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Financial Skeptic Bulletin, April 2007

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"The purpose of studying economics is not to acquire a set of ready-made answers to economic questions, but to learn how to avoid being deceived by economists."

Joan Robinson, Cambridge University

[Apr 28, 2007] Interest Rate Roundup

Stagflation-lite ???

My take on this whole situation? The U.S. is certainly not in recession. But the ongoing problems in housing are acting as a big drag on growth. Meanwhile, global economies are going on their merry way without us and inflation remains above the Fed's comfort level.

I've heard the "Stagflation-lite" label bandied about to describe where we sit. I think that's right on target.

[Apr 28, 2007] RGE - US economic outlook darkens further risk of hard landing is increasing

Guest's comment about unemployment is a bit off the mark. I well recall that during the past Clintonoid Administration, rising unemployment figures were hailed as meaning that inflation was being contained. This is one of the many strange things that make me doubt the scientific basis of much that passes for economic analysis. If wages for Joe and Sally Sixpack rise, this is inflationary and hence evil. If corporate profits (corporate wages) and/or management compensation rise, there is no inflation, and this is wonderful. If interest rates rise for those imprudent enough to actually try to save some of their money, this is bad since it indicates that capital is not being put into productive immediate consumption. And if stock and real estate prices rise, this is wonderful and not inflationary, unlike the effects of increases in commodity and energy prices. I suspect that much of this strange outlook is explained by the old adage that he who pays the piper calls the tune. Harry Truman claimed to be looking for a one-handed economist. I would be happy to read one who was not a banking or corporate shill. Professor Roubini seems to be independent enough to fill the bill, unlike all to many of his fellow economists, and catches considerable flak in the process of telling the truth as he sees it.

Written by DocBerg on 2007-04-25 11:18:36
Exactly right. There is a growing disconnect between the U.S. economy and its stock market. Those firms at home--small and mid-size companies will weaken. The larger companies, those safely tucked abroad in developing nations, e.g., China, are doing well. Their profitability depends on diversifying their markets, i.e., right now exporting to Europe where the euro is strong. See my comment above, where China now exports more to Europe than it does to the states.
The fact that the yuan is still loosely tied to the dollar certainly helps matters. China and the mnc's are playing a great game of chess. 


Written by Stormy on 2007-04-25 15:00:30

Dr. R. et al,
The monster flood of computer bits and bytes now called "Money", "liquidity" is as we all know NOT money, it is DEBT. Pure and simple, created out of nowhere, at no cost to the creators but the keypunch time of the clerks. 
The equity market and levitation of the equities with the indexes is truly wonderful, and all have come to believe that IS the economy. 
Here are a few fresh indicators of components of the real economy.

Written by ursel doran on 2007-04-25 17:05:07


[Apr 28, 2007] Companies are buying back their own shares at a record rate

It looks like not only Iraq war and speculation propelled stocks.


The biggest buyer is the corporate sector itself. According to Tim Bond, of Barclays Capital, American companies acquired (via takeovers and buy-backs) some $602 billion of shares last year. In the fourth quarter, the pace of purchases was running at an annualized rate of 6% of the entire market.

... ... ...

Mr Bond says this equity-buying splurge is almost exactly matched by the corporate sector's financial deficit—in other words, companies are borrowing money to buy back shares. This gearing up of the balance sheet is occurring when profit margins are at their highest level since the 1950s. It looks like hubris....

... ... ...

If business conditions are getting more difficult, a bit of financial engineering will help. Buying back shares with borrowed money boosts earnings per share, so profit growth can continue to look healthy. That was an important driver in the final stages of the 1990s bull market.

... ... ...

As Mr Roche puts it: “Credit derivatives are like good things to the Catholic Church. If you have too much of them, they're a sin.” Nobody will be sure how robust credit derivatives are until they have been tested in a severe economic or financial downturn. And that is not something anyone should wish for.

