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Don’t Fear the Taper

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You can’t avoid reading about it.  The stock market is sinking  . . .  Treasury bond yields are spiking   .  .  .  The TAPER is coming!

The panic began in the wake of Jon Hilsenrath’s May 10 Wall Street Journal  report (after the markets closed on that Friday afternoon) concerning a new strategy by the Federal Reserve to “wind down” its quantitative easing program.  The disclosure was carefully timed to give investors an opportunity to process the information and get used to the idea before the next opening bell of the stock market.

By the time the stock market reopened on Monday, May 13 – the first trading day after Jon Hilsenrath’s article – there was a surprising report on April Retail Sales from the Commerce Department’s Census Bureau.  The report disclosed that retail sales had unexpectedly increased by 0.1 percent in April, despite economists’ expectations of a 0.3 percent decline.  As a result, the Taper report had no significant impact on stock prices – at least on that day.

The Wall Street Journal report carried plenty of weight because of Jon Hilsenrath’s role as de facto “press secretary” for Ben Bernanke, as I discussed in my last posting.  Since the WSJ article’s publication, there has been a steady stream of commentary about the threats posed by the Taper.  Nevertheless, the word “taper” was never used in Hilsenrath’s article.  In fact, the article included an explanation by Philly FedHead (and FOMC member) Charles Plosser, that the Fed has “a dial that can move either way”.  The dial could be set to a particular level with either an increase or a decrease.

Regardless of whatever the Fed may have planned, the flow of commentary has focused on the notion that the Fed is about to taper back on its bond buying.  The current incarnation of quantitative easing (QE 4) involves the Fed’s purchase of $45 billion in bonds and $40 billion in mortgage-backed securities every month.  We are supposed to believe that the Fed will gradually ease back on the bond purchases – whether it might begin with a reduction to $40 billion or $35 billion in monthly purchases  . . .  the Fed will gradually taper the amount down to zero.

Despite what you may have read or heard about the taper, it’s not going to work that way.  Beyond that, taper is not really an appropriate way to describe the Fed’s plan.  In other words:

Don’t fear the taper.

Josh Brown interviewed Jon Hilsenrath for CNBC on May 22.  Here is what Josh Brown had to say about the interview:

There was one thing Jon Hilsenrath did say in my interview with him on TV last night that I think is very important and clears up a big misconception. He explained that Bernanke himself will not be using the term “taper” that everyone else is bandying about. The reason why is that the Fed does not want to create the impression that one policy move will necessarily be attached to three or four others. In other words, suppose the Fed were to drop its rate of monthly asset purchases from $85 billion to some less number in one of the next meetings. This could be a one-off action with nothing else behind it, designed to temper the market’s expectations and gauge the effects.

I’d remind you that what Bernanke, as a self-styled “student of the Depression” fears the most, is a premature tightening a la FDR in 1937-1938, just as the nation was finally on the mend. If you think that this central bank, which has just spent the last six years patiently reflating the economy, is about to yank the rug out from under it at the last moment, then you haven’t been paying attention.

The wave of panic which followed Jon Hilsenrath’s May 10 article about the Fed’s plans for its quantitative easing program has yet to be calmed by Hilsenrath’s clarification about how the Fed’s new strategy is likely to proceed.  As Napoleon once said:

“Men are Moved by two levers only: fear and self interest.”


 

A Wary Eye On The Indicators

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March 1, 2010

The past few days brought us some observations by a number of financial commentators, who expressed concern about how our economic recovery is coming along.  Although none of the following three are ready to start sounding alarms, they all seem to share a similar tone of discouragement.

Don Luskin of The Wall Street Journal ’s Smart Money blog began his February 26 piece with an explanation of how proud he used to be about the accuracy of his May, 2009 declaration that the recession had ended.  Although he still believes that he made the right call back then, the most recent economic indicators have muddied the picture:

I made my recession end call in May because of an entirely different set of statistics, designed to be predictive rather than merely to recognize what has already happened.  What worries me is that these statistics have all started to get a little worse recently.

