Inflation fears are misplaced! affects future refinancings, as well as the markets

The article below brings Nobel laureate analysis to the recent inflation fears, concluding:

1. The fears are misplaced
2. We are dealing with deflation now, not inflation
3. There could be future inflation worries, but we have much to get past before that happens, and
4. The fears are more politically inspired than founded on real analysis, bringing pressure against the programs of the Obama administration trying to restore credit and stimulate the economy

When the fears ease, mortgage rates should fall again to around 5%…. so review your mortgages and let us know if you want to refinance (even if you keep the same payments, so you do not lose years that you have paid down, you are better off refinancing as the total interest paid will be less)

As for investing, some people are shorting bonds right now!

Good luck, and let me know if you have quesitons …. And pass this on please.

Steven

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OP-ED COLUMNIST The Big Inflation Scare By PAUL KRUGMAN Published: May 28, 2009 in the New York Times

Suddenly it seems as if everyone is talking about inflation. Stern opinion pieces warn that hyperinflation is just around the corner. And markets may be heeding these warnings: Interest rates on long-term government bonds are up, with fear of future inflation one possible reason for the interest-rate spike.

But does the big inflation scare make any sense? Basically, no — with one caveat I’ll get to later. And I suspect that the scare is at least partly about politics rather than economics.

First things first. It’s important to realize that there’s no hint of inflationary pressures in the economy right now. Consumer prices are lower now than they were a year ago, and wage increases have stalled in the face of high unemployment. Deflation, not inflation, is the clear and present danger.
So if prices aren’t rising, why the inflation worries? Some claim that the Federal Reserve is printing lots of money, which must be inflationary, while others claim that budget deficits will eventually force the U.S. government to inflate away its debt.

The first story is just wrong. The second could be right, but isn’t.

Now, it’s true that the Fed has taken unprecedented actions lately. More specifically, it has been buying lots of debt both from the government and from the private sector, and paying for these purchases by crediting banks with extra reserves. And in ordinary times, this would be highly inflationary: banks, flush with reserves, would increase loans, which would drive up demand, which would push up prices.
But these aren’t ordinary times. Banks aren’t lending out their extra reserves. They’re just sitting on them — in effect, they’re sending the money right back to the Fed. So the Fed isn’t really printing money after all.

Still, don’t such actions have to be inflationary sooner or later? No. The Bank of Japan, faced with economic difficulties not too different from those we face today, purchased debt on a huge scale between 1997 and 2003. What happened to consumer prices? They fell.

All in all, much of the current inflation discussion calls to mind what happened during the early years of the Great Depression when many influential people were warning about inflation even as prices plunged. As the British economist Ralph Hawtrey wrote, “Fantastic fears of inflation were expressed. That was to cry, Fire, Fire in Noah’s Flood.” And he went on, “It is after depression and unemployment have subsided that inflation becomes dangerous.”

Is there a risk that we’ll have inflation after the economy recovers? That’s the claim of those who look at projections that federal debt may rise to more than 100 percent of G.D.P. and say that America will eventually have to inflate away that debt — that is, drive up prices so that the real value of the debt is reduced.

Such things have happened in the past. For example, France ultimately inflated away much of the debt it incurred while fighting World War I.
But more modern examples are lacking. Over the past two decades, Belgium, Canada and, of course, Japan have all gone through episodes when debt exceeded 100 percent of G.D.P. And the United States itself emerged from World War II with debt exceeding 120 percent of G.D.P. In none of these cases did governments resort to inflation to resolve their problems.

So is there any reason to think that inflation is coming? Some economists have argued for moderate inflation as a deliberate policy, as a way to encourage lending and reduce private debt burdens. I’m sympathetic to these arguments and made a similar case for Japan in the 1990s. But the case for inflation never made headway with Japanese policy makers then, and there’s no sign it’s getting traction with U.S. policy makers now.
All of this raises the question: If inflation isn’t a real risk, why all the claims that it is?

Well, as you may have noticed, economists sometimes disagree. And big disagreements are especially likely in weird times like the present, when many of the normal rules no longer apply.

But it’s hard to escape the sense that the current inflation fear-mongering is partly political, coming largely from economists who had no problem with deficits caused by tax cuts but suddenly became fiscal scolds when the government started spending money to rescue the economy. And their goal seems to be to bully the Obama administration into abandoning those rescue efforts.

Needless to say, the president should not let himself be bullied. The economy is still in deep trouble and needs continuing help.

Yes, we have a long-run budget problem, and we need to start laying the groundwork for a long-run solution. But when it comes to inflation, the only thing we have to fear is inflation fear itself.

Are all investment styles dead? Hedge funds? Asset allocation? … we think not

Hedge funds have gotten bad press, most recently as a target for some blame for the financial meltdown

But, as the Morningstar author says, “These funds offer individual investors access to investment styles, such as managed futures, currencies, merger arbitrage, long/short equity, and market-neutral equity that have historically been dominated by hedge funds. As long as these funds exist, it’s too soon to write off alternative asset classes, either.”

