Words from the (investment) wise for the week that was (April 7 – 13, 2008)

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This edition of “Words from the Wise” comes to you as I head back to Cape Town (my home town) after a most enjoyable visit to La Jolla. Initially I was not planning on publishing a report this week as I only had limited access to my normal research resources while on the road, but I actually managed to piece together a few interesting snippets. However, as the post will only go up on the blog site after the new week’s trading has commenced, I have reduced the overview of the financial markets (below the performance chart) to a few sentences so as not to bore you with old hat.

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After the sense of relative calm of the previous week, investors again had to stomach “a thrill a minute” during the past week, with the recent stock market rally reversing course as sentiment took a turn for the worse on the back of the familiar themes of deteriorating economic data, housing woes, and concerns about further asset write-downs in the financial sector.

 

 

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Fears for the ailing US economy and the implications for corporate earnings were underscored by the weaker-than-expected results from US corporate giant General Electric (GE). The disappointment from GE caused its share price to plummet by almost 13% on Friday and unnerved the stock market, prompting a sharp sell-off that accounted for the bulk of this week’s losses.

Other hang-ups for the market included an indication from major investment banks Goldman Sachs (GS), Lehman Brothers (LEH) and Morgan Stanley (MS) that saw an increase in their Level 3 assets. Level 3 assets represent the most difficult assets to value and the notion that the firms might be unable to trade, or sell, the assets weighed on sentiment as this could lead to further write-downs.

Fed chairman Ben Bernanke said that the level of financial distress of the current crisis is among the most serious since World War II. When asked about similarities to the Great Depression he remarked that there were some but also argued that the Fed had learned the lessons from the Great Depression and as a result would endeavor not to allow banks to collapse or the monetary base to deflate.

The minutes of the March 18 FOMC meeting indicated a central bank that was quite bearish about the US economy. The staff forecast showed “a contraction in real GDP in the first half of 2008 followed by a slow rise in the second half”. Some members of the FOMC “believed that a prolonged and severe economic downturn could not be ruled out given the further restriction of credit availability and ongoing weakness in the housing market”.

Before highlighting some thought-provoking news items and quotes from market commentators, first some economic statistics and a performance chart.

Economy
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Moody’s Economy.com reported as follows about its global business confidence survey: “A number of notable record lows were set during the first week of April, including US business confidence, sales strength, assessment of current conditions, and sentiment in the financial services industry.” Although the situation looks rather grim for most of the developed economies, the survey did bring some positive news, stating: “… while Asian confidence has slipped it remains consistent with an economy that is expanding near its potential.

The University of Michigan’s latest report confirmed an increasingly grim outlook for the US consumer, with the overall consumer sentiment index at its lowest level since March 1982, causing Asha Bangalore (Northern Trust) to remark: “The FOMC should be more than troubled with these readings.”

Adding to consumers’ woes, the declines in the Pending Home Sales Index in the January to February period bodes ill for sales of existing homes in the months ahead.

With an oil price flirting around record levels, inflation worries were further stoked by the US Import Price Index rising by 2.8% in March after a 0.2% increase in the prior month. The large gain reflects a 9.1% jump in prices of imported petroleum and a 0.9% increase in prices of non-fuel imports. On a year-to-year basis, the US Import Price Index excluding fuel has moved up 5.0%, the largest gain in the history of the index which began in December 2001.

In other economic news, weekly initial jobless claims fell by 53,000 to 357,000 making the prior week’s jump to 410,000 look aberrant due to seasonal factors related to Easter. However, at 378,250 the four-week moving average of claims, a more meaningful data series, was the highest since October 2003, excluding the Katrina-related spike, indicating continued weakness in hiring.

Elsewhere in the world, the European Central Bank has left its main policy rate on hold at 4.0%, as fears about inflation continued to outweigh worries about economic growth. The Bank of England, however, trimmed its policy rate to 5% from 5.25% as falling UK house prices threaten to emulate those of the US.