Luskin explained that although initial unemployment claims reached their peak in early April, the four-week moving average has risen 7 percent from where it was a few weeks ago.

Over history, upticks like that have no predictive value.  There have been many of them, and very few have led to recessions.  Still, 7% is a big reversal.  In May when I got excited about the drop in claims, that drop was only about 4%!

Luskin found another disappointing trend in the fact that earnings expectations for the S&P 500 are now growing at a much slower pace than they were in April.  Two other trends concerned him as well.  The fact that the dollar has rallied ten percent in the last couple of months raises the question whether “the fear that gripped world markets in 2008 and 2009” could be returning.  Finally, the fact that the credit spread between Treasuries and “junk bonds” is now at six percent after having been below 5%, brings a little discomfort simply because of a move in the wrong direction.  Nevertheless, Luskin is still optimistic, although his perspective is tempered with realism:

So is the economic recovery over?  I don’t think so.  I think it’s just being tested.  None of the indicators I use to detect the onset of recession are giving signals.  But it’s haunting, nevertheless.  After the horrific global recession we went through, you’d think we ought to come roaring back. We’re back, but we’re not exactly roaring.

In Sunday’s Washington Post, Frank Ahrens wrote an article discussing three indicators that “spell trouble for the recovery”.  Here’s how he explained them:

— On Wednesday, the Commerce Department reported that January new-home sales dropped 11.2 percent from December, plunging to their lowest level in nearly 50 years.

— On Tuesday, the Conference Board reported that February consumer confidence fell sharply from January, driven down by the survey’s “present situation index” — how confident consumers feel right now — which hit its lowest mark since the 1983 recession.  On Friday, the Reuters/University of Michigan consumer sentiment survey also showed a falloff from January to February.

— On Thursday, the government’s report on new jobless claims filed during the previous week shot up 22,000, which was exactly opposite of what economists predicted.  Forecasters expected new jobless claims to drop by about 20,000.

Taken together, what do these reports tell us?

We’ve got a long way to go to get out of this economic mess, and we may be actually losing a little ground.

At the conclusion of that piece, Mr. Ahrens added that another factor holding back recovery is the current state of activity in the stock market.  Investors seem to be exhibiting caution, uncertainty and “a hard-to-shake sense that we haven’t hit bottom yet”.

As I frequently point out, one of my favorite financial gurus is Jeremy Grantham of GMO.  The February 26 issue of Bloomberg Business Week featured an article by Charles Stein concerning Grantham’s career.  In the section of the piece discussing Grantham’s current outlook, we see yet another view toward a very lean, slow recovery process:

Grantham’s favorite asset class today is high-quality U.S.stocks, companies defined by high, stable returns and low debt.  The allocation fund had 31 percent of its money in that category at year-end, sometimes called blue chips, according to the GMO Web site.  In the interview, he said he expects such stocks to return an average of 6.8 percent a year over the next seven years, compared with 1.3 percent for all large-cap U.S. stocks.

Emerging-market stocks may rise about 4 percent annually in the next seven years, as investor enthusiasm for economic growth in developing countries carries the stocks to unsustainable levels, Grantham said.

“Why not go along for the ride?” he said.  The MSCI Emerging Markets Index returned an average of 22 percent in the past seven years, compared with a gain of 5.5 percent by the S&P 500 index.

U.S.government bonds will return 1.1 percent a year over the seven-year period, according to the latest GMO forecast.  The Bank of America Merrill Lynch U.S. Treasury Master Index rose 4.3 percent from 2003 through 2009.

Grantham said he expects a difficult, not disastrous, period for the economy and investments.

“It will feel like the 1970s,” he said. “One step forward, one step back.”

None of the three gentlemen whom I have quoted here are seeing visions of rainbows and unicorns in our economic future — at least not for the next few years.  Be sure to keep the opinions of these experts in mind if the cheerleading by some perma-bull, TV pundit motivates you to “get in on the ground floor of the next stock market rally”.  You could save yourself a lot of money and even more pain.



