Archive for the 'Currencies' Category



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.

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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.

Where Are We Now

The market has had its run – and a big one at that.  Yesterday’s EU announcement was the big event bulls were waiting for and bears were dreading.  But where do we go from here?  That’s all that matters.  When the S&P has a near 4% increase in one day, on top of a double digit rise in the prior month, it’s time for a pause and some profit taking.  No one should be surprised by that.   In expectation of this give back I exited or significantly decreased my trading positions yesterday afternoon, but did not touch my core holdings.     Like the morning after hangover, the “why did I drink so much last night” question will plague many as they ask themselves why they dove into the market yesterday as it climbed higher.  Not only do they wake up with a pounding headache but they turn to the lump passed out next to them and think to themselves that he/she looked better in the bright lights of euphoria when their judgment was impaired by the toxicity of a spiking market.

My exposure is still higher than it was two weeks ago but still nowhere near fully invested although I never am completely in.  But even with that as a measure, I am what I would consider to be relatively light – roughly net long 35-40%.

For those without conviction, get out now, because the market will begin to dissect the EU solution in earnest and, more acutely, naysayers will circle around Italy, driving their rates higher and CDS spreads wider.  The volatility will continue unabated as news flow continues.  “Europe in Recession.”  “Super Committee Deadlocked; Parties Still Far Apart.”  “China Agrees to Buy EU Bonds.”  “China Declines to Participate in EU Bailout.” “European Leaders Disagreements Threaten Accord.”  “Italian and Spanish CDS Spreads Widen.” ” “France AAA Credit Downgraded.”  “Obama Has Not Been Seen in Washington for Weeks.” “Berlusconi Seen Partying with Lindsay Lohan and Porn Star Legislators Voice Their Jealousy in A No Confidence Vote.”   Expect to see them all. Yes, even the one about Berlusconi.

My primary issue with the plan announced yesterday is that there was no obvious ring fence around Spain and Italy.   There are tools that the ECB has at its disposal and will do all they can to make Italian and Spanish bonds look attractive but for those that take their cue from the credit markets, and I am usually one of those, the lack of any substantial rally in Italian and Spanish debt was a troubling sign.

So here is my conclusion:  the market is still fine.  I am not selling into the headlines but did lighten up into yesterday’s close. The markets continue to be in an overbought position.  But if the market just tracks reduced expectation for S&P earnings growth, it still has nice upside.   There is sufficient bearishness and cash to propel us higher into year end.   There will be profit taking and substantial volatility along the way as Merkel leads her colleagues through the hammering out of the details but as the biggest beneficiary of one currency, Germany still has much too much to lose if the agreement falls apart or doesn’t satisfy the markets.  My preference continues to be for defensive stocks so I capture some upside without being mortally wounded on the downside should the market collapse.

I got stopped out of some of my Euro short against the dollar but will add. Euro goes to par eventually.  I had sold most of NIHD before earnings but bought it back yesterday with an average cost near yesterday’s close.  Clearly that was a mistake but I’m sticking with it.  Less than 3X EBITDA is too cheap for this stock.   HPQ – still astonished about initial BOD approval to spin or sell PC business.  Apparently they did no prior analysis on that decision given comments from Whitman yesterday.  I’m still there but believe entire BOD should be fired.  Like KO, WLP., concerned about QCOM into EPS and high expectations.

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.

European Sovereign Debt Crisis Survey – What Is/Was Discounted In The Markets

In my view, the most important issue facing the markets is the European sovereign debt crisis. This issue is the breeding ground for so many other factors facing the global economy being that the EU collectively represents perhaps the most significant trading partner for China and the U.S. With this in mind, last Friday, I sent out a survey containing 5 simple questions to a small portion of my contact list with the intent of gauging what sophisticated, institutional investors believe the market is telling us about resolution of the crisis. Admittedly, the sampling was small in terms of respondents but the dollars under management significant. I supplemented the written survey with  conversations soliciting responses to the same questions. Fortunately, not one of my friends added me to their Do Not Call List. Now, in full disclosure, I am not a graduate of Quinnipiac University nor a former employee of Harris Polling, but this did not stop me from understanding the clear message of the data. The overwhelming majority of the respondents believe that the market is discounting the most positive scenario and that if this were not delivered, albeit with a time frame for compliance of 3 to 6 months, that the indices would hit new lows. Giving credence to this view is the fact that the recent rally in the S&P began contemporaneously with the Sarkozy and Merkel speech wherein they stated that they have a meeting of the minds regarding what needs to be done to stem the crisis. November 3rd was the drop dead date they offered for presenting a unified plan although recent chatter and an increased sense of urgency has served to have brought the date for resolution closer by a week.

Today, this changed, as Germany threw cold water on a shock and awe solution resulting in a 2% decline in the S&P. It would not be inappropriate to argue that the market went from an oversold to overbought and today’s action was normal consolidation but I disagree. Now, in fairness, I applaud the Germans for reining in expectations that became much too optimistic. I had, in fact, pointed out in prior notes that the news flow would create peaks and valleys in the averages along the road to November 3rd. Today was the first valley but I feel there will be more to come. I also mentioned late last week (Have We Seen The Future: The European Solution…  October 13th) that I had taken off some long exposure and right now I have no interest in revisiting my strategy. That was the right move and I further reduced my net long exposure early in today’s trading session.

I hope the Europeans continue to reset expectations but even if they do, it will only forestall the inevitable because I do not see shock and awe coming anytime soon. I remain cautious on the market overall and continue to see the Euro short as a compelling investment.


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