WEEK’S ECONOMIC REPORTS

Date

Time (ET)

Statistic

For

Actual

Briefing Forecast

Market Expects

Prior

Apr 7

3:00 PM

Consumer Credit

Feb

$5.2B

$5.0B

$6.0B

$10.3B

Apr 8

10:00 AM

Pending Home Sales

Feb

-1.9

-

-1.0%

0.3%

Apr 8

2:00 PM

FOMC Minutes

Mar 18

-

-

-

-

Apr 9

10:00 AM

Wholesale Inventories

Feb

+1.1%

0.7%

0.5%

1.3%

Apr 9

10:30 AM

Crude Inventories

04/05

-

NA

NA

7317K

Apr 10

8:30 AM

Initial Claims

04/05

357K

380K

383K

410K

Apr 10

8:30 AM

Trade Balance

Feb

-$62.3B

-$57.6B

-$57.4B

-$59.0B

Apr 10

2:00 PM

Treasury Budget

Mar

-$48.1B

-$47.0B

-$70.3B

-$96.3B

Apr 11

8:30 AM

Export Prices ex-ag.

Mar

1.2%

NA

NA

0.7%

Apr 11

8:30 AM

Import Prices ex-oil

Mar

1.1%

NA

NA

0.7%

Apr 11

10:00 AM

Mich Sentiment-Prel.

Apr

63.2

68.0

69.0

69.5

Source: Yahoo Finance, April 11, 2008.

The next week’s economic highlights, courtesy of Northern Trust, include the following:

1. Retail Sales (April 14): Auto sales fell to an annual rate of 15.1 million units from 15.4 million units in February. Non-auto sales excluding gasoline were weak. The sharp jump in gasoline prices should give an artificial lift to overall retail sales in March (-0.1%) and make it appear less weak than the underlying demand for consumer goods. Consensus: 0.0% versus -0.6% in February; non-auto retail sales: 0.2% versus -0.2% in February.

2. Producer Price Index (April 15): The Producer Price Index for Finished Goods is expected to have risen 0.5% in March, reflecting higher food and energy prices. The core PPI is most likely to have risen 0.1% after a 0.5% increase in February. Consensus: +0.5%, core PPI +0.2%.

3. Housing Starts (April 16): Permit extensions for new homes fell 7.3% in February, inclusive of a 5.1% drop in permits issued for single-family homes. The weakness in permits is indicative of fewer housing starts in March (990,000 versus 1.065 million in February). Consensus: 1.018 million.

4. Consumer Price Index (April 16): A 0.2% increase in the CPI is predicted for March following a steady reading in February. The core CPI is expected to have moved up 0.2% versus unchanged in February. Consensus: +0.3%, core CPI +0.2%.

5. Industrial production (April 16): The steady manufacturing man-hours index in March could be misleading given the drop in employment in the auto sector and decline in the production index of the ISM factory survey. Utilities posted a 3.8% drop in February, which implies that a reversal is possible. We are expecting a 0.1% drop in industrial production in March after a 0.5% decline in February. The operating rate is projected to have dropped to 80.2 in March. Consensus: -0.1%; Capacity Utilization: 80.2 versus 80.4 in February.

6. Leading Indicators (April 17): Interest rate spreads, money supply, vendor deliveries, and factory workweek made positive contributions in March. Stock prices, initial jobless claims, consumer expectations and building permits are expected to make negative contributions. Forecasts of money supply and orders of consumer durables and non-defense capital goods are used in the initial estimate. The net impact is a 0.1% gain in the leading index during March. Consensus: 0.2%.

7. Other reports: NAHB Survey (April 15), Philadelphia Fed Survey (April 17).

Markets
The performance chart obtained from the
Wall Street Journal Online shows how different global markets fared during the past week.

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Source: Wall Street Journal Online, April 13, 2008.

Global stock markets (with the exception of some emerging markets) performed poorly during the past week as credit concerns again became paramount.

The US dollar and the pound weakened, while on the commodities front, oil and rice prices recorded all-time highs.

The interbank lending market showed further signs of distress and government bond prices increased as a result of another round of safe-haven buying.

Now for a few news items and some words and graphs from the investment wise that will hopefully assist in guiding us in making correct investment decisions in these uncertain times.

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Source: Phil’s Stock World, April 9, 2008.

Charlie Rose: Interview with Peter Peterson (Blackstone) on subprime, bailouts, etc.
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Source:
Charlie Rose, April 2, 2008.

Bill King (The King Report): Paul Volcker – “mother of all crises”
“Yesterday, Paul Volcker said the credit crisis is the ‘mother of all crises’ and the modern financial system has ‘failed the test of the marketplace.’