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The Weakest Link

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November 2, 2009

Everything was supposed to be getting “back to normal” by now.  Since late July, we’ve been hearing that the recession is over.  When the Gross Domestic Product number for the third quarter was released on Thursday, we again heard the ejaculations of enthusiasm from those insisting that the recession has ended.  Investors were willing to overlook the most recent estimate that another 531,000 jobs were lost during the month of October, so the stock market got a boost.  Nevertheless, as was widely reported, the Cash for Clunkers program added 1.66 percent to the 3.5 percent Gross Domestic Product annualized rate increase.  Since Cash for Clunkers was a short-lived event, something else will be necessary to fill its place, stimulating economic activity.  Once that sobering aspect of the story was absorbed, Friday morning’s news informed us that consumer spending had dropped for the first time in five months.  The Associated Press provided this report:

Economists worry that the recovery could falter in coming months if households cut back on spending to cope with rising unemployment, heavy debt loads and tight credit conditions.

“With incomes so soft, increased spending will be a struggle,” Ian Shepherdson, chief U.S.economist at High Frequency Economics, wrote in a note to clients.

The Commerce Department said Friday that spending dropped 0.5% in September, the first decline in five months.  Personal incomes were unchanged as workers contend with rising unemployment.  Wages and salaries fell 0.2%, erasing a 0.2% gain in August.

Another report showed that employers face little pressure to raise pay, even as the economy recovers.  The weak labor market makes it difficult for people with jobs to demand higher pay and benefits.

*   *   *

. . .  some economists believe that consumer spending will slow sharply in the current quarter, lowering GDP growth to perhaps 1.5%.  Analysts said the risk of a double-dip recession cannot be ruled out over the next year.

With unemployment as bad as it is, those who have jobs need to be mindful of the Sword of Damocles, as it hangs perilously over their heads.  As the AP report indicated, employers are now in an ideal position to exploit their work force.  Worse yet, as Mish pointed out:

Personal income decreased $15.5 billion (0.5 percent), while real disposable personal income decreased 3.4 percent, in contrast to an increase of 3.8 percent last quarter. Those are horrible numbers.

The war on the American consumer finally bit Wall Street in the ass on Friday when the S&P 500 index took a 2.8 percent nosedive.  When mass layoffs become the magic solution to make dismal corporate earnings reports appear positive, when the consumer is treated as a chump by regulatory agencies, lobbyists and government leaders, the consumer stops fulfilling the designated role of consuming.  When that happens, the economy stands still.  As Renae Merle reported for The Washington Post:

“The government handed the ball off to the consumer and the consumer fell on it,” said Robert G. Smith, chairman of Smith Affiliated Capital in New York. “This is a function of there being no jobs and wages going lower.”

The sell-off on the stock market also reflected a report released Friday showing a decline in consumer sentiment this month, analysts said.  The Reuters/University of Michigan consumer sentiment index fell to 70.6 in October, compared with 73.5 in September.

Rich Miller of Bloomberg News discussed the resulting apprehension experienced by investors:

Only 31 percent of respondents to a poll of investors and analysts who are Bloomberg subscribers in the U.S., Europe and Asia see investment opportunities, down from 35 percent in the previous survey in July.  Almost 40 percent in the latest quarterly survey, the Bloomberg Global Poll, say they are still hunkering down.  U.S. investors are even more cautious, with more than 50 percent saying they are in a defensive crouch.

*   *   *

Worldwide, investors and analysts now view the U.S. as the weak link in the global economy, with its markets seen as among the riskiest by a plurality of those surveyed.  One in four respondents expects an unemployment rate of 11 percent or more a year from now, compared with a U.S. administration forecast of 9.7 percent.  The jobless rate now is 9.8 percent, a 26-year high.

