Archive for the 'ECB' Category

Cyprus An Excuse Not A Reason

I have been asked so many times what will derail the market and each time my answer has been the same “nothing we currently know about.”  The next question is the most important: how much is this exogenous shock worth to the market and where will it go from here?  Better lucky than smart as I noted that I lowered exposure, partially because of the move in the market YTD but largely due to vacation last week. I feel I have time to buy.  Right now we are dealing with the emotional and unprecedented impact of taxing insured depositors.   To me the issue is not whether other countries do this – they won’t – but whether the ECB can convince Spanish, Italian, etc., depositors, that they will not suffer a similar fate.  Frankly, but for the fact that the unintended consequence of this action will be to tighten credit as depositors likely pull funds from other banks in more troubled regions, the Euro should arguably be stronger.  The ECB, complicit in this move although not the depth of it, has drawn the line with Cyprus, a country of 1 million that accounts for a half percent of EU GDP where allegedly half the bank deposits are from the less upright Russians (perhaps an oxymoron).  More importantly, given that the size of the needed bailout was almost at parity to the country’s GDP, and the bank debt more than 8X GDP according to a World Bank report, there would be no likelihood of repayment.  Arguably, this should strengthen the Euro since it is finally showing the limits of what Germany/ECB will do but of course isn’t.   It will make US banks more attractive but won’t near term.

So what now?  It seems to me that the next move is up to Draghi and he will have to lower rates to offset the tightening caused by this incident.  US Treasuries will catch a bid as other suspect Eurozone countries look for a safe haven and US banks may benefit to a certain extent.  However, the stocks won’t today as that nagging and unjustified feeling of contagion momentarily takes hold.

Bottom line: We were due for a 2-5% correction and this is as good a catalyst as any although the actual impact on global growth is non-existent thus creating a buying opportunity.  However, my larger concern, one that is growing, is China.  While they have the funds to paper over any bailout issues, their bad debt dwarfs that of any other regions   Local government loans equate to more than $1.5 trillion.  The faltering Chinese steel industry has bank loans of $400 billion  in an industry that China’s prior regime promised to downsize but instead production has grown.  And it goes on.  China won’t be recovering any time soon and the impact on commodities will continue.  I have no plans to increase exposure at this point but am also not sure this will be a big downside catalyst.  I am, however, adding to my short in iron ore.

China: Re-Entering The Atmosphere With A Hard Landing; Earnings Season And The Markets Disconnect; Energy; And Here We Go Again In Europe – But Wait! There Is Value

China is launching a major offensive for headlines with the EU.  Wen’s comments over the weekend were his strongest and most pointed yet as he warned of the possibility for “huge downward pressure” on the economy.  At the same time, inflation was reported at a very modest 2.2% leaving open the possibility of additional near term stimulus.  Additionally, Wen, in separate comments, remained resolute in keeping property prices under control.  As much credit as is inexplicably given to China by way too many strategists for ultimately being able to manage their downturn and draw a line in the sand at nothing less than 7.5 – 8% GDP growth, Wen does not seem as sanguine.  Whether China ultimately experiences a hard landing remains an unimportant conclusion at this point as that is the direction they are moving toward.  The bursting of their property bubble will be much more damaging to their economic future than was to the US when ours fizzled given that so many important Chinese cities have relied upon land sales and borrowing for their out-sized infrastructure spending.  It’s one thing for an individual to be upside down on their mortgage, but quite another for a large portion of a country to be in that position particularly when so much of the world’s economic growth has been dependent on China’s previous voracious appetite for commodities, machinery, etc.

But wait – there’s those trillions in reserves that China is going to shower on the economy much like an NFL defensive back at a “gentleman’s” lounge.  My view is that China, continuing to think long term, would rather see asset values to decline meaningfully so that they can swoop in and acquire them.  It’s not only asset prices that soften, but also political resistance in the targeted countries as the fate of elected leaders is tied to declining personal fortunes of their constituents.

Steel stock rally?  Done before it started.  Angang Steel said it will report a loss of 1.98 billion yuan for the first six months compared to a profit of 220 million yuan last year.  Angang is China’s largest HK traded producer of steel.  Despite this, China keeps adding to its steel capacity and keeps running its plants at capacity, more concerned with employment levels than price realization.  It’s expensive to shut down capacity in steel and it remains the industry with the highest costs of exit.  Sector will bounce around but direction is lower. Take a lesson from coal (PCX bankruptcy filing) and stay away.

And within the backdrop of all this, those optimistic about the market say all the bad news is fully discounted.  After all, once it’s in print, see yesterday’s WSJ’s article on the earnings season – it is immediately old news.  That’s an interesting thought considering that the S&P is up mid-single digits this year while expectations on global growth have been ratcheted much lower.  Seems like a disconnect to me.  I’m not looking for a major sell-off but a slow ebbing of the averages.

