Declining Global Growth

In an increasingly globalised economy, we need more global data measurement.

The Economist presents a new attempt to measure global GDP. The sub-bars are showing each region’s contribution to global GDP growth, rather than their internal growth rate:

20130119_inc767

Globally, there was a big and swift return to strong GDP growth, built on the backs of emerging countries and particularly the BRICs. Since early 2010, rather than getting stronger and stronger, global growth has actually become weaker and weaker.

This is quite a departure from certain narratives popular today that suggest that growth has gotten stronger and stronger since the end of the recession, that we are almost out of the woods, and that we are on the cusp of a new era of spectacular growth.

And in a world of globalised trade, globalised lending, and global supply chains the notion that any nation can really be shielded from the ongoing effects of declining global growth seems extremely over-optimistic.

Yet another reason to be highly cautious of the increasingly popular idea that now is the time to turn bullish on American equities. 

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Bullish News For Gold?

Goldman Sachs says that gold is poised for a fall in the medium term:

Improving US growth outlook offsets further Fed easing
Our economists forecast that the US economic recovery will slow early in 2013 before reaccelerating in the second half. They also expect additional expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet. Near term, the combination of more easing and weaker growth should prove supportive to gold prices. Medium term however, the gold outlook is caught between the opposing forces of more Fed easing and a gradual increase in US real rates on better US economic growth. Our expanded modeling suggests that the improving US growth outlook will outweigh further Fed balance sheet expansion and that the cycle in gold prices will likely turn in 2013. Risks to our growth outlook remain elevated however, especially given the uncertainty around the fiscal cliff, making calling the peak in gold prices a difficult exercise.

Gold cycle likely to turn in 2013; lowering gold price forecasts
We lower our 3-, 6- and 12-mo gold price forecasts to $1,825/toz, $1,805/toz and $1,800/toz and introduce a $1,750/toz 2014 forecast. While we see potential for higher gold prices in early 2013, we see growing downside risks.

Goldman’s model boils down to this chart, that posits that gold prices are supported by a low real interest rate environment:

GoldvsRealInterestRates

Goldman’s forecast is based on the idea that real rates will rise due to stronger economic growth in the second half of 2013 and beyond.

But the notion of strengthening economic growth in the second half of 2013 and beyond is deeply problematic. The total debt to GDP ratio is still above 350%, far, far far above the historical norm and a huge burden on the economy. The service costs of all that debt (sustained only by Fed liquidity helicopters — without the bailouts and liquidity lines, the unsustainable debt would have all been liquidated in 2008) is keeping the economy (and thus, real interest rates) depressed.

This means that the supposed recovery — and any such attendant dip in gold prices — is extremely unlikely to materialise.

In fact with Goldman’s track record of giving bogus advice to clients and then betting against it, this call could very easily signal that we are on the edge of another seismic upswing in the gold price.

US mint data shows gold demand is strengthening:

20121201_Gold_0

There is history here. Goldman’s previous bearish calls on gold locked their African gold-mining clients into money-lossing derivative deals.

GhanaWeb tells the full story:

In 1998, Ashanti Gold was the 3rd largest Gold Mining company in the world. The first “black” company on the London Stock Exchange, Ashanti had just purchased the Geita mine in Tanzania, positioning Ashanti to become even larger. But in May 1999, the Treasury of the United Kingdom decided to sell off 415 tons of its gold reserves. With all that gold flooding the world market, the price of gold began to decline. By August 1999, the price of gold had fallen to $252/ounce, the lowest it had been in 20 years.

Ashanti turned to its Financial Advisors – Goldman Sachs – for advice. Goldman Sachs recommended that Ashanti purchase enormous hedge contracts – “bets” on the price of gold. Simplifying this somewhat, it was similar to when a homeowner ‘locks in’ a price for heating oil months in advance. Goldman recommended that Ashanti enter agreements to sell gold at a ‘locked-in’ price, and suggested that the price of gold would continue to fall.

But Goldman was more than just Ashanti’s advisors. They were also sellers of these Hedge contracts, and stood to make money simply by selling them. And they were also world-wide sellers of Gold itself.

In September 1999 (one month later), 15 European Banks with whom Goldman had professional relationships made a unanimous surprise announcement that all 15 would stop selling gold on world markets for 5 years. The announcement immediately drove up gold prices to $307/ounce, and by October 6, it had risen to $362/ounce.

Goldman pocketed a shitload of money; clients ended up getting socked in the mouth.

Goldman publicly turning bearish, may be a pretty bullish sign for gold.

Failbook’s Epic Fail: Does Zuckerberg Want Users to Pay?

What is there to say about Facebook?

Why would anyone buy a company’s stock when they have no real profit pedigree? When their advertising profit in 2011 came to just over $1 billion, and their book value is the region of $100 billion, how can that really make any sense other than to the kind of nutcase zombie trader who takes Jim Cramer seriously? The sad truth is that people are just not clicking the ads; Facebook ads receive far fewer clicks than competitors such as Google’s AdSense.

If Facebook was floating with a book value of $5-10 billion (or around $2-4 per share) we would be talking about a serious business proposition, albeit one which is already rather saturated (given that there are 2.3 billion internet users, and Facebook already has its claws into 900 million of them). But at these levels? What are people paying for?

Some say the name recognition and momentum (but that’s just paying for hype) as well as the infrastructure and data that Facebook owns. Certainly five or six years of a big chunk of humanity’s likes and dislikes is a valuable database. But how do they monetise that? Does Zuckerberg have any credible plan?

The most under-reported piece of news of the day is surely that Zuckerberg does seem to have a plan. But it’s not very credible.

From the BBC:

Facebook has started testing a system that lets users pay to highlight or promote posts.

By paying a small fee users can ensure that information they post on the social network is more visible to friends, family and colleagues.

The tests are being carried out among the social network’s users in New Zealand.

Facebook said the goal was to see if users were interested in paying to flag up their information.

That’s their plan? That’s Zuckerberg’s big idea? Get users to pay to post premium content!? Did the well-circulated hoax that Facebook planned to get users to pay for use just turn out to be true? If they proceed with this (unlikely) it seems fairly obvious the world would say goodbye Facebook, hello free alternatives.

The truth is that Facebook is a toy, a dreamworld, a figment of the imagination. Zuckerberg wanted to make the world a more connected place (and build a huge database of personal preferences), and he succeeded thanks to a huge slathering of venture capital. That’s an accomplishment, but it’s not a business. While the angel investors and college-dorm engineers will feel gratified at paper gains, it is becoming hard to ignore that there is no great profit engine under the venture. In fact, the big money coming into Facebook just seems to be money from new investors — they raised eighteen times as much in their flotation yesterday as they did in a whole year of advertising revenue. For an established company with such huge market penetration, they’re veering dangerously close to Bernie Madoff’s business model.

On the other hand, they have plenty of time and money to try out various profit-making schemes. Eventually, they may hit on something big; Apple didn’t start out producing huge cashflow or sales, they got there the hard way. But it all seems like a big gamble on an outfit with big dreams but little moneymaking pedigree. I’d consider buying Facebook at $2-4 a share. But current valuations are a joke — and I don’t think the market is falling for it.

Even the NYT notes:

The company’s bankers had to buy shares to keep the stock from falling below its offering price, raising questions about how the stock will fare next week.