Even before the release of “good news” on Thursday followed by Friday’s bad news, stock analysts who base their trading decisions primarily on reading charts, could detect indications of continuing market decline, as Michael Kahn explained for Barron’s last Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration’s response to the economic crisis continues to generate criticism from across the political spectrum while breeding dissent from within.  As I said last month, the administration’s current strategy is a clear breach of candidate Obama’s campaign promise of “no more trickle-down economics”.  The widespread opposition to the administration’s proposed legislation to regulate (read that: placate) large financial companies was discussed by Stephen Labaton for The New York Times:

Senior regulators and some lawmakers clashed once again with the Obama administration on Thursday, finding fault with central elements of the White House’s latest plan to unwind large financial companies when their troubles imperil the financial system.

The Times article focused on criticism of the administration’s plan, expressed by Sheila Bair, chairwoman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.  As Mr.Labaton noted, shortly after Mr. Obama was elected President, Turbo Tim Geithner began an unsuccessful campaign to have Ms. Bair replaced.

On Friday, economist James K. Galbraith was interviewed by Bill Moyers.  Here’s what Professor Galbraith had to say about the Obama administration’s response to the economic crisis:

They made a start, and certainly in the stimulus package, there were important initiatives.  But the stimulus package is framed as a stimulus, as something which is temporary, which will go away after a couple of years.  And that is not the way to proceed here.  The overwhelming emphasis, in the administration’s program, I think, has been to return things to a condition of normalcy, to use a 1920s word, that prevailed five and ten years ago.  That is to say, we’re back to a world in which Wall Street and the major banks are leading, and setting the path–

*   *   *

. . . they’ve largely been preoccupied with keeping the existing system from collapsing.  And the government is powerful.  It has substantially succeeded at that, but you really have to think about, do you want to have a financial sector dominated by a small number of very large institutions, very difficult to manage, practically impossible to regulate, and ruled by, essentially, the same people and the same culture that caused the crisis in the first place.

BILL MOYERS:  Well, that’s what we’re getting, because after all of the mergers, shakedowns, losses of the last year, you have five monster financial institutions really driving the system, right?

JAMES GALBRAITH:  And they’re highly profitable, and they are already paying, in some cases, extraordinary bonuses.  And you have an enormous problem, as the public sees very clearly that a very small number of people really have been kept afloat by public action .  And yet there is no visible benefit to people who are looking for jobs or people who are looking to try and save their houses or to somehow get out of a catastrophic personal debt situation that they’re in.

This is just another illustration of how “trickle down economics” doesn’t work.  President Obama knows better.  He told us that he would not follow that path.  Yet, here we are:  a country viewed as the weak link in the global economy because the well-being of those institutions considered “too big to fail” is the paramount concern of this administration.



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Spinning Away From The Truth

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May 14, 2009

Wednesday was a rough day on Wall Street.  The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 184 points (just over two percent) to 8284; the Standard and Poor’s 500 index gave up over 24 points (2.69 percent) closing at 883.92 and the NASDAQ 100 index gave up 51.73 points (3.01 percent).  One didn’t have to look very far to find the reason.  At The Daily Beast website on Wednesday evening, item number 2 on the Cheat Sheet was a link to an article from The Wall Street Journal by Peter McKay, entitled:  “Signs of Consumer Strain Hit Stocks”.  The morning’s bad news was described by Mr. McKay in these terms:

The Commerce Department reported that retail sales fell 0.4% in April from the prior month, a steeper decline than the 0.1% gain economists expected.  Sales in March were revised down, falling 1.3% instead of 1.2% as previously reported.

The Wall Street Journal also ran an article on this subject by Justin Lahart:  “Retail Sales Stall on Consumer Caution”.  Mr. Lahart’s piece underscored the message reverberating through the evening’s financial reporting:

Indeed, retail sales rose in January and February after sliding for six straight months.  But those hopes were undermined by the 1.3% drop in retail sales in March as well as April’s decline.