[Apr 28, 2007] House Prices Slide as Property Glut Grows Weekend - Yahoo! Finance

A new president will still deal with housing slump -- expect it to continue till 2008. The problems of the US housing market is a one huge problem for the future president be it Obama, Hilary or Bloomberg.


Stricter lending standards will reduce demand for housing by 10% this year from where it would have been had credit remained loose, estimates Thomas Lawler, a housing economist in Vienna, Va. He expects housing prices, as measured by the national S&P/Case-Shiller index, to fall 7% in the fourth quarter of 2007 from the year-earlier level.

[Apr 28, 2007]  Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal

Most of the wrong decisions investors make, behavioral research has shown, stem from overconfidence....

Oh. Justin Fox Has a Book Coming Out...

Justin Fox wrote, long ago:

Is The Market Rational? No, say the experts. But neither are you--so don't go thinking you can outsmart it. - December 9, 2002:

[T]he argument of modern behavioralists includes a crucial observation that wasn't in Keynes--that professional investors are now under so much pressure from their customers that they cannot make the kind of long-term bets that might beat the market. If they do, as was the case with a lot of value-oriented mutual funds in the late 1990s, they can soon find themselves without any customers' money to invest. That gets us to a world in which an investor with enough staying power and contrarian gumption can beat the market, but the vast majority of mutual funds and hedge funds don't.

[Apr 28, 2007] Top Hedge Fund Managers Earn Over $240 Million - New York Times: By JENNY ANDERSON and JULIE CRESWELL

The modern gilded age is in full swing

With the modern gilded age in full swing, hedge fund managers and their private equity counterparts are comfortably seated atop one of the most astounding piles of wealth in American history. Their ascendancy has been aided by an inflow of money from pension funds and other big investors, robust markets and fee-based compensation that can produce staggering amounts of individual wealth. Naturally, some look upon these masters of the new universe as this generation’s robber barons, using wealth to create wealth, often in secretive ways, and leaving little that is tangible in their wake. Others view them as new-economy financiers, evoking the likes of John D. Rockefeller or John Pierpont Morgan as they provide liquidity to the markets and broadly diversify risks in the banking and financial systems.

“You had railroads in the 19th century, which led to the opening up of the steel industry and huge fortunes being made,” said Stephen Brown, a professor at the Stern School of Business of New York University. “Now we’re seeing changes in financial technology leading to new fortunes being made and new dynasties created.” But as hedge funds and their private equity brethren begin to emerge more onto the public stage — playing increasingly bigger roles in art and cultural circles, tiptoeing into the Washington lobbying game, and even selling shares of their own firms to the public — all aspects of their activities, their own compensation in particular, are raising eyebrows.

“There is some question as to what the hell they are doing that is worth” that kind of money, said J. Bradford DeLong, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley. “The answer is damned mysterious.”...

[Apr 28, 2007] Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal

Those who invest in a bubble at its peak are great public benefactors: they help to fight inflation...

Those who invest in a bubble at its peak are great public benefactors. They give away all their money, and we get the organizations, the producers' durable equipment, the inventions and innovations, and the structures that their money paid for. On top of that the rest of us build the economic growth of the post-bubble generation.

But there are no testimonials or plaques to these great philanthropists--the investors in Insull's utility empire in 1929 or in Cisco in late 1999. They are unknown to the rest of us.