“‘The Federal Reserve has judged it necessary to take actions that extend to the very edge of its lawful and implied powers, transcending in the process, certain long embedded Central Banking principles and practices … What appears to be in substance a direct transfer of mortgage and mortgage-backed securities of questionable pedigree from an investment bank to the Federal Reserve seems to test the time-honored central bank mantra in time of crisis: lend freely at high rates against good collateral; test it to the point of no return.’

“When asked about the possibility of a dollar crisis, Mr. Volcker retorted, ‘dollar crisis … you don’t have to predict it, you’re in it … Let me remind you that the dollar after all is a fiat currency backed only by the word and policies of our government, policies exemplified by an independent Central Bank committed to maintaining price stability.’

“‘The transient causes of extreme leveraging have been exposed by force of circumstance. The nation’s spending and consumption are being brought into line with our capacity to produce.’ The probable ‘greatest ever’ Fed Chairman issued views that can only be interrupted as extremely negative.”

Source: Bill King, The King Report, April 9, 2008.

John Authers (Financial Times): Not Armageddon
“John Authers warns that while it is not the end of the world as we know it, markets should not feel fine yet.”

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Source: John Authors, Financial Times, April 8, 2008.

Financial Times: SocGen head hails market fightback
“Daniel Bouton, chairman of Société Générale, became the latest leading bank executive to suggest signs of improvement in the financial markets while calling on policymakers to learn the lessons of the crisis.

“Mr Bouton – whose own bank suffered a €2.6 billion ($4.1 billion) writedown on subprime loans on top of a €4.9bn alleged rogue trading fraud earlier this year – told French parliamentarians in Paris there was no credit crunch in France.

“Although French banks had lost €14.4 billion on US subprime mortgage assets, none had recorded ‘bad or catastrophic results’, while SocGen still had plenty of money to lend.

“‘I am not among the optimists about the current situation in the credit markets and liquidity. But I am among the people who believe that we have started to see the situation improving,’ Mr Bouton told members of the National Assembly’s finance committee.”

Source: Ben Hall, Financial Times, April 9, 2008.

Financial Times: Bear Stearns rescue a “turning point”
“The US Federal Reserve’s intervention in the fate of Bear Stearns, the Wall Street investment bank, might have marked a ‘turning point’ in the latest financial market turmoil, according to Stanley Fischer, the governor of the Bank of Israel.

“Mr Fischer, who as first deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund played a central role in tackling the Asian and Russian financial crises in the late 1990s, said that the Fed’s action had calmed the panic in the financial markets.

“‘It is not over. There will be more occasions when we think that the world is going to go to hell in a hand basket. But for the first time since last summer it is clear that the authorities are beginning to contain the financial sector crisis in the US,’ Mr Fischer said in an interview with the Financial Times.

“‘My guess is that when the history of this crisis is written, the Bear Stearns rescue will be seen as a turning point. It was done very well and very decisively.’

“Nouriel Roubini, professor of economics at New York University, said that the Fed’s interest rate cuts and bank support operations would only help at the margins.

“Mr Roubini, who is one of the most bearish commentators on the US economy, said that the US had now clearly entered recession and was heading into a severe and protracted downturn.”

Source: John Thornhill and Adrian Michaels, Financial Times, April 7, 2008.

Asha Bangalore (Northern Trust): Minutes of March 18 FOMC meeting – bearish outlook for economy
“The minutes of the March 18 FOMC meeting indicate a central bank that is quite bearish about the economy. The staff forecast showed ‘a contraction in real GDP in the first half of 2008 followed by a slow rise in the second half.’ Some members of the FOMC ‘believed that a prolonged and severe economic downturn could not be ruled out given the further restriction of credit availability and ongoing weakness in the housing market.’

“At the same time, members held these views: 1) They ‘recognized that monetary policy alone could not address fully the underlying problems in the housing market and in financial markets.’ (2) The discussion about inflation noted that incoming news about inflation was disappointing and that recent depreciation of the dollar could boost import prices and contribute to higher inflation. In addition, members were concerned that inflation expectations might become less firmly anchored, given the fact that inflation expectations had edged higher (Inflation expectations in the past few days have been less threatening.) (3) ‘With the uncertainties in the outlook for both economic activity and inflation elevated, members noted that appropriately calibrating the stance of policy was difficult, partly because some time would be required to assess the effects of the substantial easing of policy to date.’

