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EU-phoria Fades

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The most recent “light at the end of the tunnel” for the European sovereign debt crisis was seen on Friday June 29.  At a summit in Brussels, leaders of the European Union member nations agreed upon yet another “plan for a plan” to recapitalize failing banks – particularly in Spain.  The Summit Statement, which briefly summarized the terms of the plan, explained that an agreement was reached to establish a supervisory entity which would oversee the European banking system and to allow recapitalization of troubled banks without adding to sovereign debt.  By owning shares in the ailing banks, the European Stability Mechanism would no longer have a senior creditor status, in order to prevent investors from being scared away from buying sovereign bonds.

The bond markets were relieved to know that once again, taxpayers would be paying for the losses sustained by bondholders.  The reaction was immediate.  Spanish and Italian bond yields dropped faster than William Shatner’s pants when he passed through airport securitySpain’s ten-year bond yield dropped to 6.51 percent on June 29 from the previous day’s closing level of 6.87 percent.  Italy’s ten-year bond yield sank to 5.79 percent from the previous closing level of 6.24 percent.

Global stock indices went parabolic after the news from Brussels on June 29.  Nevertheless, many commentators expressed their skepticism about the latest plan.  Economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds discussed the shortcomings of the proposal in his Weekly Market Comment:

The upshot here is that Spain’s banks are undercapitalized and insolvent, but rather than take them over and appropriately restructure them in a way that requires bondholders to take losses instead of the public, Spain hopes to tap European bailout funds so that it can provide capital directly to its banks through the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), and put all of Europe’s citizens on the hook for the losses.Spainhas been trying to get bailout funds without actually having the government borrow the money, because adding new debt to its books would drive the country further toward sovereign default.  Moreover, institutions like the ESM, the ECB, and the IMF generally enjoy senior status on their loans, so that citizens and taxpayers are protected.  Spain’s existing bondholders have objected to this, since a bailout for the banks would make their Spanish debt subordinate to the ESM.

As a side note, the statement suggests that Ireland, which already bailed its banks out the old-fashioned way, will demand whatever deal Spain gets.

So the hope is that Europe will agree to establish a single bank supervisor for all of Europe’s banks.  After that, the ESM – Europe’s bailout fund – would have the “possibility” to provide capital directly to banks.  Of course, since we’re talking about capital – the first buffer against losses – the bailout funds could not simply be lent to the banks, since debt is not capital.  Instead, it would have to be provided by directly purchasing stock (though one can imagine the Orwellian possibility of the ESM lending to bank A to buy shares of bank B, and lending to bank B to buy shares of bank A).  On the question of whether this is a good idea, as opposed to the alternative of properly restructuring banks, ask Spain how the purchase of Bankia stock has been working out for Spanish citizens (Bankia’s bondholders should at least send a thank-you note).  In any event, if this plan for a plan actually goes through, the bailout funds – provided largely by German citizens – would not only lose senior status to Spain’s government debt; the funds would be subordinate even to the unsecured debt held by the bondholders of Spanish banks, since equity is the first thing you wipe out when a bank is insolvent.

It will be interesting to see how long it takes for the German people to figure this out.

The criticism expressed by Charles Hugh Smith is particularly relevant because it addresses the latest move by the European Central Bank to lower its benchmark interest rate by 25 basis points (0.25%) to a record low of 0.75 percent.  Smith’s essay, entitled “Sorry Bucko Europe Is Still in a Death Spiral” consisted of sixteen phases of the death spiral dynamic.  Here are the final seven:

10. Transferring bad debt to central banks does not mean interest will not accrue: interest on the debt still must be paid out of future income, impairing that income.

11. Lowering interest rates does not create collateral where none exists.

12. Lowering interest rates only stretches out the death spiral, it does not halt or reverse it.

13. Centralizing banking and oversight does not create collateral where none exists.

14. Europe will remain in a financial death spiral until the bad debt is renounced/written off and assets are liquidated on the open market.

15. Anything other than this is theater.  Pushing the endgame out a few months is not a solution, nor will it magically create collateral or generate sustainable “growth.”

16. The Martian Central Bank could sell bonds to replace bad debt in Europe, but as long as the MCB collects interest on the debt, then nothing has changed.

The Martians would be extremely bent when they discovered there is no real collateral for their 10 trillion-quatloo loan portfolio in Europe.

