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Double Bubble

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I’m sure there has been a huge number of search engine queries during the past few days, from people who are trying to find out what is meant by the term: “quantitative easing”.  My cynical, home-made definition of the term goes like this:

Quantitative easing involves the Federal Reserve’s purchase of Treasury securities as well as mortgage-backed securities from those privileged, too-big-to-fail banks.

The curiosity about quantitative easing has increased as a result of the release of the notes from the most recent meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) which boosted expectations that there will be another round of quantitative easing (often referred to as QE II).  On October 15, Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke delivered a speech at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.  After discussing how weak the economic recovery has been (as demonstrated by lackluster consumer spending and the miserable unemployment crisis) Bernanke pointed out that the Fed’s current predicament results from the fact that it has already lowered short-term, nominal interest rates to near-zero.  He then noted that the federal funds rate will be kept low “for longer than the markets expect”.  Bernanke finally got to the point that people wanted to hear him discuss:  whether there will be another round of quantitative easing.  Here is what he said:

In particular, the FOMC is prepared to provide additional accommodation if needed to support the economic recovery and to return inflation over time to levels consistent with our mandate.  Of course, in considering possible further actions, the FOMC will take account of the potential costs and risks of nonconventional policies, and, as always, the Committee’s actions are contingent on incoming information about the economic outlook and financial conditions.

In other words:  They’re still thinking about it.  Meanwhile, former Secretary of  Labor, Robert Reich, wrote a great essay telling us that the Fed will go ahead with more quantitative easing.  After defining the term, Professor Reich added this important tidbit:

Problem is, it won’t work.  Businesses won’t expand capacity and jobs because there aren’t enough consumers to buy additional goods and services.

I’m sure that was a helluva lot more common sense than many people were expecting from a professor at Berkeley.  Beyond that, Professor Reich gave us the rest of the bad news:

So where will the easy money go?  Into another stock-market bubble.

It’s already started.  Stocks are up even though the rest of the economy is still down because money is already so cheap. Bondholders (who can’t get much of any return from their loans) are shifting their portfolios into stocks.  Companies are buying back more shares of their own stock.  And Wall Street is making more bets in the stock market with money it can borrow at almost zero percent interest.

When our elected representatives can’t and won’t come up with a real jobs program, the Fed feels pressed to come up with a fake one that blows another financial bubble.  And we know what happens when financial bubbles get too big.

Another bubble currently under expansion is the “junk bond” bubble.  Sy Harding wrote an important article for Forbes entitled, “Fed Still Blowing Bubbles?“.  Here is some of what he said:

The economy’s problems at this point don’t seem to be the level of interest rates, but the lack of jobs, dismal consumer confidence, and the unwillingness of banks to make loans.

However, just the anticipation of additional quantitative easing and still lower long-term interest rates has already potentially begun to pump up the next bubbles, as investors have moved out the risk curve in an effort to find higher rates of return. Money has been flowing at a dramatic pace into high-yield junk bonds, commodities, and gold.  And the stock market has surged up 12% just since its August low when talk of another round of quantitative easing began.  Meanwhile, the U.S. dollar has been trashed further on expectations that the Fed will be ‘printing’ more dollars to finance another round of quantitative easing.

Nevertheless, Sy Harding isn’t so sure that QE II is a “done deal”.  After making his own cost-benefit analysis, Mr. Harding reached this conclusion:

It’s a no-brainer.  Blow another bubble and worry about the consequences down the road.

Yet in his speech Friday morning Fed Chairman Bernanke did not go all in on quantitative easing, stopping short of announcing a new policy, saying only that the Fed contemplates doing more, but “will take into account the potential costs and risks.”

So uncertainty remains for a market that has probably already factored in a substantial new round of stimulus.

This raises an important question:  How will the markets react if the consensual assumption that there will be a QE II turns out to be wrong?

Bond guru, Mohamed El-Erian of PIMCO,  recently wrote a piece for the Financial Times, in which he asserted his conclusion that judging from the FOMC minutes, “it is virtually a foregone conclusion” that the Fed will proceed with QE II.  El-Erian described this anticipated action by the Fed as an effort to “push” investors “to move out on the risk spectrum and buy corporate bonds and stocks”.

