Subscribe to Money Morning get daily headlines subscribe now! Money Morning Private Briefing today's private briefing
Category

Keith Fitz-Gerald

What the Last Roman Emperor Would Tell President Obama Today

Over the course of 700 years, the ancient Roman Empire grew from a small republic to one that stretched from London to Baghdad at its peak.

As one of the world's first true superpowers, the Empire's achievements included the world's first standing professional army, economic prowess, intellectual growth and governance principles that are commonly regarded as the basis for modern society.

But it is also remembered for its spectacular collapse in less than a century under the weight of bad debt, an overextension of the Empire, a collapse of morals that led to a deluded and self-absorbed political elite and reckless public spending that far outweighed collections.

Given the parallels to our situation, I can only imagine what Romulus Augustus, widely considered to be the last of the Roman Emperors, would tell President Barack Obama today about how to prevent the wholesale destruction of our own "Empire."

But it would probably go like this…

Cara praeses Obama, (Dear President Obama)

Like mine, your world is changing fast. No doubt it's very different from the one you thought you'd inherited. Your success will depend on new thinking and an eye to the future taken from lessons of the past.

I wouldn't be offended if you have never heard of me.

I oversaw the dying days of what you know as the Classic Western Roman Empire. My fall in September 476 marked the end of centuries of greatness and the fall of ancient Rome.

Some historians consider my departure as the beginning of the Middle Ages. I understand the nature of collapse: how it begins, how it progresses, and where it all ends.

As a historical footnote to a once great empire, here's my advice to you, Mr. President.

To continue reading please, please click here...

What 700 Million People in the Dark Says About Investing in India

For years now I've preferred China over India.

When invariably asked to compare the two as investments, my answer has always been the same.

Somewhat tongue -in-cheek, I'd point out "that India has trouble keeping the lights on from one end of the country to the other."

Little did I know that those comments made in jest would actually become reality.

Earlier this week, a massive power blackout left more than 700 million people without power in India as not one, but three, regional electrical grids failed.

If that isn't a glaring sign that India isn't ready for prime-time I don't know what I can say to make you see the light – pun absolutely intended.

Don't get me wrong. There are clearly a few select Indian companies worth the risk.

But as a whole, the scope of this power failure suggests India has a long way to go before it achieves the global superpower status it seeks and a dominant position in your portfolio.

India Needs to Put its Own House in Order

Not that this will stop India from trying.

It's now the 8th largest military spender in the world, having tripled defense spending in the past 10 years. It's no secret India desperately wants to have a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

And, it's making great strides in international diplomacy that it believes will pay off later in increased foreign recognition and direct investment.

But as this embarrassing power failure demonstrates, India would be better off getting its own house in order first before it steps onto the world stage.

Many investors take issue with these views. They cite the fact that India is the second-largest English-speaking nation in the world, that 58% of its economy is consumption-based, that it has huge numbers of tech-savvy and well-educated people.

I don't dispute any of that.

However, on the other side of the ledger is a laundry list of reasons for investors to be wary.

Read More…

How to Protect Your Portfolio Against One of Wall Street's Greatest, Best Kept Secrets

"Can't anybody tell the truth anymore?" an exasperated Bob J. asked me at a recent cocktail reception.

"Evidently not" I told him.

Bob had seen me earlier that afternoon on Fox News. I appeared on the show to respond to a new study on corporate earnings by Professors Ilia Dichev, Shiva Rajgopal of Emory University and John Graham of Duke.

The study found that a full 20% of publicly traded companies lie about their earnings.

The shocking thing is that the figure wasn't much higher. Twenty percent strikes me as abnormally low. Earnings manipulation is one of Wall Street's greatest, best-kept secrets and has been for years.

In fact, CFOs I've met over the years have told me they could routinely swing things within 5-10% of the target earnings per share (EPS) if needed – a figure in line with the one cited in the study.

But lie is a big word.

As I noted during my interview, there are all kinds of reasons why companies manipulate the numbers, beginning with the terribly flawed system itself.

As appalling as this thought may be, the system actually encourages this kind of behavior.

Under the current system, the law requires quarterly performance reports when many publicly traded companies actually operate in business cycles that are 1, 3, 5, or even 7 years long.

This creates a disincentive to report what's actually happening and an incentive to "lie" about the numbers or at least "fudge" them, depending on your perspective. And, the longer the business cycle, the more a company must make estimates about quarterly results with the risk, of course, that things don't turn out as management expects.

So while some companies may have lost their ethical and moral compasses, what they are doing is entirely legal.

