The ratings agencies continue to be as effective as Paris Hilton at a spelling bee as seen by Moody’s latest action of putting some banks under review. The real troubled period for the U.S. banks has, for the most part passed, so near as I can tell the ratings agencies are pressing their shorts. To paraphrase the anti-motto of the UFT: “Those that analyze, analyze and those that can’t, work for the ratings agencies.” Throughout my career, I never recall anyone resigning from a fund or investment bank to go on to the greener passages of the ratings agencies. “I’ve finally made it; my dreams have come true. I’ve landed this incredible position at S&P. Sure I will have to get a night job to make up for the lower pay and have to adjust to working in a cubicle the size of a bathroom stall – it’s not easy balancing my family pictures on a roll of toilet paper – but I have my nights free and significantly less pressure since there is no penalty for being late or wrong.” As a comedian feels about a significantly overweight individual with a very bad toupee, we should all be indebted to the ratings agencies for providing us with such easy fodder.
China continues to be a primary concern for me. I noted yesterday the downside of China’s check in the mail commitment to assist in the European bailout as a sign that things are worse for China’s economy than the market has believed. I postulated the Chinese are seeing more than passing weakness in their economy as a derivative of the weakness in Europe, their largest trading partner. And today we see the rationale for China’s magnanimous and proactive statement of financial support. Foreign investment in China is declining and is at the lowest level since 2009, the bottom of the last recession. Earlier in the week, the city of Wuhu terminated their policy of providing subsidies to home buyers at the behest of the central government, signaling to me that they are more concerned with a property bubble and inflation than they are with a slowing economy, recognizing what Greenspan failed to see. China bulls remain steadfast in their conviction of a soft landing, the strategy underlying this belief is that the communists will deploy their massive (but fading) foreign reserves in support of Ferrari driving real estate developers, overextended municipal governments (40% of revenues from property sales and subsequent deals to develop), shadow financiers and the occasional overextended homeowner. Now add in profligate European sovereigns and we have the first “born again” communist country. Somehow, I believe this will not be the case, given their very long term view; they will let these folks all suffer their sins to a large extent and not be as generous as a Greek politician who has had way too many shots of ouzo.
However, with Europe estimated to account for approximately 18% of their trade, look for increasing comments professing support. In fact, China may decide to tender for the EU rather than picking off their assets piecemeal.
Greece will ultimately default even though the troika may put them on an allowance rather than providing a lump sum. The installment plan buys the troika more time to put together a plan to ring fence the other over extended sovereigns. A Grecian default, not to be confused with allowing the gray to grow out from your scalp, would result in a knee jerk reaction lower in the markets and then a move higher as the credit markets realize that the EU is finally ready to enforce fiscal discipline. This would actually cause a major rally in the Euro but for now I am staying short, having rebuilt the position over the last week on the belief that all the good news was out and as crowded as the short trade was, the long trade was now the more popular investment.
I’m still in the camp of consolidation with somewhat higher equity exposure in lower beta, value stocks and short positions in commodities such as coal, steel and copper. Perhaps we get a reaction move lower but with the massive liquidity in global markets and more due on 2/29 from the new and kinder “ECB”, bonds are the riskier asset and stocks more attractive.
And one more thing, Apple. I get that the stock action has accounted for a large percentage of the underlying averages but two things: the story is far from over and the market can move independently from the shares of AAPL.
Natural gas. Looks like the lows may have been put in. At the end of the day, we’re capitalists and the energy industry in this country is still one of the best managed sectors we have. While the glut is not over, and hopefully the government recognizes the wisdom of incenting greater usage of natural gas as a replacement for crude, the shut ins are encouraging. Of course, while the warm weather has increased “inventory” levels of natural gas and coal, these will be depleted at some point and are arguably reflected in the price of the equities to a large extent. We have two CEO’s in energy that actually do what they say they will do: Floyd Wilson and Aubrey McClendon. Floyd has been a major creator of wealth as he built and sold, to the benefit of shareholders, 3 companies. He is now in the process of doing it again with Halcon Resources (HK, a ticker in the Hall of Fame for its association with Petrohawk, has had its jersey unretired). He makes no bones about it: I will build it and exit. The $550 million he brought to the party underscores his commitment. As to CHK, admittedly the debt levels, not so onerous in a different environment, are squarely in Aubrey’s sights and he has surprised the Street yet again by targeting higher levels of asset sales and further pay down of debt. Underlying this, and somewhat unnoticed, is the transformation of a company too dependent upon natural gas (they have also announced they will shut in some gas) to one with a stronger focus on liquids. This is what will also drive the new HK – a focus on liquids as opposed to Petrohawk’s dry gas model. Top CEOs understand and respond to changing market dynamics.
Disclosure: I am long HK, CHK, EUO and short AAPL puts.