Monday, December 28, 2009

Give Us Something To Believe In

I wrote this article and submitteed it to Tim Knight's Slope of Hope. He usually will post my contributions only on the weekends because they are so long, so I will go ahead and publish it here in case it doesn't fit with his year-end line up. I will post a very quick (I know-I promise it will not be lengthy) updates on where I think the market is from a trading perspective and how to look at the positions we've mentioned in the past. Right now other than the last piece of my KSU that I exited this morning I have no positions.

I've documented the history of actions that caused our crisis and outlined the steps our government has taken to "bail us out". You may find the most recent post at Goatmug's Blog where we discuss The Best Cup of Coffee Ever and how it seemed wonderful and solved all of my problems, yet ended up bitter and disappointing. As I've mentioned, I believe many of the steps taken have either not worked at all, created other problems, or simply hidden the problems. Let's take a few of the items I pointed to in the last post and review the impact and results of their actions

A) The Federal Reserve and Treasury along with other world central banks stepped in and offered their fiscal support and immediately lowered rates again to near zero. Remember, these are front month rates and are the interest rates the government charges banks for overnight money. The Fed voted in recent weeks to keep rates stable at effectively zero percent interest. They voted to do so some 18 months since the beginning of the crisis and 9 months after the beginning of what we now know as one of the largest rebounds in stock market history. In spite of the rally we are still around the 10,500 level on the Dow which is where we traded in January of 2006 and well below the lofty 14,000 area of October of 2007. Am I saying that we cannot return to these areas? No, in fact if the Treasury department remains committed to devaluing the dollar, I can paint a scenario where that might be a real outcome. I doubt it seriously, but it could happen.

Timothy Geithner gave an interview last week on NPR that should put us all on notice. In his words, we will not have a retest or slowdown after this recession. Although many of his other predictions have been flat out wrong, I have a strange sense that he is committed to not letting that happen no matter what.

Mr. Geithner is only speaking of a short term pull back that he'll help us avoid, for it is too obvious that the Fed and Treasury actions create bubbles and meltdowns and they are coming with increasing speed. I liken this to a drug addict. At first there is pleasure in the use of the substance. Next there is dependency, and then an increasing need for the larger portions of the drug in greater frequency. Think about friends, family members, and others that fit this drug addict description. It usually never has a happy ending does it? I think what we're about to experience is "tough love" provided by our investors. Our friends, (Chinese, British, folks in the Middle East), are about to hold a frightening intervention with the addict and therefore we will be told that we need to shape up and cut out our drug abuse. Unfortunately, I don't think the addict will listen. It is too tempting to let all of that debt go to waste and too hard to cut spending and cut promises and entitlements.

So what are the results of these actions? Interest rates are still low and creating asset bubbles. - Banks and other bank holding investment banks and insurance companies can now borrow at zero overnight and buy stocks, bonds, and commodities. Is there any wonder why all markets are screaming? What happens when that money is taken back? Remember, this money was intended to buttress balance sheets and also intended to be lent out to companies and consumers, not find their way to the casino!

Banks receive this money and will lend. - NOPE! This has not happened. This I believe is one of the greatest lies that has been made in this crisis. Why would any smart banker lend in the teeth of a nasty, jobless recession? Would you? If you looked at a firm that is asking for credit and he tells you that their business is slowing and they need a loan to make payroll, do you think they are a good risk? Asking bankers to lose money on bad loans is not a solution to the crisis. On a positive note, I am hearing some of my clients being contacted by banks that are desiring to lend on decent terms now. This may be an indication of some thawing.

B) The Fed also bought toxic securities outright from troubled financial institutions and traded those assets for treasuries. Our government offered the TARP funds to help institutions and even made outright purchases of banks and insurance companies. (AIG, Citbank, etc.) We even used these to buy and lend stakes to great car companies like GM! We keep reading that many of the banks and insurance companies that we lent TARP money to have repaid us and we (the US taxpayer) may have actually made some money on these loans. The reality is that we may have made some money on loans that have been repaid, but we have taken a bath on the loans that will never be repaid. Making AIG a government controlled entity makes certain that more losses are headed our way. The Treasury Department and Fed's lack of negotiation with AIG's creditors should be enough to convince anyone that the well connected firms like PIMCO, Goldman Sachs, and Blackrock were feasting on the carcasses of weakened and dying financial firms. In addition, these same favored companies have become the mechanism by which the FED and Treasury actually implement their policies. These companies are providing transaction support (spreads), participating in deals, and also offering consulting services

So what are the results of these actions?
AIG is a mess and still 85% owned by the US. Isn't it great we are in the insurance business?
GM - is still GM.
Goldman, Blackrock, and PIMCO are killing it .

