Sunday, January 11th, 2009
Global stock markets reversed course during the last three days of the first full trading week of 2009 as investors were confronted with dreadful economic data, escalating layoffs and a bleak earnings outlook.
As investor sentiment soured, the MSCI World Index and the MSCI Emerging Markets Index declined by 2.5% and 1.7% respectively during “turnaround week”.
The US stock markets – leaders among mature markets since the November 20 low – were on the receiving end of the selling orders and recorded relatively large weekly losses of 4.8% for the Dow Jones Industrial Index and 4.4% for the S&P 500 Index. On the other end of the performance scale, Brazil (+11.8%) and Ireland (+11.0%) brought investors cheer. (The Dublin ISEQ Index was the worst bear market performer, losing 76.8% from June 2007 to November 2008.)
Source: Daryl Cagle
Elsewhere, the US Dollar Index (+1.0%) closed up for the week, but off its highs on the back of dismal US labor market data. As governments seek to raise record amounts of debt to stimulate declining economies, the increasing supply of sovereign paper pushed up yields of longer-dated bonds in the US, UK and eurozone. “The long-held assumption that US assets – particularly government bonds – are a safe haven will soon be overturned as investors lose their patience with the world’s biggest economy,” said respected economist Willem Buiter in The Telegraph.
Despite geopolitical problems and the disruption of European gas supplies, West Texas Intermediate Crude closed 11.9% down on the week as the severity of the global recession raised fresh concerns about demand. Platinum (+6.2%) made up lost ground relative to its precious metal cousins, gold (-2.8%) and silver (-1.5%). (Also see my post “Picture du Jour: Gold or platinum?“.)
The release on Tuesday of the minutes of the Federal Open Market Committee’s meeting of December 15 and 16 showed committee members very concerned about the economic outlook. It was decided to move beyond using the Fed funds rate as the key policy tool, expand the central bank’s balance sheet to buy assets to help reduce longer-term interest rates, and make it explicit to keep the Fed funds rate low for an extended period of time, also in an attempt to bring down longer-term rates.
The Fed on Monday started its $500 billion program of buying securities guaranteed by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and Ginnie Mae, resulting in a decline in home loan rates.
Meanwhile, President-elect Barack Obama’s incoming administration is planning an economic stimulus package worth more than $800 million, including $300 million of tax cuts. Obama said: “The economy is very sick. Economists from across the political spectrum agree that if we don’t act swiftly and boldly, we could see a much deeper economic downturn …”
Source: Daryl Cagle
The past week saw some progress on the credit front, with the TED spread (down to 1.20% from 4.65% on October 10, 2008), LIBOR-OIS spread (down from 3.64% on October 10 to 1.07%) and GSE mortgage spreads having narrowed markedly since the record highs. More recently, high-yield spreads have also seen a strong improvement, with the Merrill Lynch US High Yield Index declining by 23.7% since its high of December 15 (see chart below).
Although credit spreads still have to narrow considerably before the world’s financial system functions normally again, the recent action has been a step in the right direction.
With many analysts warning that the bubble in Treasuries looks ready to pop, corporate credit seems to beckon. According to a Financial Times survey of 30 leading asset managers and strategists “high-grade corporate bonds are set to outperform other asset classes in 2009″.
The iBoxx Investment Grade Corporate Bond Fund (LQD) and High Yield Corporate Bond Fund (HYG) both rallied over the past week and increased by 2.0% and 3.8% respectively. These Funds have performed excellently since their October/November lows, with LQD up by 26.7% and HYG by 26.2% from November.
Next, a quick textual analysis of the dozens of articles I have read during the past week. Interestingly, many reports were concerned with “bonds” and “yields”.
Turning to the outlook for the stock market, Bennet Sedacca (Atlantic Advisors Asset Management) warned as follows in a guest post entitled “Setting the bull trap“: “The Fed has declared a war on savers, a war on prudence and provided the ultimate Moral Hazard Card – and with our money no less. They are also setting up the ULTIMATE BULL TRAP – a trap so large that when it is sprung, perhaps as early as the end of the first quarter/beginning of second quarter, there will only be sellers left.”
“It is difficult to see how equities can sustain an advance until the monetary transmission mechanism begins to function more normally,” added BCA Research. “In addition, the poor earnings outlook will be a persistent headwind for stocks throughout 2009 and analysts are likely to be disappointed in their overly optimistic profit forecasts: earnings could fall by as much as 25 to 30% as revenue growth slows and margins contract.”
Arguing the bullish case from Hong Kong, Puru Saxena’s MoneyMatters newsletter listed the following reasons to support his viewpoint that “the skies are clearing for a four- to five-year bull market”: surging liquidity, low interest rates, declining corporate bond yields, declining TED spread, low valuations, volatility has peaked, the US dollar rally has ended, global stock markets are making higher lows, and a huge amount of cash on the sidelines.
The short-term technical picture is tricky, with the Dow having pulled back below the 50-day moving average and the S&P 500 (shown in the graph below) testing both the 50-day line and the short-term trendline defining the bottom of a rising wedge (usually a negative chart pattern). The December 22 and 29 lows of 857 are also important initial levels for the uptrend to remain intact.
Commenting on the chart, Richard Russell (Dow Theory Letters) said: “My guess (and I do have to guess) is that the market will be doing work inside the bottom pattern. This is only natural since it takes a good deal of ‘work’ for stocks to break out of a bottom in the face of the ongoing abysmal news. It looks like we are going to have some bobbing and weaving inside the base that has formed. A breakout either way may be a matter of months away.”
An old stock market saw tells us the first five trading days of January sets the course for January, and if the month of January is higher, there is a good chance the year will end higher, i.e. the so-called “January Barometer”. So far so good, as the S&P 500 registered a gain of 0.7% over the first five days (although the Dow was down by 0.4%).
Jeffrey Hirsch (Stock Trader’s Almanac) said: “The return of seasonal bullish market action is encouraging. Since the week of Thanksgiving the market has been constructive. Thanksgiving week was bullish, as was the last half of December, the Santa Claus Rally and now the First Five Days. The final arbiter of these year-end/new-year indicators is of course the January Barometer at month-end.”
While a sustained stock market advance will rely on the thawing of credit markets, I am of the opinion that selective buying in global markets is in order. However, make sure to winnow the wheat from the chaff. The current default rate on American high-yield bonds is less than 4%, but Barclays Capital is predicting a rate of 14.3% by the second half of 2009. “If 2008 was the year of systemic risk [i.e. risk affecting all assets], 2009 seems likely to be a year dominated by specific risk [i.e. risk that is unique to each asset],” said The Economist.
For more discussion about the direction of stock markets, also see my post “Video-o-rama: Figuring out the lie of the financial land“.
“Global business confidence began 2009 as dark as it has ever been. While sentiment has improved a bit during the last two weeks, it remains near record lows,” said the latest Survey of Business Confidence of the World conducted by Moody’s Economy.com. “Businesses are nearly equally pessimistic across the globe and across all industries. Hiring intentions have turned particularly negative in recent weeks. Pricing power has collapsed, suggesting that deflation is a significant threat.”
The eurozone economy contracted by 0.2% in the third quarter of 2008, according to Eurostat. Following a similar decline in GDP in the previous quarter, the monetary union has officially entered a recession.
The latest industrial production data for the UK, Germany and France continued a downward spiral. It therefore did not come as a surprise that the Bank of England (BoE) on Thursday lowered its repo rate by 50 basis points to 1.5% – the lowest level since the inception of the BoE in 1694. The European Central Bank (ECB) is also expected to lower interest next Thursday as a result of gloomy economic reports and the eurozone inflation rate last month falling below the ECB’s target.
Nouriel Roubini (RGE Monitor) said: “Manufacturing surveys reflect simultaneous contraction in manufacturing throughout the G7 and in key emerging markets like China, Brazil and Russia, verifying the global recession that is well on course. PMI and industrial production is at decade lows in key emerging markets, and the US and EU PMI surveys reflect the weakest levels in several decades.” The JPMorgan Global Manufacturing PMI, posting its weakest reading ever in December, bears this out.
As far as the US is concerned, 2008 ended on a depressing note for the US labor market. Payroll employment declined by 524,000 jobs in December, slightly more than expected and the largest one-month decline since December, 1974. Payrolls shrank by 2.6 million jobs over the course of 2008, recording the largest annual decline since 1945. The unemployment rate rose to 7.2% – the highest level since the early 1990s.
“The Bureau of Labor Statistics employed seasonal adjusting chicanery to mitigate job losses. Not seasonally adjusted (NSA), 954,000 jobs were lost. Additionally, the BLS’s hokey Net Business Birth/Death Model unfathomably created 72,000 jobs in December,” commented Bill King (The King Report).
Asha Bangalore (Northern Trust) summarized the US economic situation as follows: “The Fed is expected to stay on hold for all of 2009 in terms of implementing monetary policy changes via adjustments of the target Fed funds rate, but other non-interest avenues to support/ease financial market conditions remain open. The details of the employment report are grim and provide ample evidence for proponents of a large fiscal stimulus package to revive economic activity.”
Week’s economic reports
Source: Yahoo Finance, January 9, 2009.
In addition to a speech by Fed Chairman Bernanke at the London School of Economics (Tuesday, January 13) and the European Central Bank’s interest rate announcement (Thursday, January 15), the US economic highlights for the week, courtesy of Northern Trust, include the following:
1. International Trade (January 13): The trade deficit is predicted to have narrowed in November ($54.5 billion versus a trade gap of $57.2 billion in October), largely reflecting lower prices of imported oil. Consensus: $51.5 billion.
2. Retail Sales (January 14): Auto sales moved up slightly in December (10.7 million versus 10.3 million in November). But lackluster non-auto retail sales and lower gasoline prices should bring down the headline reading. Consensus: -1.2% versus 0.3% in January; non-auto retail sales: 0.2% versus 0.3% in January.
3. Producer Price Index (January 15): The Producer Price Index for Finished Goods is expected to have declined by 1.7% in December, reflecting lower energy prices. The core PPI is most likely to have risen by 0.1% after a 0.2% increase in November. Consensus: -2.0%, core PPI +0.1%.
4. Consumer Price Index (January 16): A drop in the overall CPI, due to lower energy prices, is nearly certain. The core CPI is expected to have increased by 0.1% after holding steady in November. Consensus: -0.9%, core CPI +0.1%.
5. Industrial production (January 16): The 2.4% drop in the manufacturing man-hours index in December is indicative of a large decline in industrial production (-1.3%). The operating rate is projected to have dropped to 74.5 in December. Consensus: -1.2%; Capacity Utilization: 74.5 versus 75.4 in November.
6. Other reports: Inventories, Import prices (January 14), Consumer Sentiment Index (January 16).
Click here for a summary of Wachovia’s weekly economic and financial commentary.
The performance chart obtained from the Wall Street Journal Online shows how different global markets performed during the past week.
Source: Wall Street Journal Online, January 9, 2009.
And now for a few news items and some words from the investment wise that should be of help in keeping our investment portfolios on a winning path. As the Irish say: “Go n-éirí an bóthar leat. May the road rise with you.”
That’s the way it looks from Cape Town.
CNN Money: The wealthy self-destruct
“Millionaires and billionaires are turning to suicide in the wake of the financial crisis.”
Source: CNN Money, January 9, 2009.
CNBC: Marc Faber – markets to rally, but retest lows
Click here for article.
Source: CNBC, January 9, 2009.
Mish’s Global Economic Trend Analysis: Themes for 2009
“Looking ahead in 2009 here are some things I see as likely.
“Obama will pass a stimulus package of $850+ billion but $300 billion will be ‘tax relief’ amounting to $19 a week per household at most. $19 a week is not going to stimulate much of anything but it will add to the budget deficit. People will use that money to pay down bills, which is exactly what they should be doing with it.
“The first 3-5 months are going to be extremely weak on the jobs front with 400,000 or more jobs lost each month. Obama is going to need to create 2-3 million jobs just to counteract job losses in first half of the year. There is no way he is going to create jobs that fast given implosions in state budgets and retailers.
“In 2009 consumers will continue to retrench, housing will continue to decline, and as many as 100 small or regional banks will implode over falling commercial real estate prices. The Fed may arrange shotgun marriages with these banks instead of letting them go under.
“I am sticking with a thesis that says we are currently in a sucker rally in the stock market that will end soon after inauguration or moments after Obama signs a new stimulus package. My target is 600 on the S&P but 450 is not out of the question. However, it is better to think of this in ranges and that range would roughly be 450-700.
“It is quite possible the lows in treasury yields are in. Unlike 2008 where I was constantly beating the drums for lower yields, 2009 could be different. Here are the facts: 3 month and 6 month yields hit 0% and the 10 year came close to hitting 2%. Could there be lower yields still? Yes, quite easily. Is it worth playing for other than as a hedge or part of an overall investment strategy? No.
“Should treasuries be shorted? No, it is too early. Yields can easily make lower lows. Just because something is not a good long, does not make it a good short. Look at how long yields stayed low in Japan. I doubt we see a print of 4 on the 10-year treasury for a long time. If one wants to bet on yields rising for a reflation trade, there are better plays such as going long energy stocks that yield a nice dividend as well.”
Click here for the full article.
Source: Mike “Mish” Shedlock, Mish’s Global Economic Trend Analysis, January 6, 2009.
CNBC: President-elect Obama on the economy
Source: CNBC, January 8, 2009.
BBC News: Obama says US economy “very sick”
“US President-elect Barack Obama has described America’s economy as ‘very sick’ and has said that the situation was worsening. Earlier, he met politicians in Washington to discuss ways to boost the economy and create new jobs.
“US media reports say he is planning a stimulus package worth more than $800 billion, including $300 billion of tax cuts.
“Mr Obama has said he wants a plan that will create 3 million jobs by 2011.
“The president-elect hopes to be able to enact the package shortly after his inauguration on 20 January.
“‘The economy is very sick,’ he said. ‘We have to act and act now to break the momentum of this recession. We’ve got an extraordinary economic challenge ahead of us, we’re expecting a sobering job report at the end of the week.’
“‘Economists from across the political spectrum agree that if we don’t act swiftly and boldly, we could see a much deeper economic downturn that could lead to double-digit unemployment and the American dream slipping further and further out of reach,’ Mr Obama said.”
Source: BBC News, January 06, 2009.
