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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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More Wisdom From Jeremy Grantham

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One of my favorite commentators, Paul Farrell of MarketWatch, recently discussed some of the prescient essays of Jeremy Grantham, who manages over $100 billion as chief executive of an asset management firm – GMO.  Paul Farrell reminded us that Grantham warned of the impending financial crisis in July of 2007, which came as a surprise to those vested with the responsibility of paying attention to such advice.  As Farrell pointed out:

Our nation’s leaders are in denial, want happy talk, bull markets, can’t even see the crash coming, even though the warnings were everywhere for years. Why the denial?  Grantham hit the nail on the head:  Our leaders are “management types who focus on what they are doing this quarter or this annual budget and are somewhat impatient.”

Paul Farrell is warning of an “inevitable crash that is coming possibly just before the Presidential election in 2012”.  He incorporated some of Grantham’s rationale in his own discussion about how and why this upcoming crash will come as another surprise to those who are supposed to help us avoid such things:

Most business, banking and financial leaders are short-term thinkers, focused on today’s trades, quarterly earnings and annual bonuses.  Long-term historical thinking is a low priority.

Paul Farrell’s article was apparently written in anticipation of the release of Jeremy Grantham’s latest Quarterly Letter at the conclusion of the first quarter of 2011.  Grantham’s newest discourse is entitled, “Time to Wake Up: Days of Abundant Resources and Falling Prices Are Over Forever”.  The theme is best summed-up by these points from the “summary” section:

  • From now on, price pressure and shortages of resources will be a permanent feature of our lives.  This will increasingly slow down the growth rate of the developed and developing world and put a severe burden on poor countries.
  • We all need to develop serious resource plans, particularly energy policies.  There is little time to waste.

After applying some common sense and simple mathematics to the bullish expectations of immeasurable growth ahead, Grantham obviously upset many people with this sober observation:

Rapid growth is not ours by divine right; it is not even mathematically possible over a sustained period.  Our goal should be to get everyone out of abject poverty, even if it necessitates some income redistribution.  Because we have way overstepped sustainable levels, the greatest challenge will be in redesigning lifestyles to emphasize quality of life while quantitatively reducing our demand levels.

We have all experienced the rapid spike in commodity prices:  more expensive gas at the pump, higher food prices and widespread cost increases for just about every consumer item.  Many economists and other commentators have blamed the Federal Reserve’s ongoing program of quantitative easing for keeping interest rates so low that the enthusiasm for speculation on commodities has been enhanced, resulting in skyrocketing prices.  Surprisingly, Grantham is not entirely on board with that theory:

The Monetary Maniacs may ascribe the entire move to low interest rates.  Now, even I know that low rates can have a large effect, at least when combined with moral hazard, on the movement of stocks, but in the short term, there is no real world check on stock prices and they can be, and often are, psychologically flakey.  But commodities are made and bought by serious professionals for whom today’s price is life and death. Realistic supply and demand really is the main influence.

Grantham demonstrated that most of the demand pressure on commodities is being driven by China.  This brings us to his latest prediction and dire warning:

The significance here is that given China’s overwhelming influence on so many commodities, especially in terms of the percentage China represents of new growth in global demand, any general economic stutter in China can mean very big declines in some of their prices.

You can assess on your own the probabilities of a stumble in the next year or so.  At the least, I would put it at 1 in 4, while some of my colleagues think the odds are much higher.  If China stumbles or if the weather is better than expected, a probability I would put at, say, 80%, then commodity prices will decline a lot.  But if both events occur together, it will very probably break the commodity markets en masse.  Not unlike the financial collapse.  That was a once in a lifetime opportunity as most markets crashed by over 50%, some much more, and then roared back.

Modesty should prevent me from quoting from my own July 2008 Quarterly Letter, which covered the first crash.

*   *   *

In the next decade, the prices of all raw materials will be priced as just what they are, irreplaceable.  If the weather and China syndromes strike together, it will surely produce the second “once in a lifetime” event in three years.

