The Insightful Trader

As US Sovereign Credit Weakens, So Does Dollar’s Standing

by on Dec.17, 2010, under Editorials

Moody’s will consider lowering its credit outlook on US Treasurys due to the Obama/ Republican tax cut deal. If the agency decides to lower the outlook, that will open the possibility of actually cutting the rating below Aaa within 12-18 months, the rating agency said December 12.

Not so long ago, Treasurys stood above all other credits, even other sovereign credits, as the closest thing to an absolutely, unquestionably, risk free asset. Even with all our well publicized troubles, it was shocking, if not surprising, to see Moody’s discuss the possibility of a US ratings downgrade publicly.

American Leadership Still in Denial Abut Nation’s Decline

Back in early 2009 I asked why anyone thought the United States could subsidize weak banks, stimulate the economy, and maintain the status of the dollar. Oh, and fight two foreign wars? Maybe we can’t, Moody’s now seems to be saying.

After writing that post I saw this article by former IMF economist Desmond Lachman (he’s now with AEI, the Republican-leaning think tank) who had seen several currency crises first-hand.  Lachman compared the denial we operate in to that of “Argentina in its worst moments.” He concluded by saying, “In the twilight of my career, when I am hopefully wiser than before, I have come to regret how the IMF and the U.S. Treasury all too often lectured leaders in emerging markets on how to ‘get their house in order’ — without the slightest thought that the United States might fare no better when facing a major economic crisis.” If the tax deal is any indication, we don’t seem to have gotten better at facing reality since Lachman’s article appeared.

Moreover, while investor types certainly read the recent Moody’s announcement,  the announcement didn’t seem to get all that much media play. More denial.

The Dollar’s Reserve Currency Status At Risk

We’re blowing up the dollar based international monetary system, which underpins the prosperity we used to take for granted, and Washington doesn’t seem to care. Someone needs to remember that with the dollar as a reserve currency, foreign central banks hold Treasurys as a reserve asset (like, say, gold) to back their own respective currencies. But as we cheapen our credit, we fail in our responsibility to maintain Treasurys as unimpeachable, gilt-edged instruments.

While any number of analysts say that US credit is safe because we have lower debt to GDP ratios than, say, Italy or Japan, that argument misses the point in my view. If you want to have a reserve currency, your debt has be so sound, no one thinks to worry about it. That soundness used to be part of the reason why foreign central banks hold trillions of dollars. As that soundness erodes at least some pronounced selling could make sense for managers of foreign official portfolios. Somewhat better than the other guy is not nearly good enough. And once we lose our pride of place, getting it back will take a very long time.

Some analysts speculate that our economic “leadership” is actually looking for an exit strategy where we let go the burden of carrying the reserve currency, and allow it to be replaced by a composite of several currencies, something like the IMF’s Special Drawing Rights. I have three problems with this strategy, if that is what Washington is trying to do.

First of all, in such a system, countries not all that friendly to us would likely get much more say in how things get done in the world – China, Russia, possibly some of the Persian Gulf states. Do we really want that? The second problem is that by its fiscal irresponsibility, our country would presumably be negotiating the new monetary world order from a position of weakness. No longer can we say, as the late Treasury Secretary John Connolly did, that “It’s our [current account] deficit, but it’s your problem.” The third problem is that if we continue to let things drift, we risk a crisis as Lachman points out. In which case we wouldn’t be “negotiating” very much, things would be taken from us with little given in return.

Meanwhile, China keeps doing bilateral trade deals with other countries in which trade gets settled in renminbi and the dollar gets bypassed altogether. In addition to reducing the dollar’s primacy in international trade, such arrangements reduce the needs of other countries to hold dollars, making official foreign sales of Treaurys more likely at some point.

One suspects that the troubles in the Euro zone are one reason Treasurys look good by comparison, at least for now. That, and the way dollar selling got overdone earlier this autumn. Eventually, though, Euroland will resolve its troubles (for better or for worse), and then we’ll get another turn in the spotlight. If foreigners then become less willing to hold dollars, how long will we be able to pay for imported oil (or microchips, for that matter) with dollars we print so casually?

No one knows. But taking the dollar’s unique status for granted would seem to be unwise.

Moody’s Sounds the Alarm and Still Doesn’t Seem to Get It

How ironic then, that Moody’s, while sounding its alarm on Treasury credit quality, remained blind to the implications of that alarm when it released its US economic forecast. (I know, the forecast was released on the 8th, four days before the announcement on the Treasury outlook.  But in a December 6 analysis Moody’s did raise the possibility that the tax cut deal could affect US creditworthiness – which was newsworthy enough in my view—even though as of that date Moody’s was not ready to warn about a change in outlook).

Moody’s economist Mark Zandi ran the numbers and decided that, yes the tax cuts will goose the economy – and even assure the kind of recovery we’ve been waiting for. But while his company’s credit analyst Stephen Hess had started to open America’s credit rating to question, Zandi didn’t think to tell us what would happen to our economy if other countries started to doubt our credit more seriously too.

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Fed Policies Set to Decimate Poor and Retirees

by on Dec.06, 2010, under Editorials

The Federal Reserve’s monetary policies have no doubt been a positive factor for the stock market. We’re barely a month into QE2 and already there is talk of unlimited QEs to come, if necessary to inflate the economy. But little has been said about about the ugly consequences for the poor, not just here, but worldwide and those retirees on a fixed income due to steep increases in commodity prices.

The past six months has seen one of the sharpest rises in commodity prices in history while at the same time interest rates have been pushed lower and lower so that even retirees with some savings, which most tend to invest conservatively in shorter term instruments, have seen their incomes drop considerably. Can any advisor tell their elderly clients that they must pull their money out of short term bonds and CDs, the traditional refuge, and put it into the Russell 2000? But even this assumes they have some discretionary money to invest. How about those who are locked into fixed payments via Social Security and perhaps a fixed pension payment?

The net result is rising commodity prices, while affecting everyone, has a particularly adverse effect on those on fixed incomes. According to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics the average consumer unit, spends 12.4% of their income for food shown very well here at Visualeconomics.  Now two important things to consider here – these results are based on prices over a year old and notice that the number is based on an average family income of nearly $63,000. Must be the banker salaries skewing the income numbers because I know plenty of families that exist on much less. The result is that even before the recent skyrocketing of commodity prices some families were already spending in excess of 25% pf their income on food.

