Saturday, January 30, 2010

Class definitions

For some reason I was thinking about the "middle class", and wondered what a good working definition of this group of people was. I have checked a few places, such as wiki, and it seems to be a bit of a grey area on how you define this. So here is the definition I came up with

Working Class - Need to work (obviously), and if their assets were all converted to cash, would still be in debt, or have so few assets that they are basically living hand to mouth (renting and less than 1 paychech in the bank). It is likely that they will need the full term of any debt to pay it off, causing also the repayment of about twice the initial value of the debt. They are most likely to slip off into bankruptcy as the become unable to replay debt. "Destitute" should probably be a class all of it's own, under working class.

Middle Class - Also need to work, but if their assets were all converted to cash, would not be in debt. This doesn't mean that they don't have loans - they almost all do - but on balance they have more assets than debt. For example, John and Sue might have a mortgage for $200K, and a car load for $30K, but the house is worth $600K, so they are net positive if they had to sell everything. These people are still susceptible to cash flow problems - such as losing a job, but on the whole are more secure financially. They are also likely to have superannuation and possibly other investements which they hope will advance in value so that they can retire or move to Upper class. Possibly the "upper middle" class have no debt, but not enough capital to give up work. The danger for someone in middle class is if they aquire the taste for the upper class lifestyle, and use debt to live it - which they can for a while - then it's back to Working class for them. Similarly, if that house is revalued in a falling market to $150K then John and Sue are redefined as being in the working class (and are "underwater"). This is happening on a grand scale in America at the moment.

Upper Class - do not need to work, but mostly do anyway. These people like money, know how to play various corporate games, and investments and enjoy the status of having wealth. On this basis, they continue to accumulate it. However, they do not have to as they could easily live off their wealth instead, and retire, to a modest lifestyle. These people do sometimes bet "the farm" on various investments and can be sent all the way back to working class if bets go bad, but that's often the "new money" that does this. The old money is more careful, I think. These people go into debt, but only as a tool to make more money - they never let the interest repayments suck the lifeblood out of them like the other classes do (particularly working class). They enter into agreements which can be paraphrased as "heads I win, tails you lose". These people often re-write the rules of the game so that things are very much in their favour.

Well, that was my way of splitting up the classes. I think it works.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Economic Links

Links.. really? How 1990's is a links list? Very, but I feel the need. You see, there are many excellent sites out there explaining what's going on, and you may want to get to know some of them. Also, it's possible I've missed one or two and you could leave a comment letting me know. I'll try to explain a bit about how I use each site.

CNN Money - Pre market I use this simply to see what the open is likely to be like in the US. As I live in Australia, on a Mon - Fri night this is an interesting thing to observe. Also the currencies page shows you how the AUD is faring against the USD. Lastly, this is a "MSM" ("Main Stream Media") and it's interesting to see what they are obsessing about or how they are explaining market action. You may start to feel a bit stupid if you read too much though, so save yourself any in depth exploration, there are better options below.

Kitco Live Gold Chart is somewhere I go fairly often. If you own gold, or gold mining stocks, it's interesting. And you probably should! It gives you 3 days of activity, and you get used to the chart.

Bullionvault Live Gold Ok, another one? Why? Well - this time it does something very useful - it converts it to a live price in Australian dollars. It also can go down to activity in the last 10 minutes, and has some fairly groovy chart options. The only downside is that it uses Java, heavily, so this can take a moment to launch. Fun to watch when the fireworks are happening in the gold market. The gold market is global, so it's open almost all of the working week - there are some hours where it's not though.

Mish. Is a blog with frequent and interesting articles, and just as interesting a comments section and community. Mish is a fairly hard deflationist, who sides on the Austrian school of economics. I don't always agree with him, but I certainly find his perspective interesting, and I give him points for calling the March low in the market almost to the day. I was not a believer at that time.

Denninger / Market Ticker Karl is a bit of an angry man sometimes. Often justifiably so, but sometimes not. He does take the time to really spell stuff out though, and so it's worth enduring the sometimes ranty/condescending tone to get to the heart of the matter. Something he does quite well and often. I've never explored the forum, it's probably good but also probably huge. You might consider Karl on the lunatic fringe at times, or a "true patriot", depending on your point of view.