For the near-term, we appear to be in an awful double-bind:  either we get crushed by increasing commodity prices – or – commodities will become plentiful and cheap, causing the world economy to crash once again.  It won’t bother Wall Street at all, because The Ben Bernank and “Turbo” Tim will be ready and willing to provide abundant bailouts – again, at taxpayer expense.


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Some Good News For Once

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Since the Great Recession began three years ago, Americans have been receiving a daily dose of the most miserable news imaginable.  Our prevalent nightmare concerns the possibility that gasoline prices could find their way up to $10 per gallon as Muammar Gawdawful takes Libya into a full-scale civil war.

Some people tried to find a thread of hope in the latest non-farm payrolls report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  The report was spun in several opposing directions by various commentators.  The single statement from the BLS report which seemed most important to me was the remark in the first sentence that    “. . .  the unemployment rate was little changed at 8.9 percent . . .”.  Nevertheless, David Leonhardt of The New York Times noted his suspicion that “the government is understating actual job growth” while providing his own upbeat read of the report.  On the other hand, at the Zero Hedge website, Tyler Durden made this observation:

Wonder why the unemployment rate is at an artificially low 8.9%?  Three simple words:  Labor Force Participation.  At 64.2%, it was unchanged from last month, and continues to be at a 25 year low.  Should the LFP return to its 25 trendline average of 66.1%, the unemployment rate would be 11.6%.

Indeed, the ugly truth is that as you spend more time pondering the current unemployment situation, you find an increasingly dismal picture.  Economist Mark Thoma came up with a “back of the envelope calculation” of the benchmarks he foresees as the unemployment situation abates:

7% unemployment in July of 2012

6% unemployment in March of 2013

5% unemployment in December of 2013

4% unemployment in September of 2014

If anything, relative to the last two recoveries, this forecast is optimistic.  Even so, it will still take two years to get to 6% unemployment (and if the natural rate is closer to 5.5% at that time, as I expect it will be, it will take another five months to fully close the gap). Things may be looking up, but we have a long way to go and it’s too soon to turn our backs on the unemployed.

Only three more years until we return to pre-crisis levels!  Whoopie!

For those in search of genuinely good news, I went on a quest to come up with some for this piece.  Here’s what I found:

For the truly desperate, the Salon website has introduced a new weekly feature entitled, “The Week In Uppers”.  It is a collection of stories, often including video clips, which will (hopefully) make you smile.  The items are heavy on good deeds – sometimes by celebrities.

I was quite surprised by this next “good news” item:  A report by Rex Nutting of MarketWatch, revealing this welcome fact:

.   .   .  the United States remains the biggest manufacturing economy in the world, producing about 20% of the value of global output in 2010  . . .  (Although fast-growing China will pass the United States soon enough.)

Even though we may soon drop to second place, at least our unemployment rate should be in decline by that point.  Here are some more encouraging factoids from Rex Nutting’s essay:

In 2010, U.S. factories shipped $5.03 trillion worth of goods out the door, up 9% from 2009’s horribly depressed output, according to the Census Bureau.

*   *   *

In 2010 alone, productivity in the manufacturing sector surged 6.7%. Fortunately for workers, it looks as if companies have squeezed as much extra output out of labor as they can right now.  For the first time since 1997, factories actually added jobs during the calendar year in 2010, as they hired 112,000 additional workers.

There will be further job gains as factories ramp up their production to meet rising demand, economists say.

According to the Institute for Supply Management’s monthly survey of corporate purchasing managers, business is booming.  The ISM index rose for a seventh straight month in February to 61.4%, matching the highest reading since 1983.

*   *   *

What is the ISM telling us?  “The manufacturing sector is on fire,” says Stephen Stanley, chief economist for Pierpont Securities.  The new orders index rose to 68%, the highest since 2004, and the employment index rose to 64.5%, the highest since 1973.

Factories are hiring because orders are stacking up faster than they can produce goods.

What’s behind the boom?  In part, it’s domestic demand for capital goods and consumer goods.  Businesses are finally beginning to believe in the recovery, so they’re starting to expand, which means new equipment must be purchased.

Be sure to read the full report if you want to re-ignite those long, lost feelings of optimism.

It’s nice to know that if you look hard enough you can still find some good news (at least for now).


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