Why Companies Lie About Earnings

Having spent more than 20 years in the markets, I believe the reason for this comes down to three biggies, for lack of a better term. Companies may "lie" to boost stock prices, smooth earnings and jack up compensation packages.

Virtually every publicly traded company draws on reserves and engages in all kinds of financial hocus-pocus in an effort smooth things out.

Take Boeing Co. (NYSE: BA), for instance.

To continue reading, please click here…

Read More…

Four Ways To Not Lose Money In A Bubble Economy

Many experts claim we're not in a bubble economy because they can't see the "bubble."

Why is beyond me.

The bubble is so enormous right now that any serious bailout attempt would have to encompass the entire shootin' match or roughly $600 trillion to $1.5 quadrillion ($1,500,000,000,000,000) in order for it to work.

That's the total estimated amount of outstanding derivatives, credit default swaps and exotics outstanding at the moment according to various industry sources.

I say estimated because nobody actually knows for sure. Nearly five years into this crisis, the derivatives markets still remain almost entirely unregulated.

And, that's why the well-intentioned but completely misguided onesey-twosey's bailouts we've seen so far won't cut it despite the fact that they're already into the trillions of dollars.

I say this because, despite what most politicians and central bankers think, we are not staring at a series of independent bubbles blown into the wind, but a single, massive all-encompassing monster bubble that surrounds us all.

To put this into perspective, the total value of the United States' economy is approximately $15 trillion. The world's GDP is around $50 trillion while the total capitalization of world stock markets is only $100 trillion.

The market bubble

You can see the problem as easily as I can…there literally isn't enough money on the planet to bail us out, and I don't care who's got the keys to the printing presses.

How We Got Here is a Story in Itself

Bubbles this big don't form overnight.

What we've been handed is an overlapping bubble that's gotten progressively larger over time as our legislators, bankers and regulators have progressively "improved" the system over time.

To continue reading, please click here....

What I Wish Ben Bernanke Knew About Japan

I've called Japan my "other" home since 1989 and in that time I've seen it change in ways that ought to scare the pants off you.

I say that not to ruin your day, but because I fear we are headed down the same exact road as long as Ben Bernanke and his central banking buddies think it's easier to print money than actually stimulate real growth.

In doing so, they are re-creating Japan's "Lost Decades" here at home with years of smoldering, piss-poor growth as our destiny.

Yet it doesn't have to be that way. We can still choose a different path.

Here are 10 lessons from Japan I would share with Chairman Bernanke right now if I sat down with him:

1) All the cheap money in the world won't matter if banks hoard it and customers don't want it. You could lower interest rates to zero and it won't make a difference. Japan tried this to no avail. At this point, low rates are hardwired into the Japanese business system to the extent that any increase whatsoever is likely to cause a massive wave of corporate and personal bankruptcies. Don't let that happen here. You still have a chance to prevent this.

2) At some point somebody has to take the loss. You cannot pretend that the debt you've advanced is performing any more than the Japanese have. No matter how much money you inject into the system, the deleveraging process will continue until excess credit is bled out of the system one way or another. Defaults happened with alarming regularity before Central Banks tried to stave them off. There have been literally hundreds in Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia, and Latin America over the centuries. Spain and France failed six and eight times each in the 16th century alone.

3) Trying to manage any singular crisis will only result in a much bigger one down the road. The longer you prop things up, the worse they're going to get and the more consolidation you will see. Five of the 10 largest banks in the world were Japanese in 1990. Today the only bank to make the cut is 5th on the list (the Japan Post Bank Co. Ltd according to Bankers Accuity).

4) When politicians find it easier to borrow money than make hard policy decisions, they will because they prefer their short term re-election prospects over the long-term economic interests of the country. Japan has had 15 Prime Ministers in the last 12 years. Granted, their system works a little differently than ours, but continual reshuffling diminishes the effectiveness of any solution. Take advantage of the situation and act decisively before our elections risk a reset. You're supposedly apolitical. Prove it by acting with conviction instead of giving us more FedSpeak.

To continue reading, please click here...

8 Reasons Why Mimi Would Sell Microsoft (Nasdaq:MSFT) and Dump Steve Ballmer

One day in 1983, my dad asked me a question over dinner after a long day at work.

He wanted to know what I knew about a little computer company called Microsoft. It was the brainchild of the son of one of his partners at Bogle & Gates, William H. Gates, Sr.

"Not much," I replied.

