Words from the (investment) wise for the week that was (February 2 – 8, 2009)
Global stock markets shrugged off dire news on the US employment front, arguing that the gloomy data would hasten US lawmakers’ passage of a stimulus package. After falling for four straight weeks and recording the worst performance of the major US indices for January on record, Wall Street reversed course on the back of a stimulus-induced rally.
The US government seems on track to announce two new recovery plans next week. Firstly, Senate Democrats reached an agreement with Republican moderates on Friday regarding a fiscal stimulus package. The deal, in essence, entails about $110 billion in cuts to the roughly $900 billion legislation, according to The New York Times. Secondly, a rescue plan to inject billions of dollars into banks and entice investors to purchase toxic assets will be outlined on Monday by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.
As investors’ risk appetite returned, the MSCI World Index and the MSCI Emerging Markets Index chalked up decent gains of 3.8% (YTD -5.4%) and 5.3% (YTD -1.7%) respectively. Among exchange-traded fund (ETFs), sector leaders were China (see additional comments below), Brazil and South Korea – all recording double-digit gains, according to John Nyaradi (Wall Street Sector Selector).
All the major US indices revved higher, as seen from the week’s movements: Dow Jones Industrial Index + 3.5% (YTD -5.6%), S&P 500 Index + 5.2% (YTD -3.8%), Nasdaq Composite Index +7.8% (YTD +0.9%) and Russell 2000 Index +6.1% (YTD -5.8%). Interestingly, the Nasdaq has been outperforming the Dow and S&P 500 since the beginning of December. Leadership by the technology sector is often good for the market as a whole.
Recent safe-haven trades such as US Treasuries (-0.7% in the case of 30-year bonds), the US dollar (-0.6%) and gold (-1.5%) took a back seat, as investors favored equities and commodities such as copper (+4.9%) and aluminum (+7.7%).
While pundits were speculating about when the Federal Reserve would enter the market as a buyer of US government bonds, Treasuries sold off as a large issuance of sovereign debt looms. However, German bonds gained handsomely on the perception that the European Central Bank was behind the curve with interest rate cuts against the backdrop of poor economic data.
The performance of the major asset classes is summarized by the chart below, courtesy of StockCharts.com.
Giving a glimmer of hope, the Baltic Dry Index (BDI) – measuring freight rates for iron ore and other bulk goods – jumped by 40% last week due to increased Chinese demand for iron ore. The Index has gained 125% over the past two months after plunging by 94% since its May high. The chart below illustrates the close relationship between the BDI (red line) and Reuters/Jeffries CRB Index (green line). (Not shown, the trends of the BDI and US Treasury yields also follow more or less the same path.)
As reported in my “Credit Crisis Watch” review of a few days ago, the past few months saw progress on the credit front, with a number of spreads having peaked. The TED spread, LIBOR-OIS spread and GSE mortgage spreads have all narrowed markedly since the record highs. Corporate bonds have also seen a strong improvement, but high-yield spreads remain at distressed levels. The tide seems to be turning, but the thawing of the credit markets still has some way to go before liquidity starts to move freely and confidence returns to the world’s financial system again.
Speaking of confidence, Montek Ahluwalia, deputy chairman of India’s planning commission, made the following remark at the recent Davos Forum: “Confidence grows at the rate a coconut tree grows. It falls at the rate a coconut falls.”
Back to the planned US rescue packages, and specifically Bill King‘s comments: “The main problem plaguing the US economy is too much debt has been accumulated on gratuitous spending and the papering over of declining US living standards. Solons espouse a monstrous surge in debt to fund even more consumer spending. The toxin is not the cure. Inducements to save and invest in production are the remedy. But the welfare state and its ruling class are trying a last grandiose socialist [Keynesian] binge in the hope of salvaging their realm.”
Next, a tag cloud of my week’s reading. This is a way of visualizing word frequencies at a glance. Key words such as “bank”, “economy” and “market” dominated the list, whereas “China” seems to be gaining more prominence.
Stock markets have been in a “holding pattern”, or trading range, since the beginning of December. Key resistance and support levels for the major US indices are shown in the table below. The immediate upside target is the 50-day moving average (the Nasdaq and Russell 2000 are already above this line), followed by the early January highs. On the downside, the December 1 and all-important November 20 lows must hold in order to prevent considerable technical damage.
Here is Richard Russell’s (Dow Theory Letters) interpretation of the situation: “Frankly, I’m very impressed by the stubborn and continuing resistance of the DJ Industrial Average. I don’t think many analysts realize the extreme importance of the Industrial’s steady refusal to violate its November 20 low. The action of the Dow contains the answer to the trillion-dollar question – ‘Is the bear market in a halting process – or will the stock market signal a continuation of the primary bear market?’
“So here we are – at a crossroads to history. The market will issue its verdict when, and only when, it is ready. But for now – if there’s anything traders love, it’s a market rising in the face of lousy news.
“An optimistic outcome would be a continued refusal by the Industrials to close below 7,552. An obviously more bullish outcome would be the DJ Industrial Average and the DJ Transportation Average continuing to rally and ultimately (both Averages) bettering their early-January peaks.
“Clearly, the most bearish outcome would be the Industrials finally breaking below the November 20 low and thereby confirming that we are still locked in a continuing primary bear market.”
From across the pond in London, David Fuller (Fullermoney) said: “… there is a scenario which few other people are taking about. As part of our often-mentioned forecast for a ranging, reversion to the mean recovery rally first hypothesized in late October, there is a possibility that stock markets will do surprisingly well in the next few weeks. Strong rallies would eventually leave markets susceptible to partial pullbacks, including some right-hand base formation extension.
“How could strong rallies possibly occur when everyone is talking about depression? The answers can be found in sentiment and liquidity. Today, most people are either incredibly bearish or despondent, but extreme forecasts are seldom accurate, as I have mentioned before. However, there is plenty of liquidity in many portfolios and governments have significantly increased money supply in recent months. A rising stock market would force a reappraisal by bears, leading to a reversal of short positions, while long-only investors put more of their cash back into the stock market.”
