Dubai debacle

I don’t know what surprised me more about the debacle in Dubai last week, the fact that such a big deal was made or that anyone was surprised it happened.

Dubai World, a Dubai government-backed development group, said they wanted a 6 month pause in paying back a $60 billion loan. This may seem like a lot of money to you and me, but its chump change in the big scheme of things.

The financial crises over the last 2 years tended to be focused on multiple trillions, not billions. Added to this, Dubai is the second largest of 7 United Arab Emirates (UAE), with Abu Dhabi being the largest. Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth fund is over $300 billion in size, so bailing out little brother wouldn’t cause it to even break a sweat.

So, what was the big deal that tanked global markets? It simply shows that the credit crisis is not truly over and everyone is still sitting on pins and needles, despite their protests that everything is A-okay.

Credit markets are not healed, and the tremendous bad debt burden has simply been shifted from the private sector to government. The market sold off, in my opinion, because many expect credit problems to happen in the fullness of time and they were worried this was the first of many tremors.

This raises my second point. Why was anyone surprised?

Dubai only gets 6% of their gross domestic product from the petrochemical business. It decided to borrow a ton of money to build islands (shaped like palm trees and the earth), the tallest building in the world, an indoor ski mountain in the desert (I wish I were making this up) and vast ports so that it could become the world’s new Hong Kong. This was Field of Dreams writ large–build it and hope they will come.

Unfortunately, not enough people came.

What a startling surprise! Someone borrows to build a tremendous real estate project only to find there’s no real end demand for it. Sound familiar?

What did surprise me is that anyone didn’t expect this.

Just think what could happen if another entity, say commercial real estate in the U.S., has trouble rolling over debt and doesn’t have a rich big brother to bail them out, or that rich big brother (Uncle Sam) is so saddled with debt he can’t help without going into bankruptcy himself!

We saw what happened when a measly $60 billion defaulted for 6 months, what will happen if a bigger problem arises?

It is for this reason I’m de-risking my clients’ and my portfolios. Things look calm on the surface, but underneath the earth is trembling. Taking risk now may work well for a short time, but not over the long run.

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

It’s normal to worry, but this is not the time to panic

Below is a slightly altered version of an email I recently sent to clients:

Dear Clients,

As you’ll see next week, my client letter was written at quarter end and doesn’t address recent market volatility. With that in mind and considering the recent market drop, I decided to throw together a quick email to all clients giving my opinion of what is happening and what my response is.

I’ve summarized my thinking in quick bullet points for those short on time or not as interested. Then below, I go into more detail on each point for those who want more info. Finally, my intent is to try to answer your questions as well as I can and to get a dialogue going if you are concerned. Please feel free to contact me at any time if you want to talk to me about what is going on. I will be available or quickly return your calls. This is a stressful time, and I’m here to answer your questions.

1. It’s natural to be worried, but panic selling now will lead to regret in the long run.
2. Historically, this decline is not out of the ordinary.
3. I believe recent government action will work, although it will take some time and it will lead to higher inflation in the long run.
4. It’s not possible to time the market, so trying to sell now and buy at the “bottom” almost always leads to worse results than holding on.
5. The market is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
6. Our underlying businesses are strong even though their prices are going down.
7. This is a historic time to invest!
8. One of the reasons you hired me is to let me worry about the market for you. That’s what I’m trying to do for you now.

Now, the details.

1. It’s natural to be worried, but panic selling now will lead to regret in the long run.

Being worried is normal–I’m having no fun watching your and my portfolios decline. It’s easy to anchor on recent market tops and expect the highs to continue–there was a lot of media coverage about the Dow hitting 14,000 this time last year. People are panicking because they are scared, but reacting by selling is the worst investment plan and will lead to tremendous regret when the market does rebound. Temporary highs and lows can make you feel better and worse than you want to. The market swings up and down dramatically, so it’s best to focus on longer term averages. A wise person once said that courage is not the lack of fear, it’s the ability to act in the face of fear. Right now, not selling is taking a lot of courage.

2. Historically, this decline is not out of the ordinary.

The stock market tends to decline an average of 40% when recessions hit, which is about every 5-10 years. We’re down around 40%, so this decline is in line with history. As Mark Twain said, history doesn’t repeat, but it sure does rhyme. Sometimes the market goes down by 20%, sometimes it goes down by more. No one knows where this one will bottom, and trying to pick the bottom is a fool’s errand. Our economy and financial sector are facing the worst period since the Great Depression, but that doesn’t mean it will look just like the Great Depression. Comparisons to history are useful, but expecting the same outcomes in the same way is a mistake.

