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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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Trouble Ahead

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I find it very amusing that we are being bombarded with so many absurd election year “talking points” and none of them concern the risk of a 2012 economic recession.  The entire world seems in denial about a global problem which is about to hit everyone over the head.  I’m reminded of the odd brainstorming session in September of 2008, when Presidential candidates Obama and McCain were seated at the same table with a number of econ-honchos, all of whom were scratching their heads in confusion about the financial crisis.  Something similar is about to happen again.  You might expect our leaders to be smart enough to avoid being blindsided by an adverse economic situation – again – but this is not a perfect world.  It’s not even a mediocre world.

After two rounds of quantitative easing, the Kool-Aid drinkers are sipping away, in anticipation of the “2012 bull market”.  Even the usually-bearish Doug Kass recently enumerated ten reasons why he expects the stock market to rally “in the near term”.  I was more impressed by the reaction posted by a commenter – identified as “Skateman” at the Pragmatic Capitalism blog.  Kass’ reason #4 is particularly questionable:

Mispaced preoccupation with Europe:  The European situation has improved.   .  .  .

Skateman’s reaction to Kass’ reason #4 makes more sense:

The Europe situation has not improved.  There is no escape from ultimate disaster here no matter how the deck chairs are rearranged.  Market’s just whistling past the graveyard.

Of particular importance was this recent posting by Mike Shedlock (a/k/a Mish), wherein he emphasized that “without a doubt Europe is already in recession.”  After presenting his readers with the most recent data supporting his claim, Mish concluded with these thoughts:

Telling banks to lend in the midst of a deepening recession with numerous austerity measures yet to kick in is simply absurd.  If banks did increase loans, it would add to bank losses.  The smart thing for banks to do is exactly what they are doing, parking cash at the ECB.

Austerity measures in Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, and France combined with escalating trade wars ensures the recession will be long and nasty.

*   *   *

Don’t expect the US to be immune from a Eurozone recession and a Chinese slowdown.  Unlike 2011, it will not happen again.

Back on October 8, Jeff Sommer wrote an article for The New York Times, discussing the Economic Cycle Research Institute’s forecast of another recession:

“If the United States isn’t already in a recession now it’s about to enter one,” says Lakshman Achuthan, the institute’s chief operations officer.  It’s just a forecast.  But if it’s borne out, the timing will be brutal, and not just for portfolio managers and incumbent politicians.  Millions of people who lost their jobs in the 2008-9 recession are still out of work.  And the unemployment rate in the United States remained at 9.1 percent in September.  More pain is coming, says Mr. Achuthan.  He thinks the unemployment rate will certainly go higher.  “I wouldn’t be surprised if it goes back up into double digits,” he says.

Mr. Achuthan’s outlook was echoed by economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds, who pointed out in his latest Weekly Market Comment that investors have been too easily influenced by recent positive economic data such as payroll reports and Purchasing Managers Indices:

I can understand this view in the sense that the data points are correct – economic data has come in above expectations for several weeks, the Chinese, European and U.S. PMI’s have all ticked higher in the latest reports, new unemployment claims have declined, and December payrolls grew by 200,000.

Unfortunately, in all of these cases, the inference being drawn from these data points is not supported by the data set of economic evidence that is presently available, which is instead historically associated with a much more difficult outcome.  Specifically, the data set continues to imply a nearly immediate global economic downturn.  Lakshman Achuthan of the Economic Cycle Research Institute (ECRI) has noted if the U.S. gets through the second quarter of this year without falling into recession, “then, we’re wrong.”  Frankly, I’ll be surprised if the U.S. gets through the first quarter without a downturn.

At the annual strategy seminar held by Société Générale, their head of strategy – Albert Edwards – attracted quite a bit of attention with his grim prognostications.  The Economist summarized his remarks this way:

The surprise message for investors is that he feels the US is on the brink of another recession, despite the recent signs of optimism in the data (the non-farm payrolls, for example).  The recent temporary boost to consumption is down to a fall in the household savings ratio, which he thinks is not sustainable.