The data suggest that a recovery won’t come until the second half of the year, and that when it does arrive it will be sluggish, said Michael Darda, an economist at MKM Partners in Stamford, Conn.

As I scanned through a number of websites to peruse the evening’s news stories, I was quite shocked to see the following headline on the Huffington Post blog, with screaming, bright red, upper-case, oversized font:  “BLOOMBERG NEWS:  CONSUMERS FEELING ‘INSPIRED’ TO SPEND MORE”.  Huh?   Just below the headline were three large photos.  The photo on the left featured a lineup of luxurious yachts, reminiscent of what can be found along Indian Creek during the Miami Beach Boat Show.  The middle picture showed that guy from Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, raising a silver goblet in a toast to the photographer.  The photo on the right depicted a headless woman, adorned in enough jewelry to turn Ruth Madoff green with envy.  Had someone hacked into the HuffPo website and put this up as a gag?  (Later in the evening, I checked back at the site.  Although there was a new main headline relating to a different story, the link to the “inspired consumers” story was still there, although down the page.)

Clicking on the “inspired consumers” headline brought me to a story from Bloomberg News, entitled:  “‘Good Bad’ Economy Inspires Consumers As Slump Eases”.  “Good bad economy”?  I had trouble figuring out what that meant because I lost my George Orwell Decoder Ring.  Looking at this slice from the story told me enough about what they were trying to say:

Investor Exuberance

A Bloomberg survey of users on six continents showed that confidence in the global economy rose to the highest level in 19 months.

Antarctica and what five other continents?

The Huffington Post‘s BizarroWorld headline struck me as an attempt to imbue readers with a perception of Happy Days in Obamaland.  That headline and its incorporated story reminded me of a point recently made by one of my favorite bloggers, Jr. Deputy Accountant:

You know, there are times when I wonder just how difficult it is to keep the PR machine running at full speed and keep the market propped up artificially and massage Goldman’s nuts all at once.  Somehow, the powers-that-be are pulling it off, and I imagine that a large part of the dirty work, at least when it comes to PR, is taken care of by our moronic friends in mainstream media who feed up gems like this:  Citi using most of TARP capital to make loans.

(As an aside:  the reference to “Goldman” is Goldman Sachs, the second largest contributor to President Obama’s election campaign.)

Instead of relying on “the PR machine” to feed me propaganda about the economy, I rely on some of the sources included on this website’s blogroll.  Most of the writers for those sites are credentialed professionals, regarded as experts in their field (as opposed to the dilettantes, who cheerlead for Wall Street in the mainstream media).  One of these experts is Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism.  If you want to keep up with what’s really happening in the financial world, I suggest that you read her blog.

The truth of what the economy has in store for us is not pretty.  If you are ready to have a look at it, read Jeremy Grantham’s most recent report.  His bottom line is that late this year or early next year there will be a stock market rally, bringing the Standard and Poor’s 500 index near the 1100 range.  After that, get ready for seven really lean years:

A large rally here is far more likely to prove a last hurrah — a codicil on the great bullishness we have had since the early 90s or, even in some respects, since the early 80s.  The rally, if it occurs, will set us up for a long, drawn-out disappointment not only in the economy, but also in the stock markets of the developed world.

Unfortunately, it’s already too late for President Obama to accept the following rationale from Mr. Grantham’s essay:

We should particularly not allow ourselves to be intimidated by the financial mafia into believing that all of the failing financial companies — or very nearly all — had to be defended at all costs.  To take the equivalent dough that was spent on propping up, say, Goldman or related entities like AIG (that were necessary to Goldman’s well being), as well as the many other incompetent banks and spending it instead on really useful, high return infrastructure and energy conservation and oil and coal replacement projects would seem like a real bargain for society.  Yes, we would certainly have had a very painful temporary economic hit from financial and other bankruptcies if we had decided to let them go, but given the proven resilience of economies, it would still have seemed a better long-term bet.

After reading Jeremy Grantham’s recent quarterly letter, ask yourself this:  Do you feel “inspired” to spend more?