End of a Trend?

By Shlomo Maital

Bond

 

Bond. The name’s Bond.

No, not James Bond. Bond bonds, like, 2 per cent U.S. Treasury bonds.

We have seen a two-decade 20-year bull market in bonds. Some investors, like the legendary bond guru Bill Gross, made a fortune on it. But now, some, perhaps like Gross, may have missed the inflection point – the turning point that sees an end to the bond bull market.

   What drove the bull market? Falling interest rates, and rising bond prices, as central banks everywhere fought the global stagnation in the wake of the 2007-8 crisis by printing money and slashing interest rates.

   The booming Chinese economy, from 2002, created a huge boom in commodities and flooded with cash poorer countries that exported commodities (copper, oil, gas, iron, etc.) with cash. According to Mike Dolan, writing the “Inside the Markets” column in today’s New York Times, that boom led cash-rich countries to invest in low-risk government bonds, issued by the U.S. and other G7 countries. This led to rising bond prices and falling yields. It also led to the boom in the stock market. When you can’t make money on your investments in bonds, because of low yields, well, dump it into stocks.

   That trend is over, Dolan notes. The IMF says that the value of foreign currency reserves held by Central Banks rose in just one decade, from $1 trillion to over $8 trillion by mid-2014. That mini-trend is over too. Central Banks of exporting nations are now divesting their dollar holdings and spending them. No longer will they dump the money into U.S. Treasuries. And yields will rise, bond prices will fall.

   Central Banks everywhere are under pressure to raise interest rates, especially the U.S. Fed. Fed Chair Janet Yellen so far has delayed, and resisted, but it is inevitable. And markets are already capitalizing, into bond prices, the anticipated rate hike.  

   Dolan quotes Deutsche Bank: “The peak in bond demand is probably behind us.”

   Each of us needs to think about the implications of this inflection point, the shift from Mr. Bond to Mr. Bust.   Think about the possible teleology, or chain of events.   Higher interest rates mean….   Higher interest and debt-service costs, hurting debt-ridden governments, debt-laden businesses….and individuals?

    Lock in your low interest and mortgage rates now, while you can.  

Bernie Sanders is Taking the Money Out of Politics

By Shlomo Maital

 Sanders

    Senator Bernie Sanders is running a long-shot campaign for the Democratic nomination for President.  Like all socialists, he has no chance of actually being elected, but very high probability that some of his ideas will be tamed and adopted by his rivals. 

     In today’s New York Times, a strong editorial reveals one other huge gift Sanders brings to the table.  He is raising money the old-fashioned way – one small gift at a time. The average donation to Sanders’ campaign is $31.30.   “It would be hard to buy any politician for $31.30”, says the Times.  Americans of ordinary means have given Sanders 400,000 donations, and 80 per cent of them were less than $200.  Now, contrast that with the fact that 400 of America’s wealthiest families, writing huge checks, account for half the money raised so far by both parties, Republicans and Democrats.  And Trump?  As a billionaire, he pays his own bills… and bought his way into the lead. 

     America’s Supreme Court, notes the Times, in its recent Citizens United decision, “has greatly boosted the buying power of corporate and special interest donors and made a casino frenzy of the (nomination) race”.     The Koch brothers, billionaires, organized 400 of their wealthy friends to create a super war chest of $889 million for Republican candidates.  Jeb Bush raised over $100 m. in big-check donations so far.  Even Hillary Clinton has raised over $20 m. in super-PAC money.

    When democracy is bought by the rich, who invariably seek (and get) favors in return from those whom they help elect,  it is no longer democracy.   So, good for you, Bernie!  Tear a strip off the big donors.  You bring honesty and sanity to this weird campaign. 

Mayo Clinic Can Make Cancer Cells Normal!

By Shlomo Maital

Panos Anastasiadis

Professor Panos Anastasiadis

An exciting report recounts how Mayo Clinic scientists, in Florida, led by Prof. Panos Anastasiadis, have done the impossible – made cancerous cells healthy again.

  Here is how the London Daily Mail reported the breakthrough:    “Scientists have found a code for turning off cancer, it was announced today.  In exciting experiments, they made cancerous breast and bladder cells benign again. And they believe many other types of cancer should be in their grasp. They said that their work reveals ‘an unexpected new biology that provides the code, the software for turning off cancer’.  Most importantly, it uncovers ‘a new strategy for cancer therapy’.  In landmark research, Mayo Clinic scientists made cancerous cells benign again. And they believe many other types of cancer should be in their grasp.”

   What the scientists did, is inject micro-RNA into the cancerous cells, which turned off the cells’ desperate cancerous need to divide again and again, and spread.  