“These observations which imply the need for caution in easing monetary policy offset part of the concern about severely weak economic conditions. On balance, these conflicting remarks lead us to view that a less aggressive easing of 25 bps, taking the Federal funds rate to 2.00%, is the most likely scenario on April 30.”

Source: Asha Bangalore, Northern Trust – Daily Global Commentary, April 8, 2008.

Bill King (The King Report): January could mark official start of recession
“The most important of the four criteria used by the NBER to determine the start of recessions – employment growth – is sending a clear negative signal. The other three – real income, business sales and industrial production – are at or below zero growth. It is very likely the official start of the 2008 recession will be January …”

Source: Bill King, The King Report, April 7, 2008.

Bloomberg: Bankruptcies jump 30% in March, led by housing-bust states
“The jump in March bankruptcy filings is another indication the US economy is in recession, led by states where the housing boom turned to bust.

“The more than 90,000 bankruptcy filings in March were the highest since insolvency laws became more restrictive in October 2005, according to statistics compiled from court records … At a daily rate, filings in March were 30% above the pace in 2007.

“Rising bankruptcies, together with mounting foreclosures and fewer jobs, are further signs the biggest housing slump in a generation is hurting consumers and businesses. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke this week for the first time acknowledged the economy may be facing a recession and vowed to act to cushion the slowdown.

“‘We’re seeing fairly high readings in these measures of distress like bankruptcies, foreclosures and mortgage defaults,’ said Chris Low, chief US economist at FTN Financial in New York. The most affected states are ‘also where the most housing-related business growth was,’ said Low.

“The states most affected by the housing recession, including California, Nevada and Florida, were among those with the largest increases in bankruptcies.”

Source: Bill Rochelle and Bob Willis, Bloomberg, April 5, 2008.

MarketWatch: Lawmakers craft homeowner help
“Troubled borrowers facing the loss of their homes were in the Capitol’s spotlight Wednesday, as the president brought forward a new plan to help struggling homeowners, while lawmakers in both chambers focused on mortgage relief proposals.

“There’s intense pressure on lawmakers to address the housing crisis as foreclosures rise and home sales stay weak. Washington has come under fire for moving slowly on helping homeowners, but speedily creating a multibillion-dollar deal to bail out Bear Stearns.

“The Bush administration’s plan would expand a government program to allow more homeowners to refinance mortgages, and encourage lenders to write down loan values. The White House sees about 500,000 families refinancing into prime-rate mortgages by the end of the year by enabling the Federal Housing Administration under its FHASecure program to insure more mortgages.

“A plan in the House would see the FHA guarantee as much as $300 billion in loans for troubled borrowers.”

Source: Ruth Mantell & Robert Schroeder, MarketWatch, April 9, 2008.

Robert Shiller (The New York Times): The Fed gets a new job description
“The plan of Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson to overhaul the financial system includes a crucial proposal: it would officially transform the Federal Reserve into a ‘market stability regulator’ rather than merely a banker’s bank …

“The Fed is no longer just a regulatory agency presiding over a narrow group of businesses called banks. Rather, its mission increasingly is to maintain macro confidence – confidence that the entire financial system is functioning well as part of the whole economy …

“Formalizing the Fed’s transformation into a market stability regulator makes sense. The Fed has already begun to play this role. And by doing so, it is taking a significant step toward reducing the fundamental instability of our economy.”

Source: Robert Shiller, The New York Times, April 6, 2008.

Paul Kedrosky (Infectious Greed): The (further) politicization of the Fed
“Many people, myself included, worry about the politicization of the US Federal Reserve. To what extent have recent decisions – the bailout of Bear Stearns, introducing new lending facilities, etc. – been driven by markets and economic need, versus being driven, to some extent, by political considerations?

“It’s a tough question to answer, but one way of backing in is to understand how much time the Fed’s senior officials spend in private meetings with politician and political appointees. According to ace Fed watchers at the Financial Markets Center, Alan Greenspan met with senior political officials in the 1996-2000 period about twice a week. They deemed that frequency ‘apolitical’. Post 2000, however, Greenspan’s time with political sorts escalated, with him meeting at Treasury and with the President an average of 3.1 times per week.

