Empires have come and gone. Some lasted a blink of an eye and some millennia.
The question is, after 9/11, the rise of China and a great financial crisis, where does the U.S. empire stack up to its predecessors?
Well, it seems the one commonality they all have is the point when their might was undermined by sloth and greed. And entitlements: free bread and circuses. For some it took years, others centuries.
Here, in a compelling and unique address, is what Romulus Augustus, the last emperor of the Roman Empire, might say to President Obama now about how to keep America great.
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investing in treasury bonds
- DON’T BE SO ARROGANT, MR. PRESIDENT
- The Latest Obama Outrage: the Family's $100 Million Vacation
- If You're Investing in Bonds, Bill Gross Has a Message For You
- Paul Krugman May Be the World's Last Flat Earth Economist
- Why The Fiscal Cliff "Deal" is Spelled P-O-R-K
- Why Japan's "Lost Decades" Are Headed to America in 2016
- What the Last Roman Emperor Would Tell President Obama Today
- Obamanomics: What You Can Expect if President Obama Wins the Election
- Investing in Bonds: How to Build a Bond Ladder
- Iran is Now a Full-Blown Crisis, Stage Set for $200 Oil
- Paul Krugman is Dead Wrong: Debt Matters
- What the World Will Look Like if Occupy Wall Street Wins
- GDP Is a Lie – It’s Time for a New Measure of Economic Growth
- Why a U.S. Default Will Be a Good Thing
- The Debt-Ceiling Debate: Three Federal Tax Increases That Could Save the U.S. Economy
- How to Fix the U.S. Housing Market
Empires have come and gone. Some lasted a blink of an eye and some millennia.
How much do you spend on your summer vacation? American households usually spend about $1,200 per person on summer vacations, according to a recent American Express survey.
Presidents spend more on their vacations than you or I. They have to. Air Force One and security does cost more than loading the Honda and heading to the beach.
Here's how much some recent presidents spent our tax dollars on vacation.
Ronald Reagan spent most of his free time at his California ranch. Taxpayers covered the cost of approximately $8 million for presidential travel during Reagan's first six years in office, according to the Los Angeles Times. That amounts to $1.3 million a year.
For George Bush the cost of flying Air Force One to his Texas ranch was approximately $56,800 per trip, for each of the 180 trips according to Media Matters. President Bush spent Christmas during his two terms at the White House so his staff and secret service could spend the holiday with their family, according to Conservative Byte.
Now Obama plans to blow away all previous presidents' leisure travel costs on our dime with a better than Disney World extravaganza trip to Africa.
However Obama had to cancel the safari because of the need to fill the surrounding jungle with snipers to guard the president from wild animals!
If you're investing in bonds, Bill Gross just delivered you a serious warning.
Gross wrote in his February newsletter that the factors that contributed to last month's 1% loss for U.S. Treasuries - the biggest since March 2012 - aren't going away any time soon.
Total debt, which includes corporate, government and household, has expanded from $3 trillion in the 1970s to about $56 trillion today, explained Gross. He said that's left bond yields in the 1% - 2% range, instead of the historic level of 3% - 4%.
Gross said the staggering amount of debt in the United States has created a "credit supernova" that could crush the bond market as the global credit bubble "is running out of energy and time."
"Our credit-based financial markets and the economy it supports are levered, fragile and increasingly entropic," Gross wrote.
Gross warned that anyone investing in U.S. government bonds should evaluate their exposure.
And he isn't alone. Jim Rogers and Goldman Sachs have both been bearish on bonds.
"I'm short long-term government bonds," Rogers said Feb. 6 on Bloomberg Radio. "I plan to short more. That bull market, that's a bubble."
So what should bond investors who want yield do with their money?
Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Dr. Paul Krugman is at it again. He claimed earlier this week that fixing the deficit is important, but added that "doing it now would be disastrous." He also observed that the 10-year U.S. debt situation isn't really all that bad.
I don’t know how he can make that argument with a straight face.
For five years now, Dr. Krugman has argued that increasing U.S. government spending is vital to our nation's recovery. And for five years he's been dead wrong.
Dr. Krugman claims that "we" just haven't spent enough money... yet.
Here's why that makes him very dangerous...