Remember too big to fail? - As a result of the forced marriages between JPM and Washington Mutual, BAC and Merrill Lynch, Wells Fargo and Wachovia, we now have a greater concentration of larger institutions. Seems like the US government has now created larger risk pockets and concentrated more power in less hands. Finally, the repaid TARP money is being used like a slush fund now. The administration and Geithner said they had "extra TARP money" that they could use! Excuse me, just because it is appropriated doesn't mean we need to use it if everything is all fixed, right?
C) In concert with these actions our government also looked to perform direct support (cynics would call it manipulation) in the mortgage market and the treasury market. By guaranteeing and supporting the FHA the US taxpayer became the lender/insurer to 80% of the post-collapse mortgage market. With the announcement of quantitative easing by the Fed we began buying our own treasuries to try to keep prices low and contain rising interest rates.

While short-term manipulation has been successful, it is just that - short term. The bond market is bigger than any one central government and the bet made by Bernanke is going to be called. Once that happens interest rates will climb (and as I type this we are seeing 30 year mortgage rates 10bps higher in one day last week!). THIS IS A HUGE MOVE BY THE WAY! Who will step in to fill the void of the government in this volume at these rates? Stabilizing the home market is job #1 - The government has artificially lowered interest rates and become the dumping ground for all banks to offload their paper on the US taxpayer. Few banks are doing direct lending to residential borrowers without FHA backing. Home sales look to be moving up, but we must ask how long this will continue if rates jump substantially, cash for houses go away, the FED stops buying MBS (stops being the market), or banks actually release the huge backlog of foreclosures that they have kept on their books.

Don't get me wrong, the government is having an impact here and this is positive for the economy. I'm very concerned that this could change if any of the government "help" is removed or investors demand higher rates and push mortgages rates over 6%. For example, in November we were to have the final expiration of the first time home buyer credit. Sales were pulled forward and suddenly we have a reported drop in new home purchases in November. The following Bloomberg article demonstrates what the threat of pulling stimulus does. A mad rush of buyers that would have bought anyway step forward to take advantage of the taxpayer-paid windfall, and then demand dries up in the following months (Cash for Clunkers anyone?).

Obviously I'll have this prediction in my top predictions for 2010, but I'll suggest here and now that we have a dip in the sales trend in existing homes as much of the inventory that has been clearing has been foreclosures and investors (not occupants) have been swooping in to pick them up. Hopefully those investors have been buying smart and have deep pockets because I will predict that we'll see the new generation of home flippers that have emerged get sunk in 2010. They'll find that there won't be many buyers for these homes when mortgage rates hit 6% or 7% since we're all spoiled and believe that 4.75% is what we should expect! These investors will also get hit hard when banks like Wells Fargo and Bank of America actually release their piles of inventory instead of letting them trickle out. Look for these inventory clearances after 1st quarter reports come out.We were told that housing is the key to recovery - housing has not recovered yet, so I guess there is no recovery yet.

D) The Obama administration got in the act and began programs like the Housing Tax rebate for first time home buyers, Cash for Clunkers, and now Cash for Caulkers. In addition, the federal government has continued its payment of extended unemployment benefits. In addition, as a country we are now running a huge fiscal deficit (nothing new, just the magnitude of it is) and our government's expansion has required us to raise the debt ceiling (allowable debt of the country) to $1.8 Trillion Dollars! This doesn't even account for the addition of any new health care program or new stimulus. As I've mentioned several times, I believe that the Fed and Treasury must be cussing the administration for their interference. The Obama administration has kept to their strategy that they wouldn't waste any crisis and by goodness they haven't. In the hysteria they have continued to plunder the US taxpayer and add more programs and benefits to the entitlements for anyone that will take them.