Meanwhile, back in Brussels, the framework announced out of the latest – that is the 19th, EU meeting to solve their financial crisis, has hit a predictable speed bump as Hollande offered that a more unified political and banking system will not happen as quickly as thought while Germany remains resolute in requiring government to be the ultimate guarantor for the debts of troubled banks.  Seems that the Europeans don’t yet realize that substance is actually longer lasting than headlines.  Not sure the markets realize this either.

So here we go again. Rather than focusing on current fundamentals, the markets pin their hopes on major fiscal policy moves by China,  the US and, of course, the EU – hoping coordinated easing becomes reality, stimulating spending, credit and investment. Could be but I still don’t see an immediate, significant QE3.  But there is good news: the EU has set the bar very low.

There is value to be found.  I still believe the Euro is overvalued relative to the USD; that higher yielding equities with good fundamentals will continue to offer a good total return (mortgage reits, telco); and certain areas of energy remain attractive longer term such as natural gas and special situations.  TOT has a monstrous yield and HK, a build it and sell it story run by someone who has built it and sold it multiple times before (Petrohawk being the latest), is in a great spot, being able to acquire assets cheaply with financing both available and inexpensive.  I mentioned on CNBC on Thursday that I was starting to rebuild a position in WLP.  This group is also inexpensive, but I would wait for a pullback after yesterday’s action.  Sentiment has been horrendous and MLR’s are likely going higher this quarter, but in an industry with changing fundamentals, the smart players find opportunity.

 

Merkel Wagers EU pact on Semifinals; RIMM and HBS; Steel

I have three theories as to why the EU provided the market moving agreement overnight:

1)      Wagers between the Mayors of competing teams in the World Series or Super Bowl usually involve food – lobsters, steaks, etc.  The EU has taken this to an entirely new level.  As such I wonder whether Merkel wagered Germany’s approval of the pact announced this morning on the outcome of yesterday’s Euro 2012 Championship Semifinal match.

2)      Merkel is the anonymous GP of a very large hedge fund with lagging performance. Her lock-ups expire July 1st so she needed a big end of the quarter mark-up on her portfolio today.

3)      Merkel has been diagnosed with a very rare, life threatening disease and is not expected to live out the European ratification process, thus allowing her to stay true to her pledge “not in my lifetime.”

 

I have been neutral in terms of market exposure, cautious of the greater risk than reward, unwilling to bet that the 19th time is the charm.  While this agreement has some of the characteristics of the others – execution and final details to be worked out – it exceeded both my expectations and the markets’.  Nonetheless I do believe the rally can continue despite continuing trouble on the earnings front – NKE and F being the latest – until we reset over the next few weeks from earnings reports.  Within a relatively neutral exposure to equities I have been initiating small positions in some fairly beaten up names such as JOY, TOT and ANF and covered shorts in steel over the last few days, closing them out yesterday as a couple of steel companies reported EPS and the stocks rallied.  While the actual metrics on these companies are different than my shorts in X and MT, I didn’t believe the market would distinguish.    Should they rally much from here, I will return because the issues remain and the steel business has very high barriers of EXIT.  Unlike coal, capacity has increased as prices have declined due to softening end demand. I don’t see this changing with China continuing to  slow.

 

The rally in materials and energy, with extremely high short interest, is going to make next Weds.’ fireworks look like a Sputnik launch.

 

With European bank balance sheets still in disrepair and lending non-existent, unchanged in any meaningful way by today’s announcement, JPM should pick up significant share helping to offset the governor on earnings provided by tighter regulations and low interest rates in the US.  WFC has also started to expand beyond these shores, albeit in a not particularly meaningful way.

 

Thus the only questions are  “have stocks sufficiently discounted the slowing global economy?” and “is this just another false start by the EU fueling a quarter end short covering rally?”   To the first, the easy and correct answer is that some have and some haven’t.  To the latter question: Yes, for now but doesn’t mean we can’t rally for the next week or so.  I’m not going all in, that’s for sure.

 

RIMM – the Dean of Harvard Business School has likely sent a Thank You note to the BOD at RIMM, thanking them for providing the material for the best case study they have seen in years.  The death blow here is not the quarter but the continued delay in the release of the BB10.  Developers will not invest much in new apps for this device thus making it DOA.