Now let’s talk about about rising energy prices, which affect everything from home heating oil, elctricity cost, and perhaps most importantly gasoline prices.  Wholesale gasoline prices are up more than 25% since mid August. Not only does this have a more direct impact upon poorer and fixed income consumers, but also indirectly as these fuel costs are translated into higher costs for nearly everything farmed, produced and transported.

There is also the indirect costs to our economy of increased health care expenses since as food costs go up, those who can least afford it switch to less healthy foods, encouraged to do so by our government. In a recent Newsweek article it addresses the social divide we now have in this country based on food.

We haven’t even began to talk about the ramifications on the poorer economies of the world where often food can eat up 50% or more of their budget. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization is predicting the food import bill could surpass one trillion dollars for the poorer countries. Here is a FAO food price index chart showing the dramatic increase in food prices. If you remember, it wasn’t long ago that there were riots in many parts of the world over food. Guess what, the prices are higher now. Is it long before we start seeing them again and pictures on the nightly news of people starving?

Here in our country, the big debate is about extending tax cuts. What about the the most regressive tax of all, higher food and energy prices for the people who can least afford them. Who is lobbying for them?

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Obama’s Coming for Your Gold! Really?!

by on Sep.22, 2010, under Editorials

Some influential commentators say that as the Government gets more desperate to shore up its finances, it will confiscate private gold holdings. Just like  it did in 1933.

After all, the argument runs, the Feds already did this, so there is precedent. And if Fort Knox really is running on empty (Ron Paul among others wants an audit to find out), the US needs money even more badly than it is willing to admit.

So, why wouldn’t the Feds go for the gold? First, I don’t think Obama wants to; I’ll explain why below. More importantly, Americans just don’t own a lot of gold, and so there isn’t much for the Government to confiscate.

Do US Private Citizens Own Enough Gold to Bother Confiscating?

To see why their isn’t much bullion in private US hands (actual figures on US private gold ownership are hard to come by) just look at how different things are from the way they were in 1933. Until that time, the US gold coins circulated in the ordinary course of business.

Gold coins were used as money, along with silver coins, and yes, paper. But then the dollar really was good as gold. You could bring a $10 bill to the bank and emerge with a $10 gold piece if you cared to. When Roosevelt confiscated gold, he confiscated a form of money that lots of people used, every day. Of course there was plenty around.

These days money in the form of gold or silver is something Americans barely relate to. Some Americans bought precious metals during the price runup of the 1970s, but Paul Volcker seemingly restored the soundness of the dollar then, and gold fell off the investing public’s radar screen for a good twenty years.

Here’s another reason to suppose that if the Government came for citizens’ gold, it would have slim pickings. Gold dealers have reported to the press that they can get supply only from wholesale sources, such as official mints. Individuals are not selling it. And the few times that I have been in the market, I have heard the same thing. The dealers are getting buy orders from the public, but not offers to sell even at today’s record prices. So far, anyway.

Is this a reflection of low private holdings or a belief among bullion owners (as opposed to ETF holders, maybe) that metals are only heading higher? My guess, is some of both. So while ETFs like GLD, SGOL, and SLV have become popular, private bullion ownership has likely not become a mass phenomenon, yet.

Obama is Quite Investor Friendly

The second reason I don’t expect gold confiscation is that, despite his reputation, Obama governs as a moderate if not a Republican in drag. We’re all reading about how the current Republican tide has (or will) force President Obama to “move more to the center.” But in truth Obama already made his hard right turn, back in August 2008.

As Yves Smith graciously allowed me to note here, candidate Obama condoned the August 2008 amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). The FISA amendments made it easier for the government to monitor citizens’ electronic communications without a warrant and even granted Bush-era wiretappers retroactive immunity from prosecution. Having bolstered his “anti terrorist” credentials, Obama then signed on to the TARP bill in September 2008. You can’t be more business friendly –or at least, investor and big bank friendly — than that.

From that day forward it should have been obvious to all that Obama’s “change” slogan was but a talking point. He introduced Robert Rubin proteges Geithner and Summers  as key members of his economic team shortly after his election. Then he largely dismantled his enthusiastic army of volunteers, Obama for America (OFA). During his campaign Obama turned out OFA members at will in every state for phone banking, door to door canvassing, and donations. That power kept Republicans awake at night in 2008. Now, not so much.

Once in office Obama continued his moderate bent. His stimulus plan consisted mostly of Republican style tax cuts. Obama’s health plan will force citizens to buy insurance from private insurance companies – how “anti business” is that? And the rest of his Republican Lite Administration, is well, history. Also it’s worth noting how much Obama actually holds his liberal allies in contempt, seemingly not much less than the “real” Republicans do. Obama thinks he can forget key campaign promises (Exhibit A: the public option) because his supporters will vote for him rather than a Republican no matter what he does.

I can only assume that business keeps chanting the “Obama is a radical” mantra in order to keep Obama in line, to keep him from even thinking about “change,” and to gin up Republican campaign contributions. But is this man out to take your gold? Hardly. I don’t think his people even understand the stuff. Otherwise, why would they continue to debase the dollar, and ignore the message gold and silver prices are sending? Was anyone surprised that gold hit 1,298 after the Fed hinted at more possible QE September 21?

Advice for Investors

So I remain a long term dollar bear, and a bull on precious metals. If I’m right, it’s safe to store most of your bullion in the US, though maybe not all of that at a bank. The main worry here, is the outside chance that banks might close temporarily in the event of a run on the dollar. But in that case, you would still own your bullion. You would need, however, to have some real, non paper money in another safe place where you could get it in an emergency. Non-bank depositories such as First State of Delaware and Brink’s are now trying to fill such needs and might be worth a look. I have no connection with either.

Disclosures: Long GLD, SLV, gold bullion

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The Economy Won’t Recover Because It, Well, Can’t. Unless We Restructure It

by on Aug.10, 2010, under Editorials

You read it right. It can’t.

Of course there has been some growth in GDP over the past year.  All that government stimulus was going to goose the numbers at least a little, and inventory restocking started to look good for a couple of quarters. But if you look at the major components of GDP you can see why only the cheerleaders think that this supposed recovery is either powerful or self sustaining.

