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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.

*   *   *

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.

*   *   *

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 TrimTabs.com.  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.

*    *    *

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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Back To Work

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July 8, 2008

As 4th of July weekend drew to a close on my home world Sunday night, I was harshly reminded of our nation’s true economic condition.  I’ve seen Sunday nights in Chicago, when you could find more people walking around in 8-degree weather, with a good wind.  As Independence Day weekend wound down, Michigan Avenue saw few pedestrians except for some street hustlers and that rare, lost tourist  —  the “meal ticket” for most street hustlers.  In any previous year, there would have been a line in front of the Underground Wonderbar by now – people waiting to see authentic Chicago blues.  It was midnight.  Everyone wanted to get back to work.  The tourists just wanted to make sure they got back on their sold-out flights, lest they face a re-booking penalty.  These conditions, suitcase restrictions and new, invasive scanning technologies defined the summer travel experience for 2008.  Those who could afford it, seemed more than ready to go home.  Those who couldn’t were more than ready to get back to work.

Monday morning gave us some forced exuberance about the fate of the equities markets.  I saw a guy on TV practically dancing, while being interviewed on an exchange floor in New York because the Dow Jones industrial average was up “almost 100 points”.  (Those of us who could read the little numbers for ourselves saw an increase of 72 points.)  We were supposed to believe the “bottom” had passed and we were to immediately contact our brokers with some “buy” orders.  At my hotel’s check-out time, as I prepared for the return flight to my present-day existence, the Dow had crapped out to 120 points less than the previous close, only to regain 63 of those points by the close of Monday’s trading.  Another would-be firework had fizzled out.

Those with jobs had all the more reason to get back to work.  They were lucky to have jobs in this economy.  Those working in the financial sector were damned lucky.  Those with control over their retirement money seemed ready to give up and go back to the Acme Hopeless Crapshot Fund.  Misleading information from prognosticators and market analysts had inflicted significant damage to their portfolios this past year.  The best tip for investors seemed to be that old maxim from “The X-Files”:  Trust No One.

The evening news gave us the anticipated campaign invective, although the Fox News failed to provide me with the conspiracy theory that thirsted for validation.  As the Associated Press reported earlier in the day:

The airplane carrying Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama made a precautionary landing in St. Louis on Monday after the crew had a problem keeping the nose up on takeoff from Chicago.

The plane, an MD-80 Midwest charter, struggled to keep the nose at the necessary angle, as it left for Charlotte, N.C., the pilot said. Later, Midwest Airlines said the problem developed because an emergency slide located in the tail cone of the plane deployed in flight and never threatened the safety of the flight. The National Transportation Safety Board said it planned to investigate the incident.

I was hoping that Fox News would tell us that the plane had been chartered from Vince Foster Memorial Airlines.  I was hoping (and I continue to hope) for a tie to the Hillary Clinton campaign (or at least someone for whose antics the Clinton campaign is attempting to establish “plausible deniability”).  What good are the Fox News people when you are counting on them to do what they do best and they come up empty?

I was reminded of the remark (or should I say: possible self-fulfilling prophecy) made by disgruntled Clinton supporter Carmella Lewis to Hillary herself, as quoted by Maureen Dowd in the June 29 New York Times:  “You’re going to be the next President.”  Ms. Lewis went on to tell the Times: “But I have a gut feeling,” … “that something’s going to happen so that she becomes the nominee.”

Fox had all the ingredients for a wonderful conspiracy story here but they completely dropped the ball on all of us conspiracy fans.  Could it have been because Hillary Clinton’s recently-unemployed advisor, Howard Wolfson, found a job at Fox News?

