $22.53 billion. Even a similar university like Princeton University has only an endowment of $15.787 billion (although Princeton does have the highest endowment per student figure, whereas, Harvard only ranks 5th in this category). The financial manager of Harvard’s endowment has a highly regarded position and has more responsibilities than most large investment firms.
I came across an article on Slate yesterday regarding the impact of the economy on Harvard’s endowment in 2008. Although it’s still unclear, and since Harvard is a private institution does not have to abide by the SEC regulations for the public disclosure of financial statements, there are many clues to its performance this year. In simple terms, it’s not looking good. But the question to ask is, why? With an endowment so large, so powerful and so stable, wouldn’t it actually be pretty easy to manage? Simply invest in the most stable and long-term entities out there? Why risk the entire university on risky investments? This seems partly true in the case with Harvard. As more comes out, it will be interesting to see what the final endowment figure is for Harvard (and for all other prestigious universities, for that matter) at the end of 2008.
UPDATE 2008.12.03 – Preliminary figures released today showed that Harvard’s endowment lost $8 billion in the four months since the end of the last fiscal year (June 30)!! That’s a 22% drop from it’s $36.9 billion figure. To make matters worse, they are predicting a 30% drop for fiscal year 2009. Wow… An endowment should not drop that precipitously; too many risky investments.
Tomorrow is one of the most important days in recent American history. It is a day that will affect the short term prospects of America and the standing of America in the world for the next century. The events and actions of the past eight years have accelerated the damaging path the country has embarked on for the past thirty years. The irresponsible actions have left America crippled economically, politically, morally and psychologically. Both parties have been hijacked by the special interests of corporations, ideological groups and personal interests. The values in which America was founded on have been distorted. The decision made by America tomorrow will go a long way in determining if we continue this egregious path of self-destruction.
The debt at the national, local and consumer levels are not only due to the actions of the past eight years. The decision by the Supreme Court in 1978 (Marquette National Bank of Minneapolis vs. First of Omaha Service Corp.) to deregulate interest rate caps at the state level was the precursor to the inundation of credit cards and the mortgaging of personal futures for the present. Although Reaganomics has been credited with bringing the country out of the vitriolic stagflation of the late 1970s, it has had a long term effect that has eaten away at the fiscal responsibility of the federal government. At the core of Reaganomics was reducing tax rates by reducing government spending which in turn was achieved by reducing costs associated with regulation and social programs. However, unexpected costs from the burgeoning Cold War resulted in large trade and federal budget deficits. In order to cover such deficits, the government began borrowing heavily both domestically and abroad. This decision to mortgage the future of the country for the present instilled a belief that debt is good, even to other countries, such as China, Japan and India. America became a borrower nation instead of a loaner nation, which it had been for decades during its prominence.
The deregulation of these two critical issues are the main causes of the current economic problems. It instilled bad habits at all levels of society. Although quality of life continued to increase the past thirty years, it was mostly at the cost of the future. Both politicians and individuals began feeling entitled to such luxuries and expected it to last forever. However, as analyzed by Pulitzer Prize winner Jared Diamond (Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed), it is this infectious mindset that causes great societies to fail. This country is at that critical juncture. Do we reinstate the values, sacrifices and hard work that made this country great or do we continue down this destructive path?
In addition to the present economic and ideological problems that endanger the quality of life of America, there are many massive elephants in the near future that can derail any sense of comfort in the nation. A fundamental restructuring of social programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid is required in the next one or two presidencies before the effects of the baby boomer population cripple the flow of aid from the system. The high quality of life has left Americans lazy, fat and indifferent, and the medical costs associated with treating related diseases and health issues threaten to destroy the already broken health-care system. The super-highway system that supported the rise of American power is also the bane of the country’s dependence on foreign oil and its lavish automobile lifestyle. Furthermore, the infrastructure of America is crumbling and poses a danger to the lifeblood of a large country like America. A massive government infrastructure initiative is required within the next twenty years. The only question will be where does all the money come from? As globalization continues to redistribute the wealth and power of the world, the education system and America’s ability to compete are also being tested. American children continue to fall behind other countries at all levels of education, from middle school to college to graduate school. This country has been able to sustain its technological competitiveness partly through the immigration of top-level students from countries such as China and India. However, the current backlash on immigration coupled with the increasing prestige of other countries’ higher education systems, begs the question of how America will sustain its technological edge? Corporations and special interest groups as super-humans continue to eat away at the fabric of America. Their selfish narrow-minded view of profit and ideology permeate all levels of society, from individuals to the government. Ideology has especially polarized the country into two hardened stances, secularity versus ideology. The effects of this has left the country fearful and suspicious of each other. Finally, the effects of the internet and other entertainment-related technologies cannot be understated. Although they have created luxuries beyond anyone’s belief and increased the free flow of information, they have also created a schizophrenic society of 24 hour media frenzy and questionable freedoms of morality. The neutrality of journalism and the mental well-being of society are at stake. Coupled with the constraints of global warming and moral responsibility, the above problems must be faced responsibly.