The article ends with alternatives for those lacking the net worth to have a true hedge fund LP or LLC as part of their portfolio. For those who can, the hedge fund vehicle, with a good manager, provides access to alternate investments that funds do not … and you need that access for the tactical ideas we have been discussing in recent e-mails…

Let me know about your reactions on hedge funds……. good luck,

Steven

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Don’t Write the Obit for Hedge Funds Yet
by William Samuel Rocco | 05-26-09

Lots of ink has been spilled about the demise of hedge funds since turmoil in the financial markets accelerated in last year’s third quarter. Some pundits have predicted that hedge fund assets would shrink by as much as 75% and that half of those in existence would close up shop. There’s no denying that many are closing. So far, nearly 30% of hedge funds in our database have either told us that they’ve closed or have stopped reporting performance to us for at least six months (a sign that they have likely ended up in the hedge fund graveyard). Many more are suffering large asset declines, but it’s premature to say that hedge funds are history.

The (Alternative) Resistance Lives On
It’s true that the pace of new fund launches in the first quarter of 2009 was roughly half that of the past five years, causing a decline in the number of funds for the first time in memory. Expecting the hedge fund industry to shrink further is not outlandish following the Bernie Madoff* and Alan Stanford scandals and the fact that hedge funds experienced their worst year on record in 2008. But even during the market’s darkest days of late 2008 and early 2009, new hedge funds were opening. A search of Morningstar’s hedge fund database recently revealed nearly 100 inceptions in the fourth quarter of 2008 and 75 launches in the first quarter of 2009. * [his was a Ponzi scheme, not a hedge fund ….]

New hedge funds continue to come to life, and one might expect them to look different now. After such a tumultuous year, it seems reasonable to expect new funds to assume less risk, but that does not appear to be the case. Emerging-markets equity funds account for 15% of the new funds, for example, despite having been in one of the market’s toughest corners (the Morningstar Emerging Market Equity Hedge Fund Index was the worst-performing and most volatile hedge fund category index in 2008). And while the fact that some new hedge funds are not yet reporting to our database makes them difficult to quantify, we’ve seen news reports announcing the launch of many distressed-debt, currency, and futures funds.

Best of Both Worlds?
Two of the knocks against hedge funds have been their lack of transparency and hefty fees, which are clear disadvantages versus more-transparent and inexpensive mutual funds. Yet, mutual funds don’t offer the same flexibility; they are limited to having less than 15% in illiquid securities and have strict limitations on their use of investment leverage. Hedge funds have no restrictions on their concentrations in illiquid securities, and some strategies boost their returns significantly by borrowing and investing many times the amount of their net assets. One case in point is the Treasury’s plan to have money managers purchase distressed assets from banks. The limits on illiquid securities and leverage make it nearly impossible to create stand-alone mutual funds dedicated to benefiting from the proposed Public-Private Investment Program, or PPIP. Although re-establishment of a market for those assets is a stated goal of the program, it’s a stretch to call them anything but illiquid at this point.

The noted liquidity and leverage restrictions prevent many alternative strategies from being offered to non qualified investors in mutual fund form. But there are a significant and growing number of alternative style mutual funds working within these limits. Morningstar tracks more than 100 mutual funds that use an alternative strategy or asset class. These funds offer individual investors access to investment styles, such as managed futures, currencies, merger arbitrage, long/short equity, and market-neutral equity that have historically been dominated by hedge funds. As long as these funds exist, it’s too soon to write off alternative asset classes, either.

Take, for example, the following three mutual funds that were recently launched. Each offers a hedge-fund-like flavor:

AQR Diversified Arbitrage I ADAIX
The first mutual fund offering from a long-standing alternative manager combines various arbitrage strategies not typically found in mutual funds. Arbitrage strategies identify groups of securities trading at prices that don’t agree with their expected relationships. For example, merger arbitrage investors seek to exploit price discrepancies that occur when one company is buying another one. Open since January 2009, this fund combines merger arbitrage, convertible bond arbitrage, capital structure arbitrage, and other arbitrage techniques aiming to generate investment returns with low correlations to the stock market.

Legg Mason Partners Permal Tactical Allocation LPTAX
Legg Mason is making the services of its alternative asset-management team, Permal, available to mutual fund investors. Although tactical allocation is not on its own an alternative concept, Permal has a long history of success operating strategic and tactical asset management within funds of hedge funds. Open for about a month, this fund allocates among various asset classes aiming to outpace a traditional asset mix.

Turner Spectrum Fund TSPEX
The newest entry, just opened on May 7, combines six long/short equity strategies managed by Turner Investment Partners that are not otherwise available as mutual funds. Previously, the underlying portfolios were only available to institutional investors through separate accounts.

Benjamin N. Alpert, CFA is a hedge fund analyst at Morningstar.

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The “buy and hold” vs. “active trading” seems to have become a lively debate lately

The article from Money & the Economy at Morningstar has the story of Janet Briaud then several responses, of which I like the person who says “There is a lot of potential risk in changing 100% of a strategy and being wrong, versus changing 2-5% of a strategy and being wrong..”

What I find important is that certain tactical moves have merit, but not as wholesale strategies (e.g., going 100% to cash). In fact, “tactical reallocation” moves describe much of what I have said since late last fall, as in the strategies involving muni bonds, corporate bonds, and international REITs, stocks and bonds)

The key then is to add value from the advice, using both history and an understanding of what is going on, to make moves within the total allocation – not to scrap the allocation in its entirety.

Have you considered these tactical moves or are you in the “buy and hold” category? I would be curious to know ….. (for those with managers with whom I constantly speak, I know the answer…)

Good luck and let me know what you and your friends or business associates think…

Steven