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Running Out of Pixie Dust

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On September 18 of 2008, I pointed out that exactly one year earlier, Jon Markman of MSN.com noted that the Federal Reserve had been using “duct tape and pixie dust” to hold the economy together.  In fact, there were plenty of people who knew that our Titanic financial system was headed for an iceberg at full speed – long before September of 2008.  In October of 2006, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard of the Telegraph wrote an article describing how Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson had re-activated the Plunge Protection Team (PPT):

Mr Paulson has asked the team to examine “systemic risk posed by hedge funds and derivatives, and the government’s ability to respond to a financial crisis”.

“We need to be vigilant and make sure we are thinking through all of the various risks and that we are being very careful here. Do we have enough liquidity in the system?” he said, fretting about the secrecy of the world’s 8,000 unregulated hedge funds with $1.3 trillion at their disposal.

Among the massive programs implemented in response to the financial crisis was the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing program, which began in November of 2008.  A second quantitative easing program (QE 2) was initiated in November of 2010.  The next program was “operation twist”.  Last week, Jon Hilsenrath of the Wall Street Journal discussed the Fed’s plan for another bit of magic, described by economist James Hamilton as “sterilized quantitative easing”.  All of these efforts by the Fed have served no other purpose than to inflate stock prices.  This process was first exposed in an August, 2009 report by Precision Capital Management entitled, A Grand Unified Theory of Market ManipulationMore recently, on March 9, Charles Biderman of TrimTabs posted this (video) rant about the ongoing efforts by the Federal Reserve to manipulate the stock market.

At this point, many economists are beginning to pose the question of whether the Federal Reserve has finally run out of “pixie dust”.  On February 23, I mentioned the outlook presented by economist Nouriel Roubini (a/k/a Dr. Doom) who provided a sobering counterpoint to the recent stock market enthusiasm in a piece he wrote for the Project Syndicate website entitled, “The Uptick’s Downside”.  I included a discussion of economist John Hussman’s stock market prognosis.  Dr. Hussman admitted that there might still be an opportunity to make some gains, although the risks weigh heavily toward a more cautious strategy:

The bottom line is that near-term market direction is largely a throw of the dice, though with dice that are modestly biased to the downside.  Indeed, the present overvalued, overbought, overbullish syndrome tends to be associated with a tendency for the market to repeatedly establish slight new highs, with shallow pullbacks giving way to further marginal new highs over a period of weeks.  This instance has been no different.  As we extend the outlook horizon beyond several weeks, however, the risks we observe become far more pointed.  The most severe risk we measure is not the projected return over any particular window such as 4 weeks or 6 months, but is instead the likelihood of a particularly deep drawdown at some point within the coming 18-month period.

In December of 2010, Dr. Hussman wrote a piece, providing “An Updated Who’s Who of Awful Times to Invest ”, in which he provided us with five warning signs:

The following set of conditions is one way to capture the basic “overvalued, overbought, overbullish, rising-yields” syndrome:

1) S&P 500 more than 8% above its 52 week (exponential) average
2) S&P 500 more than 50% above its 4-year low
3) Shiller P/E greater than 18
4) 10-year Treasury yield higher than 6 months earlier
5) Advisory bullishness > 47%, with bearishness < 27%

On March 10, Randall Forsyth wrote an article for Barron’s, in which he basically concurred with Dr. Hussman’s stock market prognosis.  In his most recent Weekly Market Comment, Dr. Hussman expressed a bit of umbrage about Randall Forsyth’s remark that Hussman “missed out” on the stock market rally which began in March of 2009:

As of last week, the market continued to reflect a set of conditions that have characterized a wicked subset of historical instances, comprising a Who’s Who of Awful Times to Invest .  Barron’s ran a piece over the weekend that reviewed our case.  It’s interesting to me that among the predictable objections (mostly related to our flat post-2009 performance, but overlooking the 2000-2009 record), none addressed the simple fact that the prior instances of this condition have invariably turned out terribly.  It seems to me that before entirely disregarding evidence that is as rare as it is ominous, you have to ask yourself one question.  Do I feel lucky?

*   *   *

Investors Intelligence notes that corporate insiders are now selling shares at levels associated with “near panic action.”  Since corporate insiders typically receive stock as part of their compensation, it is normal for insiders to sell about 2 shares on the open market for every share they purchase outright.  Recently, however, insider sales have been running at a pace of more than 8-to-1.

*   *   *

While investors and the economic consensus has largely abandoned any concern about a fresh economic downturn, we remain uncomfortable with the divergence between reliable leading measures – which are still actually deteriorating – and more upbeat coincident/lagging measures on which public optimism appears to be based.

Nevertheless, Randall Forsyth’s article was actually supportive of Hussman’s opinion that, given the current economic conditions, discretion should mandate a more risk-averse investment strategy.  The concluding statement from the Barron’s piece exemplified such support:

With the Standard & Poor’s 500 up 24% from the October lows, it may be a good time to take some chips off the table.

Beyond that, Mr. Forsyth explained how the outlook expressed by Walter J. Zimmermann concurred with John Hussman’s expectations for a stock market swoon:

Walter J. Zimmermann Jr., who heads technical analysis for United-ICAP, a technical advisory firm, puts it more succinctly:  “A perfect financial storm is looming.”

*   *   *

THERE ARE AMPLE FUNDAMENTALS to knock the market down, including the well-advertised surge in gasoline prices, which Zimmermann calculates absorbed the discretionary spending power for half of America.  And the escalating tensions over Iran’s nuclear program “is the gift that keeps on giving…if you like fear-inflated energy prices,” he wrote in the client letter.

