Archive for the 'IMF' Category

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: The Lehman Moment Is Fast Approaching

I was bearish before; I’m even more bearish now. European sovereigns are evidencing a lack of confidence in their own bailout plan and the Lehman moment is fast approaching.  Have to be crazy to have much, if any exposure, to this market.  We will hit new lows.  How’s that for dire?

Building the bailout fund is incredibly similar to building a book on an IPO or secondary, something I have done hundreds of times. I can tell a bad deal from a mile away. This deal is bad.  With a hot deal, everyone wants in regardless of their fundamental view.  Funds will even play in an “okay” deal if they are confident the syndicate bid will support the selling pressure.  Sometimes, a fund is even willing to take a small  hit in the interest in maintaining a good dialogue with the Lead Managers.  But no one willingly goes into any deal if they expect to lose substantial funds.  Insiders – in this case, the EU countries with the most to lose if the deal falls apart – often add to their holdings on the offering, justifying it as a capital infusion or a necessary sacrifice.  If the UK were convinced the current plan to stave off European default would solve the crisis and substantial principal wasn’t at risk, they would gladly contribute rather than being labeled the “bad guy” by sitting out the deal.   The UK, however, recognizes that this transaction will break syndicate bid before the shares are delivered and that they have to keep their powder dry for when contagion hits their shores in a much bigger way.  Once it becomes clear to a book running manager that the deal is being given the cold shoulder by the conventional buyer, they then approach others, such as sovereign wealth funds.  In this case, that would be China but they have said no as well.

Coming up 50 billion short on a 200 billion euro book is a huge miss.   Unlike a lot of IPO’s and secondaries, the EU bailout can’t be downsized to get it to the market in an effective manner.  And by the way, a lot of downsized deals often fail because the market regards them as troubled.

Ultimately, the markets shun the underwriters with poor performance by getting their borrows lined up even before pricing.  Given the track record of the EU and IMF, the UK and US have already decided the ESFS is a short.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

France, Italy – Slow and Angry; EU Ratification Will Fail; US Stocks.

First some good news, the ratings agencies have finally cast themselves as the most consistent market indicator with an inverse correlation of 1.00  as downgrade events are now reflected in market moves higher.   Enough said.

Monti has not been in office long enough to change a roll of toilet tissue yet already had to call for a confidence vote.  This does not bode well for the future.

My view has not changed.  Achieving ratification of the EU treaty will be akin to asking turkeys to vote for Thanksgiving.  And even if the 24 non-French, non-German, non-UK governments do approve this union with a gun to their heads, compliance with their provisions will be tough to come by.  Monti made that clear today in a veiled threat to the Germans

“To help European construction evolve in a way that unites, not divides, we cannot afford that the crisis in the euro zone brings us … the risk of conflicts between the virtuous North and an allegedly vicious South.”

In other words, “don’t even think about asking us to do anything that we don’t want to do such as collect taxes.  Culturally, we don’t do that kind of thing.”

We saw some minor protests in the Italian parliament regarding the austerity measures, with the largest Italian labor union protesting more loudly on the cobblestone streets.  Put into perspective, these protests are targeted at austerity measures being implemented by the Italian government.  Can you imagine the anger when the Germans try to pull in spending?  The Greeks rioted in the streets against fiscal prudence and cost G-Pap his job before the treaty was a twinkle in Merkozy’s eyes.  I’m going to wait until Solution #6 makes the rounds at the next summit.

But I finally understand the lack of speed which the French operate.  In fact, yesterday’s legal accomplishments, the conviction of Carlos the Jackal for blowing up part of Paris and the conviction of Jacques Chirac for raping Paris, only took 30 and 20 years, respectively.  Translated into sovereign debt issues, that should give French banks enough time for the terms of the CDS they wrote on sovereign debt to expire.  Brilliant strategy.

Germany has made it clear they won’t pay up, the US will not contribute to the IMF to bail out Europe and China will use their foreign reserves to buy Europe – not European debt – but rather Europe.  I have asked many what they see as the solution to this crisis and no one has come forward with a solution prior to Europe’s Lehman moment. That’s what it took in the US, and we only have a 2 party system.

