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March 26, 2004

Competition and the Deep Web



Regular Readers of DW may have noticed that the contributions from this department have fallen off considerably in the last few weeks.  You should all be reassured that this lack of editorial activity in no way reflects a lessening in our ongoing dedication to the mission of bringing studied, knowing, perhaps fanciful but always alternative views of reality to light.  The mission of the Dymaxion Web is, through a combination of enhanced communication, sophisticated probing and deep searching, to create an information dimension faultline; a direct echo on the screen, we'd like to think, of the dynamic that our patron saint, Buckminster Fuller, found in the physical world.

We are, of course, also in this for the fun of it.  And if getting our hands greasy tinkering with the nuts and bolts that connect the nodes seems like fun for the moment, then so be it.  Yes, we have been tied up not in some exotic adventure at a posh watering hole but rather in the extension of the structure that we are attempting to build here in cyberspace. All this to say that in the coming weeks and months we expect to begin realizing our goal of creating a very special opportunity for a multiplicity of participants to bring clarity to what are highly fudged over macro and micro- economic areas.

In other words, despite the lack of surface activity, things are moving along here at DW even though it seems that sometimes our efforts better resemble a bird moving a desert to another solar system one grain of sand at a time.

 There are so many areas of significance to talk about after this hiatus that is hard to settle on just one.  First off, the dust hasn't quite settled around the currency wars but after several weeks of confusion some things seem to be clearing up.  The last time we talked about the greenback was when it had reached its nadir vs. the euro of 1.30 to 1.  Since then, the dollar has rallied a bit and as we stand today one euro can now be had for a mere $1.21.  For a while it has also looked like the Japanese had finally given up on their program of throwing billions of good dollars after bad in an attempt to keep the Yen from getting too strong.
 Not that the confusion has been completely driven from the picture, particularly today, when rumors of a drop in the key  European Central Bank interest rate, helped to further dampen the collective European currency.  From our perspective, the fundamentals have not really changed and we are, of course, personally pleased to see that the gold bugs have finally figured that out and put the yellow metal back on its ascendant course.
 The problem, of course, is that the Europeans and Japanese were supposed to take the brunt of the cheaper dollar in Alan Greenspan's scenario so that the US economy could get back on track and fulfill its dominating role of being "the world's engine of economic growth".  Instead, what had been a slow but steady emergence of growth in Europe has been nipped in the bud as German industry had to shoulder the burden of a rising euro.  In other words, VW, Audi, and Mercedes sales in the US will be down this year as, more generally speaking, German-made goods get priced out of the market.
 But the "great engine of growth", despite the most massive stimulus program in history with resulting record domestic and trade deficits, has been doing a bit of its own sputtering.  And now, even the Fed is hinting that they will have to raise rates at some point fairly soon (once the election is over, we guess)  as the price of gasoline at the pump, for one instance, shoots off the charts.  It's been noted that each penny rise per gallon sucks $1 billion out of consumers' pocketbooks.  Yes, as we have noted, money gets printed as fast as the presses can go, and there is no one in the maxed out consumer class left to take it, except, of course, our Chinese purveyors.  Yes, Virginia, the Chinese will not hesitate to take those much diminished bucks; after all, they've got a whole bunch of internal bad debt sinkholes that can be papered over with them.
 Gold, which somewhat slavishly followed the euro up and for a while seemed to be following it down, now seems to have come unhooked from that anchor.
 And now for our main issue of the day:
 Competition and the Deep Web
 Two phenomena have come together in the last couple of years that have already had an amazing impact on how much information we can get at with a little persistence.  Let's first acknowledge that Google is the potent information gathering weapon ever devised.  If you don't believe us, watch out, you may one day find some memo you wrote in confidence that it would never be seen by more that the eyes it was addressed to, all of sudden show up in a search you (or somebody tracking you) do.  Even if its been estimated that Google only touches about 10% of what's accessible on line, that 10% already represents the most massive library of flotsam and jetsam ever conceived.
 The second factor is the phenomenon we are participating in here, the weblog.  Yes, weblogs are searchable and while there are millions of people out there writing their own brand of inanity, there is also the opportunity for some very interesting posts.  Imagine, for example, someone knowing a thing or two abou