 

iPad At The Ready; Is Icahn Greek & Germany’s 4 Day Work Week

Night after night, morning-to-morning, it’s the same routine.  The iPad sits at the ready, less than an arm’s length away on the nightstand, sharing space with an old school Blackberry, an alarm clock separating two generations of technology.  It’s the last thing I look at before I go to sleep and the first item I reach for when I wake.  I’m seeking out news, waiting for the solution.  That’s what I need to get off the sidelines, to put my cash to work. Sure equity valuations are cheap, that is if you believe the global economy is not worsening. Sure Treasuries are overvalued and in a bubble and asset allocation begs for a swap into equities but these factors have been in place for a year.  In the interim, China has markedly slowed and Europe is in an economic near death spiral. Ergo, I need something new: a plan that will work. I am fairly confident that I know what the answers are, I’m just hoping that some variations of it appear in a Reuters or Bloomberg headline:

ECB Lends $2 Trillion to Spain and Italy – Funds Targeted for Banks;

Greece Accepts Receivership: Icahn Reveals That He is Part Greek and Agrees to Head Creditors Committee

I would settle for one out of two, the ECB lending program being my first choice.  The last two days brought scant hope, with Spain’s Budget (a clear oxymoron) Minister asking for other “European Institutions” to “open up and help facilitate” a recapitalization of their banks.   (http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-06-05/spanish-minister-urges-eu-aid-for-banks-in-first-plea-for-funds.html).  I guess, a recognition by Spain that they have a problem is the first step toward a solution.  Record outflows of capital and the seizing up of the banking system has a way of offsetting the effects of too many carafes of sangria at three hour lunches more so than afternoon siestas.  However, there is little chance of Germany injecting capital directly into Spanish banks.  And then today, we had the ECB’s Mario Draghi tell us not to worry, capital is not fleeing, hoping to dispel us of the facts.  Nice try, Mario, but this will not help me sleep any better.

Here is how I believe the issue should be resolved in order to restore some semblance of sureness to the market. Actually, this is not really my original thought but rather that of an extremely successful hedge fund manager as we discussed the issues during a game of golf.  However, as a part-time talking head and part-time author, I am in conflict: the former imbues me with little respect for identifying ownership of ideas, claiming all as my own, while the latter avocation imbues me with abhorrence for plagiarism.  Since no one is paying for this advice, I will default to the former and provide what believe would put the market back on firmer footing in response to Europe.  While the ECB is not allowed to buy new issue debt from sovereigns, it can loan money to them.  Spain will ultimately agree to a program and, in return, the ECB will provide a 30 year loan with a nominal coupon to the government, specifically targeted for the banks.  This will not crowd out any other creditors, thus limiting resistance.  As part of this rescue package, and in lieu of using Spiderman towels and English lessons (wouldn’t German be more appropriate?) to lure potential depositors, the banks will offer greater levels of deposit insurance, backstopped by the ECB.   There will be greater, collective EU oversight to large EU banks as a condition to German participation without obligation of further German funding.

Perhaps the above won’t happen so here’s another thought.  It was also reported by Bloomberg that the EU and ECB is at work on a Master Plan (http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-06-03/ecb-eu-drawing-up-crisis-master-plan-welt-am-sonntag-says.html) and may have something ready by the end of June.  Well, that would be nice but this would have to be authored and led by someone other than Merkel’s countrymen since Germany’s last Master Plan didn’t work out well for anyone and time has done little to  erase the memory.  The problem is that no other European economy has the economic wherewithal to plug the dyke.  I imagine that Germany does a daily calculation comparing the breakup of the currency and the potential impact on trade with the cost of being the sugar daddy for the rest of the EU, albeit without the typical prurient perks of being so benevolent.  The Germans undoubtedly realize that they would have the world’s strongest currency were the EU to fail, thus crippling their own economy by making the price of their goods uncompetitive.  Here’s a solution: cut off the EU like you would a drug addicted stepchild and allocate those funds to internal spending, thus inflating the D-Mark and maintaining competitiveness in global trade.  Instead of the annual Oktoberfest, have a  Freitagfest and a 4 day workweek, placing them on more even footing with the rest of socialist Europe. That won’t drive the DM to levels on par with the drachma but will get you moving in the right direction.

So as my search for the evidence of a solution forges on, I remain on the sidelines although even the hint of a legit solution (or of an improving US economy) will rally an oversold market.  Oversold rallies, however, such as today’s (June 6), are to be sold, not embraced. Commodities will remain under pressure and steel is still a great place to be short as analysts now begin to look for losses in the upcoming quarter.  Recall that last year, X reported a loss despite a combined 13% volume and price increases.   Their end markets, with a slowing global economy, won’t be so kind this time around.   They didn’t even bother to offer a mid-quarter update at their analyst day today.

One more thing – look for downward revisions to multinationals pick up speed as the dollar retains its strength.