French banks will be nationalized as will others throughout the EU.  But that is only part of the solution. Ultimately, the other twin, Mario Draghi, will have to print money and buy more bonds.  The decline in the Euro is far from over – this is only a momentary respite.

Of course, none of this bodes well for US equities.  While Europe represents only 15-20% of our end market, the contagion casts a much bigger shadow.  S&P estimates will have to come down as the dollar strengthens, resetting valuations.  Europe will cascade into recession and China’s economy will continue to contract, further hurting global growth and the US recovery which has been tracking nicely.

The E&C sector and commodities have to continue to weaken as global growth slows.  I like domestic stories that are not dependent on a burgeoning economy for earnings growth.  Managed care remains a favorite and these companies continue to raise their earnings outlook as MLR improves with fewer doctor and hospital visits. WLP at 8.3X EPS with a massive buyback (20% of shares on top of 5% retired earlier this year) still looks cheap.  If employment ever picks up, this will add to growth. Sequestration provides a better result for them than the elusive budget deal. Health care overall looks attractive. MDRX, a company that provides technology solutions to doctor practices and hospitals, supported by a $30 billion incentive boost from the government to put all patients on electronic records, is inexpensive and it is an attractive acquisition candidate for a company such as ORCL that is on record as saying it wants to increase its presence in this business.  I took a small position in CSC, a stock that has been justifiably destroyed, while I do more work on it.  Meantime I get a 3% yield which appears safe.   And of course, there is QCOM, unique in its fundamentals in the tech space.

RIMM – the only question on this company is which will last longer – my phone or the company. Right now its neck and neck.  I used to love my Blackberry but now the service and my 18 month old phone, perform as well as Michelle Bachman at a debate.

As to Bachman, she has to stop using Tammy Faye Baker’s make-up person to be taken as a “serious presidential candidate” (her words).

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

The Icarus Market: High Fliers Beware

Daedalus would have made one helluva portfolio manager during these troubled times.

He was a man of moderation, caution and ingenuity.  It takes all three to succeed, or at least not lose, in this environment.  King Minos had imprisoned Daedalus and his son, Icarus, in the Labyrinth as retribution for a number of heroic acts.  With escape routes by land and sea impregnable, Daedalus used his ingenuity to fashion a set of wings for he and Icarus out of wax and feathers.  Before taking flight he cautioned his son to not fly too high lest the sun would melt the wax nor should he fly too low for the sea would dampen the feathers. Moderation, mid-level altitude, was the best course for escape and survival.

As the myth goes, Icarus had quickly mastered the use of his new wings.  He would soar and dive, soar and dive, each time extending the upper and lower levels of his flight path.  Alarmed, Daedalus repeated his warnings but the words were lost in the vacuum of the skies. Having in his mind successfully tested the boundaries of flight, Icarus decided that soaring into the skies was much more exhilarating than maintaining a steady path.  He flew higher and higher, unaware that the sun was beginning to take its toll.  The wax melted, the feathers floated down and Icarus crashed into the sea.  As he was drowning, he could be heard to say: “Damn, if I had only gotten out just before the top. Next time…”

This is an Icarus Market.  The rallies, the feelings of euphoria, suck people in and they ignore the risks, as their focus turns to the exhilaration of higher highs, a new trading range, much like Icarus extending upward his flight path.  They focus on the positives, not the negatives.  Like Daedalus, I am suggesting a moderate path, not net short and not all in long.  While I believe that the risk may be to the upside, there are too many unresolved, potentially devastating issues for me to throw caution to the wind.  My exposure remains light.  I like defensive stocks or stocks not dependent on the economy.  WLP (despite issues from the Super Committee), QCOM, value plays – my Ahmadinejad stocks as I like to call them because they are so hated (small positions in RIMM, HPQ which I shaved a bit and CSC), short EURO -long USD and of course, yield equities.  Coal continues to act like garbage and steel had no basis for rallying.

