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Those Smart Bond Traders

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There seems to be a consensus that bond traders are smarter than stock traders.  Consider this thought from Investopedia’s Financial Edge website:

Many investors believe bond traders understand the economy better than equity traders.  Bond traders pay very close attention to any economic factor that might affect interest rates.  Equity traders recognize that changes in bond prices provide a good indication of what bond traders think of the economy.

Widespread belief that Ben Bernanke’s Zero Interest Rate Policy (ZIRP) has created a stock market “bubble” has led to fear that the bubble may soon pop and cause the market to crash.  It was strange to see that subject discussed by John Melloy at CNBC, given the news outlet’s reputation for stock market cheerleading. Nevertheless, Mr. Melloy recently presented us with some ominous information:

The Yale School of Management since 1989 has asked wealthy individual investors monthly to give the “probability of a catastrophic stock market crash in the U.S. in the next six months.”

In the latest survey in December, almost 75 percent of respondents gave it at least a 10 percent chance of happening.  That’s up from 68 percent who gave it a 10 percent probability last April, just before the events of May 6, 2010.

*   *   *

The Flash Crash Commission – containing members of the CFTC and SEC – made a series of recommendations for improving market structure Friday, including single stock circuit breakers, a more reliable audit trail on trades, and curbing the use of cancelled trades by high-frequency traders.  They still don’t know what actually caused the nearly 1,000-point drop in the Dow Jones Industrial Average in a matter of minutes.

*   *   *

Overall volume has been very light in the market though, as the individual investor put more money into bonds last year than stocks in spite of the gains.  Strategists said this has been one of the longer bull markets (starting in March 2009) with barely any retail participation.  Flows into equity mutual funds did turn positive in January and have continued this month however, according to ICI and TrimTabs.com.  Yet the fear of a crash persists.

Whether or not one is concerned about the possibility of a market crash, consensual ambivalence toward equities is on the rise.  Felix Salmon recently wrote an article for The New York Times entitled, “Wall Street’s Dead End”, which began with the observation that the number of companies listed on the major domestic exchanges peaked in 1997 and has been declining ever since.  Mr. Salmon discussed the recent trend toward private financing of corporations, as opposed to the tradition of raising capital by offering shares for sale on the stock exchanges:

Only the biggest and oldest companies are happy being listed on public markets today.  As a result, the stock market as a whole increasingly fails to reflect the vibrancy and heterogeneity of the broader economy.  To invest in younger, smaller companies, you increasingly need to be a member of the ultra-rich elite.

At risk, then, is the shareholder democracy that America forged, slowly, over the past 50 years.  Civilians, rather than plutocrats, controlled corporate America, and that relationship improved standards of living and usually kept the worst of corporate abuses in check.  With America Inc. owned by its citizens, the success of American business translated into large gains in the stock portfolios of anybody who put his savings in the market over most of the postwar period.

Today, however, stock markets, once the bedrock of American capitalism, are slowly becoming a noisy sideshow that churns out increasingly meager returns.  The show still gets lots of attention, but the real business of the global economy is inexorably leaving the stock market — and the vast majority of us — behind.

Investors who decided to keep their money in bonds, heard some discouraging news from bond guru Bill Gross of PIMCO on February 2.   Gus Lubin of The Business Insider provided a good summary of what Bill Gross had to say:

His latest investment letter identifies four scenarios in which bondholders would get burned.  Basically these are sovereign default, currency devaluation, inflation, and poor returns relative to other asset classes.

In other words, you can’t win.  Gross compares Ben Bernanke to the devil and calls ZIRP a devil’s haircut:  “This is not God’s work – it has the unmistakable odor of Mammon.”

Gross recommends putting money in foreign bonds and other assets that yield more than Treasuries.

I was particularly impressed with what Bill Gross had to say about the necessary steps for making America more competitive in the global marketplace:

We need to find a new economic Keynes or at least elect a chastened Congress that can take our structurally unemployed and give them a chance to be productive workers again.  We must have a President whose idea of “centrist” policy is not to hand out presents to the right and the left and then altruistically proclaim the benefits of bipartisanship.  We need a President who does more than propose “Win The Future” at annual State of the Union addresses without policy follow-up.  America requires more than a makeover or a facelift.  It needs a heart transplant absent the contagious antibodies of money and finance filtering through the system.  It needs a Congress that cannot be bought and sold by lobbyists on K Street, whose pockets in turn are stuffed with corporate and special interest group payola.  Are record corporate profits a fair price for America’s soul?  A devil’s bargain more than likely.

You can’t discuss bond fund managers these days, without mentioning Jeffrey Gundlach, who recently founded DoubleLine Capital.  Jonathan Laing of Barron’s wrote a great article about Gundlach entitled “The King of Bonds”.  When I reached the third paragraph of that piece, I had to re-read this startling fact:

His DoubleLine Total Return Bond Fund (DBLTX), with $4.5 billion of assets as of Jan. 31, outperformed every one of the 91 bond funds in the Morningstar intermediate-bond-fund universe in 2010, despite launching only in April.  It notched a total return of 16.6%, compared with returns of 8.36% for the giant Pimco Total Return Fund (PTTAX), run by the redoubtable Bill Gross  . . .