By definition, GDP is the sum of Consumption by individuals, Investment by businesses in plant, equipment, and inventory, Government spending, plus Exports minus Imports. Economists write this as Y = C+I+G+X-M.  Note to the math challenged: you have just read the only equation in this article.

Both Drivers of Consumption Are Weak

Since consumption accounts for 70% or so of GDP, let’s look at it first. Consumers fund consumption out of income and wealth. Income not spent, by definition, is saved. Obviously the wealth of most consumers has taken a hit and is not about to recover any time soon. The S&P is still down 29% from its 2007 high.

Moreover, for most people the family home is the principal asset and home prices have not really budged from the bottom at this point. I am far from the only person to have said that home prices can’t recover until we work off the huge “shadow inventory” of delinquent mortgages, homes in foreclosure, borrowers with adjustable rate mortgages that have not yet reset, and homes owned by people who would sell if a price rebound allowed them to take their money out.

On the income side, most people depend on jobs, and the employment outlook remains poor. Total non-farm employment has grown all of 600,000 since December 2009 low of 129.6 million. Which is worse than it looks, because we need something like 200,000 new jobs per month just to keep up with population growth.

Offshoring Has Weakened our Ability to Recover, When Compared with Previous Recessions

In my view off shoring is a major culprit here, and it really shows up in the last twenty years of employment numbers. About 22.7 million jobs got created during the Clinton Administration. Only 8 million got created under Bush and the recession erased all of those. And yes, a big portion of the jobs created under Bush were in residential construction, a sector not expected to lead us out of recovery this time. But my point is, less jobs got created under Bush than Clinton, largely because US corporations are less and less eager to hire Americans even when business turns up. No one sees that trend reversing unless the government steps in.

For example, you’d think that Apple’s (AAPL) dazzling new product introductions would create American jobs. Not a chance. As former Intel (INTC) chief Andy Grove says, Apple Computer (AAPL) has 25,000 US workers and ten times as many in other countries. While AAPL keeps key engineering, design, and management people here, the actual work of stamping out Macs, ipods, iphones, and ipads gets done elsewhere. Which is why US computer manufacturing employment sits at 166,000, lower than it was 35 years ago. In my view, this example illustrates the long-term downtrend in the job growth numbers as well as anything possibly could.

Business Investment is in Low Gear

So far we have shown that wealth and employment, the principal consumption drivers, remain weak for long-term, structural reasons. How does the rest of the economy look? Well, business investment in plant and equipment has not moved far from trough levels either. I suspect that the picture is the same here as it is for employment: Increased US demand for goods is less and less likely to result in new US plant and equipment. Think of all the new AAPL factories in Asia.

The other main component of investment is inventory. We have had our spurt in inventory investment, and I don’t see how it continues without a sustained increase in consumer demand. Therefore I don’t expect business spending (investment) to contribute much to GDP either.

Net Exports Actually Subtract from our GDP

As for trade: the first thing to remember is that we import about 12 million barrels of oil per day, a cool billion dollars’ worth. By the definition of GDP  we listed above, that billion (like all imports) gets subtracted from GDP, every single day. That won’t change unless we change our energy policy or a supply problem changes it for us.

The next thing to remember is, that the world trade system is set up so that the US imports far more than it exports, and many other countries depend heavily on US consumption. As former IMF consultant Richard Duncan points out in his book, The Dollar Crisis, the US current account deficit approximately equals the surpluses of all the other countries in the world. Again, this is a structural issue.

I think some change in that structure is inevitable, and it won’t be painless. But until and unless it does change, the international sector will continue to be a considerable net minus for GDP. We aren’t going to grow the economy by exporting to other countries, because on balance, they make a point of selling to us more than they buy from us.

Government Spending Can’t Make up for Private Sector Weakness

What about government spending? While the federal government is doing a fair amount of spending, state and local governments have had to cut back. They can’t print money the way the feds can, and so when state and local tax receipts fall, their spending falls too. Much of the stimulus program has in fact gone to help states and localities. Otherwise the states and localities would have let go  more firefighters, police, and teachers than they already have. So yes, federal spending makes a difference (Economists Alan Blinder and Mark Zandi say that the program prevented 2.7 million public and private job losses), but it is less stimulative than spending totals make it appear. What will the federal government do as the stimulus program winds down?

At some point the President will almost have to propose another stimulus plan. That begs at least three key questions: the program’s structure, whether Congress will enact it, and how it will be funded. I think that a wisely structured and funded stimulus would be helpful in the short to intermediate term, but wouldn’t it be nice if the Administration also tackled the long-term, structural problems? Not very likely, since the Geithner/ Summers team talks as if it faces a “normal” cyclical downturn.

The Fed Can’t Help Much Either

So much for the components of GDP,  on to the Fed. Like many others I expect that on August 10 the Fed will say that it will reinvest the proceeds of its maturing MBS rather than let its balance sheet shrink. But whether I am right or wrong, the Fed can no longer pump up the “real,” non-financial, economy by creating money. Banks don’t want to lend and few creditworthy customers want new loans.

Our economy is stuck and our government is clueless.

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Gold Falls as Traders Realize the Euro Will Live Another Day

by on Jul.08, 2010, under Editorials

The early July pullback in gold to 1190ish has at least some people scratching their heads. My take is this. Gold ran up $100 to its all-time high of $1,268.50 as worried Europeans dumped Euros and bought gold in May. Then the European Central Bank (ECB) signaled that it will protect the Euro, and its own existence, by any means necessary, see this, and this.

And so, the Euro dissolution trade is dead, at least for now. I suspect that traders who bought gold because they feared the end of the euro, are selling gold and buying euros back.

To understand what is going on, look at the ECB’s secondary market purchases of sovereign bonds, which began in early May. I think the purchases may be a decisive element in the measures that have preserved the Euro, at least for now, and also led to gold’s pullback.

Recall that in response to the PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain) debt crisis the EU put together its bailout package in April. The package had an impressive headline number, $1 trillion in assistance. Many traders thought the headline number was more impressive than the substance. The euro kept falling and gold kept screaming higher.

Then in early June, it became clear that the ECB’s purchases of sovereign bonds on the secondary market were part of a continuing program, not a one time event (h/t naked capitalism). The Euro bottomed on June 7. I don’t think this is coincidence. Furthermore, gold, which made an intermediate high of $1,254.50 on June 7, can now be seen to have struggled since then, before finally selling off on July 1.

