Wednesday, September 26, 2007


Many thanks to those who respond to my emails. It is humbling to know that you took the time to read my words.


I have used the example of newspapers and magazines to show that some prices are falling from something to zero; I could have used long distance phone calls, transferring money or maps instead. I personally read many articles from many magazines online without buying a subscription to those magazines. I use a map that plots where I am, calculates the distance and time to my destination and talks me through the turns. Using today's technology, the distribution costs of these services is almost zero. Therefore, the publisher can offer the services in exchange for goodwill or for advertising space.

At least one reader believes inflation is a lot worse than I. This reader still subscribes to his local paper and he notes that his cost of food has soared. One issue this raises is that we each have our own personal inflation rate; the national numbers are the average for all consumers. The consumer who is an early adopter may have inflated his costs when he waited in line all day to buy one of the first iPhones. He paid a high price in time and money. Another consumer can buy today for a substantially lower price. In very short order, the first iPhones are going to be relatively obsolete. They access the internet at a very slow speed relative to what is already available on other networks and extremely slow relative to networks that will be built over the next several years. The price of the next great innovation may be sold at a much higher price but that will not be an inflated price. The fact is that the price of new inventions start high and typically fall and fall some more. The first Xerox machines were leased because few businesses had $100,000 to spend.

Food is important to all of us. Very poor people spend the great majority of their income on food. The sharp run up in the price of food in recent months has caused many very poor people to go hungry. In America, the percentage of incomes spent on food has fallen for as long as charts can be found. I recall a chart from a year or so ago that compared spending on recreation to spending on food. The chart made a big X. The average American spends less than 6% of his income on food. He spends many times as much on recreation. Broad measures of inflation capture the price of all ski lift tickets purchased and the price of all hamburgers purchased.

The typical reaction to the preceding statement is to say, "Oh, so those who can afford a ski lift ticket are the ones who are not seeing inflation." In fact, for the great majority of people, this is exactly wrong. It has been the cost of services, most often purchased by the wealthy, that have gone up the most in price. The inflation rate for a college education, for a heart operation or indeed for a ski lift ticket, have all climbed many times more than the price of a hamburger. One of the wags at GAVEKAL Research quips that "it has never been so expensive to be rich."

Biased people can "mine the numbers" to always show that inflation is better or worse than it really is. We all know that one can prove anything with statistics. The all time best and most consistently correct inflation forecast has been supplied by the bond market. The FOMC likes to look at the implied 5 year and 10 year inflation estimates derived from the spreads on 5 year and 10 year TIPS bonds versus standard 5 and 10 year bonds. Old timers like to rely more on the structure of the treasury market. In other words the willingness of investors to buy 5 year treasuries paying 4.6% says a lot about the markets inflation expectations. Don Hayes uses the 10 year treasury rate chart, to plot inflation a few months into the future. The stats are that this method gives off an r square close to 90! In case you have not noticed, the ten year bond has stayed in a tight range for several years and is currently closer to the bottom of that range than to the top. The inflation risk in today's market is very moderate.


Many a coincidental indicator shows that the world economy is slowing down. Weak economies are most often accompanied by declines in inflation rates. As I noted yesterday, even the decline in interest rates that occurs during slow downs or recessions is by definition a lowering of inflation rates. The USA holds the trump card! Many pundits have "talked-up" their international portfolios. The common theme has been that the world economies have been stronger than the US economy and the stock markets have out performed. The key words in the prior sentence are "have been". Smart investors do not invest in what has been but in what is likely to be. What is likely is that the economy that has the strongest currency is actually "set-up" to suffer the worst during the slow down.


In the year 2000, the US dollar was very strong. In 2000 and 2001 the USA was the only major country to suffer through a recession. Yes, 9/11 influenced the US economy but the economic down turn was well before September of 2001. Right now, numbers are starting to flow showing a slow down in Europe. The weak US dollar is a wonderful blessing in these circumstances. US businesses can easily compete with others because the exchange rates with many other nations gives us a strong boost. The great news is that the slow down will lower short interest rates more. We might easily see another 50 basis point cut by the FOMC before year end and with new great prospects for strong growth in the USA we could see the dollar climb out the roof. The big money is made by buying near a currency bottom, just like buying a stock near the bottom.


This morning I read a story about a German oil drilling company that has hit another oil gusher in Libya. The company, RWE, has moved from $19 to $88 over the past 5 years. Late last year, it briefly traded above $90 per share. The price had settled back down to about $80 before the gusher was hit. I hope you can how the fact that the price is lower now than it was last year is a signal. The time to buy this stock was 5 years ago. The exact best time to sell the stock was last year when it was trading above $90. The momentum is gone. Those who moved from energy to technology when this stock was at $90 have done well.

The total investment process required to "catch up to the new price of oil" still has many years to play-out. We know many things about the way this process will be completed. For example, we know that Shell and the Saudi will spend $7 billion to more than double the capacity of the Port Arthur, Texas refinery and we know that Kuwait has increased its budget on its new refinery to over $14 billion. We expect that the Port Arthur upgrade to be completed in 2010 and we expect the Kuwait refinery to start-up in 2012. Others refineries will start-up before and after each of the above. While it takes a lot of faith to spend $14 billion on a refinery that will not start until after scores of others have been completed, it does not require faith that the price of oil will stay above $50 per barrel.