CNBC: Barney Frank on TARP
“Rep. Barney Frank comments on the revisions to the TARP.”
Source: CNBC, January 9, 2009.
Fox Business: Outraged! – Peter Schiff on the economy
Source: Fox Business, January 7, 2009.
Financial Times: New York Fed starts $500 billion home loans aid
“The Federal Reserve Bank of New York on Monday said it had started its $500 billion plan to drive down US mortgage rates by buying securities guaranteed by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and Ginnie Mae, the government-run mortgage financiers.
“Mortgage bond yields fell sharply as a result, extending a dramatic decline that followed the New York Fed’s announcement of the programme on November 25. Thirty-year agency mortgage securities yielded 190 basis points over Treasuries on Monday, compared with 208bp on Friday.
“The Fed did not disclose the amount of its purchases on Monday, but said it would provide weekly updates on its buying programme from Thursday.
“Last week, the New York Fed pushed forward with its plan by setting a goal of buying $500 billion in mortgage-backed securities by mid-2009, part of a sustained effort to help the US weather the financial crisis.
“A reduction in financing costs for the mortgage agencies translates into lower rates for US home loans. Average interest rates on 30-year fixed-rate mortgages have fallen from 6% to about 5.3% since the program was announced in November, according to Bankrate.com.”
Source: Saskia Scholtes, Financial Times, January 5, 2009.
The Seattle Times: Steel industry hopes for big stimulus shot
“The steel industry, having entered the recession in the best of health, is emerging as a leading indicator of what lies ahead. As steel production goes, and it is now in collapse, so will go the national economy.
“That maxim once applied to the Big Three car companies. Now they are losing ground in good times and bad, and steel has replaced autos as the industry to watch for an early sign that a severe recession is beginning to lift.
“The industry itself is turning to government for orders that, until the collapse, came from manufacturers and builders.
“Its executives are waiting anxiously for details of President-elect Obama’s stimulus plan and adding their voices to pleas for a huge public investment program – up to $1 trillion over two years – that will lift demand for steel to build highways, bridges, power grids, schools, hospitals, water-treatment plants and rapid transit.
“New spending should provide an immediate jolt to the steel business, which has already gone through the painful makeover now demanded of the Big Three.”
Source: Louis Uchitelle, The Seattle Times, January 2, 2009.
Financial Times: US deficit set for postwar record
“The US budget deficit will hit nearly $1,200 billion this fiscal year even without the cost of Barack Obama’s planned fiscal stimulus, Congress’s budget watchdog warned on Wednesday.
“The warning came as the president-elect said that the stimulus would be ‘on the high end of our estimates’ – implying close to $775 billion over two years – but ‘will not be as high as some economists have recommended, because of the constraints and concerns we have about the existing deficit’.
“The estimate, published by the Congressional Budget Office, threw into stark relief the dilemma facing the president-elect, highlighting the urgent need for stimulus and the fraught state of public finances.
“The CBO said that the budget deficit for the fiscal year 2009 would ‘shatter the previous post-World War Two record’ relative to the size of the US economy. Without a stimulus, it said that the deficit would reach 8.3% of gross domestic product. Its numbers imply that the proposed stimulus could push the US fiscal deficit close to or over 10% of GDP.”
Source: Krishna Guha, Edward Luce and Andrew Ward, Financial Times, January 7, 2009.
Financial Times: Auto sales hit fresh lows in December
“Motor vehicle sales plumbed fresh lows around the world last month, adding to pressure on carmakers, their suppliers and dealers.
“General Motors, Toyota, Ford and Honda all reported declines of more than 30% in the US, the biggest market, compared with December 2007. Total fourth-quarter sales were the lowest since 1981.
“Car sales in Japan, including buses, dropped 22% to the lowest December level on record, according to the Japan Automobile Dealers Association.
“In Europe, registrations in Spain plunged by almost half, in France by 24% and Italy 13.2%.
“The slump in the US and Europe reflected flagging consumer confidence and tight credit.”
Source: Bernard Simon, Financial Times, January 5, 2009.
Bloomberg: Nouriel Roubini – worst is still ahead of US
“The global financial system in 2008 experienced its worst crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Major financial institutions went bust. Others were bought up on the cheap or survived only after major bailouts. Global stock markets fell by more than 50% from their 2007 peaks. Interest-rate spreads spiked. A severe liquidity and credit crunch appeared. Many emerging-market economies on the verge of a crisis had to ask for help from the International Monetary Fund.
“So what lies ahead in 2009? Is the worst behind us or ahead of us?
“Unfortunately, the worst is ahead of us. The entire global economy will contract in a severe and protracted U-shaped global recession that started a year ago. The US will certainly experience its worst recession in decades, a deep and protracted contraction lasting at least through the end of 2009. Even in 2010 the economic recovery may be so weak – 1% growth or so – that it will feel terrible even if the recession is technically over.
“There also will be recessions in the euro zone, the UK, continental Europe, Canada, Japan and the other advanced economies.
“A hard landing for emerging-market economies may also be at hand. Among the so-called BRICs, Russia will be in an outright recession in 2009. Growth in China will slow to 5% or less, representing a hard landing for a country that needs expansion of close to 10% to move 10 million to 15 million poor rural farmers into the urban industrial sector every year. Brazil will barely grow in 2009. Even India will experience a sharp slowdown.”
Click here for the full article.
Source: Nouriel Roubini, Bloomberg, January 1, 2009.
E.S. Browning (The Wall Street Journal): Rebound Wrinkle – recession
“Since the Great Depression, only two recessions have run longer than this one, the first ending in 1975 and the other in 1982. Each lasted 16 months, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the government-designated recession tracker.
“The current recession, beginning in December 2007, has run 13 months and could easily surpass those two. If it goes past March, as many economists expect, it will become the longest-running since the 43-month beast that ended in 1933.”
Source: E.S. Browning, The Wall Street Journal, January 5, 2009.
BCA Research: FOMC Minutes – Fed’s balance sheet to balloon further
“The Minutes from the mid-December FOMC meeting confirmed that policymakers are very concerned about the possibility of a prolonged economic slump and a sustained bout of deflation.
“With the fed funds rate virtually zero, the Minutes highlighted that the policy focus would shift to unconventional tools. The first such tool is communication strategy. This includes signalling that the policy rate would stay ‘exceptionally low for some time’, in order to keep longer-term borrowing rates low.
“The Fed also would reinforce its commitment to keep inflation from falling below ‘desired levels’ on a sustained basis, in order to avoid an unwelcome rise in real rates of interest if expectations for deflation mushroom (as occurred in Japan).
“The second major unconventional tool is quantitative easing, in which the Fed’s balance sheet and excess bank reserves would grow as needed while purchasing large amounts of assets (including Agencies and Agency-backed MBS).
“Although not mentioned in the Minutes, the Fed’s next move could be to purchase high-quality corporate bonds if yields on these instruments do not fall in the near term. Bottom line: Investors should expect falling private sector bond yields and a long period of zero short-term rates.”
Source: BCA Research, January 8, 2009.
Trader Dan (JS Mineset): Fed monetizing US agency debt
“The reason they [the Fed] are being forced into buying the debt is because no one else wants it. We have been charting this for some time by monitoring the Custodial data from the US Federal Reserve system.
“… chart … see how foreign central banks are dumping Fannie and Freddie debt in large amounts onto the market. Without the Fed monetizing that debt, there would be a significant drop off in the amount of funds for mortgages.
“The Fed is going to need every bit of that $500 billion they are going to create out of thin air to acquire what the foreign central banks are unloading.”
Source: Trader Dan, JS Mineset, January 5, 2009.
Asha Bangalore (Northern Trust): December employment report – further deterioration of labor conditions
- Civilian Unemployment Rate: 7.2% in December versus 6.8% in November, cycle low is 4.4% in March 2007.
- Payroll Employment: -524,000 in December versus -584,000 in November, net loss of 154,000 jobs after revisions of payroll estimates for October and November.
- Hourly earnings: +5 cents to $18.36, 3.7% yoy change versus 3.8% yoy change in November; cycle high is 4.28% yoy change in December 2006.
“The Fed is expected to stay on hold for all of 2009 in terms of implementing monetary policy changes via adjustments of the target federal funds rate but other non-interest avenues to support/ease financial market conditions remain open. The details of the employment report are grim and provide ample evidence for proponents of a large fiscal stimulus package to revive economic activity.”
Source: Asha Bangalore, Northern Trust – Daily Global Commentary, January 9, 2009.
Paul Kedrosky (Infectious Greed): There’s unemployment, and then there’s unemployment
“I have been sent this Reuters story from yesterday umpteen times, so I may as well post it, as well as the underlying graph. The gist: If unemployment were being measured the same way as it was during the Depression, the US would be well on its way to similar numbers.
“Check the SGS line in the following graph from John Williams’ ShadowStats:
“Eye-opening, is it not?
“A few quick comments:
- Unemployment by SGS’s measure is at almost 18%, but it’s also not been under 10% in recent history.
- The whole idea of employment/unemployment has changed a great deal over time, with, for example, there being more part-time and flex work etc., messing with figures.
- The existence of a social safety net has, for better or worse, made it possible for people to withdraw permanently from the workforce without having to live on the streets.
- There is no denying that there are far more able-bodied people out of work than the skewed-low US BLS figures purport to show.”
Source: Paul Kedrosky, Infectious Greed, January 9, 2009.
Bloomberg: Pimco’s McCulley says US economy in “nasty recession”
“Paul McCulley, managing director at Pimco, talks with Bloomberg’s Kathleen Hays about the outlook for the US economy in 2010. McCulley says the Fed is using the right policy response to the current crisis and that he has ‘very small’ concerns about inflation.”
Source: Bloomberg, January 9, 2009.
Comstock Partners: The cycle of deflation
Source: Comstock Partners, January 2009.
Asha Bangalore (Northern Trust): Further declines in pending Home Sale Index
“The Pending Home Sales Index (PHSI) of the National Association of Realtors dropped 4.0% to 82.3 in November after a 4.2% drop in the prior month. Although mortgage rates have dropped in recent months, the positive impact on the housing market in terms of an increase in sales is yet to be seen.”
Source: Asha Bangalore, Northern Trust – Daily Global Commentary, January 6, 2009.
Asha Bangalore (Northern Trust): Non-manufacturing ISM Survey close to record low
“The Non-manufacturing ISM composite index increased to 40.6 in December from 37.3 in November. But the level is significantly below the expansion cut off mark of 50.0, implying that the non-manufacturing sector continues to lose momentum.”
Source: Asha Bangalore, Northern Trust – Daily Global Commentary, January 6, 2009.
Bloomberg: US retail sales fell 0.8% in week after Christmas
“Purchases at US retailers declined last week as post-Christmas markdowns failed to overcome what may have been the worst holiday shopping season in four decades.
“Sales at stores open at least a year dropped 0.8% in the seven days through January 3, the International Council of Shopping Centers and Goldman Sachs Group said today [Tuesday] in a statement. ICSC Chief Economist Michael Niemira said November-December sales declined as much as 2%.
“‘December was relatively chaotic in price, with more discounts than retailers planned, especially in department stores,’ Richard Hastings, a consumer strategist at Global Hunter Securities, said in a telephone interview. ‘Consumers have discovered that the industry is responding with lower and lower and lower prices.’”
Source: Heather Burke, Bloomberg, January 6, 2009.
Bloomberg: US shopping mall vacancies reach 10-year high
“Vacancies at US malls and shopping centers approached 10-year highs in the fourth quarter, and are set to rise further as declining retail sales put more stores out of business, research firm Reis Inc. said.
“Regional mall vacancies rose to 7.1% last quarter from 6.6% in the third quarter. It was the highest vacancy rate since Reis began tracking regional malls in 2000, as well as the largest quarter-to-quarter jump in vacancies, according to New York-based Reis.
“More than a dozen retailers, including Circuit City, Linens ‘n Things and Sharper Image, filed for bankruptcy protection in 2008 as the credit squeeze and recession drained sales. Vacancies will rise further until the job market recovers, housing prices stabilize and lending resumes, restoring consumer confidence, said Reis.”
Source: Hui-yong Yu, Bloomberg, January 7, 2009.
Bespoke: “Official” 2009 strategist S&P 500 price targets
“Below we list the 2009 S&P 500 strategist price targets in the final Bloomberg survey of 2008 (on 29 December). The average 2009 year-end S&P 500 estimate of the 11 sell-side strategists that participated is 1,056, or 16.9% above the S&P’s year-end price of 903.25.
“UBS strategist David Bianco is the most bullish of the group with a year-end target of 1,300 (a 43.9% gain). Deutsche Bank’s Binky Chadha is the second most bullish with a target of 1,140, followed by Goldman, Strategas, and JP Morgan, who are all looking for a gain of 21.8%. Only one strategist, Barclays’ Barry Knapp, believes the S&P 500 will fall in 2009, but only by 3.2%.
“The consensus estimate for year-end 2008 was 1,632 at the start of last year, which translated into an expected gain of 11.12%. Let’s hope the strategists are a little closer to the mark this year.”
Source: Bespoke, January 6, 2009.
Bespoke: Crazy gains since November 20 low
“While no one is calling it that, we are technically in a new cyclical bull market and have been since December 8. Since the 11/20 lows, the S&P 500 is up 24%, which meets the standard bull market definition of a 20% rally that was preceded by at least a 20% decline. But the unwillingness for the majority to call it a bull market is what bulls should be thankful for, since the market typically climbs a wall of worry where investors are full of doubt throughout the rally.
“Regardless of what you call it, some of the performance numbers since the 11/20 lows are downright crazy. Even though the S&P 500 is up 24% since 11/20, the average stock in the index is up 41.25%. This means the smaller cap names in the index are up much more than their larger cap brethren. And the stocks that were down the most during the 10/9/07 to 11/20/08 bear are up much more than the ones that were down the least. As shown below, the average performance since 11/20 of the 50 stocks that were down the most during the bear market is 112%! The 50 best-performing stocks during the bear market are only up an average of 8.3%.
“And while 20 stocks in the S&P 500 are down since November 20, 29 of them are up more than 100%!”
Source: Bespoke, January 6, 2009.