My view is that stock markets, in general, are still caught between the actions of central banks furiously fending off a total economic meltdown on the one hand, and a grim economic and corporate picture on the other. While we figure out whether we are in a normal bounce or witnessing the start of something bigger, I am not averse to selective stock picking – picking out the choice morsels, so to speak.
As far as specific countries are concerned, I alluded to the Year of the Ox in my “Performance Round-up” of last week and mentioned that this is regarded as a sign of prosperity that has been very rewarding in the history of China. And what a start to the year it has been with the Shanghai Composite Index gaining 9.6% during the past week.
The chart pattern (see graph below) shows arguably one of the best base formations of the major stock market indices, followed by Friday’s breakout. Although the Index is still down by 64.2% since its high of October 16, 2007, it has moved to the top slot among global stock market performances for the year to date with returns of +19.8% (local currency) and +19.4% (US dollar terms).
For more discussion about the direction of stock markets, also see my post “Video-o-rama: Stimulus ad nauseum“.
The latest US economic reports were less grim in some instances than in previous reports, with a few indicators showing that the pace of decline could be slowing down. This view is shared by Nouriel Roubini (RGE Monitor) who wrote in Forbes: “In the US … the second derivative of growth and of other economic indicators is approaching positive territory (i.e. growth is still negative, but GDP may be falling at a slowing rate).”
A snapshot of the week’s US economic data is provided below. (Click on the dates to see Northern Trust‘s assessment of the various reports.)
Friday, February 6
Thursday, February 5
Tuesday, February 4
Monday, February 2
BCA Research added: “In nominal terms, consumer spending declined at an annualized pace of 11% in the three months to December – the largest contraction since the 1930s. For most consumers and companies it is the trend in nominal dollars that matters, not the statistical artifact of ‘real’ dollars, measured in the national accounts. The need for dramatic stimulus is obvious: declining nominal activity points to a deepening financial crisis.”
Elsewhere in the world, the Bank of England (BoE) slashed its key repo rate by 50 basis points to 1.0% (the lowest level since the BoE was formed in 1694), whereas the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) cut its cash rate by 100 basis points to 3.25% (the lowest level in two decades). As expected, the European Central Bank (ECB) maintained its key policy rate at 2%, but will in all likelihood reduce the rate further in coming months as economic indicators show the Eurozone still contracting and inflationary pressures easing.
Further afield, the International Monetary Fund halved its 2009 growth forecast for Asia from 4.9% to 2.7%. “Clearly the hopes that Asia would experience a mild downturn while the global economy retrenched have now been firmly dismissed,” said Glenn Maguire, Asia chief economist at Société Générale, in the Financial Times.
Japan, according to Roubini, is entering another severe slump, one that looks worse than that of other advanced economies, and the fall is still accelerating, resembling a severe case of stag-deflation.
More dire news came from the Russian economics ministry, forecasting the economy’s slide into recession in 2009. GDP growth is forecast to be -0.2% this year compared with 5.6% in 2008. Meanwhile, the ruble has slumped by 35% against the US dollar since August to its weakest level in 11 years. Concerns about the downgrading of the country’s credit rating and a $200 billion reduction of its currency stockpile weighed on sentiment.
On a more positive note, strong Chinese bank lending and manufacturing data provided signs that the government’s attempts to spend its way out of the economic slowdown are starting to show results. China may also consider tapping into its $1.95 trillion foreign reserves to help boost demand. With domestic government debt only 16.2% of GDP, the country is in a better position to do so than most major economies, according to US Global Investors.
Source: Yahoo Finance, February 6, 2009.
In addition to Fed Chairman Bernanke’s testimony on the Central Bank’s lending programs in Washington (Tuesday, February 10), the US economic highlights for the week include the following: Wholesale Inventories on Tuesday, the Trade Balance and Treasury Budget on Wednesday, Initial Jobless Claims, Retail Sales and Business Inventories on Thursday, and Michigan Sentiment on Friday.
Click here for a summary of Wachovia’s weekly economic and financial commentary.
Source: Wall Street Journal Online, February 6, 2009.
In a world faced with untold uncertainty, my concluding thought today is borrowed from Briefing.com, saying that the situation reminds them of a scene in the Oscar-winning movie Terms of Endearment where Shirley MacLaine’s character is confronted with news from a doctor that her daughter has a malignant tumor. Upon hearing this, she asks what she should do. The doctor responds that she tells family members “to hope for the best, but prepare for the worst”. To this McClain’s character responds, “And they let you get away with that?” Don’t we all feel like the doctor these days?
My bags are packed and I am ready to make my way to the airport for a ten-day visit to Europe (Dublin, London, Geneva and Ljubljana). For those not familiar with Ljubljana, it is the charming capital of Slovenia – a country situated in the heart of Central Europe (see my post “Slovenia – the best-kept secret of Central Europe“). And this country will in future be playing a very special role in my life as I have just been appointed as its Honorary Consul for South Africa. And so begins my career as a part-time diplomat …
That’s the way it looks from Cape Town.
Richard Russell (Dow Theory Letters): Survival plan for unprecedented situation
“The best survival plan is to be diversified. Nobody knows who or what will be ‘the last investment standing’. Will it be Treasury paper, high-grade bonds, real estate, diamonds, T-bills, cash, top-grade corporate stocks or gold?
“T-bills are the choice of many sophisticated investors. But T-bills are denominated in dollars, and dollars are vulnerable as are bonds or any other items denominated in Federal Reserve notes (‘dollars’).
“Real estate and diamonds represent intrinsic wealth, although they are not instantly liquid, meaning that they cannot be instantly turned into cash.