Zerohedge I have been following this web site since it started. It is more or less a web site for financial industry insiders, it can be very technical, very little is explained, which can make it practically incomprehensible to newcomers. It is worth the effort though, as many of the articles provide highly relevant (to the market) news and discussions. If you want to understand whats driving the market really (not the CNN version), this is the place. They also discuss US treasury auctions, gold and other topics, and like Mish, the comments section is often a better read than the articles themselves. Work your way up to this site.

The Automatic Earth Some of the best articles I read in a while have come from this site. It is well thought out and written, updated relatively infrequently (once per day-ish).

The Market Oracle is a UK based site, which is a compendium of articles syndicated elsewhere. You will see some of Mish's stuff here, for instance. Many of the articles are leaders to try and get you to subscribe, but others are the full deal. After a time you get to know the various contributors and where they stand. Some are full on doomers, while others are not.

Implode / Explode is another list of articles, which again may point you back to Mish or Denninger. However, what I find interesting is the "Bank Failure Friday" coverage, where they go into details of how many and how big each failed bank is.

Jim Kunstler is an author of a book called "the long emergency" which was a big eye opener to me when I read it. He is a perma-bear, who sees the US as a car dependent society in decline. His timing might be wrong, but a lot of his ideas are not. There are a lot of fatalistic survivalist types who follow him, so be prepared for a bit of that action.

The Oil Drum is not actually an economic web site, it's more of a peak-oil web site. However, if you see energy as the driver of economies, this is a great read. Again, the comments are often very thought provoking. I very much believe in peak oil, by the way. I have read quite a lot about it and might do a follow up list of books that are worth reading on the subject.

Urban Survival is a real "lunatic fringe" entry, but one I find weaves in and out reality. He believes in a system he sells which analyses web language content to predict the future. He believes in government conspiracies, predicting things such as earthquakes and is anti-flu vaccines. You may find it all too "out there" but sometimes it is an interesting read.

Soot and Ashes was dormant for ages but seems to have risen...ahhh... from the ashes. Keith runs the show and he has an attitude of sorts. Good comments. Worth a check in for the amusement value, as much as anything. He used to moderate the housingpanic web site, which was huge for a time when the whole sub-prime bomb exploded.

Are there more? Well, yes, but the above list covers a most of the interesting ones. I check the Sydney Morning Herald for my general news, and sometimes read the business section there about local companies and influences. If you are unsure of the value of owning gold, there are a couple of seriously one-sided fan sites of the metal here and here.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

2010 - Economic Predictions

Well, it needs to be prefaced that nobody knows the future. So what follows is my guesses at what might happen in 2010 in the world and to a lesser extent the Australian economy. I do this having studied the situation for the last few years in my spare time with a keen interest. So, for what it's worth - what do I think will happen in 2010?

1. Double dip recession by mid year
Sorry guys, but I don't think we are out of the woods and blue sky's upon us. Instead, all major problems have been deferred rather than being faced head on. This has delayed the day of reckoning, but not for long, and it will be a doosy. I believe new lows in the stock markets, new lows in sentiment, new highs in unemployment figures. I expect this to be in March - June timeframe, but of course it could be sooner or later by a few months. This time Australia will not escape the fallout so readily, and will start to get some serious unemployment strain. The problem with this leg down is that all the tricks they pulled to get us out of the last nose dive won't work this time. Volatility will come back too - big up and down days. More people will get scared this time as the realise that the powers that be have lost control. Comparisons the to the 1930's will be everywhere, and people will be talking "Depression".

2. There will be trouble with US treasuries
The US needs to refinance mountains of debt. This is not paying off any principal you understand, just refinancing old debt plus taking on new debt. Obamas plans are fantasy land stuff. The problem is that the world is very suspicious debt, and with low interest rates it's not worth taking the risk. One temporary solution would be a major correction in the stock market to drive scared cash into T bills, but even that might not be enough. It seems the Fed is backed into a corner and is about to lose control. Interest rates will almost certainly rise, in the US, probably by a lot once they get going. This will kill any stability in the housing market, which will start the spiral anew. Watch what happens to California, bank failures and bid-to-cover ratios on auctions (although these are fudged).