Playing Poker with the EU: Why There Won’t Be A QE 3

Wistful visions of a Bernanke Put have kept many invested. It is everything they want it to be: the lifeline, the safety net, the impetus for economic growth.  However, I believe it is unlikely to happen.  The logic is simple: Europe is much more fiscally troubled than the US and is arguably the source of not only market turmoil but also for economic angst in the US.  Without a shock and awe resolution from the EU, any further easing from the US will be ineffective in reversing our declining economic fortunes so why waste the powder.  And with Europe in much more desperate shape, in recession , broadly, and possibly headed toward a depression in Spain (Greece there already) it is much more incumbent upon the EU to provide a shock and awe solution to their economic woes sooner rather than later.  Additionally, Bernanke has come under significant criticism for his prior QE’s so why not let Europe do the heavy lifting this time around?  The European solution, if credible, will obviate the need for further stimulus from the US.  China keeps threatening to stimulate their economy and should this happen,  this could also lessen the burden on the American economy.   If I were Bernanke, I would play this hand to conclusion.  Not even another deficient jobs number will change my view.  In fact, I believe that the payroll report will come in above consensus based upon what I hear from my source who has been almost clairvoyant in their forecasts based upon real-time information.  They see strength across all sectors.  It won’t be a blow out number but should be comfortably above consensus.  This will lead to a short covering rally and a good opportunity to lower exposure

Separately, a great review for The Big Win http://seekingalpha.com/article/625331-book-review-the-big-win :

Book Review: The Big Win
Just as whale watching is a popular adventure tour for nature lovers, reading about the whales of finance is a popular pastime for investors. InThe Big Win: Learning from the Legends to Become a More Successful Investor (Wiley, 2012) Stephen L. Weiss profiles one woman and seven men who have truly excelled.

First, a caveat about what Weiss describes as “the ugly reality of whale watching,” by which he means “blindly following large, smart buyers into a stock or other investment.” (p. 25)

 

Unless an investor has insight into the whale’s rationale for making a particular investment, his time frame, and his risk appetite, the investor is at a considerable disadvantage. It is critically important, as Weiss writes, to “understand the process. … The true value of these case studies … is in understanding each investor’s methods, not standing in awe of their results.” (pp. 32-33)

 

Weiss’s eight legends—Renée Haugerud, James S. Chanos, Lee Ainslie, Chuck Royce, A. Alfred Taubman, James Beeland Rogers Jr., R. Donahue Peebles, and Martin J. Whitman— each carved out a niche and developed an investing style.

Haugerud, for instance, is a top-down investor. Her hedge fund, Galtere Ltd., has a five-stage investment process: taking the temperature of the global markets, developing a few themes, microanalyzing and selecting strategic investments, timing trades technically, and applying risk management. Her “big win” came in 1993. With gold trading as much as 40% above the world’s highest cost of production and the one-year bonds of Canada’s western provinces yielding 9 to 12%, she shorted gold for a rate of less than 1%, bought the bonds, and hedged her short gold position with undervalued small-cap stocks of mining producers in Australia that had high margins and low production costs. “‘All three legs worked,’ as Haugerud puts it, and all kept working for a good long while. It was a simple trade, and the returns were good enough to carry that year’s performance to her stated goal and beyond.” (p. 50)

Chanos is a short seller, Ainslie a stock picker, Royce a small cap investor. Taubman and Peebles are both real estate developers, Rogers is a commodities investor, and Whitman is best known as a distressed debt investor.

What do all these legends have in common? Weiss catalogs seven traits: no emotion, no ego, long-term investors, discipline, thorough research process, passion and work ethic, and drive. Or, reduced to six words:

 

“Drive. Passion. Process. Equanimity. Discipline. Humility. These are the commonalities between all those profiled in this book and the qualities that make for a great—and legendary—investor.” (p. 17)

 

The Big Win is an easy, thoroughly enjoyable read for those who want to learn from the whales.

The European Spring: Why Caution is the Best Market Position

In typical Hollywood fashion, the producers of the successful Arab Spring

have announced the sequel,  The European Spring, starring the people of

France.  In fact, pre-filming has already begun for the 3rd installment in

the series, The US Spring which will be airing the first Tuesday in

November.

