Posts Tagged 'economy'

I’m back … and the Bear will be joining me shortly

OK, I know I’ve been a bad, bad, bad dagblogger for quite some time, but seeing as I’m getting married in less than four weeks, I’m giving myself a pass. (Today’s key word: ELOPE!!!)

I’ll be back more regularly by the end of the year, but for now, I just wanted to give you a ballsy prediction:

The market is nearing a significant short-term top. Nailing the exact timing is always difficult, but I expect we’ll be significantly lower by the end of the year, and certainly by the end of the first quarter of next year, I expect we will see market averages at least 15-20% lower than we have now.

Way back in March, on the day after the stock market bottomed, I wrote a piece predicting the rally could have legs. Now before I go patting myself on the back too hard, I must admit I’ve been surprised by how long the rally has lasted and how ferocious it’s been. But I suppose that’s the kind of combustible response you get when you combine a recovery from a near-death economic experience with trillions of dollars in government stimulus and bailouts and near-zero interest rates.

So why do I now believe the party is about to end? Well, for several reasons. First, my prediction is obviously influenced by my overall negative view of our economy. Employment is still ugly, consumer debt levels are still too high, the dollar is getting perilously weak while commodities like oil and gold are rising on an almost-daily basis. To stimulate the economy, we’ve pursued short-term measures like foreclosure relief, tax credits, and Cash for Clunkers, which have done little to resolve the structural imbalances in this country. The only thing we’ve really accomplished is burdening future generations of Americans with crushing levels of national debt. We may in fact see decent GDP growth for the next few quarters but that’s only because the comparisons will be so weak.

The overall bullish reaction to this better-than-expected – but still rather grim – drumbeat of news we’re getting is another reason I’m worried the good times are about to end. Take today’s action, for instance, with the market moving higher because of some new economic data. What are these promising green shoots of which I write??

Well, for one, tetail sales rose 0.1 percent for the month of September, according to a survey. This is the first sequential rise in sales in over a year, and apparently a cause for massive celebration according to the chief economist of the group that led the survey. “Let the retail recovery begin,” said Michael P. Niemira of the clearly unbiased International Council of Shopping Centers. “This is the start of a better performance and better fundamentals.”

Hogwash. With unofficial unemployment rates still in the teens and rising, I guarantee you this holiday season – and many holiday seasons to come – will be a big disappointment.

Speaking of unemployment, by the way, the market is also cheering the fact that the Labor Department reported that new claims for jobless benefits fell to 521,000 last week, the lowest level since January and, yes, ‘better-than-expected.’ Meanwhile, this still means that more than a half-million Americans lost their jobs, above the rate where overall unemployment would start falling.

i wouldn’t say the pundits and experts are universally bullish – which would be the ultimate contrarian indicator – as I do still see some skepticism out there, but I believe investor complacency is rising to dangerous levels while most of them try desperately to chase the market.

The final reason for my growing bearishness is more technical, but basically comes down to the fact that many of the stocks I look at are now approaching their 2008 highs. This is a little inside baseball, but basically it’s often the case that old highs for a stock end up being significant resistance points as investors who bought at those levels look to get out close to even. You see these ‘double tops’ often when looking at stock charts.

Since I believe that very little has been done to fix the economy structurally, I feel that 2008 levels will serve as a high watermark for the market for years to come.

Now don’t get me wrong. We’ve done a few good things to justify these higher prices. Inventories have been drastically reduced. Many companies have cut costs and yet kept efficiency and productivity levels high. The emerging markets like China and Brazil have shown a great deal of resiliency. And certainly the prospect for a total economic collapse – which seemed almost inevitable at the height of the panic – now appears very remote, at least for the foreseeable future.

But mostly what we’ve done is comparable to giving a sick, lethargic, malnourished patient a shitload of sugar and then celebrating the fact he seems more energetic. The sugar high crash is coming and it won’t be pretty.

Obama’s Too Big to Fail Rules Too Late to Matter

The AP has posted an article detailing Obama’s new regulatory plan that would if enacted impose serious penalties on financial institutions when they get too large.

Although there aren’t many specifics in the article about what those disincentives would be or exactly how the government would define ‘too big’, this is a much-needed step back on the road to financial sobriety. We should never as an economy or a country be held hostage to the failings of one single entity.

As deeply as I hated all of the bailouts we’ve been throwing around to woefully (borderline criminally, in my opinion) mismanaged institutions like Citigroup and AIG, I do believe their balance sheets may have been so enormous, their footprints and obligations so intertwined in the world economy, that their failure could have crippled the entire foundation of our credit-based system and brought it to its knees.

Yet don’t be fooled – our problems didn’t lie with any one or two entities, but with the entire system. What we had instead was a complete failure by the market as a whole – and even more damning, by the regulators in charge of watching those markets – to recognize the emerging credit/debt/mortgage bubbles whose eventual bursting forced this country to its day of reckoning.

