Posts Tagged 'Euro'

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

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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.

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.

The European Sucker Play; US Stock Bargains; Apple

The most important real near term news coming out of Europe will be the ECB rate decision tomorrow. Trichet is bidding adieu at the end of October and this is his last opportunity to reverse the prior rate hike. Does he head to Hotel du Cap admitting a mistake or stick to his guns and allow Mario Draghi to cut, although he has previously said it isn’t necessary. Perhaps the economic releases this morning may spur the correct decision, in conjunction with recent declines in commodity prices. Eurozone services PMI fell to 48.8 from 51.5 according to Markit survey, first month since August 2009 below 50. In other releases, Germany was sub 50 as well, France barely above 50, Italy and Spain continue below 50 at very low levels of 45 but they are already in recession. My guess is that France and Germany experience contractions in economic growth as well.

More importantly, does the troika come up with a major bail out prior to Trichet leaving and before Draghi takes over. Not sure how many EU members want an Italian telling them they have to pony up vast sums to save Italy. Fox guarding the chicken coop? Not quite but this will ratchet up the opposition or lengthen the time to cure if Trichet doesn’t act first.

The Financial Times had the story that wasn’t a story. The following 2 lines squeezed the shorts, lit a fire under those with light exposure and gave us all something to talk about.

“There is an increasingly shared view that we need a concerted, co-ordinated approach in Europe while many of the elements are done in the member states,” Olli Rehn, European commissioner for economic affairs, told the Financial Times. “There is a sense of urgency among ministers and we need to move on.”

“Capital positions of European banks must be reinforced to provide additional safety margins and thus reduce uncertainty,” Mr Rehn said. “This should be regarded as an integral part of the EU’s comprehensive strategy to restore confidence and overcome the crisis.…”

Rehn’s statement was nothing more than an attempt to put a temporary halt to the market crisis, an admirable goal, but hopefully there is ultimately more substance behind it. With the public division in the EU about solutions, I fear any resolution will be a long time in coming. Even the ESFS is flawed with Italy and Spain committing to guarantees of 79 billion Euros and 52 billion Euros, respectively. And, of course, Greece has agreed to be on the hook for 12 billion. I feel better now.

So the market basically did a hosanna that it has dawned on the EU finance ministers that they have developed a sense of urgency and will act together. Truth is we don’t know that they will act together but ultimately there has to be a plan. Unfortunately, from where I sit, the plan won’t be good for anyone, particularly the banks. We need a flush of the credit markets with tremendous pain being visited on the private sector because the political will for government to bail out all troubled banks and PIIGS does not exist. The result would be to wipe out the equity of a number of French banks as we are seeing with Dexia, which was originally bailed out in 2008 by France and Belgium. Now here they go again. Public shareholders have twice suffered significant losses. Dexia is also a good example of contagion as the municipalities in the US that do business with Dexia will likely see their borrowing costs increase as a result. And this is a minor case of contagion; it will get worse (Plus the 2008 similarities continue with good bank/bad bank solutions that don’t work.)

My bet is that Greece defaults in a “controlled” manner (not sure that exists) with limited alimony payments from the EU as a going away gift. At the same time, Italian and Spanish debt issues are ring fenced, the French banks recapitalized after taking significant write downs which almost wipes out equity holders with new shares or debt being backstopped by Germany and France as the main players. France loses their AAA, which is past its sell-by date anyway. We will also see massive liquidity injected into the European financial system causing a further decline in the Euro.

I’m waiting for this event to increase my exposure. With the slowing in China, Europe and the U.S., I’m highly confident that I can get a better entry point and keep more hair from falling out.

AAPL – still a cheap stock and the issues are well discounted in the stock price. I’m not going to beat up on Street research – well yes I am. The Street clearly has no idea what is going on with the company. If they can’t get major product launches correct, how are they doing the more difficult task of forecasting. It took me a few days to get a number I was looking for which is what percentage of ipads sold are wifi only. I’m going with the only answer that I got which is 65 – 70%. This is interesting because much was made of the fact that the new Amazon product is only wifi. Well, at a $300 difference for a product with a great brand name and very good functionality, if I didn’t own an ipad, I would seriously consider the Kindle Fire. I know that the ipad has 425,000 apps and the Fire doesn’t, but frankly, I ran out of patience after putting the first 150,000 apps on my screen. My issue with AAPL is margins. With strong competitors like Amazon and Google (android) at lower price points, is yesterday’s pricing of the iphone 4 and 4S a harbinger of lower margins and more competition? Apple has never been one to price to competitors’ levels but shouldn’t hat have to change? Tim Cook noted that 92% of the Fortune 500 are testing ipads. The opportunities in the enterprise space are interesting but keep in mind that most likely this is demand push by Apple, a common sales technique which I am glad to see them employ. I’m sure there is reverse inquiry as well. I would also guess that corporate procurement execs are more concerned with costs in a challenging economic environment and agnostic as to which quality brand they purchase. The dominant corporate usage is also likely wifi since it will be on premises as ipads are not a good substitute for laptops. Nonetheless this is a great revenue opportunity particularly if it scales into other Apple products.

Finally, on the US. We’re still without a plan and the economic numbers continue to look punk, today’s non-mfg ISM the latest example. Freight stocks are moving higher despite yesterday’s IATA airfreight numbers remaining below seasonal trends indicating a slow economy. Asia and the US showed particularly poor.

Even though the market is oversold and will have bear market rallies, I remain on the sidelines for the most part but do like a few stocks.

Wellpoint’s valuation seems compelling at less than 9X 2011 EPS. Company guidance is in a tight range either side of $7.00. They just added $5 billion to their buyback, an astonishing 21% of the company. Management said it will be completed over several years but they just bought back $1.5 billion since announcing a $1.6 billion program in February. That was about 5%. Plus I’m getting an okay yield of 1.6%.

