The name of Kiril Sokoloff, author of the weekly WILTW (What I Learned This Week) newsletter through his advisory firm 13D Global Strategy & Research, needs no introduction on this website for the simple reason that over the past few years we have often published his highly insightful excerpts (most recently one month ago with “A Corporate-Debt Reckoning Is Coming“).
Which is why the latest “Lunch with the FT” feature by the FT’s Rana Foroohar may be of interest to readers curious about Sokoloff’s background and how over the past four decades he became one of the most closely sought after independent thinkers and strategists on Wall Street (he works out of St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands, unaffiliated with any bank), and why his clients – which include Mukesh Ambani, Sam Zell and Raymond Kwok – are quite happy to pay thousands of dollars for a subscription.
We find 13D fascinating, and one of the world’s best newsletters for many reasons by the main one is that Sokoloff’s overarching philosophy – fiscally conservative, rational, measured – is congruent with ours: as the FT notes, Sokoloff “has been trying to make the financial elite see the dangers of seeking to solve the problems of debt with more debt“, something we too have been doing since 2009 but obviously to absolutely no success.
As the FT continues, “the topic is timelier than ever, given that central-bank balance sheets — already huge before Covid-19 — are headed into the stratosphere, as policymakers struggle to cope with the crisis, not to mention the popping of a debt bubble that grew for years before it.”
Sokoloff is, of course, referring to this.
In any event, we’ll let readers catch up on the FT’s profile of the WILTW author at their leisure, but we did want to highlight one particular aspect of his interview: namely what he believes may be in store.
As Foroohar writes, in preparation for her interview “I’ve been… reading Depression-era journalist Garet Garrett’s 1932 book A Bubble That Broke the World, recommended to me by Sokoloff as a primer for our age, since it covers how central-bank actions contributed to the debt-driven run-up to the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression.”
More apropos, Sokoloff also sent the author a chart which compares the Dow Jones between 1918 and 1932 to the current period, a chart which we have also shown repeatedly on this website in recent weeks, months and years. Why that particular chart? Because as the FT explains, it shows that “the rise and the fall are frighteningly similar to the period from 2009 onwards.”
If history is a guide, stocks have further to go before they hit bottom. That’s Sokoloff’s view, anyway. Then as now, he says, “central bankers were pushing on a string”, trying in vain to whip up a real economic recovery with monetary policy.
And here is what Sokoloff believes will what happens when, again, “central banks push on a string”:
How does Sokoloff – who has traditionally been upbeat, optimistic and generally bullish – justify his outlook so apocalyptic it could be taken from a post on that tinfoil conspiracy theory website Zero Hedge? Here’s how:
“The more debt you add [via monetary and even some fiscal policy], the more unproductive the debt becomes,” says Sokoloff, who is now positioned at the dining table in front of his screen. It’s not a popular view these days. Austerity is out, and MMT — the notion that a country that controls its own currency can print it freely to fund deficit spending without worry — is in. (MMT stands for “modern monetary theory” or “magic money tree”, depending on your viewpoint.) But Sokoloff believes the stimulus programmes being launched in the US, Europe and many other parts of the world will very likely end in tears.
“I think we’re at the beginning of a long-term period of deflation, falling prices and the loss of pricing power. The only way out of it will be to have a long period of austerity, and to get the US savings rate up dramatically.” He points as an example to the US in the period during the second world war, when federal budget deficits were high, well over 20 per cent of GDP in some years (compared to what may be some 20 per cent-plus by the end of this year) but the personal savings rates of Americans were positively Chinese — as high as 25 per cent including income gains from the war and net exports, as opposed to 8 per cent or so before the Covid-19 crisis — boosted by wartime rationing.
One-upping Sokoloff, we have created a better chart that more clearly lays out what happens if one tacks on the Great Depression outcome to the current Dow Jones. In short, we should see the Dow dropping to the Great Depression-equivalent low of roughly 10,000.
There is good news: after its plunged to all time lows, the Dow traded in a tight range for several years before eventually blasting off to unprecedented highs. What triggered it? Why World War II of course.
Which is why any true comparisons to the Great Depression era should also consider the cataclysmic event that ended it, and look forward to a similar outcome over the next few years.