I would argue, though, that while the ECB punished gold holders in the short-term, ECB bond purchases are a positive for gold in the long-term. The purchases smack of “money printing” and amount to a backdoor aid package for the financially weak PIIGS. They peg the debt of the issuing countries to artificially high prices, and might even allow PIIGS to issue new debt at artificially low rates – assuming the ECB stood ready to buy bonds to support their prices. All of this can only lead to further debasement of the Euro versus gold.

Moreover the rebound in the Euro corresponds to at least a possible topping in the dollar. It almost has to, given the Euro’s large weight in the Dollar Index. (Hopefully this dip in the dollar will not bring to the fore, my longterm concerns about the dollar.) Some analysts suspect the Euro’s bounce mean that the risk trade is back on, and maybe it is for at least a little bit, given this week’s corresponding bounce in stocks.

The European bank stress tests also demonstrate Europe’s determination to save the Euro by propping up both the banks and financially weak PIIGS. The guidelines say that European banks may value Spanish Government bonds at 97% of par, and Greek bonds at 87%. That way the banks can, well, lie about the value of these assets and artificially prop up their equity. Of course, the banks will say that if the bonds will pay off at par (and if the EC can make that happen, they will) who needs to mark the bonds to market?

Allowing Europe’s banks to value the weak sovereign debt at such generous numbers, will also provide incentives for the banks to keep holding these bonds rather than dump them. Therefore the stress test guidelines provide a backdoor subsidy for the debt issuing countries as it would help keep their borrowing rates down. Of course, no one believes that these bonds are worth anywhere near that much.

But, in addition to the subsidy for issuing countries, the stress test guidelines matter because they indicate that Europe is following the US playbook on stress tests and bank bailouts. Last year, US regulators announced stress tests for US banks that would supposedly show that the banks would stay “solvent” under various economic scenarios.

As most readers know, these tests were ludicrously easy. Not many analysts thought that the major banks (with the possible exception of Wells Fargo, WFC) were viable at the time – not without government assistance, at least. But the stress tests provided a fig leaf to justify government help through TARP, the alphabet soup of Fed lending programs, and more lenient accounting treatments for banks’ securities holdings.

The change in bank accounting also marked the US stock market bottom in March 2009. Clearly the Europeans hope that European bank bailouts will make the financial markets happy as well. And in the short to medium term, if the US experience is any guide, the bailouts may enable the Euro bottom to hold (at least when measured against other paper currencies) longer than many people think. Even if, as in the US, European banks will continue to hold their fair share of underwater assets. In other words, short-term measures that kick the can down the road, can have important short-term results, even if they don’t solve long-term problems.

The European moves to bail out their banks tell you something else: not to worry about those reports that the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), is lending to commercial banks and taking gold as security, under repurchase agreements. Some gold traders seemed to fear that if the banks failed to make good on these loans, the BIS would dump the gold collateral on the market. My response: the EU will not let a big European bank fail anytime soon; that’s the whole point of their stress test charade. And if big European banks did start going down, I suspect the demand for gold would soar.

So what’s an investor to do? Chartists note that the June top was not much higher than the previous highs in December 2009, and point to what looks like a double top.  In response to this and the July 1 gold selloffs, gold timing newsletters turned understandably bearish. Of course, the Hulbert Letter holds up this pessimistic timer consensus as a contrarian indicator, and calls it a buy signal (h/t Daily Crux). Still, if you are a long gold, the chart has to concern you.

My thinking is,  if you are a trader and you don’t like gold’s double top (not to mention its closes below the 50 day moving average), why not lighten up? The chart doesn’t tell me that gold is going higher anytime soon. But I wouldn’t sell a core position, because the European move only underscores the long-term weakness of paper money around the world.

Disclosure: long GLD, SGOL

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by on May.23, 2010, under Editorials

A number of investment newsletter writers would like the peak oil theory to go away. As their argument runs, the worldwide annual rate of oil production will not peak because, higher prices will induce the invention of enhanced technologies and bring forth new oil supplies.  Some of these folks even seem to believe that higher oil prices will allow US oil production to rebound, though no one comes out and states that.

Before I deal with this “cornucopian” argument, kindly let me review my understanding of what peak oil is. The Shell Oil geologist M. King Hubbert predicted in 1956 that US onshore oil production would peak in 1970, because he believed that annual oil production in a given region follows a bell curve over time. Annual production would expand, peak, and then eventually decline. “Hubbert’s Law” says that when about half of a reserve’s original oil in place has been lifted, annual production rates  fall.

As it happened, US oil production peaked at 9.6 million barrels per day in 1970, precisely when Hubbert said it would, and except for the temporary bounce in the early 1980s from  Prudhoe Bay , it has been falling ever since. In 2008 we produced 4.95 million barrels per day, the first dip below the 5 million mark. Here are the figures:

U.S. Field Production of Crude Oil(Thousand Barrels per Day)
Decade Year-0 Year-1 Year-2 Year-3 Year-4 Year-5 Year-6 Year-7 Year-8 Year-9
1850’s 0
1860’s 1 6 8 7 6 7 10 9 10 12
1870’s 14 14 17 24 30 33 25 37 42 55
1880’s 72 76 83 64 66 60 77 77 75 96
1890’s 126 149 138 133 135 145 167 166 152 156
1900’s 174 190 243 275 320 369 347 455 488 502
1910’s 574 604 609 681 728 770 822 919 920 1,037
1920’s 1,210 1,294 1,527 2,007 1,951 1,700 2,112 2,469 2,463 2,760
1930’s 2,460 2,332 2,145 2,481 2,488 2,723 3,001 3,500 3,324 3,464
1940’s 4,107 3,847 3,796 4,125 4,584 4,695 4,749 5,088 5,520 5,046
1950’s 5,407 6,158 6,256 6,458 6,342 6,807 7,151 7,170 6,710 7,054
1960’s 7,035 7,183 7,332 7,542 7,614 7,804 8,295 8,810 9,096 9,238
1970’s 9,637 9,463 9,441 9,208 8,774 8,375 8,132 8,245 8,707 8,552
1980’s 8,597 8,572 8,649 8,688 8,879 8,971 8,680 8,349 8,140 7,613
1990’s 7,355 7,417 7,171 6,847 6,662 6,560 6,465 6,452 6,252 5,881
2000’s 5,822 5,801 5,746 5,681 5,419 5,178 5,102 5,064 4,950

And note well, the crude oil price in 197o was about $1.35 per barrel, depending on the grade you pick. The current price is  over fifty times higher — okay, call it “only” 10 times higher if you adjust for inflation. Despite the higher prices US production has decreased  year after year almost without  relief. I haven’t  heard the cornucopians explain that.

