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Reality Check

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July 13, 2009

Have you become sick of hearing about the “green shoots”?   Back on March 15, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke appeared on 60 Minutes and made the self-serving, self-congratulatory claim that “green shoots” could be found in the economy.  I guess we’re supposed to thank him for all the extra money printing he had mandated, to facilitate this claimed result.  While we normal people continued to cope with ongoing job losses, an almost nonexistent job market, unavailable mortgages, a constipated real estate market and fear about the future   . . .   Chairman Bernanke was trying to sell us on some good news.  Since that time, the expression “green shoots” has been the mantra for those pundits who, for whatever reason, want the naive public to believe in the emperor’s new clothes.  The usual motive for chatting up the “green shoots” is to encourage a widespread popular return to investing in the stock market and by so doing, make life more rewarding for those at brokerage firms.

This week brings us a “reality check” that will come in the form of earnings reports from the second quarter of 2009, required for disclosure by publicly-held corporations, traded on our nation’s stock exchanges.  Recent news reports have focused on the fact that despite the “bear market rally” that began in May, last week’s drop in stock prices revealed widespread investor concern that the truth will not support all the hype they have been reading since the spring.  Here’s what E.S. Browning had to say in the July 8 edition of The Wall Street Journal:

Expectations for the current earnings season are very low, and investors are worried companies will give weak outlooks for the second half of the year.

“We kind of think the market got ahead of itself.  It ran too fast, too hard, and we are soon going to be staring at second-quarter earnings reports that are not going to be pretty,” said Janna Sampson, who helps oversee $1.3 billion as co-chief investment officer of OakBrook Investments in Lisle, Ill.

After the market bottomed March 9, investors increasingly embraced risky assets, bidding up stocks, especially those of smaller companies with little or no profit.

Those unfortunate investors were hit by two “sucker punches”.  The first was the often-repeated claim that “stocks are now a bargain  . . .  we’ve hit the bottom so now is the time to BUY!”  The second sucker punch involved the use of high-speed trading programs (such as the one recently stolen from Goldman Sachs) to run up the prices on stocks and exploit “retail investors” such as you and me.  An astute explanation of this process was recently published by Sal Arnuk and Joseph Saluzzi of Themis Trading.  You can read that report here.  What’s even more interesting about the computer program used by (and stolen from) Goldman Sachs, is the statement made by Assistant U.S.Attorney Joseph Facciponti, as quoted in the July 6 article by David Glovin and Christine Harper for Bloomberg News:

“The bank has raised the possibility that there is a danger that somebody who knew how to use this program could use it to manipulate markets in unfair ways,” Facciponti said, according to a recording of the hearing made public today.

So Goldman Sachs has a computer program that allows the user to “manipulate the markets in unfair ways”?  That’s quite a revelation!  If that weren’t bad enough  . . .  according to a recent report by Tyler Durden at Zero Hedge, Goldman Sachs is not the only kid on the block with a high-frequency trading program.

Alexendra Twin of CNN (in addition to providing us with a schedule of earnings reports and other important economic data to be released over this week and next) pointed out another important reason for last spring’s stock market rally, which is not likely to be a factor this month:

Last quarter, analysts and corporations alike ratcheted down forecasts, setting up a period in which a greater percentage of companies than usual beat forecasts.  But this quarter could be different.  Fewer companies have been cutting forecasts and analysts haven’t budged as much either, giving corporations less of an opportunity to defy expectations.

“The question is whether we’ll see a similar surprise factor this time,” said John Butters, senior research analyst at Thomson Reuters. “If companies haven’t cut and analysts haven’t cut, can results beat forecasts?”

My take on this process is a bit more cynical:  the system is being “gamed” by companies’ providing artificially low estimates for future earnings, in order to win at what commentator Bill Fleckenstein calls “beat the number”.

Once we have read about all these reports  —  will we finally stop hearing about “green shoots”?  I have my money on bad economic news, as I continue to maintain my position in the SRS exchange-traded fund.  Nevertheless, I’m keeping one hand on the ripcord, ready to bail out at any minute.