The French

The French hosting elections on a Sunday is itself an interesting issue; I

have to assume they value their days off during the work week too much to go

to the polls than they value their leisure time on Sundays.  Logistics

aside, the polls point to a victory by François Hollande and socialism again

taking front and center stage in the City of Lights.  (Why shouldn’t

Parisians leave the lights on – the government is footing the bill.)   Of

course, Sarkozy can pull it out in the final days if he is able to draw in

the fence sitters and Le Pen acolytes; this should not be completely

discounted.  But assuming Hollande wins, I have heard the argument that this

event is already priced into the market. So will the rhetoric about

endangering the EU fade as political campaign promises often do?  Not on

your life.  With legislative elections upcoming on June 10th and June 17th,

the rhetoric is just beginning.  Those arguing against France’s

participation in the bailout fund and austerity as the path to growth will

be emboldened to speak even louder.  That, after all, will be the proven

path to winning a seat in the National Assembly of the Fifth Republic.

The Greeks

The Greeks have their own election on Sunday.  With massive unemployment,

there is hardly a reason to hold their elections on the weekend. Don’t these

people need something to do during the week or is that when the beaches are

less crowded?  From all reports, it looks like the coalition will survive by

the slimmest of margins. The rhetoric here too will build as their exit from

the EU remains the likely end game.  But if the coalition falls apart,

either on Sunday or near term, then the collapse of the EU is an immediate

fait accompli.

The Rhetoric

So the chatter will increase as the citizens of France, the Netherlands,

Italy, etc., continue to question with increasing authority and anger, why

they should labor under austerity programs in order to support the

irresponsible governments of Spain and Greece.  This will continue to

pressure the indices particularly as Spain and Italy continue coming to the

market to roll over their debt. At present, there is no avenue to growth and

Draghi seems unwilling to inject anymore stimulus into the markets until

governments put forth growth initiatives (and maybe, actually do cut

spending).

The Sequel

So this is the sequel to the Arab Spring as the Europeans rise up and say no

mas.  It is a more civilized uprising, as they perhaps torch candles instead

of themselves, but an uprising nonetheless. And then, in November, it will

be our turn.

Add to this the slowing US economy – yes, slowing, not a pause, and the EU

and China continuing to slow, and you have a rather poor outlook for US

equities.  But Brazil is the bright spot, isn’t it?  Nope. China is the

economic delta for Brazil.  We had an earnings season that few had expected

in terms of growth and outlook but the skepticism about the future is what

preys most acutely on the market, and, the economy.  Sure there are bargains

to be had but like most retailers, there is never one clearance price.  And

yes, Treasuries are fully valued and arguably in a bubble, but that’s been

the story for a while too.  I don’t know who is good picking bottoms and

tops so I’m staying low beta and fairly neutral.  There is very little

chance that under this scenario, allocators have a call to arms for

equities.  That will happen but not now. Not perhaps unless there is a

Romney victory and Europe puts forth some plans for growth.  I would

actually support a position that puts Greece in default, cuts back on

austerity in favor of responsible spending for growth  but I’ll leave my

daydreaming for when I’m at the chick flicks my wife occasionally drags me

to.

I continue to be short global cyclical stocks such as materials.  I hate

beta, except perhaps on the short side and bunting instead of the long ball.

As my favorite metals and mining analyst, Pete Ward, said to me yesterday,

“steel has very high barriers of exit.”

During your market respite, you may want to read an excellent new book: The Big Win.

Greece, Diamond Foods, Euro, Santorum, Friess and Me

Another day and Diamond Foods (DMND) is still with us. I took my profits on the trade, selling the stock when it was up 7% on the day versus a decline of 1% for the broader market.  Will possibly return.

I have been advocating for months that Greece be pushed into default.  Perversely, this would be the best outcome for the markets and the Euro after the knee jerk reaction lower.  Greece, in fact, is less important to the European economy than AIG was to the global economy, than Lehman or Bear was to the US economy.  Germany’s interest is clear in keeping Greece and other profligate sovereigns in the Euro which is that it is the 50 pound weight at the other end of the barbell.  Were Germany to be the even more dominant in the Euro, their goods would be less attractive, harming their export economy.  This would be good for other exporters such as the US, although our goods are already cheap in relative currency terms.

I have a small short position remaining in the Euro.  I cut the core position and had stopped trading around it as it moved to breach the 130 level because the market had become incredibly conditioned to a negative outcome, perhaps proof no more evident than the current level of the Euro versus other currencies despite the headlines.  My short on the Euro was never based upon a break-up of the currency; it was based upon the view that there would be massive stimulus, including rate cuts, to support a weakening EU economy.  Essentially, they would have to inflate to forestall a deep recession.  This has been the policy outcome and I expect it to continue.  I would be more comfortable sizing up the Euro short if Greece stays in the currency than if they are unceremoniously shown the door since, admittedly, perversely, I see a Greek exit as a strengthening event as the world will realize that the EU is one “sovereign” that is willing to do what it takes to address its budget deficits although this would be more of an accidental outcome than deliberate, having everything to do with Greek  insouciance and an unhealthy dependence on ouzo than the execution of a strategic plan.  Keep in mind the folly of the lack of any real plan by the EU: the EFSF relies on contributions from countries including Greece, Italy, Spain and Ireland.  The far-reaching agreement on a more uniform budget reform process is also of negligible value since lack of adherence by the signatories will result in sanctions and fines.  Of course they will have to borrow money from the IMF and the EFSF to pay these fines but that is beside the point.