A law breaking up large financial institutions or disincentivizing them from forming in the first place will help make future problems easier to spot and solve, perhaps, but it won’t by itself save us from our own worst behavior.

And it will do very little if anything to impact our current situation and economic crisis.

In fact, the most ironic thing about the Obama plan is that the entity which may now be most accurately considered ‘too big to fail’ is our own U.S. government, which through actions taken by the Fed and the Treasury has taken on much of the bad debt and obligations (and added a bunch of new ones) that will be stifling our economy for years to come.

We can only hope that the Chinese and other foreign governments continue to agree that the U.S. government is indeed too big to fail and allow us the time to work through our issues and restore some amount of fiscal and monetary discipline without cutting off their support in one fell swoop.

The Audacity – and Righteousness – of Citigroup

Citigroup executives have decided in their infinite wisdom to increase base salaries for many of their employees by as much as 50 percent.

The bank says the raises – which will be partially offset by a reduction in bonuses, though overall compensation packages could be higher or lower – are necessary to remain competitive … in an environment where the official unemployment rate will soon be in the double digits no less.

It’s easy and probably fair to accuse Citigroup management of being at a minimum extremely audacious and tone-deaf to the current environment. This is, after all, a financial institution that did everything in its power to run itself into the ground – egregious compensation, dubious loan-making, wanting risk management, overambitious acquisitions, questionable business line expansion.

As a result of its shoddy strategy and the crumbling economy, the company lost a whopping $27 billion in 2008.

The only reason Citigroup even exists today is because the government decided in its infinite wisdom that the company was ‘too big to fail’ and stepped in with capital several times – $40 billion in direct investment and another $300 billion in loan guarantees – to save it from bankruptcy.

Now the government owns a huge chunk of the company, which still apparently doesn’t give it the right to have a say in determining compensation for the rank and file.

The funny thing is, Citigroup executives may be doing the right thing, although they certainly could have done a better job explaining/defending their action.

One of the reasons – though certainly not the primary one – this country and its financial institutions got into the mess it did was because compensation policies were so heavily tilted to short-term performance, encouraging all employees, even those in areas like compliance, to woefully undervalue risk.

The decreased reliance on bonuses as an assumed form of regular compensation should help mitigate that carefree behavior in the future (though it will also likely stifle innovation as employees focus more on keeping their jobs as opposed to generating outsized profits – well, you can’t have everything and if i had my druthers, I’d rather our banking system be more preoccupied with stability than unnatural growth).

And while I want to scoff at Citigroup’s explanation that the salary increases are necessary to “ensure its employee compensation practices are competitive,” as a company spokesman put it in a Bloomberg article, it’s not entirely untrue. The irony is that because the government stepped in to save Citigroup as well as dozens of other troubled banks, the market for financial services employees is not nearly as bad as it would have been. Many of Citi’s competitors have already paid back the TARP money or plan to do so soon and will likely be offering better compensation packages to top employees.

You may think this is all a good thing, because the economic fallout of a collapse in our banking institutions could have been disastrous, certainly much more damaging than the destruction caused by the dislocations in the automotive industry.

I unfortunately believe for all the hundreds of billions of dollars we’ve spent, we’ve changed very little structurally, and only put off our economic day of reckoning a little while longer.

I also think this focus on compensation is mostly noise and beside the point. What the government really needs to do is start breaking up some of these institutions which we deemed necessary to save because they were ‘too big to fail’ and crafting regulation to limit this kind of concentration of power within the financial services industry.

Alas, if anything, mostly I’ve been seeing it go the other way, as stronger players in the industry snap up the weaker ones and get even bigger. Combined with the moral hazard we’ve perpetuated with our reliance on bailouts, that consolidation is likely a recipe for disaster.

But Kate Edmonds Donner, an event planner in New York, said the best plan is to leave children at home or send them home after the ceremony.

“If it’s a formal wedding, children should go home after the cocktail hour,” she said. Practicing what she preaches, Ms. Edmonds Donner and her husband, Alex Donner, the society band leader, did not invite children to their wedding last year in Garrison, N.Y.

Baby Boom Goes the Dynamite: The Lasting Legacy

The Baby Boomers have blown it in spectacular fashion.

For much of the past 20 years, they have been the ones in charge of this country. During that time, they have…

… ignored the looming Social Security crisis, which has been simmering for decades and is now apparently coming to a boiling point much quicker than originally estimated.

… ignored the looming health care crisis, fighting alongside the dangerously powerful AARP lobby for small benefits like cheaper drugs while letting the larger issues of increasing system-wide costs and underfunded Medicare obligations spiral out of control.