Daniel Gross (2007), Pop: Why Bubbles Are Great for the Economy (New York: Collins: 0061151548)

[Apr 26, 2007] RGE - US economic outlook darkens further risk of hard landing is increasing

The Short View
By John Authers
Published: April 26 2007 03:00 | Last updated: April 26 2007 03:00
Needed: one bucket of cold water. The Dow Jones Industrial Average, the world's best-known stock market benchmark, passed 13,000 for the first time early yesterday. It was a symptom of the air of optimism in Wall Street. But ultimately a landmark for the Dow signifies little or nothing.
This column has addressed the Dow's technical limitations before. It is weighted by share price, not market value, so the biggest companies do not have the biggest impact. A third of the 1,000 index points by which the Dow has increased since it passed 12,000 last October came from just four companies - Altria, Boeing, Honeywell and ExxonMobil.
It is not even a true benchmark for "mega-cap" large companies. These are under-performing but you need the Russell Top 50 index, up only 1.6 per cent this year, compared with a 4.2 per cent rise in the Dow, to tell you this.
Its defenders point out that the Dow continues to be correlated closely with the S&P 500, by far the most important index in terms of the money linked to it. But that acknowledges the importance of the S&P, which needs to grow only 2.7 per cent to set its first record high since 2000 - a much more important event.
Ironically, another Dow Jones benchmark set up at the same time as the Industrials may be more interesting. The 20-stock Transportation Average is also at a record high. It is up 14 per cent for the year - 10 percentage points better than the Industrials.
Transport stocks are highly exposed to the global economy, and a joint high for Industrials and Transportation is traditionally viewed as a very bullish indicator. It at least suggests that if there is a risk at present, it is of overheating, not a slowdown. That, maybe, is of some interest.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
Written by Ryan Darwish on 2007-04-26 13:56:40

[Apr 26, 2007] Durable goods orders - it's all about aircraft...

Taking out the volatile aircraft orders here is what the series looks like, as % change from prior year: 
12/06 +4.3%
1/2007 +2.1%
2/2007 -1.2%
3/2007 -2.4%
It was as high as +9.3% at the top, back in July 2006.

Re: durable goods orders
I have a couple of charts up showing the progression of such orders, minus the volatile aircraft series. Not hot.
They can be found at:

[Apr 21, 2007] Asia Times Online Asian news and current affairs

Reader response from Wednesday's Currency Currents showing the S&P Index relative valuation to the US$ Index:

I think you are not looking at the coupling of the S&P and the dollar correctly. The question "are stocks too high or is the dollar index too low" cannot be answered.

If the dollar drops in value, being a fiat currency, things that have real intrinsic value must rise in dollar terms - this is seen with oil or gold. Since the S&P has risen as the dollar falls, it only proves that stocks have an intrinsic value independent of the currency they are traded in. IBM still has the same value whether purchased in terms of euros, yen or dollars, so as the dollar falls it would still be in demand from investors with a more valuable currency.

A more interesting graph would be the S&P change in relation to gold or a basket of commodities (since individual commodities would be subject to more volatility). My guess without doing the work is that it has risen, but not to the extent shouted by the newswires. Maybe, after these adjustments of true valuation, the stock market is not at an all-time high, or not as high as we would like to think. From EK
Thank you, Ed! They were great points. So we have included the S&P 500 Index divided by the gold weekly chart below for your review. And Ed is exactly right. In terms of gold, the S&P 500 Index isn't anywhere near its old highs …

Reader response on a dollar bounce, liquidity crunch and top in stocks:

But for us the level of risk has risen considerably more. I am therefore calling this to be the secondary top (in stocks). It will be followed by a violent move down. The hypothesis remains the same. We are heading toward a liquidity crunch. I expect US treasury and the US dollar to rally. The yen will outperform all other currencies. Not in favor of gold temporarily. I am a major bull on NatGas, 30yr Treasury, sugar and yen. We rarely advocate shorting. The last time we did was in 1990 at the top of the Japan mkt. For us this is unusual but we are going to start recommending being short the mkt.

I had this funny feeling at the top of the Japanese mkt. I am, however, able to measure risk with my tools that I did not have back then. I believe a <> is about to reprice the whole structure of the derivatives mkt. The repercussions are not measureable because the size of the market over 400 trillion today has never been tested. Some surprises are coming. By the way, I rode the euro up along with gold and both are sold here. Why? If it is a liquidity crunch then we have better buys a bit later. The anecdotal evidence is building up. People never change.