Let’s just get on with it. Let Greece default, put it behind us and move on to Portugal, a country that the Germans apparently feel more kindly toward.

Despite all this, and despite Santorum mucking up Romney’s path to the nomination, I am still positive on US equities although fully anticipating a consolidation. I am not one of those in the camp hoping for consolidation because it is healthy for the markets.  I’d rather see an unhealthy market go up every day although that is, of course, unrealistic.

When I was a salesperson at Salomon Brothers many years ago, I received a call from Friess Associates, an account I covered (the Brandywine Fund), inviting me to a cocktail reception at the home of Foster Friess.  I had never met Foster – he had already ceded active portfolio management to his staff – but had been in his office a few times. Lining Foster’s office wall were pictures of him with Presidents and other important people.  I asked why I was being so honored.  Well, came the response, Foster wants your support for Rick Santorum, a candidate he is endorsing.  You can send a check if you can’t attend.  This was a less than subtle way of asking me to contribute to Santorum’s campaign. I said I would look at Santorum’s platform  and get back to them. This was not a response they appreciated.  After looking into his background, I decided very quickly that I couldn’t support Santorum and declined, offering instead to make a contribution to any children’s charity of their choosing.  As with my initial response, this did not go over well.  And times haven’t changed –  I still can’t support Santorum and Friess still does; in fact, he is Santorum’s main backer.  There is a reason these two hang together and both are scary. http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/02/10/us-usa-campaign-friess-idUSTRE8190AK20120210.  And, by the way, I’m a Republican.

The Market: New Year’s Resolutions Are Made To Be Broken; More Positive On US Equities

The Market: New Year’s Resolutions Are Made To Be Broken

 

I sat back and marveled at the action in the global markets on Tuesday, wondering if these non-human entities had all of a sudden turned human making New Year’s resolutions to ignore underlying fundamentals and rally 2% a day. But guess what, markets don’t drunkenly warble Auld Lang Syne in symbolic banishment of times gone.  There is no Lord of the Calendar presiding over the indices, ripping the pages of 2011 from the binding, erasing the memory of an ailing global economy, resetting expectations to a level of attainability where economic indicators such as Eurozone PMI indicating a contracting economy are now a positive indicator.  In fact, the only symbolic symmetry I can find is in the economic hangover rattling the brains of money managers finance ministers and newly crowned technocrats the world over.

 

So as January rolls around we are still faced with the same positives and negatives, each release of data driving the markets, each tick of the currency market correlated to the price of commodities and equities.  But here’s THE but: I am more attracted to US equities than I was in 2011.  That is my resolution for the New Year BUT unlike those who resolve to lose significant weight in 2012, my complete transformation won’t happen in one day although it should endure past the next buffet – I mean, rally.

 

Yesterday’s Unicredit rights offering was not a positive sign for the markets.  The 27 investment banks underwriting the offering reportedly accounted for three-quarters of demand for the $9.8 billion offering, a high price to pay for a call option on future fees and one which toxifies (literary alert: new word) their balance sheets in the name of fees and, no doubt, in response to arm twisting by the ECB.  Shareholders were diluted to near zero and the deal was underwater from the first tick.   Can’t imagine there is much appetite for these types of deals going forward as it will swell “bad” assets at the banks involved, somewhat ironically I might add.

 

I still believe that we will see nationalization or partial nationalization of some banks.  The reason is simple: as with Unicredit, their problem loans and refinancing needs exceed their market caps.  Additionally, compliance with Basil standards has led to these banks pulling in credit lines, the most immediate response, which has stifled credit and slowed economic growth.  This, of course, is why the ECB has initiated their lending program.  I surmise that Draghi has had conversations with the banks taking advantage of this lending facility to participate in the new issue market.

 

Next week is critical as Italy and Spain come to market seeking capital from charitable buyers.  European debt is actually not a bad play if you can hold it longer term because it is extremely unlikely that either country will default.  However, I’m not playing and believe the price they have to pay to fund themselves will be extraordinarily high and for Italy this is only the beginning of their refunding.