… ignored the looming global warming crisis, choosing to go to war to maintain their reliance on cheap foreign oil rather than seriously pursue alternative energy sources.

… ignored the looming credit crisis, living further and further beyond their means, indulging in unbridled consumerism and rampant asset speculation.

So is it any surprise, really, that their solution to our country’s current economic crisis has been to saddle future generations of Americans with even more crippling debt, making it even harder for us to solve the numerous other looming disasters we face because of their neglect??

I had strong hopes that the election of Barack Obama – one of the last of the Baby Boomers – would lead to a change in Washington, to a recognition that there was too much at stake to play the same silly political games and to keep ignoring the spreading cracks in the foundation of the American empire. But mostly, it’s been more of the same.

Instead of trying to repent for their profligate and selfish ways, the Baby Boomers have decided to cement their legacy by throwing one last Hail Mary of Irresponsibility, in the form of trillions of dollars of tax cuts and stimulus plans and bailout packages, in hopes of putting off the ultimate day of reckoning a little bit longer.

Harry Truman had a sign on his desk that said ‘The Buck Stops Here.’ Unfortunately, I think the Baby Boom generation took that to mean it should then pocket the buck.

It wasn’t always that way. For a while, the Baby Boomers bettered our world. They fought for progress, for peace, for women’s rights, for civil rights. In business and in culture, they created and innovated, producing a tremendous amount of national wealth and prosperity. To be honest, the past 40 years have in many ways been an exciting and fruitful period for America. But somewhere along the way, the Baby Boom generation stopped thinking about the future of the country and started looking out only for its own best interests (Was it a cynicism and selfishness borne out of Watergate and other historical events or just out of normal human nature?)

It’s easy to overgeneralize about a generation, of course, and probably somewhat unfair. These are our moms and dads, after all, and individually it’s tough to fault them for the damage they’ve wrought.

It is in fact quite painful to watch as our parents finally reach the tantalizing edge of retirement only to find that their IRAs and 401Ks have been decimated and that idyllic, restful ride off into the sunset postponed, perhaps indefinitely.

Painful and tragic, perhaps, but also in some ways justified. Collectively, the Baby Boom generation is merely reaping what it has sown.

Unfortunately, for the rest of us, the prospects are even dimmer. The field now lies fallow.

Playing God and Taking Shortcuts…

This financial crisis is more than what it appears.

It is symptomatic of a society that sometime over the last 30 years lost its way by seeking not the road less traveled, but instead the quickest route.

It is the culmination of a mindset that increasingly became interested in pursuing immediate gratification at any cost.

Look around you. In every area of modern life, the shortcut has become the rule, not the exception.

In sports, we substituted medicine for athleticism as steroids offered the quickest path to success (And I cheered as Mark McGwire belted homer after homer chasing down Maris’ record).

In entertainment, we substituted notoriety for talent as reality television offered the quickest path to fame (And I lapped it up as Richard Hatch ‘survived’ an island and dozens of out-of-control women wooed Flavor Flav).

In war, we substituted power for strategy as shock and awe offered the quickest path to victory (And I couldn’t pull my eyes away as CNN aired its little war video game, the pinball-like sights and sounds of buildings being destroyed and people getting killed).

In friendship, we substituted technology for intimacy as tweets and status updates offered the quickest path to communication (And I blog away, making facile analogies as dreams of writing the Great American Novel slip away).

It goes on and on and on.

We wanted it big, we wanted it all, we wanted it now.

Cheating, if not encouraged, was at least ignored. Just pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.

So is it really any surprise that in business, too, we fell prey to the same phenomenon? In hindsight, it almost seems inevitable that we indulged in this financial alchemy, pursuing policies and practices to make the quick buck while conveniently ignoring the potential long-term negative consequences of our actions.  The no-doc loans, the credit default swaps, the collateralized debt obligations belong in the same metaphorical bucket as the anabolic steroid, Omarosa and gastric bypass surgery.

The funny thing is, the issue isn’t due to a loss of work ethic. Most of the bankers who concocted these weapons of mass destruction worked insanely hard at their jobs, just as our medically enhanced athletes put in long hours at the gym, just as our most vacuous reality stars went to incredible lengths to promote themselves (and just as I am spending way too much time trying to fine-tune this post).

And I’m not about to suggest that this eagerness to seek the shortcut is an entirely new development. People have of course always found ways to cheat or exploit the system – it’s just that in the past, the tools were more rudimentary and thus less dangerous (e.g. the spitball and the corked bat just can’t wreak the same havoc as the human growth hormone).

We became too smart and too powerful for our own good. We acquired knowledge and technology, but not the wisdom to use them productively, or to realize that sometimes we should refrain from using them at all.

