Tuesday, November 30, 2010

One More Time . . .

The most frequent question I get is "So what? Jim, your analysis is interesting, but you don't say what we should do now."

The reason is that I am not permitted to give investment advice to anybody who is not a client, as well any anybody whose investment needs are not clearly understood. That is the law!

In most cases, it's probably better that I don't anyway, because a reader might slip into trying to out-smart the market with market timing. That is a fool's mission.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Real Money Boss . . . maybe the only one?

When the financial markets didn't behave the way he expected, President Clinton famously said "You mean to tell me that the success of the economic program and my re-election hinges on the Federal Reserve and a bunch of xxxxing bond traders?"

He was complaining about the bond market, often considered wiser and more exacting than the stock market. Watching the bond market is very important.

That's worrying me now, in light of the continuing European debt crisis. Sure, the EU has come to the rescue of Greece, and the bond market rallied. Yesterday, it came to the rescue of Ireland, and the bond market has not rallied. The bond market doesn't believe this will contain the problem. One would expect the cost of insuring Irish bonds or CDS spreads would decrease as a result of yesterday's bailout. They did but only slightly. Meanwhile, the cost for Portugal's bonds continues to increase.

Portugal will be next. That may be the last stand. After that, Spain's bonds will get hammered. As they are 20% of the GDP of the EU, that would probably be fatal to the Eurozone. Not even mighty Germany could bail them out.

Not surprising, the Euro has been dropping this morning. As investors sell the Euro, the dollar has been increasing, which is bad for our exports. Over the last year, a strengthing dollar has been strongly linked to a weakening stock markets.

Like cholera in Haiti, the fear of loss by bond traders spreads quickly. If the Eurozone comes apart, the bond traders will then focus on U.S. bonds . . . may God help us!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Politicians . . . Step Aside . . . Please!

One of my favorite bureaucrats is Sheila Bair, Chairman of the FDIC. She just wrote an excellent editorial in The Washington Post, asking "Will the Next Fiscal Crisis Start in Washington?"

That's a fair question. The fair answer is that the next one might start somewhere else but one is certainly coming out of Washington, and it will be terrible, far worse than the last one!

She lays out the clear economic facts. She cites both current deficit commissions as producing effective solutions. Both have called for entitlement cuts and tax increases.

While economists may quibble about shades of gray, politicians make decisions, and that's the problem. Half of them don't understand economics and the other half is only interested in being re-elected.

Our best hope is that the recommendations of either deficit commission are given an "up or down" vote, meaning no amendments. I don't agree with either set of recommendations 100%, but neither will anybody else. Whatever we do, if we do anything at all, will require pain. However, doing nothing requires far more pain.

The economists of the deficit commissions have almost completed their job. My Christmas Wish is that politicians would step aside, salute, and say "Yes, Sir"!

Don't count on it!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Two Steps Forward and One Step Backward

Yesterday morning, the Commerce Department looked in their rear-view mirror and raised their estimate of this year's third quarter GDP growth rate. We did better than expected.

Yesterday afternoon, the Fed looked thru their windshield and lowered their estimate of GDP growth next year, saying the economy is doing worse than they expected previously.

Conflicting economic data makes it tricky to read the market. That's why no one piece of data is ever conclusive. Just remember, we're in a long hard slog out of The Great Recession. When it is over and we look in the rear-view mirrow, we will once again swear . . . "Never Again!"

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Wall of Worry

The stock market is always trying to climb a Wall of Worry. Today, the Wall was very tall, indeed!

The day began with North Korea rattling a very loud saber. It continued with lots of unrest in Ireland about the pending, distasteful austerity package they have to swallow. It finished with conflicting economic data in the U.S, as well as the realization that our stock market has already gone up enough and needed a pullback.

As a result, the Dow dropped 142 points today. I'm surprised it was not worse.

The Value of Rhetorical Questions

How will you know if you deserve a better car? When it leaves you standing beside the road in a bad neighborhood!

How will you know if you deserve a better form of government?

No, it is NOT un-American to ask! No, the question is NOT what should replace it. No, the question is NOT what's wrong with either Republicans or Democrats. The question is HOW will you know if you deserve a better form of government?


Attack of the G-Men

Over the weekend, we learned the SEC was launching a major crackdown on insider trading. On Monday, they raided the offices of three hedge funds. Good!

After the Global Financial Crisis, the 52% drop in the stock market, and the mysterious Flash Crash in May, it is no wonder that retail investors are distrustful and still on the sidelines, missing this year's rally.

To restore confidence, retail investors must be assured there is a level playing field, and the SEC knows this. After the earlier market crash, G-Men went after the executives of Enron, WorldCom, and many other companies. Retail investors have short memories and soon returned to the market after the prosecutions.

Because the last crisis was financial in nature, we can expect the G-men to focus on the financial firms, which will slime all of them. I certainly don't plan to increase my exposure to any financial stocks.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Hidden Inflation

The Fed is justifiably worried about deflation,which is more worrisome and tenacious than inflation. That is the reason they launched the latest round of quantitative easing. Many people don't see the danger. Even the most recent data shows no serious indication of either inflation or deflation.