  According to the Daily Mail:  “The work is still at an early stage but brings with it hope that cancer will take fewer lives in the future. Unlike conventional cancer drugs, which work by killing cancer, the  work aims to disarm it and render them harmless.  The breakthrough focuses on a protein called PLEKHA7 that helps healthy cells clump together.  The research showed it to be missing or faulty in a range of cancers.  When this happens, key genetic instructions to the cells are scrambled and they turn cancerous. A research team, led by Panos Anastasiadis, was able to reset the instructions – turning off the cancer.  Experiments in a dish showed that human cells from highly dangerous bladder cancers can be made normal again.   Dr Anastasiadis said: ‘Initial experiments in some aggressive types of cancer are indeed very promising.’  He thinks the approach, detailed in the journal Nature Cell Biology, would apply to most cancers, other than brain and blood cancers.”

    For years, scientists have sought a new approach to treating cancer, other than the some 200 drugs used for chemotherapy, that are toxic and cause great suffering, and often do not work. 

      Perhaps this is the ‘silver bullet’ breakthrough?

 

 

2050:  Which Countries Will be Most Populous?

By Shlomo Maital

 Indian people

     Forecasting 2050?   That’s 35 years from now – in today’s world, impossible to predict what the world will be like then, right?   Except for one thing – population.  Demographers are pretty good at forecasting population trends.  Here is Bloomberg’s report, based on a study by the Population Reference Bureau.

     Today:   The world’s most populous country is China, with nearly 1.4 billion people.   A very close second is India, with almost 1.3 billion.   Third is America, at 340 million, followed closely by Indonesia, with some 230 million.   Fifth, Brazil, and sixth Pakistan, both around 200 million.  Seventh, Nigeria, 180 million; Eighth, Bangladesh, 150 million, followed by Russia and Mexico.

      2050:  India will be the world’s most populous country by far,  at 1.65 billion.  China’s population will actually decline (owing to the one-child policy),  to just below 1.4 billion. 

U.S. will be third, at 400 m., with Hispanics providing much of the growth,  in a tie with Nigeria.  Fifth, Indonesia, followed by Pakistan, and Brazil, at just over 200 m.     Bangladesh will be 8th.  A surprising 9th will be Congo, with close to 200 m., and 10th, Ethiopia,  at about 180 million.   Russia will not be in the top 10, as its birth rate is far below replacement. So is Japan’s. 

    In other words, three of the 10 most populous countries in the world will be African by 2050.   The world may do well to begin thinking now about how Africa will feed its growing population, and how the world can help it prepare to do so.   Perhaps India as well. 

Wheat Is More Complex Than Einstein

By Shlomo Maital

                   wheat                                   

    Born in Saskatchewan, I grew up among waving fields of golden wheat.  Few sights are more beautiful.  Little did I know how ‘smart’ wheat plants are…until Prof. Chamovitz.    

    Prof. Daniel Chamovitz is a Tel Aviv Univ. plant geneticist, author of a recent book,  What a Plan Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses (2012, Scientific American).   He was interviewed recently in the Hebrew language Haaretz weekly magazine. 

    Among his research projects:    “Recently we got interested in the question of what anti-cancer chemicals found in plants do for the plant. Particularly we’re studying indole-3-carbinol (I3C), a phytochemical found in vegetables like broccoli and mustard that has also been reported effective in killing breast and prostate cancer cells.”

     According to Chamovitz,  plants are genetically more complicated than humans!  Human beings have some 20,000 – 25,000 genes.  This is the number of genes Albert Einstein had.  But plants have more.  The rice plant, whose genome was decoded, has 37,000 genes.  And according to Chamovitz,  his team decoded the wheat genome, at Tel Aviv U., and found it has even more genes than rice. 

     Why?

     Survival.  Evolution, survival of the fittest.

     For example, he notes,   human beings have four genes that that control and develop light receptors in the retina.  But plants have 13!   Why?    Light is more important for plants’ survival than it is for humans.  Plants need to time their cycle according to the length of days (when to blossom, e.g.), they need to angle their stalks to seek light….

    Historian Yuval Noah Harari  claims, in his book, that wheat domesticated humans, rather than vice versa.  Meaning:  Wheat adapted itself, to create value for humans, leading humans to cultivate it widely. And that is the goal of living things – procreate, spread, multiply.    Whatever the case,  plants are highly sophisticated living things that have evolved in very touch environments, adapted beautifully to their surroundings, and where necessary, have created alliances with humans. 

    It may well be, as humans spew CO2 into the air and ruin their planet’s air and water, that plants will simply adjust and adapt, using their proliferation of genes,  and inherit the earth from people with big brains who simply are incapable of really using them. 

Read Stories to Your Kids – It Builds Their Brains!