We are now seeing that COBRA subsidy benefits are being extended to the unemployed (they have been offered for 9 months) and will be provided for another 6 month period. The program pays 65% of the premiums that someone that has been laid off of work must pay to keep their health insurance. It seems odd to me that the US Government and US taxpayer would pay for health plans at rates that are significantly higher than what can be obtained by families in the open market with individual policies. Of course we shouldn't be amazed at all about this, this is what happens when government makes decisions. This one example illustrates how the new health reform plan cannot and will not be an improvement or a cost savings for anyone.

While Obama has added his pork to the budget, the US treasury buyers will not tolerate the bloated debt of the USA. The market will require higher rates of interest and this will cause significant pain for all of us.
Crisis Management- Administrations have added pork laden projects and plans to the backs of taxpayers as an excuse to stimulate the economy. There are no plan for fiscal restraint or management of the budget. What simply blows me away is that I hear Obama speak about finding waste in government programs to pay for more stuff! Where is the idea that you cut costs and if necessary, benefits?

I'll comment more about the health care reform bill in another post, but you need to understand that the winner here is the health insurance industry (for now). As these bills are written they will have a captive audience of buyers. Many of you know that I own a health insurance brokerage and I saw a huge swing in commentary by insurance companies. If you don't think they are giddy, you are WRONG! Check out this email link I received from Aetna. These guys were hammering the Senators and then suddenly came out with this gem. Mind you, if this goes through I hope to sell everyone one of you a policy because I would hate to see you go to jail or pay stiff fines, but everything about this stinks and reeks of over promising and under delivering at a terrible cost to tax payers. A key provision in the plan is the elimination of pre-existing conditions as a basis for exclusion or rating up. Once this exclusion provision is removed we will witness the elimination of INSURANCE! Why would you obtain insurance till you have something serious now? GDP was revised downward and we are seeing that the government is responsible for most of the production for last quarter. I understand that

For all of these programs, what are the results? - We were told we need these programs to stimulate the economy- all have been short term and have done nothing to change the fundamental situation. We still have 10% unemployment and 17% U-6 unemployment. We were told that everything would begin to get better once housing is stabilized, we haven't seen housing stabilize and won't for a while. More appropriately we'll see things stabilize when people have jobs.

E) The accounting standards board (FASB) bowed to pressure from financial institutions and our government by suddenly recommending that accounting standards be thrown out the window. The accounting standards board have been complicit in this crime against investors as the boards were threatened and frightened into thinking that they would be responsible for imploding our economy. Where is the leadership in our country? I am afraid that the move to take a time out on reality simply makes it easier to do it again. The accounting standards board should have stood up and emphatically stated that accounting standards don't change or take a time out because the truth hurts! Future collapses will be much worse because the ponzi schemes the government and banks have set into motion were not stopped here. Clearly now that the banks are bigger and risk more concentrated similar meltdowns will be even more destructive. Accounting standards were thrown out resulting in a lack of understanding of true value of banks and insurance companies.

Where are we now? We still don't know what banks are worth and they are still raising capital and still lying about the risk on their balance sheets.

F) Finally, as we saw in the previous October post called Public Enemy #1-Deflation we see that the Fed and Treasury unleashed its last desperate weapon, Dollar Devaluation. The dollar devaluation trade is simply a move to destroy the value of the dollar relative to other currencies. This makes our dollars worth less and hence our debt worth less. We could also argue that it makes our goods cheaper as we hope to sell them abroad. The Fed has been true to its words that it would implement this strategy if faced with the prospect of deflation. When the government went to work in March the DXY was at $89.20 and they did not disappoint. They have moved the value down by as much at $15.00. The DXY is now trading at 77.64, well off its lows of $74.27 in late November and early December. So as the dollar has been pelted since March, EVERYTHING has gone up. Think about it, stocks, bonds, bread, gas, oil, gold, and the kitchen sink have all increased. So now, we've been told that everything is better and that we are recovering. In fact about 3 weeks ago, we had a surprisingly strong jobless claims report that stunned the market and boom, the dollar reversed course and interest rates began to rise. They rose because the strong jobless report indicated that things were stronger than expected and the Fed might need to remove stimulus (increase interest rates or as we know it, take the drugs away from the addict). Since that day there has been a resurgence of the dollar. Bernanke tried to tell the market that they would not raise rates because there were no indications of inflation in the market. Fed governors tried to tell us there was no evidence of inflation, and now Geithner has come out and told us that there is not a chance that we'll have a double dip.