Near as we can tell Europe has not meaningfully progressed toward a workable solution to the crisis, announcing a less than suitable framework for resolution.  What was missing from the Merkozy plan was a ring-fence  for Spain and Italy, the two major trouble spots, and funding.  From the recent headlines, they are no further along to increasing the ESFS than they were then, with France still looking to the ECB in order to preserve their AAA rating, while Germany wants no part of bailing out the Icarus like French banks that assumed much too much risk. France’s AAA is gone – the S&P fat finger flub reminding me of newspapers that have already written the obituary of dying celebrities in advance of them taking their last breath.

And Europe’s recession will spill into the US, directly, and indirectly, through China.  US multinational earnings will of course be hit by recession in Europe so look for the S&P estimates to decline. China’s major end market will also suffer, continuing to pressure their exports.  And, while on China, is anyone still hanging onto the laughable hope that this bastion of self-interested opportunism is going to bail out the EU?  They won’t even do the easy stuff such as sanction Iran.  They have their own issues to contend with.

Before moving onto actual data, here’s where I am.  I fly to the underbelly of Daedalus.  As I weigh the pros and cons, I am encouraged by the US economy while expecting some moderation of corporate enthusiasm as seen in the recent reporting period.  I do not believe that we can use historical measures for determining that the market is compellingly cheap since we are in a low growth environment.  European troubles concern me the most and I would rather wait for a legitimate solution to be announced than get in front of it. Thus I don’t see significant downside to the market because each day the bar gets set lower and the bad becomes the not so bad.  If I had told you a year ago that Spanish and Italian bond yields would be just below and above 7%, respectively, you would have ventured a target on the S&P of 1000.  But the market has shown a tremendous capacity for resetting its threshold for bad news. So we will wallow in this extended trading range and likely not revisit the lows.  In fact, more money can actually flow into the US equity markets as it exits Europe but I fear that is a wish and not reality.  I would potentially turn more positive if I thought that more European Prime Ministers were poised to resign; each of the last two was worth a decent market rally.  There are 15 more PM’s in the Euro that are candidates with relative value S&P points of 5 to 15.  And even though there are no working monarchies, if say a King Juan Carlos abdicated, I would be willing to throw in a mid-afternoon rally for that – what the heck.

And the IMF will not be the answer even if they toss more chips into the pot.  I offer these charts from JP Morgan’s strategist, Michael Cembalest, showing that promises by the IMF have not yielded a great result in the past.

IMF

And while I’m in a plagiaristic mood, here is a chart from my friend David De Luca that I had sent out last week along with some commentary.  It shows the fear in equity markets. If you are one of those who believe the credit markets are leading indicators of the direction of equity markets then its time to head for the hills.  Within the past week almost $45 billion was taken out of the banking system and placed at the Fed, matching the move last seen in September 2008.  Surpassing the $108 billion peak post-Lehman, $125 billion is now being held at the Fed representing funds for loans that won’t be loaned anytime soon.  As the chart below indicates, this size withdrawal usually leads to a steep decline in the equity markets but that has not occurred yet as I do not believe today’s decline in the futures has anything to do with this. My point is that a whole lot of bad news is being obscured by other bad news or worse, bad news that is perceived as good news such as when a major corporation (read: country) loses its CEO (read: Prime Minister) without any replacement.

Repo

Beware of Greeks Returning Gifts: Push Them Into Default

JP has been cutting my hair for about 15 years.  He says the initials stand for Jean-Paul but given his decidedly Asian roots, that would be akin to Woody Allen claiming his real name is Frederico Fellini.  But I understand that working in a salon versus a barber shop requires a higher end nom de plume.   JP’s hands shake, not a great affliction for someone who makes their living holding a sharp instrument to someone’s head; actually not great for the customer either.  But I like JP, and although most who see me would likely disagree, I think he does a decent job.  Until the Greek crisis grabbed the headlines, I never attributed his shaking to having held a pair of shears in his hand as a hazard of his employment.  All that has changed.

Me: Sorry, JP, but I have to call you my barber from now on, or hair cutter, if you prefer.  You choose.

JP: I am a hairstylist, not a simple barber.