“Gold has been accepted as wealth for thousands of years. When all other forms of supposed wealth crashes (deflates) or becomes suspect, the last wealth asset to stand will be gold. Gold has no counter-party nor has it any debt aligned against it. Gold needs no central bank to ensure its acceptance. Gold is accepted everywhere and in any quantity as a form of indestructible, eternal wealth.
“Today, investment money is so suspicious of the viability of any given asset that they are placing their money in an item that bears the full faith and credit of the US government – I’m referring to Treasury paper. Actually, one major worry with T-bills is a possible collapse of the dollar.
“The following are my suggestions as to where an investor might place his money.
“AIG bonds (the government has bought the preferred stock of AIG, and the bonds should rate higher). Invest with the government.
“PHK – the high-yield fund run by PIMCO – speculative, but an interesting fund that’s 60% in investment-grade bonds.
“CD’s that are backed by the FDIC up to $250,000.
“Gold (GLD or CEF) or actual gold coins if possible.”
Source: Richard Russell, Dow Theory Letters, February 3, 2009.
The New York Times: Senators reach accord on stimulus plan
“The deal, announced on the Senate floor, was a result of two days of tense negotiations and political theater. Mr. Obama dispatched his chief of staff to Capitol Hill to help conclude the talks and reassure senators in his own party, and he called three key Republicans to applaud them for their patriotism.
“The fine print was not immediately available, and the numbers were shifting. But in essence, the Democratic leadership and two centrist Republicans announced they had struck a deal on about $110 billion in cuts to the roughly $900 billion legislation – a deal expected to provide at least the 60 votes needed to send the bill out of the Senate and into negotiations with the House, which has passed its own version.
“The pact, which is expected to be approved in the next few days, was concluded just hours after the Labor Department announced that 598,000 jobs were lost in January.
“As the negotiations were under way, lawmakers said it was time to stop quibbling about the exact parameters of the legislation – which mixes safety-net spending, tax cuts and a huge infusion of dollars into federal programs – and to begin work toward a final agreement that could be sent to Mr. Obama next week.”
Source: Carl Hulse and David Herszenhorn, The New York Times, February 6, 2009.
CEP News: President Obama says US must avoid a “trade war”
“In an ABC news interview on Tuesday, Obama said that any clause in the stimulus bill being considered by US lawmakers that would violate World Trade Organization agreements and signal protectionism would be a ‘mistake right now’.
“‘That is a potential source of trade wars that we can’t afford at a time when trade is sinking all across the globe,’ he said. ‘We need to make sure that any provisions that are in there are not going to trigger a trade war.’
“Obama’s comments come following a chorus of criticism from leaders around the world who object to a proposed ‘Buy American’ clause in the stimulus bill that would require infrastructure projects to use only manufactured goods made in the United States.
“Canada’s Ambassador to the United States, Michael Wilson, warned earlier in the day that such a policy could spark a global trade retaliation.
“‘A rush of protectionist actions could create a downward spiral like the world experienced in the 1930s,’ Wilson wrote in a letter to Republican and Democratic Senate leaders.”
Source: CEP News, February 3, 2009.
Bloomberg: Faber – US stimulus may lead to “dire consequences”
Source: Bloomberg, February 6, 2009.
Yahoo Finance: Peter Schiff – stimulus bill will lead to “unmitigated disaster”
“Schiff scoffs at the notion the economic decline is starting to level off and concedes no government action means a ‘terrible’ recession. But the path of increased government intervention will lead to ‘unmitigated disaster’, says Schiff, who gained notoriety in 2007-08 for his prescient calls on the housing bubble and US stocks.
“The problem, he says, is the government is trying to perpetuate a ‘phony economy’ based on borrowing and spending. With the US consumer tapped out, the government is ‘now taking on the mantle’ of consumer of last resort, he continues, predicting the bond bubble will soon burst – if it hasn’t already – ultimately leading to a collapse of the dollar and an ‘inflationary depression worse than anything any of us have ever seen’.
“If nothing else, Schiff is a nonpartisan critic of American policymakers, comparing President Bush to Herbert Hoover and President Obama to FDR, and neither in a favorable way.”
Source: Aaron Task, Yahoo Finance, February 6, 2009.
Bloomberg: Gross says trillions needed to avoid “mini-depression”
Source: Bloomberg, February 5, 2009.
Bloomberg: Volcker urges more transparency in hedge funds
Source: Bloomberg (via YouTube), February 5, 2009.
The New York Times: New plan to help banks sell bad assets
“The new financial industry rescue plan, to be outlined in broad terms on Monday in a speech by the Treasury secretary, Timothy F. Geithner, will not require banks to increase their lending. That is despite criticism that institutions that already received money from the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, either hoarded it or used the funds to acquire other banks.
“The incentives to investors could be in the form of commitments to absorb some of the losses from any assets they purchase, should their values continue to decline. The goal is to relieve the banks of their worst assets so that private investors might then provide more capital.
“Officials hope that part of the plan is not labeled a ‘bad bank’ administered by the government, although they expect that some might call it that.
“No matter what it is called, the government would assume some of the risk of declining assets at the heart of the economic crisis. But by relying on a combination of private investors and government guarantees, the administration hopes to reduce its exposure to losses and avoid the problem of having to place a value on assets that the institutions have been unable to sell.
“A central element of the plan would be a major expansion of a lending facility begun in November by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York when it was headed by Mr. Geithner. The program, which was initially financed by $200 billion in Fed money and $20 billion in seed capital from the $700 billion bailout fund, lent money to investors to buy securities backed by student, auto and credit card loans, as well as loans guaranteed by the Small Business Administration.”
Source: Stephen Labaton, The New York Times, February 6, 2009.