Getting back to my earlier question:  If the Fed decides not to proceed with QE II, will the bubbles that have been inflated up to that point make such a large pop as to drive the economy toward that dreaded second dip into recession?  On the other hand, if the Fed does proceed to implement QE II:  What will be the ultimate cost to taxpayers for something Robert Reich describes as a “fake” jobs program “that blows another financial bubble” and accomplishes nothing else?

As Professor Reich has pointed out, the Fed itself is the one being “pushed” to take action here because “our elected representatives can’t and won’t come up with a real jobs program”.  Unfortunately, any “jobs program” initiated by the government has become a “third rail” issue with mid-term elections looming.   As I stated previously, if the economic crisis had been properly addressed two years ago, when the political will for an effective solution still existed, the Fed would not be faced with the current dilemma.  But here we are   .  .  .   just blowing more bubbles.


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Pay Close Attention To This Man

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January 11, 2009

For several years, I have enjoyed following MSN’s Strategy Lab competition.  Strategy Lab is a stock-picking challenge.  They select six contestants: some seasoned professionals, some amateurs and occasionally, one of their own pundits.  Each contestant manages a mock, $100,000 portfolio for a six-month period.  Sometimes, the amateur will out-play the pros.  I always enjoy it when the “conventional wisdom” followed by the investing herd is proven wrong by a winning contestant, who ignores such dogma.

Our current economic situation requires original thinking.  Following the conventional wisdom during an unconventional economic crisis seems like a path to failure.  While checking in on the Strategy Lab website, I noticed an original thinker named Andrew Horowitz.  Mr. Horowitz is a contestant in the current Strategy Lab competition.  He is the only player who has made any money at all with his imaginary $100,000.  Andrew’s portfolio has earned him 13.44 percent as of Wednesday, January 21.  His competitors have been posting dismal results.  One of the regulars, John Reese (nicknamed “Guru Investor”) is down by 41.55 percent.  I think I’ll steer clear of his ashram.  The others currently have losses roughly equivalent to Andrew’s gains.

Andrew Horowitz is the president and founder of Horowitz & Co., an investment advisory firm serving individual and corporate clients since the late 1980’s.  He has written a book, entitled:  The Disciplined Investor.  It is focused on his experiences and what he has learned from twenty years in the investment advisory business.  He has been featured and quoted regularly in the media, including such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, Bloomberg, Barron’s and Reuters.  He also has a blog website with the same name as his book:  The Disciplined Investor.

His recent article for MSN caught my attention.  It is entitled:  “Why invest in this market anyway?” He began this journal entry discussing a “consider the source” approach to evaluating the advice given by those currently encouraging people to buy stocks now, while they are “cheap”.  His “where do we go from here” discussion resonated with my belief about where the stock market is headed:

The fourth-quarter earnings season kicked off with little fanfare last week and a great deal of bad news.  Many have asked if there is a light at the end of this tunnel.  My reply:  Sure there is, but it’s the headlights of a speeding 18-wheeler coming straight for us.  We have the choice of getting run over or stepping aside.

This is not a popular commentary.  I know that many investors would prefer to hear all about opportunities to make money on the “upside,” but until there is one shred of good news, I refuse to throw my hard-earned money into a bonfire just to watch it be incinerated.

Mr. Horowitz also made a point of emphasizing something we don’t hear often enough from those media darlings entrusted to preach the gospel of the brokerage firms:

With all the talk of change coming from our government officials, it is evident that if things continue down this path the only thing that will be left in our pockets is change.  It’s as if investors are waiting for something incredible and magical to be said, but there is only so much that words can accomplish.  Americans need action, assistance and reform in the banking system.

In an era when we are bombarded with investing advice from a multitude of “experts” appearing on television and all over the internet, it becomes difficult to distinguish a good signal from all of the noise.  One’s ability to give good investment advice in a bull market does not necessarily qualify that person to be a reliable advisor in the current milieu.  The performance by Andrew Horowitz in the Strategy Lab competition (so far) underscores the value of that old maxim:  “Money talks and bullshit walks”.  I’ll be paying close attention to what he has to say as we make our way through the treacherous economic times ahead.