I also like KO. Not huge growth but very dependable, the risk to earnings from currency being discounted by recent downgrades from the Street. At a 12 P/E and 3% yield it provides good, lower beta market exposure. If market explodes higher, neither WLP or KO will lead the pack but I will participate in the upside with limited downside.

QCOM remains a core holding. Tim Cook is an engineer and over saw procurement so he’s definitely on board with QCOM as the relationship, started in earnest this year, has taken root on his watch. They own CDMA and are embedded in android as well as ipad and iphone. QCOM ahs also been very friendly to shareholders, often returning capital.

HPQ is also inexpensive, even with a haircut (all the rage in financial circles these days) to earnings. My primary concern management, including the BOD. Still wish Meg didn’t speak about making the quarter. Would rather have had her reset bar lower.

Yesterday’s Blog – Nat Gas; Netflix (NFLX) Hastings Has A Solution for Europe; President Obama, Merkel,

My sources provided unique insights into the European Finance Ministers’ Meeting in Poland this past weekend:

Germany: I would like to invite Herr Geithner to our little party.

Poland: Whatever you say, boss.

Austria: Absolutely not. He has no personality and is way too American, always telling people what to do.

France: It’s a long trip and he probably won’t even come. He’ll probably just send a really big check as a gift with his regrets.

Belgium: Rubbish. I heard he’s in debt over his head and his boss is soon to be out of a job which means he’s also on borrowed time.

Germany: Look, I am paying for the party and I want him to come. Hopefully, he says nein and sends a check. If we don’t invite him we stand no chance of getting anything from him.

Austria: Fine. He’s your friend but I’m warning you that if he starts bossing us around, I won’t be able to hold my tongue.
And so it went.

NFLX continues to be a short, the CEO’s mea culpa aside, if for no other reason than content costs will significantly crimp margins. Perhaps the Europeans should look at Hastings strategy and separate insolvent Greece from the rest of the union, the Greeks being the NFLX version of a legacy DVD business. Apparently, Hastings doesn’t want his company’s valuation in the market to be painted with the broad brush of a declining or slower growth business so he is separating the 2 businesses. Perhaps Merkel et al should invite him to their next get together. At least he is sure to bring the entertainment.

So here I am in Nashville sitting at the gate waiting for my flight to Newark. CNN is on and everyone seems to be transfixed by the conversation leading up to the President’s speech on deficit reduction and taxes. I don’t think I have ever seen this level of interest before. Most have barely taken a bite of their deep fried bagels – everything is deep fried here, even the sushi. This is America, Nascar country as their attire attests, Dale Junior’s number featured prominently. I often wonder why they revere Junior given he’s crossed the finish line about as often as an Obama legislative proposal on taxes.

Like an Earnhardt fan, expectations were apparently incredibly high going into the weekend. But like an Earnhardt fan, the experience only resulted in disheartening disappointment. I’ve noted before that our two party system can’t agree on much these days so any expectation that the Euro’s 17 backers, some with effectively more than 2 party systems, will agree on a bailout measure for the banks and the PIIGS in a compressed time frame is folly.

Merkel is losing her mandate as yet another election pointed out this past weekend as her FDP partner suffered defeat. This conceivably puts Europe in a precarious position without a strong voice. Clearly, the coalition is fracturing, unable to even offer a carrot to the markets when they knew one was so desperately needed. Expectations are possibly higher for the FOMC to release a Q3 type statement on Weds. But even if they do, it will only provide a short term lift to the market for the economic fundamentals continue to worsen. Yes there are pockets of strength, the high end has been the savior, and the Apple ecosystem has done more than its share, but there is no disputing the declining economic picture and I would not continue to look for the upper end consumer to thrive, not in the face of higher taxes. Bullish prognosticators note the decline in the averages from the peak as more than having discounted any perceived economic malaise while hanging onto the belief that we are in a soft patch. Need I remind them that when the market rose to such heights, the global economy was on an upswing and the European sovereign mess just a twinkle in a dollar bull’s eye. Now the economy has slowed, if not reversed, and the collapse of the potential for a collapse of the Euro is real.

But the President has an answer for us. He wants to tax investment income as ordinary income, essentially removing any incentive for assumption of risk. In a perilous market environment, why put any capital at risk if there is little chance for reward? Less investment means less money sloshing around the economy and fewer jobs being created. And while we’re watching the acrimony in Washington, how about drafting the rest of us into a financial civil war, dividing the citizenry into two classes, pitting one against the other, all in the name of politics?

None of this is positive for the economy or the markets which is why I continue to be bearish

I added to my Euro short against the dollar on Thursday and still believe par is where the Euro will ultimately reside even if the new Troika comes out with a bailout package. Actually, that will further fortify my already strong conviction. Given my view on the slowing world economy – yes, even China will slow – I have exited my energy positions for the most part recalling that crude got decimated in the ’08 financial meltdown as demand suffered and speculative traders lost their appetite for risk (and their margin). The one bright spot is LNG as global demand is increasing sharply as a function of Japan and Germany using less nuclear power and Japan, China and India looking for a next generation solution to their burgeoning energy demands supposedly willing to pay as much as $20/btu all in. As more tankers and terminals are built for export, this will help sop up our overabundance of natural gas. And although I have little faith it will happen, should the administration ever propose a real energy policy, that, by the way would also create a number of jobs, natural gas would have to be in the equation.

I guess I’m not really surprised by the muted reaction in gold to all the negativity since gold is a risk asset and the appetite for risk is waning once again and margin requirements more lofty. It’s not a bad thing to see a high flying trade enter into a consolidation phase. I will keep my eye on it, looking for opportunity but will probably miss it again.


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