These problems will definitely be difficult to face and resolve. Most of these have been simmering for years, but have been effectively ignored. However, what has always made America great has been its ability to come together as a country and sacrifice for the greater good of the country and the world. The sacrifices by this country during the Civil War and World War II for the greater good cannot be forgotten. Although society was simpler and less polarized then, the country must come together once again to face the unprecedented wave of issues that threaten to send America down the road of self-destruction.
Tomorrow begins that choice. Tomorrow the country decides which path to take, one of sacrifice for the greater good or one of continued wantonness. Tomorrow begins the day where America can begin reinstating the values that made this country so great. A country of uniqueness not found anywhere else in the world. A melting pot that protects individual rights and helps others at times of need. A constitution so strong that the thought of a revolution is unfathomable. The land of opportunity and openness. A land of thousands of parks and natural resources. The separation of church and state and the freedom of religion. The land of the best medical care and higher education system. A land of tolerance and hope. And the land of the free and the home of the brave…
Whomever you vote for tomorrow, please think openly and clearly. Without any bias of age, race, religion, and fear, think who will be better for America. Who will lead America towards a path of redemption and strength. A path that requires sacrifice but cherishes American freedoms. A candidate that realizes that what America needs now is a problem solver with pragmatism and humility, and not one fixated on idealism, intolerance and fear mongering. Look closely at your choice, and know that when you go home afterwards, there will be a better America tomorrow. A better America for yourself and your family, and also for its great citizens of today and tomorrow.
The economic turmoil the past two months has sent some very mixed signals to people who do not fully understand the commodities market cycles and global economic forces. The global economic train is now in the midst of a long and dark recession tunnel. The actions taken by the large economies of the world, such as the United States, and European countries, the past two months have made the average investor skittish and scared. They see stalwart financial companies like AIG, Wachovia, Washington Mutual and General Electric either crash and burn or bought out by other companies or halved in price. Their 401Ks, Roth IRAs and other investment accounts tumbled. To make matters worse, they see high crude oil prices that had peaked above $140/barrel go on a crash dive to barely above $60. Wasn’t the global demand of oil, especially from China, India and other emerging markets suppose to keep gas prices above $4.00 for good? Now they are back well below $3.00. Other commodity prices, such as silver, copper and platinum followed suit. All tanked from multi-year highs just reached not long ago this year.
However, contradicting this gloomy wave of news was the ‘strengthening’ of the U.S. dollar and the 30%-plus drop of gold prices. Gold was supposed to be seen as the safe haven when things go bad. Well, now things are really bad so why is gold also dropping? And why is the dollar strengthening when the U.S. economy is tanking? How can this be? In the simplest explanation, although quite wrong and unsubstantiated, was that the commodity bubble had bursted. Gold dropped because the demand for commodities was over. Many people began believing this and even some gold bugs were confounded by what was going on.
Their is a very simple explanation for it, and all the reasons for the dollar strengthening and gold prices crashing are all temporary. As a matter of fact, it provides the best opportunity to buy gold in several years. The recession is in much deeper quicker than anyone thought. Many investors are being forced to sell even their safest haven assets in order to cover for their losses on the risky side, such as stocks, houses, hedging, etc. This includes the liquidation of gold. They do not want to do this but are forced to. This is a major factor in the instability on the down side of gold. Second, the safest non-gold haven for money is U.S. Treasuries. They are one of the only things that guarantee still a net positive return, albeit a small interest rate, at this juncture in the economy. Countries have no choice but to buy more Treasuries because the faith in other fiat currencies is still not strong enough since this is a global recession. This temporary strength in the dollar against other fiat currencies also has a downward push on gold prices and other commodity prices since they are all priced in the dollar. That means $100 now buys more gold than before.