The existing Port Arthur refinery has paid for itself many times over at much lower after inflation adjusted prices. It was started way back in the Spindle Top days. It has refined billions of gallons of oil and it is being expanded so that it can refine even billions more over the next many, many years. The investment is being made because the investors expect to make better than a 15% gross return on their investment. They can do that even including a forecast of oil falling back below $50 per barrel. Long term investors can certainly buy oil drilling stocks, hold for decades and make solid returns. However, with the crowd pushing oil stocks hard, you should expect to see these stocks under-perform the market for the next 5 to 10 years. Innovative companies, the ones that are generally finding ways to do things while using only small amounts of energy will do well. Transportation companies that consume large quantities of fuel will also do well.


After I wrote that AMR faces tough union negotiations in the weeks and months ahead, one reader mentioned that a pilot friend believes AMR is about to be forced into bankruptcy. I strongly disagree. AMR made it though a very difficult time, after 9/11 without filing bankruptcy. Since that time, the company has dramatically reduced its costs and dramatically improved its balance sheet. It has even survived the spike in fuel prices and it will earn at least 65 cents per share this quarter after paying an average of $2.11 per gallon of jet fuel. A few pennies decline in the price of fuel, not due to a recession but due to growing supplies and demand destruction, would boost earnings by perhaps dollars per share.

The big argument being made by the pilots union is that they gave up 30 percent of their pay when it was necessary to save the company from bankruptcy and they now expect to get this pay back. There are at least a couple of big ugly flies in the soup! After AMR pilots "volunteered" to cut their pay, other pilots at other carriers gave up an even higher percentage of pay. In several cases, such as DAL and NWA, the negotiations to reduce costs were held while the companies were in bankruptcy. In the case of CAL, the total give-backs of all union employees were more than a billion dollars per year. The other big fly is that even after the give backs, the AMR pilots are very well paid. So, what you have is a situation where the pilots want 30% raises that cannot be supported by the current market.

It so happens that just this morning the GM -- UAW deal was completed. Thirty years ago, it would have been incredulous to suggest that one day GM workers would give up their company paid health benefits or to accept a contract with no annual cost of living increases. American consumers can rejoice. We have been paying an average of $1,500 in healthcare benefits each time we have bought and American car. Many who can not afford health insurance have paid for it for others.

It is a totally new, global, world in which we live. AMR pilots face the same problem as the GM workers. The fastest growing airlines, which are not based in the USA, expect to dramatically increase their flights to and from the USA. Without doing the searching to prove the point, I am confident in saying that the senior pilots in China do not earn $170,000 per year for 30 hours of work per week. $5,500 per hour plus benefits is not a bad gig but only a very small percentage of the worlds pilots get that rate. Ironically, if the public were willing to trust highly reliable electronic systems, which are much more dependable than the average pilot, the pilots would be not needed at all. Ouch! Believe it or not, in the not too distant future, the competition for travel will include 100% auto pilot crafts. Of course, the politicians would have to stand aside for this to happen and when it does happen it will start with small planes at remote locations.


The new satellite based air traffic control system will be a blessing. It will cost a lot of money but the investment will cut the operating cost of the carriers while, most importantly, reducing the time in the air for tens of thousands of flights daily. Millions of people will save hours daily after the plan is fully implemented. As usual, when the government is the provider of a service, politics get involved and one result is a huge amount of waste. It is only common sense for a 10 passenger jet to have a financial incentive to give up a prime landing spot at a major airport for the benefit of a 300 passenger jet. Giving up this slot should be based on the micro-economics of the situation. In other words, the price of the landing spot should be determined by the market, so that some operators would voluntarily choose smaller airports. Only the individuals involved can determine how important it is to land at the major airport. The government imposed system is the equivalent of Soviet Union system of deciding how many pairs of blue jeans the country should make.


Investors need to avoid taking one small data point and drawing harmful general conclusions. The core facts are that airlines are operating at record capacity and making money at the start of the prosperity phase of the business cycle. The solid growth in the revenues of these highly levered companies is leading to spectacular growth in earnings. Here in the middle of the mid cycle correction, it was "big news", a couple of days ago, when AMR announced that revenues for the quarter would grow at only 3 to 4%! When a business with very high operating leverage grows revenues by 3%, profits might rise 20%!

What will be the story a year from now? Will the unions still be fighting for a 30% raise that is not going to happen? Are these employees frustrated? Certainly! Do they really expect to make 30% more than their friends at other carriers? Most do not.


The "news" this morning was "bad." Orders of durable goods declined. Duh! Housing starts are way down so there are not as many furnaces or hot water heaters being purchased. The down tick is the "bad news" needed to push interest rates lower and inflation down more. Yes, this is circular logic but that is why they call it a business cycle.

Just remember that interest rates and commodity prices tend to move together. Right on cue, oil supplies recovered a bit this morning and oil prices slipped. The process is slow but sure.


Thanks again for the feedback.