3. Geopolitics will become more unstable
There are so many possible black swans here it looks like a black cloud. Take your pick from Iran/Israel, India/Pakistan, Yemen, Eastern Block Country collapse, Russians testing an over-extended US force, Social collapse in China etc, etc. There may even come something right out of left field that nobody is even talking about now. Instability will start to rise, along with tensions, and some things will snap. Genuine terrorism may also come again, as could assassinations. There is a lot of bad mojo out there. Watch the oil/gas, as energy is the key.

4. Gold/Silver will have a rough ride
I like gold, I really do, but I can see some trouble ahead. Firstly, some of the recent rise is due to commodity speculation fueled by near-free money handed out in the US. When (if?) Quantitative Easing ends, in March as stated now, the punch bowl will be taken away. Similarly, if the stock markets become rough people may liquidate gold investments to cover other poorer performing assets. If you need money, you sell what you can. If interest rates go up then money may chase this. The gold market, like all markets, is manipulated these days. Don't think it's trading on fundamentals, if it was then gold would be well over $2K by now. There is no doubt that gold is a good long term investment and it will go up, but in 2010 it may go down a fair bit before heading that way. It may bounce around quite violently too - if you have the stomach for it you can make (or lose) a lot of money along the way. Try and pick the bottom and get into this, if you can, in physical form. Watch to see if there are any obvious games at Comex.

5. The US dollar will have a rough ride too
This is kind of the inverse picture to gold. I expect the long term picture to be a depressed dollar value (to other currencies, or to gold), but the short term picture may surprise many with a strong dollar. I think it will end the year below the current value. There is an outside chance of a full blown dollar crisis this year, but I suspect this will be put off for a 2011 or 2012. If there is, then that will turn all the trends up to "11".

6. Inflation? Deflation?
This is a hard one. I think you can answer this by saying - whatever is worse. Deflation on the things you own or don't need (luxury goods), inflation on the things you need (food, energy). Actually, in some cases there is a third option - shortages. You may not be able to buy things at any price. This may come in unexpected areas as the globalisation story becomes unhinged. If the financial markets fall apart (and despite the happy talk from Ben I believe it can still happen) then international trade will be even slower than it is now. Not many people consider this option, surprisingly.

That is the top 6, let's see how I do in Jan 2011.

Knives - Part 2

I was not exactly intending to make this a multi-part entry, but since writing the first part I have bought more knives. Quite a few more, as I now have 15 of them in total. I think I'm near the end of the knife buying spree, but I'll get back to you on that one.

Partly I have added more because I found a seller on eBay who gets them in cheap and sells a lot of knives second hand for $10 or so - which is a price that's hard to go wrong with. I mean, it's less than a CD. These are sourced from the US, confiscated at airports (let this be a reminder to you!). I have had one fairly major disappointment, but also two or three great surprises, so overall I've been happy doing this.

The other reason I have added more knives to my collection is that I have wanted to continue to own an example from various brands and locking mechanisms. I now have knives with axis locks, lockback, mid-mounted lockback, liner lock and a "levitation" locks. Perhaps amazingly, there are a few lock types I still don't have. As for brands, I have added two Benchmade knives, a Spyderco, a Gerber, a Kershaw and a few other lesser brands. All very nice knives I have to add, and each has it's own personality.

An example of a knife I am interested in, because it has a different lock and it's a brand I don't yet have one of is a CRKT Rollock (The II looks better). The problem with this knife is that I can't imagine every using it, and that's one criteria I have for ownership.

Anyway, on with a mini-review of some of the knives I do have...