t what Richard Clarke had to say this week, who might be sitting at a keyboard right at this moment, adding even more fuel to the story of how we got to this very costly, in every way, occupation of Iraq.
 Do a search on a few key words and you may just find one of these postings on the subject you are digging into.  The implications are somewhat mindboggling going forward.  Spinmeisters in control of the megaphone will always dominate the debate and serve to muddy the waters by cancelling each other out but Google-like engines can serve to act like that old magic trick where the man in a tux pours some clear liquid into a colored cocktail and changes it back to the transparency of a gin and tonic.
 Somebody wrote yesterday, and we apologize for not having a link and for our weak paraphrasing, that if one of the main political parties announced tomorrow that the world was indeed, flat, not round, the headline in the New York Times would read something like the following:  "Parties Debate Merits of New Theory Regarding Earth's Shape". We could then expect to have the weekend talk circuit loaded with advocates shouting talking points over each other.
 Competition was very much on the minds of the Europeans this week when they came down hard on Microsoft for monopolistic practices that the Seatle giant has been getting away with for years.  Microsoft has successfully snuffed out competition for desktop products and threatens to grab the same level of control over the web.  MS, ironically, argues that they need the ability to bundle their own strategic products into the operating system in order to foster innovation.  In other words, in their own monopolistic world, innovation is okay as long as it comes from the goliath.  Let all other players get squashed, they say, that's show business!  And indeed, show business has to be grateful for the European Commission ruling.  The media player, of course, acts as a gateway between the producers of entertainment products --ever more digital-- and the consuming public.  The system of payments for such products will take place on the "desktop" (substitute set-top for the emerging home network reality) and who controls that set-top will have enormous muscle in determining what happens to different products. 
 We should bear in mind that even as NASDAQ rocketed back up to about half of where it peaked during the bubble, MSFT has remained flat.  The Redmond guys desperately need another huge source of revenues beside the golden goose they now own.  The Europeans, in their ruling, also  tried to keep MS from forcing companies that want to use Windows on the desktop --nearly everybody-- to start using MS on their servers, as well.  In other words, build the operating system in such a ways that it talks best to a MS server product.  Time will tell how successful the agency will be.
 So now that we have affirmed that MS, like IBM before them, tries to snuff out competition wherever it can, and of that there should be no doubt, we have a bit of good news on the competition front.  And it comes, of all places, from MS, themselves, who have announced today that they are planning to compete with Google in the search engine space.  This, of course, comes on the heels of the announcement by Yahoo that they were dumping the Google engine for their own effort.
 And so we hopefully can look forward to some real competition in this really critical area. Let's hope that Google, Yahoo and MS go at it, feathers flying everywhere.  The result just might pull the kimono off some significant piece of the hidden 90%.  Here in the nosy reaches of the Dymaxion Web, we just can't wait!

Copyright 2004 Richard Mendel-Black All Rights Reserved

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Posted by dymaxion at 03:41 PM

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March 12, 2004

Why the Dollar Should keep Falling


  We've said often here that these are strange times for predicting markets and besides the normal curveballs thrown by the market gods there are other huge distorting factors stemming from the activities of the Federal Reserve under Alan Greenspan, the countermeasures of foreign central bankers and the bitter infighting of a presidential election year.  This week has been no exception.

For those who are of the persuasion that this is a sustainable recovery there was more bad news on the job front last week.  We've been saying all along that it is impossible to reckon how a consumer driven economy (over 70% of GDP) with its great reliance on debt financed spending can somehow hold up as fewer and fewer people find good jobs.  One of the most striking facts has been the continued depression in real wages for American workers who haven't really shown any gains since the 1970's. 

You only have to read the many articles that have come out of Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi's book "The Two Income Trap" to get a good idea of what's going on in a lot of American homes.  The authors have looked carefully at personal bankruptcy cases over a fairly long period of time and found a number of so-called counterintuitive facts:  Their main point is that personal bankruptcy is much more likely to happen to families where both spouses work and there are children in the household.  As the authors put it, and we paraphrase, it's those people who do all the right things, who work hard and who have an abiding interest in finding good schooling for their offspring and invest in a home of their own who are most likely to fall into economic ruin.  In other words, these people tend to be striving for what they and most of their peers regard as the life any American couple who play by the rules ought to expect.