Pay Close Attention To This Man

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January 11, 2009

For several years, I have enjoyed following MSN’s Strategy Lab competition.  Strategy Lab is a stock-picking challenge.  They select six contestants: some seasoned professionals, some amateurs and occasionally, one of their own pundits.  Each contestant manages a mock, $100,000 portfolio for a six-month period.  Sometimes, the amateur will out-play the pros.  I always enjoy it when the “conventional wisdom” followed by the investing herd is proven wrong by a winning contestant, who ignores such dogma.

Our current economic situation requires original thinking.  Following the conventional wisdom during an unconventional economic crisis seems like a path to failure.  While checking in on the Strategy Lab website, I noticed an original thinker named Andrew Horowitz.  Mr. Horowitz is a contestant in the current Strategy Lab competition.  He is the only player who has made any money at all with his imaginary $100,000.  Andrew’s portfolio has earned him 13.44 percent as of Wednesday, January 21.  His competitors have been posting dismal results.  One of the regulars, John Reese (nicknamed “Guru Investor”) is down by 41.55 percent.  I think I’ll steer clear of his ashram.  The others currently have losses roughly equivalent to Andrew’s gains.

Andrew Horowitz is the president and founder of Horowitz & Co., an investment advisory firm serving individual and corporate clients since the late 1980’s.  He has written a book, entitled:  The Disciplined Investor.  It is focused on his experiences and what he has learned from twenty years in the investment advisory business.  He has been featured and quoted regularly in the media, including such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, Bloomberg, Barron’s and Reuters.  He also has a blog website with the same name as his book:  The Disciplined Investor.

His recent article for MSN caught my attention.  It is entitled:  “Why invest in this market anyway?” He began this journal entry discussing a “consider the source” approach to evaluating the advice given by those currently encouraging people to buy stocks now, while they are “cheap”.  His “where do we go from here” discussion resonated with my belief about where the stock market is headed:

The fourth-quarter earnings season kicked off with little fanfare last week and a great deal of bad news.  Many have asked if there is a light at the end of this tunnel.  My reply:  Sure there is, but it’s the headlights of a speeding 18-wheeler coming straight for us.  We have the choice of getting run over or stepping aside.

This is not a popular commentary.  I know that many investors would prefer to hear all about opportunities to make money on the “upside,” but until there is one shred of good news, I refuse to throw my hard-earned money into a bonfire just to watch it be incinerated.

Mr. Horowitz also made a point of emphasizing something we don’t hear often enough from those media darlings entrusted to preach the gospel of the brokerage firms:

With all the talk of change coming from our government officials, it is evident that if things continue down this path the only thing that will be left in our pockets is change.  It’s as if investors are waiting for something incredible and magical to be said, but there is only so much that words can accomplish.  Americans need action, assistance and reform in the banking system.

In an era when we are bombarded with investing advice from a multitude of “experts” appearing on television and all over the internet, it becomes difficult to distinguish a good signal from all of the noise.  One’s ability to give good investment advice in a bull market does not necessarily qualify that person to be a reliable advisor in the current milieu.  The performance by Andrew Horowitz in the Strategy Lab competition (so far) underscores the value of that old maxim:  “Money talks and bullshit walks”.  I’ll be paying close attention to what he has to say as we make our way through the treacherous economic times ahead.

The News Nobody Wants To Hear

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December 11, 2008

You can’t watch a news program these days without hearing some “happy talk” about how our dismal economy is “on the verge of recovery”.  You have to remember that many of these shows are sponsored by brokerage firms.  That fact must be taken into consideration when you decide how much weight you will give the opinions of the so-called “experts” appearing on those programs to tell you that the stock market has reached “the bottom” and that it is now time to jump back in and start buying stocks.  Similarly, those people interested in making a home purchase (i.e. millionaires, who don’t have to worry about getting a mortgage) want to know when the residential real estate market will hit “bottom” so they can get the best value.  If I had a thousand dollars for every time during the past six months that some prognosticator has appeared on television to tell us that the stock market has “hit bottom”, I would have enough money to start my own geothermal power utility.