Of course there will always be some oil left in the ground. Hubbert did not say that US or worldwide production would go to zero any time soon. He simply said that once the peak was passed it would no longer be possible to produce at the same annual rate.

After Hubbert succeeded in forecasting the US peak, other geologists tried to forecast the worldwide production decline curve.  There is a range of predictions regarding the date when worldwide production will peak. Some experts like Princeton professor Kenneth Deffeyes even say we’ve already peaked. But within the universe of respected energy specialists, nearly all agree that world production will peak at some point (sounds obvious, doesn’t it?). Even Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA), which is known for optimistic production forecasts, agrees with this statement. They just predict a later peak than most others do: around 2040.  It’s hard to be a more sanguine than CERA but  the cornucopians do try.

The cornucopian argument has two glaring weaknesses. First, Mother Nature doesn’t care how much money we humans pay one another for oil. The oil that is in the ground now is the amount we get to enjoy. Higher prices make it economic to drill for oil in remoter regions and to develop new extraction methods but they don’t change the amount of oil in place.

The second weakness is a bit more subtle. Though peak oil is a geological theory, it also follows from a bedrock principle of economics, the law of diminishing returns. That principle is associated with  nineteenth century economist David Ricardo.

Ricardo declared that in agriculture, there were diminishing returns to cultivation. Farmers would first till the most fertile land, and as population grew farmers would begin working less productive land, until farming the most marginal acreage became uneconomic. The crop yields wouldn’t justify the effort needed to till such parcels, even if the farmer added additional labor, fertilizer, or irrigation.

Diminishing returns show up in oil just the way they do in agriculture. A concept called the Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI) illustrates the diminishing returns to oil exploration effort through the history of the oil industry.  EROEI measures the energy content of an oilfield divided by the energy needed to get the oil.

In the 1930s, US oil production is now estimated to have yielded an EROEI of about 100; the number dropped to 30-ish in 1970 and to the range of 11-18 by the year 2000. Think about what happened when Colonel Drake drilled the first oil well in Pennsylvania,  or when Chevron (CVX) made its early Saudi Arabia discoveries. All they had to do was stick a shallow well in the ground and oil flowed freely to the surface. You’d expect a very high yield on prolific reserves that demand next to no effort to get.

As one might expect, prospectors found the easy oil first, and as one drills deeper, EROEI falls. But even in the life of what was once an easy oil field EROEI tends to fall over time. As an oil field  matures, natural pressure falls until oil no longer flows to the surface without a push. Oil companies extend the life of oilfields by injecting water or carbon dioxide to force oil toward the well bore. Another enhanced oil recovery (EOR) technique is directional drilling, where the angle of the well bore  is set to maximize the length of pipe that has direct contact with the layer of oil bearing rock being tapped.

EOR requires additional energy expenditure and so it  reduces EROEI. This increased energy expenditure increases the denominator in the oilfield’s EROEI ratio. Eventually the oilfield owner can get nothing more out of the reservoir. He has passed the point of diminishing returns like Ricardo’s farmer.

Higher prices have made resources such as the tar sands of Canada and Venezuela economic to exploit even though their EROEI is only about 5, quite a comedown from Saudi Arabia or East Texas in their glory days. Tar sands deposits are not even oilfields, at least as one normally thinks of oilfields. Typically they are more  like strip mines, where companies like Suncor (SU) and the Canadian Oil Sands Trust (COSWF) dig up a solid called bitumen. They load the bitumen into special, giant trucks, crush the big pieces into small pieces, separate out the sand and debris, and then run the separated product through an “upgrader.” The early stage processing requires substantial inputs of water and heat. Only then can the crude be refined into products such as gasoline, heating oil, and jet fuel.

The Horizon drilling rig and its tragic explosion  illustrate diminishing returns in another way. One needs elaborate and expensive equipment to drill for oil that is miles below a seabed that is itself thousands of feet below the ocean’s surface. These rigs take lots of energy and steel to make. Horizon even needed to expend energy by continuously running powerful thrusters to keep it in position. It wasn’t feasible to anchor the rig to the ocean floor in that depth of water. And in difficult locations like this, as we have been reminded, workers die when things go really wrong. So while higher prices make deepwater drilling feasible, one gets less usable energy per unit of effort than from conventional on shore oilfields, especially when all costs are factored in.  Ricardo would understand all too well.

No one doubts that higher prices promote EOR, and EOR extends the life of aging oilfields. EOR also enables midsized outfits like Denbury Resources (DNR) to work over largely depleted fields that the oil majors no longer care to bother with. I’ll also grant that higher prices make that business economic. Nor does anyone doubt that higher oil prices encourage people to substitute coal or gas for oil, to increase energy efficiency,  and develop new energy sources.

But if you want to say that US oil production has not peaked,  you have to go really far out on a limb. You have to argue that we will return to, and surpass, the halcyon days when the US could produce ten million barrels per day. Good luck selling that story.

So in my view, the total oil supply is not only finite, it gets harder to obtain with each passing year. And that’s why I continue to like oil companies with long lived reserves that are also located in poltically stable countries.  I particularly like the major players in Canada’s tar sands; of course I liked them better at May 2009 prices and said so at the time,  here. But if you have to own some stocks, these are the kinds of companies that will do well long term even if the market’s correction deepens. If stocks recover from last week’s turbulence and keep going up, so much the better.

Dislosure: Long SU


Sideline Cash: What is it and Where Will It Go

by on Apr.12, 2010, under Editorials

If you watch CNBC, you often hear commentators say that the small investor sits on the sidelines with oodles of cash in his money funds, and he is feeling left behind in this rally. Then you hear, either that this cash will fuel the next leg up, or, when the public gets in, that will be time to sell, because the little guy is always wrong.

