Ever since the slide in February from the China price shock, I have probably been one of the most bearish people on the US and their trading partners. I have gone long in a few instances since then, but not long term by any means or in a fashion that I would have deem highly intelligent today. However, through possibly hundreds of hours in economic research I have come to the conclusion that there are more reasons to be a bear on the US than to be a bull at these price levels. Until, the foreign markets decouple from the US markets I see major declines in the Chinese, Brazilian and Japanese markets. This will be a very long post, but I will try to make it complete and as unbiased as possible.
So the media is making it seem like the recent slide in the market is a recent occurrence. The truth of the matter is that in the greatest bull market of this decade, the DOW has been out paced by the Canadian dollar and almost any other non-US asset. The value of US denominated stocks has been on a landslide for well over 3 years. Unfortunately, I don’t have access to more data but here is the S&P 500 standardized to a US-Dollar on the Gold standard. Unfortunately every rise in US stocks has occurred not because the indexes gained value but because the price of gold changed. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on what side of the coin you are on, if US assets continue to slip 1 of 2 things may happen: Foreigners put a floor on US assets by putting the Billions of “dollars” to work or 2. They see things getting worse and switch to a Euro reserve currency in the better interest of their citizens and the dollar falls to more realistic levels.
The most likely scenario in my opinion, is that debt plagued Americans will emerge out of this with all their valuable assets being owned by foreigners and seeing their standard of living fall. This is already beginning to take place and it is causing havoc in the markets, but putting an invisible floor under them. Citigroup and several other major banks facing a liquidity crisis have been forced to take expensive capital from sovereign wealth funds in Dubai and the middle east in order to shore up their balance sheets.
There is much evidence that human expectations tend to be linear. Most of the time, most people expect current conditions to continue for the indefinite future. It is almost an unnatural act for a man to leave home with an umbrella on a sunny day. Call it optimism, faith in the future, or just a reluctance to see the party end, there is a presumption that the environment we live in is stable. This is why cities are built on floodplains and fault lines. A similar presumption makes the gambler double his bet or the farmer plant additional crops on reclaimed land the year after a good harvest hoping for things to continue to eternity.
Whenever prosperity exists, it is natural for people to expect prosperity to continue. For this reason, much of the history of human society is a record of astonishment. Time and again, people have marginalized their affairs, rendering themselves increasingly crisis-prone.
They have gone into debt, extending claims on resources to an extreme that could be supported only if current conditions were sustained uninterrupted into the future. Leveraged themselves so highly that a tiny price shock eliminates them from the markets. Time and again these hopes have been disappointed. Whenever prosperity has seemed permanent, some apparently minute change could produce astonishingly large nonlinear shifts in the organization of human society. The failure to recognize or anticipate these nonlinear transformations has been a common characteristic of almost all societies and is readily apparent in the human tendency to allow history to repeat itself.
When the dynamic and nonlinear world adjusts itself to the linear thinking used daily by governments and other institutions such as corporations, banks, insurance companies, the church, and so on, the result can be sometimes catastrophic and can translate into unemployment, inflation, monetary devaluations, market crashes, world wars, civil wars, depressions, and even chaos. The Federal reserve and the government are thinking very short term, and using the same archaic tools to fight new battles.
Change is a fact of life, yet many people don’t want to think about it because they feel threatened by it. So when change comes, it takes them by surprise. By then they can only react to it, and unless they’re lucky, they suffer losses. Only the greatest minds think outside the box, and consider possibilities that others consider impossible.
What is very interesting in this case is that the currencies in question are fiat versus fiat…
Every tick down in the dollar is getting closing to the sweet spot on the guitar with regards to the EURO, the Yen , and all other currencies to feel the same US pain. There is no more standard that holds up the Forex.
This is a very interesting shift in that although the prices are changing, the buildings with the changing price tags wake up tomorrow the same as when they went to sleep. There appears to be no end in sight for the US housing problem and it is translating into large losses in disposable income. This is being seen in the large drop in consumer spending from 75+% down to the most recent reading of 66%. This may not seem like a lot but it is significant and corporate earnings will fall. Hopefully people can use this opportunity as a chance to down their debt before it consumes them.
When trillions in credit and actual losses are taken out of the valuation equation, deflation has to be endured unless of course the same pricetags are to be maintained by dilution. Which is exactly what the Federal reserve is currently doing. By flooding almost a trillion dollars on the market and with the government stimulus plan (funded by debt), the US mint has been kept busy. House prices will bottom sooner, not because their value has stopped falling but because the expansionary policy has degraded the dollar and increased the money supply. As soon as people step outside, their borders they will quickly realize the extent that the monetary experiment of the 21st century has degraded their buying power.