By Shlomo Maital

childrens stories

   Among many “old fashioned” things now disappearing, are parents reading stories to their kids.  Dr. Parri Klass, writing in today’s Global New York Times, describes new research that shows we actually build kids’ brains when we read them stories.

    A year ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement saying all pediatric primary care should include “literacy promotion”, starting at birth!  Babies need stories, not just vaccines. This month, Klass reports, the journal Pediatrics published a study using FMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to study brain activity in 3-5 year old children as they listened to age-appropriate stories.  Children whose parents read a lot to them had more activity in a part of the brain that deals with integrating sound and visual stimulation.  Why?  “When kids are hearing stories, they’re imagining in their mind’s eye when they hear the story.”     Apparently, this will help kids make images and stories out of words later on.     It will also help stimulate creativity.

     “When we show them a video… do we short circuit the process [of imaginging things] a little?” asked a researcher. 

      A famous Kansas study found that poor children heard millions fewer words by age 3 than better-off kids.  They’re disadvantaged right from the start.

    Another study found that “children who are being read to by caregivers are hearing vocabulary words that kids who are not being read to probably are not hearing.” 

    A researcher, Dr. Hutton, concluded, “Early reading is more than just a nice thing to do with kids…    It really does have a very important role to play in building brain networks that will serve children long-term as they transition from verbal to reading.”

    But all this is a bit  beside the point.  Reading to kids and grandkids is simply a great source of joy and satisfaction.  And besides, when you do it, you get to read wonderful imaginative stories, like one I just bought, by Israeli author David Grossman, about “The Sun Princess”,  a little girl whose mother secretly makes the sun rise and set and who joins the process.    Now where can you find ‘adult’ books like that?

 

Hold Stocks?   Time to Sell?

By Shlomo Maital

stock market crash

 

There are a thousand good reasons why I never give advice on the stock market, and why, if I did, you should ignore it.  I myself hold no shares at all, in anything. 

   But here are some facts worth pondering.  Thanks to New York Times journalist Gretchen Morgenson for her insights.  Note that the NASDAQ exchange is reaching new record highs.

    “This is the third longest bull market in 80 years, and we are starting to see some deterioration develop.” (a money manager Morgenson quotes).

   “We are at an inflection point.”  (co-chief investment officer).

  “Many investors may be quick to sell their shares in a swoon, amplifying a downturn… [especially] investors who have bought shares on margin, using borrowed money, and those who have been pushed into the market in search of returns because of low interest rates.”  (Note: The bull market is fueled almost exclusively by the latter two groups).

    “Money borrowed to buy stocks tends to be nervous money.”

   “The Federal Reserve will always be there to save the day”.  This is a wrong assumption.

   “Apple shares have lost 11.3 per cent despite the fact that earnings per share were up 45 per cent over last year”. 

    Morgenson counsels, “It’s probably not a bad idea to be watchful for [distinct market shifts]…”.    I agree.   Be careful!

What We Learn from Ivo Karlovic’s 156 mph Serve!

By Shlomo Maital

Karlovic

Ivo Karlovic, serving

    If you like tennis, and perhaps even if you don’t,  you can learn a lot from a Croatian pro tennis player named Ivo Karlovic. 

     Karlovic was a 15-year-old  teenager living in Zagreb,  Yugoslavia, during its bitter civil war.  He practiced his tennis daily at the Salata tennis club, but could find no-one to play with him. (Tennis balls hurt when they hit you, but bullets hurt a lot more). 

    So he gathered 200 balls and practiced his serves, for hours,  imitating his role model, the Croatian pro Goran Ivanisevic.  He would serve 200 times, go to the opposite court, and serve again 200 times… to no-one.

      Ivanisevic holds the world record for “aces” (serves that win a point outright, without being returned), at 10,183.   Karlovic is getting close.  He has 10,004 aces and will soon break the record.

      Karlovic is 6 feet 11 inches tall, the tallest pro player on the tennis circuit.  His serve comes from 11 feet high, screams across the net at speeds averaging 132 mph,  and is clocked at times at 156 mph.  So – try hitting that!    His big serve enables him to win 96 per cent of his service games.  And though he’s in his mid 30’s,  he is getting better, rising in the pro ranks. 

      What can we learn from Ivo?    Leverage your advantages (his height).   Accept your constraints (practicing during civil war).  Make the best of what you have.  Practice hard.  And excel. 

      Thanks to David Waldstein for his excellent profile of Karlovic in the New York Times.       

 

  

 

Wrong-Way RMB?