And skeptical as I may be, the bulls are getting some support for this argument. According to the current Barron’s, money recently started flowing into equity mutual funds, about a year into the bull run. Not much, only about $11 billion over the last eight weeks, but the shift in direction might matter, especially with the Dow holding 11,000 today. Just to be clear, I’m not expressing an opinion on market direction here, only about the cash-on-sidelines theory itself.

First, as a matter of simple accounting (or arithmetic), there never was and never will be cash on the sidelines in the way many people discuss it. Think about this: if I buy stock with cash, the seller now has this cash. Is HE now holding cash on the “sidelines?” In any case, the cash still exists, the owner of it changed. Thereafter if the investor who sold the stock to me, buys other stocks with it, then a third party will have the cash. And so on.

Secondly, I’m not sure that the small investor’s target asset allocation is as heavily weighted toward stocks as it used to be. In other words, a smaller maximum percentage of investors’ money fund balances will go to stocks than in the past; more assets will be reserved for safety.  In this video (h/t Barry Ritholtz) David Rosenberg states that for nearly all of this rally, cash had been not only standing pat, but flowing OUT of equities. One key reason is demographic. As we baby boomers get older, our risk tolerance naturally decreases. Our appetite for stocks goes down and our appetite for fixed income goes up, because we have a shorter time horizon, with less time to make up for losses than we did when we were younger. And so advisors who specialize in asset allocation (which is most of them, since the old fashioned brokers who knew something about stockpicking are long gone) just about have to tell many of their clients to re-balance, out of equities.

These facts rest against a well-known backdrop, that stocks have had two bad crashes in the last decade, and the SPX is trading about 200 points lower than it did ten years ago in April 2000. Buying and holding stock index funds has been a losing long-term strategy for most investors who are active now, but bonds have been in a VERY long bull market that dates from the early Eighties. In other words, stocks have burned you and bonds haven’t. The “easy” trade is to buy the asset that has treated you well for as long as you can remember. That’s Treasurys. (I didn’t say, buying T-bonds is the right trade, but we’ll get to that.)

Furthermore it would seem that institutions are already committed to stocks. In this chart it seems like the institutional investors – at least those who run mutual funds –don’t have much more ammunition to throw into equities. Of course new fund inflows, presumably from individuals, could change this.  And as long as companies can benefit by slashing costs without running out of customers for their goods, stock buybacks can help goose stock prices too.

Of course there is one caveat regarding mutual fund cash percentages. Funds always have to have some cash on hand to satisfy redemptions. And if the market pushes up the value of the fund’s portfolio, and cash measured in dollars stays constant, the portfolio’s cash percentage falls. So this could be part of the reason for current low percentage levels of mutual fund cash.

But back to the video, which recorded a debate between Rosenberg and bond bear James Grant. Rosenberg said that portfolio rebalancing will support demand for bonds, and he also says that the Japanese experience (banking crisis, bank bailouts, economic stagnation, and easy ability for the government to borrow huge amounts) bodes well for the Treasury getting its bonds sold even the unprecedented amounts it now seeks.

Grant took the other side (as I did here):  Japan is a poor analogy for us, because it is an export powerhouse. With a large current account surplus, the Japan of the “Lost Decade” didn’t need the kind of international help we do, to get bonds sold. Japan’s GDP and the Nikkei average stagnated in the 1990s but its world-class exporters forged ahead as if nothing had happened (to pick the auto industry, for example, look at Nissan, Honda, and Toyota).

Having said all that, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Fed were thinking the same way as Rosenberg. On the one hand, by keeping rates low, the Fed is forcing institutions out on the risk curve, and this pushed stocks up. But on the other, the Fed could be thinking that fund flows from individual savers will support bonds; the Euromess, which for the moment makes America look good by comparison, could amplify those flows. The Fed and the Treasury can have their cake and eat it, or so that argument would run. I’d be more willing to buy the argument if the Treasury didn’t need to raise trillions of dollars of fresh cash annually to fund deficit spending, while additionally rolling over the $4.5 trillion or so  in debt that will mature over the next four years. Is there that much investable money in the world, or will the Fed have to print it? Rosenberg bets that there is, but I am reluctant to take the Japan analogy as far as he does.

Sooner or later, bond rates almost have to go up (do they really have much room to go down?). Assuming Treasury can raise its funds, it will almost certainly have to begin paying more for them in the next several years. Some of us remember that before the secular decline in rates we have enjoyed since 1981, there was a secular increase in rates that lasted  from 1941 to 1981. By the end of that bond bear market people called bonds “certificates of confiscation.” I would expect at least some kind of replay eventually.

As far as Treasurys go, I would short TLT if it gets close to resistance at 91. A trader would want to stop out somewhere above 92.50  but I think  it’s worth trying to hold longer term, if you can stand the news driven zigs and zags which are sure to keep coming.

Disclosures: Long TBT, short TLT

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Higher Move in Interest Rates Not Necessarily Bad for Market

by on Mar.29, 2010, under Market Commentary

The stock market, as we all know, has made one of its quickest and largest recoveries ever in history, over the past year. This move has been aided in great part, by an abundance of cheap money. Since the Fed and the Treasury have turned on the spigots, standing in front of this uptrend in hopes of a reversal back to newer and lower lows, has been an exercise in futility.

As we close in on the important 62% Fib level on the S&P, as well as several key resistance areas on the DJI, we are starting to see signs that the market has become over bought in the near term from a technical perspective. After a brief respite from it’s climb in January, the market has resumed it’s recovery with a vengeance, now having gone nearly 30 days without even a 1% pullback, much less a more serious correction. And it has done this with declining volume throughout the entire move up for the past year. So caution has become the new watchword as traders and investors wait for the so-far, never coming pullback.

The end result is you have three groups of participants in the game now: those who bought into the move in the early phase and are extremely happy, those who have missed a large part of the move up are but are now eagerly awaiting a pullback so that they can get into the game and thirdly, those who think the whole move up is simply a correction in a major new downtrend and can’t wait to pounce once selling begins, hopefully soon, since some are probably already underwater on short positions. Of these three groups, 2 of the 3 are eagerly looking for topping signs or if not finding many lately, reasons why it should be topping soon.

