Archive for the 'Investment' Category

Welcome to the FOMC Transparency Tour: 1st Stop is the Sausage Factory

Welcome to the FOMC Transparency Tour: 1st Stop is the Sausage Factory

The week at least started well as the upper echelon of fund managers heard from their “well-placed sources” that Helicopter Ben had miscommunicated the FOMC position when he spoke about tapering and would set the record straight at his press conference, imbuing them with the fortitude to get long in front of Wednesday afternoon.   Well, they got half the story right as he did set the record straight.

Taken alone, the FOMC minutes were positive for the market as nothing indicated that policy was going to change course.  The indices acted accordingly, swaying between green and red.  Then we found out that those sources were no more well-placed than a convertible parked beneath a tree with hanging bird feeders.  First, the FOMC projections were released showing that the targeted 6.5% unemployment rate was now forecast to occur in 2014, not 2015, and that GDP growth was accelerating.  Then, just prior to the reporter from TMZ asking Bernanke about his personal plans, his prepared remarks were released. Therein, Helicopter Ben dropped not more cash, but the bomb:

“We also see inflation moving back toward our 2 percent objective over time. If the incoming data are broadly consistent with this forecast, the Committee currently anticipates that it would be appropriate to moderate the monthly pace of purchases later this year; and if the subsequent data remain broadly aligned with our current expectations for the economy, we would continue to reduce the pace of purchases in measured steps through the first half of next year, ending purchases around midyear. In this scenario, when asset purchases ultimately come to an end, the unemployment rate would likely be in the vicinity of 7 percent, with solid economic growth supporting further job gains—a substantial improvement from the 8.1 percent unemployment rate that prevailed when the Committee announced this program.”

So here we are: the transparency thing as he explained the Fed’s thought process.  The FOMC will begin to cut back this year and, depending upon the next jobs number, may do so before the third quarter ends.  The point that we reach 6.5% has been moved up but that is no longer the trigger; now it is 7% accompanied by an upward bias in the economy and inflation at 2%.  If only they kept that information to themselves we could have read the minutes and gone on our merry way as the market stabilized and perhaps moved higher.  In the old days, pre-openness, the market took the real hit when the rate increase actually occurred and usually upon the move deep into neutral policy territory.  I liked that more because the economy was then on better footing, earnings growth was apparent and valuation could withstand less accommodative policy.  But this is the worst of all worlds since we likely won’t see much growth in earnings this quarter, Europe is still uncertain and China is on the verge of a credit crisis that will make 2008 look like boom times.

I can’t imagine too many visitors to Jimmy Dean’s factory leave the tour and buy a few links in the souvenir shop, anxious to cook them up when they get back to the trailers.  Seems like traders feel the same way about the Fed post press conference, puking out their stocks and bonds, violating important levels of support.  However, once the vision fades and their stomachs settle, a curing period that will likely take us through earnings and up to the next FOMC meeting, they will recognize a great buying opportunity– at least for stocks.  Bonds, unfortunately, will stay in the grinder. For now, though, the carnage, bred through emotion, is likely done as atrophying now takes over.  Within that time frame there will be peaks and valleys as volatility, courtesy of Fed transparency, becomes the norm.  I’m up for nibbling for the long term but the market hasn’t corrected enough to find many real values.

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If Brussel Sprouts Could Do It Why Not Equities

Could brussel sprouts be the new leading indicator for equities?   They have made a helluva comeback, a resurgence and rebranding the likes of which no one has ever seen.  Long gone are the days when entire episodes of sitcoms were devoted to the haters of the innocently hued green vegetable as we witnessed in Leave It To Beaver circa 1960-something.  Put another way, Mel Gibson would have to convert to Hasidism to rival this return to flavor – I mean favor.    BP’s, as those who have been closet lovers of this leafy cabbage affectionately refer to it, are ubiquitous on the menus of the finest restaurants, replacing perennial favorites such as string beans almondine.    Barbecued brussel sprouts, brussel sprout hash, roasted brussel sprouts, Gordon Ramsey and Martha Stewart recipes – all trumpet their chicness.  But what does this have to do with equities?  The point is simple: the hate for brussel sprouts was much more deep seated than it ever was for equities.  To wit: do you recall at any point in your adolescence, despising stocks, turning up your nose and running away from the table when your parents mentioned the stock market?  Of course not.  In fact, it was likely that your school had a stock market game or your parents talked about how they bought you 10 shares of DIS when you were born, a subliminal endorsement of the equities markets.

