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Financial Skeptic Bulletin, May 2007

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There are many ways to get your bearings in an economic cycle. None is so reliable as a growing gap between words used to describe the current state of the economy and conditions observable on the ground.

Eric Janszen

America's economy Stag or 'flation Economist.com

...Much will depend on just how weak the economy continues to be. So far, sub-par growth has not brought the higher unemployment that the central bankers expected and want. And their official forecast is that GDP growth will strengthen in the second half of the year.

The most recent evidence is mixed. Durable-goods orders suggest investment spending may be recovering from its recent funk. A widely watched index from the Institute for Supply Management showed manufacturing was unexpectedly strong in April. With a weaker dollar and perky growth in the rest of the world, exports are likely to grow fast.

But news from the housing market is getting ever gloomier. An index of pending home sales fell unexpectedly to its lowest level in four years in March. And, hit by higher fuel costs as well as falling house prices, consumers may finally be flagging. Americans cut their spending by 0.2% in real terms in March.

Add these mixed signals on growth to the uncertainties about inflation and the chances are that the Fed will simply do nothing for a good while yet. Unlike in fashion, in central banking the underlying trend can take a while to spot.

Buttonwood Gored by the bull Economist.com

According to Chris Watling of Longview Economics, the top 1% of households owns around 40% of America's wealth—the highest proportion since 1929. In the 1970s, they accounted for just 20%.

This creates its own problems, especially when workers are increasingly expected to provide for their own retirement. After all, many companies are retreating from the provision of defined-benefit (final salary) pension schemes because of the cost. As companies switch to defined-contribution (money purchase) schemes, workers not only receive, on average, lower contributions from their employers; they also lose an insurance policy against poor stockmarket returns (because the companies were committed to make up any shortfall in the pension fund). Such a policy would be very expensive to buy in the open market.

Workers trying to replicate a final-salary pension have two further problems. The first is that high share and bond prices imply low yields (the two are inversely related). So they need a larger sum to generate a given retirement income.

The second problem is that, when asset prices are high and yields are low, future returns are likely to be subdued. It thus takes a lot more effort to generate a given lump sum for retirement.

With government bonds and cash yielding 4-5% in Britain and America, financial advisers use a rule of 25. In other words, you need capital equal to 25 times your desired retirement income (equivalent to taking a 4% yield). So for a Briton to have a reasonable—but hardly lavish—retirement income of £20,000 ($40,000) a year, he would need £500,000. For most people, saving such a sum is unimaginable; they may not bother to try, given the scale of the task and the attraction of immediate consumption.

Some of this reluctance may be based on money illusion. In 1990, when a Briton could earn double-digit returns from keeping his money in cash, his capital was being eroded by inflation. Nevertheless, the real yields on assets such as index-linked bonds, seen as the best match for a pension liability, are also very low. Britain's long-dated index-linked gilt yields just 1%; investing £500,000 would thus generate an annual income of just £5,000.

So the world may divide into four. The already wealthy will be well provided for in retirement. The other group of “haves” will be those who have worked for the government and whose final-salary pensions will be funded by taxpayers.

The have-nots will also consist of two groups. Some will have worked for the private sector and will have built up some kind of savings, but their nest-egg will give them scant scope for comfort in their declining years. In some countries, such as Britain, the tax and benefits system may penalise their thrift. The other group of losers will be those relying on state benefits; the generosity of which varies from country to country.

That looks like an unstable and arbitrary situation, with wealth dependent on who you worked for and when you worked rather than on merit. The more numerous losers may demand higher taxes to penalise the lucky winners. What the market hath given, investors may find a future government taketh away.

Hussman Funds - Weekly Market Comment May 5, 2007 - How Much Do Interest Rates Affect the Fair Value of Stocks

Wall Street is presently managing trillions of dollars of other people's money on the basis of a single toy model, originally discovered in a packet at the bottom of a Cracker Jack box. Despite the superficial appearance of being some sort of discounting model (with the earnings yield in the numerator and the interest rate in the denominator), the "Fed Model" doesn't actually map into any reasonable model of discounted cash flow valuation without making odd and counter-factual assumptions about the relationship between growth, payouts, interest rates, and risk premiums.

The Fed Model asserts that earnings yields and Treasury yields have a 1-to-1 relationship, that stocks are undervalued anytime the earnings yield on the S&P 500 is higher than the 10-year Treasury yield, and that the gap between earnings yields and interest rates is the prime determinant of subsequent market returns.

It speaks volumes about the shallow analysis on Wall Street these days that all of these beliefs can be dispelled in a single chart.

... ... ...

The following table provides the annualized total return and volatility for the S&P 500 based on each set of conditions.