Bill Gross: Stop the decline in asset prices
“A year ago, global equity prices were nearly twice today’s levels and recession was only a whisper on the lips of the gloomiest of economists. Today, descriptions drawing parallels to the Great Depression make it obvious that a major shift in economic growth and its historic financial model, as well as policy prescriptions for its revival, are underway. Most of the world’s connected economies and its citizens are in shock, conscious but not fully aware of the seismic shifts that will unfold in future years.
“PIMCO’s thesis for several years has held that the levered global economy long ago morphed from a banking-dominated regime to one that hid behind securitized lending and structures resembling a ‘shadow banking’ system. SIVs, hedge funds, CDOs and increasingly levered mortgage and investment banks fueled asset appreciation in all investment markets, which in turn propelled real economic growth and employment to unsustainable levels.
“But, with the US housing prices as its trigger, the deleveraging process did a Wile E. Coyote and headed over the cliff in mid-year 2007, dragging down almost all asset prices except government bonds. The real economy followed shortly thereafter, not just in the US, but globally, proving that linkages work on the ‘down’ as well as the upside.
“To PIMCO, the remedy for this deflationary deleveraging and mini-depression is simple and almost axiomatic: stop the decline in asset prices. If that can be done, the real economy will level out as well. When home prices stop going down, newly created households will be more willing to take a chance on ownership as opposed to renting. If stock prices consolidate, recently burned investors will be more willing to invest, as opposed to stuffing their 401(k) mattresses with Treasury bills. Business investment, jobs, and profits should follow quickly behind.”
Source: Bill Gross, Pimco – Investment Outlook, February 2009.
Edmund Conway (Telegraph): Recession – glimmers of hope?
“This is the time-honoured pattern you expect to see when the downward spiral burns itself out and the cycle slowly starts to turn, helped this time by an unprecedented global monetary and fiscal blitz. But it may equally be a false dawn.
“The Baltic Dry Index measuring freight rates for iron ore and other bulk goods has been creeping up for two months after crashing 94% in the worst fall in shipping history. Copper prices are also edging up after plunging by two-thirds from their June peak. So are lumber prices.
“The debt markets have opened like a flower in spring, at least in one sense. Companies issued $246 billion in bonds in January, the most since the credit crisis began. Blue-chip groups can borrow again.
“‘The mood is upbeat. There are swathes of cash pouring back into credit,’ said Suki Mann, a credit strategist at Société Générale. ‘The market closed down after the Lehmans collapse so there was a lot of pent-up demand, but they are having to pay materially higher spreads than pre-Lehmans.’
“So far this has not helped the rest of the corporate universe. Average yields on BBB-rated debt are a prohibitive 19.6%. ‘The market is absolutely closed. There is no trickle-down yet,’ he said.
“The interbank freeze has started to thaw, again in one sense. David Buik, from BGC Partners, said interest spreads on three-month dollar Libor have come down to 1% from the extremes above 2% at the height of the panic. ‘The cost of money is coming down, but the banks are still not lending to each other. It’s virtually moribund,’ he said.
“The US Federal Reserve’s loan survey this week showed that lending is again picking up, albeit tentatively. The number of banks expecting to tighten credit has fallen from 80% in the autumn to nearer 60%, the lowest in a year.”
Click here for the full article.
Source: Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, Telegraph, February 5, 2009.
Bloomberg: Roubini says ECB “wrong”, rate cuts too little, too late
Source: Bloomberg, February 4, 2009.
European Commission: Escalating public debt
Hap tip: Phil’s Stock World.
Financial Times: IMF cuts forecast for Asian growth
“The IMF slashed its forecast to 2.7% from an estimate of 4.9% made only two months ago. The move came as both Australia and Japan announced new measures to sustain their flagging economies.
“In Australia, the government unveiled a A$42 billion ($26.5 billion) fiscal stimulus and the central bank cut interest rates to 3.25%, the lowest level since the 1960s. In Tokyo, the Bank of Japan unveiled a plan to spend up to Y1,000bn ($11.2 billion) to buy shares owned by banks amid growing concerns over the impact of falling stock prices on the financial system.
“‘Clearly the hopes that Asia would experience a mild downturn while the global economy retrenched have now been firmly dismissed,’ said Glenn Maguire, Asia chief economist at Société Générale.
“‘There is a clear realisation that this is going to be a major economic readjustment and economies that are most leveraged to the global trade cycle will be most affected.'”
Source: Raphael Minder and Christian Oliver, Financial Times, February 3, 2009.
CEP News: Obama unveils economic recovery advisory board
“The Economic Recovery Advisory Board will be led by former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker, Obama announced.
“The members will include: former Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman William Donaldson, former Fed Vice-Chairman Roger Ferguson, UBS Americas CEO Robert Wolf, GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt, Yale University’s CIO David Swensen, Caterpillar CEO Jim Owens, and Service Employees International Union Secretary-Treasurer Anna Burger.
Source: CEP News, February 6, 2009.
CEP News: Citigroup unveils plans to lend $36.5 billion
“The aims of the initiatives are, ‘to help expand available credit for consumers and businesses; restore liquidity and stability to the capital markets; and support the recovery of the US economy’, according to a new quarterly publication from Citigroup detailing how it plans to spend part of the $45 billion it borrowed from the US Treasury’s Troubled Asset Relief Program.
“The firm plans to make $25.7 billion in direct loans available to homebuyers and support the mortgage-backed securities market, spend $2.5 billion in consumer and business loans, $1.0 billion for student loans, $5.9 billion in credit card lending and $1.5 billion in corporate lending activity.
“Citigroup also said it made $75 billion in loans in the fourth quarter and plans to continue its partnership with the government, ‘to increase available lending and liquidity in the US financial markets and to help put the US economy back on track,’ Citi Chief Executive Officer Vikram Pandit said.”
Source: Financial Times, February 3, 2009.
Bespoke: Cumulative job losses – getting worse with time
“In the chart below, we show the cumulative decline in monthly jobs using the reported figures on the day of the initial release as well as the most recently revised numbers. As shown, based on reported numbers, the US economy would have lost 2.48 million jobs since the start of 2008. However, once we take into account the negative revisions, the US economy has lost another 1.1 million jobs, representing a 44% increase in jobs lost.”
