© 2008 – 2018 John T. Burke, Jr.

Recession Watch

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A recession relapse is the last thing Team Obama wants to see during this election year.  The President’s State of the Union address featured plenty of “happy talk” about how the economy is improving.  Nevertheless, more than a few wise people have expressed their concerns that we might be headed back into another period of at least six months of economic contraction.

Last fall, the Economic Cycle Research Institute (ECRI) predicted that the United States would fall back into recession.  More recently, the ECRI’s weekly leading index has been showing small increments of improvement, although not enough to dispel the possibility of a relapse.  Take a look at the chart which accompanied the January 27 article by Mark Gongloff of The Wall Street Journal.  Here are some of Mr. Gongloff’s observations:

The index itself actually ticked down a bit, to 122.8 from 123.3 the week before, but that’s still among the highest readings since this summer.

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That’s still not great, still in negative territory where it has been since the late summer.  But it is the best growth rate since September 2.

Whatever that means.  It’s hard to say this index is telling us whether a recession is coming or not, because the ECRI’s recession call is based on top-secret longer leading indexes.

Economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds has been in full agreement with the ECRI’s recession call since it was first published.  In his most recent Weekly Market Comment, Dr. Hussman discussed the impact of an increasingly probable recession on deteriorating stock market conditions:

Once again, we now have a set of market conditions that is associated almost exclusively with steeply negative outcomes.  In this case, we’re observing an “exhaustion” syndrome that has typically been followed by market losses on the order of 25% over the following 6-7 month period (not a typo).  Worse, this is coupled with evidence from leading economic measures that continue to be associated with a very high risk of oncoming recession in the U.S. – despite a modest firming in various lagging and coincident economic indicators, at still-tepid levels.  Compound this with unresolved credit strains and an effectively insolvent banking system in Europe, and we face a likely outcome aptly described as a Goat Rodeo.

My concern is that an improbably large number of things will have to go right in order to avoid a major decline in stock market value in the months ahead.

Another fund manager expressing similar concern is bond guru Jeffrey Gundlach of DoubleLine Capital. Daniel Fisher of Forbes recently interviewed Gundlach, who explained that he is more afraid of recession than of higher interest rates.

Many commentators have discussed a new, global recession, sparked by a recession across Europe.  Mike Shedlock (a/k/a Mish), recently emphasized that “without a doubt Europe is already in recession.”  It is feared that the recession in Europe – where America exports most of its products – could cause another recession in the United States, as a result of decreased demand for the products we manufacture.  The January 24 World Economic Outlook Update issued by the IMF offered this insight:

The euro area economy is now expected to go into a mild recession in 2012 – consistent with what was presented as a downside scenario in the January 2011 WEO Update.

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For the United States, the growth impact of such spillovers is broadly offset by stronger underlying domestic demand dynamics in 2012.  Nonetheless, activity slows from the pace reached during the second half of 2011, as higher risk aversion tightens financial conditions and fiscal policy turns more contractionary.

On January 28, Steve Odland of Forbes suggested that the Great Recession, which began in the fourth quarter of 2007, never really ended.  Odland emphasized that the continuing drag of the housing market, the lack of liquidity for small businesses to create jobs, despite trillions of dollars in cash on the sidelines, has resulted in an “invisible recovery”.

Jennifer Smith of The Wall Street Journal explained how this situation has played out at law firms:

Conditions at law firms have stabilized since 2009, when the legal industry shed 41,900 positions, according to the Labor Department.  Cuts were more moderate last year, with some 2,700 positions eliminated, and recruiters report more opportunities for experienced midlevel associates.

But many elite firms have shrunk their ranks of entry-level lawyers by as much as half from 2008, when market turmoil was at its peak.

Regardless of whether the economic recovery may have been “invisible”, economist Nouriel Roubini (a/k/a Dr. Doom) has consistently described the recovery as “U-shaped” rather than the usual “V-shaped” graph pattern we have seen depicting previous recessions.  Today Online reported on a discussion Dr. Roubini held concerning this matter at the World Economic Forum’s meeting in Davos:

Slow growth in advanced economies will likely lead to “a U-shaped recovery rather than a typical V”, and could last up to 10 years if there is too much debt in the public and private sector, he said.

At a panel discussion yesterday, Dr Roubini also said Greece will probably leave Europe’s single currency within 12 months and could soon be followed by Portugal.

“The euro zone is a slow-motion train wreck,” he said.  “Not only Greece, other countries as well are insolvent.”

In a December 8 interview conducted by Tom Keene on Bloomberg Television’s “Surveillance Midday”, Lakshman Achuthan, chief operations officer of the Economic Cycle Research Institute, explained his position:

“The downturn we have now is very different than the downturn in 2010, which did not persist.  This one is persisting.”

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“If there’s no recession in Q4 or in the first half I’d say of 2012, then we’re wrong.  …   You’re not going to know whether or not we’re wrong until a year from now.”

I’m afraid that we might know the answer before then.


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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.

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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.

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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  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.

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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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