3. I believe recent government action will work, although it will take some time and it will lead to higher inflation in the long run.

Current government plans have flaws, but I believe they will get credit markets and the economy going, eventually. The cost will be higher long term inflation and more regulation, but I do think it will work. The market tends to bottom 6-9 months before the economy does. Economic data comes out months and years after the economic bottom is clearly reached. Waiting for the economy to improve will lead you to miss the huge stock market rebound that will occur. It’s hard to see past our current turmoil, but a long term focus helps.

4. It’s not possible to time the market, so trying to sell now and buy at the “bottom” almost always leads to worse results than holding on.

Like the search for the Holy Grail and a perpetual motion machine, people are always trying to time the market by buying at the bottom and selling at the top. Unfortunately, this isn’t possible, and every attempt to do so ends in tears. I remember buying a company called JLG in 2000 at $8.88 per share, watching it decline to $3.95, and then selling it when it climbed above $17. I had doubled my money when the market was doing terribly, so I felt good about myself. But then JLG climbed to $60. It’s easy, in hindsight, to think I should have known that JLG was worth a lot more than $3.95 at the bottom and buy more. It’s easy to think I should have waited for $60 to sell at the top. Having been through that ride, though, I know very well that it’s not possible to pick the tops and bottoms. Instead, I focus on the underlying value of the business and buy when it goes down and sell when it goes up. I never pick the exact bottom or top, but over the long run, I’ve had very good results.

5. The market is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

When the market panics, everyone feels so much pain they sell no matter what price they get. This leads people to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and that is what I’ve been seeing since Oct 1st. People are selling good companies and bad ones, small and big, everything. When that happens, it’s very unprofitable to join the crowd and sell, too. This is a sign of how much pain people are in, not the underlying value of businesses. In the long run, the market will recognize underlying business value, even if it takes a while and some pain to get there.

6. Our underlying businesses are strong even though their prices are going down.

When I look at our underlying businesses, I feel very confident. Software companies will continue to sell software and make money, even in a down market. People will still subscribe to cable, even if they don’t pay for HBO anymore. Smart insurance companies will continue to write insurance. Discount retailers are doing better than ever as people look for bargains. Europe’s lowest cost airline is still lowest cost and, and with little debt, can continue doing business and make more money than competitors, smart holding companies have investment money on the sidelines and the inside scoop on the best deals in the market when everyone else has no cash to invest, well capitalized insurers are writing more insurance now that AIG and other insurance companies are in severe trouble, big pharmaceutical companies will continue to sell drugs to people who need the medicine to live longer, happier lives, great banks are expanding by buying competitors at a fire-sale price because most other banks are on the ropes, auto insurers will continue selling car insurance because people have to buy it to drive, smart chemical companies will continue to make vital chemicals and pay lower prices for gas and oil inputs, large integrated oil companies will continue producing and refining fuel for people who will continue to heat their homes and drive their cars, large international banks will continue to grow their international banking franchises and will be able to buy up competitors because they are more conservatively financed than competitors. Many companies are strong and exploiting the downturn–but their prices are going down! Why? Because people are panicking, not because the businesses are going bankrupt.

7. This is a historic time to invest!

If you look back at market history and see 2002, 1998, 1991, 1987, 1982, 1974, 1962, 1953, 1942, 1938, 1932, etc., you will see market bottoms where things were awful. 2002 was the bottom of the tech blowout. 1998 was the bottom of the Asian Contagion. 1991 was the Saving and Loan bailout and recession. In 1987, the market dropped over 20% in one day! 1982 was a sharp recession and the Time magazine article of the “End of Equities.” 1974 was a terrible recession, extremely high inflation, the pullout of Vietnam, etc. And so on and so forth. They were each excellent times to invest and extremely tough moments to do so. What made them great times to invest? Because some people panicked and others didn’t. The people who didn’t panic made out like bandits. If you have extra cash to invest, put it to work now. If you don’t, hold on for now. The roller coaster is on the way down, our stomach is in our throat, we know it will go back up again but can’t think about that because we feel awful. But, holding on is the most profitable route.

8. One of the reasons you hired me is to let me worry about the market for
you. That’s what I’m trying to do for you now.

An important part of my job, in addition to researching and picking investments, is to take the pain for you of watching the market go down. If you can, turn off the TV, get off the Internet, put down the business section of the newspaper. Go out and do something fun. Spend time with loved ones. I remember watching TV for 48 hours after 9/11 and after Hurricane Katrina, and I managed to convince myself that more doom was right around the corner. It wasn’t, and it probably isn’t now. Let me focus on this stuff for you, let me take the pain for you. That’s what you pay me for.