Source: Bespoke, February 6, 2009.
CNBC: El-Erian on the employment picture
Source: CNBC, February 6, 2009.
Asha Bangalore (Northern Trust): Significant reduction in consumer spending
“The significance of an appropriately targeted fiscal stimulus package is evident … In other words, external stimulation is necessary to offset the weakness in consumer spending because an endogenous increase is unlikely in the months ahead. A decline in consumer spending in the first quarter is nearly certain. Also, the decline will be hefty because the level of consumer spending in December was considerably large such that there is an arithmetical disadvantage also.”
Source: Asha Bangalore, Northern Trust – Daily Global Commentary, February 2, 2009.
Asha Bangalore (Northern Trust): Factory sector – inventories/shipments ratio keeps advancing
“The most important aspect of the report is the inventories-shipments ratio which rose to 1.44 in December, up from 1.29 in September and 1.23 in December 2008. The upward trend of this ratio is consistent with the underlying weakness of the economy. The December reading is the highest since April 1996.”
Source: Asha Bangalore, Northern Trust – Daily Global Commentary, February 5, 2009.
Asha Bangalore (Northern Trust): ISM Survey – positive news, but more is necessary
“Indexes tracking production, new orders, and new export orders moved up in January, the employment index held steady, inventories and supplier delivers moved down. The 10.1 point increase in the new orders index warrants watching because these large jumps are associated with the end of recessions. Additional improvement in the subsequent months will be necessary to confirm that a recovery is underway given that the composite index and sub-components are far below 50.0 still.”
Source: Asha Bangalore, Northern Trust – Daily Global Commentary, February 2, 2009.
Asha Bangalore (Northern Trust): Second tier reports – ISM non-manufacturing survey, mortgage applications
“The ISM composite index of the non-manufacturing rose to 42.9 in January from 40.1 in the prior month. Although the level of the index continues to signal a contracting non-manufacturing sector, it is noteworthy because the increase suggests the pace of deceleration has slowed.
“Mortgage applications index for the purchase of homes dropped to 261.4 during the week ended January 30, the third weekly decline. The level of the index now matches the reading seen in the 2001 recession, excluding the November 2008 low.
“Although the Housing Affordability Index is at a record high, severely weak labor market conditions are holding back sales of homes.”
Source: Asha Bangalore, Northern Trust – Daily Global Commentary, February 4, 2009.
Forbes: Roubini – is America going the way of Japan?
“The sad case of Japan’s free fall is a cautionary tale of what happens when a high-flying economy has a real estate and equity bubble that goes bust, avoiding (for too long) doing the painful structural reforms and clean-up of the financial system that is necessary to avoid a lengthy, L-shaped near-depression. Japan had over a decade of stagnation and deflation, then a mild, sub-par growth recovery that lasted only three years, and is now spinning into another severe stag-deflation.
“Keep alive zombie banks and zombie corporations with balance sheets and debts that haven’t been restructured, as in Japan, and you end up in an L-shaped near-depression.
“Let me explain why the US and the global economy face the risk of an L-shaped near-depression if appropriate policy actions are not undertaken.”
Click here for the full article.
Source: Nouriel Roubini, Forbes, February 5, 2009.
BCA Research: The US economy is already in deflation
“In real terms, the US economy contracted at a 3.8% annualized pace in 2008 Q4, the worst decline since 1982, but slightly better than many had expected. But the underlying picture provided no grounds for optimism. For most consumers and companies, it is the trend in nominal dollars that matters, not the statistical artifact of ‘real’ dollars, measured in the national accounts. In nominal terms, consumer spending declined at an annualized pace of 11% in the three months to December – the largest contraction since the 1930s.
“Meanwhile, total final sales to domestic purchasers also fell sharply in nominal terms in the fourth quarter. Deflation is not a risk, it is a reality. Demand, profits and asset prices are all contracting in nominal terms – which is more important than what the consumer price index is doing.
“In any case, the CPI is also in deflationary territory, down at a 13% annualized pace in the final three months of 2008. The need for dramatic stimulus is obvious: declining nominal activity points to a deepening financial crisis.”
Source: BCA Research, February 4, 2009.
CEP News: US home ownership rate falls to 7-year low
“The rate of home ownership fell to 67.5% in the fourth quarter, down from 67.8% during the same quarter a year ago. The report also said 2.9% of homes, excluding rental properties, were vacant and on the market, up slightly from 2.8% a year ago.
“Home ownership in the US peaked at a rate of 69.2% in 2004, at the height of the real estate boom.”
Source: CEP News, February 3, 2009.
Zillow: Americans lose $1.4 trillion in home values in Q4
“The declines mean that US homeowners lost a cumulative $3.3 trillion in home values during 2008, with much of that loss coming in the fourth quarter.
“Homeowners lost $1.4 trillion during the fourth quarter alone; more than the $1.3 trillion lost during all of 2007. Since the housing market’s peak in 2006, $6.1 trillion in home values have been lost.
“Foreclosures made up nearly one in five (19.9%) of all transactions in 2008.”
Source: Zillow, February 3, 2009.
The New York Times: Rents are falling fast
“Although it is notoriously difficult to quantify the state of the rental market, rents fell in almost every sector of the Manhattan market last year, according to the Real Estate Group, a New York brokerage. The steepest drop was in one-bedrooms, down 5.7% in buildings with doormen and 6.53% in buildings without. The only category that rose: rents for two-bedroom apartments in doorman buildings, up just a bit, by 0.61%.
“But these numbers, like most available data, represent asking rents rather than the final price. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some people are negotiating rents as much as 20% lower than the original prices asked by landlords. These figures also leave out incentives, like a month of free rent or a landlord’s paying the broker fee, which can add up to real savings.