“My Oath Is To The Constitution, Not To The President”

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July 3, 2008

David Iglesias is making the talk show circuit, promoting his recent book: In Justice.  The book provides an insider’s account of the scandal involving the politicization of the Justice Department under the Administration of non-attorneys George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.  As I have said before, these two men have little regard for our Constitution because they know little about it and they have contempt for our courts because they know almost nothing about the law or the concepts of justice and due process.  Bush/Cheney made a point of having culls run Justice:  John Ashcroft, who (surprisingly) to his credit, was not trusted by them to authorize their FISA bypass, so they tried to have him authorize it while he was in the hospital, under sedation.  Once Alberto Gonzalez became Attorney General, we had someone in charge of the Justice Department, who was even more subservient to the whims of non-attorneys Bush and Cheney.  This resulted in what history will view as the most disgraceful abuse of the Justice Department as Soviet-style enforcers of political allegiance to the party-in-charge.  David Iglesias and at least six other important federal prosecutors, who had devoted their careers to fighting organized crime, terrorism and (oops!) corporate fraud, were summarily terminated by Bush-Cheney for failure to align their missions with the political vendettas of this administration.  The title Iglesias chose for his book was an obvious reference to the widespread opinion that the Bush Administration had changed the Justice Department to the Injustice Department.

David Iglesias explained to Tavis Smiley that an underlying theme throughout his book was that as a federal prosecutor, he understood his oath of office as to support the Constitution of the United States, despite the Bush Administration’s mandate that a prosecutor’s highest obligation was to support the President.

This theme is particularly timely in light of the recent dispute arising from the appearance of retired General Wesley Clark on the CBS News program, “Face The Nation” on June 29.  During that conversation, Wesley Clark, in his vanity, forgot that it was actually Barack Obama running as the Democratic Party’s candidate for President, rather than himself.  Clark expressed a rationale that only Commanding Officers, such as himself, had the type of military experience to qualify one for the Presidency.  He tactlessly contrasted this with the experience of John McCain, who was shot down as a fighter pilot and was held for years as a POW in the Hanoi Hilton.  When asked by Dan Abrams on MSNBC’s “The Verdict”, to explain his minimization of McCain’s sacrifice, Clark again reinforced his position that only Commanding Officers, such as himself, had the type of military experience to be qualified for the Presidency.  The McCain camp made the most they could of this denigration of the Republican candidate’s service.  Barack Obama found it necessary to distance himself from Clark’s comments on this subject.

The McCain camp then targeted Virginia Senator Jim Webb, for his remarks to Keith Olbermann on MSNBC’s “Countdown” show of June 30.  During that interview, Webb pointed out that:

We need to make sure that we take politics out of service.  People don’t serve their country for political issues and John McCain is my longtime friend and if there is one area I would ask him to calm down on it is: don’t be standing up and uttering your political views and implying that all the people in the military support them because they don’t, any more than when the Democrats had political issues during the Vietnam war.  Let’s get politics out of the military, take care of our military people and have our political arguments in other areas.

McCain’s claim was that this was another attack on his service in the Vietnam War.  Nevertheless, we can see that Webb was attempting to distinguish a soldier’s obligation to the President (or in this case, a Presidential candidate) from a soldier’s obligation to defend our Constitution.  The oath of enlistment for people serving in the military is as follows:

I, _____, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. (So help me God.)

Although military personnel are bound by their oath to follow the orders of the President, in accordance with regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice, their primary duty is to support and defend the Constitution.  When McCain takes for granted that those serving in the military will support his entire political agenda, he is mistaken.  Their oath does not require it, nor could he enforce such compliance if elected President.

What is actually going on with all of this is that the Obama camp is out to “level the playing field” with respect to Obama’s lack of military experience.  McCain’s delusion that he can speak for all the troops and that they are aligned with his entire political agenda is the “Achilles heel” where the Democrats are directing their fire to achieve their goal.  “McCain doesn’t speak for all the troops” is the argument that will pay off when the pollsters focus on the Presidential choices of those in uniform.

As an aside, it’s only fitting that at a time so close to the day we celebrate our Independence, we can celebrate the rescue of former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt from the FARC rebels.  My Colombian friends and I thought she had been killed several years ago.  Let’s all make a toast to Ingrid when we think about freedom this year!