Yet, if you look deeper, you see the U.S. is becoming bifurcated into one section that is part of the globalized world and another section of the country that is less touched by globalization.

Today, Fed Chairman Bernanke will speak of a "two-speed global economy." Because the recession was started by the U.S., it is worst here. The rest of the world was pulled into it and are recovering faster. As a result of their rapid recoveries, their inflation is increasing. (Yesterday, China slapped price controls on certain food items.) Their exports are our imports, which means we are importing their inflation.

In addition, because commodities such as oil and gold are priced only in dollars, the cost of those commodities is increasing as the value of the dollar continues to decline. The more value the dollar loses, sellers of gold will demand more dollars for the ounce of gold.

That section of the U.S. that does not consume large amounts of imports or commodities is not seeing inflationary pressure. The other section is.

Of course, averaging the two sections of the U.S. produces a non-worrisome CPI. However, I do worry it will show real inflation within another year or so.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Grim Reaper

If you do nothing else today, read the article titled "China's State Capitalism Sparks a Global Backlash" on the front page of The Wall Street Journal. It is the secret to China's success and the reason we should be afraid, not merely worried.

China has the ability to put the entire force of their nation behind a particular industrial policy. The U.S. cannot even agree if we need an industrial policy or not!

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Unpredictably Predictable Tide

As I sit here on the shore of the Chesapeake Bay, I know there will be a high tide twice a day. If I watch TV, I will know the exact times of the tide. It is so predictable.

As I watch the stock market, I recognize the same tidal changes, as the level of uncertainty go up and down. As uncertainty about the election decreased, as uncertainty about the Q3 economic performance decreased, and uncertainty about the Fed's quantitative easing decreased, the stock market has been bullish the last several months.

Over the last week, the tide of uncertainty has begun to rise again. Will the Fed be able to maintain its quantitative easing in the face of withering criticism abroad and at home? Will the Bush and Obama tax cuts be extended or not? Will the problem now becoming apparent in Ireland cause the same damage that the problem in Greece caused earlier this year? Will the surging inflation in China cause their government to stifle its growing demand for the world's resources?

It is often said that the market is always climbing a Wall of Worry, but that implies a predictability that doesn't exist. Likewise, the market is usually quite bullish this time of year, but that is not a certainty and is easily de-railed by a tidal change in certainty and uncertainty.

Changes in the level of uncertainty will always occur, changing the market. The unpredictable part is whether the change in uncertainly will be long-lasting and profound . . . or just another tidal change.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

In Your Eye, Mr. President

It has never happened before. The credit of the United States was downgraded yesterday. While this is considered inevitable if we continue to run such deficits, it was nonetheless a surprise yesterday.

But, the timing was interesting. It is not unusual for lots of acrimony before a G-20 Summit. This one is worse than usual. On the eve of the Summit, it was China who downgraded our credit. Coincidently, Moody's upgraded the credit rating of China. This is an embarrassment to the U.S. President and improves the negotiating position of the Chinese at the G-20.

Fortunately, the final communiques signed by the G-20 leaders is always conciliatory. Hopefully, this one will be. It will probably focus on the need for infrastructure development in all countries, a source of minimal rancor. A few years ago, it focused on the need for rich countries to donate more aid to poor countries. (Then, the recession hit and no nation made its promised contribution.) Again, no rancor.

The final communique will also probably condemn competitive devaluation of currencies. Both China and the U.S. will sign it with dirty hands.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Don't Call My Kettle Black!

Regardless of who the President is, he needs a thick skin. Certainly, President Obama does as he begins the G-20 Summit in Korea. It may even be deserved.

For years, we have criticized China for maintaining an artificially cheap currency, which helps their exporters. With QE2 or quantitative easing, we are greatly increasing the supply of dollars, which reduces the value of each dollar. Not surprisingly, the dollar has been declining for months. This is good for American exporters. It is also good for those nations who have pegged their currency to rise and fall with the dollar. But, it is very bad for everybody else, which is the reason Obama is arriving at the Summit amidst a firestorm of criticism.

It is another reminder that each nation will behave in their own best reason. Now, why is that news? Did anybody expect us to behave differently, just because the dollar is the world's only reserve currency? Well . . . yes!

Don't call me a currency manipulator . . . you currency manipulator!

Monday, November 8, 2010

The N-11

Did anybody see the new IMF report raising the estimated GDP growth rate for the 47 countries of Sub-Saharan Africa for the second time this year . . . from 4.5% to 5%?

Those traditionally poor nations are growing more than twice as fast as the U.S. Does that bother anybody else? As an economist, it is not surprising, as it takes longer to get out of a recession when you must also pay down debt, like the U.S. As an American, however, it makes me sad.

One major reason the U.S. stock market is up this year is because it is a very multi-national market. Most of the huge multi-national companies are listed on the U.S. exchanges. As the rest of the world booms, we get some derived bounce. So, be glad the rest of the world is beginning to boom. They're enjoying the fruits of capitalism, and we get a little as well!