“Fritz Frigan, executive director of sales and leasing at Halstead Property estimates that when these incentives are considered, rents are actually down some 10% to 15% since the market peak in mid-2007.”
Source: Elizabeth Harris, The New York Times, January 30, 2009.
Financial Times: S&P forecasts 200 defaults
“About half of the 17 US defaults seen in December were a result of distressed exchanges, where a company offers lenders new securities of a lesser value than the debt they are owed, usually to cut interest costs or delay principal repayment.
“Debt exchanges are becoming an increasingly common way to restructure debt outside of bankruptcy in the US – they remain rare in Europe – as US companies struggle to refinance $500 billion worth of bonds and more than $1,000 billion worth of bank loans amid the credit crunch.
“S&P said that there was a higher proportion of rated companies in the single-B category than ever before, with 800 business that make up one-third of all corporate ratings. ‘We expect nearly 200 speculative-grade companies to encounter some form of financial distress, leading to default in 2009,’ S&P said. ‘Currently, we have more than 180 companies rated B-minus or below with negative outlooks. That is where we expect many of the defaults will occur.’
“The agency added that the 185 companies most at risk had about $341 billion of debt outstanding. Outside the US, 61 junk-rated companies with another $56 billion worth of debt are also seen as highly likely to default.”
Source: Anousha Sakoui, Financial Times, February 2, 2009.
CEP News: US bankruptcies soar 33% in 2008
“Filings for companies were up 50% to 64,318, while individual filings were up 1.03 million.
“On September 15, 2008, the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy was the largest Chapter 11 filing of all-time. That was followed several days later by Washington Mutual, which became the biggest bank failure in US history.
“The largest increases in bankruptcy filings were in California (85%) and Arizona (81%), as those states also had the highest foreclosure rates.”
Source: CEP News, February 2, 2009.
CEP News: US credit card delinquencies at record high, says Fitch
“The rate of payments missed by more than 60 days advanced 0.47 percentage points to an all-time high of 3.75% in January, according to the report.
“‘US consumers continue to struggle in the face of mounting pressures on multiple fronts, from employment to housing to net worth,’ according to Michael Dean, a managing director at Fitch.
“The news comes at a difficult time for the United States with the economy shedding more than half a million jobs per month, and no signs of a turnaround in the near term.
“In addition, the Fed has pledged $200 billion in an initiative geared at backing holders of asset-backed securities including credit card debt, education and auto loans.”
Source: CEP News, February 5, 2009.
Financial Times: CDS regulation in Europe moves closer
“Charlie McCreevy, EU internal market commissioner, told a parliamentary committee in Strasbourg that both the European Central Bank and European regulators considered that ‘clearing of credit default swaps on a central counterparty in the EU is essential for financial stability and oversight’.
“Talking in the context of the capital requirements directive, which is currently passing through the parliament, Mr McCreevy said: ‘I would urge the parliament to support an amendment to give effect to this’.
“The commissioner’s move comes a few weeks after talks between Brussels and the industry to devise a central clearing system for the CDS market, which generally trades on a one-to-one basis between banks and dealers, broke down.”
Source: Nikki Tait, Financial Times, February 3, 2009.
Bespoke: Worst post-election day returns since 1900
Source: Bespoke, February 5, 2009.
CNN Money: Buffett’s metric says it’s time to buy
“Is it time to buy US stocks?
“According to both this 85-year chart and famed investor Warren Buffett, it just might be. The point of the chart is that there should be a rational relationship between the total market value of US stocks and the output of the US economy – its GNP.
“Fortune first ran a version of this chart in late 2001. Stocks had by that time retreated sharply from the manic levels of the Internet bubble. But they were still very high, with stock values at 133% of GNP. That level certainly did not suggest to Buffett that it was time to buy stocks.
“But he visualized a moment when purchases might make sense, saying, ‘If the percentage relationship falls to the 70% to 80% area, buying stocks is likely to work very well for you.’
“Well, that’s where stocks were in late January, when the ratio was 75%. Nothing about that reversion to sanity surprises Buffett, who told Fortune that the shift in the ratio reminds him of investor Ben Graham’s statement about the stock market: ‘In the short run it’s a voting machine, but in the long run it’s a weighing machine.'”
Source: Carol Loomis and Doris Burke, CNN Money, February 4, 2009.
Bespoke: Positive guidance at decade lows
Source: Bespoke, February 6, 2009.
Barry Ritholtz (The Big Picture): Bad Januarys equal bad Februarys?
“Since 1928, the market has declined in the first month of the year on 29 out of 81 occasions, or 35.8% of the time. The median loss during those losing Januarys has been 3.8% versus an overall average gain of 1.6%.
“On balance, performance in the month after a weak January has also been a downer. Over the past eight decades, the follow-on February has seen the S&P 500 decline on 18 separate occasions, or 62.1% of the time, with a median loss of 1.8%. That compares to an average rise of 0.1% for all Februarys from 1928 – 2008.
“So, while I have been among those who have been anticipating a first-half recovery (before a resumption of the bear market later in the year), the historical record suggests I just might have to wait until this month blows over first.”
Source: Barry Ritholtz, The Big Picture, February 4, 2009.
Bespoke: Nasdaq outperforms
“So how does this recent Nasdaq performance affect the index’s ratio with the Dow? Below is a chart of the DJIA/Nasdaq ratio since the start of 2002. When the line is rising, the Dow is outperforming the Nasdaq, and vice versa for a falling line. After getting slaughtered versus the Dow from August 2008 to November 2008, the Nasdaq has been outperforming. And judging by the range of the ratio over the past few years, this trend could continue for some time.”
Source: Bespoke, February 6, 2009.