Of course, Mr. Smith is forgetting that the Martians could call upon those generous taxpayers from planet Zobion for a bailout   .   .   .


 

Stock Market Bears Have Not Yet Left The Building

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The new year has brought an onslaught of optimistic forecasts about the stock market and the economy.  I suspect that much of this enthusiasm is the result of the return of stock market indices to “pre-Lehman levels” (with the S&P 500 above 1,250).  The “Lehman benchmark” is based on conditions as they existed on September 12, 2008 – the date on which Lehman Brothers collapsed.  The importance of the Lehman benchmark is primarily psychological — often a goal to be reached in this era of “less bad” economic conditions.  The focus on the return of market and economic indicators to pre-Lehman levels is something I refer to as “pre-Lehmanism”.  You can find examples of  pre-Lehmanism in discussions of such diverse subjects as:  the plastic molding press industry in Japan, copper consumption, home sales, bank dividends (hopeless) and economic growth.  Sometimes, pre-Lehmanism will drive a discussion to prognostication based on the premise that since we have surpassed the Lehman benchmark, we could be on our way back to good times.  Here’s a recent example from Bloomberg News:

“Lehman is the poster child for the demise of the banking industry,” said Michael Mullaney, who helps manage $9.5 billion at Fiduciary Trust Co. in Boston.  “We’ve recovered from that.  We’re comfortable with equities. If we do get a continuation of the strength in the economy and corporate earnings, we could get a reasonably good year for stocks in 2011.”

Despite all of this enthusiasm, some commentators are looking behind the rosy headlines to examine the substantive facts underlying the claims.  Consider this recent discussion by Michael Panzner, publisher of Financial Armageddon and When Giants Fall:

Yes, there are some developments that look, superficially at least, like good news.  But if you dig even a little bit deeper, it seems that more often than not nowadays there is less there than meets the eye.

The optimists have talked, for example, about the recovery in corporate profits, but they downplay the layoffs and cut-backs in investment that contributed to those gains.  They note the recovery in the banking sector, but forget to mention all of the financial and political assistance those firms have received — and are still receiving.  They highlight signs of stability in the housing market, but ignore lopsidedly bearish supply-and-demand fundamentals that are impossible to miss.

In an earlier posting, Michael Panzner questioned the enthusiasm about a report that 24 percent of employers participating in a survey expressed plans to boost hiring of full-time employees during 2011, compared to last year’s 20 percent of surveyed employers:

Call me a cynic (for the umpteenth time), but the fact that less that less than a quarter of employers plan to boost full-time hiring this year — a measly four percentage-point increase from last year — doesn’t sound especially “healthy” to me.

No matter how you slice it, the so-called recovery still seems to be largely a figment of the bulls’ imagination.

As for specific expectations about stock market performance during 2011, Jessie of Jesse’s Café Américain provided us with the outlook of someone on the trading floor of an exchange:

I had the opportunity to speak with a pit trader the other day, and he described the mood amongst traders as cautious.  They see the stock market rising and cannot get in front of it, as the buying is too well backed.  But the volumes are so thin and the action so phony that they cannot get comfortable on the long side either, so are buying insurance against a correction even while riding the rally higher.

This is a market setup for a flash crash.

Last May’s “flash crash” and the suspicious “late day rallies” on thin volume aren’t the only events causing individual investors to feel as though they’re being scammed.  A recent essay by Charles Hugh Smith noted the consequences of driving “the little guy” out of the market:

Small investors (so-called retail investors) have been exiting the U.S. stock market for 34 straight weeks, pulling almost $100 billion out of the market. They are voting with their feet based on their situational awareness that the game is rigged, and that the rigging alone greatly increases the risks of another meltdown.

John Hussman of the Hussman Funds recently provided a technical analysis demonstrating that – at least for now – the risk/reward ratio is just not that favorable:

As of last week, the stock market remained characterized by an overvalued, overbought, overbullish, rising-yields condition that has historically produced poor average market returns, and consistently so across historical time frames.  However, this condition is also associated with what I’ve called “unpleasant skew” – the most probable market movement is actually a small advance to marginal new highs, but the right tail is truncated and the left tail is fat, meaning that there is a lower than normal likelihood of large gains, and a much larger than normal potential for sharp and abrupt market losses.