“How has current Fed chief Ben Bernanke fared in maintaining Fed political neutrality during the credit crisis? Well, according to the aforementioned FMC, in his first year in office Bernanke averaged 2.2 political meetings a week, which is in-line with what we saw from Greenspan in his early days.

“But that has seemingly changed. According to data I recently received via an FOIA request for Ben Bernanke’s daybook covering the 11/07-03/08 period, he is spending considerably more time with political sorts than he did in his early term. Instead of averaging twice a week, he is now averaging 3.1 times week, a 50% increase, or right up there with amount of pol-time Alan Greenspan did during the period from 2000 forward.

“To be clear, I’m not saying Fed chiefs should never meet with politicians. Far from it. It is a useful source of information, and the Fed is, even at arm’s length, a quasi-governmental body. I am saying, however, that a further politicization of the Fed – at least as evidenced by a material increase in the frequency of meetings with key officials – is something worth watching, especially during a time of crisis.

Source: Paul Kedrosky, Infectious Greed, April 9, 2008.

Asha Bangalore (Northern Trust): Advancing trend of import prices is bothersome
“A large part of the reason for the notable increase in price of imported consumer goods excluding autos is the significant jump in prices of imported goods from China which rose 4.0% in March on a year-to-year basis. In March 2007, this index had dropped 0.5% on a year-to-year basis.”

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Source: Asha Bangalore, Northern Trust – Daily Global Commentary, April 11, 2008.

Asha Bangalore (Northern Trust): Employment and the housing sector
“Job losses in housing and related industries were reported as early as March 2006. Between March 2006 and March 2008, job losses in housing and related industries have amounted to 23.4% of the change in total payroll employment and 29.5% of private sector payroll employment. In other words, a total of 575,200 jobs have been lost in housing and related industries in this period. Looking at these numbers in a shorter time span between December 2007 to March 2008, housing and related industries accounted for 129.3% of the total job losses and 71.0% of decline in private sector payroll employment. Although the NBER has not officially dated the recession, it is widely held that a recession probably began in December 2007/January 2008.”

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Source: Asha Bangalore, Northern Trust – Daily Global Commentary, April 7, 2008.

Asha Bangalore (Northern Trust): Existing home sales likely to post declines in the near term
“The declines of the PHSI in the January-February period bode poorly for sales of existing homes in the months ahead.”

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Source: Asha Bangalore, Northern Trust – Daily Global Commentary, April 8, 2008.

Bloomberg: Pimco’s Gross holds most mortgage debt since 2000
“Pimco’s Bill Gross lifted holdings of mortgage debt in the world’s largest bond fund to the highest since 2000, while putting on the biggest bet against government debt since at least the same year.

“The $125.1 billion Pimco Total Return Fund had 59% of assets in mortgage debt in March, up from 52% the prior month and 23% in March 2007 … The fund’s cash position dropped to 32%, the lowest since July 2006, from 34% in February.

“Thirty-year mortgage bonds guaranteed by Fannie Mae yield 1.74 percentage points more than benchmark 10-year Treasuries. The gap has narrowed from 2.38 percentage points on March 6, the highest since 1986, as investors shunned all but the safest assets as credit markets seized up. The average spread since 2000 has been 1.22 percentage points.

“The Total Return Fund also increased derivative positions that make it short in Treasuries, meaning it will profit from declines in the securities. It held negative 18% of assets in government debt in March, the most bearish stance since at least June 2000, according to data compiled by Bloomberg News.

“‘Treasuries are the most overvalued asset in the world, bar none,’ Gross, Pimco’s chief investment officer, said on CNBC on April 4.”

Source: Deborah Finestone, Bloomberg, April 10, 2008.

Richard Russell (Dow Theory Letters): Is the market marching to a different drummer?
What I want to get across to subscribers is this – we know the economic fundamentals look bad. We’re reminded of that every day on radio, on TV and in the newspapers. What we’re looking for is the stock market’s reaction to all this hair-curling news. Is the rotten news hammering the market down – or does it seem that the market is marching to a different drummer. Because if the market is marching to a different drummer, that means that the bad news has been fully discounted, and the market is looking ahead to better times.”

Source: Richard Russell, Dow Theory Letters, April 8, 2008.