Me: Wish I could agree but you’re on the downside of 50 and the standard for a hairstylist, according to Greek doctrine, is that you retire at 45.  Anyone who can’t afford to retire at that age is no longer a hairstylist but rather a barber.

Any doubt in anyone’s mind that if Greece stays in the EU, that we will be revisiting the debacle in 3 months, 6 months, 9 months and every day in between?  My solution to getting their foot off the neck of the global markets is to let them go, push them into default.  That is the only way to put this behind us and move forward.  Short term pain for long-term gain.  Clear the decks and onward and upward. Okay, enough clichés.  The overriding issue is that the profligate countries have to be weaned off the golden teet ofGermanyand, to a lesser extent,France.   Berlusconi has attempted to re-tradeItaly’s austerity plan by extending the implementation date for hiking the retirement age.  Irelandis seeking to re-trade their agreement.  At some point a deal has to be a deal and those living in violation of those agreements have to face the consequences of non-compliance.  By allowing Greeceto default, or pushing them into default (read: bankruptcy) others will get in line.  Of course, there has to be a shock and awe safety net forSpainandItalywere Greece to default but the ECB can and should provide that.  No sense being foolish about this – have to limit the contagion.  There will be enough unintended consequences as a result of this strategy but my sense is a Greek default won’t come as a surprise to anyone.  Of course, the CDS holders will get paid and those that wrote the insurance, or took the other side, will experience a result they weren’t counting on but there is a benefit here.  The CDS market will shrink; CDS writers will understand that countries can go belly up driving the cost of the derivative significantly higher.  And with the shrinking of the CDS market, high risk investments will decrease, involuntarily chasing high risk takers (read: French banks and former New Jersey Governors) out of the market.

Were this to happen it may temporarily prop up the Euro but make no mistake about it, the Euro is going lower.  Europeis trending into recession and the only way to combat contracting growth is by easing as Draghi did today.   TheU.S.economy is getting stronger while the rest of the world is weakening.  That translates into shortEuropeagainst long dollar.  Right now the Euro seems to win both ways; that can’t last forever.

Am I Bearish – Part II: Very Much Not – For Now

As I detailed in my post from 10/21, the resolution to the European sovereign debt crisis has played out according to what I had anticipated.  Merkel had sufficiently lowered expectations to allow for a plan the market would embrace.  U.S. corporate earnings are benefiting from the same mechanism: beating lowered expectations.  With bearishness so high, as expressed in cash not just sentiment, the market was spring coiled for a pretty strong move higher.   I had raised the prospect of a knee jerk sell on the news, always need an “out,” but that was not my high probability case and I did say I would have added on that momentary decline.  I dont’ expect same reaction in US markets as we had in Europe.  Asia type pop is more likely today.

But that is just for today, we will go up by 10-15% from here.  How do I get to my upside: market basically flat on the year despite S&P earnings up approximately 15% this year and forecast up 13% next year.   So we’re behind by that 15%, at least.

So where are we now?  Europe is in a recession and it will deepen.   In order for the banks to get to 9% Tier 1 ratios, they will begin by pulling in credit lines, removing that portion of  their liabilities.   This will lead to a further stifling of credit. Austerity measures will further crimp spending.

But most importantly we face the overhang of the details.  But at this point there is no reason not to believe that the EU will work out sufficient details to support the plan.  Maybe Washington can take a lesson on getting a plan to the finish line from the 17 EU currency countries. Nonetheless the trend of the market is higher. I am still sticking with high quality defensive stocks for the most part: WLP, KO.   After today, junk will still be junk and quality, still quality.  NFLX still overvalued, RIMM, despite all its problems, still cheaper than NFLX.  At least they are making money during an all out assault on their business model.  Hold sold most of NIHD before release given high expectations and big run but will buy tight here, down 14%.