Bespoke: US and BRIC world market share
“This couldn’t be highlighted better than in the chart below that shows both the US and the BRIC countries as a percentage of world market cap since mid 2003. As global equity markets rallied across the board from ’03 to ’07, the US lost a huge amount of world market share, falling from about 45% to a low of 24%. At the same time, BRIC countries went from about 4% of world market cap to nearly 16%.
“Once the credit crisis hit, however, US markets fell, but the rest of the world fell even harder. And as the chart shows, the US has been steadily gaining back market share over the last year or so, while the BRIC countries have fallen. Bear market: 1, Decoupling: 0.”
Source: Bespoke, February 2, 2009.
Bespoke: Performance of country ETFs
“As shown, four countries (Brazil, South Korea, Belgium, Canada) are trading above their 50-day moving averages, and just one (Brazil) is trading in overbought territory. The Russia ETF (RSX) is trading the furthest below its 50-day moving average, followed by Italy (EWI), Spain (EWP), Mexico (EWW), and Australia (EWA). Switzerland, Australia, Mexico, Spain, Italy, and Russia are all trading in oversold territory.”
Source: Bespoke, February 4, 2009.
CNBC: Dr. Doom – Asian markets pay you to wait
Source: CNBC, February 6, 2009.
Eoin Treacy (Fullermoney): Chinese stock market looks promising
“Major job losses in Guangdong, slowing economic output, massive declines in the stock market and a peak in the housing market are seen as justifications to support this view. In addition, a communist system is by definition corrupt because it is unaccountable and concentrates power in the hands of too few people, media is heavily censored and citizens are indoctrinated to accept the status quo from an early age. However, with China, everything is seldom as it seems.
“The decline in the wealth effect in the West has been led by the fall in house prices. It is exaggerated by the home equity withdrawals which allowed home owners to leverage up their debt on the back of house price appreciation. To the best of my knowledge this option is simply not available to Chinese residents. 100% mortgages do not exist and the norm is for large down payments. The automotive loan industry is still in its infancy and credit / debit cards are used to far less an extent than in the West. It is still not surprising for large transactions to take place in cash rather than any other means. China does not have a futures market, although one is promised, and financial leverage available to retail investors is limited.
“Following a massive decline and 4-months of ranging, there has been little to encourage new money into the market. Ranging suggests supply and demand have come back into balance, but the Shanghai A-Share market needs to sustain a move above 2200 and ideally 2500 to indicate the bulls are back in control. In the short-term, the progression of higher or equal lows from the October nadir indicates that demand is returning at incrementally higher levels.
“The argument about the pace, course and impact of China’s re-emergence has being going on for a number of years and will continue to spark powerful emotions on both sides. At Fullermoney, we will continue to give the greatest weight to the charts, and right now, China shows the best base formation development characteristics of any globally significant market.”
Source: Eoin Treacy, Fullermoney, February 3, 2009.
Bloomberg: Roubini – Russia, east Europe stocks face “massive” drop
“‘In market dynamics, prices can move far below what fundamentals justify,’ Roubini said in an interview in Moscow. ‘There is still a massive downside for equities in the region.’
“‘They may stagnate there for a while, and there’s not going to be any recovery,’ Roubini said. ‘For the time being, it’s going to get ugly.’
“The Russian Trading System Index is trading at 0.5 times book value, or the net asset value of its 50 companies, lower than the 1.4 times book value for the MSCI Emerging Markets Index according to weekly data compiled by Bloomberg.”
Source: William Mauldin, Bloomberg, February 4, 2009.
John Authers (Financial Times): Are Tips pointing to a return of inflation?
“Last year, the ‘breakeven’ rate at which US 10-year inflation-linked bonds (or Tips) would offer the same return as fixed-income Treasuries dipped below 0.1%. This implied there would be virtually no inflation at all, on average, over the next decade. Breakeven rates also implied there would be outright deflation over the next five years. Nothing like this had happened since the Depression of the early 1930s.
“If there was any inflation at all, this meant that Tips would outperform. Many seem to have bought them on this basis, as Tips now imply an inflation rate of 1.1% for the next 10 years. This is very low, but is its highest in four months.
“Meanwhile the real yield on conventional US Treasury bonds (obtained by subtracting current inflation from the nominal yield) is 2.8%, the highest in two years. That is in part due to low headline inflation. However, this figure makes it harder to believe US bonds are in a bubble.
“The inflation rate is fundamental to the valuation of many asset classes. Higher inflation expectations should hurt bonds and boost commodities and stocks. As it implies returning consumer activity, it should help consumer discretionary stocks most.
“Looking around the markets, there are many contradictions. Gold is gaining, but other commodities are not significantly above their lows. Stocks are not doing so well.
“An explanation might be as follows. Markets recognise that last year’s deflation panic was extreme, but are still not certain that the money-printing measures will push up inflation. The Tips market is relatively inefficient, and investors took the opportunity to make money out of it – but markets could move much further if inflation returns as governments hope.”
Source: John Authers, Financial Times, February 3, 2009.
Guardian: Soros – euro may not last without global plan
“‘One would need a type of agreement on lost capital, so that the burden is shared, and in which every country is part of, otherwise more countries will suffer,’ said Soros in an interview with the paper, which was published on its Website.
“‘The EU should do this. If they don’t do this then the euro may not survive the crisis.’
“A warning from European Central Bank President Jean-Claude Trichet that the ECB could push interest rates below 2% and use other measures to boost growth also hit the euro, as did data showing the biggest monthly jump in German unemployment in four years.”
Source: Guardian, January 29, 2009.
Bloomberg: Ruble falls to 11-year low
“‘The pace of the move to the target is definitely going to be a source of concern to the central bank,’ said Martin Blum, head of emerging-market economics and currency strategy at UniCredit SpA in Vienna. ‘Global risk appetite is continuing to deteriorate so the pressures on the ruble will continue.’
“The ruble slumped 35% against the dollar since August as a 63% drop in Urals crude oil prices and the worst global economic crisis since the Great Depression spurred investors and Russian citizens to withdraw about $290 billion from the country, according to BNP Paribas SA.