One of the more prevalent reasons I’ve heard lately, besides certain overbought indicators, has been the recent climb in interest rates to a small degree and the expected greater increase as governments all over the world, but especially ours, have a lot of refinancing to do, as well as plenty of new, in our case. So the pervasive argument is that as rates move higher, this will make stocks less attractive. There is no doubt  that we could be close to breaking a 20-30 year general down trend in interest rates, but I think a look at the charts below may surprise you.

US Treasury 20 Year

Click Here for a larger image

As you can see in the chart above I’ve highlighted the areas where the 20 year rates were moving up. You can also see the SPX in the top of the chart and it’s performance while rates were moving up. I can see no correlation in the past 20 years that rising rates had a negative effect on the market. Now obviously at some point, if we reached rates like in the late 70s and early 80s with rates above 10%, then it may become a different story.

Below we have similar results looking at yields on the 10yr notes.

US Treasury 10 year

Click Here for larger image

The net result that  is that those thinking a move up in rates will be  the trigger for a pullback they’ve been looking for may be disappointed. We may certainly get a correction soon, but I don’t believe it will be because of interest rates. Now there are always those that may argue that traditionally when rates move up it’s because the economy is growing.  Therefore it’s normal that the market moves up then also but that this time it’s for a different reason that rates are moving up, more supply than demand. I think we’ll know soon enough.

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NY Times blogger William Cohan Hearts Poor, Abused Goldman Sachs

by on Mar.07, 2010, under Editorials

In a story that smells awfully like a press agent’s plant, New York Times blogger William Cohan apparently decided it’s time to rehabilitate Robert Freeman. Once the partner in charge of Goldman Sachs’s (GS) risk arbitrage department, Freeman pleaded guilty to one count of mail fraud (the case was actually about insider trading) and served four months’ jail time in 1990.

Cohan tries to prove that Freeman was the victim of a prosecutorial “witch hunt.” Is he also trying to say that public opinion is also tarring GS unfairly now? Hard to say, but why else would anyone bring up Freeman of all people, twenty years after the fact?

No one doubts that Rudolph Giuliani, then a crusading US Attorney, played hardball and made some crucial errors in going after white collar crime on Wall Street. Nevertheless, Freeman admitted to breaking the law on insider trading, and the case seemed pretty clear.

Therefore I don’t see how Cohan can call Freeman’s prosecution a “witch hunt.” The more accurate metaphor would be a “fishing expedition” that expanded perhaps too far afield from its central targets: uber risk arbitrageur Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken, the wildly successful junk bond promoter at Drexel Burnham Lambert. Freeman proved to be unlucky but not exactly innocent. A guilty bystander, as it were.

Here are the facts that matter, whether Cohan likes it or not:

As Cohan states, risk arbs in those days did a great deal of research on the phone, trying to ascertain the latest news, the small details, the so called “color” of the deal related stocks they were trading. New color could cause a significant move in the stock, and sometimes provided clues that researchers could assemble into a mosaic of intelligence on whether deals would close.  On the other hand, arbs could take things only so far: SEC rule 10b-5, forbids trading on “material, non public information.”

In the case that ended his GS career, Freeman bought shares of Beatrice Foods, which Kohlberg, Kravis, Roberts (KKR) was in process of taking private in 1986. After Freeman bought, rumors leaked that the deal was not working out. So Freeman did his job and hit the phones to learn what he could. He spoke with Bernard “Bunny” Lasker, a former NYSE chairman, who suspected the rumors were true. Freeman cut his stake in Beatrice. Then Freeman talked to Marty Siegel, an investment banker who represented KKR. (Siegel eventually went to jail for selling inside information to Boesky.)

Siegel confirmed that the Beatrice deal was in trouble, with the now classic line, “Your Bunny has a good nose.” At which point, Freeman sold his Beatrice call options (and some more of his stock, too depending on which account you read), in clear violation of the law. When KKR announced it was reducing the cash portion of its offer for Beatrice, the share price fell. Freeman may have had reason to fear for the option position: if the calls were short dated and near or out of the money, they might have gone worthless on the news.

Wall Street firms have elaborate controls to prevent trading on inside information when they have it. I suspect GS procedure would have required Freeman to tell the firm’s lawyers about his chat with Siegel, at which point GS would likely have considered itself to be “restricted” in its trading of Beatrice shares until the information became public. (If any readers worked at GS then you are welcome to weigh in about this.)

Furthermore, key court precedents established that trading on inside information is forbidden when that information was obtained in a “breach of duty.” That’s common knowledge among Wall Street professionals.  In this case, Siegel, a banker who represented KKR, betrayed KKR’s confidence by passing privileged information to Freeman. As clear a case of a breach as you can find. And yes, Cohan omits this issue from his article.

What Freeman did was illegal and really, really stupid. Yet notwithstanding all this, Cohan says that Freeman deserves a presidential pardon. Yeah, right.

One of Cohan’s whoppers – and this one destroys the credibility of his whole article – has to do with his treatment of Marty Siegel – and by extension, Giuliani. Cohan insinuates that Siegel was an entirely unreliable witness and that Giuliani went out and arrested all the subjects of his insider trading investigations, including Freeman, based on Siegel’s say-so, without corroboration.  Was Giuliani really that foolish? Well, no, not really.

Along with Drexel banker Dennis Levine, Siegel turned state’s evidence on Ivan Boesky, who was certainly dirty. Boesky in turn helped finger Milken (a prosecution that leaves me uncomfortable to this day) and many others. The Boesky and Milken cases were among the biggest white collar prosecutions of the decade, front page news that went far beyond the world of finance. After winning these cases Giuliani ran for Mayor of New York and won. Incredibly, Cohan omitted any mention of Boesky or Milken.

In other words, Cohan failed to tell his readers that Siegel had hit pure gold for Giuliani. Giuliani had every reason to take Siegel seriously.

Having said that, Cohan correctly judged that Giuliani overreached. Giuliani blundered badly by failing to corroborate Siegel’s assertions sufficiently before arresting Tim Tabor and Richard Wigton, both of Kidder Peabody, and then Freeman. Neither Tabor nor Wigton went to trial – the cases fell apart before that – but neither man worked on Wall Street again. Giuliani had ruined them.

So Cohan may well be right when he says that  Giuliani did everything he could to nail Freeman once the Tabor and Wigton cases proved weak. A contemporaneous Times editorial concurred, saying that Freeman was “abused.” But odious as these facts are, they don’t erase what Freeman did.