Larry Elliott of The Guardian focused on what Albert Edwards had to say about China and he provided more detail concerning Edwards’ remarks about the United States:

“There is a likelihood of a China hard landing this year.  It is hard to think 2013 and onwards will be any worse than this year if China hard-lands.”

*   *   *

He added that despite the recent run of more upbeat economic news from the United States, the risk of another recession in the world’s biggest economy was “very high”.  Growth had slowed to an annual rate of 1.5% in the second and third quarters of 2011, below the “stall speed” that historically led to recession.  It was unlikely that the economy would muddle through, Edwards said.

So there you have it.  The handwriting is on the wall.  Ignore it at your peril.


 

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Discipline Problem

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At the conclusion of a single, five-year term as Chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) Sheila Bair is calling it quits.  One can hardly blame her.  It must have been one hell of an experience:  Warning about the hazards of the subprime mortgage market, being ignored and watching the consequences unfold . . .  followed by a painful, weekly ritual, which gave birth to a website called Bank Fail Friday.

Bair’s tenure at the helm of the FDIC has been – and will continue to be – the subject of some great reading.  On her final day at the FDIC (July 8) The Washington Post published an opinion piece by Ms. Bair in which she warned that short-term, goal-directed thinking could bring about another financial crisis.  She also had something to brag about.  Despite the efforts of Attorney General Eric Hold-harmless and the Obama administration to ignore the malefaction which brought about the financial crisis and allowed the Wall Street villains to profiteer from that catastrophe, Bair’s FDIC actually stepped up to the plate:

This past week, the FDIC adopted a rule that allows the agency to claw back two years’ worth of compensation from senior executives and managers responsible for the collapse of a systemic, non-bank financial firm.

To date, the FDIC has authorized suits against 248 directors and officers of failed banks for shirking their fiduciary duties, seeking at least $6.8 billion in damages.  The rationales the executives come up with to try to escape accountability for their actions never cease to amaze me.  They blame the failure of their institutions on market forces, on “dead-beat borrowers,” on regulators, on space aliens.  They will reach for any excuse to avoid responsibility.

Mortgage brokers and the issuers of mortgage-based securities were typically paid based on volume, and they responded to these incentives by making millions of risky loans, then moving on to new jobs long before defaults and foreclosures reached record levels.

The difference between Sheila Bair’s approach to the financial/economic crisis and that of the Obama Administration (whose point man has been Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner) was analyzed in a great article by Joe Nocera of The New York Times entitled, “Sheila Bair’s Bank Shot”.  The piece was based on Nocera’s “exit interview” with the departing FDIC Chair.  Throughout that essay, Nocera underscored Bair’s emphasis on “market discipline” – which he contrasted with Geithner’s fanatic embrace of the exact opposite:  “moral hazard” (which Geithner first exhibited at the onset of the crisis while serving as President of the Federal Reserve of New York).  Nocera made this point early in the piece:

On financial matters, she seemed to have better political instincts than Obama’s Treasury Department, which of course is now headed by Geithner.  She favored “market discipline” – meaning shareholders and debt holders would take losses ahead of depositors and taxpayers – over bailouts, which she abhorred.  She didn’t spend a lot of time fretting over bank profitability; if banks had to become less profitable, postcrisis, in order to reduce the threat they posed to the system, so be it.  (“Our job is to protect bank customers, not banks,” she told me.)

Bair’s discussion of those early, panic-filled days during September 2008 is consistent with reports we have read about Geithner elsewhere.  This passage from Nocera’s article is one such example:

For instance, during the peak of the crisis, with credit markets largely frozen, banks found themselves unable to roll over their short-term debt.  This made it virtually impossible for them to function.  Geithner wanted the F.D.I.C. to guarantee literally all debt issued by the big bank-holding companies – an eye-popping request.