Spyderco Tenacious (new)
Spyderco make fairly odd looking knives. At least, that was my first reaction but you do get used to them. They have a blade that sticks out a lot, so that the large circular hole is accommodated. This hole is used instead of a thumbstud to push out the blade, and it means that the blade is very wide (deep?) and has a large thumb-ramp (which is practical). It's also a full ground blade, making it a great cutter. Actually, it's quite a big knife, one of the largest I own, and this somewhat makes it borderline for an Every-Day-Carry (EDC) proposal. It is a very refined knife, with a lot of attention to detail - and the mechanism is very smooth and a pleasure to open and close. The clip can be put in all 4 positions (tip up/down, left/right) and there is a lined lanyard hole. The black G10 handles (or are they Fiberglass Reinforced Nylon? FRN) are flat and lightly textured. The knife can be taken apart for cleaning, has a flow-though design with skeletonlized liners to keep the weight down. The blade is a 8Cr13Mov steel, which is fine by me. I'm not a steel connoisseur - as long as it doesn't rust and can hold an edge I'm ok with it. It's made in China, which again, is fine by me as long as it's well made - and it is. Overall, this is one of my favourite knifes - feels great in the hand, it's sharp and practical design.

Kershaw 2040 "Stag"
I think a picture is in order here..

I wanted to get a Kershaw knife, and this one came up on eBay so I went for it. This is an "old" knife - from the 70's and 80's according to this site, which incidentally has it listed for US $70, whereas I paid AUS $15 for it. The wooden inserts in my knife are fine, but the blade was very dull. I have been learning the ancient art of knife sharpening, and tried my hand at getting this blade in better condition. I was amazed at how quickly and easily I was able to get this up to shaving sharp (ie it can cut the hairs off my arm). It's a thin knife frame, quite heavy and large and solid though. It locks up very tightly, and has a great spring to it when opening/closing. It had some rust-looking buildup inside the knife, and as it is not a take apart model, I had to use some WD40 and tissues wedged in there to remove it - which it did quite easily so it was fairly superficial. This was one of my "great surprises" off eBay - I really like this knife as it oozes quality and is a joy to hold and use. It's not a high tech knife - it has no real tricks - it's just a solid, stylish pocket knife. I love it.

Benchmade Benchmite II (new)
This is a little knife, and I mean little with less than a 2" blade. I bought it because I wanted a Benchamde knife, and this has a new lock type - a "levitator" lock. In practice this means that on one side of the knife you have to press the frame at a certain point to open and close the blade. Yes, this locks closed - which is a safety feature I have been looking for. Why? Well, having a super-sharp knife in your pocket catch on a thread when you pull it out, could have nasty consequences on your future reproductive capability. Some knife designs are more at risk of this than others, but unless you can lock it closed, they all carry some danger. This knife, then, is safe to have in your pocket, or on your keyring, or to even toss to someone (closed). It's an all-metal knife which would make it heavy except that it's tiny so it's not. In the hand you are only going to get two fingers around it, and the thumb on top, so it's not going to be used to cut anything major. It's a "red box" knife (ie not made in the USA, in this case, Taiwan), but the quality is excellent. It has no belt clip (which makes it flat), but does have a lanyard (keyring?) hole. This is in summary then a cheap, small, safe utilitarian knife. I would use a bigger knife in preference if one was handy, but would use it in a pinch to do light tasks.

Benchmade Mini Griptillian 556 (new)
Slightly unsatisfied that I had a "real" Benchmade knife with the Benchmite, I ordered this blue-boxed model. Despite the "mini" in it's name, it's a mid-sized knife (*just* fills the hand) and is significantly bigger than the Benchmite II. It has an axis lock from the people that invented it (I believe), and it's a very nice design. To be honest, I've only had this knife the shortest time, and I don't really have a feel for it yet. My initial reaction though is that I am not disappointed. This is very sharp right out of the box too. One thing I have noticed is that the actual edge of the knife is a tiny ground, which may make sharpening the knife an interesting challenge. Not that it needs it now.

Gerber Torch I
This knife cost me $15 on eBay secondhand. It's in near-new condition really, there is no noticeable wear. It's a medium knife (just get my fourth finger onto the frame when open) with a frame lock. It also has a flip tab on the side to fast-open the knife and despite me being quite timid with the other knives I own, with this I can open it with the flick of my wrist. Once open, the tab also forms a natural barrier for your fingers to slide up to the blade, which I also think is good. Of course, if that same tab is bumped accidentally when closed it will partly open. See above on the Benchmite II for reasons why I am cautious about this. I have sharpened this blade and it's now ok, not great, but ok. It's a great knife to fiddle with though - the opening is fun and the close is smooth and sweet too. It doesn't say where it is made on the blade, or the model or steel. Still, it's a nice knife, and I like it.