But I did tell my dad that I loved using MS-DOS in the computer lab with my friends. I was a card-carrying member of the nerd herd back in the day, so I spent a lot of time there and knew Microsoft's fledgling PC-based software pretty well.

My grandmother Mimi, though, had a different point of view. You've heard me mention her before.

She's the one who was widowed at an early age and became a savvy global investor long before people ever thought to look at the bigger picture.

Mimi didn't care that the buzz was about the MS-DOS language or even about computers. Having grown up in the Depression, she believed that what people would do with the technology was far more valuable.

She said she had confidence that Sr.'s son, Bill Gates Jr., understood this — which is why she invested heavily in the Microsoft IPO in 1986. Enough said.

Today, though, I think she'd voice an equally strong opinion about Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) CEO Steve Ballmer. In fact, I think she'd fire him. Here's why….

8 Reasons Why Steve Ballmer Must Go

  1. Ballmer took over Microsoft 12 years ago when the stock was about $60. Now it struggles to maintain $30. Microsoft has $58.16 billion in cash and this is the best Steve Ballmer can do?
  2. Office and Windows are dying. Once the business world's de facto standard, both are being replaced by cheap, easy-to-operate software, much of which is actually free as well as compatible. This is a big problem considering that, according to the Wall Street Journal, roughly 85% of Microsoft's revenue is coming from just two products: Windows and Office.
  3. The company isn't innovating fast enough or aggressively enough. What's more, it's attempting to compensate for its own shortcomings with increasingly ill-conceived acquisitions. For instance, Microsoft forked over $605 million for 18% of the Barnes and Noble Nook e-reader and still has no real ability to compete with Amazon's Kindle. It also couldn't seal the deal with Yahoo. Despite a sizable head start using Yahoo's core search technology, Bing has a mere 15% of the search market today. Ballmer waited nearly four years to respond to the iPad and his "Surface" tablet was ho-hum when it could have been jaw dropping. One more: Microsoft paid $8.5 billion in cash for Skype. Apparently the fact that Skype was not profitable didn't matter. Ballmer's track record suggests to me that he buys businesses that nobody else "must have."
  4. Microsoft's Internet offerings remain wannabes and are highly priced at that. Take Yammer. Microsoft just paid $1.2 billion through the nose to acquire a company that was valued at $600 million last fall when it raised $85 million in a venture offering. Team Ballmer plans to integrate it into Office on the assumption that somehow the Microsoft marriage will endear the brand to customers anxious to socialize business. I think they're delusional. Most Microsoft users I know, including myself, are actively planning to move away from the legacy software we've used for years the first instant we can in favor of software we actually like to use!

To continue reading, please click here...

Three Reasons Why the U.S. Dollar is Really Rising

By all accounts, the U.S. dollar should be the functional equivalent of a Zimbabwean bill.

The Fed has pumped trillions into the worldwide financial system as part of misguided stimulus efforts that should be incredibly inflationary.

Yet, instead of a disastrous repeat of the Weimar Republic, the U.S. dollar has strengthened considerably.

This despite rising unemployment, slowing economic growth and a debt debate that's about to begin anew.

Since last July, the U.S. dollar has risen against all 16 major currencies while the Intercontinental Exchange Dollar Index is up 12%, according to Bloomberg.

In fact, the greenback is now higher than it was when the Fed engaged in Operation Twist in late 2011 as part of a plan to keep the dollar low by buying bonds.

So much for Club Fed's plans…

As usual, they don't really have a clue about how real money works — let alone why it flows and where it's going.

Taking the Mystery Out of the U.S. Dollar

Here are the three reasons why the U.S. dollar is really rising:

1. Institutions are unloading gold to raise cash against anticipated margin calls, redemption requests, or both. They are parking that money in treasuries and in dollars, creating additional demand. There are simply more buyers than sellers at the moment, so prices for dollars and treasuries are rising. And not just by small amounts, either.

2. Institutional portfolio managers and traders are required to maintain specific classes of assets under very specific guidelines. These guidelines dictate everything from the amounts being held to the quality of specific investments.

Many, for example, are required to hold only AAA-rated bonds, or invest in stocks meeting certain income, asset size and volatility criteria.

Imagine you're Jamie Dimon and you have to hold reserves against trading losses or you're Mark Zuckerberg and you've got to build up a large legal settlement fund for the Facebook IPO.

Or, perhaps you're Tim Cook of Apple and you're sitting on $110 billion in cash for future investments.

Chances are you're going to want to buy things that are as close to risk-free as possible to ensure your assets hold their value.