So if the despised and much maligned brussel sprout can make a comeback of heretofore unforeseen proportions, why not equities?  In fact, the comeback has already started.  Lipper reported that in January, equity and mixed equity funds brought in $62 billion, the largest monthly inflows in 6 years.  Money also flowed into bond funds indicating that cash is likely coming out of the mattress and out of negligible yielding bank accounts.  The flows continued into February, although US equity funds took a vacation last week from gathering assets which could be an indication that the market will soon follow (it has).   But before getting too excited, let’s not forget that the indices have doubled since the market bottom despite massive outflows, thus, in the eyes of the bears, limiting the use of inflows as a correlation.  And supporting the bear case is that long/short equity managers reportedly have the highest net exposure since 2008 at 50-60%. Price action shows us where the love has been spread: consumer discretionary reportedly the highest concentration, financials the largest increase and technology the second biggest underweight. When a feeding frenzy occurs, and we’re not quite there yet, asset values increase ergo the 8% run-up prior to this week.  And for all the self-interested bond fund managers who believe we are not in a bubble, I caution them to start cutting back on their overhead or risk equity fund managers putting in a low ball bid in on their Hamptons homes, that is once they soak up the capacity from a shrinking sell-side equity business model.  Not all the bond assets will flow into equities, but more than enough will find their way to drive the indices higher.

Despite having just experienced a two day sell-off, we are perhaps still overbought.  And depending upon how much or if we further correct in front of the March 1st Washington deadline for mandatory cuts, we could actually trade higher into the event.   Investors are unfortunately accustomed to Washington’s ineffectiveness and if you sold in front of the fiscal cliff, you missed a strong rally.  So having stared down the abyss and survived quite nicely, I doubt a return engagement will be more than a nuisance for the market and, in any event, a much needed respite.  The payroll tax impact may prove to be more of an issue but hopefully a strong jobs number on March 8th will be more of an offset.

And then there is the Fed, China and Europe.  The tide seems to be turning in FOMC blather among the new entrants but is this just a case of the young just feeling their oats, only to be slapped down by the reality of a stumbling economy, or a change in true sentiment?  Bonds remain a short.  China has apparently adopted a bipolar monetary policy, easing for a few months then tightening, allowing the mixed with a downward slope but plenty of firepower and, hopefully, a rebuke of Hollande sooner rather than later.

So pick it: do you want to follow the path of brussel sprouts or do you believe equities more closely resemble Mel Gibson?  I prefer to eat healthy rather than imbibe, although I have removed some of the spice by taking down beta.

Damn! I know That Invite Was Here Somewhere

merci, ben

danke, ben

謝謝你,本

Gracias, Ben

ベン、ありがとうございました

σας ευχαριστώ, ben

شكرا لكم، بن

 

The world over, in every language, from French to Mandarin to Greek to Arabic, the same words are being spoken with incredible enthusiasm, often in a voice that cracks with unbridled emotion and gratitude.  They are 3 simple words: Thank you, Ben.  But there are always the forgotten ones, those who declined the invite. Now, they lay in their beds, pulling their pillows tightly over their heads, cursing the loud music and laughter coming from next door as they hold firm to their righteous beliefs that such frivolity does no one any good, it’s too late, it’s too dangerous, it’s sacrilege, it’s too Keynesian.  Good luck with handling the outflows.

 

Frankly, I don’t care if Keynes is throwing the party, or Bernanke or Draghi.  All I want is to have a good time.  I don’t care if the host pays the caterer after I leave or doesn’t – ain’t my problem, ain’t my job.  And cleaning up – that ain’t my job either, I’ll be long gone before the mess has to be cleaned up.

 

I was in a similar situation once.  I was in college, working weekends at a job that started at 6 AM so I decided to go to bed early. It wasn’t my usual M.O. but I had peaked earlier in the week and was exhausted. With the party in the dorm just getting going, I found myself tossing and turning and cursing out those morons next door.  Finally, I threw off the covers and threw on the jeans and joined in.  Someone else would have to throw the towels in the washer at the tennis club (or I would just fold the dirty ones – who would know? They sweat like pigs anyway).

 

So the bears have a choice: let common sense and a strong belief that what Bernanke is doing is wrong and miss the party or say “what the hell” and join in. If they’re smart, they took the latter route and realized that it’s not their job to debate economic policy and what the long term impact of QE’s will be; it’s their job to make money and when the world over is easing – except for the Chinese who’s contribution is to pay lip service to it – you have to lift the glass.