The News Nobody Wants To Hear

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December 11, 2008

You can’t watch a news program these days without hearing some “happy talk” about how our dismal economy is “on the verge of recovery”.  You have to remember that many of these shows are sponsored by brokerage firms.  That fact must be taken into consideration when you decide how much weight you will give the opinions of the so-called “experts” appearing on those programs to tell you that the stock market has reached “the bottom” and that it is now time to jump back in and start buying stocks.  Similarly, those people interested in making a home purchase (i.e. millionaires, who don’t have to worry about getting a mortgage) want to know when the residential real estate market will hit “bottom” so they can get the best value.  If I had a thousand dollars for every time during the past six months that some prognosticator has appeared on television to tell us that the stock market has “hit bottom”, I would have enough money to start my own geothermal power utility.

People interested in making investments have been scared away from stocks due to the pummeling that the markets have taken since the “mortgage crisis” raised its ugly head and devastated the world economy.  If those folks believe the hype and start buying stocks now, they are taking a greater risk than the enthusiastic promoters on TV might be willing to disclose.

People just don’t like bad news, especially when it is about the future and worse yet, if it’s about the economy.  On Friday, December 5, the stock market rallied, despite the dismal news that November’s non-farm employment loss was the greatest monthly employment decline in 34 years.  More than half a million people lost their jobs in November.  Despite this news, all of the major stock indices were up at least 3 percent for that day alone.  Have all these people bought into the magical thinking described in The Secret?  Do that many people believe that wishing hard enough can cause a dream to become reality?

There is one authority on the subject of economics, who earned quite a bit of “street cred” when our current economic crisis hit the fan. He is Nouriel Roubini, a professor of economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business. He earned the nickname “Doctor Doom” when he spoke before the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on September 7, 2006 and described, in precise detail, exactly what would bring the financial world to its knees, two years later.  In this time of uncertainty, many people (myself included) pay close attention to what Dr. Roubini has to say by regularly checking in on his website.  On December 5, we were surprised to hear Doctor Doom’s admission to Aaron Task (on the web TV show, Tech Ticker) that his own 401(k) plan is comprised entirely of stocks.  Dr. Roubini explained that he is not in the “Armageddon camp” and that for the long haul, stocks are still a good investment (although currently not a good idea for investors with more short-term goals).  Upon learning of this, I began to wonder if the revelation about Doctor Doom’s stock holdings could have been the reason for the stock market rally that day.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Roubini at a lecture he gave within staggering distance of my home.  I was able to talk to him about my concern over Federal Reserve Chairman, Ben Bernanke’s idea of having the federal government purchase stocks in order to pep-up a depressed stock market.  How could this possibly be accomplished?  How could the Fed decide which stocks to buy to the exclusion of others?  Dr. Roubini told me that the government has already done this by purchasing preferred shares of stock issued by the banks participating in the TARP program.  He explained that rather than purchasing selected stocks of particular companies, the government would, more likely, invest in stock indices.  Before I get to Doctor Doom’s other points from his lecture, I will share this photo taken of yours truly and Doctor Roubini (who appears on your left):

Doctor Doom with Me

Dr. Roubini told the audience that he believes this recession will be worse than everyone expects. During the next few months, “the flow of macroeconomic news will be awful and worse than expected”. He opined that people are going to be surprised if they think that the stock market “bottom” will come in mid-2009. He expects that by the end of 2009 “things will still be bad” and unemployment will peak at 9% in early 2010. He thinks that the consensus on earnings-per-share estimates for stocks during the next year is “delusional”. He anticipates risk aversion among investors to be severe next year. We are now in a global recession and this has caused commodity prices to fall 30%. He pointed out that commodity prices could still fall another 20%. He considers it “very likely” that between 500 to 600 hedge funds will go out of business within the next six months. As this happens, the stocks held by these funds must be dumped onto the market. With respect to the beleaguered residential real estate market, he pointed out that home prices could fall another 15-20% by early 2010.

The good news provided by Dr. Roubini is that the global recession should end by the close of 2009. However, he expects recovery to be “weak” in 2010. He surmised that the possibility of a systemic meltdown has been minimized by the actions taken at the recent G7 meeting and most particularly with the G7 resolution to prevent further “Lehman Brothers-type” bankruptcies from taking place. He concluded that this recession should be nothing like the Japanese recession of the 1990s, which lasted nearly a decade.

So there you have it:  The news (almost) nobody wants to hear.  You can say these are the predictions voiced by one man who could be wrong.  Nevertheless, given Dr. Roubini’s track record, I and many others hold his opinions in high regard.  Now, let’s see how this all plays out.