Cheers from sunny Montreal. From YL
We tend to agree with YL. One of our major concerns, too, is the derivatives market. Many hedge funds will say it's not that big of a deal - their derivatives portfolios have been "stress-tested" by the quants. But have we really seen a market test since hundreds of trillions have been layered on in the last few years? We noticed that it's not just us worried about this stuff. ECB president Tritchet made some comments on Thursday (Financial Times) about the lack of transparency in the derivatives market. He also agreed that yes, derivatives do spread risk, but they don't eliminate it. And that's the bottom line.

[Apr 21, 2007] Econbrowser More on Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae

These numbers imply that the ratio of residential mortgages to GDP increased 50% over the last 15 years, a trend that may have some good economic explanations though it could not continue indefinitely. But mortgage-backed securities issued by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac doubled as a fraction of GDP, while the ratio of mortgages retained by the GSEs to GDP quintupled. If the growth in the latter two have indeed been fueled by a perceived implicit government guarantee, that raises the possibility that much of this growth would not be justified by economic fundamentals, but may instead have contributed to a socially undesirable level of systemic financial risk.

from the Wayback Machine
Fannie Mae website FAQ on CREDIT RISK:
(July 2006):
Are you taking on more credit risk when you reach into the subprime market? How will you manage that?

[RESPONSE] To meet its mission and HUD-mandated housing goals, Fannie Mae does intend to take more credit risk in the future, but on a limited and controlled basis. Using our knowledge of how factors relating to a borrower's property or their wealth and income position interact with their credit history, the company intends to begin offering credit guarantees on a segment of the subprime market in a way that broadens our participation while managing our credit risk.

But less than a year earlier:
(October 2005):
Are you taking on more credit risk when you reach into the subprime market? How will you manage that?

[RESPONSE] Most of the subprime (or "credit impaired") loans that we have purchased for our portfolio have credit enhancements that take the credit risk up to the "Triple-A" level. As a consequence, we have very little credit risk on subprime loans in portfolio.

We have so far taken very little credit risk in subprime loans. We do intend to take more in the future, but on a limited and controlled basis. Using our knowledge of how factors related to a borrower's property or their wealth and income position interact with their credit history, we intend to begin offering credit guarantees on a segment of the credit-impaired market -- the so-called "A-minus" segment -- which have the best loan quality. We will use our underwriting technology to protect ourselves against losses.

Posted by: JDH at April 10, 2007 04:55 AM

Being a former accountant, I find the $701B retained portfolio -- which will certainly be at risk as home sales and prices continue to move downward, and ultimately impacting wherewithal to repay mortgages -- offset by only $28B in equity to be quite 'climatic.'

Freddie will be moving to reorganization quite quickly.

It's going to be an ugly, bloody mess.

[Apr 21, 2007] Econbrowser The Coming () US Current Account Adjustment Two Questions Inspired by Two Graphs

This leads me to a second question. How does the increasing dependence upon bond inflows -- even if sourced from the official sector and quasi-state entities -- inform our thoughts on how the adjustment to a smaller current account deficit? Some answers come from Freund and Warnock's careful examination of 26 current account reversals in developed economies over the 1980-2003 period:

"...Deficits associated with greater bond inflows do appear to be followed by larger increases in interest rates -- perhaps because the bond inflows kept interest rates abnormally low -- and a sharper decrease in equity prices."

... ... ...

Personally, my view is less sanguine than that presented in the paper, but if the Freund-Warnock results extend to the current US process of adjustment, we should expect the impact to show up in bond and equity markets, with less noticeable effects appearing in GDP and the exchange rate. It will be interesting to see if the increased sensitivity of bond capital flows to interest rates remarked upon in the IMF report further heightens the interest rate effects -- especially if the adjustment takes place against a backdrop of financial turmoil in US capital markets (e.g., subprime market collapse).