Bair said no.  Besides the risk it would have entailed, it would have also meant a windfall for bondholders, because much of the existing debt was trading at a steep discount.  “It was unnecessary,” she said.  Instead, Bair and Paulson worked out a deal in which the F.D.I.C. guaranteed only new debt issued by the bank-holding companies.  It was still a huge risk for the F.D.I.C. to take; Paulson says today that it was one of the most important, if underrated, actions taken by the federal government during the crisis.  “It was an extraordinary thing for us to do,” Bair acknowledged.

Back in April of 2009, the newly-appointed Treasury Secretary met with similar criticism in this great article by Jo Becker and Gretchen Morgenson at The New York Times:

Last June, with a financial hurricane gathering force, Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson, Jr. convened the nation’s economic stewards for a brainstorming session.  What emergency powers might the government want at its disposal to confront the crisis? he asked.

Timothy F. Geithner, who as president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank oversaw many of the nation’s most powerful financial institutions, stunned the group with the audacity of his answer.  He proposed asking Congress to give the president broad power to guarantee all the debt in the banking system, according to two participants, including Michele Davis, then an assistant Treasury secretary.

The proposal quickly died amid protests that it was politically untenable because it could put taxpayers on the hook for trillions of dollars.

“People thought, ‘Wow, that’s kind of out there,’ ” said John C. Dugan, the comptroller of the currency, who heard about the idea afterward.  Mr. Geithner says, “I don’t remember a serious discussion on that proposal then.”

But in the 10 months since then, the government has in many ways embraced his blue-sky prescription.  Step by step, through an array of new programs, the Federal Reserve and Treasury have assumed an unprecedented role in the banking system, using unprecedented amounts of taxpayer money, to try to save the nation’s financiers from their own mistakes.

Geithner’s utter contempt for market discipline again became a subject of the Nocera-Bair interview when the conversation turned to the infamous Maiden Lane III bailouts.

“I’ve always wondered why none of A.I.G.’s counterparties didn’t have to take any haircuts.  There’s no reason in the world why those swap counterparties couldn’t have taken a 10 percent haircut.  There could have at least been a little pain for them.”  (All of A.I.G.’s counterparties received 100 cents on the dollar after the government pumped billions into A.I.G.  There was a huge outcry when it was revealed that Goldman Sachs received more than $12 billion as a counterparty to A.I.G. swaps.)

Bair continued:  “They didn’t even engage in conversation about that.  You know, Wall Street barely missed a beat with their bonuses.”

“Isn’t that ridiculous?” she said.

This article by Gretchen Morgenson provides more detail about Geithner’s determination that AIG’s counterparties receive 100 cents on the dollar.  For Goldman Sachs – it amounted to $12.9 billion which was never repaid to the taxpayers.  They can brag all they want about paying back TARP – but Maiden Lane III was a gift.

I was surprised that Sheila Bair – as a Republican – would exhibit the same sort of “true believer-ism” about Barack Obama as voiced by many Democrats who blamed Rahm Emanuel for the early disappointments of the Obama administration.  Near the end of Nocera’s interview, Bair appeared taken-in by Obama’s “plausible deniability” defense:

“I think the president’s heart is in the right place,” Bair told me.  “I absolutely do.  But the dichotomy between who he selected to run his economic team and what he personally would like them to be doing – I think those are two very different things.”  What particularly galls her is that Treasury under both Paulson and Geithner has been willing to take all sorts of criticism to help the banks.  But it has been utterly unwilling to take any political heat to help homeowners.

The second key issue for Bair has been dealing with the too-big-to-fail banks. Her distaste for the idea that the systemically important banks can never be allowed to fail is visceral.  “I don’t think regulators can adequately regulate these big banks,” she told me.  “We need market discipline.  And if we don’t have that, they’re going to get us in trouble again.”

If Sheila Bair’s concern is valid, the Obama administration’s track record for market discipline has us on a certain trajectory for another financial crisis.



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