The notoriously bearish Doug Kass is actually restrained with his pessimism for 2011, expecting the market to go “sideways” or “flat” (meaning no significant rise or fall).  Nevertheless, Kass saw fit to express his displeasure over the degree of cheerleading that can be seen in the mass media:

The recent market advance has spurred an accumulation of optimism.  S&P price targets are being lifted by many whose memories are short and who had blinders on as the equity market and economy entered the last downturn.  Bullish sentiment, coincident with rising share prices, is approaching an extreme, and the chorus of bullish talking heads grows ever louder on CNBC and elsewhere.

Speculation has entered the market.  The Iomegans of the late 1990s tech bubble have been replaced by the Shen Zhous, who worship at the altar of rare earths.

Not only are trends in the market being too easily extrapolated, the same might be true for the health of the domestic economy.

On New Year’s Eve, Kelly Evans of The Wall Street Journal wrote a great little article, summing-up the year-end data, which has fueled the market bullishness.  Beyond that, Ms. Evans provided a caveat that would never cross the minds of most commentators:

Still, Wall Street’s exuberance should send shudders down any contrarian’s spine.  To the extent the stock market anticipates growth, the economy will have to fire on all cylinders next year and then some.  At least one cylinder, the housing market, still is sputtering.  Upward pressure on food and gas prices also threatens to keep a lid on consumer confidence and rob from spending power even as the labor market continues its gradual and choppy recovery.

The coming year could turn out to be the reverse of 2010:  decent economic growth, but a disappointing showing by the stock market.  That’s the last thing most people expect right now, precisely why investors should be worried about it happening.

The new year may be off to a great start  . . .  but the stock market bears have not yet left the building.  Ignore their warnings at your own peril.


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Preparing For The Worst

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November 19, 2009

In the November 18 edition of The Telegraph, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard revealed that the French investment bank, Societe Generale “has advised its clients to be ready for a possible ‘global economic collapse’ over the next two years, mapping a strategy of defensive investments to avoid wealth destruction”.   That gloomy outlook was the theme of a report entitled:  “Worst-case Debt Scenario” in which the bank warned that a new set of problems had been created by government rescue programs, which simply transferred private debt liabilities onto already “sagging sovereign shoulders”:

“As yet, nobody can say with any certainty whether we have in fact escaped the prospect of a global economic collapse,” said the 68-page report, headed by asset chief Daniel Fermon.  It is an exploration of the dangers, not a forecast.

Under the French bank’s “Bear Case” scenario, the dollar would slide further and global equities would retest the March lows.  Property prices would tumble again.  Oil would fall back to $50 in 2010.

*   *   *

The underlying debt burden is greater than it was after the Second World War, when nominal levels looked similar.  Ageing populations will make it harder to erode debt through growth.  “High public debt looks entirely unsustainable in the long run.  We have almost reached a point of no return for government debt,” it said.

Inflating debt away might be seen by some governments as a lesser of evils.

If so, gold would go “up, and up, and up” as the only safe haven from fiat paper money.  Private debt is also crippling.  Even if the US savings rate stabilises at 7pc, and all of it is used to pay down debt, it will still take nine years for households to reduce debt/income ratios to the safe levels of the 1980s.

To make matters worse, America still has an unemployment problem that just won’t abate.  A recent essay by Charles Hugh Smith for The Business Insider took a view beyond the “happy talk” propaganda to the actual unpleasant statistics.  Mr. Smith also called our attention to what can be seen by anyone willing to face reality, while walking around in any urban area or airport:

The divergence between the reality easily observed in the real world and the heavily touted hype that “the recession is over because GDP rose 3.5%” is growing.  It’s obvious that another 7 million jobs which are currently hanging by threads will be slashed in the next year or two.

By this point, most Americans are painfully aware of the massive bailouts afforded to those financial institutions considered “too big to fail”.  The thought of transferring private debt liabilities onto already “sagging sovereign shoulders” immediately reminds people of TARP and the as-yet-undisclosed assistance provided by the Federal Reserve to some of those same, TARP-enabled institutions.

As Kevin Drawbaugh reported for Reuters, the European Union has already taken action to break up those institutions whose failure could create a risk to the entire financial system:

EU regulators are set to turn the spotlight on 28 European banks bailed out by governments for possible mandated divestitures, officials said on Wednesday.

The EU executive has already approved restructuring plans for British lender Lloyds Banking (LLOY.L), Dutch financial group ING Groep NV (ING.AS) and Belgian group KBC (KBC.BR).

