Dumbfounded

It first started to occur to me around 5 years ago that the housing market would probably crash and that it would almost certainly drag credit markets down with it along with home builders, mortgage insurers, bond insurers and several financial institutions.

But, if you had asked me 5 years ago what the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) would trade at given that:

1) 3 of the top 5 investment banks in the US would no longer be independent and the final 2 would be tottering
2) the US government would take over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac because they were insolvent
3) the US government would own 80% of AIG’s equity because it was also insolvent

I would have said the DJIA would be at $5,000, not $11,388.

What color is the sky in most investors’ world? Does anyone really believe all these bailouts will be cost free?

I’m dumbfounded.

Don’t get me wrong, my investors and I are doing very well both absolutely and relatively to the market.

But, isn’t the US economy entering what could be the worst recession since the early 1980’s? Isn’t government intervention on a scale not seen since the Great Depression an indication of how bad things are? Isn’t the world economy entering the first widespread slowdown in a generation?

Then, why is the market down so little?

I have no idea. In fact, I’m dumbfounded.

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.

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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.

What’s beating the market down?

A lot of things are coming together to cause the market to go down, recently.

One issue is lower earnings forecasts for the 3rd and 4th quarter. Companies reporting 2nd quarter earnings are saying things don’t look that great for the rest of the year. This is knocking down stock prices. As investors optimistically begin to look forward to 2009 this fall, I expect the stock market to rally.

Another issue is uncertainty over upcoming elections. Markets hate uncertainty, and until it becomes clear who will win upcoming elections (both Presidential and Congressional) and what those elected will do, the market will do poorly. As that uncertainty clears up this fall, I expect the stock market to recover.

A third issue is the housing market. Housing inventories are very high, home sales volumes are low, and home prices continue to decline. Not only is housing an important part of our economy, it’s also a major part of most consumers’ wealth. Depressed consumers spend less, and that is reducing stock prices. When the housing market shows concrete signs of recovering, and I have no idea when that will happen (although I’m guessing late this year or early next), I expect the stock market to resume its climb.

A fourth issue, strongly related to the third, is the financial services sector. Banks are seeing their loans to consumers and businesses sour. At the same time, consumers and businesses need the money they put with banks as deposits to cover their needs as the economy slows. This perfect storm is hurting banks in a major way. After the housing market, and thus consumers and businesses, begin to recover, so will the banks.

A fifth issue is energy prices. Although energy prices have pulled back, no one is certain whether they will continue down or climb again. My guess is that high energy prices have both brought more supply online and reduced demand, so I expect energy prices to continue to decline in the short run. If such a decline becomes more clear, I think the market will rebound.

The way I see it, there are both short and long term issues at hand.

One short term issue is the market’s transition from looking at 3rd and 4th quarter earnings to looking forward to 2009 earnings. Another short term issue is election season. Those two issues are relatively easy to predict and should tend to lift market prices some time this fall.

Two long term issues are the housing market and financial services sectors. I don’t know when these two will recover, but when they do it will be a major and longer term lift to market prices.

Energy is both a short and long term issue. In the short run, I believe energy prices will come down and tend to support the economy and market prices, especially this fall. In the long run, I don’t believe it will be easy to find supply to keep up with growing demand, and higher energy prices will tend to undercut the economy and market prices. This dynamic is very difficult to predict.

I expect market prices to continue to decline into early fall, as investors focus on current economic conditions and election uncertainty. Such a decline will be tempered by declining energy prices and accelerated by rising energy prices.

In the longer run, the market will not begin a long term climb until the conditions in the housing market and financial sector improve. I can’t predict when this will happen, but it may happen this fall or some time next year.

In the much longer term, as the economy recovers and demand picks up, so will energy prices. This will dampen the market’s rally to some degree.

Although I don’t use market predictions to time the market, I believe an understanding of market dynamics are useful for investors who are trying to understand what is happening and when it will improve.

The best time to buy is when things look terrible, and the best time to sell is when things look great. Whether the market rallies this fall, next year, or 3 years from now, I believe this is a great time to invest.

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.

Perhaps the Fed should include food and energy prices in inflation?

Since the late 90’s, oil prices have rocketed over 1000%. Riots are occurring around the world because of shortages of such staples as rice and wheat. Even Costco and Sam’s Club are rationing rice consumption here in the U.S.!

If the cost of such fundamental necessities as food and energy are going up so much, why do economists and the Fed believe that inflation is stable and at acceptable levels?

Quite simply, they don’t include food and energy prices in their calculation of “core” inflation (that sounds like the same game as reporting “operating” and “pro forma” earnings that companies were criticized for 8 years ago).

You see, food and energy prices are very volatile, and most of the time their movements make inflation look uncomfortably unstable.

But, what happens if food and energy prices are rising because of real, no kidding inflation? The Fed and most economists have no way to adjust for this. Don’t be surprised, though, if they finally get around to adjusting long after we’ve all been beaten down by “non-core” inflation.

I’m no economist, but I think I understand what makes for a stable currency.

The central banks of the world run the printing presses, and they can print dollars (euros, yen, bahts, pesos, reals, etc.) at almost no cost. This doesn’t create value, mind you. What it creates, when dollars are printed faster than underlying growth, is inflation.

In my humble opinion, that’s what we’ve been experiencing at a faster and faster pace over the last 10 years.

The central banks of the world reacted to the Asian contagion by printing more money. Then, they reacted to the fall of Long Term Capital Management with more money printing. Y2k (remember that “crisis”?), more money printing. Telecom, technology and dot-bomb crash, print more money. Housing crash and credit crisis…you get the idea.