I don’t want to short change current events. These are tough times.

I don’t want to undercut how miserable it is to watch our portfolios decline in value–I’m agonizing because I feel responsible for your money.

If you still have concerns, please call or write me. I’m standing by and waiting to talk to anyone who calls.

Take care and have a great weekend,
Mike

Michael Rivers, CFA
Athena Capital Management Corp.
719-761-3148
www.athenacapital.biz

Visit my blog: www.mikerivers.blogspot.com.

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

Credit markets still crashing

Although I’d love to see the US economy recovering, I believe that the credit meltdown is still on-going.

After listening to several conference calls, including American Express, Target, CarMax and Lab Corp, it sounds like the US consumer is still struggling in a major way.

Another sign of credit market malaise can be seen in yield spreads. The spread between low and high quality credits keeps getting wider, and this is a sign of continued credit market weakness.

How big of an impact do credit markets have on the US economy and US businesses? Very big.

It’s easy to see why businesses must borrow frequently–they must produce before they can sell, and many businesses borrow to do that. But, many don’t seem to grasp to what degree US consumers have been living beyond their means for the last decade.

US consumer debt is at record highs when compared to income and assets. Consumers are having a harder time paying their bills and their debt levels aren’t helping.

US consumers borrowed against their homes to buy stuff over the last decade.

American Express highlighted this in their recent conference call. Their customers in markets with declining housing prices are spending much less than they were a year ago–across all income levels!

Target is also experiencing difficulties with their credit racked customers. CarMax is struggling to sell cars because customers can’t get loans. Why? Because the credit markets aren’t buying car loans.

Even Lab Corp, a company that specializes in running tests for hospitals and physicians, is feeling the credit pinch. On their conference call, analysts hammered company management about their receivables and why customers weren’t paying. The answer–US consumers are strapped.

Credit markets will not recover until banks rebuild their balance sheets. Banks won’t rebuild their balance sheets until the US consumer recovers. And, the US consumer will not recover until housing bottoms.

I don’t know when that will happen, but I know it hasn’t happened, yet.

Stock markets may do well as election year uncertainty clears up this fall. But, when that is past, investors will refocus on corporate earnings, credit markets, the financial services industry, and the housing market. Until those things improve, I wouldn’t expect too much from stock markets.

(Full disclosure: I don’t own any shares of American Express, CarMax, Target or Lab Corp).

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

“Are we there, yet, Dad?”

The stock market seems to be finally reflecting economic weakness. The bond market reflected it some time ago, but the stock market only now seems to be coming around.

The question now is: how much farther do we have to go?

I’ll be the first to admit, I don’t know. But, I do have an opinion on whether we’ve reached bottom, yet, or not.

It seems hard to imagine that the fallout from a steeply declining housing market and the seizure of credit markets will wash out in less than a year.

Remember the wash-out that resulted from the dot.com bubble? It took from 2000 until 2003 to really hit bottom and turn back up.

Does it seem reasonable to expect the stock market to hit bottom so soon and with so little damage when housing and credit markets are much bigger pieces of the economy than technology? I don’t think so.

No, I think we still have some way to go.

First, the subprime mess will continue to spread. A lot of floating interest rate mortgages will reset, and a lot more people will punt their homes to lenders. Credit card debt, auto loans, etc. will also fall apart as credit markets further reflect housing turmoil. That, by itself, will take another year or more to work out.

Next, credit markets will have to absorb all those losses and downwardly spiraling asset prices. That will take another year or so.

Then, a bunch of politicians and lawyers will ride to the rescue, further highlighting the misdeeds of the housing and credit markets. That will take another year or so, too.

In my opinion, we still have at least a couple of years to go on this.

That doesn’t mean stock prices won’t hit bottom beforehand. They usually do.

That also doesn’t mean there aren’t good investments to be found. I’m finding some outstanding bargains now and expect that list to grow over the next year or two.

My goal is to be greedy when others are fearful and fearful when others are greedy. The latter kept me out of the housing and credit down-spiral. The former is what I’m looking forward to, but I don’t think others are quite fearful enough, yet, to call the bottom.

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

Did credit market turmoil rattle equity markets…again?!

I watched with fascination as short term government interest rates plunged on Wednesday and Thursday. But, to my surprise, equity markets barely reacted.

Then along came Friday.

