5/26/09: Stocks going down, gold going up, another oil shock on the way, North Korea’s nuclear test, and bankrupting Social Security

Bill Fleckenstein thinks stocks will head lower over time, “as the complications from inflation and higher interest rates eventually compress price-to-earnings multiples and expectations are lowered about what sort of earnings power companies actually have.” He’s also certain that “the dollar will head lower and precious metals will trade higher.”

He’ll get no argument from Prieur du Plessis, who wrote last Friday that as “printing presses are running at full speed to produce ever-increasing quantities of fiat money as governments engineer the greatest asset price reflation in human history,” the long-term case for gold is “arguably positive.”

Lots of people are worried about the next oil shock, despite the commodity’s current low price following last year’s shock.

From last Friday’s Economist:

Much of the world’s “easy” oil has already been extracted, or is in the hands of nationalist governments that will not allow foreigners to exploit it. That leaves firms to hunt for new reserves in ever more inhospitable and inaccessible places, such as the deep waters off Africa or the frozen oceans of the Arctic. Such fields take a long time and a lot of expensive technology to develop. Worse, new discoveries tend to be smaller than in the past and to run dry faster.

So oil firms must work doubly hard to replace declining fields and to increase output. Yet the oil industry is short of equipment and manpower, thanks to underinvestment in the 1980s and 1990s, when prices were low. As soon as the world economy starts growing again, the theory runs, demand for oil will once again outstrip the industry’s ability to supply it.

In other words, the global recession has only interrupted the “supercycle” of which many analysts used to speak, during which the normal boom-and-bust cycle of oil and other commodities would give way to a protracted period of high prices, as ever-growing demand from emerging markets swallowed everything the extractive industries could produce.

At last week’s Joint Economic Committee of Congress meeting, University of California San Diego economist James Hamilton said, “Even if we see significant short-run gains in global oil production capabilities, if demand from China and elsewhere returns to its previous rate of growth, it will not be too long before the same calculus that produced the oil price spike of 2007-08 will be back to haunt us again.”

At the same meeting, IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates chairman Daniel Yergin said that “half of the expected growth in oil production capacity over the next five years is ‘at risk’ of deferment or cancellation in today’s economic environment” and “cannot be counted upon.”

He acknowledged that the “future U.S. automobile fleet will be more efficient” but noted that “auto sales will grow substantially in other parts of the world, which means more vehicles will need fuel.”

Moreover: “All this underlines the reality of cycles. During this downturn, there is a natural tendency for memories to fade about the acute concerns of a year ago — and the impact of such dramatic price increases as seen in 2007 and 2008. But it is important to keep a longer term perspective that accords with the longer-term investment horizons and the long lead times that are inherent in developing oil and other energy resources.”

Meanwhile, the nut jobs in Pyongyang are up to their old tricks. They conducted a nuclear explosion test yesterday, the yield of which was somewhere between 2 and 20 kilotons, judging from seismographic data. The Japan Meteorological Agency said it produced a ground shake that registered 5.3 on the Richter scale.

Stratfor says that while the world debates the actual size of the blast, the more important point is that North Korea continues testing at all. It’s “the only country in the world to have tested a nuclear device in the 21st century. It has now done so twice. In so doing, Pyongyang has provided North Korean engineers with a wealth of technical data and information on the performance of its weapons architecture and design. The North Korean nuclear program marches on.”

The world might not blow up before you retire, so make contingency plans in case Social Security and Medicare go bust. Robert Samuelson wrote in today’s Washington Post that “the programs will ultimately go bankrupt” due to a $46 trillion gap in today’s dollars between income and expenses over the next 75 years.

What a shame, then, that life expectancy is rising.

Don’t expect presidents to do anything about Social Security’s date with destitution. Samuelson recaps:

They profess concern, but their proposals are cosmetic, ineffectual or both. “We must save Social Security for the 21st century,” proclaimed Bill Clinton. “The system . . . on its current path, is headed toward bankruptcy,” warned George W. Bush. Now, Barack Obama seems to be reverting to this familiar form.

“What we have done is kicked this can down the road,” he told The Post. “We are now at the end of the road.” Great rhetoric — but that’s all.

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