Giving break-up power to regulators would be “a good thing,” said Paul Miller, a policy analyst at investment firm FBR Capital Markets, on Wednesday.

Big banks in general are bad for the economy because they do not allocate credit well, especially to small businesses, he said. “Eventually the big banks get broken up in one way or another,” Miller said at the Reuters Global Finance Summit.

Meanwhile in the United States, the House Financial Services Committee approved a measure that would grant federal regulators the authority to break up financial institutions that would threaten the entire system if they were to fail.  Needless to say, this proposal does have its opponents, as the Reuters article pointed out:

In both the House and the Senate, “financial lobbyists will continue to try to water down this new and intrusive federal regulatory power,” said Joseph Engelhard, policy analyst at investment firm Capital Alpha Partners.

If a new break-up power does survive the legislative process, Engelhard said, it is unlikely a “council of numerous financial regulators would be able to agree on such a radical step as breaking up a large bank, except in the most unusual circumstances, and that the Treasury Secretary … would have the ability to veto any imprudent use of such power.”

When I first read this, I immediately realized that Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner would consider any use of such power as imprudent and he would likely veto any attempt to break up a large bank.  Nevertheless, my concerns about the “Geithner factor” began to fade after I read some other encouraging news stories.  In The Huffington Post, Sam Stein disclosed that Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio (a Democrat) had called for the firing of White House economic advisor Larry Summers and Treasury Secretary “Timmy Geithner” during an interview with MSNBC’s Ed Schultz.  Mr. Stein provided the following recap of that discussion:

“We think it is time, maybe, that we turn our focus to Main Street — we reclaim some of the unspent [TARP] funds, we reclaim some of the funds that are being paid back, which will not be paid back in full, and we use it to put people back to work.  Rebuilding America’s infrastructure is a tried and true way to put people back to work,” said DeFazio.

“Unfortunately, the President has an adviser from Wall Street, Larry Summers, and a Treasury Secretary from Wall Street, Timmy Geithner, who don’t like that idea,” he added.  “They want to keep the TARP money either to continue to bail out Wall Street  … or to pay down the deficit.  That’s absurd.”

Asked specifically whether Geithner should stay in his job, DeFazio replied:  “No.”

“Especially if you look back at the AIG scandal,” he added, “and Goldman and others who got their bets paid off in full … with taxpayer money through AIG.  We channeled the money through them.  Geithner would not answer my question when I said, ‘Were those naked credit default swaps by Goldman or were they a counter-party?’  He would not answer that question.”

DeFazio said that among he and others in the Congressional Progressive Caucus, there was a growing consensus that Geithner needed to be removed.  He added that some lawmakers were “considering questions regarding him and other economic advisers” — though a petition calling for the Treasury Secretary’s removal had not been drafted, he said.

Another glimmer of hope for the possible removal of Turbo Tim came from Jeff Madrick at The Daily Beast.  Madrick’s piece provided us with a brief history of Geithner’s unusually fast rise to power (he was 42 when he was appointed president of the New York Federal Reserve) along with a reference to the fantastic discourse about Geithner by Jo Becker and Gretchen Morgenson, which appeared in The New York Times last April.  Mr. Madrick demonstrated that what we have learned about Geithner since April, has affirmed those early doubts:

Recall that few thought Geithner was seasoned enough to be Treasury secretary when Obama picked him.  Rubin wasn’t ready to be Treasury secretary when Clinton was elected and he had run Goldman Sachs.  Was Geithner’s main attraction that he could easily be controlled by Summers and the White House political advisers?  It’s a good bet.  A better strategy, some argued, would have been to name Paul Volcker, the former Fed chairman, for a year’s worth of service and give Geithner as his deputy time to grow.  But Volcker would have been far harder to control by the White House.

But now the president needs a Treasury Secretary who is respected enough to stand up to Wall Street, restabilize the world’s trade flows and currencies, and persuade Congress to join a battle to get the economic recovery on a strong path.  He also needs someone with enough economic understanding to be a counterweight to the White House advisers, led by Summers, who have consistently been behind the curve, except for the $800 billion stimulus.  And now that is looking like it was too little.  The best guess is that Geithner is not telling the president anything that the president does not know or doesn’t hear from someone down the hall.

The problem for Geithner and his boss, is that the stakes if anything are higher than ever.

As the rest of the world prepares for worsening economic conditions, the United States should do the same.  Keeping Tim Geithner in charge of the Treasury makes less sense than it did last April.



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