Bespoke: Investor sentiment shows improvement
“When gauging investor sentiment, the two most popular surveys that track bullish sentiment are the polls conducted by Investors Intelligence of newsletter writers and the American Association of Individual Investors (AAII) survey of its members. As shown below, both measures have shown improvement in recent weeks and have broken their downtrends of the last several months. Given that investor sentiment is typically a contrarian indicator, high readings of bullishness are generally considered negative for the market. However, with current bullish sentiment readings below 50%, these are hardly levels that can be considered extreme.”
Source: Bespoke, January 8, 2009.
Investment Week: Mobius reduces cash holdings
“Franklin Templeton’s Mark Mobius has reduced his cash positions over the past couple of months, saying he is positive on the prospects for the global economy.
“Manager of the Emerging Markets Investment Trust, Mobius says he is ‘quite bullish on the future despite all the negative news’ and predicts the beginning of a recovery in the second quarter of this year.
“‘Valuations look good and with interest rates at one or below and stocks yielding up to 20% on dividends this looks very tempting for investors,’ he says.
“Mobius claims that while he is actively investing, others are not: ‘I don’t think this is the consensus – people have the feeling we are nearing the bottom but they are not putting their money there. Bull markets are built on a bull market, not a bear market. However we are being proactive.’
“Having ramped up his cash allocations going into the big fall, Mobius started reinvesting in November. He favours energy and emerging market consumer stocks – including banks which weren’t hit by the debt crisis – and maintains oil and commodities valuations are still strong.”
Source: Beth Brearley, Investment Week, January 6, 2009.
BCA Research: A challenging equity outlook
“Equity markets could have a healthy January effect this year after the fallout in 2008. However, the macro backdrop remains risky.
“Last year’s violent selloff left global equity prices down nearly 50% from their cyclical highs, making this the second deepest bear market in the past 40 years. In other words, a lot of bad news has been discounted as sentiment became crushed and investors rushed for safety. It now appears that selling pressures may finally be abating: equity prices have edged higher in recent trading days on the back of tentative improvements in the credit markets and an easing in implied option volatilities from sky-high readings.
“Upside momentum could persist in the weeks ahead as investors and money managers reposition their portfolios and redeploy some of the cash piled on the sidelines. That said, it is difficult to see how equities can sustain an advance until the monetary transmission mechanism begins to function more normally. In addition, the poor earnings outlook will be a persistent headwind for stocks throughout 2009 and analysts are likely to be disappointed in their overly optimistic profit forecasts: earnings could fall by as much as 25% to 30% as revenue growth slows and margins contract.
“Bottom line: Equities seem poised to edge higher from oversold levels but a sustained advance will rely on the stabilization of credit markets.”
Source: BCA Research, January 5, 2009.
Bloomberg: Saut says “decent chance” equity markets have bottomed
“Jeffrey Saut, chief investment strategist at Raymond James Financial, talks with Bloomberg’s Carol Massar about his investment strategy in the stock market. Saut also discusses the outlook for the US economy and the impact of rising credit costs on corporate margins.”
Source: Bloomberg, January 7, 2009.
The New York Times: China losing taste for US debt
“China has bought more than $1 trillion of American debt, but as the global downturn has intensified, Beijing is starting to keep more of its money at home, a move that could have painful effects for American borrowers.
“In the last five years, China has spent as much as one-seventh of its entire economic output buying foreign debt, mostly American. In September, it surpassed Japan as the largest overseas holder of Treasuries.
“But now Beijing is seeking to pay for its own $600 billion stimulus – just as tax revenue is falling sharply as the Chinese economy slows. Regulators have ordered banks to lend more money to small and medium-size enterprises, many of which are struggling with lower exports, and to local governments to build new roads and other projects.
“‘All the key drivers of China’s Treasury purchases are disappearing – there’s a waning appetite for dollars and a waning appetite for Treasuries, and that complicates the outlook for interest rates,’ said Ben Simpfendorfer, an economist in the Hong Kong office of the Royal Bank of Scotland.”
Source: Keith Bradsher, The New York Times, January 7, 2009.
Barron’s: Stay away from Treasury bonds
“The bubble in Treasuries looks ready to pop, sending prices on government debt sharply lower. But just about every other corner of the bond market beckons.”
Click here for the article.
Source: Barron’s, January 3, 2009.
John Authers (Financial Times): A bond bubble?
Source: John Authers, Financial Times, January 6, 2009.
Bloomberg: Treasury bond market not a bubble, Goldman Sachs says
“Goldman Sachs Group said the US Treasury market hasn’t turned into an asset bubble even as investors debate the wisdom of buying government bonds with yields near record lows.
“The US economy is likely to expand below its potential for the next six to eight quarters, resulting in lower ‘core’ inflation, according to a report released today by the New York- based firm. Inflation erodes the fixed payments of bonds.
“‘By mapping one-year ahead macro expectations to long-dated government yields through our Sudoku framework we find that global bonds are, in the aggregate, currently trading close to the model’s measure of fair value,’ Francesco Garzarelli, chief interest-rate strategist at Goldman Sachs in London, wrote in a research note.
“As the year progresses and investors’ focus shifts to the prospects for recovery into 2010, yields will likely drift higher, though in line with Goldman Sachs’ forecasts, Gazarelli wrote. Treasury 10-year note yields will likely trade at 3% to 3.25% by year-end, he said. During the current quarter, yields will trade in a 2.50% to 2.75% range, Goldman Sachs’ predicts.”
Source: Liz Capo McCormick, Bloomberg, January 8, 2009.
Financial Times: German bond sale’s fate signals trouble ahead
“A German sovereign bond auction failed on Wednesday as investors shunned one of the most liquid and safe assets in the world in a warning for governments seeking to raise record amounts of debt to stimulate slowing economies.
“The fate of the first eurozone bond auction of 2009 signals trouble ahead as governments around the world hope to issue an estimated $3,000 billion in debt this year, three times more than in 2008.
“The 10-year bonds failed to attract enough bids to reach the €6 billion the German government wanted. Bids of €5.24 billion, a cover of only 87%, amounted to the second worst auction on record in terms of demand.
“Analysts said the vast amount of supply is deterring investors and a growing number of countries, including those with deep and mature bond markets, such as Germany, the UK and Italy, are struggling to attract buyers.”
Source: David Oakley, Financial Times, January 7, 2009.
Financial Times: Asset managers turn to corporate bonds
“High-grade corporate bonds are set to outperform other asset classes in 2009, fund managers and market strategists surveyed by the Financial Times have forecast.
“More than half those surveyed said high-quality corporate credit was trading at cheap levels and that this was the asset class most likely to see a rally in 2009.
“In contrast, government bonds were the least-favoured asset class, with many of the 30 leading asset managers and strategists surveyed arguing that yields had plummeted too far in 2008, prompting talk of a possible price bubble.
“A majority of those polled said high-quality corporate bonds had been oversold after investors had abandoned corporate credit of all grades over the past year in favour of the safest and most liquid assets, such as government bonds and gold.
“Tim Bond, global head of asset allocation at Barclays Capital, said: ‘I like credit as an asset class the best. Investment-grade corporate bond spreads are at levels last seen in 1932, which happened to be an excellent point to buy credit – even though it was the middle of the Great Depression.’
“John Paul Smith at Pictet Asset Management said corporate credit offered the best potential returns while the severe global recession continued. ‘While we don’t anticipate any immediate improvement in the economic outlook, with corporate credit yields currently at unprecedented levels, investors are being paid to wait.’
“Credit market prices are consistent with an unprecedented risk of default, even for the highest quality corporate bonds.
“US investment-grade corporate bond prices, for example, imply a cumulative default rate of 36% over five years, assuming a typical recovery of 40 cents in the dollar, according to analysts at Morgan Stanley. This is more than 7.5 times higher than the worst default rate in any previous five-year period.”
Source: Esther Bintliff, Financial Times, January 5, 2009.
Bespoke: High yield spreads narrow for 13th straight day
“High yield bond spreads (based on Merrill Lynch indices) narrowed for the 13th straight trading day on Monday. This marks the longest streak of declines since April 2003, and the second longest streak since the series began in 1997.
“At a current level of 1,744 basis points above Treasuries, high yield spreads are now down 20% from their peak level from December 15 (2,182 basis points) and back to levels we saw before the election and the run on Citibank.
“Make no mistake that at current levels high yield spreads are still extremely high, but given the widespread view that the market cannot stage a meaningful rally until spreads begin to narrow, the current move is a step in the right direction.”
Source: Bespoke, January 6, 2009.
Edmund Conway (The Telegraph): Willem Buiter warns of massive dollar collapse
“The long-held assumption that US assets – particularly government bonds – are a safe haven will soon be overturned as investors lose their patience with the world’s biggest economy, according to Willem Buiter.
“Professor Buiter, a former Monetary Policy Committee member who is now at the London School of Economics, said this increasing disenchantment would result in an exodus of foreign cash from the US.
“The warning comes despite the dollar having strengthened significantly against other major currencies, including sterling and the euro, after hitting historic lows last year. It will reignite fears about the currency’s prospects, as well as sparking fears about the sustainability of President-Elect Barack Obama’s mooted plans for a Keynesian-style increase in public spending to pull the US out of recession.
“Writing on his blog, Prof Buiter said: ‘There will, before long (my best guess is between two and five years from now) be a global dumping of US dollar assets, including US government assets. Old habits die hard. The US dollar and US Treasury bills and bonds are still viewed as a safe haven by many. But learning takes place.’”
Source: Edmund Conway, The Telegraph, January 06, 2009.
FT Alphaville: Beware, commodity index rebalancing ahead
“The major commodity indices rebalance their respective asset weightings once a year (or occasionally more) – and with that comes a mass dose of buying and selling. The 2009 rebalancing is expected to start sometime this week.
“Luckily, JP Morgan has produced its best guess of how the 2009 reweightings of the DJ AIGCI and the S&P GSCI indices will impact the market.
“The weightings for both indices are released ahead of time, but begin to kick in the first few working days of the new year. In the case of the DJ-AIGCI – which JP Morgan estimates has $25 billion in funds tracking it – the new weightings come into force during the roll period that begins January 9. The S&P GSCI index weightings kick-in after its January roll which commences January 8. JP Morgan estimates about $50 billion of investment into that index.
“JP Morgan see the most significant change coming in the DJ-AIGCI rebalance. Here the market weight of crude oil is expected to increase from 9.6% to 13.8%, gold from 10.8% to 7.9%, copper (COMEX) from 4.5% to 7.3%, live cattle from 6.4% to 4.3% and sugar from 4.7% to 3.0%. Meanwhile, S&P GSCI crude oil weight will go from 32% to 33.8%”.
Source: Izabella Kaminska, FT Alphaville, January 5, 2009.
Ambrose Evans-Pritchard (Telegraph): Merrill Lynch says rich turning to gold bars for safety
“Merrill Lynch has revealed that some of its richest clients are so alarmed by the state of the financial system and signs of political instability around the world that they are now insisting on the purchase of gold bars, shunning derivatives or ‘paper’ proxies.
“Gary Dugan, the chief investment officer for the US bank, said there has been a remarkable change in sentiment. ‘People are genuinely worried about what the world is going to look like in 2009. It is amazing how many clients want physical gold, not ETFs,’ he said, referring to exchange trade funds listed in London, New York, and other bourses.
“‘They are so worried they want a portable asset in their house. I never thought I would be getting calls from clients saying they want a box of Krugerrands,’ he said.
“Merrill predicted that gold would soon blast through its all time-high of $1,030 an ounce, and would hit $1,150 by June.”
Source: Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, Telegraph, January 9, 2009.
Reuters: Pickens – oil prices to top $100 by end of 2010
“Texas billionaire T. Boone Pickens said on Tuesday that oil prices will rise above $100 a barrel by the end of 2010 as the global economy recovers.
“Oil prices in the $40 a barrel range are ‘not going to be around much longer,’ Pickens told a gathering at Rice University in Houston.
“Oil prices have tumbled from over $147 a barrel in July to about $48 a barrel on Tuesday as demand in the United States and other developed countries slows due to the global economic crisis.
“By late 2010, Pickens sees a rebound in oil demand sparked by a global recovery, pushing prices higher. If the US continues to rely on imported oil for 70% or more of its supply, prices could reach $200 to $300 per barrel in another decade, Pickens said.
“As an investor, Pickens said he remains ‘on the sidelines’, with just 10% of his BP Capital hedge fund invested in energy. The fund lost $2 billion last year before shifting to cash as energy prices and stocks declined.”
Source: Reuters, January 6, 2009.
Bespoke: New bull market for oil
“Based on the standard bull/bear market move of 20%, oil is already well into a new bull market with its move of 44.7% since its closing low of $33.87 on December 19. Since 2000, the average oil bull market has seen the commodity rise 89%, while the average bear has seen oil decline by 39%.
“The 88-day decline in oil from 9/22 to 12/19 of 72% was by far the steepest drop the commodity has ever seen without a 20% rally. The last four bull and bear markets in oil have all come within 6 months, highlighting the extreme volatility in the commodities market.
“As shown in the bottom chart, the number of days that the last four market cycles have lasted has been much lower than normal. It’s likely that we’ll continue to see these big swings in short periods of time until the financial markets cool down.”
Source: Bespoke, January 6, 2009.
CEP News: Euro zone services PMI falls to series low in December
“Following the release of Italian purchasing managers index figures, along with final estimates on both the French and German services PMIs, Markit Economics reported that the services sector in the euro zone continued to deteriorate as the services PMI fell to a series low in December with a revision to 42.1 from the original estimate of 42.0.
“December’s reading is much lower than November’s 42.5 print.
“‘The final euro zone PMI indicates a 0.6% fall in GDP in the fourth quarter. Although some encouraging – but only tentative – signs of a bottoming-out were evident in Spain and Italy, the downturn gathered momentum in Germany and France,’ said Markit Economics chief economist Chris Williamson.”
Source: CEP News, January 6, 2009.
Financial Times: Alistair Darling on the economy
“UK chancellor Alistair Darling talks to Chris Giles about the outook for the UK economy and what can be done by global governments.”
Source: Financial Times, January 6, 2009.
Victoria Marklew (Northern Trust): UK – record low repo rate
“As widely expected, the Bank of England (BoE) cut its repo rate another 50bps today [Thursday], taking it to a record low 1.50%. In its rather terse statement, the bank noted that output is likely to keep falling sharply in the first half of this year, but also cited a ‘substantial’ decline in the pound as helping to offset the impact of a slower global economy. There was no obvious commitment to cut again at the February 5 Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) meeting, which probably explains the small bounce in sterling this morning.