A year ago, you could choose from eight currencies in the G10 that met internationally accepted "risk-free" ratings criteria as measured by the cost of credit default swaps priced under 100 basis points.

Now, there are only five to choose from. A year from now, there might only be two or three.

To continue reading, please click here...

Five Ways to Avoid the Next Facebook IPO Fiasco

On the heels of the Facebook IPO fiasco, many investors are wondering how they can find the next best thing and avoid getting "facebooked" in the process.

Tall order? Not really.

First, look for companies with ideas that can be applied across a wide variety of industries.

If I had said this five years ago, you'd be looking for Internet- related startups or companies that can do "it" better, faster or cheaper.

Going forward however, I think the true innovation will be exponential progress that's made linking living systems with their digital counterparts. Everything from synthetic biology to computational bioinformatics will grow a lot more rapidly than the broader markets.

So will key markets related to healing human illness, solving hunger and figuring out how to deliver potable water to broad swathes of the planet.

No doubt there will be tremendous ethical challenges along the way, but I believe we will see the line blur between what's needed to live and how we actually live our lives.

Though it's hard to imagine given the state of the world at the moment, I believe a fair number of the best up- and- coming investments will be outside the traditional first- tier markets of the United States, Europe and Japan.

In fact, I'd bet on it.

Second, don't confuse the ability to organize or share information with the ability to generate revenue

One might lead to the other but they are not the same thing.

The way I see it, Facebook is a classic example of everything you don't want in a business. It is 900 million users who spend an average of $1.32 a year. Compare that to Amazon.com, which clocks in at a much more valuable and consistent $36.52 per person.

Call me crazy, but I don't think Facebook stock will see the bottom for a while. As I wrote last Friday, at best Facebook is worth $7.50 a share.

Revenue is slowing. Facebook doesn't dominate the mobile markets that are becoming the preferred consumer channel for tens of millions of people. And, in what is perhaps the death knell, startups are already cannibalizing Facebook's user base.

The ability to "like" somebody is really no different than signing their yearbook in high school –only you're using a computer and the Internet to do it.

Third, hunt for fringe thinkers working in their garages.

It's not enough to think differently. The next big things will come from those thinkers operating on the fringes of what the rest of us consider normal.

To continue reading, please click here...

Election 2012: Forget Bailouts, We Need a Shakeout

The markets rallied Monday on news that global leaders favor additional stimulus. The hope is that additional spending will induce growth and put the world back on track.

Don't hold your breath.

Big government robs the economy of wealth, strips it of initiative and further undermines our recovery.

So why, then, do our leaders continue to throw good money after bad?

Try this on for size.

In 1958, a man named Cyril Northcote Parkinson published a series of essays in book form called Parkinson's Law: The Pursuit of Progress. In it, he postulated a mathematical equation that describes how bureaucracies expand over time and why.

I don't know if he had a wicked sense of humor or a dramatic flair for irony but the equation at the core of his argument relied on something he termed the "coefficient of inefficiency."

The coefficient of inefficiency says the size of a committee or government decision-making body is determined by the point at which it becomes completely inefficient or irrelevant. Or both – hence the name.

Parkinson determined that the minimal effective size for a decision-making body is about five people, and the optimal size is somewhere between three and 20.

Last time I checked, we had 548 people inside the beltway – 535 voting members of Congress, nine Supreme Court justices, one president, one vice president, one treasurer and one Fed chairman – who are responsible for making decisions on behalf of 330 million citizens.

Combine that with nearly 2.8 million total Federal employees (excluding our military) and we're waaaaay beyond anything even remotely resembling workable decision making.

Now here's the thing. Parkinson also observed that bureaucracies grew by about 5%-7% a year, "irrespective of any variation in the amount of work (if any) to be done."

In other words, the larger bureaucracies become, the more ineffective they get even if additional people are hired to do work that doesn't exist.

And to think, all this time I thought our government ran on the Peter Principle!

Parkinson attributed this to two things:

To continue reading, please click here...

Five with Fitz: What I See When I Look Over the Horizon

When you've been working the markets as long as I have, you learn that the biggest dangers are always found in a place just over the horizon.

It's why I spend my time hunting for stories, news items and opinions that in the old days were considered far "below the fold."

Invariably, what I am looking for is the stuff that everybody else has missed.

Because I believe that's where the real information is — especially when it comes to uncovering profitable opportunities others don't yet see or understand.

It's the story behind the story that interests me. To find it, you need to go beyond the headline news.

In that spirit, here's my take on five things that I'm thinking about right now.

To continue reading, please, click here...