 

All of this comes down to the fact that there is still no plan to “cure” the credit crisis in Europe, absent austerity measures that will likely not be enforced or enacted to the necessary magnitude and will only be effective in continuing to drive the EU economy into recession.  It is a lose-lose situation.  The loan facility has removed fears of a Lehman type moment but that is not nearly enough.  We still need to see the heavy artillery from the EU in the form of stimulus.  For example, Italy has had one of the slowest growing economies over the last 20 years of all OECD nations.  They can’t cut their way to growth.  I look at the banks continuing to park funds overnight with the ECB at record levels as insider trading: they know their market better than sell-side analysts or pundits and if they are willing to take such an imbalance in rates of return in exchange for the safety of the ECB, the problems are as bad as I imagine them to be.

 

But China will save us all!  No they won’t; they will look out for themselves and prey on the markets as they always have.  They see commodity prices declining so they will not enter the markets and be the support mechanism until they are down to their last copper penny.   China is on the bad end of two phenomenon:  its property bubble bursting and its primary end market’s  – the Eurozone – declining economy. Their trade surplus declined from $180 billion in 2010 to $160 billion 2011, numbers that any other nation would be happy with but not the Chinese.  This is positive for the US but may be a short lived victory as they dropped the value of the yuan this morning, a reversal of prior policy and a move that will undoubtedly flame already tense relations with the US.  This is a strong indication that the Chinese are very, and justifiably, concerned about their economy markedly slowing despite the recent PMI release.  This slowing will, of course, hit the global economy but especially Australia which is why I am short the Aussie dollar, albeit small for now.  Additionally, the property market in Australia is in horrendous shape and significantly hurting their banks and populous.  They have to lower rates, further pressuring the currency.

 

Now here is the good news as I see it and it resides squarely with the U.S. market and as a devout patriot, I couldn’t be happier.  The US treasury and stock markets are the global default markets of choice. Despite 2011 4Q negative pre-announcements hitting a high previously seen during two prior recessions in 2001 and 2008, the economic data is getting better.   Today’s jobless claims number continues to trend downward, which I believe is a function of a smaller sampling and companies having already cut through muscle so perhaps not an indication of a vastly improving employment picture but positive nonetheless.   Corporate earnings lag the improvement in the economy as companies ultimately respond by hiring more workers.  However, I do see earnings estimates continuing to decline, particularly multinationals from the combination of weaker export markets and a stronger USD.  Analysts are too optimistic in their S&P estimates for 2012.

 

So I remain relatively lightly position in equities, short the Euro against the dollar and short the AUD.  The U.S. equity markets will continue to react to the worsening situation in the EU and have a tough time rising near term.  However, asset allocation to equities, which I expected to see last year and perhaps we did to an extent, will ultimately drive equities higher so I don’t mind increasing my exposure opportunistically.

 

My preference is in defensive, domestically focused companies including healthcare, specifically managed care, nat gas, well-positioned retail, MLPs, utilities, US telecom and strong brands such as SBUX.  Some of my specific holdings are: CHK (CEO continues to pay down debt and restructure production toward liquids from nat gas as he said he would), WLP (inexpensive, buying back significant stock, defensive), NS (7.5% yld, insider buying), QCOM (market leader), GM (cheap but not in love with name), KO (yield, defensive but currency issues), EUO, short FXA.  Would not mind being short LNKD, GRPN, NFLX and ZNGA. This earnings season will be marked by currency adjustments and caution about Europe so I will mostly stay away from those companies playing in those areas.

 

Meanwhile, with some stability returning to the political scene in the US and Romney moving to the forefront, any sense of his emerging victorious in November will finally motivate US companies to spend the massive cash hoard on their balance sheet.  This is not an immediate event, however.

 

So there you have it. Nothing much has changed, the focus required to write 20”12” instead of 2011 really the only thing new.  I get the hang of that relatively quickly, usually after writing about 5 checks and filling out a few forms.  The markets however, have not changed their ways at all, renouncing their resolutions after a mere two days.

 

In sum, I am more positively disposed to the markets and have slightly increased exposure but want to get a better glimpse of the earnings season and the critical refunding periods for European debt before getting longer.

Draghi’s Diabolical Plan: The Carry Trade

Brilliant maneuver by Draghi – likely unbeknownst to him.

ECB lends money to the troubled banks at 1% who then go out and buy troubled debt, including new issue, at much higher coupon, taking in the difference as income.  These banks then use the bonds as collateral for the ECB loans.  Essentially, Draghi is doing indirectly what he can’t do directly:  buying sovereign debt new issue.  These bonds still find their way onto the ECB’s “balance sheet” and undoubtedly will not be marked to market should their prices collapse which of course would otherwise require more capital.

Problem is these carry trades never end well nor does the piling on of more debt solve a debt crisis.

The unintended consequences of an insufficient plan.

