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Unwinding The Spin

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We are caught in a steady “spin cycle” of contradictory reports about our most fundamental concerns:  the environment and the economy.  Will China financially intervene to resolve the sovereign debt crisis in Europe and save us all from the economic consequences that loom ahead?  Will the “China syndrome” finally become a reality at Fukushima?  When confronted with a propaganda assault from the “rose-colored glasses” crowd, I become very skeptical.

Widespread concern that Greece would default on its debt inflamed lingering fear about debt contagion throughout the Eurozone.  Economist John Hussman, one of the few pundits who has been keeping a sober eye on the situation, made this remark:

Simply put, the Greek debt market is screaming “Certain default. Amésos.”

Meanwhile, the Financial Times reported that China Investment Corporation has been involved in discussions with the government of Italy concerning Italian bond purchases as well as business investments.  Bloomberg BusinessWeek quoted Zhang Xiaoqiang, vice chairman of China’s top economic planning agency, who affirmed that nation’s willingness to buy euro bonds from countries involved in the sovereign debt crisis “within its capacity”.

Stefan Schultz of Der Speigel explained that China expects something in return for its rescue efforts:

The supposed “yellow peril” has positioned itself as a “white knight” which promises not to leave its trading partners in Europe and America in the lurch.

In return, however, Beijing is demanding a high price — the Chinese government wants more political prestige and more political power  .  .  .

Specifically, China wants:  more access to American markets, abolition of restrictions on the export of high-technology products to China as well as world-wide recognition of China’s economy as a market economy.

Even if such a deal could be made with China, would that nation’s bailout efforts really save the world economy from another recession?

As usual, those notorious cheerleaders for stock market bullishness at CNBC are emphasizing that now is the time to buy.  At MSN Money, Anthony Mirhaydari wrote a piece entitled, “The bulls are taking charge”.

Last week, Robert Powell of MarketWatch directed our attention to an analysis just published by Sam Stovall, the chief investment strategist of Standard & Poor’s Equity Research.  Powell provided us with this summary:

Consider, at a place and time such as this, with the economy teetering on the verge of another recession, none of the 1,485 stocks that make up the S&P 1,500 has a consensus “Sell” rating. And just five, or 0.3%, are ranked as being a “Weak Hold.”

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From his vantage point, Stovall says it “appears as if most analysts are not expecting the U.S. to fall back into recession, and that now is the time to scoop up undervalued cyclical issues at bargain-basement prices.”

However, in S&P’s opinion, it might be high time to “buck the trend and embrace the traditionally defensive sectors (including utilities), as the risk of recession — and downward earnings per share revisions – appear to us to be on the rise.”

On September 14, investing guru Mark Hulbert picked up from where Robert Powell left off by reminding us that – ten years ago – stock analysts continued to rate Enron stock as a “hold” during the weeks leading up to its bankruptcy, despite the fact that the company was obviously in deep trouble.  Hulbert’s theme was best summed-up with this statement:

If you want objectivity from an analyst, you might want to start by demanding that he issue as many “sell” recommendations as “buys.”

It sounds to me as though Wall Street is looking for suckers to be holding all of those high-beta, Russell 2000 stocks when the next crash comes along.  I’m more inclined to follow Jeremy Grantham’s assessment that “fair value” for the S&P 500 is 950, rather than its current near-1,200 level.

While the “rose colored glasses” crowd is dreaming about China’s rescue of the world economy, the “China syndrome” is becoming a reality at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power facility.  Immediately after the tragic earthquake and tsunami, I expressed my suspicion that the true extent of the nuclear disaster was the subject of a massive cover-up.  Since that time, Washington’s Blog has been providing regular updates on the status of the ongoing, uncontrolled nuclear disaster at Fukushima.  The September 14 posting at Washington’s Blog included an interview with a candid scientist:

And nuclear expert Paul Gunter says that we face a “China Syndrome”, where the fuel from the reactor cores at Fukushima have melted through the container vessels, into the ground, and are hitting groundwater and creating highly-radioactive steam . . .

