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Stock Market Bears Have Not Yet Left The Building

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The new year has brought an onslaught of optimistic forecasts about the stock market and the economy.  I suspect that much of this enthusiasm is the result of the return of stock market indices to “pre-Lehman levels” (with the S&P 500 above 1,250).  The “Lehman benchmark” is based on conditions as they existed on September 12, 2008 – the date on which Lehman Brothers collapsed.  The importance of the Lehman benchmark is primarily psychological — often a goal to be reached in this era of “less bad” economic conditions.  The focus on the return of market and economic indicators to pre-Lehman levels is something I refer to as “pre-Lehmanism”.  You can find examples of  pre-Lehmanism in discussions of such diverse subjects as:  the plastic molding press industry in Japan, copper consumption, home sales, bank dividends (hopeless) and economic growth.  Sometimes, pre-Lehmanism will drive a discussion to prognostication based on the premise that since we have surpassed the Lehman benchmark, we could be on our way back to good times.  Here’s a recent example from Bloomberg News:

“Lehman is the poster child for the demise of the banking industry,” said Michael Mullaney, who helps manage $9.5 billion at Fiduciary Trust Co. in Boston.  “We’ve recovered from that.  We’re comfortable with equities. If we do get a continuation of the strength in the economy and corporate earnings, we could get a reasonably good year for stocks in 2011.”

Despite all of this enthusiasm, some commentators are looking behind the rosy headlines to examine the substantive facts underlying the claims.  Consider this recent discussion by Michael Panzner, publisher of Financial Armageddon and When Giants Fall:

Yes, there are some developments that look, superficially at least, like good news.  But if you dig even a little bit deeper, it seems that more often than not nowadays there is less there than meets the eye.

The optimists have talked, for example, about the recovery in corporate profits, but they downplay the layoffs and cut-backs in investment that contributed to those gains.  They note the recovery in the banking sector, but forget to mention all of the financial and political assistance those firms have received — and are still receiving.  They highlight signs of stability in the housing market, but ignore lopsidedly bearish supply-and-demand fundamentals that are impossible to miss.

In an earlier posting, Michael Panzner questioned the enthusiasm about a report that 24 percent of employers participating in a survey expressed plans to boost hiring of full-time employees during 2011, compared to last year’s 20 percent of surveyed employers:

Call me a cynic (for the umpteenth time), but the fact that less that less than a quarter of employers plan to boost full-time hiring this year — a measly four percentage-point increase from last year — doesn’t sound especially “healthy” to me.

No matter how you slice it, the so-called recovery still seems to be largely a figment of the bulls’ imagination.

As for specific expectations about stock market performance during 2011, Jessie of Jesse’s Café Américain provided us with the outlook of someone on the trading floor of an exchange:

I had the opportunity to speak with a pit trader the other day, and he described the mood amongst traders as cautious.  They see the stock market rising and cannot get in front of it, as the buying is too well backed.  But the volumes are so thin and the action so phony that they cannot get comfortable on the long side either, so are buying insurance against a correction even while riding the rally higher.

This is a market setup for a flash crash.

Last May’s “flash crash” and the suspicious “late day rallies” on thin volume aren’t the only events causing individual investors to feel as though they’re being scammed.  A recent essay by Charles Hugh Smith noted the consequences of driving “the little guy” out of the market:

Small investors (so-called retail investors) have been exiting the U.S. stock market for 34 straight weeks, pulling almost $100 billion out of the market. They are voting with their feet based on their situational awareness that the game is rigged, and that the rigging alone greatly increases the risks of another meltdown.

John Hussman of the Hussman Funds recently provided a technical analysis demonstrating that – at least for now – the risk/reward ratio is just not that favorable:

As of last week, the stock market remained characterized by an overvalued, overbought, overbullish, rising-yields condition that has historically produced poor average market returns, and consistently so across historical time frames.  However, this condition is also associated with what I’ve called “unpleasant skew” – the most probable market movement is actually a small advance to marginal new highs, but the right tail is truncated and the left tail is fat, meaning that there is a lower than normal likelihood of large gains, and a much larger than normal potential for sharp and abrupt market losses.