Europe Falls Short Again: What’s Next for Commodities and Stocks

“I could not have been more clear, I specifically asked for a bazooka and all I got was this little long range pea shooter,” said Mr. Market, clearly dejected.

Europe has done it again, taken the markets to the brink of despair, then sweet talked investors off the edge.  Frau Merkel has proven herself to be as alluring as the mythological Greek Sirens, her sweet songs of a stronger European Union with tighter budgetary controls enticing enough to convince unsuspecting traders to increase their risk.  But like a pimply faced teenager stuck at first base, they too will feel unsatisfied and longing for more.

At least they got smart about one thing, or so they believe, extending the deadline for the seminal announcement until March.  After the last two short window lead ins, they realized it takes months, or more, to craft a plan rather than a fortnight.  They will still come up short as each country realizes what Britain did which is they have no interest in being governed by the same country they had major problems with, well actually not exactly problems, more like out and out war.  However, even if reasonable  minds say that was then and this is now, the cultural divide between each country will prey upon this agreement.  But even if it does pass – it has not been officially ratified – and the countries needing approval from their broader government secures their assent, the very core of the agreement is flawed.  Let me see if I get this right: a country fails to either establish or enforce a budget in line with the requirements of the EU so the EU will then assess heavy sanctions upon the profligate nation.  Yup, that will work.

Candidly, as to my kids, I was not much of a disciplinarian. “If you do that again…,” I would say, both they and I knowing they would do it again and I would say that again.  Thankfully they turned out great.  Not so with Greece.  Without moral hazard, countries will continue to do what is in their politicians’ best interests.  Greece lied their way into the EU and the EU is responding with bailout after bailout.  I still believe allowing them to fail would be the best result.

This is the fifth bite of the apple for Europe and they continue to come up short, lagging a step behind.  Still no ring-fence, still no plan to save the banks, still nothing of substance; just words.  They are behind in everything, even video games.  The Mario Brothers went out of style a long time ago and the Italian version – Monti and Draghi – are not showing themselves to be Super Marios at all.  Draghi can get there if he opens the purse strings with a massive liquidity push, buying even more bonds than the ECB has in the past,  but despite two easings, he is still prone to alligator arms like the clients I used to wine and dine from my perch at Lehman;  his hands don’t reach the bottom of his pockets.   And with the most recent cut in rates being the result of a divided vote, it may get tougher for him to cut further given the European single mandate.  However, as the global economy slows and the USD strengthens, inflationary pressures will ease providing cover more rate cuts.

The banks still need $153 billion in new capital which I don’t see how they can raise without nationalizing some of the banks. But Santander does have a solution: they will just lower the risk level on their assets. Yup, that worked for Lehman.  So much for paying heed to the EU.  And should there ever be  a default and the CDS insurance kicks in, the global financial system will see a bigger meltdown than a forty-year old Japanese reactor.

The AAA ratings in Europe will be a relic of the past, no question as they are in virtually everyone’s mind, the only unknown is whether this will mark a near term bottom.  These ratings agencies continue to be an embarrassment, always multiple steps  behind.  Rumor has it that S&P management is urging their employees to contribute to the Herman Cain campaign for President.

Meanwhile, China continues to be slowing and I believe there is little they can do, or want to do, about the real estate bubble popping.  This bodes poorly for commodities.  With construction slowing, China has enough stockpiles of needed commodities to wait for a further decline in prices.  This is what they have always done when able and this is what makes them great traders.  They are like a private company, not worried about quarter to quarter earnings, taking a long-term view.  They were Warren Buffett before Warren Buffett became Warren Buffett, buying when others are fearful.  But with their primary end market, Europe,  going into a recession, possibly depression, the Chinese are limited in terms of what they can do to drive growth.  They would rather look for defaults and then step in and buy Greece or maybe even Hungary – its time to move on now that Taiwan seems under control.  India, though, not so much. The slowing in their economy, while not a complete surprise, is not welcome nonetheless.

This slowing will also hurt crude.  If Iran were not in the mix, we would already be trading in the 80’s to low 90’s.  Inventory figures have not been very good.

Euro short/ dollar long continues to be my favorite position.  As to stocks: I remain very light in exposure and tilted toward defensive.  Commodities look cheap but they always look cheap on the way to the bottom. I can be patient.  There has been too much beta chasing recently, in stocks such as X, that has to unwind.

The strengthening of the dollar will be as much a result of the strengthening US economy as well as the crumbling European economy.

So where can I go wrong?  The only way out of this is for massive stimulus by the ECB.   IMF rescues haven’t necessarily helped in the past. I am again inserting these charts I borrowed from JP Morgan:

IMF


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