People interested in making investments have been scared away from stocks due to the pummeling that the markets have taken since the “mortgage crisis” raised its ugly head and devastated the world economy.  If those folks believe the hype and start buying stocks now, they are taking a greater risk than the enthusiastic promoters on TV might be willing to disclose.

People just don’t like bad news, especially when it is about the future and worse yet, if it’s about the economy.  On Friday, December 5, the stock market rallied, despite the dismal news that November’s non-farm employment loss was the greatest monthly employment decline in 34 years.  More than half a million people lost their jobs in November.  Despite this news, all of the major stock indices were up at least 3 percent for that day alone.  Have all these people bought into the magical thinking described in The Secret?  Do that many people believe that wishing hard enough can cause a dream to become reality?

There is one authority on the subject of economics, who earned quite a bit of “street cred” when our current economic crisis hit the fan. He is Nouriel Roubini, a professor of economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business. He earned the nickname “Doctor Doom” when he spoke before the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on September 7, 2006 and described, in precise detail, exactly what would bring the financial world to its knees, two years later.  In this time of uncertainty, many people (myself included) pay close attention to what Dr. Roubini has to say by regularly checking in on his website.  On December 5, we were surprised to hear Doctor Doom’s admission to Aaron Task (on the web TV show, Tech Ticker) that his own 401(k) plan is comprised entirely of stocks.  Dr. Roubini explained that he is not in the “Armageddon camp” and that for the long haul, stocks are still a good investment (although currently not a good idea for investors with more short-term goals).  Upon learning of this, I began to wonder if the revelation about Doctor Doom’s stock holdings could have been the reason for the stock market rally that day.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Roubini at a lecture he gave within staggering distance of my home.  I was able to talk to him about my concern over Federal Reserve Chairman, Ben Bernanke’s idea of having the federal government purchase stocks in order to pep-up a depressed stock market.  How could this possibly be accomplished?  How could the Fed decide which stocks to buy to the exclusion of others?  Dr. Roubini told me that the government has already done this by purchasing preferred shares of stock issued by the banks participating in the TARP program.  He explained that rather than purchasing selected stocks of particular companies, the government would, more likely, invest in stock indices.  Before I get to Doctor Doom’s other points from his lecture, I will share this photo taken of yours truly and Doctor Roubini (who appears on your left):

Doctor Doom with Me

Dr. Roubini told the audience that he believes this recession will be worse than everyone expects. During the next few months, “the flow of macroeconomic news will be awful and worse than expected”. He opined that people are going to be surprised if they think that the stock market “bottom” will come in mid-2009. He expects that by the end of 2009 “things will still be bad” and unemployment will peak at 9% in early 2010. He thinks that the consensus on earnings-per-share estimates for stocks during the next year is “delusional”. He anticipates risk aversion among investors to be severe next year. We are now in a global recession and this has caused commodity prices to fall 30%. He pointed out that commodity prices could still fall another 20%. He considers it “very likely” that between 500 to 600 hedge funds will go out of business within the next six months. As this happens, the stocks held by these funds must be dumped onto the market. With respect to the beleaguered residential real estate market, he pointed out that home prices could fall another 15-20% by early 2010.

The good news provided by Dr. Roubini is that the global recession should end by the close of 2009. However, he expects recovery to be “weak” in 2010. He surmised that the possibility of a systemic meltdown has been minimized by the actions taken at the recent G7 meeting and most particularly with the G7 resolution to prevent further “Lehman Brothers-type” bankruptcies from taking place. He concluded that this recession should be nothing like the Japanese recession of the 1990s, which lasted nearly a decade.

So there you have it:  The news (almost) nobody wants to hear.  You can say these are the predictions voiced by one man who could be wrong.  Nevertheless, given Dr. Roubini’s track record, I and many others hold his opinions in high regard.  Now, let’s see how this all plays out.