And unfortunately, our primary solutions to this crisis so far – the stimulus plans, the bailouts, the monetary injections – offer more of the same. We are still seeking the quick, easy way out. Wanting it all, and wanting it now. Not willing to deal with the consequences of our actions.

Which of course makes perfect sense. In a world where man ultimately controls so little, including the time and manner in which he will depart it, how can we be surprised when he believes he has figured out a better way of accomplishing a goal and overplays his hand.

We have gotten what we deserved.

We have somehow lost our way.

We better find it back.

Government Debt: The Final Bubble

Could this be the beginning of the end for our markets’ last great bubble?

An auction yesterday of $34 billion in 5-year U.S. government bonds didn’t go over so well, fetching prices well under what analysts were expecting.

Ruh-roh.

Oh I know, it may not seem like that big of a deal. The debt still got sold, unlike an unsuccessful auction for 40-year bonds in the UK. The fact that our auction resulted in yields (which move in the opposite direction of the price of bonds) of 1.849% versus the expected 1.801% seems like rather unimportant, inside-baseball type of stuff.

And if it’s just one bad auction, then it may not be important (Edit: Demand for an auction of $40 billion in two-year U.S. notes Tuesday was quite strong). But if this weak demand is a signal of things to come, then we are in for a world of hurt.

In the past ten years, we have had a dot-com bubble, a housing bubble, a credit bubble and an oil bubble, but I have contended they will all pale in comparison to the government debt bubble we are now experiencing.

Think about it: The U.S. government, despite owing $10 trillion in debt, despite incurring an additional $1.3 trillion deficit in 2008 (a number which will certainly be crushed this year and likely for years to come if the Obama plan even gets partly realized), has been up until now able to sell almost as much of the debt as it wishes to at extremely low interest rates.

The Pollyannas will say that there’s a good reason for the low cost of our debt, and why that situation won’t change anytime soon. The big concern right now is deflation, not inflation. Other countries have at least as many problems as we do, and too much savings to boot. They need to put their money somewhere, and the U.S. markets are still the world’s best, safest place to invest money. They own too much of our debt to start selling now – it would only lead to mutually assured destruction.

“This time it’s different.” To me, there are no four more dangerous words. It defies the laws of economics and of logic to expect that a nation awash in debt with miles and miles of higher and higher deficits on the horizon will be able to lend more money at virtually zero interest for an extended period of time.

The only question is when do the floodgates open? We’ve heard rumblings of complaints – notably, on the record and not anonymous – from Chinese officials about our country’s economic situation and increasingly high levels of debt. We’ve seen budget deficit estimates from the CBO which far exceed the optimistic ones put together by the Obama team. And now we had a disappointing auction.

Of course, to a certain extent, debasing our currency is what the government wants. If we could control the pace of the move, some inflation would be a good thing since we’re so heavily in debt (as the value of the dollar falls, that means debtors owe less in ‘real’ terms). But it is highly likely that the transition would come too fast and too quick for our economy and our policies to adjust without experiencing significant dislocations and subsequent pain.

I can almost guarantee you that if government debt is a bubble and it does pop, you won’t see our foreign lenders gently exiting the market. It will be a stampede.

And what will be the implications of such a scenario? Believe it or not, they are likely far worse than anything we have seen so far. Interest rates will soar, as will inflation. Savers will be crushed. Investment will grind to a halt. An already weak economy on its knees would get weaker. We will be forced to renegotiate our obligations with foreign lenders, most notably the Chinese.

The end result could be no less than the end of U.S. hegemony.

The dagbuzz for 3/23/09: The Geithner Bank Stability Plan

Details of the Geithner bank stability plan came out today, and Wall Street for one loved it. And why not,  for the plan basically allows financial institutions to take the worse of the toxic assets rotting away on their balance sheets and pawn off the vast majority of the risks of nonpayment onto the U.S. government (and ultimately the U.S. taxpayer).

I will give credit to Geithner for creativity in crafting the plan given our limited options. Without the use of private money and leverage, we would never be able to afford absorbing all the problematic assets without jeopardizing the health of the U.S. balance sheet and sending our foreign investors fleeing for the exits. And even if we could afford it, Congress would never step up with the money now that the public’s appetite for these Wall Street bailouts has totally disappeared, so Geithner cleverly bypassed that particular concern by giving extraordinary powers to agencies like the Federal Reserve and the FDIC.

It is quite apparent from reading the fact sheet the U.S. Treasury released today regarding the plan (which I encourage everyone to read since it actually provides a concise, rather easy-to-understand summary) that Geithner’s core assumption is that current market prices for these toxic assets are not reflective of their underlying value.

If Geithner is right, and prices of these assets are artificially low, then his plan could very well work. If he’s wrong and, as many experts believe asset prices fall further, then we are throwing good money after bad, and the leverage we are employing will cause even more damage.

Geithner says new plan is best option


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