Behind the scenes of the Fiscal Cliff debate, there was plenty of f-bombing, poison pilling, and grandstanding leading up to the deal - and that was before the members of Congress and the Senate actually got serious with their usual ultimatums, followed by earnest- looking sound bites and posturing. But what gets me really riled up is the amount of "pork" contained in the bill...
The hope is that Abe's promises of fresh stimulus, unlimited spending and placing a priority on domestic infrastructure will be the elixir that restores Japan's global muscle.
As a veteran global trader who actually lives in Japan part time each year, and who has for the last 20+ years, let me make a counterpoint with particular force - don't fall for it.
I've heard this mantra eight times since Japan's market collapsed in 1990 - each time a new stimulus plan was launched - and six times since 2006 as each of the six former "newly elected" Prime Ministers came to power.
The bottom line: The Nikkei is still down 73.89% from its December 29, 1989 peak. That means it's going to have to rebound a staggering 283% just to break even.
Now here's the thing. What's happening in Japan is not "someone else's" problem. Nor is it something you should gloss over.
In fact, the pain Japan continues to suffer should scare the hell out of you.
And here's why ...
The so-called "Lost Decade" that's now more than 20 years long in Japan is a portrait of precisely what's to come for us here in the United States.
Perhaps not for a few years yet, but it will happen just as we have already followed in Japan's footsteps with a "lost decade" of our own.
The parallels are staggering.
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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.
However, when the markets begin to handicap the race it will be about a lot more than just picking the eventual winner.
Instead, everything will revolve around the policies and consequences that come along with the winner.
The difference in approach promises to be stark with "Obamanomics" on the left and "Romneynomics" on the right.
Each one comes with its own set of consequences, though.
Today I'm going to look at "Obamanomics II," or the policies we will get if President Obama is re-elected.
But those on the left shouldn't despair...In my next piece, it's Romney's turn.
As for the horserace itself, it's too close to call, with neither side having much chance of winning a big victory.
President Obama Has the EdgeEven still at the moment, President Obama appears to be ahead. Apart from his modest lead in the polls, my former home state of Virginia appears to be swinging definitively toward the Democrats.
Yes, Republican Bob McDonnell did win the Virginia governorship handily in 2009, but he was a very good candidate. Moreover, turnout in gubernatorial elections is normally low. Thus I believe the latest polls showing Obama with a 7% lead in Virginia are accurate, and without Virginia Romney has a very difficult path to the presidency.
If we believe the presidential election will be close, then it follows that Congress and the Senate elections must be close, too.
If Obama wins in November, the most likely outcome must be that the Democrats will hang on to the Senate, while the Republican House majority survives, albeit much smaller than at present.
With this combination, the president's more extreme wishes (or those of his team) will be restrained. But as a newly re-elected figure he will nevertheless have more power to get what he wants than he does currently.
Whatever the congressional numbers may be, the president's first task will be to face the "fiscal cliff" of January 2013, when the Bush tax cuts and temporary payroll tax cuts expire and automatic spending "sequestration" comes into effect.
As the U.S. economy moderately strengthens, that means the bond bubble will begin to leak. Even darker, the bubble might just burst altogether.
The prospect of yet another bursting bubble makes investing in bonds difficult. The same is true for stocks.
After all, stocks tend to underperform when rates head north, while gold will certainly drop back once interest rates begin to rise ahead of inflation (which may take a considerable time.)
However, there is one strategy that enables you to prosper even in this tough environment.
It is called the bond ladder. It works like this...
Bond investing in a rising rate environment can be a terrific way to lose money.
If you buy short-term bonds, the yields may well be less than inflation, causing you to lose money in real terms.
And if you invest in long-term bonds, your immediate yield will generally be higher, but you run a large risk of losing part of your principal as rates rise and bond prices decline.
These losses can be a large multiple of your interest payments.
For example, if 30-year bond yields rise from their current 3.11% to 5.11% over the next year, your principal loss on a 30-year T-bond will be $30 on every $100, far more than the $3.11 you will have received in interest.
Of course, if you hold the bond for the next 29 years you will get your principal back at maturity.
But meanwhile you will have spent 30 years locked into an investment at interest rates below the market, and probably below the level of inflation. Not a wise choice.
Investing in Bonds: Building a Bond LadderThe problem of investing in bonds then is one of reinvestment. You really don't know at what rate you will be able to reinvest your money when the time comes.