Cohan also tries to dance around Freeman’s guilt by saying that Freeman got caught only because his subordinate was given immunity in exchange for testifying against Freeman. But that’s standard procedure in any investigation: prosecutors threaten little fish with stiff sentences to get evidence against big fish. More cogently Cohan notes that several other allegations against Freeman proved false. Which may be why even the judge who sentenced Freeman termed him, “basically decent.”

Here’s an intriguing nugget Cohan noted but didn’t pursue. Apparently Freeman’s position limit was $50 million. Yes, quaint as it looks now GS partners really cared about sums that size back then, especially when all of them were potentially liable for the firm’s mistakes. Yet Freeman risked $66 million on Beatrice including his stock and options positions. Did Freeman’s partners know of the limit violation before the investigation?

If not, one could understand how Freeman might have been driven to sell Beatrice options before the bad news hit the wires: fear that his partners would see that Freeman’s excessive risk taking brought with it excessive losses, which is exactly what position limits are designed to prevent. Or maybe Freeman got prior permission to exceed the limit, but wanted to avoid embarrassment when his big bet went bad. Either way, the risk of an insider trading scandal was greater than that of a trading loss, but even very smart traders make mistakes under pressure.

GS lawyers defended Freeman, but then, according to Cohan, Freeman copped his plea to avoid further anguish for his family when Giuliani threatened to bring racketeering charges. So Freeman served only four months; Judge Pierre Leval suspended the rest of the one year sentence and fine him $1 million. The Times actually approved of that sentence when it came down, saying that Freeman deserved “a taste of prison” but also citing Giuliani’s “outrageous tactics.” My sentiments exactly, but that was back in the day when the Times was more able to call things as it saw them.

As for Goldman, it came up smelling like a rose. Giuliani never brought charges against the firm, and so it was spared the fate Giuliani had visited on Drexel Burnham. But in hindsight it would likely not have gone any other way.

GS management committee member Robert Rubin, also Freeman’s boss and mentor, moved up to vice chairman in 1987 during the Freeman investigation (in 1990 he became the firm’s co-head) and Rubin never paid for any of the things that went wrong on his watch. These would include the insider trading at GS, the financial deregulation Rubin championed as Treasury Secretary,  and the de facto bankruptcy at Citigroup (C) where Rubin was vice chairman. Just a thought.

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Justices Enrich Admen and Kill Bank Tax

by on Jan.26, 2010, under Editorials

No, the Supreme Court hasn’t ruled lately on these two issues to my knowledge, at least not directly. But unless you’ve been living in a cave, you know that last Thursday, the 21st, the Court struck down longstanding restrictions on corporations’ political campaign spending. The headline highlights some likely results.

The Citizens United decision allows corporate (and union) donors to pay for ads that will run within 30 days of a Presidential primary or 60 days of a general election. Previously such spending was barred by the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law.

As political spending increases, its recipients in old media will benefit. I’ll tell you which companies are best positioned, but it’s too early to say just how much more they can make.

Some restrictions on campaign spending remain. Corporations cannot donate directly to candidates, though they can donate to issue oriented political action committees (PACs) that are at least nominally independent of candidates and their parties. Also, the sources of a PAC’s funding have to be disclosed.

A few numbers illustrate the new potential for political ad spending. A combined total of $5.3 billion was spent for the Congressional and Presidential elections of 2008. By way of contrast, Exxon (XOM) earned $45.2 billion in 2008 on that year’s record oil prices, and $13.2 billion for the first nine months of 2009. Goldman Sachs (GS) will pay out $16.2 billion for wages and salaries, or $498,000 per employee, and still record $13.4 billion in profit for 2009 after making these payouts. My point is, many major corporations can afford to break expenditure records on any given race if they care to.

And many of them have reason to care. For example, if  five votes on a congressional committee stand between you and, say, an arcane tax law change that would yield $40 million annually, what’s $15 million of campaign spending?  One heck of a good investment. Or, take environmental law. To pick an outsize but obvious hypothetical, even $100 million in campaign funds would be chump change for, say,  Chevron (CVX), if in return it got to extract a billion barrels of oil in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge and earn profits, of, say, $10 per barrel.

But who needs hypotheticals? Last week the President proposed a tax on repurchase agreements, a form of collateralized lending used by large financial institutions. He also proposed bank size limits and talked about preventing banks from using federally insured deposits to finance speculative trading, the so called “Volcker rule.”

Citizens United gave banks new weapons to fight proposals like these. If, come election time, a tough bank regulation bill gets close to enactment (though it’s not likely to get too close, in my view), look for anti-regulatory commercials. They’ll be brought to you by PACs with names like “Depositors for a Sound Banking System.”

Having said all that there are two reasons why I could be wrong about the increase in campaign spending I expect. First,  interest groups already know how to exert influence while working within the pre Citizens United rules. Therefore, it’s possible that the new decision won’t change much.

Secondly, politicians understand the new, post Citizens United campaign economics and many of them will begin to censor themselves, even more than they already do. Expect even some of the bravest to pander to the money that talks on key issues, rather than face deep pocketed opposition. As former Treasury Secretary Paulson once said, “If you’ve got a bazooka and people know you’ve got it, you may not have to take it out.”

So, how to play this? Ad agencies and broadcasters should expect a noticeable, recurring revenue increase during election cycles. I don’t know how anyone could predict exactly how large a bump they will get, and what effect that bump will have on earnings per share, because we are in new territory here. If this type of play interests you, look for pure media companies with heavy domestic exposure and put them on a watchlist.

CBS (ticker symbol, also CBS) would be an obvious beneficiary of this trend; the other networks are part of large conglomerates. Therefore new political ad revenue at those broadcasters might not have much effect on parent company net income. If you want to stretch a point, however, you might also look at News Corporation (NWS), since its Fox News division contributes a disproportionate share of profits to NWS.

Among ad agencies, billboard owner Lamar Advertising (LAMR) would seem to be among the purest domestic plays that could benefit from increased political ads, but be forewarned, it is losing money due to the recession and has a leveraged balance sheet. Two ad majors, Interpublic Group (IPG) and Omnicom (OMC) would seem to be safer bets, but both of them generate around half of their revenues from abroad. IPG has more domestic exposure than OMC.

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