We are all familiar with the BRIC acronym, originated at Goldman Sachs to describe the rapidly growing giants of Brazil, Russia, India, and China. Their new one is the N-11 or next eleven countries to boom, i.e., Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Korea, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Turkey, and Vietnam. They believe countries will rival the G-7 developed nations in this century. Wow, that is quite a statement!

Historically, we have referred to those markets as "frontier markets." Maybe, we have arrived at the frontier, which can be a frightening, dangerous, and lawless place, especially to invest hard-earned savings! Be very careful!!!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Enjoy the Ride . . . Again

After a highly eventful week, the stock market is at a two-year high, about the same level as we were when Lehman was allowed to collapse. Nonetheless, that is some three thousand points on the Dow -- below our all-time high in 2007. The market is still down 21% from those heady days.

Think back to last Spring when the market was moving up daily. The pundits were almost univerally bullish. But, I said then the market had disconnected from the economy and needed to wait until the economy caught up, which I expected would be in the fourth quarter.

The economy is starting to show life again, and as usual, the market is getting ahead of it. Winter is traditionally a good time to be fully invested. By Spring, we will be due for 10-20% correction.

So, enjoy the ride . . . for now!

Friday, November 5, 2010

An Economist's Lament

The study of economics has always been an enjoyable intellectual pursuit. There are lots of arcane terms and inside jokes that economists enjoy discussing and sharing.

But, it seems we have reached a tipping point where economics is becoming polluted by politics, and I'm sad about that. Should I parse my thoughts to support one political side over the other?

As I've said many times, economics is not religion. There is wisdom in all schools of economic thought, and we should pick and choose as appropriate for the economic situation.

Politics = pollution . . . dammit!

Good Jobs Report . . . finally

The most important monthly economic report each month is the "Jobs Report." The last few months, the report has shown a sadly weak economy, producing few jobs. Voters took the President to task for that on Tuesday.

Today, the Labor Department announced that the private sector created 159 thousand jobs, twice what was expected. This was great news, and the Dow futures immediately jumped 40 points.

I'm sure the President wishes this report came out before the election, and I'm equally sure the 14.8 MILLION people who are unemployed wish it was even better news, as they need YEARS of equally good reports to get back to normal.

All year, I 've been predicting the fourth quarter would be good, and it certainly looks that way . . . thank God!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Fire Up the Printing Presses . . . Again

Today, the Fed announced another round of quantitative easing, which means they will buy Treasury bonds, which means the Treasury then gets that amount of money ($75 BILLION per MONTH over the next 8 months) deposited into Treasury's checking account, which Treasury can then use to write checks for Social Security, infrastructure, anything . . . even interest payments to the Fed for having bought the Treasury bonds. In other words, the right pocket buys the bonds in the left pocket. Of course, it is all "smoke & mirrors", but it can have huge economic effects.

Milton Friedman, father of Monetarism, believed that inflation is caused by "too many dollars chasing too few goods". Another way of saying this is . . . if money supply increases faster than productivity, you will get inflation.

The Fed is worried about deflation. So, today's Fed action does make sense!

Plus, the Fed handled it well. You can tell . . . because the stock market barely reacted. That means the Fed properly telegraphed with market. When it doesn't, the market over-reacts, which is what it does best!

Political Pundit George Carlin ?

I think the late comedian was the first to describe our electoral process as "political masturbation", a very intense, focused effort to accomplish nothing. The Libertarian view is that elections merely change the Masters, with the slaves remaining the same. It is just a different set of thieves. Maybe, that's a little cynical. OK, that's a lot cynical.

Wall Street traditionally likes divided government, and I expect the stock market will reflect that. That's the silver lining. But, there are turning points in history. We may "kick the can down the road forever," but forever is over. There are some deadly serious decisions to be made, and I don't see that we have the process for making those decisions.

How are we going to keep borrowing money from our grandchildren to pay for our Social Security, for our Medicare, for endless far-flung wars, and for interest on the trillions we've already borrowed?

What changed yesterday that will help us make those decisions? What happened two years ago that helped us? What will happen two years from now that will help us? Or, will it be just another Master?

WHEN will we know . . . and HOW will we know . . . that "political masturbation" is no longer working for America? The American people deserve better!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Election Day . . . Finally!

In this world of 24/7 cable news, which spin the news as well as report the news, it is easy to become both confused and depressed. Therefore, I recommend a disinterested foreign perspective to balance the right-wing Fox News and the left-wing MSNBC. Religiously, I read The Economist, a newsweekly magazine from England and recommend it.

Sometimes, it is helpful to read things like this, which appears on page 11 of the current issue: "Despite its problems, American has far more going for it than its current mood suggests. It is still the most innovative economy on earth, the place where the world's greatest universities meet the world's deepest pockets. Its demography is favourable, with a high birth rate and limitless space into which to expand. It has a flexible and hard-working labour forces. Its ultra-low bond yields are a sign that the world's investors still think it a good long-term bet. The most enterprising individuals on earth still clamour to come to America."

Too bad politicians never remind us of anything good about America . . . but, if they did, would we even listen? Have we become programmed to process only negative news? The nation that made the world safe for democracy, put a man on the moon, and still is all the things cited above . . . simply deserves better!