Martin Spring (On Target): Is this rally a bull trap?
“Although there is plenty of money available to solve the current crisis – trillions of dollars in pension, insurance and sovereign wealth funds – managers are largely unwilling to use it to buy credits that seem cheap, because they have a nasty feeling they could get even cheaper. ‘Every time you buy anything, it is worth less the next day,’ moaned one fund manager.

“The ‘sovereign welfare funds,’ as Christopher Wood, the strategist at investment bank CLSA Asia-Pacific, calls them, have already suffered the painful experience of buying into major banks because they seemed to offer cheap, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, only to see billions of dollars of value in their investments evaporate within weeks.

“Judging by the latest estimates by financial experts, the credit crisis has a lot further to run. One study suggests that write-offs of bad debts in the US alone could reach $600 billion and knock-on effects $900 billion – enough to cut 1 to 1½ percentage points off economic growth.

“And that’s without taking into account the wider effects of falling house prices. Increasingly, borrowers who owe more than their homes are worth are just walking away from their debts. They call it ‘jingle mail’ – the borrower posts the keys to the lender. Eventually as many as 20 million American families could fall into ‘negative equity’ – having mortgage liabilities greater than the value of their houses.

“Nevertheless, it seems likely to me and some other analysts that the current bounce in the stock and credit markets and loss of upward momentum in commodities could be the start of something important. Not of new bull markets, but of a major rally in ongoing bear markets.

“In other words, a bull trap.”

Click here for the full report.

Source: Martin Spring’s On Target (via Fullermoney), April 5, 2008.

John Authers (Financial Times): Follow the money
“John Authers on the vast amounts of cash sitting on the sidelines waiting for a suitable home.”

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Source: John Authers, Financial Times, April 9, 2008.

James Montier (Investors Insight): Analysts asleep at the wheel
“About a month ago I wrote a note suggesting that analysts were like rabbits caught in the headlights. It now appears that the analysts may well have fallen asleep at the wheel!

“The chart below is … constructed by taking a linear time trend out of operating earnings and the analyst forecasts of those earnings (so the chart simply plots deviations from trend in $ per share terms).

“The chart makes is transparently obvious that analysts lag reality. They only change their minds when there is irrefutable proof they were wrong, and then only change their minds very slowly.”

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Source: James Montier, Investors Insight, April 7, 2008.

BCA Research: US dollar – still down
“It is likely we are in the very late stages of the dollar bear market, as the currency is cheap and the US current account imbalance is reversing. Still, Fed monetary policy will thus remain a major drag for the dollar, preventing it from waging a sustainable turnaround.

“Large swings in the trade-weighted dollar are often a mirror image of big shifts in interest rate differentials, which in turn reflect relative economic strength between the US and the rest of the world. The US policy rate will likely continue to fall against the rest of the world, suggesting the bear market in the trade-weighted dollar is not yet over. In addition, our dollar capitulation index has shown that the market has not thrown in the towel on dollar weakness, implying it may persist for a while longer. In general, we see that 80% of the dollar’s bear market against the euro is over, and the Japanese yen has limited upside. This means that dollar weakness will most likely be concentrated in the emerging market currencies and commodity plays.”

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Source: BCA Research, April 10, 2008.

Bill King (The King Report): ECB versus Fed strategies = US dollar weakness
“The ECB issued a very hawkish statement that felled the dollar. ‘On the basis of our regular economic and monetary analyses, we decided at today’s meeting to leave the key ECB interest rates unchanged. The latest information has confirmed the existence of strong short-term upward pressure on inflation. In fact, we are experiencing a rather protracted period of temporarily high annual rates of inflation, resulting mainly from increases in energy and food prices. The latest information also clearly confirms our assessment of prevailing upside risks to price stability over the medium term, in a context of continuing very vigorous money and credit growth.’ Trichet said the ECB doesn’t plan to buy mortgage securities.

“What is interesting about the ECB versus the Fed is that the ECB talks hawkish and refrains from rate cuts but the ECB has created more than double the emergency credit (over $700 billion) than the Fed (over $310 billion). But the Fed keeps braying dovish and cutting rates. The difference in the strategies is reflected in the currencies, with the euro at an all-time high versus the dollar, and the Euribor-Fed Funds spread.”

Source: Bill King, The King Report, April 11, 2008.