By Shlomo Maital

RMB    

  Financial Times reports that “China devalued the yuan by the most in two decades, a move that rippled through global markets as policy makers stepped up efforts to support exporters and boost the role of market pricing in Asia’s largest economy.  The central bank cut its daily reference rate by 1.9 percent, triggering the yuan’s biggest one-day drop since China ended a dual-currency system in January 1994. The People’s Bank of China called the change a one-time adjustment and said its fixing will become more aligned with supply and demand.”    The renminbi is seriously undervalued; its purchasing power is about 4 RMB per dollar, not 6.  So why devalue it, send it in the other direction?

    What is going on?

     Well, depends who you believe.  Financial Times’  ‘take’  is that China is starting a currency war, a la 1930’s,  with countries competitively devaluing their currency to gain export markets and stimulate their economy, while exporting unemployment.  The small 2 % devaluation shows China’s leadership is “desperate”:    

    According to conventional wisdom, wars are easy to start and difficult to end. Similarly Beijing’s devaluation, the biggest one-day currency move since 1993, represents the latest skirmish in an emerging battle which, analysts warn, may be hard to reverse.  The move marks a shift in China’s historical policy during times of economic stress. In the late 1990s, the country was widely credited with containing the destruction from the Asian financial crisis because it held fast to the renminbi exchange rate in the midst of competitive devaluations throughout the region.  In the global financial crisis of 2008, Beijing also refused to devalue even as its exports, a key driver of the economy, evaporated overnight. But now, in the midst of a pronounced and persistent Chinese economic slowdown and continued appreciation pressure resulting from the renminbi’s “dirty peg” to the soaring US dollar, China’s leaders have decided to take the plunge.  “This shows how desperate the government is over the state of the economy,” said Fraser Howie, a China analyst and co-author of Red Capitalism. “If they were trying, as the central bank said it was, to bring the exchange rate back into line with market expectations then they have failed miserably as the market is now just expecting further devaluation.”

   But here is Neil Irwin’s ‘take’, in The New York Times:   China is seeking twin goals,  keeping the flagging economy going and establishing the RMB as a global currency, by allowing market forces to work, rather than pegging the RMB artificially to a soaring dollar.   

   And my own view:   With the dollar losing its pre-eminence as a world currency, largely because the Fed has printed far too many of them, for domestic policy purposes,  the world does need a strong well-managed global currency.  It could be the RMB?  

    Who is right?   Well, dear reader, in this, as in other issues,  you’ll have to think for yourself.  The main thing is,  be sure you are fully aware of the real issues the world faces, and not some of the puff pieces that fill our newspapers and news websites.  China, and everything that goes on there, is one of those key issues. 

  

 

Freedom? Or Security?  Do We Have to Choose?

By Shlomo Maital    

Freedom Security  

  A Pew Global Attitudes survey asked this question, a few years ago:

   Which is more important?

     Freedom to pursue life’s goals without state interference, or

    State guarantees that nobody is in need.

  The results:  58 % of Americans chose freedom; only 35 % chose security. 

  In Britain it was the opposite.  Some 55% chose state guarantees, and 38 % chose freedom.  In Germany, France and Spain, 62 % chose state guarantees.

  Here, in a nutshell, we have the reason why America has a great deal of entrepreneurial energy, and enormous social and economic inequality.  And why Europe has a terrible dearth of entrepreneurial energy, and strong infrastructure and social safety nets. 

    In his New York Times column, Roger Cohen even goes so far as to blame America’s obesity on the choice of ‘freedom’.  Taxing sugar-laden drinks would never fly in America.  Raising gas taxes is a non-starter, even though the U.S. highways are crumbling. 

    Benjamin Franklin, that creative entrepreneurial American who invented public libraries and many other things,  spoke up for freedom, in 1776.  At the time, he was right.  America’s democracy had just been born.  As a new-born baby, it needed strengthening.

   But today?  My question is —   Are “freedom” and “social safety net”  really, necessarily, perforce  “Either-Or” choices?   Must we choose?    Are there examples of nations that have both?

    Take Denmark, a very well off, prosperous European nation, wisely not part of the Euro block,   which has very high taxation,  superb social safety net and security, and a great deal of innovation and entrepreneurship.  If entrepreneurs truly seek to create value, rather than become billionaires, they will not be deterred by high rates of taxation that generate revenues to support the safety net.  If the wealthy earn 8 per cent on their wealth after-tax, park their money in tax havens,  while the middle class barely earns 1 or 2 per cent,  is it not reasonable to allow the middle class access to the same privileges, the same 8%?

    No, “freedom” and “social safety net” are not either/or. They are only if we believe they are.  Freedom and social safety net CAN BE both/and.   That is how it should be.  Now, the question, is, how do Europeans gain more entrepreneurial freedom without ruining their safety net, and how do Americans get a proper safety net without ruining their entrepreneurial energy.  It’s NOT that difficult!

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
September 2015
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