What happens is that in order to get their kids into a "good" public school district these parents pay a major premium  for the price of their home.  And because they both work, they are required to have two cars and the overhead of daycare.

Since real wages have stagnated in real terms and there has been an enormous inflation in the cost of housing it now takes two salaries to keep pace.  So when one wage earner loses his or her job the debts begin to mount.  Yet there is little way to cut back.  American family saving is at its alltime lowest following a long pattern downward.  Credit is, of course, abundantly available, and may provide a short buffer but at some point either a job gets found --impossible if one of the two gets seriously ill-- or the family flounders.

The authors point out that in the old days the stay at home mom was a kind of reserve player who could enter the job market, albeit at lower wages, but provide back-up support.  The reality is that it now takes two wage earners to carry pretty much the same burden as it used to take one.

And so when with a grindingly monotonous rhythm the job figures came out last week several things occurred.  For one, interest rates dropped back to record low levels and consumer confidence also fell a notch or two.  Now, when interest fall like an ice cube on Jupiter you can usually expect some other things to follow suit. You might have expected the dollar to head into its own Jupiterian free fall while the price of gold made its way up over the moon.

Instead, the dollar actually firmed against the euro and gold, well gold managed to just barely hand onto its $400 an ounce price level until dipping Friday to slightly below  where it's been stuck for the last few months.

As we've also said many times over in the few months we've been writing this letter, that the US is dependent upon the kindness of strangers, mainly Japanese and Chinese, who must make up for the huge trade imbalance by buying US T-Bills as they are issued to cover domestic debt.  These Asian central bankers can put their excess dollars to work for much higher rates in more stable currencies by merely looking around.  But they have decided that they are going to subsidize their American customers even if it means  giving back their hard earned profits in the form of poor rendering US paper.  These guys are clearly not crazy so they must have a good reason for their actions and that, of course, is, we'll hazard, that if the US consumer ever decides they've had enough in Wal-Marts there would be no where else to turn to sell their goods.

The present US economic fix has sometimes been compared to the long dive of the Japanese economy that started in the late 80's and is only now starting to turn around.  Many economists have pooh-poohed the comparison.  The economies, they say, are just too different for comparison.  So when someone points to the recent bulge in the stock market that brought the NASDAQ back to 45% of where it peaked at over 5,000 in 2001, as similar to a move in the Japanese market that occurred 3 years after they peaked, critics find the whole thing risible.

And of course there are vast cultural differences in the two leading economies.  For one thing, Japan runs a trade surplus and for another, the Japanese are still basically a very frugal bunch who have one of the world's highest savings rates.  Americans, of course, have believed that their innate creativity, flexibility and capacity to absorb foreigners give their economy  a level of superiority over the Asian islanders.

But still another factor is that the US is the only country in the world that can print its own money and get away with sending it abroad where it is kept in bank coffers as an official "reserve currency".  America got that unique advantage back in the 70's when Nixon caught off the dollar from any last links it still had with the price of gold.

Europe, of course, would like to substitute its euro for the dollar as a second reserve currency.  And the world economy would be a lot more stable if Europe, taking the pressure off the US, started growing again at the rates it did  up into the 80's but, alas, that hasn't happened.  For a number of reasons but we should not overlook the effect a weak dollar has had on world trade in the last year as it went from 83 cents for one euro to a peak of $1.30.  In effect, while the Bank of Japan literally sank 100's of billions of dollars to keep the Yen from not diverging too drastically from the dollar and the Chinese held tight to their lockstep with the dollar, the Europeans could see their euro making strong gains.

But at what cost?  Recent figures point to a slowdown in Germany and France just as their economies were beginning to take on new life.  And so, you might say, as US interest rates took a dive back down last week (meaning you get less money when you invest in US T-paper) the dollar should have taken a dive.  Instead, it actually stiffened against the euro and the yen.

Does this mean that the bonfire of Japanese and Chinese dollars on the altar of the American consumer will now also be fed by the European central bankers as they scramble to soak up dollars before they become worthless to keep Volkswagen et al. competitive?

Never before have massive interventions like the ones going on right now, or potentially contemplated, ever been able to hold back an imbalance forever.

There's a potential avalanche out there and you would be wise to take some precautions.


Copyright 2004 Richard Mendel-Black All Rights Reserved

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Posted by dymaxion at 04:33 PM

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