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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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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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