So why are rates starting to rise and the dollar increase? How have we seen the dollar rise and the markets increase? First we have had some credit issues with Dubai, Greece, and Spain. All of those have reminded investors that there really is risk in the credit market and we aren't fully recovered. Scared investors tend to go to safety, and therefore we have seen a flight to safety in the dollar. Having said that, treasuries are a poor investment as the Fed has made sure to destroy any reality in that market (and value too). Therefore it is easy to see how liquidity could move to other dollar denominated assets allowing for the strengthening dollar AND rising equities and bonds (at least here in the last few weeks). Remember, this move up in interest rates and increase in the value of the dollar is contrary to what the Fed and Treasury desire (even though they say they want a strong dollar for the sake of our Chinese buddies). The increase in rates immediately translates to greater borrowing costs for the tax payers AND devalues the value of the treasury assets we already own. The government states that it wants to keep rates low to stimulate lending, but I can also see that we need to keep rates low to keep from blowing our own foot off since we have been purchasing our own debt through quantitative easing. Zerohedge has another good post that captures exactly what I've been saying and leading up to here.

What are the results? - So we have an administration that says they want a strong dollar, but we have a Fed Chief that has stated his strategy to save the economy would rely on a devaluation of the dollar. We have had an engineered rally in all asset classes and treasury rates that are way too low for the risk and duration of the trade. In essence we have a bubble in Treasuries!
My isn't it obvious, where ever we see the footsteps of the Fed, we see bubbles? So what is on the horizon for the Fed and Treasury? In 2010 we will see greater rates as buyers decide to wait it out and purchase their mis-priced treasuries at a better risk-reward. The greater rates will hurt bond holders and most of all the US tax payer. The bond market at some point will change the behavior of our current administration and the corrupt politicians that look to hand out entitlements and lack the idea of being representatives of the people.

We will see drastic cuts in city and state budgets and services before we see anything on the Federal side, but cuts will come at the national level.

If the Fed and Treasury want to keep the charade of low rates going then a fall in the equity markets will be the mechanism to deliver lower funding rates, unless they announce a new set of Q.E.

To wrap this up, we see that in each instance the failed efforts of the government to fix the situation have either simply done nothing or helped to kick the can down the road. As we've elaborated since our first post in August, the game of extend and pretend has been in full force. The problem is that at some point (2010, 2012, or 2015....) there will not be a way to extend it and a creditor will call our bluff and call in our debts. What I am really longing for is for a responsible leader to stand up and say NO, we won't offer this entitlement, no- we are actually going to cut services. Americans are going to be forced to live through these boom and bust cycles at an increasing level of speed and magnitude because our current leadership will not speak truth. The best result of all of this crisis is that average Americans are beginning to wake up and live a paradigm based on their needs and not their wants, based on their own ability and assets, not based on what their neighbor has. I am seeing a genuine reversion to true values of healthy financial management in peoples financial lives and in their businesses. Unfortunately, they had better be ready quickly because our government is saddling them with more debt and taxation to pay for promises and entitlements we can't afford. As an example of the crisis that consumers are facing check out this closing study.

Almost half (46%) of 2,148 consumers surveyed recently said they weren’t confident they could come up with $2,000 within a month in a crisis–from savings, family, friends, credit cards or other sources.Even among those earning $100,000 to $149,000 a year. almost 25% doubted they could raise it, according to the survey conducted by research firm TNS with academics from Harvard Business School and Dartmouth College. “We wanted to know if people could fix a broken car or furnace,” says Harvard finance professor Peter Tufano, who adds that most studies he has seen measure “how much cash people have… not how much they can access.” The survey results surprised him. “The ability to cope with emergencies is much less strong than we might have thought.”

I saw this in reality as people in the South dealt with Hurricane Ike. After 1 day people were cashless and without resources to make it through this terrible emergency. Americans need to wake up and save and communicate to their leaders that it is unacceptable to continue in this fashion. We had a final emergency and the US leadership chose to fake it till they made it rather than employ real fundamental solutions to problems of our own creation. At the end of the day I feel like the Bush Administration, Obama Administration, Treasury, and the Fed have just tried to spin whatever story we would fall for in order to get us to give them time. What they have figured out is that we just want them to give us something to believe in to quote a favorite from Poison (yes, I'm still into 80's hairbands). Guess what, they've given us a few tales, let's hope that no one actually figures out that what we've believed in isn't worth the trust we've placed with them.