“Today’s policy statement from the BoE said that ‘further measures’ are needed to increase lending to business and consumers, but it did not specify what, and nor did it include any comment on quantitative easing. Boosting money supply would require the approval of the government but Chancellor Darling has dismissed the idea, telling reporters that ‘nobody is talking about printing money’.”
Source: Victoria Marklew, Northern Trust – Daily Global Commentary, January 8, 2009.
Bloomberg: Is China’s economy crisis-bound?
“Anyone who said a year ago that China’s economy was crisis-bound was dismissed out of hand. Today, skeptics have lots of company.
“‘This year is going to be characterized by much, much weaker growth in China than I think people are anticipating,’ says Jim Walker, chief economist at Asianomics in Hong Kong.
“That may be news to the World Bank, which forecasts China will expand 7.5% in 2009. The government is targeting 8% growth, believing the $586 billion stimulus package it announced in November will boost the world’s fourth-biggest economy.
“Citigroup agrees. ‘The most important reason supporting our confidence about 8% growth is the government’s will and ability,’ says Huang Yiping, the bank’s chief Asia-Pacific economist in Hong Kong.
“That’s the problem. Chinese officials have done a masterful job generating growth, creating jobs and reducing poverty. They have done so with impressive regularity and earned the trust of many economists and investors. It’s important to remember, though, that external trends made China’s success possible.
“There’s no doubt that China’s leaders have the will to support growth. The question is their ability to do so while all of the world’s economic engines sputter. Yes, all.”
Source: William Pesek, Bloomberg, January 7, 2009.
US Global Investors: Below-trend economic growth in store for China
“2008 could register the first below-trend economic growth for China after five straight years of supernormal expansion. Based on China’s post-reform history, however, a cyclical downturn would typically last more than four years on average, which means a potential, multiyear cycle of growth moderation has yet to arrive.”
Source: US Global Investors – Weekly Investor Alert, January 9, 2009.
Reuters: What is Russia’s end-game in gas row?
“Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin raised the stakes in his gas conflict with Ukraine by slashing supplies to Europe, a measure that has left some EU states struggling to heat homes in sub-zero temperatures.
“Russian gas export monopoly Gazprom said it was forced to take that step because Ukraine – locked in a dispute with Moscow over gas pricing – was stealing gas being pumped across its territory for customers in Europe.
“What was Putin seeking to achieve by reacting in this way? There is so far no consensus among diplomats and analysts about what Russia’s end-game is.
“The Kremlin started out with the modest aim of persuading Ukraine to pay closer to market prices for its gas, but has now been out-manoeuvred by Kiev.
“‘Russia and Gazprom have walked into a trap,’ said Fyodr Lukyanov, editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs.
“He said Ukraine – desperate not to pay more for its gas because of the fragile state of its economy – seized the initiative from Moscow by endangering exports to Europe.
“‘They are calculating, and I think not without basis, that the longer this drags on the more the blame will be laid at Moscow’s door,’ said Lukyanov.
“He said Gazprom, under pressure from a Europe angry its supplies are being disrupted and fearful for its reputation as an energy supplier, will now be forced to cut the price it is demanding Ukraine pay for its gas. ‘Ukraine wants to go back to the negotiations from a position of strength … And it is working,’ he said.”
Source: Reuters, January 7, 2009.
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Sunday, December 21st, 2008
“Americans have always been able to handle austerity and even adversity. Prosperity [greed!] is what is doing us in,” said James Reston, former New York Times journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner.
Another chapter in dealing with the current credit and economic adversity was written on Tuesday when the US Federal Reserve announced a no-holds-barred set of measures in a determined attempt to fix the broken credit machine, revive economic activity and stem the deflationary tide.
The Federal Open Market Committee’s (FOMC) policy statement noted: “The Fed will employ all available tools to promote the resumption of sustainable economic growth … In particular, the Committee anticipates that weak economic conditions are likely to warrant exceptionally low levels of the Fed funds rate for some time.”
Although the FOMC slashed the Fed funds rate to a target range of 0 to 0.25% – the lowest the central bank’s key rate has been on record – the Fed was actually simply aligning its target rate with the effective rate, thereby pushing the US into an era of Zirp – a zero-interest-rate policy like that used by Japan for six years in its own fight against deflation.
The Fed’s communiqué also said: “The focus of the Committee’s policy going forward will be to support the functioning of financial markets and stimulate the economy through open market operations and other measures that sustain the size of the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet at a high level.” The statement discussed specific actions that would move the Fed further towards a quantitative easing approach to monetary policy.
Source: Daryl Cagle
President-elect Barack Obama told reporters the fact that the Fed had no more room to cut rates underscored the case for a big fiscal stimulus. “We are running out of the traditional ammunition that’s used in a recession, which is to lower interest rates,” he said according to the Financial Times. Word circulated that Obama may ask Congress next year to approve a stimulus plan of about $850-billion.
Investors’ concerns about the outlook for the global economy deepened on the back of the Fed’s announcement, as seen from government bond yields plunging to record lows and a sharp sell-off in oil prices (despite the announcement of the largest supply cut in Opec’s history). Furthermore, the dollar also tumbled on worries about the US’s public debt expansion and the potential inflationary implications of the “printing press”, although a relief rally did take place on Friday. (Also see my post “Greenback slumped on the canvas”.)
As far as stock markets are concerned, investors have again been shrugging off bad news – a pattern seen since the poor manufacturing and payrolls data of more than two weeks ago. “The newspapers may be giving us a parade of bad news, but the stock market is beginning to march to a different drummer,” said venerable newsletter writer Richard Russell (Dow Theory Letters). This is evidenced from the MSCI World Index (+2.4%), S&P 500 Index (+0.9%) and the MSCI Emerging Markets Index (+5.5%) all improving for a second week running.
The scamster Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme also vied for a place in the history books, causing more billions to evaporate to money heaven – yet another example of how greed clouded the minds of people during the halcyon days. (Click here to track the fallout from the fraud.)
Bill King (The King Report), never one to mince his words, commented as follows: “Madoff allegedly engaged in a scheme that is similar to what the US government has been perpetrating for years – giving people benefits now and promising future benefits, even though the benefits are mathematically impossible to pay, by using new cash flows from taxpayers.”
On the bailout front, the White House gave Detroit their Christmas wish, announcing that General Motors (GM) and Chrysler will receive $13.4 billion in emergency government loans in exchange for substantially restructuring their businesses, according to Bloomberg. “Another $4 billion will be available to GM in February provided Congress releases the second half of the $700 billion TARP fund originally set up to bail out financial institutions.”
Some cheer has also been seen in the credit markets, with the TED spread (i.e. three-month dollar LIBOR less three-month Treasury Bills) declining by 43 basis points to 1.48% – the lowest level since the Lehman bankruptcy in September. Although this measure is moving in the right direction, credit spreads need to narrow further to indicate that confidence is returning and liquidity is starting to move freely again.
The cost of buying credit insurance for US and European companies also eased as shown by the narrower spreads for both the CDX (North America, investment grade) Index (down from 263 to 213) and the Markit iTraxx Europe Index (down from 214 to 191). High-yield credit indices also improved.
There is also some encouragement from the weekly average rates for US 30-year fixed mortgages having declined to 4.94% from 6.30% at the beginning of November, according to Zillow.com.
Next, a tag cloud from the dozens of articles I have read during the past week. This is a way of visualizing word frequencies at a glance. The key words include the usual suspects such as “bank”, “economy”, “Fed”, “market”, “prices” and “rate”.
Regarding the outlook for the stock market, the Wall Street Journal’s MarketBeat blog reported legendary money manager Jeremy Grantham as predicting that beaten-down equities will rally until spring, at which time the bear market will resume.
“While he said that equities in the last couple of months had reached a level of cheapness than had not been seen in years, he still expects more pain to come. Those who can invest with a seven-year time horizon should do well, saying that ‘we’ve popped all of the bigger bubbles’, but he expects ‘we’ll overrun on the downside’.
“He says that the market will likely continue to rally into the spring, and it ‘will be big enough to convince about three-quarters of the players that [the bear market] is all over’. However, he doesn’t believe it is over – expecting a ‘good rally and a different kind of decline, on the sheer grinding of bad news’. He expects something similar to 1974, where the market takes a step forward and a couple steps back, and is fed ‘a diet of ugly earnings’.”
From across the pond, David Fuller (Fullermoney) added: “… markets had fallen sufficiently so that one could nibble on weakness, taking a long-term view. My guess is that China has not only bottomed but is also leading the way back up. However the case is not proven, and will not be until we see base formations for China and most other markets, plus breaks above the 200-day moving averages, which have also turned up. At that point, the next bull market should be well under way.”
The S&P 500 could fall to as low as 600 in 2009 and “alternative assets” like commodities and currencies will provide no shelter for investors, said Gary Shilling in an interview on Tech Ticker (hat tip: Clusterstock). “Having been appropriately bearish heading into this year, Shilling sees ‘few good places to hide’ in 2009. His ‘S&P 600’ prediction, a 33% drop from current levels, is based on a view that S&P earnings will be $40 per share next year (versus the consensus of $83) and the index will trade at a P/E multiple of 15. (Here’s the math: $40 EPS x 15 P/E = 600.)”
Jeffrey Hirsch (Stock Trader’s Almanac) draws our attention to the so-called Santa Claus Rally. This is the trading period from the day after Christmas to the close of the second trading day of the New Year. During this period stocks historically tended to advance, but when recording a loss, it was frequently a sign of trouble ahead.
In my opinion, stock markets are still caught between the actions of central banks pulling out all stops to stabilize the financial and economic situation on the one hand, and a worsening economic and corporate picture on the other. The major US indices seem locked in a short-term trading range, having fallen back below their 50-day moving averages.
The CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) has declined from more than 80 in October and November to 44.9 on Friday. It is not uncommon for short-term volatility to be at extreme levels at bottom turning points, and for stocks to improve as the “storm” grows quieter. It nevertheless remains too early to tell whether a secular stock market low has been recorded on November 20 and, failing further technical and fundamental evidence, I remain distrustful of rallies. In short, we are in a wait-and-see mode. (Also see my post “Stock markets: is this it?”.)
“Global business confidence continues to slide, falling to another new record low last week. Sentiment is equally negative in North America, South America and Europe, and while Asian business confidence is not quite as dark, it is weakening rapidly,” said the latest Survey of Business Confidence of the World conducted by Moody’s Economy.com. The Survey results indicate that the entire global economy is mired in recession.
Economic reports released in the US during the past week confirmed a world of “depression economics” (to coin Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman’s phrase). According to Briefing.com, industrial production declined by 0.6% in November, housing starts plummeted by 18.9% (marking the largest decline since March 1984), building permits hit a record low, and weekly initial jobless claims held near a 26-year high. Furthermore, the seasonally unadjusted CPI fell 1.9% in November, the largest drop since the 1930s.
Elsewhere in the world, data releases compounded anxiety about a severe global recession, as seen from the following:
- Germany’s Ifo Business Climate Index fell to a record low in December. The outcome reflects the ongoing stresses in the financial markets and weaker global and domestic economic activity, which have weighed on business sentiment. The downward trend in the Ifo suggests that economic activity in Germany will be very weak in the fourth quarter and prospects going forward remain bleak.
- BBC News reports that France will enter recession in the first quarter of 2009, according to Insee, the country’s national statistics agency. France is the Eurozone’s second biggest economy, and would be the latest major world economy to enter recession.
- The Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee voted unanimously in favour of the decision to cut the main repo rate by 100 basis points to 2% at the December monetary policy meeting. However, the minutes revealed that the central bank had considered an even more aggressive interest rate cut, heightening expectations that the UK could follow the US in adopting a quantitative easing policy.
- Confidence among Japanese businesses capitulated during the fourth quarter, with the Tankan Survey Index for large manufacturers recording its biggest decline in more than three decades. Business sentiment in Japan is now at its lowest level in more than six years.
- The Bank of Japan followed the lead of the Fed and moved to a near-zero interest rate environment at its December monetary policy meeting. The central bank cut its overnight call rate target by 20 basis points to 0.10%.
- China’s industrial production growth rose only 5.5% year-on-year in November, the slowest gain since 1999 and steeply slower than the 17% growth reported in March, said RGE. Electricity production fell 9.6% – more than in October, which had marked the first fall in a decade.
Source: Financial Times, December 16, 2008.
Summarizing the economic situation, Nouriel Roubini, professor at New York University and chairman of RGE, said in an article in Forbes: “The outlook for the US and the global economy is now very bleak and getting worse as the global economy experiences its worst recession in decades. In the US, recession started last December and will last at least 24 months until next December – the longest and deepest US recession since World War II, with the cumulative fall in gross domestic product possibly exceeding 5%.”
Source: Yahoo Finance, December 19, 2008.
Next week’s US economic highlights, courtesy of Northern Trust, include the following:
1. Real GDP (December 23): The final estimate of third-quarter Real GDP is expected to be left at -0.5%. Consensus: -0.5%.
2. Existing Sales (December 23): Consensus: 4.90 million versus 4.89 million in October.
3. New Home Sales (December 23): Consensus: 420,000 versus 433,000 in October.
4. Durable Goods Orders (December 24): Consensus: -3.0% versus -6.2% in October.
5. Personal Income and Spending (December 24): Consensus: Personal income +0.0% versus +0.3% in October; Consumer spending: -0.7% versus -1.0% in October.
Click here for a summary of Wachovia’s weekly economic and financial commentary.
The performance chart obtained from the Wall Street Journal Online shows how different global markets performed during the past week.
Source: Wall Street Journal Online, December 19, 2008.
This week I am giving the customary review of the various asset class movements a skip as family time calls, especially as we have just moved into a new house (located in the scenic Stellenbosch winelands region – about 35 minutes from Cape Town).
On a different note, Madoff’s jeer at the investing public, keeps reminding me of the old adage: “If something sounds too good to be true, that must be because it is too good to be true.” Let’s hope that the news items and words from the investment wise below will assist in bringing cheer to our portfolios during 2009.
Thank you for your friendship and support in making Investment Postcards such a fulfilling experience. Here’s wishing you a great festive season full of fun, laughter and joy. May you have a wonderful 2009.