I don’t think energy and food prices are running up temporarily, I think this is the slow bubbling up of inflation created by the world’s central banks over the last 10 years. You can see it bubbling up through the economy from energy to metals to transportation to food.

The easiest place to see this is in the price of gold, which bottomed at around $250 and ounce in the late 90’s and is now 360% higher (after peaking 400% higher). Or, look at shipping rates. Or, look at base metals prices. Or, look at iron ore and coke used in making steel. Or, look at wheat, rice, etc. Do you suppose chicken, beef and pork could be next?

Think what you’d like about government bailouts and stable currency, I believe we’re getting more and more inflation.

Could this all be the result of higher demand, especially from China and India? In the short term, yes. In the long term, no. That’s where the rubber meets the road from a forecasting standpoint. If demand is the cause, then profits and innovation will eventually drag prices back down, as most economists are betting will happen. But, if part or all of the price rise is due to inflation, then expect prices in general to stay higher.

How long before central banks and economists start adjusting inflation for food and energy costs? Don’t hold your breath.

I’m expecting prices to go up long term, even if they take a breather as the U.S. and global economies slow down. In time, though, we’ll all have to recognize that prices are probably permanently higher, and the it’s the result of inflation caused by our central banks. When people start to more generally recognize this, higher interest rates will be another thing to deal with.

Investing in such an environment can be difficult, but also very profitable. I’m glad I prepared myself and my clients for just such a possibility years ago.

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.

The triumph of hope over experience

The Fed bailed out Bear Stearns and now everything is okay. Right? RIGHT???

Wrong.

The Fed bailed out Bear Stearns in a forced marriage to J.P. Morgan because they feared (and still fear) a collapse of our financial system. That isn’t good news.

The Fed cut interest rates another 75 basis points, down to 2.25%, because it’s trying to re-ignite economic growth. They are more worried about growth than inflation despite surging commodity prices and a tanking US dollar.

Economic reports this week showed worse employment data, worse leading economic indicators, worse business outlook, worse housing starts, worse producer price inflation, worse capacity utilization, worse industrial production, and worse forecast auto sales.

So why did the market rally this week?

The triumph of hope over experience.

The stock market is simply not reflecting economic reality or previous experience with economic slowdowns. Those who believe we’ll ride this out without an even 20% decline in the major indexes need to prepare themselves for a bumpy ride.

I’m not moving into a fallout shelter, but I’m also not ignoring a long and vivid stock market history, either. I’m ready for a rough couple of years that will, eventually, be followed by another economic and stock market boom.

This is not the time to think the Fed and Treasury can solve all economic problems (have they ever really succeeded in the past?). This is not a time to expect a mid-cycle slowdown or light stock market downturn. This is the time to prepare for tough sledding.

I’m ready for a downturn, and I’m finding good things to buy. But, I’m not expecting this to be a pleasant or smooth ride!

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.

Mid-cycle slowdown…or recession?

This question has occurred to me over and over again recently, because some very smart people are coming down on both sides of the argument.

To some, this may not seem very important. In a mid-cycle slowdown, the stock market goes down. In a recession, it goes down even more. If the market goes down either way, who cares?

But, the magnitude and period of decline make this difference very important to people with short term time frames. I’m not one of those people.

The yield curve, retail sales, the housing market, and credit markets all seem to be signaling a recession. The stock market seems to be indicating a mid-cycle slowdown. Employment data and factory activity are near recession levels, but not quite there, yet.

I’m guessing (with the emphasis on guessing) that we’re entering a recession. My guess is based on my analysis of past credit cycle declines. Our economy has been increasingly levering itself since the mid-1980’s. If deleveraging is occurring–and I believe it is–then a recession seems much more likely.

How does this alter my investment approach? Not much. I know I’m not smart enough to time the market, and especially not to time the economy!

So, how do I invest? Simply put, for the long term. I don’t think our economy will go into a 10 year depression. If that were the case, then I’d be building a fallout shelter.

Instead, I’m investing for the eventual recovery that will happen either sooner, or later. Whether sooner or later is less important to me than having selecting good companies–those with good economics, honest and competent managers, that are selling at large discounts to what the company will be worth over full economic cycles.

That’s a lot easier to do than trying to figure out what the economy will do in the short term. And, just between you, me and the fencepost…it’s also a lot more profitable!

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.

Is the Fed easing interest rates because it thinks we AREN’T entering a recession???

Surprisingly, the market did well this week.

This is surprising, to me at least, because the Fed cut interest rates another 0.5% and the jobs report came in looking pretty bad.

The Fed did not cut interest rates this week because it thinks the economy is doing well. It especially wouldn’t have done so after dropping rates between meetings by 0.75% just last week.

The Fed is clearly signaling the economy is in serious trouble. So why is the market rallying on news the Fed thinks the economy is in serious trouble?

In addition, the job report today was simply awful. It showed the first monthly decline in jobs since the economy was slowly coming out of the last recession. Cause for celebration? Apparently so.

In my opinion, market participants are still digesting the market’s significant drop during January. They are also digesting recent economic news, government actions and election results.

The reality is that much more deck-clearing is required in the financial sector, credit markets and housing sector before the next bull market can really take off.

In the meantime, some excellent bargains can be found in select places in the market. Troubling times like this are a big opportunity to prepare for the next upswing, regardless of when or how it comes.

I’m seeing some of the best opportunities I’ve seen since 2003, and I think those opportunities will grow in number and size in the not-too-distant future.

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.