This problem is solved by buying bonds in a range of maturities, from short to long, and reinvesting the proceeds of each investment as it comes due.
For example, you could invest 10% of your money in each Treasury bond maturity from 1 to 10 years.
Then when the first bond came due in year 1, you would reinvest the proceeds in a 10-year bond, so you would again have 10 equal bond investments coming due in years 2 through 11.
Here's a concrete example.
There are three reasons for this - all happening within the last week:
- First was Tehran's successful launch of a satellite, viewed by all in the region as being for military intelligence.
- Second, in his toughest talk to date, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei voiced defiance to Western sanctions and pledged open retaliation if they are instituted.
- Finally, last Thursday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta expressed concern that, if matters continue, Israel could attempt an air-strike takeout of Iranian nuclear facilities within a month. Iran has been frantically moving essential components of its nuclear program underground to withstand such an attack.
What's more, the EU decision to stop importing Iranian crude starting July 1 will cripple any chance Tehran has to combat escalating economic and political turmoil at home.
Yet Khamenei's defiant tone during his Friday prayer meeting speech indicates that Iran's religious leadership will not wait for the system to unravel.
And that is what makes this both a full-blown and an intensifying crisis.
Brinksmanship in the Straits of HormuzSo what's being done?
Washington has little - leverage, save its ability to temper an immediate escalation by Israel (leverage the U.S. can still apply, at least for the moment). It also has some indirect influence on what the E.U. does.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia also is a wild card. It will not tolerate a nuclear Iran.
And yes, there are ample indications that American and Israeli intelligence have concluded Iran will achieve the ability to develop nuclear weapons in the next 18 to 24 months.
Some elements of that process will be available earlier, but remember: A weapon is of little value unless it can be controlled and delivered. The logistical and infrastructure considerations need to be in place first.
Yet with such an inevitable conclusion staring them in the face, the West has decided to embark on a risky path...
The target here is not the nuclear project at all (over which there is less and less outside control). Instead, it has become about creating massive domestic instability to bring down a regime.
Now, this is not about ending the theocracy. With or without Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president or Ali Khamenei as supreme leader, Iran will remain a Shiite-dominated country. Religion decisively controls politics, and the clergy oversees the society.
The West is seeking a more moderate application of what will remain the Iranian cultural reality.
However, as the brinksmanship intensifies, so will the price of crude oil. Tehran, in this dangerous game of international chicken, really only has one card to play - the Strait of Hormuz.
There has been much misinformation circulated about the strait. Here are the facts.
On any given day, 18% to 20% of the world's crude oil passes through it.
According to the Energy Information Administration, the Strait's narrowest point is 21 miles wide; however, the width of the shipping lane in either direction is just two miles, cushioned by another two-mile buffer zone.
Of greater significance, though, is the fact that most of the world's current excess capacity is Saudi. (This is the oil that can be brought to market quickly to offset unusual demand spikes or cuts in supply elsewhere.) And, unfortunately, Saudi volume must find its way through the same little strait.
If we're unable to access the Saudi excess, that loss guarantees the global market will be out of balance. That will intensify the price upsurge - an upsurge that is already happening.
Now for the question I'm being asked several times a day in media interviews...
Just how bad can it get?
Not only is he off the reservation on this one, but he's completely fallen off his high horse.
In the real world, debt actually matters a lot.
In a Houston Chronicle opinion piece last week, Krugman, riding his horse - whose name might as well be Liberal Conscience - trampled conservatives under the guise of an economics lesson that derided "deficit-worriers" for wrongly seeing "America as being like a family that took out too large a mortgage, and will have a hard time making the monthly payments."
According to Krugman, that's a bad analogy and "the way our politicians think about debt is all wrong, and exaggerates the problem's size."
Decide for yourself. Either debt matters a lot, or not that much...
The World According to Paul KrugmanProfessor Krugman calls all the conversation in Washington about debt and deficits a "misplaced focus" and says all of the economic experts "on whom much of Congress relies have been repeatedly wrong about the short-run effects of budget deficits."
He derides the fears that deficits will cause interest rates to soar by pointing out that they haven't moved.
What he doesn't say is that they haven't moved because they're not free to move.