At the same time, “the euro-zone response to their deflationary debt trap continues to be further loans to the hopelessly indebted, in return for crushing austerity programs.

So, evidently, not content with another mere recession, euro-zone leaders are inadvertently shooting for another depression.  They may well succeed.”

The euro zone is (or was, he stresses) the world’s largest economy, and a buyer of 22% of U.S. exports, which puts the domestic economy at risk, he adds.

Given the fact that the Federal Reserve has already expended the “heavy artillery” in its arsenal, it seems unlikely that the remaining bit of pixie dust in Ben Bernanke’s pocket – “sterilized quantitative easing” – will be of any use in the Fed’s never-ending efforts to inflate stock prices.


 

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This Should Have Happened Last Year

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September 18, 2008

I’m sorry.  What is happening in the financial markets right now, should have happened at this time, last year.  I put my money where my mouth was, in the belief that a laissez-faire Republican government would have let market conditions run their course.  That strategy caused me to lose money for the past year.  When precious metals should have been going up, they were going down.  Something “stinky” was happening.  At this time, last year, Jon Markman of msn.com was discussing the “duct tape and pixie dust” being used to hold the economy together.  In hindsight, I suspect that there may have been an effort to keep the ca-ca from hitting the fan until after Election Day (November 4).  Time will tell whether there was some skullduggery involved in such an effort.  Do you think that the “oil speculators” realized, at some point, that they could manipulate the prices of the small handful of stocks (30) that comprise the Dow Jones Industrials, by manipulating the price of oil?  Are these same “oil speculators” on “good behavior” right now, out of fear that the “Enron Loophole” could be doomed?

I apologize because I have been making (back) lots of money this week, while many people have seen their retirement plans crash and burn.  I stuck to my belief that the emperor was not really wearing any clothes.  It cost me money to adhere to that opinion, although it is now “payback time”.  To no surprise, the Carly Fiorinas of this nosedive will walk away with their golden parachutes intact.  However, will AIG still be free to make crucial decisions about which lawsuits to litigate?  Do they have a right to make those (and other) decisions as they used to, now that you and I own eighty percent of that company?

Meanwhile, John “Keating Five” McCain claims that he will champion the interests of those suckers who vote for him, by bringing “The Good Old Boys of Wall Street” to Alaskan frontier justice.  Why would anyone believe this?  Based on his record, McCain could not expect the voters to consider him as the advocate of the downtrodden.  For some reason, the Obama campaign has expressed an unwillingness to use the “Keating Five” episode of McCain’s life, as fodder for negative ads.  (They may find themselves thinking more clearly in late October.)

Let’s take a look back at the “glory days” of The Keating Five, from what is available on Wikipedia.org:

The Keating Five scandal was prompted by the activities of one particular savings and loan: Lincoln Savings and Loan Association of Irvine, California. Lincoln’s chairman was Charles Keating, who ultimately served five years in prison for his corrupt mismanagement of Lincoln.  In the four years since Keating’s American Continental Corporation (ACC) had purchased Lincoln in 1984, Lincoln’s assets had increased from $1.1 billion to $5.5 billion.  Such savings and loan associations had been deregulated in the early 1980s, allowing them to make highly risky investments with their depositors’ money, a change of which Keating took advantage.  Lincoln’s investments took the form of buying land, taking equity positions in real estate development projects, and buying high-yield junk bonds.

*   *   *

The core allegation of the Keating Five affair is that Keating had made contributions of about $1.3 million to various U.S. Senators, and he called on those Senators to help him resist regulators. The regulators backed off, to later disastrous consequences.

*   *   *

(f)ive senators, Alan Cranston (D-CA), Dennis DeConcini (D-AZ), John Glenn (D-OH), John McCain (R-AZ), and Donald W. Riegle (D-MI), were accused of improperly aiding Charles H. Keating, Jr., chairman of the failed Lincoln Savings and Loan Association, which was the target of an investigation by the Federal Home Loan Bank Board (FHLBB).

*   *   *

After a lengthy investigation, the Senate Ethics Committee determined in 1991 that Alan Cranston, Dennis DeConcini, and Donald Riegle had substantially and improperly interfered with the FHLBB in its investigation of Lincoln Savings. Senators John Glenn and John McCain were cleared of having acted improperly but were criticized for having exercised “poor judgment”.  All five of the senators involved served out their terms. Only Glenn and McCain ran for re-election, and they were both re-elected.

*   *   *

McCain and Keating had become personal friends following their initial contacts in 1981, and McCain was the closest socially to Keating of the five senators. Like DeConcini, McCain considered Keating a constituent as he lived in Arizona. Between 1982 and 1987, McCain had received $112,000 in political contributions from Keating and his associates. In addition, McCain’s wife Cindy McCain and her father Jim Hensley had invested $359,100 in a Keating shopping center in April 1986, a year before McCain met with the regulators. McCain, his family, and their baby-sitter had made nine trips at Keating’s expense, sometimes aboard Keating’s jet. Three of the trips were made during vacations to Keating’s opulent Bahamas retreat at Cat Cay. McCain did not pay Keating (in the amount of $13,433) for some of the trips until years after they were taken, when he learned that Keating was in trouble over Lincoln. On his Keating Five experience, McCain has said: “The appearance of it was wrong. It’s a wrong appearance when a group of senators appear in a meeting with a group of regulators, because it conveys the impression of undue and improper influence. And it was the wrong thing to do.”

So where is the Obama ad using “Poor Judgment” as its theme?  Wouldn’t it be nice to see that phrase repeated under a picture of Sarah Palin?