Source: Daryl Cagle
Krishna Guha (Financial Times): Fed slashes rates to near
“The Federal Reserve moved deeper into uncharted waters on Tuesday, heralding further unconventional measures to support the economy as it slashed interest rates from 1% to virtually zero.
“In a historic statement, the US central bank said it would target a record low interest rate, expressed as a range of between zero and 0.25%. It said it expected to keep rates at ultra-low levels ‘for some time’ and vowed to use ‘all available tools to promote the resumption of sustainable growth and to preserve price stability’.
“The Fed said it ‘stands ready’ to step up its planned purchases of securities issued by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the mortgage giants now under government control. It also said it was ‘evaluating the potential benefits of purchasing longer-term Treasury securities’.
“The aggression of the statement caught the markets by surprise. Mohamed El-Erian, chief executive at Pimco, the bond fund manager, said it was ‘an incredibly strong public declaration that the Fed will throw everything it has in attempting to stabilize the financial and economic situation’.
“The US central bank laid out a strategy that aims to drive down actual borrowing costs for households and companies. It seeks to do so by supporting demand for such loans, reducing the risk spreads on them. At the same time, it wants to keep government bond yields low.
“This means expanded credit and outright asset purchase programs, likely to be funded, at least for now, by expanding reserves and therefore the money supply. Jan Hatzius, chief US economist at Goldman Sachs, called this ‘quantitative easing’. But a senior Fed official said its policy was different from the quantitative easing pursued in post-bubble Japan. The Fed policy is driven by its credit operations whereas Japan targeted bank reserves.
“The Fed said the outlook for economic activity had ‘weakened further’ and acknowledged that ‘inflationary pressures have diminished appreciably’.
“The decision to set a range for interest rates reflects an admission that the US central bank cannot tightly control the actual rate that prevails in the market in current conditions.
“Barack Obama, president-elect, told reporters that the fact that the Fed had no more room to cut rates underscored the case for a big fiscal stimulus. ‘We are running out of the traditional ammunition that’s used in a recession, which is to lower interest rates,’ he said.”
Source: Krishna Guha, Financial Times, December 17, 2008.
BCA Research: US monetary policy – unconventional easing underway
“The FOMC clearly crossed over the line into quantitative-easing territory by cutting the Fed funds target rate virtually to zero, promising to hold it low for a long period, and committing to large purchases of mortgage-related assets and possibly long-term Treasurys.
“In the statement that followed, the FOMC shifted emphasis away from the target rate as the Fed’s primary means of implementing monetary easing in favor of aggressively expanding its balance sheet to drive private sector borrowing rates lower.
“Early clues to its latest thinking were provided late last month upon the launch of its agency and MBS purchase programs and Term Asset-Backed Liquidity Facility (TALF). At that time, it promised to increase the size, the scope and the term of its liquidity facilities as necessary to get credit markets moving again. These comments were echoed in the FOMC statement, which confirms the Fed is prepared to do whatever it takes to restore order to the financial system and head off a potentially damaging bout of deflation.
“The Fed will drive agency and agency-backed MBS yields lower, and will keep Treasurys well bid. If investment-grade corporate bond yields do not fall in the coming months, the Fed could add new facilities to support this market as well.”
Source: BCA Research, December 17, 2008.
Nouriel Roubini (Forbes): Helicopter Ben goes ZIRP!
“The Fed decision to cut the Fed Funds range to 0% to 0.25% has formalized the fact that, over the last month, the Fed had already moved to a zero-interest-rate policy, or ZIRP, and started a policy of quantitative easing (QE) as its balance sheet has surged over the last few months from $800 billion to over $2 trillion.
“The Fed is now undertaking even more unorthodox policy actions. These actions are occurring while the US and the global economy are at risk of a protracted bout of ‘stag-deflation’ (stagnation and deflation).
“While it is now fashionable to talk about such deflationary risks (and the latest US Consumer Price Index figures confirm that we are entering into deflation), some of us were worrying about the coming deflation well before the mainstream – concerned with short-run and unsustainable increases in commodity prices – discovered the deflationary risks in the global economy.
“It was clear to those who saw, early on, the risks of a severe US and global recession, that deflationary rather than inflationary pressures would emerge alongside a slack in goods, labor and commodity markets. Welcome to the world of stag-deflation or, as Paul Krugman would put it, the world of ‘depression economics’.
So what is the outlook for 2009? And what is the likely policy response to the risks of a global stag-deflation?
“The outlook for the US and the global economy is now very bleak and getting worse as the global economy experiences its worst recession in decades. In the US, recession started last December and will last at least 24 months until next December – the longest and deepest US recession since World War II, with the cumulative fall in gross domestic product possibly exceeding 5%.”
Click here for the full article.
Source: Nouriel Roubini, Forbes, December 18, 2008.
John Authers (Financial Times): The Fed’s morning after
“Markets expect the Bank of Japan to cut interest rats to zero; the Fed’s decision has drastically undercut the dollar, oil prices continue to fall despite low rates, a week dollar and a cut in output.”
Click here for the article.
Source: John Authers, Financial Times, December 17, 2008.
Paul Kedrosky (Infectious Greed): ZIRP-ishness around the world
“A quick-and-dirty chart of ZIRP-ishness – the degree to which countries’ nominal interest rates are approaching zero – around the world. Note: The whiter the country the more ZIRP-ish it is, while the more orange you are the further that country’s rate is from zero. Finally, gray means no rate data currently in the dataset.
“It is interesting how, for the most part, ZIRP neatly breaks down into the BRIC/emerging markets versus the rest of the world.”
Source: Paul Kedrosky, Infectious Greed, December 18, 2008.
Bloomberg: Obama may seek a stimulus plan exceeding $850 billion
“Barack Obama may ask Congress next year to approve a stimulus plan of around $850 billion, an amount that has grown as the US economy sinks deeper into recession, an adviser to the president-elect said.
“Obama’s transition team believes the amount, about 6% of the US’s $14 trillion economy, is needed to reverse rising unemployment, said the adviser, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The sum would exceed initial estimates by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, as well as surpassing what some economists and the International Monetary Fund say is required.
“The latest proposal is circulating in Congress as Obama’s advisers work with lawmakers to craft a package aimed at improving roads, bridges and other parts of the US’s crumbling infrastructure. The plan probably will also include state aid for unemployment and health-care programs and incentives such as tax credits to promote renewable energy production, lawmakers have said.
“The president-elect wants to create as many as 2.5 million jobs over the next two years. As unemployment has increased, estimates of what is needed to pull the nation out of the slump have continued to grow, with some economists calling for a $1 trillion spending program.
“They include Kenneth Rogoff, a Harvard University professor who was an adviser to Republican presidential candidate John McCain, and Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize winner who served in President Bill Clinton’s White House.
“UBS AG economists calculate a global stimulus of 1.5% of gross domestic product has so far been lined up for next year. The IMF has called for packages of at least 2% of GDP to stem the economic crisis that’s sweeping the globe.”
Source: Lorraine Woellert, Bloomberg, December 18, 2008.
Bloomberg: $1 trillion stimulus
“Stimulus competition grows as companies vie for funds; Caterpillar wants a piece of the highway projects; GE is pushing to build an electric ‘smart grid’; Daimler AG hopes to build new buses for mass transit systems; Obama promises huge infrastructure investment.”
Source: Bloomberg (via YouTube), December 18, 2009.
Bloomberg: GM and Chrysler will get $13.4 billion in loans
“General Motors and Chrysler will get $13.4 billion in emergency government loans in exchange for substantially restructuring their businesses, President George W. Bush announced.
“Another $4 billion will be available to GM in February provided Congress releases the second half of the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program fund originally set up to bail out financial institutions. The automakers have until March 31 to meet the conditions of the loans, including demonstrating they have a plan to become profitable, or be forced to repay.
“Winning the assistance is a reprieve for GM, the biggest US automaker, and No. 3 Chrysler after they said they would run out of operating funds as soon as this month. Bush is stepping in after Senate Republicans’ refusal last week to take up a House- approved rescue raised the prospect that the companies would fail, costing millions of jobs.
“‘These are not ordinary circumstances,’ Bush said at the White House today. ‘In the midst of a financial crisis and a recession, allowing the US auto industry to collapse is not a responsible course of action.’
“The cost of letting automakers fail would lead to a 1% reduction in the growth of the US economy and mean about 1.1 million workers would lose their jobs, including those in the auto supply business and among dealers, the White House said in a fact sheet.
“President-elect Barack Obama endorsed the plan, calling it a ‘necessary step’ to avoid a major blow to the economy.
“‘The auto companies must not squander this chance to reform bad management practices and begin the long-term restructuring that is absolutely required to save this critical industry,’ Obama said in a statement.
“The United Auto Workers are ‘disappointed’ that Bush added ‘unfair conditions singling out workers’, the union’s president, Ronald Gettelfinger, said in a statement. ‘We will work with the Obama administration and the new Congress to ensure that these unfair conditions are removed,’ Gettelfinger said.
“The package is intended for GM and Chrysler initially. Ford Motor Co., the second-biggest US automaker, has said it can continue operating without aid for now.”
Source: Roger Runningen and John Hughes, Bloomberg, December 19, 2008.
Bloomberg: Fed becoming lender of last resort – interview with Merrill Lynch chief economist David Rosenberg
Source: Bloomberg (via YouTube), December 17, 2008.
CNN Money: Economy rescue – adding up the dollars
“The government is engaged in an unprecedented – and expensive – effort to rescue the economy. Here are all the elements of the bailouts.”
Click on the thumbnail for a large table.
Source: CNN Money, December 15, 2008.
FT Alphaville: Welcome to debt central
“US total debt to GDP is beginning to worry a number of market commentators – even those previously convinced it wasn’t a problem. Most recently, Dennis Gartman of the Gartman Letter, has turned jittery on the issue:
“‘We have never been given to wailing and gnashing our teeth over the US’ growing debt, for during our nearly six decades of life and three and one half decades of trading in markets, we’ve seen the nation’s debt grow even as the quality of life and wealth of the country grew faster. But now, even we are becoming concerned; now even we see potential disaster looming; now even we are depressed … Now even we are considering that double hemlock!’
“As can be seen in the chart below, the figure has certainly ballooned somewhat substantially of late.
“But Americans shouldn’t feel too lonely. There’s at least one other G7 country that can rival the States in the debt to GDP rankings. Have you guess which one it is? Some clues: Land of the Great British Krona, home to Team GB … Yes – it’s the grand old United K. Just take a look at this chart from the Spectator.
“And that’s not even total debt, just external.”
Source: Izabella Kaminska, FT Alphaville, December 12, 2008.
CEP News: Leading nations’ GDP poised to decline in 2009
“US, Japan and euro zone GDPs are expected to decline in 2009, according to the Institute of International Finance (IIF) global economic forecast.
“The IIF forecast is calling for the US economy to decline by 1.3% after rising 1.2% this year, while the euro area economies are projected to decline by 0.9% in 2008 and 1.5% in 2009. Japan’s economy is expected to fall by 1.2% after a flat performance this year.
“IIF Managing Director Charles Dallara said, ‘we now face extraordinary challenges. The extent of the declines in the major economies in the current quarter and in the next quarter or two may be substantial, with the US and the euro area likely to see falls in real GDP in the fourth quarter of this year of respectively 5% and 3%.’
“The IIF is also predicting the downturn in the major economies to impact the leading emerging-market economies. They project the growth in emerging markets to average 5.9% in 2008 and 3.1% in 2009. Weak growth is anticipated to hit central, eastern and southern Europe with growth of just 0.3% for 2009, while the IIF is forecasting growth in South America to come in at 1% next year.
“Overall, global economies are poised to grow 2.0% in 2008 and fall 0.4% in 2009.”
Source: Steve Stecyk, CEP News, December 18, 2008.
The Times: IMF fears unrest without action on economy
“Violent unrest may be sparked around the world by a prolonged global slump unless governments act with greater urgency to jump-start stalled economies, the head of the International Monetary Fund said on Monday.
“Dominique Strauss-Kahn sounded a stark warning over the consequences of what he argued was weak and uncertain government reaction to the economic crisis. He used a hard-hitting speech in Madrid to single out eurozone nations over what he attacked as an inadequate response.
“The broadside from the IMF’s managing director came as fears over a protracted global recession, and political fallout, mounted after China said that its factories’ output registered the weakest growth in almost a decade last month.”
Source: Gary Duncan, The Times, December 16, 2008.
George Magnus (Financial Times): Five ways to start the world economic recovery
“After the Minsky Moment – where euphoria tips into crisis, named after Hyman Minsky – the capitulation of economic activity has been rapid and severe. The outlook is as dark as the doomsayers assert. The only thing that stands between today’s dire economic prospects and a lost decade similar to Japan’s in the 1990s is the competence and authority of macroeconomic policy. We have a long way to go, but for five reasons, even doomsayers can start to feel the force, so to speak.
“First, governments have already acted decisively to preserve the integrity of the formal banking system, while the so-called shadow banking system is collapsing. Over $8,000 billion of programmes to stem the collapse in credit and housing have been announced but it is too soon to declare victory. To strengthen banks in the recession and sustain lending, European banks will need a further $100 billion to $150 billion of capital, while US banks, including regional banks, should quickly be allocated most of the unspent Tarp money of $350 billion.
“Second, governments must continue to facilitate the enormous task of sustaining credit flows and restructuring debt. Bankruptcies are inevitable but additional direct lending programmes, asset purchases and government guarantees are needed to keep liquidity flowing to good corporate and residential borrowers, especially while bank balance sheets are constrained by the need to soak up bad assets that were previously held off-balance sheet. Equity-for-debt swaps will be required for companies with excessive debt.”
Click here for the full article.
Source: George Magnus, Financial Times, December 18, 2008.
CNBC: Feldstein – digging out of the recession
“An outlook on the economy, with Martin Feldstein, former Council of Economic Advisors chairman/National Bureau of Economic Research president emeritus.”
Source: CNBC, December 18, 2008.
Duke University: CFO Survey – historic recession to last another year
“Chief financial officers in the United States and around the world are more pessimistic than at any time in the history of the Duke University/CFO Magazine Global Business Outlook Survey. The majority of chief financial officers in the US and Europe say their firms will slash spending and employment in 2009, and their firms will post losses. The recession will last another year, according to nearly two-thirds of CFOs.