The fact is that the U.S. Federal Reserve has corralled the free market in interest rates by knocking short-term rates to almost zero through successive open market operations and extraordinary quantitative easing measures.
Mr. Krugman mocks those waiting for rates to rise and notes that while they wait "rates have dropped to historical lows."
Maybe what he doesn't realize is that the Fed's actions themselves have been nothing short of historical.
The crux of Mr. Krugman's supposition that debt doesn't matter much is based on his bashing of the popular analogy comparing America's debt problems to those of a mortgaged homeowner.
All of which Krugman claims is "a really bad analogy in at least two ways."
He says, "First, families have to pay back their debt. Governments don't - all they need to do is ensure that debt grows more slowly than their tax base."
"Second," he says, "an over-borrowed family owes the money to someone else; U.S. debt is, to a large extent, money we owe ourselves."
He goes on to say that the debt from World War II was never repaid and didn't make postwar America poorer.
In fact, the Professor points out, "the debt didn't prevent the postwar generation from experiencing the biggest rise in incomes and living standards in our nation's history."
Krugman is Flat Out WrongFirst off, the homeowner analogy is excellent--not irrelevant.
Mr. Krugman is wrong when he says that homeowners have to pay back their debt. The truth is they don't have to.
But what if it "succeeds?"
What would our investing landscape look like and what would we do about it?
I think that's an interesting question, especially since Occupy Wall Street has gained some traction, even taking on a global appeal. And more importantly, there are two other reasons the movement could succeed:
- First, our political system is broken and has deteriorated into little more than a fancy debating society.
- And second, the world's central bankers remain out of control; their bailouts are saving the irresponsible at the expense of the hardworking. Our regulators and Wall Street remain locked in an unholy alliance that has done very little to fix the underlying problems that have resulted from decades of bad fiscal policies, unsound monetary practices, and dysfunctional leadership.
A lot of people thought they would go away, too. But Tom Hayden and his collection of Students for a Democratic Society didn't. Nor did Abbie Hoffman, Bobby Seale, and others. Their passion and that of thousands who joined in eventually succeeded in changing the course of social consciousness.
OWS could too.
By shunning the hierarchy that is organized politics and corporate America, there is the sort of strength necessary to address the growing disparity and the vanishing opportunities that are the new economic reality for millions of Americans.
I, for one, am hopeful that OWS will find the leadership needed to clearly delineate its goals and mandate change on the strength of the raw unvarnished potential that is now driving it.
I am also hopeful that OWS will succeed in raising the social consciousness to the point that living within our means becomes both an economic and political reality.
But that's just me. You may have entirely different feelings. That we might not agree is irrelevant.
Since OWS began, I've been watching carefully and doing a lot of deep thinking about what things might look like if OWS "wins" - however you define the term.
So here's a look at some of the potential changes that could take place if the movement succeeds:
That's right. GDP is a financial ruse - the biggest of the past half-century. And it's time to move past it to another, more accurate measure of economic growth.
Keynesian economist Simon Kuznets designed GDP at the height of the New Deal era. Kuznets first revealed the measure in a report to Congress in 1934. GDP takes into account consumption, investment and government expenditure to create a measure of economic growth.
But the Keynesians employed some chicanery, or sleight-of-hand, to generate this statistic. A close look reveals the dirty little secret about GDP: It intentionally overplays the importance of government spending - and in doing so inflates the role that Washington plays in each of our lives.
And it's been doing this for 77 years ...
The Biggest Lie of the 20th CenturyGross domestic product is supposed to be a measure of all the goods and services produced here at home.
But there's a discrepancy.
You see, private-sector output is measured by the price people are prepared to pay for it. But government output is fudged: It's measured by its cost.
That means GDP increases any time the government spends money. It doesn't matter if that money is actually put to productive use or not - GDP rises nonetheless.
The bureaucrat devising regulations that damage business? His salary increases GDP. The $300 million Alaskan "bridge to nowhere" of a few years back? That was $300 million added to GDP. The jet-fighter project that costs billions, and is plagued by huge overruns that lead to its cancellation? Those billions add to GDP.
Even public-spending "stimulus" programs, however foolish, are always effective according to the GDP definition, because their cost is simply added to output.
It's obvious why big-government Keynesians would like this calculation: It substantiates their claim that government spending stimulates economic growth.