 

Thus the only question is how much of a good time is too much?  Can I throw back that lost jelly shot or is it time to hail a cab and head home.  For me, my margin of error is sometime before Rosie O’Donnell starts looking like Kate Upton and when I start talking about how, at 5’8” inches (maybe), I used to be able to dunk a basketball. But having been around long enough, I’m not going to get greedy.  I’ll be back to shorting materials soon but for now I drink the castor oil and am long some of the worst positioned companies I could find: steel and iron ore. I do feel guilty going to the dark side but these are only trades.

 

My favorite quote of the day comes from Home Depot as they announce the closure of 7 big boxes in China:

 

“China is a do-it-for-me market, not a do-it-yourself market, so we have to adjust,” the company said, although the country’s slowing economy is also not helping.

 

Are these really the same people that are going to take over the world?  They can’t even find their Chosen One although I had heard he was spotted in Macau driving a Ferrari with a Pamela Anderson look-alike (circa 1998) in the passenger seat while looking for a role as an extra on The Hangover III.

China: Re-Entering The Atmosphere With A Hard Landing; Earnings Season And The Markets Disconnect; Energy; And Here We Go Again In Europe – But Wait! There Is Value

China is launching a major offensive for headlines with the EU.  Wen’s comments over the weekend were his strongest and most pointed yet as he warned of the possibility for “huge downward pressure” on the economy.  At the same time, inflation was reported at a very modest 2.2% leaving open the possibility of additional near term stimulus.  Additionally, Wen, in separate comments, remained resolute in keeping property prices under control.  As much credit as is inexplicably given to China by way too many strategists for ultimately being able to manage their downturn and draw a line in the sand at nothing less than 7.5 – 8% GDP growth, Wen does not seem as sanguine.  Whether China ultimately experiences a hard landing remains an unimportant conclusion at this point as that is the direction they are moving toward.  The bursting of their property bubble will be much more damaging to their economic future than was to the US when ours fizzled given that so many important Chinese cities have relied upon land sales and borrowing for their out-sized infrastructure spending.  It’s one thing for an individual to be upside down on their mortgage, but quite another for a large portion of a country to be in that position particularly when so much of the world’s economic growth has been dependent on China’s previous voracious appetite for commodities, machinery, etc.

But wait – there’s those trillions in reserves that China is going to shower on the economy much like an NFL defensive back at a “gentleman’s” lounge.  My view is that China, continuing to think long term, would rather see asset values to decline meaningfully so that they can swoop in and acquire them.  It’s not only asset prices that soften, but also political resistance in the targeted countries as the fate of elected leaders is tied to declining personal fortunes of their constituents.

Steel stock rally?  Done before it started.  Angang Steel said it will report a loss of 1.98 billion yuan for the first six months compared to a profit of 220 million yuan last year.  Angang is China’s largest HK traded producer of steel.  Despite this, China keeps adding to its steel capacity and keeps running its plants at capacity, more concerned with employment levels than price realization.  It’s expensive to shut down capacity in steel and it remains the industry with the highest costs of exit.  Sector will bounce around but direction is lower. Take a lesson from coal (PCX bankruptcy filing) and stay away.

And within the backdrop of all this, those optimistic about the market say all the bad news is fully discounted.  After all, once it’s in print, see yesterday’s WSJ’s article on the earnings season – it is immediately old news.  That’s an interesting thought considering that the S&P is up mid-single digits this year while expectations on global growth have been ratcheted much lower.  Seems like a disconnect to me.  I’m not looking for a major sell-off but a slow ebbing of the averages.

Meanwhile, back in Brussels, the framework announced out of the latest – that is the 19th, EU meeting to solve their financial crisis, has hit a predictable speed bump as Hollande offered that a more unified political and banking system will not happen as quickly as thought while Germany remains resolute in requiring government to be the ultimate guarantor for the debts of troubled banks.  Seems that the Europeans don’t yet realize that substance is actually longer lasting than headlines.  Not sure the markets realize this either.

So here we go again. Rather than focusing on current fundamentals, the markets pin their hopes on major fiscal policy moves by China,  the US and, of course, the EU – hoping coordinated easing becomes reality, stimulating spending, credit and investment. Could be but I still don’t see an immediate, significant QE3.  But there is good news: the EU has set the bar very low.