“These are some of the findings of the year-end 2008 quarterly survey, which asked 1,275 CFOs from a broad range of global public and private companies about their expectations for the economy.
CFO Optimism Index: Key Measures
“Weak consumer demand is the top corporate concern. CFOs also continue to worry about credit markets, which are devastating lower-rated firms. Companies rated B or lower face interest rates that are 225 basis points higher than their cost of borrowing before the crisis began.
“The CFO optimism index has proven accurate in predicting future GDP growth, employment and capital spending. This quarter’s extreme pessimism foretells a poor economy in 2009. Thirty-nine percent say the economy will not begin to recover until 2010.”
Source: Duke University, December 10, 2008.
Casey’s Charts: Foreign buyers help drive rates to zero
“Foreign purchases of US Treasury Bills hit a record $147 billion in October, helping drive yields to near zero percent on short-term government debt. Traditionally, foreigners have invested primarily in long-term bonds. This surprising shift into T-Bills reveals that nervous foreigners are transferring their mounds of dollars into more liquid assets. They must think there’s no alternative – why else would they accept a zero return?”
Source: Casey’s Charts, December 17, 2008
The New York Times: Chart of the day – deflation
Asha Bangalore (Northern Trust): CPI plunges
“The Consumer Price Index (CPI) fell 1.7% in November following a 1.0% drop in October. On a year-to-year basis, the CPI has fallen 1.1% versus a 4.1% increase in all of 2007 and a cycle high of 5.6% year-to-year increase in July 2008. In November 2008, the seasonally unadjusted CPI, which goes back to 1921, fell 1.9%, the largest drop since the 1930s.”
Source: Asha Bangalore, Northern Trust – Daily Global Commentary, December 16, 2008.
Asha Bangalore (Northern Trust): Money supply growth trims decline of LEI
“The Index of Leading Economic Indicators (LEI) dropped 0.4% in November, after a revised 0.9% decline in the prior month. The index has fallen in ten out of the last fourteen months. The October-November average of the LEI as a proxy for the fourth quarter is down 3.6% from a year ago, a magnitude that is comparable with declines seen in the 1980’s recession.”
Source: Asha Bangalore, Northern Trust – Daily Global Commentary, December 18, 2008.
Asha Bangalore (Northern Trust): Construction of new homes at new low
“Home builders remain reluctant to break new ground. Housing starts fell 18.9% in November to an annual rate of 625,000, the lowest on record since record keeping for this series began in 1959.”
Source: Asha Bangalore, Northern Trust – Daily Global Commentary, December 16, 2008.
Washington Post: New poll shows 63% are already hurt by downturn
“The deepening recession has eroded the financial standing and optimism of a broad swath of Americans, nearly two-thirds of whom say that they have been hurt by the downturn and that the country has slipped into long-term economic decline.
“A new Washington Post-ABC News poll also found that a rapidly increasing share of Americans – 66%, up from just over half a year ago – are worried about maintaining their standard of living. Nearly two in 10 said they or someone living in their household had lost a job in the past few months, and more than a quarter said they had their pay or hours reduced. And 15% said that at some point in the past year they fell behind on their rent or mortgage.
“The poll captures the widening fallout from the faltering economy that policymakers are struggling to contain.
“The poll found that nearly two-thirds of Americans support new federal spending to stimulate the economy, and majorities of both Democrats and Republicans back the idea. Concern about deficit spending, however, mutes enthusiasm for the stimulus plan. When respondents were asked whether they would back the plan if it increased the deficit, support dropped to 47%. Overall, nearly nine in 10 said they are worried about the size of the federal budget deficit, including nearly half who are ‘very concerned’.”
Source: Michael Fletcher & Jon Cohen, Washington Post, December 17, 2008.
Bloomberg: Retailers may be weeded out during “Darwinian” competition
The US retail industry will undergo a weeding-out process next year as companies run out of cash as soon as January and competition forces store closings, according to private-equity buyers and restructuring experts.
“‘The United States is massively over-stored in all categories,’ Gregory Segall, a managing partner at buyout firm Versa Capital Management, said today during a panel discussion held at Bloomberg LP’s New York offices. ‘You could probably see 50,000 retail outlets close and it wouldn’t impact the availability and selection and choice of what you buy.’
“Only retailers with healthy balance sheets will survive the recession, said Matthew Katz, a managing director at consulting firm AlixPartners.‘This is a very Darwinian time,’ Katz said.
“Plunging home prices, rising unemployment and tightening credit have led consumers to rein in spending, resulting in what may be the worst holiday season in at least four decades. Macy’s, Kohl’s Corp. and other retailers have marked down items 50% to lure customers, eroding margins at a time when store owners hope to make a third or more of their annual profit.”
Source: Allison Schwartz, Bloomberg, December 17, 2008.
Clusterstock: Bernie Madoff’s victims: the slideshow
“The Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme is a mess. Bernie himself says $50 billion has vanished. The tales of woe seem to fall into four categories: Superrich Individuals, Little Guys, Funds + Banks, and Charities + Universities + Hospitals. We’ve selected some of each, along with some scenes of the crime.
Click here to view the slideshow
Click here for a more comprehensive text list of Madoff’s victims.
Source: Clusterstock, December 14, 2008.
Bespoke: If you ever see a chart like this, run away fast
“We’ve all heard how Bernie Madoff’s returns sounded too smooth and consistent to be true. In picture form, however, the returns are even more eyebrow raising. The chart below shows the cumulative returns of $1 invested in the hedge fund Fairfield Sentry Limited, which was a fund run by Fairfield Greenwich Group that essentially directed all of its assets to the stewardship of Bernie Madoff. As shown, $1 invested in Madoff back in 1990 was supposed to be worth $6.75 today. NPB Bank, out of Zurich, even offered a version of this fund with three times the leverage. Talk about too good to be true.”
Source: Bespoke, December 16, 2008.
BCA Research: Still a bond-friendly world
“While most of the upside in government bonds has likely already been made, we maintain our long duration call.
“Aggressive monetary easing by each of the major central banks has helped fuel the rally at the long-end of the curve. While the recent drop in yields leaves most government bond markets well into overvalued territory, we are in no rush to take profits on our long duration call. Government bond prices may not have much more upside but value is not a timing tool and the growth and inflation backdrop is likely to keep yields suppressed for an extended period.
“However, we do advise clients to shift their long bond allocations to high quality nongovernment spread product, as we expect a significant narrowing in early 2009. We will await evidence that the global economy is beginning to stabilize, which will most likely take until the second half of 2009, before shifting further down in quality. The time-frame would move up if the Fed signaled that it would begin buying corporates in the interim. While legislation prevents the central bank from directly buying these issues, the Fed could purchase corporate bonds off balance sheet by setting up an SIV.”
Source: BCA Research, December 15, 2008.
Bespoke: 30-year fixed mortgage rates down to 5.28%
“Thirty-year fixed mortgage rates have declined significantly in recent weeks, down from 6% on November 20 to 5.28% as of yesterday [Wednesday]. The Fed is definitely happy to see rates fall, and they’ve still got further to go to get to the 10-year record low of 4.88% seen in 2003.”
Source: Bespoke, December 18, 2008.
CNN Money: Stock picks from the experts
“The crash has driven prices so low that even extreme value investors see some safe buys. The stakes are high whenever you invest, but they’re extra high when you’re managing your money amid a historic financial mess and record volatility.
“For advice equal to the task – in a setting chosen to inspire thoughts of security – we invited five champion fund managers to sit down inside a massive underground vault that’s now part of a restaurant a block from Wall Street: Bob Rodriguez of First Pacific Advisors, who manages the FPA Capital and New Income funds; Susan Byrne, who heads Westwood Holdings Group; Leslie Christian, president and chief investment officer of Portfolio 21 Investments; Tom Forester, manager of the Forester Value fund; and Jeremy Grantham, chairman of asset manager GMO.
“Fortune’s Geoff Colvin led the discussion. Edited excerpts follow; stock prices are as of December 1.
“Let’s get right down to business. Bob, you’ve held a lot of cash in recent years because stocks looked too expensive. Are stocks finally cheap?
“BOB RODRIGUEZ: My value screen went to a new record low in June of 2007, and only 33 companies out of 10,000 qualified. In January of this year we went north of 200 for the first time since the summer of 2002. We went to 250 in the Bear Stearns crisis. And the week of October 16, we hit 447 – the most qualifiers in more than 20 years.
“So stocks are cheap by historical standards. However, we’re being very cautious because what we’re experiencing now is a major shift, the culmination of failed policies in the regulatory system and the private sector that have been building up for 30 years.
“Susan, are stocks cheap?
“SUSAN BYRNE: The markets are providing real returns for the risk that you take all along the spectrum, from equities to debt. So, yes, I think that prices reflect the fact that people are quite rightly very afraid of the risk in the stock market.
“Jeremy, you’ve written that stocks will get cheaper.
“JEREMY GRANTHAM: If you look back at 1982 and 1974, the market was much cheaper than it is today. In ‘74 it was about 40% cheaper, and in ‘82 it was about 60% cheaper. Look at the bad times we had in ‘74 and ‘82, and I think several of us would conclude that this time is likely to be as bad – possibly worse. Bubbles like this always overcorrect.
“How bad will you feel if you put in your cash reserves and the market continues to go down? You’re going to feel awful. And how will you feel if you don’t buy in the cheapest market for 20 years and it runs away and leaves you? Horrible. You have to step your way through so that the regret, which is going to be huge anyway, is about neutral.”
Click here for the full article.
Source: Geoff Colvin, CNN Money, December 15, 2008.
David Stevenson (MoneyWeek): Stock markets might not bottom out until 2014
“Tobin’s Q ratio … This is a ratio developed by Nobel Prize-winning economist James Tobin to compare the market value of companies to the cost of their constituent parts, i.e. their real net asset value.
“When the gauge is more than 1.0, it indicates that the market is overvaluing company assets, while a reading of less than 1.0 suggests shares are undervalued because it’s cheaper to buy quoted companies than build them up.
“The Q ratio on US equities has now dropped to 0.7 from a 1999 peak of 2.9. That could indicate shares are now cheap.
“But think again. The ratio needs to fall to 0.3 to signal the final stage of a major bear market like this one, says Russell Napier at CLSA. How does he know? Because that’s what it did at the end of the four largest US stock price declines in 1921, 1932, 1949 and 1982. That translates into the US S&P 500 index plunging another 55% by 2014. Ouch.
“But between now and then, there’s certainly a good chance of a bear market rally – maybe up to two years long, so those strategists may be right about 2009 – as Obama and the US Fed manage to delay the start of deflation with New Deal II. But those efforts will eventually blow up as ballooning government debt devalues the dollar and prompts a massive share sell-off – on both sides of the Atlantic.
“‘Bear markets always end when they begin ‘pricing in’ deflation, as the value of assets falls and the value of debt stays up, so equity gets crushed’, say Napier. ‘The results are always horrific, and equities will become incredibly cheap.’
“Albert Edwards at SocGen has christened this period the Ice Age. Another bull market will start in time. But as Edward’s description suggests, it’s still a long way away.”
Source: David Stevenson, MoneyWeek, December 11, 2008.
Jeffrey Saut (Raymond James): A rally of some import is in the works
“The call for this week: The two questions du jour are: 1) when will the credit crunch end? and 2) how long will the economy remain weak as it attempts to correct the housing situation?
“Speaking to the first question, participants need to monitor the credit spreads, which so far have not improved.
“As for question two, delinquencies and bank repossessions appear to finally be stabilizing. If the stock market is a discounting mechanism, the 50% decline in the S&P 500 may have already discounted everything.
“Moreover, my sense is that just like participants were conditioned to believe that any decline would not gather much traction back in 1999 and 2000, they are now being conditioned to believe that any rally will not sustain. With stocks’ aggregate value currently below the year’s GDP, we continue to think a rally of some import is in the works”.
Source: Jeffrey Saut, Raymond James, December 15, 2008.
Bespoke: Strategists’ 2009 S&P 500 price targets
“Bloomberg recently surveyed market strategists for their 2009 S&P 500 price targets, and collectively, they’re looking for a gain of 21.8% from the index’s current price level.
“As shown below, UBS is the most bullish of the group with a year-end 2009 price target of 1,300 (a 47.2% gain). UBS was the most bullish last year as well with a 2008 price target of 1,700. Goldman and Strategas are the second most bullish this year with price targets of 1,100. Credit Suisse has a target of 1,050 (for mid-year ‘09), Citi and HSBC are at 1,000, and Merrill Lynch is at 975. Merrill is the least bullish strategist of those surveyed, but they’re still looking for a gain of 10.4% from current levels.
“For those looking for direction from these strategists, their 2008 projections should be noted. All were looking for gains this year, and their targets at the start of the year are far above where the S&P 500 is currently trading.”
Source: Bespoke, December 16, 2008.
King Report: US Dollar Index is collapsing
“What does this mean and what are the implications?
“Bernanke can continue to expand the Fed’s balance sheet until a critical mass of investors loose confidence in either Ben or the Fed’s balance sheet. And the confidence is reflected in the dollar.
“After Ben monetized an enormous amount and assortment of assets after the Bear Stearns, GSE, Lehman, AIG and Big Nine ‘problems’ the dollar rallied sharply. This showed confidence in Ben and the Fed.
“But now the dollar is in collapse. This is a clear sign of something other than confidence in Ben/the Fed. The dollar collapse implies that Ben and the Fed are now ‘on the clock’ and investors will react negatively to further Fed balance sheet hyper expansion.
“Here’s the really big problem with Ben’s gambit. It is the same thing that FDR attempted – devalue the dollar to avert deflation and depression. However, devaluation exports deflation and depression to other countries and they will retaliate, which they did to FDR. This is another reason for The Great Depression.
“So key questions are: How long will it take for China, Japan, Germany or others to retaliate against Ben’s scheme to export deflation and depression to them? And what will be the retribution?”
Source: Bill King, The King Report, December 18, 2008.
Bespoke: Biggest six-day decline for the dollar ever
“The US Dollar index fell another 2.2% today [Tuesday] for its biggest 6-day decline ever. As shown in the table below, the current 6-day decline of 8.07% tops the prior record decline of -7.48% set back in September of 1985. If it’s not one asset falling these days, there’s sure to be another.”