In the real world, however, this makes no sense. Indeed, none of the examples above actually add to economic welfare.
Don't misunderstand - some government output is very valuable. We could not exist in a free society without a court system that protects our property rights and a national defense that protects our borders. In most other cases, however, if government output were truly cost effective, the private sector would've already taken the initiative (and probably done so at lower cost and greater impact).
So how can you get an accurate measure of economic growth?
Arithmetically, there's a simple solution: You take Line 1, "Gross Domestic Product," in the Bureau of Economic Analysis' GDP Table and subtract from it Line 21, "Government Consumption Expenditures andGrossInvestment. "
That gives you a net number, which we can call "gross private product," or GPP. It's a measure of all the output produced by the private sector. In general, it will underestimate national "welfare" unless government is really bad. But it will give you a much better idea of the output the market economy is producing.
Indeed, looking at GPP's past performance helps to explain some things that GDP doesn't.
Keynesians like to proclaim that World War II got America out of the Great Depression: Thus, if you make stimulus big enough, it will solve economic problems.
This is the biggest lie of the 20th century.
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So if you're at all panicked by S&P's decision to downgrade the country's top-tier credit rating - and the resultant freefall in U.S. stock prices - brace yourself: It's going to get a lot worse before it gets better. But make no mistake, it will get better.
In fact, at this point, a U.S. default is the only conceivable remedy to our debt affliction.
Here's why ...
The Wrong RoadThe United States has been able to coast on its top -tier credit rating for far too long. The truth is, this country stopped being a AAA credit risk in early 2007.
That's when the Bush administration's excess spending and military forays into the Middle East sent us down the wrong road and ultimately drove the fiscal 2008 federal deficit to more than $400 billion. That's despite the fact that the economy was at the top of an economic boom at the time.
It's true that our fiscal position has grown substantially worse since then, but that's mainly because of the G reat R ecession of 2008-09.
Even if an imaginary amalgam of Calvin Coolidge and Bill Clinton had been in the White House since 2008, inheriting the overspending already built into the system, the federal deficit still would have reached $700 billion to $800 billion over the last few years.
Just the bailouts of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, General Motors Co. (NYSE: GM) and Chrysler would have added enough to the structural costs of recession to push the arithmetic off kilter.
The Bush administration's additional spending in 2008, U.S. President Barack Obama's $800 billion-plus of "stimulus," and the g rotesque addiction that Congress continues to have to subsidies for farmers, ethanol, and idiotic "green" energy projects have all made the position worse. But they only account for about half of the annual deficit.
Of course, while recent political decisions don't bear much responsibility for the current lousy U.S. position, our current crop of politicians have been - and will continue to be - ineffective in their attempts to emerge from it.
Although Republicans then said that tax hikes were "off the table," this statement is reminiscent of a toddler who threatens to hold his breath until he turns blue if you make him eat spinach.
Given that our elected leaders in Congress just can't seem to curb their spending addiction, the unpleasant reality is that some types of tax hikes are essentially inevitable.
Truth be told, I can show you three tax increases that should be enacted.
As a taxpayer, that statement will probably make you wince in anticipated pain.
But once I've made my case, I'm betting that the investor in you will agree that these three federal tax increases could save the U.S. economic recovery.
Let's take a look ...
Federal Tax Increases We Don't Want to SeeIf we ignore the debt-ceiling debate (and the Aug. 2 deadline for increasing the ceiling) for a minute, and just consider the health and welfare of the U.S. economy, we can see that there are a number of federal tax increases that would be highly counterproductive.
One example: boosting the corporate tax rate above 35%.
Except for Japan, the United States already has the highest corporate tax rate in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Corporations don't pay much tax because they are able to keep profits overseas in tax-free jurisdictions and employ leasing and other tax breaks. It would make much more sense to lower the corporate tax rate - perhaps to 30% - and close many of the loopholes so that the "yield" (what's actually collected) is the same or perhaps even a little higher.
Similarly, it makes no sense to increase the 15% tax on dividend income. Dividends are paid by corporations out of their after-tax income. The levy on dividends - paid by the company's shareholders - means those companies actually suffer from a "double-taxation" rate of about 47%.
This encourages companies to fool around with stock options, repurchase agreements and with overpriced acquisitions, thus ripping off ordinary shareholders and reducing the economy's efficiency.