Fire Cloud...
An irregular marking on the exterior of Native American pottery: usually resulting from burning fuel coming in direct contact with the vessel during firing

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Riding the Long Wave

 Rum Thoughts from San Juan, Puerto Rico

The Mayans had a ceremony for it. Every 52 years they would forgive debts and burn possessions to ensure the return of the sun and let the good times roll again.

Then there was Nicholai Kontradieff. Nicholai worked as a Soviet central planner in the 1930s. By plotting worldwide price levels and economic activity over a 200 year period, he became convinced that there was a long wave of capitalist economic activity and that things collapsed every 50 to 70 years in a kind of nuclear winter lasting about 15 years.

The chart below shows debt in America climbing to 340 percent of gross national product at the beginning of the great recession.

Kontradieff believed that this periodic collapse, accompanied by deflation, called the Kontradieff Wave, was caused by an unsustainable increase in debt levels. The Soviets threw him in prison, where he died. Part of his theory was that the Winter of the wave paved the way for capitalist economic renewal. This did not sit well with Marxist theory or Uncle Joe Stalin.

  The debt crisis, credit crisis and economic crisis were merely the opening acts in the approaching end of the long wave. The big crisis will be the currency crisis. This will begin to unravel in the next few years as basic commodities like food inflate and creditor Nations begin to realize that they are holding huge amounts of dollars, euros and British pounds that won't buy much of anything of value and all head for the exits at once. The music will stop and there won't be any chairs.

It's time to invest in guns, seeds, gardening tools and dirigible stamps. It was swell while it lasted. I thought 1974 was the wave, but now I know that the mother-of-all Kontradieff waves is about to hit the beach....How's that for mixed metaphors?

A butterfly flaps its wings in western Africa. The disturbance grows into hurricane Katrina and destroys New`Orleans.

In 1968, as I listen to a Chinese high-frequency English language propaganda program while flying over the South China Sea, I'm unaware that David X. Li is growing up in rural China. It is hard to imagine that Li's thoughts will ultimately cause the greatest international financial collapse in the history of the world.

Li grows up and becomes a Wall Street "quant". He invents something called a "Gaussian Copola" which was universally used (or misused) as a tool to quantify the risk of default of mortgages, CDOs, Credit Default Swaps and other exotic securities.

It's hard to believe that the thoughts and theories of one little guy from China could be responsible for all this, but it seems to be true.

Read about it here.

On second thought, I am familiar with tendency of managers to misinterpret the work of brighter subordinates. In 1972, I did a multiple regression analysis on the relationship between total ticket revenue from college football games and a collection of independent variables.

The factor that had the highest correlation to total game revenue was the quality of the opposing team. The Execs that read my study immediately scheduled a number of high quality teams for the following school year. They neglected to consider the cost of guarantees to high quality teams. While my formula revenue projections were on target, the net result was an unmitigated financial disaster as expenses far outstripped revenue. That was the last year the University fielded a team.

Destroying a college football program is small potatoes compared to destroying a world economy...A little butterfly named David X. Li flapped his mental wings and blew it all away.

 I'm drinking more than my fair share of dark rum.

I go down to the local liquor store and treat myself to a bottle of dark Bacardi select...I eyeball the Bacardi 151... but that way lies madness...

Flashback to 1964...I have a roommate, Ted, who is a blond good-looking fraternity guy from Palm Beach...He tells me about "pig parties". That is where you compete to find the least attractive possible date and then delight in their embarrassment when they realize that they have all been invited to a party for ugly women. He actually seems a little guilty relating this to me...maybe there was hope for him?

My deviant non-empathetic roommate produces a bottle of Bacardi 151. I end up with a traffic ticket for driving my Harley-Davidson Sportster at 110 MPH in a 30 MPH zone at 2 AM in front of the Tallahassee police station. Only a year earlier Jim Morrison, my former almost roommate, was charged for stealing an umbrella from a police car. The judge gives me a break after seeing my military ID, but he chews me out good...but at least I didn't get caught stealing a stupid umbrella...

Outside the hotel room tonight, they are blasting away with Puerto Rican of the songs is about "muchos saxophones"....I sit in an Audit Committee meeting with 12 staff and's embarrassing to be the only non-bilingual person in the room...they all speak English for my benefit...If I come back, I will be fluent in Spanish...

My pay grade is GS0...I'm just a volunteer.

So what about that credit freeze? One problem is collateralized debt obligations (CDOs). These are bundles of securitized sub-prime mortgages. They were rated AAA by the rating organization when issued primarily because of "insurance" against defaults...more about that later.

The banks are using models to value these CDO assets which reflect home price declines in metropolitan areas. For example. the San Francisco Metropolitan Area (SFMACDOs). This would result in valuing CDOs at near market value. For example, many banks are carrying CDOs worth 15% on the dollar at 75% or more.

I don't think $700 Billion is going to do much to correct the "exuberant excesses" of the last seven years. It's a ten trillion dollar issue...but wait...what about credit default swaps?...and what happened to the Investment Banks?

A Credit Default Swap is like an insurance policy against CDO defaults. Warren Buffet called these instruments of financial mass destruction five years ago. The Investment Banks collected big fees on these policies for years but never set aside payment reserves or anticipated any defaults on mortgages. So when the housing market went south two years ago, eventually "hedge fund" managers panicked and withdrew assets from the investment banks leading to the collapse of Bear Sterns, Merrill Lynch, AIG Insurance, Lehman Brothers and others...what's a "hedge fund"? Please...Don't even ask.

While "sub prime" mortgages, borrower fraud, speculative greed and low interest rates created a huge housing and mortgage bubble, a bigger problem now looms...negative amortization or "pay option" mortgages. These have brought down Washington Mutual and Wachovia, two of the biggest US Commercial banks. How's this for a deal...sign an 8% mortgage but pay only 2% until your mortgage balance reaches 125% of the original loan...then you get a letter that your payments have doubled or tripled. You owe maybe twice as much as your home is worth after a 30% decline in walk or not to walk...that is the question...

Meanwhile, inter-bank lending virtually dried up because banks realize that mortgage assets of other banks are significantly overvalued or impossible to evaluate based on current valuation models. Depositors are making panicked (but somewhat justified) withdrawals from banks where they have more on deposit than the $100,000 FDIC insurance limit. The $44 billion in the FDIC fund won't go all that far in the current climate.

I've evaluated the finances of my own credit union. Here is some scary stuff on their provision for bad debts:
2005 $12,000,000
2006 $12,000,000
2007 $60,000,000
2008 $150,000,000

So what about suspension of the "mark to market" method of accounting for mortgage assets that just got signed into law as part of the bailout package? Now banks don't have to write down assets to what they fetch in similar helpful..


  1. Thanks for the post, it is interesting.

    Maybe add 'gold' on the to-buy list along with guns and stamps?

  2. Gold is good for filling cavities in teeth. Other than that its value is an illusion.

  3. Gotta get some "bling bling"!

  4. hmmmmmmmm having a bad hair day? ;)sil