The essay described how Gundlach’s former employer, TCW, feared that Gundlach was planning to leave the firm.  Accordingly, TCW made a pre-emptive strike and fired Gundlach.  From there, the story gets more interesting:

Five weeks after Gundlach’s dismissal, TCW sued the manager, four subordinates and DoubleLine for allegedly stealing trade secrets, including client lists, transaction information and proprietary security-valuation systems.  The suit also charged that a search of Gundlach’s offices had turned up a trove of porn magazines, X-rated DVDs and sexual devices, as well as marijuana.

*    *    *

He charges TCW with employing “smear tactics … to destroy our business.” As for “the sex tapes and such,” he says, they represented “a closed chapter in my life.”

That’s certainly easy to understand.  Porn just hasn’t been the same since Ginger Lynn retired.

Jeff Gundlach’s December webcast entitled, “Independence Day” can be found here.  Take a good look at the graph on page 16:  “Top 0.1% Income Earners Share of Total Income”.  It’s just one of many reminders that our country is headed in the wrong direction.


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Barack Anxiety Builds On The Left

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December 8, 2008

With each passing day, we see an increase of editorial essays with the same theme:  After winning the election, will Barack Obama abandon the liberal or progressive base of the Democratic Party?  Some of the more strident ideologues from the liberal side of the spectrum are becoming more vocal in expressing anxiety about where the Obama Administration might take us.  This distress results from the President-elect’s recent naming of Cabinet and other high-level appointees.

For example, On December 1, Katrina vanden Heuvel posted an article on The Nation website, expressing dismay over Obama’s decision to allow Robert Gates to continue serving as Secretary of Defense under the new administration.  The criticism she voiced about the new foreign policy / national security team exemplifies the perspective of many writers concerning the entire list of appointments disclosed by Obama so far:

For Obama, who’s said he wants to be challenged by his advisors, wouldn’t it have made sense to include at least one person on the foreign policy/national security team who would challenge him with some new and fresh thinking about security in the 21st century?  Isn’t the idea of a broader bandwidth of ideas also at the heart of this ballyhooed “team of rivals” stuff?

Commentator David Sirota has been quite vocal in articulating his disappointment over Obama’s cabinet picks.  Back on November 19, he had this to say on the Campaign for America’s Future website:

Look, I’m all for “inclusion” – but let’s also remember, the most comprehensive post-election poll shows that a whopping 70 percent of Americans want conservatives to bend to Obama’s agenda, not the other way around.  And so what about the other side of the “team?”  If “Team of Rivals” = “Bipartisanship,” shouldn’t there be some full-on progressives in some very powerful positions?  Wouldn’t that complete the “team” in “Team of Rivals” and the “bi” in “bipartisan?”  Or are we really not going to see a “team” nor “bipartisanship” – but merely lockstep corporatism/conservatism disguised with the latest happy sounding terms from the (David) Broder dictionary?

Robert Scheer voiced similar uncertainty about Obama’s appointments in a December 2 posting on the Truthdig website:

Yet, it all does hang on him.  Yes, Obama.  The superstar, and not that supporting cast of retreads from a failed past that have popped up in his administration in the making.  Now that we have the list of his top economic and foreign policy picks — mostly a collection of folks who wouldn’t know change if it slapped them upside the head — we’ve got to hope that it’s Obama who is using them, and not the other way around.

*   *   *

The problem with Obama’s national security team is not that he has picked hawks whom he cannot control; they are all professionals, who took the job expecting to go along with his game plan.  The danger here, as with his economic advisers, is only that Obama may stop being Obama, the agent of change who electrified a nation.

The analyses of Obama’s loyalty to the progressive base of the Democratic Party were not restricted to the liberal-oriented blogs.  John Harwood’s article in the December 6 New York Times provided us with a more optimistic view of what we might expect from the Obama Administration:

All this raises the question: can Mr. Obama indeed be forging the new style of politics he invoked so often during the election — one that transcends the partisan divisions that have marked recent administrations?  If so, what will he replace it with, a bipartisan style of governance that splits the differences between competing ideological camps, or a “post-partisan” politics that narrows gaps between red and blue or even renders them irrelevant?

Actually, insiders in Mr. Obama’s emerging team foresee a third option:  a series of left-leaning programs that draw on Americans’ desire for action and also on Mr. Obama’s moderate, even conservative, temperament, to hurdle the ideological obstacles that have lately paralyzed Washington.

Robert Creamer demonstrated a similarly positive outlook in his November 24 posting on the Campaign for America’s Future website:

Barack Obama will not govern from the “center right”, but he will govern from the “center”.  That’s not because he is “moving to the center”.  It’s because the center of American politics has changed.  It has moved where the American people are.  It once again resides in the traditional progressive center that has defined America’s promise since Thomas Jefferson penned its founding document over 200 years ago.

As we approach the initial days of the Obama Administration, it seems amusing to observe more squeamishness about our next President, coming from those on the political left than from those on the right.  The McCain campaign’s old theme:  “Who is Barack Obama?” seems to be lingering in the minds of many Obama supporters.  Saturday Night Live taught a lesson to all of the worriers, with the sketch:  “Obama Plays It Cool” .  Fear not, ye of leftist leanings!  Just stay cool.