The thing is these two actions are only temporary. These actions are only to save the global recession from a global depression right now. These are short-term reactions to a longer term problem. These actions are known as deleveraging. It is allowing the new economic state to take root. It is a finite process and will soon come to an end. Why? The federal reserve continues to pump lots of new unbacked dollars into the economy. And the $700 billion dollar bailout begins this week. The Feds announced that they will give the initial $125 billion dollars to nine banks. What does this all mean? INFLATION! And soon, HYPER-INFLATION. U.S. Treasuries will have no choice but to increase their interest rates in order for countries to continue buying them. Mortgage rates will rise, as they already are, even though recession takes root. The dollar will reverse trend and weaken due to inflationary pressures. More dollars will come home to roost from other countries. What does all this mean? Gold will rise, rise, rise.
Update 6:15pm: So the Dow Jones goes up 890 points (10.88%) today, with the NASDAQ and S&P500 posting similar percentage increases today. The two main reasons for such a historic rise (second largest point increase of Dow Jones ever) is due to bargain hunters and an expected interest rate cut by the Federal Reserve. Although the cut might help in the credit and liquidity crisis, this is another long-term inflationary signal. If Treasuries have lower interest rates, who will buy them? More Dollars will come back to America, which means a weaker dollar. Although this might help the current local minimum (credit and liquidity), the entire graph continues to head towards a weaker dollar and a continuation of the commodities bull market and a rise in gold prices.
Disclaimer: This is a commentary by an amateur investor and is not meant to be taken as professional advice.
I have never seen a more lame duck president than President George Bush right now. His credibility and approval at an all-time low, and historically tied with Richard Nixon’s lowest approval rating of 24% or 25%, depending on which polls you look at. Trailling only President Truman’s record low 22% in 1952. As the economic crisis deepens under his watch, and candidates in the presidential campaign either desperately trying to dissociate from him or successfully associating the other with him, it is only the laws of the Constitution that keeps such an unpopular president in power. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson has more clout than the president. When Bush speaks to the public now about staying calm and having patience for the bailouts to work, does anyone listen to him? What could be going through his mind knowing that even the majority of his own party has disowned him?
The amazing thing about George Bush is that he thinks in a very idealistic way. He has never seemed affected by the low approval ratings because he truly believes that what he is doing is the right thing and that history will judge him positively. He believes that he is making the tough unpopular choices for the better of the country’s future. It is a very hubristic and self-righteous way of deciding things and is ultimately at the core of the Bush Doctrine that says he has the right to decide what this country and the world needs, even through unprovoked offensive attacks. It is a very risky proposition because the unpopular decisions might never turn out the way he envisioned. For example, if Iraq’s fledgling democracy never takes hold and brings peace to a war torn region, and even worse, Iraq falls into sectarian chaos again, history will judge the decision to remove Saddam Hussein without clear public and world approval as one of the worst decisions in American history. If Afghanistan falls into eternal chaos again, history will judge the decision to open another war in Iraq as one of the worst strategic moves in American history. If Pakistan, a nuclear power, falls into extreme political strife, the unwavering yet inconsistent support of Musharraf will be seen as a highly expensive and unsuccessful decision. If America goes into the longest recession or depression since the Great Depression, no matter how the foreign policies have worked out, history will see this period negatively.
Although everything looks bleak now, the possibility that all things will work out still exists, at least in theory. Iraq becomes the stable democracy that is so badly needed in the Middle East. As a result, moderate politics are demanded by the public of countries in the region with autocratic governments. Pakistan’s transition from a military dictatorship of Musharraf to a democratically elected government takes hold and the restive public calms down. The Pakistani economy stabilizes and extremist views are pushed out of society. Afghanistan and the Taliban reach a peace accord and the country finally experiences stability and democracy. The US economy bottoms out. The wanton spending of the consumers, corporations and government is curbed. American values revert back to saving and frugality. As a result, the economy is more sound then ever. The Bush presidency is seen as the turning point to a more stable and economically sound America. All these still remain possible, however small they may be. Historians could potentially point to the Bush decisions as the start of an eventual stable Middle East and Central Asia. However, even if everything turns out well, history will most likely give the credit to the decisions made by presidents after Bush. Especially for the economy, history will most likely give credit to the future president that makes the hard sacrifices to stabilize our economy. The credit of a stable Pakistan will most likely go to its own people and government. A peace accord between the Taliban and Afghanistan will be seen as a last resort to bring peace to the war torn region, especially when things looked so good back in 2002.
The next twenty years will greatly determine the effects the eight years of Bush presidency has done to America and the world…
Bush Presidency Events Timeline (courtesy of MapReport)