Source: Bespoke, December 17, 2008.
James Turk (GoldMoney): Whatever it takes
“The Federal Reserve today made clear its intention to continue flooding the system with newly created dollars. It says in effect that it will do whatever it takes. Its Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) lowered the federal funds interest rate target to a range of 0%-to-0.25%, which is an historic low, but it didn’t stop there. The FOMC also announced that it would “employ all available tools” in an attempt to jumpstart the moribund economy. That means it will monetize assets of all sorts. It will turn debt into more US dollar currency.
“The consequences of the Fed’s actions will debase the dollar, perhaps irreparably so. The dollar’s bear market rally that began in July ended last month.
“Since last month’s peak in the Dollar Index, gold has climbed 6.3%, while silver did even better. It has climbed 12.6%. These precious metals are clearly the place to be, given the path of monetary debasement being taken by the Fed.”
Source: James Turk, GoldMoney, December 16, 2008.
David Fuller (Fullermoney): Positioning for an upside move in gold
“I think all gold bulls are currently onto something. These are scary times. Gold feels comfortable in this environment. It is still appreciating against most currencies, including sterling, and also stock markets.
“Against this background, gold could spike higher once again – watch out if / when it maintains a break above that last high just over $900. I am not saying a huge move will occur, because I do not know. However I want to be positioned for an upside move in precious metals at this time. The price charts are increasingly showing us that gold and gold shares are performing once again.”
Source: David Fuller, Fullermoney, December 15, 2008.
I-Net Bridge: Platinum now cheaper than gold
“It is now cheaper to buy platinum than it is to buy gold. On Friday (November 12) the price of gold surpassed the price of platinum for the first time in 12 years.
“Both precious metals eased despite the dollar weakness, bringing a two-day rally to an end as sentiment in global markets after plans to bail out the US automotive industry collapsed.
“The $14 billion bailout for the US automotive industry, besides being a lifeline for faltering vehicle manufacturers, would have boosted platinum demand.
“Platinum, which is mainly used as a component in catalytic converters, is particularly vulnerable to a downturn in the automotive sector since the sector makes up 50% of total demand.
“Failure to provide US carmakers with the financial lifeline they so desperately need has triggered concern over additional job cuts and a possible industry collapse.
“The BullionDesk’s James Moore said gold’s movement over the past few days was ‘very encouraging’, But he said it ‘does raise a few questions about its sustainability short-term, which we suspect won’t be answered until early next year.’
“‘Overall though we would look for gold to continue trading sideways to higher as the Fed’s printing presses further erode the value of the greenback,’ Moore said.
“Turning to platinum, Moore said while the news from the US auto makers may generate some bearish sentiment, the ongoing downgrading of production forecasts should see the metal remain near equilibrium. He expected platinum to remain in the broad $780 to $880 range for the time being.”
Source: I-Net Bridge, December 12, 2008.
Bloomberg: Goldman expects crude to fall to $30 early next year
“Goldman Sachs cut its forecast for oil prices in the first quarter by half to $30 a barrel as the global economic slowdown curbs consumption.
“Crude demand will fall by 1.7 million barrels a day in 2009, analysts Jeffrey Currie and Allison Nathan said in a note. Goldman previously expected West Texas Intermediate, the US benchmark oil, to average $62 in the first quarter.
“The worldwide economic decline has reduced consumer spending and weakened demand for fuel. Demand growth in China and other non-member states of the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is ‘on the cusp of a sharp deceleration’, the analysts said.
“Crude has fallen for five straight months since trading at a record $147.27 a barrel, as countries including the US, Japan and Germany have entered recessions. Goldman Sachs forecast in July that oil would recover to $149 by the end of this year because consumer demand was ‘restrained, but not destroyed’.”
Source: Rachel Graham, Bloomberg, December 12, 2008.
Bespoke: What a difference seven months makes
“We all remember back in May when Goldman Sachs issued a report predicting that oil’s ‘super spike’ would likely send the commodity to $200 ‘over the next 6-24 months’.
“Seven months later, Goldman is now advising clients that ‘oil prices will fall to $30 a barrel in the next three months’. If the call for $30 oil is as accurate as the call for $200 oil, investors may want to fill up their gas tanks and lock in their heating oil prices asap.”
Source: Bespoke, December 15, 2008.
Financial Times: Record oil cut fails to lift prices
“The depth of the world’s economic downturn was highlighted on Wednesday when the Opec oil cartel appeared powerless in its quest to drive up prices even after agreeing a record cut in its production.
“Opec, which controls about 40% of the world’s oil supplies, announced a further 2.2 million barrel a day cut on top of the 2 million b/d it has already pledged since September. It said it would cut 4.2 million b/d from its September output of 29.045 million b/d, bringing its production ceiling to 24.845 million b/d in January.
“Russia said its companies would be forced to cut another 320,000 b/d early next year only if low oil prices persisted.
“The oil market, however, took a dim view of Opec’s action. Nauman Barakat, of Macquarie in New York, said: ‘A cut of 2.2 million b/d is a pretty decent cut but it will take a while for the market to see the Opec cut actually filtering into the market.’
“Even Washington questioned whether Opec members would comply fully with the announced cuts. ‘It’s not clear that Opec’s actions will be effective, given the shift in global demand and the ability of Opec members to meet the cartel’s targets,’ said Tony Fratto, the White House spokesman.
“‘Regardless, Opec has an obligation to keep the market well supplied and to consider the health of the global economy, so efforts to limit the benefits of lower energy prices are short-sighted,’ he said.
“But Chakib Khelil, Opec president, said Opec had a long-established record in meeting the challenges it faced.”
Source: Carola Hoyos, Financial Times, December 17, 2008.
Bespoke: Baltic Dry Index rally?
“The Baltic Dry Index has been getting some attention recently after rallying more than 15% from its lows. One headline we came across even said that shipping companies were benefiting from the ‘revival’ of the Baltic Index. Revival? While the Baltic Index is indeed up from its lows, it is still down 93.5% from its highs in May, and as the chart below illustrates, the recent gain is barely even visible to the naked eye. Global shipping rates will bottom at some point, and may have already done so, but to call the action of the last two weeks a revival seems a bit premature.”
Source: Bespoke, December 15, 2008.
Financial Times: Shipping charter rates soar
“One of the world’s key shipping markets has begun to recover from a slump, with a revival in Chinese demand for iron ore and coal pushing some average charter prices up almost threefold in the past week.
“The revival in prices, after a disastrous six months for the industry in which charter rates fell nearly 99% for the largest vessels, could encourage ship owners to bring mothballed vessels back into service.
“One participant said yesterday that some owners were able to charge enough to cover the costs of operating Capesize ships, the largest dry bulk carriers. Average rates for these ships, which move coal and iron ore, have nearly tripled over the past week.
“The return of mothballed ships to the market could lead to a repeat of the over-supply which, combined with disappearing demand for coal, iron ore and wheat, depressed prices this year.”
Source: Robert Wright, Financial Times, December 14, 2008.
IFO Business Survey: Business climate in Germany continues to decline
“The Ifo Business Climate for industry and trade in Germany has clearly fallen in December, continuing its decline of more than one year. The dominant feature of the December decline is the worsening of the firms’ current business situation. With regard to the six-month business outlook, the scepticism of the survey participants remains nearly unchanged. A similarly low level of the business climate index was last reached during the second oil crisis at the end of 1982.
“The downturn is affecting above all the manufacturers of export and capital goods and less, up until now, retailing and construction.”
Source: IFO Business Survey, December 18, 2008.
BBC News: France set for 2009 recession
“France will enter recession in 2009, according to Insee, the country’s national statistics agency.
“The agency says the French economy has shrunk by 0.8% in the last three months of 2008 and will contract by another 0.4% in the first quarter of 2009.
“France is eurozone’s second biggest economy, and would be the latest major world economy to enter recession.
“Figures have already shown that Germany and Japan have endured two quarters of negative economic growth, while economists in the US have declared that its economy has been in recession since earlier in 2008.
“France only narrowly avoided negative economic growth between July and September, posting growth of 0.1%.”
Source: BBC News, December 18, 2008.
Victoria Marklew (Northern Trust): Increasingly grim outlook for UK
“The economic news out of the UK is ever more grim. Today was the turn of employment. Claimant count unemployment surged by 75,700 last month, taking the number of unemployed by this measure past the psychologically-important one million mark for the first time since 2001. The broader ILO-basis jobless rate rose from 5.8% in the three months to September, to 6.0% in August-October. As unemployment is usually a lagging indicator, the fact that jobs are being shed at this fast a pace this early in the economic downturn points to a harsh year ahead for employment.”
Source: Victoria Marklew, Northern Trust – Daily Global Commentary, December 17, 2008.
Bloomberg: Japan’s Tankan confidence plunges most in 34 Years
“Sentiment among Japan’s largest manufacturers fell the most in 34 years, signaling companies are likely to cancel spending plans and cut more jobs, pushing the economy further into recession.
“An index that measures confidence among large makers of cars and electronics dropped to minus 24 from minus 3, the Bank of Japan’s quarterly Tankan survey showed today. A negative number means pessimists outnumber optimists.
“The yen’s surge to a 13-year high last week has compounded woes for Japanese manufacturers who are already reeling from a collapse in export markets. Job cuts by companies including Sony and Toyota have brought the recession home to households and increased the risk of a prolonged slump.
“‘The overseas situation is worsening so quickly and so dramatically; it’s really getting dangerous,’ said Tomoko Fujii, head of economics and strategy at Bank of America in Tokyo. ‘The next few months are going to be a very severe period.’”
Source: Jason Clenfield, Bloomberg, December 14, 2008.
Asha Bangalore (Northern Trust): Japan – that sinking feeling
Source: Asha Bangalore, Northern Trust – Daily Global Commentary, December 15, 2008.
Reuters: Ecuador defaults – fighting “monster” creditors
“President Rafael Correa declared a default on Ecuador’s foreign sovereign bonds on Friday, vowing to fight ‘monster’ debt-holders in court in one of the most aggressive moves against investors in the region for years.
“Ecuador’s dollar-denominated debt prices plunged on news of its second default in a decade and the first in Latin America since Argentina in 2002, although the decision was not expected to lead to similar moves around the region.
“Correa, a US-trained economist and ally of Venezuela’s anti-US President Hugo Chavez, refused to make a $31 million interest payment due on Monday on 2012 global bonds, saying the debt was contracted illegally by a previous administration.
“‘I gave the order not to pay the interest and to go into default,’ Correa said. ‘We know very well who we are up against – real monsters.’
“‘If we have to face international litigation due to this, we will,’ he added at a news conference in the OPEC nation’s largest city of Guayaquil.
“The default is unlikely to have a knock-on effect in other Latin American countries’ debt policies even if some, such as Venezuela, have pledged to investigate any irregularities in their own debt …
“Correa, who had often threatened to default, will offer bond-holders a tough restructuring deal. Last month, Ricardo Patino, a top debt adviser to Correa, said investors should expect a reduction of more than 60% in the nominal value of the global paper in any negotiations.
“Ecuador’s global bonds – the 2012s, 2015s and 2030s – total $3.8 billion of its roughly $10 billion debt.”
Source: Maria Eugenia Tello, Reuters, December 12, 2008.
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Sunday, December 7th, 2008
James Grant, founder and editor of Grant’s Interest Rate Observer, and an editor of the newly published sixth edition of “Security Analysis,” by Benjamin Graham and David L. Dodd, has published a column at FT.com and been the subject of a 24-minute Bloomberg audio interview (below) about the new nature of the market and government securities.
Click Play for James Grant’s December 5, 2008 Bloomberg Audio Interview Here
Grant very succinctly redefines the bond market as providing Return-Free Risk, rather than the old standby, Risk-Free Return. Here are a few excerpts:
The truth is that no investment asset is inherently safe. Risk or safety is an attribute of price. At the right price, a lowly convertible bond is a safer proposition than an exalted Treasury. Watching the government securities market zoom, many mistake price action for price.
Yes, Treasuries might conceivably redeem the hopes of their besotted admirers. Maybe a deflationary chasm is about to swallow us all. Never before has the US been so leveraged. And-just possibly-never before were lending standards so reckless as the ones that brought joy to so many astonished mortgage applicants in 2005 and 2006.
In their magnum opus Security Analysis Benjamin Graham and David L. Dodd advise that “bonds should be bought on their ability to withstand depression”. They wrote that in 1934. So far is that rule from being honoured by today’s financiers that not a few bonds-and boxcars full of mortgages – could hardly withstand prosperity. Two urgent questions present themselves. One: does something far worse than recession loom? Two: does that certain something definitely spell much lower interest rates?
On non-Treasury and corporate bonds:
The non-Treasury departments of the credit markets have crashed. No surprise then that prices and values are deranged. Market makers have closed up shop for the year, while hedge funds cower in fear of redemptions. You’d suppose that professional investors – doughty seekers of value – would be combing through the debris for bargains. Alas, no. Most seem content to lend money to Henry Paulson (subsequently to Timothy Geithner) at 2 per cent or 3 per cent.
In corporate debt and mortgages, anomalies and non sequiturs abound. They are especially prevalent in convertible bonds. More so than even the average stressed-out fund manager, convertible arbitrageurs have been through the mill. It was they—and almost they alone—who owned convertibles. Now many of these folk must sell them.
Few buyers are presenting themselves, however, though extraordinary bargains keep popping up.
“Risk‐free return” is the standard tag attached to the government’s solemn obligations. An investor I know, repulsed by prevailing government yields, has a timelier description – “return‐free risk”.
Read the complete article here.
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Monday, November 24th, 2008
Paul McCulley, Managing Director and Portfolio Manager, PIMCO, earlier this year wrote a landmark discussion piece titled, “The Paradox of Deleveraging,” in which he postulated that the deleveraging of the credit market would have a profoundly negative impact that only a government sponsored plan could subdue, as no other party could be big enough to slay the affliction of credit abuse in the housing, investment and banking industries. Here is the follow up:
I’ve only written this essay once since the Kansas City Fed’s annual symposium in late August.1 But it hasn’t been because I’ve been lazy. Rather, I’ve been working virtually around the clock ever since, in my day job as head of PIMCO’s Money Market and Funding Desk. On Wall Street, this desk is frequently viewed as a backwater, a temporary home for new MBAs getting their feet wet before moving on to higher-value-added desks, or a retirement home for those with more senior moments than fresh ideas.