Thus school is out as to whether this is mostly a singled out US event or a somewhat even worldwide distribution. At the moment Bernanke is creating a Bill Seidman approach to the bank bailout by forming a spread between the very short versus intermediate rates and dilution. I personally think, and told a good friend of mine, that if Carlyle Capital collapses, many other funds/companies/banks will follow. Carlyle deals purely with government backed securities from Freddie Mac, which are almost considered risk free. Yet, due to the current credit crisis they couldn’t get the same financing and will be forced to liquidate their assets. This is a problem of remarkable proportions, since these funds are not marked to market and by forcing a sale they will be dissolved. Ah yes but Bernanke’s thoughts, let’s negotiate a refinancing on these mortgage backed securities as their value deteriorates, something akin to ‘keep throwing money into this hole and watch it disappear’. The financial engineering of a black hole is upon us, but first watch bond funds/hedge funds/banks supernova one by one. Sure enough, I woke up this morning to see Bear Stearns down 47%. This “used” to be one of the biggest banks on Wall Street cut in half! There will surely be more to come.
An excerpt from a Carlyle group release:
“Negotiations with lenders effectively ended late Wednesday when the pricing service used by certain lenders reported another drop in the value of mortgage-backed securities. That’s expected to trigger another $97.5 million of margin calls Thursday, on top of the roughly $400 million of demands it received in the previous week.”
And that kind of stuff is what’s going to happen to ALL THESE BIG INSTITUTIONS…day after day after day…until the $516 TRILLION of Worthless Derivatives are FINALLY marked to the REAL MARKET…not some computer algorithm. Several economists are calling for them just to write-down the value of the assets, and get this past us. Bernanke, is also in this camp but there is just no motivation to prematurely blow your companies balance sheet up. These banks made a grave mistake by lending to the wrong people, they cannot take these loans back and they are not worth the amount they are claiming, but they need the margin that these assets allow them to take or their liquidity will dry up.
In the short term, the best hope is that the availability of the Fed as a short term buyer may, for a time, provide enough comfort that brokers will maintain margin lines of credit for their clients who hold mortgage linked securities. The real question is whether the fear engendered by the collapse of Carlyle will outweigh the potential comfort of basically having short term Fed-backing on this very sickly class of securities. It is difficult to speculate what will happen over the near term, but if Carlyle couldn’t reach a standstill with the backing of its parent and with the Fed standing in the wings as a potential buyer of mortgage securities, is there any strong probability that there will not be more and more margin calls, and waves and waves of forced selling, over the near term? Let’s not forget the almost $400 billion dollars in LBO paper that the major investment banks underwrote but couldn’t sell after the credit crisis. GS, BSC, MS and others hold large amounts of LBO funds in their accounts that they could not sell. Currently they are marked down to 90 cents on the dollar, is it impossible to see them down to 80 cents or less to get them off?
Thus the rest of the world will have to react to try to move toward equilibrium, much like globalization theory. Globalization looks and smells like it works ok in the short run, but in the long run it is just a form of shifting money around within the same geographical boundaries. A coca cola may cost $3 in some countries and 50 cents in others but coca cola is coca cola and that spread will go to zero.
For the investor: stay out of the US equities market entirely until signs point to a bottom. The bottom may be years off, so, you may end up holding onto cash for a long time, earning less than the soaring rate of inflation. The CPI is a great tool, but it is flawed. During the housing boom, people criticized it for not accounting for the boom in housing, but now that has changed and the falling in the housing markets is the only thing keeping it in check. It is not real folks, inflation is upon us. Look at gold, corn, beef, electronics and car prices. They are all going up. Kelloggs, PG and may others were forced to carry double digit percentage increases on their products to protect margins. You can try to hedge with TIPS and commodities, but the commodities gamble could come to a wild and abrupt reversal at any time. The moment global demand shows a downturn, and it will, prices for many of the “priced to perfection” commodities will decline. To the extent you invest in equities, maintain exposure to select emerging markets that are net exporters and that sell their exports in dollars. Limit your exposure elsewhere, although holding some Pan-Asian (developed markets) and European indexes may be prudent since equities markets will start to climb in many months anticipation of a resolution of the credit crisis and one never really knows when that might transpire.