I don’t think the anniversary of the 1987 stock market crash had a thing to do with it, but I do think interest rates had something to do with it–like they did in 1987.

When I see short term Treasuries surging in price and their yields plunging, that means that someone, somewhere is scared and they are running to the safest securities they can find–US Treasury securities of short duration.

Whenever this happens, like it did in August, it means risk is becoming more expensive. And, when that happens, equities will almost always dive.

Why did it take a couple of days to work out? I don’t really know.

Perhaps the same people running to safety were hoping things would cool off, but they didn’t. And when risk continued to be more expensive, then they started selling equities.

Perhaps some leveraged investors, like hedge funds, were squeezed by the people who lent them money as credit markets seized up again.

Who knows?

But, I do know you could see it coming, and it didn’t surprise me (except that it took so long).

Its amazing to watch this because it shows how integrated financial markets are.

Anyone watching short rates plunge on Wednesday and Thursday had to scratch their head and wonder why equities weren’t tanking. That is, until Friday–when they did.

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

If a shoe falls in the woods, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

In an earlier post, I brought up what could knock down credit markets. One issue was the availability of credit, which has been the subject of much pain and anguish, recently. The other two issues were interest rates and employment.

In the news today, the employment report for the month of August looked dreadful. For the first time in 4 years (when we were stumbling out of the last recession), payrolls tracked by the Labor Department shrank instead of climbing.

Could this be the result of financial service firms laying off workers in an attempt to adapt to current credit conditions? Could these laid off workers then have trouble making their home payments, thus promoting the negative spiral of home price declines, credit defaults, financial market troubles, and more layoffs?

I certainly think so. In fact, I believe this is the beginning of the other shoe dropping. I also believe the Fed will react as it always does, by lowering interest rates in an attempt to “jump-start” the economy.

This will, in time, lead to higher interest rates on longer dated bonds as foreigners demand higher rates to compensate for the dropping dollar. The dollar will drop further as more and more market participants realize the Fed will lower interest rates by printing more dollars (in other words, creating inflation).

How bad will this get? I don’t know, but lower employment and higher interest rates will make current housing problems look tame by comparison.

It’s a good time to avoid companies with lots of debt. It’s a good time to avoid investments related to the housing market or its financing (although a bit late).

More importantly, it’s a good time to be invested in securities that will benefit from this fallout. It’s a good time to have some cash that can be invested as the market goes down.

If inflation is a concern, it’s a good time to consider investing in tangible things (other than real estate) that are hedges against inflation. It’s not a bad time to consider foreign investments that may be hedges against inflation, too.

It’s also a great time to consider those companies that will fair best as we emerge from our credit market problems and into another growth up cycle.

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.

What will happen if the credit market’s other shoe drops?

Recent bond and stock market turmoil has turned full attention to credit markets. What has surprised me is that conditions for credit markets aren’t that bad. Am I mad, you may be thinking?

Here’s my line of reasoning. There are three things that can really beat up the consumer credit market: availability of credit, interest rates and employment.

The fireworks seen so far are almost purely due to the availability of credit. Market participants have been scared by recent credit defaults and delinquencies, and so they are refusing to grant such markets more credit.

But, interest rates and employment are just as important, and they are doing great right now. Both look as good as they have since the 1950’s and 1960’s, with long term interest rates at 4-5% and unemployment down around 4-5%.

What would happen if this were to change, and why doesn’t anybody seem to be discussing this?

I guaranty that if interest rates increase and employment starts to fall, you will see many more defaults and delinquencies. In other words, what we are witnessing in credit markets could just be the tip of the iceberg.

With Congress threatening 27.5% tariffs on Chinese goods and China threatening to sell the huge amount of US Government Treasury bonds they hold in response, the threat of higher interest rates is real. With credit market troubles in the US forcing the Fed to intervene and the dollar falling, higher interest rates are even more of a threat.

With the housing market supplying so many jobs since the 2001 recession and the housing market crashing, employment problems could just be surfacing. With recent retail sales so poor, additional employment problems could be rearing their ugly head, too.

I don’t know how this will play out, but I’m watching it carefully. If the economy continues to be strong, then interest rates and employment will not be big concerns.

But, if the economy continues to slow, the dollar continues to fall, retails sales continue to look punk, the housing market continues to decline, or protectionist sentiment in Congress gains momentum, look out below!

Nothing in this blog should be considered investment, financial, tax, or legal advice. The opinions, estimates and projections contained herein are subject to change without notice. Information throughout this blog has been obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable, but such accuracy cannot be guaranteed.