That’s never the case here at PIMCO, even though a number of now PIMCO partners spent their first days trafficking in the money markets and I, of ever-graying hair, still make my home here in the early hours of the day. Money markets frequently are a backwater, except when they are not, in which case they are cascading rapids. Liquidity pressures inevitably are the precursor of solvency and/or going-concern problems. Just ask Wall Street’s independent investment banks.
We here at PIMCO have always known this. Accordingly, we’ve always been conservative beyond conservative in our money market operations, on both sides of the balance sheet – no asset-backed commercial paper (ABCP) for us, and no tri-party repo without regard to collateral types or haircuts either. Meat and potatoes only, no fancy garnishes necessary. But the meat and potatoes must be cooked properly.
Hence, the work load of PIMCO’s money market and funding desk. My new deputy, Jerome Schneider, hit the ground running in early August, a most propitious time, just before the global money markets became not just cascading rapids, but roaring waterfalls. The financial world will never be the same after the U.S. Treasury and Federal Reserve’s fateful decision of the weekend of September 13-14 to stand aside as Lehman Brothers plummeted to death on the rocks below.
Whether that decision was the right one or not, we will never know. Yes, I know that many are quick to take the Treasury and the Federal Reserve to task, maintaining that the on-going global financial crisis – and, thus, growth crisis – would not be nearly so severe if Lehman had been tossed a life line. I simply don’t know. What I do know is that the global financial system was fundamentally broken long before Lehman’s watery death.
Thus, I believe the powerful, systemic policy responses that have unfolded in the post-Lehman world were destined to come about. Lehman was but the unfortunate tipping point. My heart still aches for the pain suffered by my many friends there. Fate is not always fair and at times, is arbitrary and capricious.
But what ailed Lehman was but a manifestation of what ailed, and ails the global financial intermediary system: the presumption that grossly levered positions in illiquid assets can always be funded, because those doing the funding will always assume the borrower is a going concern.
To understand the nature of this systemic malady, we need to return to first principles. Bear with me, please; this is going to be a bit academic. But, I submit, it was the loss of understanding of first principles that lies at the heart of the on-going paradox of deleveraging, which is the proximate cause of the on-going downward spiral of asset and debt deflation.
The Nature of Banking
When I studied the origins of banking in college, we started with the Medici Family of 15th century Italy. I’m quite sure banking existed long before then, just that I haven’t studied it. But regardless of the origins of banking, its founding premise has always been the same: In normal times, the public’s collective, ex ante demand for access to at-par, immediately-available bank money is always greater than the sum of the public’s individual, ex post demand for access to such liquidity.
Thus, the genius of banking, if you want to call it that, is simple: a bank can take more risk on the asset side of its balance sheet than the liability side can notionally support, because a goodly portion of the liability side, notably deposits, is de facto of perpetual maturity, although it is notionally of finite maturity, as short as one day in the case of demand deposits.
It’s the same alchemy that permits mutual funds to commit to next-day redemption at tonight’s NAV, even though all reasonable people know that a mutual fund – with the possible exception of a money market fund – could not possibly liquidate all assets on the wire tomorrow at tonight’s NAV marks. Systemically, it’s the illusion of liquidity, as so elegantly described by John Maynard Keynes:
“The spectacle of modern investment markets has sometimes moved me towards the conclusion that to make the purchase of an investment permanent and indissoluble, like marriage, except by reason of death or other grave cause, might be a useful remedy for our contemporary evils. For this would force the investor to direct his mind to the long-term prospects and to those only. But a little consideration of this expedient brings us up against a dilemma, and shows us how the liquidity of investment markets often facilitates, though it sometimes impedes, the course of new investment.
For the fact that each individual investor flatters himself that his commitment is ‘liquid’ (though this cannot be true for all investors collectively) calms his nerves and makes him much more willing to run a risk. If individual purchases of investments were rendered illiquid, this might seriously impede new investment, so long as alternative ways in which to hold his savings are available to the individual. This is the dilemma.
So long as it is open to the individual to employ his wealth in hoarding or lending money, the alternative of purchasing actual capital assets cannot be rendered sufficiently attractive (especially to the man who does not manage the capital assets and knows very little about them), except by organizing markets wherein these assets can be easily realized for money.”2
Yes, liquidity for all at last night’s marks is an illusion. But for banks, unlike mutual funds, it’s not so much an illusion after all, for two simple reasons: banks have access to deposit insurance underwritten by fiscal authorities and to a discount window underwritten by the monetary authority (and one step removed, the fiscal authority). Thus, banks are unique institutions, providing a “public good:”
Liquidity on demand at par for their depositors, because of the safety net underwritten by the sovereign, yet
The ability to invest in longer-dated, more risky, not-always-at-par loans and securities, because the existence and credibility of the public safety net systemically renders the public’s ex post demand for liquidity at par below the public’s ex ante demand.
Yes, banking with a sovereign safety net against deposit runs is a really cool business. Indeed, the difference between the public’s ex post and ex ante demand for at-par liquidity could be called the banking system’s “float,” similar to that of a Buffet-style insurance company.
But since it’s a really cool business and since the sovereign providing the liquidity safety net is a de facto equity partner in the business, the sovereign quite rationally wants a say in how the business is run – the degree of leverage, corporate governance, risk management controls, etc. Kinda like I do when I pay the insurance premium on my 19-year old son’s car. Jonnie doesn’t like it, and neither do bankers. Or would-be bankers.
Thus, both bankers and would-be bankers have, from time immemorial, sought to get the benefits of the sovereign’s liquidity safety net without shouldering the associated regulator nuisance. And I’m sure that 19-year old sons and daughters, too, have been doing the same for just as long.
Over the last three decades or so, the growth of “banking” outside formal, sovereign-regulated banking, has exploded, in something that I dubbed the Shadow Banking System.3 Loosely defined, a Shadow Bank is a levered-up financial intermediary whose liabilities are broadly perceived as of similar money-goodness and liquidity as conventional bank deposits. These liabilities could be shares of money market mutual funds; or the commercial paper of Finance Companies, Conduits and Structured Investment Vehicles; or the repo borrowings of stand-alone Investment Banks and Hedge Funds; or the senior tranches of Collateralized Debt Obligations; or a host of other similar funding instruments.
The bottom line is simple: Shadow Banks use funding instruments that are not just as good as old-fashioned sovereign-protected deposits. But it was a great gig so long as the public bought the notion that such funding instruments were “just as good” as bank deposits – more leverage, less regulation and more asset freedom were a path to (much) higher returns on equity in Shadow Banks than conventional banks.
And why did the public buy such instruments as though they were “just as good” as bank deposits? There are a host of reasons, not the least of which was lust for yield. But most fundamentally, Keynes again gives us the systemic answer (his italics, not mine):
“In practice we have tacitly agreed, as a rule, to fall back on what is, in truth, a convention. The essence of this convention – though it does not, of course, work out quite so simply – lies in assuming that the existing state of affairs will continue indefinitely, except in so far as we have specific reasons to expect a change. This does not mean that we really believe that the existing state of affairs will continue indefinitely. We know from extensive experience that this is most unlikely.
The actual results of an investment over a long term of years very seldom agree with the initial expectation. Nor can we rationalize our behavior by arguing that to a man in a state of ignorance errors in either direction are equally probable, so that there remains a mean actuarial expectation based on equi-probabilities. For it can easily be shown that the assumption of arithmetically equal probabilities based on a state of ignorance leads to absurdities.
We are assuming, in effect, that the existing market valuation, however arrived at, is uniquely correct in relation to our existing knowledge of the facts which will influence the yield of the investment, and that it will only change in proportion to changes in this knowledge; though, philosophically speaking, it cannot be uniquely correct, since our existing knowledge does not provide a sufficient basis for a calculated mathematical expectation. In point of fact, all sorts of considerations enter into the market valuations which are in no way relevant to the prospective yield. Nevertheless the above conventional method of calculation will be compatible with a considerable measure of continuity and stability in our affairs, so long as we can rely on the maintenance of the convention.
For if there exist organized investment markets and if we can rely on the maintenance of the convention, an investor can legitimately encourage himself with the idea that the only risk he runs is that of a genuine change in the news over the near future, as to the likelihood of which he can attempt to form his own judgment, and which is unlikely to be very large. For, assuming that the convention holds good, it is only these changes which can affect the value of his investment, and he need not lose his sleep merely because he has not any notion what his investment will be worth ten years hence.
Thus investment becomes reasonably “safe” for the individual investor over short periods, and hence over a succession of short periods however many, if he can fairly rely on there being no breakdown in the convention and on his therefore having an opportunity to revise his judgment and change his investment, before there has been time for much to happen. Investments which are “fixed” for the community are thus made “liquid” for the individual.
It has been, I am sure, on the basis of some such procedure as this that our leading investment markets have been developed. But it is not surprising that a convention, in an absolute view of things so arbitrary, should have its weak points. It is its precariousness which creates no small part of our contemporary problem of securing sufficient investment.”4
And so, Keynes provides the essential – and existential – answer as to why the Shadow Banking System became so large, the unraveling of which lies at the root of the current global financial system crisis. It was a belief in a convention, undergirded by the length of time it held: Shadow Bank liabilities were viewed as “just as good” as conventional bank deposits not because they are, but because they had been. And the power of this conventional thinking was aided and abetted by both the sovereign and the sovereign-blessed rating agencies.
Until, of course, convention was turned on its head, starting with a run on the ABCP market in August 2007, the near death of Bear Stearns in March 2008, the de facto nationalization of Fannie and Freddie in July, and the actual death of Lehman Brothers in September 2008. Maybe, just maybe, there was and is something special about a real bank, as opposed to a Shadow Bank!
And indeed that is unambiguously the case, as evidenced by the on-going partial re-intermediation of the Shadow Banking System back into the sovereign-supported conventional banking system, as well as the mad scramble by remaining Shadow Banks to convert themselves into conventional banks, so as to eat at the same sovereign-subsidized capital and liquidity cafeteria as their former stodgy brethren.
The new conventional wisdom: levered capitalism is good, and made even better with a bit of socialism to protect the downside.
I’m quite sure that last sentence is not going to sit well with some of you. It’s not supposed to sit well. It doesn’t sit well with me, I must acknowledge, nay confess. Like most of us, I’ve always had a separation in my mind between strictly capitalist activities and strictly public activities. Not that the demarcation is always clean. But it’s a useful way of thinking.
As far as I know, the place where I buy my fishing tackle is a capitalist outfit. If we customers don’t buy enough rods and reels, the owner will go broke; his operation is simply not systemically important enough to be bailed out by the taxpayers, including my neighbors who don’t fish. In contrast, the local Department of Motor Vehicles, sometimes called the DMV, is unambiguously not a capitalist outfit, but a public outfit. It cannot go broke, as evidenced by our tolerance of its fluctuating service level, because it provides a public service that the private sector can’t provide. To be sure, AAA can get you new plates for your car, but you can’t renew your driver’s license at the AAA; for that, you have got to go to the monopoly called the DMV.
Well actually, that’s not entirely true, either. The DMV is actually an oligopoly, with offices in many surrounding neighborhoods. And rumor has it here that the service is a lot quicker at the San Clemente office than the Costa Mesa office, which serves Newport Beach. So the consumer does have the choice of driving to San Clemente, a form of time arbitrage versus going to the Costa Mesa office. However, rumor also has it that this rumored better service in San Clemente is so widespread that, as Yogi Berra might say, the San Clemente office has become so popular nobody goes there anymore.
But you get the point: there is private enterprise and there is public enterprise. And then there is banking, a hybrid of the two. There is no way ‘round this, for good or bad, because fractional reserve banking depends upon the sovereign’s safety net against liability runs, a safety net that the private sector definitionally can’t universally supply. In this sense, the safety net is like national defense: we all need it, but since nobody individually has the incentive to pay for it, we collectively tax ourselves to pay for it.
Yes, sometimes we collectively end up paying $800 for military toilet seats, as was the case about 25 years ago. But that doesn’t change the proposition that public goods do exist, and a stable system of intermediation of private savings into private investment is indeed a public good. The maturity transformation power of a fractional reserve banking system provides an unambiguous benefit to society and as such, must be underwritten by society.
I could regale you yet again about the power of the analytical thinking of Hyman Minsky, complete with his Forward Journey turning into his Moment, followed by his Reverse Journey.5 But I don’t need to do that any more: we’ve collectively lived it and are now caught in the debt-deflationary pathologies of “the paradox of deleveraging.”6 Not everybody in the private sector can delever at the same time without creating a depression. Accordingly, the sovereign must go the other way, levering up the public balance sheet. And Washington has finally started to do so with appropriate vigor and enthusiasm.
It’s not a pretty picture. In fact, it’s repugnant, giving proof to the proposition that breaking the paradox of deleveraging does involve socializing the downside of previously profitable private sector activities. In a recent speech, I called it “creeping socialism” and was interrupted by an irate, older man in the back of the room bellowing, “It ain’t creeping socialism, it’s galloping socialism!” I really didn’t have a soothing come back, noting that many things are what they are only in the eye of the beholder. But his point wasn’t lost on me or anybody else in the room.
And it is not lost on Washington, DC either, I can assure you. If the sovereign must backstop a private sector activity that produces a public good, then the sovereign will, at least in a democracy, rightfully demand both bottom-up and macro-prudential rules to harness the greed that lubricates the invisible hand of capitalism. Yes, the visible fist of government and the invisible hand are presently engaged in a massive arm wrestling contest in the provision of financial services. And the fist is winning.
At least for now. Capitalism, and especially financial market capitalism, brought this outcome upon itself through greed and hubris. Capitalism is now re-grouping and learning how to play by new rules, which are still being written. And ultimately, I’m sure, capitalistic bankers will once again bend those rules in the pursuit of higher profitability. And that’s okay, I think. In the end, we really don’t want to turn our banking system into the DMV. At the same time, we also don’t want our banking system to be nothing more than a betting parlor.
Or, in the famous words of Keynes again:
“Speculators may do no harm as bubbles on a steady stream of enterprise. But the position is serious when enterprise becomes the bubble on a whirlpool of speculation. When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done.”
Paul A. McCulley
November 13, 2008
You can download a complete PDF here.
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