There is value to be found.  I still believe the Euro is overvalued relative to the USD; that higher yielding equities with good fundamentals will continue to offer a good total return (mortgage reits, telco); and certain areas of energy remain attractive longer term such as natural gas and special situations.  TOT has a monstrous yield and HK, a build it and sell it story run by someone who has built it and sold it multiple times before (Petrohawk being the latest), is in a great spot, being able to acquire assets cheaply with financing both available and inexpensive.  I mentioned on CNBC on Thursday that I was starting to rebuild a position in WLP.  This group is also inexpensive, but I would wait for a pullback after yesterday’s action.  Sentiment has been horrendous and MLR’s are likely going higher this quarter, but in an industry with changing fundamentals, the smart players find opportunity.

 

France, Italy – Slow and Angry; EU Ratification Will Fail; US Stocks.

First some good news, the ratings agencies have finally cast themselves as the most consistent market indicator with an inverse correlation of 1.00  as downgrade events are now reflected in market moves higher.   Enough said.

Monti has not been in office long enough to change a roll of toilet tissue yet already had to call for a confidence vote.  This does not bode well for the future.

My view has not changed.  Achieving ratification of the EU treaty will be akin to asking turkeys to vote for Thanksgiving.  And even if the 24 non-French, non-German, non-UK governments do approve this union with a gun to their heads, compliance with their provisions will be tough to come by.  Monti made that clear today in a veiled threat to the Germans

“To help European construction evolve in a way that unites, not divides, we cannot afford that the crisis in the euro zone brings us … the risk of conflicts between the virtuous North and an allegedly vicious South.”

In other words, “don’t even think about asking us to do anything that we don’t want to do such as collect taxes.  Culturally, we don’t do that kind of thing.”

We saw some minor protests in the Italian parliament regarding the austerity measures, with the largest Italian labor union protesting more loudly on the cobblestone streets.  Put into perspective, these protests are targeted at austerity measures being implemented by the Italian government.  Can you imagine the anger when the Germans try to pull in spending?  The Greeks rioted in the streets against fiscal prudence and cost G-Pap his job before the treaty was a twinkle in Merkozy’s eyes.  I’m going to wait until Solution #6 makes the rounds at the next summit.

But I finally understand the lack of speed which the French operate.  In fact, yesterday’s legal accomplishments, the conviction of Carlos the Jackal for blowing up part of Paris and the conviction of Jacques Chirac for raping Paris, only took 30 and 20 years, respectively.  Translated into sovereign debt issues, that should give French banks enough time for the terms of the CDS they wrote on sovereign debt to expire.  Brilliant strategy.

Germany has made it clear they won’t pay up, the US will not contribute to the IMF to bail out Europe and China will use their foreign reserves to buy Europe – not European debt – but rather Europe.  I have asked many what they see as the solution to this crisis and no one has come forward with a solution prior to Europe’s Lehman moment. That’s what it took in the US, and we only have a 2 party system.

French banks will be nationalized as will others throughout the EU.  But that is only part of the solution. Ultimately, the other twin, Mario Draghi, will have to print money and buy more bonds.  The decline in the Euro is far from over – this is only a momentary respite.

Of course, none of this bodes well for US equities.  While Europe represents only 15-20% of our end market, the contagion casts a much bigger shadow.  S&P estimates will have to come down as the dollar strengthens, resetting valuations.  Europe will cascade into recession and China’s economy will continue to contract, further hurting global growth and the US recovery which has been tracking nicely.

The E&C sector and commodities have to continue to weaken as global growth slows.  I like domestic stories that are not dependent on a burgeoning economy for earnings growth.  Managed care remains a favorite and these companies continue to raise their earnings outlook as MLR improves with fewer doctor and hospital visits. WLP at 8.3X EPS with a massive buyback (20% of shares on top of 5% retired earlier this year) still looks cheap.  If employment ever picks up, this will add to growth. Sequestration provides a better result for them than the elusive budget deal. Health care overall looks attractive. MDRX, a company that provides technology solutions to doctor practices and hospitals, supported by a $30 billion incentive boost from the government to put all patients on electronic records, is inexpensive and it is an attractive acquisition candidate for a company such as ORCL that is on record as saying it wants to increase its presence in this business.  I took a small position in CSC, a stock that has been justifiably destroyed, while I do more work on it.  Meantime I get a 3% yield which appears safe.   And of course, there is QCOM, unique in its fundamentals in the tech space.

RIMM – the only question on this company is which will last longer – my phone or the company. Right now its neck and neck.  I used to love my Blackberry but now the service and my 18 month old phone, perform as well as Michelle Bachman at a debate.

As to Bachman, she has to stop using Tammy Faye Baker’s make-up person to be taken as a “serious presidential candidate” (her words).

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.

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.


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