The notoriously bearish Doug Kass is actually restrained with his pessimism for 2011, expecting the market to go “sideways” or “flat” (meaning no significant rise or fall).  Nevertheless, Kass saw fit to express his displeasure over the degree of cheerleading that can be seen in the mass media:

The recent market advance has spurred an accumulation of optimism.  S&P price targets are being lifted by many whose memories are short and who had blinders on as the equity market and economy entered the last downturn.  Bullish sentiment, coincident with rising share prices, is approaching an extreme, and the chorus of bullish talking heads grows ever louder on CNBC and elsewhere.

Speculation has entered the market.  The Iomegans of the late 1990s tech bubble have been replaced by the Shen Zhous, who worship at the altar of rare earths.

Not only are trends in the market being too easily extrapolated, the same might be true for the health of the domestic economy.

On New Year’s Eve, Kelly Evans of The Wall Street Journal wrote a great little article, summing-up the year-end data, which has fueled the market bullishness.  Beyond that, Ms. Evans provided a caveat that would never cross the minds of most commentators:

Still, Wall Street’s exuberance should send shudders down any contrarian’s spine.  To the extent the stock market anticipates growth, the economy will have to fire on all cylinders next year and then some.  At least one cylinder, the housing market, still is sputtering.  Upward pressure on food and gas prices also threatens to keep a lid on consumer confidence and rob from spending power even as the labor market continues its gradual and choppy recovery.

The coming year could turn out to be the reverse of 2010:  decent economic growth, but a disappointing showing by the stock market.  That’s the last thing most people expect right now, precisely why investors should be worried about it happening.

The new year may be off to a great start  . . .  but the stock market bears have not yet left the building.  Ignore their warnings at your own peril.


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Avoiding The Kool-Aid

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November 5, 2009

Ask NOT what your country can do for you  —

But ask what your country can do for its largest banks.

—  “Turbo” Tim

All right  .  . .  “Turbo” Tim Geithner didn’t really say that (yet) but we’ve all seen how his actions affirm that doctrine.  Former federal banking regulator, Professor William Black, recently criticized Geithner for not protecting the taxpayers when Turbo Tim bailed out CIT Group to the tune of 2.4 billion dollars this past summer.  CIT has now filed for bankruptcy.  Henry Blodget of The Business Insider described Professor Black’s outrage over this situation:

The government was in no way obligated to lend the struggling CIT money and, in fact, initially refused to provide it bailout funds.  More importantly, being the lender of last resort, the government should have guaranteed we’d be the first to get paid if CIT eventually filed Chapter 11.  By failing to do so, “it’s like he [Geithner] burned billions of dollars again in government money, our money, gratuitously,” says Black.

After Tuesday’s election defeats for the Democrats in two gubernatorial races, the subject of “bailout fatigue” has been getting more attention.

Acting under the pretext of “transparency” the Obama administration has developed a strategy of holding meetings for people and groups with whom the administration knows it is losing credibility.  Jane Hamsher of FiredogLake.com has written about the Obama team’s efforts to keep the disaffected Left under control by corralling these groups into what Hamsher calls “the veal pen”.  She described one meeting wherein Rahm Emanuel used the expression “f**king stupid” in reference to the critics of those Democrats opposing the public option in proposed healthcare reform legislation.

A different format was followed at what appeared to be a “message control” conference, held on Monday at the Treasury Department.  This time, the guest list was comprised of a politically diverse group of financial bloggers.  One attendee, Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism, described the meeting as “curious”:

None of us knew in advance how many attendees there would be; there were eight of us at a two-hour session, Interfluidity, Marginal Revolution, Kid Dynamite’s World, Across the Curve, Financial Armageddon, Accrued Interest, and Aleph (and of course, others may have been invited who had scheduling conflicts).

*   *   *

It wasn’t obvious what the objective of the meeting was (aside the obvious idea that if they were nice to us we might reciprocate.  Unfortunately, some of us are not housebroken).  I will give them credit for having the session be almost entirely a Q&A, not much in the way of presentation.  One official made some remarks about the state of financial institutions; later another said a few things about regulatory reform.  The funniest moment was when, right after the spiel on regulatory reform, Steve Waldman said, “I’ve read your bill and I think it’s terrible.”  They did offer to go over it with him.  It will be interesting to see if that happens.

*   *   *

My bottom line is that the people we met are very cognitively captured, assuming one can take their remarks at face value.  Although they kept stressing all the things that had changed or they were planning to change, the polite pushback from pretty all the attendees was that what Treasury thought of as major progress was insufficient.