On the other hand, this article from New Scientist reeks of nuclear industry spin:

ALARMIST predictions that the long-term health effects of the Fukushima nuclear accident will be worse than those following Chernobyl in 1986 are likely to aggravate harmful psychological effects of the incident.

As long as experts such as Paul Gunter and Arnie Gundersen continue to provide reliable data contradicting the “move along – nothing to see here” meme being sold to us by the usual suspects, I will continue to follow the updates on Washington’s Blog.


 

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Getting Cozy

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April 1, 2010

This week’s decision by the United States Supreme Court, in the case of Jones v.Harris Associates received a good deal of attention because it increased hopes of a cut in the fees mutual funds charge to individual investors.  The plaintiffs, Jerry Jones, Mary Jones and Arline Winerman, sued Harris Associates (which runs or “advises” the Oakmark mutual funds) for violating the Investment Company Act, by charging excessive fees.  Harris was charging individual investors a .88 percent (88 basis points) management fee, compared to the 45-bps fee charged to its institutional clients.

In his article about the Jones v. Harris case, David Savage of the Los Angeles Times made a point that struck a chord with me:

Pay scales in the mutual fund industry, like those in banking and investment firms, are not strictly regulated by the government, and as the Wall Street collapse revealed, investment advisors and bankers sometimes can earn huge fees while losing money for their shareholders.

In 1970, however, Congress said mutual funds must operate with an independent board of directors.  And it said the investment advisors for the funds have a “fiduciary duty,” or a duty of trust, to the investors when setting fees for their services.  The law also allowed suits against those suspected of violating this duty.

But investors have rarely won such claims.  In Tuesday’s decision, the Supreme Court gave new life to the law, ruling that investment advisors could be sued for charging excessive fees.

But the court’s opinion also said such suits should fail unless there was evidence that advisors hid information from the board or that their fees were “so disproportionately large” as to suggest a cozy deal between the advisors and the supposedly independent board.

The lousy job that boards of directors do in protecting the investors they supposedly represent has become a big issue since the financial crisis, as Mr. Savage explained.  Think about it:  How could the boards of directors for those too-big-to-fail institutions allow the payouts of obscene bonuses to the very people who devastated our economy and nearly destroyed (or may yet destroy) our financial system?  The directors have a duty to the shareholders to make sure those investors obtain a decent dividend when the company does well.  If the company does well only because of a government bailout, despite inept management by the executives, who should benefit – the execs or the shareholders?

Michael Brush wrote an interesting essay concerning bad corporate boards for MSN Money on Wednesday.  His opining point was another reminder of how the financial crisis was facilitated by cozy relationships with bank boards:

Here’s a key take-away from the financial crisis that devastated our economy:   Bad boards of directors played a big role in the mess.

Because bank boards were too close to the executives they were supposed to police, they did a lousy job of spotting excessive risk.  They allowed short-term pay incentives such as huge options grants that encouraged bankers to roll the dice.

Michael Brush contacted The Corporate Library which used its Board Analyst screener to come up with a list of the five worst corporate boards.  Here is how he explained that research:

The ratings are based on problems that can compromise boards, including:

  • Allowing directors to do too much business with the companies they are supposed to oversee.
  • Letting the CEO chair the board, which is supposed to oversee the CEO.
  • Overpaying board members and keeping them on too long.
  • Allowing directors to miss too many meetings to do an effective job.

These and other red flags signal that a board is entrenched — too close to management to do its job of overseeing the people in the corner offices.

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The big problem with bad boards is that they’re unlikely to ask CEOs tough questions, act swiftly when it is time to replace a CEO or tighten the reins on pay and perks.  And bad boards hurt shareholders.  Several studies have indicated that the stocks of companies with weak boards underperform.

I won’t spoil the surprise for you by identifying the companies with the bad boards.  If you want that information you will have to read the full piece.  Besides — you should read it anyway.

All of this raises the question (once again) of whether we will see any changes result in the aftermath of the financial crisis that will help protect the “little people” or the not-so-little “investor class”.   I’m not betting on it.



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