Am I Still Bearish? Sort of Not

I have had very light equity exposure for an extended period of time with periods of being net short to being fairly long. Fortunately, with the indices having been range bound, the opportunity cost has been insignificant. As I mentioned in a prior note being bearish is exhausting, lonely and counter to my natural optimism (although I do admit to always maintaining a healthy dose of cynicism). Imagine taking your child to see 101 Dalmatians and loudly rooting for Cruella deVille to come out on top. Your kid shrinks away to another seat on the other side of the theater while others shun you. That’s how bears are treated.

I continually second guess my investment thesis, trying to see what the other side sees. I weigh the inputs underlying my stance, marking them to market. I try to remove the bias of my position as I seek additional data that is either supportive or unsupportive of my position. And of course, there is always the fear of acting from emotion that prompts a change in thinking, a feeling that you weren’t invited to the party, of being left out. And most of all, there is that greatest fear of all, of having reversed course at absolutely the wrong time. And in full disclosure, I have not always made the turn in a very timely fashion. I did well in 2008 but hardly made any money in 2009. Although I was still ahead of the game, it still didn’t feel good missing out on a ripping bull market move.

So where am I now? I am warming up to the market. Why? Well, I have often said I have seen this movie before and it ended badly but maybe there will be a different ending to this installment because everyone else had also seen the prequel to the 2011 financial crisis. My ending has banks struggling to raise capital, some, like Dexia or perhaps Greece, going belly up, credit continuing to tighten, economies contracting – the culmination of all these fears and others I haven’t listed causing a massive wave of selling. But guess what? Merkel and Sarkozy and the more responsible members of the G-20 and EU were also around in 2008 and they have no interest in revisiting that scenario. Granted they have waited too long and the cost of delay has ratcheted up the price of a cure. Germany and France have the most to lose by not putting forth a viable solution. While expectations for a total and complete solution are still high, they have been ratcheted down enough to be attainable, or near attainable with the promise to be completely resolved in the next 3 to 6 months. Shock and awe is not in the cards and everyone knows it. But will they give us enough to put a floor under the market and cause under invested funds to chase performance? I think so.

Swimming upstream, against the tide of bullishness that is the unwavering stance by the vast majority of pundits and market participants is difficult enough but imagine the flood gates being opened and the water gushing at you as you flutter kick your portfolio like a foam kickboard. The world is awash in liquidity. It all comes down to not fighting the Fed. But the much maligned U.S. Fed has recruited a legion of Central Bankers to fight the battle: the EU, IMF and China. This is a massive liquidity push by every printing press on the planet. So for now, I am entering into surrender negotiations and further increasing my exposure further.

I am by no means becoming fully invested for I still have that evil twin whispering in my ear. The global economy is in terrible shape but what do I know that others don’t? I don’t have an edge on China – it’s a property bubble that has already begun to leak – but the Chief Communist (as opposed to Chief Economist) knows that. I think that will end ugly but they can throw enough money at it in the interim to allow the S&P to rise to 1250, a random number, while their market declines. Europe is in recession but that thinking is convention and is nothing that $1.3 trillion can’t cure.

The most alpha will likely be generated through commodities and materials – the most economically sensitive investments – but I can’t go all that way in. There is too much risk in case I am wrong. I do like the fertilizer companies for the long term and although recovering, they have been beaten worse than a Middle Eastern dictator. I still prefer the more boring fundamentally, bottoms up investments epitomized by MDRX, KO, QCOM, WLP, NIHD. My risk is in bottom fishing on HPQ and, dare I admit it, RIMM. I cut back my Euro short against the dollar but will rebuild that position again at some point.

How long the cure lasts is what keeps a lid on my exposure. At some point austerity leads to slower growth and U.S. economic policy is non-existent as Washington remains rudderless. Everyone believes China will bail out every local government, corporate and individual spectators but I don’t. After all, they are communists and not prone to providing handouts to failing billionaires or local governments who have repeatedly disobeyed central government directives. There will be some pain to teach them a lesson.

I won’t be discouraged if there is a sell on the news mentality once the EU deal is announced. And I am rooting for another delay in the announcement because that means they are still arguing – eh, negotiating. And I expect leaks from the negotiations to cause some volatility. We should continue to move higher, perhaps rally 20% before going lower, likely hitting prior lows.

Whoops, there I go again.


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