*   *   *

Several of us raised questions about whether what their vision for the industry’s structure was and that the objective seemed to be to restore the financial system that got us in trouble in the first place.

Michael Panzner of Financial Armageddon and When Giants Fall adopted Ms. Smith’s description of the event, adding a few observations of his own:

  • . . . it wasn’t clear that there was a “plan B” in place if things do not recover in 2010 as many mainstream analysts expect.  In fact, the suggestion from one official was that the tenure of the current crisis would likely be nearer the shorter end of expectations.
  • There was also a bit of a disconnect between the remarks various Treasury officials have made in public forums and what was said at the meeting.  … Yesterday, however, a number of those present clearly acknowledged that things could (still) go wrong and said such fears kept them awake at night.  While that is not unusual in and of itself, at the very least it adds to doubts I and others have expressed about the true state of the financial system and the economy.
  • Finally, the meeting seemed to confirm the strong grip that Wall Street has on the levers of legislative power.

The most informative rendition of the events at the conclave came from Kid Dynamite, whose two-part narrative began with a look at how Michael Panzner interrupted a Treasury official who was describing the Treasury’s current focus “on reducing the footprint of economic intervention cautiously, quickly and prudently”:

Michael Panzner jumped right in, addressing a concept I’ve written about previously – that of  “extend and pretend,” or “delay and pray” – the concept of attempting to avoid recognizing actual losses and or insolvencies, and growing out of them after enough time.  Panzner called it “fake it ‘till you make it.”  I mentioned that I felt like we were undergoing a “Ponzi scheme of confidence” – but that confidence mattered less than ever in the current environment where, contrary to perhaps the prior 10 years, confidence can no longer be “spent.”

Kid Dynamite’s report contained too many great passages for me to quote here without running on excessively.  Just be sure to read his entire report, including Part II (which should be posted by the time you read this).

David Merkel of The Aleph Blog also submitted a two-part report (so far — with more to come) although Part 2 is more informative.  Here are some highlights:

As all bloggers there will note, those from the Treasury were kind, intelligent, funny … they were real people, unlike the common tendency to demonize those in DC.

*   *   *

To the Treasury I would say, “Markets are inherently unstable, and that is a good thing.”  They often have to adjust to severe changes in the human condition, and governmental attempts to tame markets may result in calm for a time, and a tsunami thereafter.

*   *   *

As for the bank stress-testing, one can look at it two ways: 1) the way I looked at it at the time — short on details, many generalities, not trusting the results.  (Remember, I have done many such analyses myself for insurers.) or, 2) something that gave confidence to the markets when they were in an oversold state.  Duh, but I was dumb — the oversold market rallied when it learned that the Treasury had its back.

John Jansen from Across The Curve included his report on the meeting within his usual morning posting concerning the bond market on November 4.   In a subsequent posting that afternoon, he referred his readers to the Kid Dynamite report.  Here’s what Mr. Jansen did say about the event:

. . .  those officials expressed real concern about the downside risks to the economy (as did blogger Michael Panzner of Financial Armageddon) and since I think that the relationship between the Treasury and the Federal Reserve has morphed into something somewhat incestuous I suspect that the Federal Reserve will not jump off the reservation and take the first baby steps to exiting its easy money policy.

The report at the Accrued Interest blog drew some hostile comments from readers who seemed convinced that Accrued was the only blogger there who actually drank the Kool-Aid being served by the Treasury.  Their reaction was easily understandable after reading this remark (which followed a breach of protocol with the admission that Turbo Tim was there in the flesh):

It was a fascinating experience and I have to admit, it was just plain cool to be within the bowels of power like that.

Huh?  All I can say is:  If you like being in powerful bowels, just take a cruise over to duPont Circle.  Actually — it was at his next statement where he lost me:

I am also on record as saying that Geithner was a good choice for Treasury secretary.

— and then it was all downhill from there.

The administration’s “charm offensive” has moved to the dicey issue of financial reform, where it is drawing criticism from across the political spectrum.  Given the fact that they have all but admitted to a strategy of simply reading The Secret and willing everything to get better by their positive thoughts  — Michael Panzner might as well start writing Financial Armageddon — The Sequel.