Richard Russell (Dow Theory Letters): Chinese yuan
“Do you remember all the anguish and complaining about the ‘cheap’ Chinese yuan? The Chinese were choking and damaging American manufacturers – killing us with that ridiculously cheap yuan. Treasury Secretary Paulson’s main job, it seemed, was to argue or threaten or plead with the Chinese to raise the value of their yuan.

“Well, the value of the yuan has been steadily rising. Last year the yuan gained almost 11% against the dollar. During the first quarter of 2008 the yuan gained an additional 4%. In fact, the yuan is now pressing against the big barrier – which is seven yuan to the dollar.

“Ironically, the new ‘expensive’ yuan is now playing hell with both sides. Chinese exporters are having their troubles since their costs are rising with the rising yuan, and at the same time they are being squeezed if they try to hold their export prices.

“US manufacturers who have moved their plants and facilities to China are finding that the ‘Chinese advantage’ is fading away, since wages and costs in China are rising along with the rising value of the yuan. It’s the old story – ‘Be careful what you wish for, because you may get it.’”

Source: Richard Russell, Dow Theory Letters, April 10, 2008.

Financial Times: Renminbi rises to high against US dollar
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Source: Andrew Wood, Financial Times, April 10, 2008.

Richard Russell (Dow Theory Letters): Why is copper close to its record level?
“They call it Dr. Copper because copper has been used as a barometer of world business activity, the reason being that copper is used in almost everything from kitchen toasters to earth-movers to alarm clocks. So again, if the world economy is gasping for breath and on the edge of recession, why is Dr. Copper knocking at it’s all-time high above four dollars a pound?

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“Copper at new highs, and today oil hits a new high of $111 a barrel. These are both supply-demand situations, and they at least suggest that there’s not going to be any big recession ahead. Copper is being used and nations are trying to position themselves as best they can with oil and energy. The Russians are now searching the Polar regions for oil and gas and the talk is that we’re nearing the time when Russia will dominate the European energy picture. The Russians won’t dominate Europe with their military, they’ll dominate Europe with oil and gas.”

Source: Richard Russell, Dow Theory Letters, April 9, 2008.

BCA Research: Commodities – changing behavior
“The changing behavior of commodity investors and speculators increases our conviction that the asset class is on an eventual path toward a mania-like overshoot.

“During the ‘double bottoms’ in commodity prices of 1998 and 2001, speculators were heavily net short. Since then, speculators have only rarely been net short, even during sharp pullbacks. Indeed, the growing interest in this asset class was evident during the run-up to the current pullback, which was very different compared to the past ten years.

“First, commodity prices peaked at a time of near record speculative long positions (net spec longs were only higher in early 2004). Second, there is anecdotal evidence of record inflows into ‘commodities as an asset class’ in the first two months of this year. Third, open interest accelerated higher at an unprecedented pace (i.e. supply of futures contracts was ‘forced’ to increase to meet overwhelming demand).

“Bottom line: It is impossible to know how the current correction will play out. What is clear is that, commodity investors and speculators are gradually getting conditioned to ‘buy the dips’, even if value is no longer attractive. Corrections will be violent and individual commodities may get hammered. But pullbacks will be short-lived as the weight of money chases ‘relative value’.”

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Source: BCA Research, April 8, 2008.

Times Online: India takes on China over Africa’s riches
“India has granted Africa radically improved terms of trade in the clearest signal yet that it intends to compete head-to-head with China for access to the continent’s natural resources.

Speaking at the inaugural India-Africa Forum Summit in New Delhi, Manmohan Singh, the Indian Prime Minister, said that tariffs would be scrapped on a host of African imports, from diamonds and copper ore to sugar cane and clothes. The abolition of duties will cover 94% of the in-bound goods from 34 African nations.

The summit, which is being attended by the leaders of 14 African states, is widely regarded as India’s riposte to the China-Africa Cooperation Forum of 2006, at which China unveiled $9 billion in preferential loans, export credits and other incentives to reinforce its grip on Africa’s mineral-rich regions.

He said: ‘India wishes to see the 21st century as the century of Asia and Africa with the people of the two continents working together to promote inclusive globalisation.’

“Access to raw commodities is essential if India’s economic renaissance is to continue and will become a more pressing concern as the subcontinent’s consumers grow more affluent, analysts say.”

Source: Rhys Blakely, Times Online, April 9, 2008.