“Bank Rossii expanded its trading range for the ruble 20 times since mid-November before switching policy to let ‘market’ forces help determine the exchange rate within a widened limit.”
Source: Emma O’Brien, Bloomberg, February 2, 2009.
Ambrose Evans-Pritchard (Telegraph): Putin calls for end of dollar stranglehold
“‘The one reserve currency has become a danger to the world economy: that is now obvious to everybody,’ he said in a speech at the World Economic Forum.
“It is the first time that a Russian leader has set foot in the sanctum sanctorum of global capitalism at Davos.
“Mr Putin said the leading powers should ensure an ‘irreversible’ move towards a system of multiple reserve currencies, questioning the ‘reliability’ of the US dollar as a safe store of value. ‘The pride of Wall Street investment banks don’t exist any more,’ he said.
“Mr Putin said: ‘We are witnessing a truly global crisis. The speed of developments beats every record, and the strategic difference from the Great Depression is that under globalisation this touches everyone. This has multiplied the destructive force. It looks exactly like the perfect storm.’
“However, Mr Putin’s own government in Russia is facing mass protest as unemployment surges and austerity measures start to bite.”
Source: Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, Telegraph, January 29, 2009.
Bloomberg: Rogers says Russia may break up
Source: Bloomberg, February 5, 2009.
Richard Russell (Dow Theory Letters): Gold trade getting crowded
“Russell comment: This sudden wide spread interest in gold has bothered me too. Ads for gold are appearing in the newspapers, articles about gold are now commonplace. Writes Dizard, ‘I don’t like crowds, and the one around gold is just too big at the present. Let’s say that Western civilization is coming to a bloody end. That won’t happen for a few months at least. So why not wait until you don’t have to pay an unjustifiable premium for something as common as a Krugerrand.’
“‘Having said all this, I agree with the gold buyers that we are in a multi-year gold bull market that will eventually take the price to an integer multiple of where it is now, not a big integer multiple. But enough to approximate now much inflation must shrink the real burdens of debt to what the developed country taxpayer and consumer can afford.’
“‘Gold is one of, if not the most, treacherous trading markets there is. Ian Shapolsky, a New York investor, who trades for his own account, and whose tactical gold trading strategy I described in his space a couple of years ago, has abandoned the metal after a reasonably successful run.’
“As he says, ‘The gold market is thinner than it was, and it seems that the larger players can push it around more than they could in the past. The larger traders are aware of the chart points (price targets) followed by the investing public; and there seems to be a lot of effort to push prices above breakout points or moving averages.’
“So stay out of the deep end, average in. Don’t buy in a panic.”
Source: Richard Russell, Dow Theory Letters, February 4, 2009.
Commodity Online: Gold accumulation plan from India Post
“India Post, in association with the World Gold Council and Reliance Money, a financial services company of the Reliance Group, on Wednesday said that the Gold Accumulation Plan (GAP) will be carried out through its wide postal networks across the country.
“As per GAP, customers can purchase gold coins from any India Post offices across nine states in the country. ‘The GAP project ensures that people have the options like the Systematic Investment Plans of investing in gold by accumulating small quantities of the yellow metal,’ Sunita Trivedi, Chief General Manager, India Post told Commodity Online.
“‘This is to promote gold investment in India. Going forward, we not only plan to further expand this service to another 100 India Post outlets but also launch our Gold Accumulation Plan to help customers make systematic investments in gold,’ she said.”
Source: Commodity Online, February 5, 2009.
Telegraph: China falls into budget deficit as spending balloons
“Despite a near 20% rise in tax revenues and a record surplus of 1.19 trillion yuan (£128 billion) in the first six months of the year, the dramatic scale of government spending in November and December was enough to plunge the entire year into deficit.
“The figures are the first indication of how quickly and forcefully China reacted to the economic crisis after it announced a fiscal stimulus package of 4 trillion yuan in November to build new roads, railways, schools and hospitals.
“Government spending in December surged to 1.66 trillion yuan, more than triple the previous month’s total and 31% higher compared to the same month last year.
“The news came as Wen Jiabao, the Chinese prime minister, said that he was mulling over another fiscal stimulus package. ‘We may take further new, timely and decisive measures. All these measures have to be taken pre-emptively, before an economic retreat,’ he told the Financial Times.
“Although Mr Wen did not mention any concrete details, it is widely believed that the Chinese government wants to put together a social benefits package, in order to encourage people to up their spending and reduce their saving.”
Source: Malcolm Moore, Telegraph, February 2, 2009.
Financial Times: MDC agrees to join Mugabe government
“In spite of deep misgivings on the part of some party leaders and trade unionists, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) decided that it had no choice but to accept the terms of a deal negotiated by southern African leaders this week, even though its key demand – control of policing through the home affairs ministry – was not met.
“Morgan Tsvangirai, the MDC leader and winner of a first round of presidential elections last year, emerged from a party vote on the issue on Friday sounding sanguine. He will be sworn in as prime minister on February 11. MDC politicians will occupy 11 of the 31 cabinet posts, including finance, education and health.
“The scale of the humanitarian crisis that the new administration will face was underlined when the World Health Organisation warned that ‘the deadliest cholera outbreak in Africa for 15 years is gaining momentum, with 1,493 new cases including 69 deaths reported in the last 24 hours alone’. About 60,000 Zimbabweans have caught the illness and more than 3,000 have died.”
“‘We are not saying that this is a solution to the Zimbabwe crisis,’ said Mr Tsvangirai. ‘Instead our participation signifies that we have chosen to continue the struggle for a democratic Zimbabwe in a new arena.'”
Source: Tony Hawkins and Richard Lapper, Financial Times, January 30, 2009.
3 comments to Words from the (investment) wise for the week that was (February 2 – 8, 2009)
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