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Spread The Word

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September 29, 2009

I’ve seen quite a few articles and broadcasts from “mainstream” news sources during the past few weeks that have actually made me feel encouraged about the public’s response to the financial crisis and our current economic predicament.  Six months ago, the dirty picture of what caused last year’s near-meltdown and what has continued to prevent the necessary reforms, was something one could find only by reading a relatively small number of blogs.  Michael Panzner wrote a book entitled Financial Armageddon in 2006, predicting what many “experts” later described as unforeseeable.  Mr. Panzner now has a blog called Financial Armageddon (as well as another: When Giants Fall).  At his Financial Armageddon website, Mr. Panzner has helped ease the pain of the economic catastrophe with a little humor by educating his readers on some novel measurements of our recession level — such as the increased use of hair dye and “The Hot Waitress Index”.   (He ran another great posting about the increasing number of disastrous experiences for people who tried to save money by cutting their own hair.)   Meanwhile, Matt Taibbi has continued to serve as a gadfly against crony capitalism.   Zero Hedge keeps us regularly apprised of the suspicious activities in the equities and futures markets, which are of no apparent concern to regulatory officials.   Some bloggers, including Jr Deputy Accountant, have criticized the manic money-printing and other inappropriate activities at the Federal Reserve — which resists all efforts at oversight and transparency.  One no longer experiences the stigma of “conspiracy theorist” by accepting the view that our financial and economic problems were caused primarily by regulatory failure.

On September 23, Dan Gerstein wrote a piece for Forbes, about the impressive, 25-page article concerning last year’s financial crisis, written by James Stewart for The New Yorker, entitled:   “Eight Days”.  At the outset, Mr. Gerstein noted how the New Yorker article provided the reader with some shocking insight on someone we all thought we knew pretty well:

But the biggest eye-opener was that the most incisive and damning questions raised by any of our leaders during this existential crisis came from none other than the era’s top free-market cheerleader in Washington, George W. Bush.

*   *   *

Paulson and Bernanke alerted Bush that AIG was about to fail, warned of the massive ripple effect AIG going bust would have on the global economy, and explained why the Fed could not intervene with an insurance company to stop this systemic threat.  In response, Bush asked  “How have we come to the point where we can’t let an institution fail without affecting the whole economy?”

The question raised by President Bush is still tragically apt, since nothing has been accomplished in the past year to break up or downsize those institutions considered “too big to fail”.  Mr. Gerstein’s experience from reading the New Yorker article helped reinforce the understanding that our current situation is not only the result of regulatory failure, but it’s also a by-product of something called “regulatory capture” —  wherein the regulators are beholden to those whom they are supposed to regulate:

Once disaster was averted and the system stabilized, Paulson, Geithner and Bernanke had no excuse for not laying down the law to Wall Street — figuratively and literally — in the ensuing weeks.  By that I mean restructuring the deals we struck with the banks to get far better returns for taxpayers and rewriting the rules governing the financial system to prevent them from ever thinking they could gamble risk-free with our money again.

*   *   *

There’s no apparent sense of apartness or independence between regulator and regulated.  To the contrary, there’s a power imbalance in the wrong direction, with the regulators dependent on and even at the mercy of the regulated.  What does it say about the integrity and even the sanity of this system when the doctors have to ask the inmates how to restructure their treatments?

I was particularly impressed by Dan Gerstein’s closing remarks in the Forbes piece.  It was encouraging to see another commentary in a mainstream media source, consistent with the ranting I did here, here and here.  Mr. Gerstein expressed dismay at the lack of attention given to the unpleasant truth that we live in a plutocracy which won’t be changed until the people demand it:

That’s why I was so disappointed to find Stewart’s epic article buried in the elite pages of the New Yorker.  It should have been serialized on the front pages of every newspaper in the country last week, so every American would be reminded in full detail of just how warped and rigged our financial system has been — and why it still is.  Maybe then it might sink in that getting mad won’t get us even in the power struggle with the financial elites for control of our economy, and that change won’t happen until taxpayers demand it.  You want public accountability for Wall Street?  Let’s start with an accountable public.

Each time an article such as Dan Gerstein’s “Too Close For Comfort” gets widespread exposure, we move one step closer to the point where we have an informed, accountable public.  It’s unfortunate that his commentary was buried in the elite pages of Forbes.  That’s why I have it here.  Spread the word.



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