Financial Times: Food inflation threatens progress on poverty
“The rising cost of basic foods risks wiping out a decade of efforts to combat global poverty and could trigger further riots in the world’s poorest countries, leading multilateral institutions warned …

“The World Bank, the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the International Monetary Fund were unanimous in concluding that the rising appetite for bio­fuels was part of the reason for the increase in food prices.

“But they also said that rising consumption in emerging countries and what the World Bank described as a ‘sense of complacency’ towards agricultural investment over the past two decades were part of the problem.

“In the past 20 years, a number of developing countries have become net importers of food because of rising internal consumption and a slowdown in agricultural productivity. That is now accentuating the impact of rising food prices.

“The bank said in a note on food policy options addressed to finance ministers meeting this week in Washington that rising prices threatened to undo efforts to combat poverty.”

Source: Chris Bryant, Financial Times, April 9, 2008.

Financial Times: Rice jumps as Africa joins race for supplies
“Rice prices rose more than 10% on Friday to a fresh all-time high as African countries joined south-east Asian importers in the race to head off social unrest by securing supplies from the handful of exporters still selling the grain in the international market.

“The rise in prices – 50% in two weeks – threatens upheaval and has resulted in riots and soldiers overseeing supplies in some emerging countries, where the grain is a staple food for about 3 billion people.

“The increase also risks stoking further inflation in emerging countries, which have been suffering the impact of record oil prices and the rise in price of other agricultural commodities – including wheat, maize and vegetable oil – in the last year.”

Source: Javier Blas and Roel Landingin, Financial Times, April 4, 2008.

Paul Kedrosky (Infectious Greed): House price declines around the globe
“Nice graphic in a current IMF paper on the global boom-bust cycle in residential real estate. Here we can compare what’s been happening in a host of countries all finding real estate going off the rails at once: Denmark, Spain, the US and Ireland are leading the way down. Most striking, at least to me, were the bubble-ish peaks put in many non-US countries.”

14-april-17.jpg

Source: Paul Kedrosky, Infectious Greed, April 7, 2008.

Financial Times: Spanish economy heads for hard landing
“Spain’s high-growth economy is heading for a hard landing, according to manufacturing and services surveys that show a sharp drop in activity.

“Business people reported a fall in new orders, weaker domestic demand, lower activity and higher costs in the first quarter of the year, according to March purchasing managers’ indices – a timely indicator of economic activity that tracks sales, employment, inventories and prices. PMI surveys provide early indication of likely growth trends.”

Source: Leslie Crawford and Ralph Atkins, Financial Times, April 4, 2008.

BCA Research: UK house price inflation turns negative
“The UK housing bubble is beginning to deflate. Aggressive BoE easing will follow.

“Yesterday’s release of the Halifax survey showed that house prices contracted in March by 2.5% month-over-month and have now started to fall on a year-over-year basis (according to the seasonally adjusted series). Although the annual growth in the Nationwide house price index remained slightly positive on the month, this measure is decelerating rapidly.

“As previously mentioned, we warned that nominal house prices were set to contract on an annual basis by mid-year, adversely affecting both the economy and banking system. Leading housing indicators are already melting and our house price model (which forecasts the Nationwide series) calls for a 7% contraction in nominal house prices by the end of Q3, with no evidence of stabilizing thereafter.

“Bottom line: The BoE will need to cut aggressively to limit the damage to the economy and banking system. Remain bearish the pound and overweight gilts …”

14-april-18.jpg

Source: BCA Research, April 9, 2008.

Vladimir Savov (Credit Suisse): Russian market
“Government intervention in Russia should be a focus for the stock market as the state’s direct involvement in the economy and various industries is likely to grow once Dmitry Medvedev takes office as president, says Vladimir Savov, Russian equity strategist at Credit Suisse.

“‘The success of Russia’s economic policies and, to some extent, the performance of its stock market, will be dependent on policy-makers managing to find the right mix of liberal initiatives, social spending and regulation,’ Mr Savov says.”

Source: Vladimir Savov, Credit Suisse (via Financial Times), April 7, 2008.

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1 comment to Words from the (investment) wise for the week that was (April 7 – 13, 2008)

  • Although there’s a controlled environment in Russia, do you think it is one of the country’s best positioned to gain, from this increase in energy comsumption?

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