[Apr 20, 2007] Sorry, no recession for 2007 ;-)

Military spending are higher  than at the peak of the Reagan buildup and will keep both inflation and the economy growing.

President George W Bush's proposed increase of 10% for next year will raise this figure to over half a trillion dollars, that is, $501.6 billion for fiscal year (FY) 2008. A proposed supplemental appropriation to pay for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq "brings proposed military spending for FY 2008 to $647.2 billion, the highest level of military spending since the end of World War II - higher than Vietnam, higher than Korea, higher than the peak of the Reagan buildup". [1]

... ... ...

... Higgs concludes: "I propose that in considering future defense budgetary costs, a well-founded rule of thumb is to take the Pentagon's (always well publicized) basic budget total and double it. You may overstate the truth, but if so, you'll not do so by much." [4]

[Apr 19, 2007] For 2000-2007 Vanguard TIPS fund (VIPSX ) returns with cost averaging are equal to stable value fund assuming fixed 4.5% rate

That means that Vanguard TIPS func (VIPSX) can be used as a proxy of stable value fund.

If we assume biweekly contribution of $500 TIPS and zero initial investment then imitational model produces at the end of the period (April 2007) $93478 for VIPSX  and $92683 for stable value fund.  

[Apr 16, 2007] What rapidly rising price of gold means ?

Is this like Churchill said "beginning of the end" (in a sense that it is a reflection of growing exposal of structural problems of the USA economics) or just "end of the beginning" ?

[Apr 6, 2007] Has Fed lost control over U.S. interest rates?

Jubak stated in December 2006 that, “The dollar’s tumble and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s attempts to placate overseas investors are the clearest signs to date that the foreign investors who finance the huge U.S. trade deficit have gained significant control over the U.S. economy. A few more weeks like that, and it will be clear to everyone outside of Washington that the Fed has lost control over U.S. interest rates.” The Fed has two mandates - to manage inflation expectations and to spur economic growth.  According to Jubak, a third one is being adopted.  “Yes, fighting inflation remains important to the Fed, and, yes, the Fed would prefer not to tank the economy. But Feds have a tough choice: managing the dollar is more important at this point than managing inflation or growth. That’s because the huge piles of dollars sitting in the vaults of the central banks of China, Russia, Japan, the OPEC countries and the European Union are large enough that they make overseas bankers nervous.  When you hold 700 billion U.S. dollars in reserve (out of a total $1 trillion in foreign-exchange reserves), as the Chinese do, for example, every penny decline in the value of the U.S. dollar makes you nervous.” in February Axel Merk is Manager of the Merk Hard Currency Fund  joined the chore of "dollar demise" crowd.

[Apr 2, 2007] Stephen King: World has stopped dancing to America's tune

The author seems to predict no recession but little growth...  The key idea: "The emerging market safety valve no longer works to limit US inflation and, as a result, the US economy has to do more of its own adjusting to ensure a satisfactory outcome for price stability."  But there has been also a lot of "subprime" allocation of capital and risk across the past few years outside housing.  Are those risks well contained ?
Let me make a few observations about the US economy. Inflation is rising. The housing market is declining. The current account deficit is narrowing. And there is a strong whiff of protectionism.

... ... ...

The emerging market safety valve no longer works to limit US inflation and, as a result, the US economy has to do more of its own adjusting to ensure a satisfactory outcome for price stability. This is proving to be a painful process. The housing market continues to decline. Problems in the sub-prime mortgage market are not going away. Profits are showing signs of topping out. And capital spending, often seen to be a bulwark against a softening housing market, is now declining.

... ... ...

The US is facing too low a growth rate. Strong growth elsewhere in the world - combined with softer domestic demand - may be lowering America's current account deficit, but it's also leaving US inflation too high. If the US can no longer determine its own economic destiny, it's all too easy for its electorate - and its leaders - to blame others.

Stephen King is managing director of economics at HSBC



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