Smith & Wesson Baby SWAT SW3300
Well, so far I've liked all the knives, right? Well, not this one. The most immediate problem is that it's almost impossible to open. I've tried loosening the pivot screw, and it just introduced blade wobble. The second problem is that it's almost impossible to close, once you do pry it open. The frame lock locks up so tight, and the gimping in it bites the thumb quite hard. I might be able to solve both problems by bending the framelock back a fraction, but I'm thinking I should not have to do that.
OK, well, I've swallowed my pride and just bent the frame a little with some needle nosed pliers and it's now a lot better. I also re-tightened the pivot screw so the blade wobble has gone. And I oiled it. Even now though, partly due to the location of the thumb studs, it's still hard to open, or at least, harder than it should be. Now it's easy to close, which is a relief. This is about the same size and weight as the Gerber Torch I, and I know that I would grab that instead over this knife any day, despite these fixes. My thumb hurts from playing with this knife for only a few minutes and I'm relieved to put it down and pick up a different one. It gives me little joy.

Winchester 2008
I am not sure of the model number, sorry. This is a liner lock with wooden inserts in the otherwise solid metal handle. This is an odd knife in many ways. I got it mainly because I liked the look of the wood inserts (still do), and it was cheap, of course. It has several good points - it is easy to open, nice blade shape, easy to close, no knife play, good clip, nice gimping. There are a few things I don't like about it though - the primary thing is that the liner in the lock is very thin (compared to the others, like the Tenacious) and it bends out a lot. So, despite being a "super solid" looking knife, the lock is somewhat flimsy (to my eyes anyway). As for the handle, it seems to go somewhat overboard, the knife back is a solid lump of metal which makes it quite a hefty knife. Too hefty really, it's overkill. The buck 110 is heftier, but that is right on that knife, which is hard to explain. Overall it's got a lot of things right but I'm not convinced it's the real-deal.

And the others...
Yes, well, there are three more which I will do quickly. I got a "California Waterfowl Association" branded knife, which may well be a generic Chinese knife re branded. It is a midsized lockback with what looks to be FRN handles. The steel is unknown, but the blade has a nice shape and a hole instead of the more common thumb stud. I have sharpened it and may have introduced the small nick on the blade in just the wrong place. I don't play with this much, although there is nothing particularly wrong with it.

The other two knives looks similar, but I feel strongly that one is better than the other. They are both large wood handle over steel frame lock folders. One is "Sheffield" branded, the other "Ozark Trail". They have a remarkably similar design, but the Sheffield gets it right at almost every turn that they are different. The Sheffield is smoother to open and much nicer to close, and has a bevelled "roundness" to all the edges which makes it a pleasure to handle. I will open and close this blade for a few minutes, but the Ozark gets picked up and put down almost straight away. It's not bad, really, it's just that the Sheffield is better.

I do have a few others, but really, you've had enough, haven't you?

Ok, so my fav is....?
Oh, this is such a hard thing to answer. I like a lot of my knifes for different reasons. However, I do think about which knife I might choose if I could only have one. It's a really hard choice, and it partly comes down to what I think I might use it for. To stop dodging the question for a minute though, I suspect I would go for the Buck 110 (solid, sharp), or possibly the Kershaw 2040 (more style?). They are both very dependable knifes. Of the modern made knifes, the Spyderco Tenacious would be the pick. I know any of these knifes would serve me well, and have good steel. I guess though that if I was 100% satisfied with one knife then I would not have a collection of 15 of them, would I? In practice each knife has it's own personality, strengths, weaknesses and ideal uses. Even one knife can feel different depending on it's maintenance (loose screws, dull blade, grit in the hinge etc). Anyway, for one reason or another, I more or less like them all.