 

Treasury yield falling

Treasury yield rising

 

Annualized return

Annualized volatility

Annualized return

Annualized Volatility

PE < 12

26.32%

11.86%

10.99%

13.74%

PE 12-18

18.88%

13.70%

4.90%

16.03%

PE > 18

8.94%

16.53%

-0.41%

18.57%

Notice that rising interest rate trends are invariably accompanied by weaker returns and greater volatility, regardless of the level of valuations.

...My view remains that we are in something of a speculative blowoff that has the potential to result in very hostile market conditions ahead.

 

FT.com - Home UK - UK - Gold tells a sad story of asset deflation in the future

The Fed's models now tell it that the US economy's growth rate will turn back up later this year. That means that it, and its counterparts in Europe and elsewhere, will stick to tighter policies longer than they probably should to avoid an asset price deflation soon. But it's been the monetisation of asset price inflation in the US that has maintained the balance sheet of the consumer.

The builders and buyers know, if the Fed does not, that the housing market "correction" will last a lot longer. The private equity tribe knows it is dependent on the continued availability of liquidity from the credit derivative market. The credit derivatives people are telling the private equity people that there is a limit on the capacity they can provide. I wish the Fed board could hear the open pessimism of many of the credit derivatives professionals I know, many of whom are figuring how best to position their firms and their careers for a prospective bust.

Within a year, though, the gold bear market will have run its course, and Mr Bernanke's other academic speciality, depression avoidance, will be called on. He and his counterparts in Europe, Japan and China will be called on to keep the global Ponzi scheme going, because the real economies cannot stand a bust in the financial economies. In anticipation of that rapid reversal, gold will take off as it hasn't for a generation.

Econbrowser Bernanke on subprime mortgages

.... .... ....

JDH: "And that is in an environment in which the unemployment rate remains below the historical average. What would we see in a full-blown recession?"

Professor,

It is refreshing that you are asking this question. The problem is that the FED chairman's words can't be taken seriously. When Greenspan was the chairman, he was a cheerleader for the housing market and ARMs. At the end of his tenure, he changed his tune. Now that he is going to advise PIMCO, he is talking more about a possible recession, but does 'CYA' by saying there is 1/3 probability. What good are such pronouncements?

... .... ....

Above I predicted a 30+% fall in home prices, and James I. Hymas responded with:

I'm not sure I buy that, based on the Toronto experience. Even in the vicious downturn of 1989-95 (which followed a bubble) house prices - on average - were down only 35%.

This is certainly the first time I have experienced someone attempting to refute my 30+% fall prediction by pointing out that in another North American market the collapse of an earlier bubble brought prices down only 35%. Was that intended to be 3.5%, perhaps???

As my earlier post was interrupted by late-night demands of my "day" job, I ended up not finishing it as I had intended with a statement that I believe the recent unprecedented housing bubble will be followed by an equally unprecedented collapse which will bring prices back down at least to their historic ratios to incomes (a 30+% fall in most of the US -- especially if you weight by value). To believe otherwise is, in effect, to believe that home prices have "reached a permanently high plateau" on which they will remain despite the existence of a gargantuan market glut.

Posted by: jm at May 21, 2007 08:49 PM

Bernanke's statement that "[i]n 2006, 69 percent of households owned their homes; in 1995, 65 percent did" is true, but disguises the fact that homeownership actually peaked in 2004 and has dropped slightly since. The national homeownership rate for the 1st quarter of 2007, in fact, was the lowest since 2003/Q3. See the census bureau site.

What subprime lending giveth, subprime lending taketh away.

 

[May 24, 2007] It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World / Duffy

In Goldman Sachs we trust... In the latest quarter, the total assets of Goldman Sachs exceeded total bank credit at the Fed for the first time
Liquidity remains the rallying cry of the bulls, just as it has at the top of every bubble. But they confuse cash on the sidelines with ready access to credit. As BlackRock CEO Laurence Fink recently warned, "Probably the greatest issue that’s confronting the world’s investors is we are trading liquidity for illiquidity." With mutual fund balances and mutual fund cash levels at record lows, the fuel to power stock prices higher is depleted. The strain of liquidity that has financial markets on steroids is cheap credit, a fair weather friend who will turn tail at the first sign of trouble.

Perhaps the ultimate contrary indicator of this credit cycle will be BusinessWeek’s February 19, 2007 cover story, "It’s a Low, Low, Low, Low-Rate World." BW’s authors gushed, "Borrowers, of course, are deliriously happy. Even the shakiest companies are seeing their debt costs plunge… Most remarkably, the craziness isn’t likely to stop anytime soon." Sound familiar? Simply substitute "home buyers" for "companies" and this quote could have easily appeared two years ago at the top of the housing bubble.

As the actors in this madcap movie continue to chase that illusive pot of gold buried under the "big W," we can’t help but be reminded of the advice of InvesTech Research editor James Stack: "Never confuse an economic miracle with a liquidity bubble."

As the great Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises warned, "There is no means of avoiding the final collapse of a boom brought about by credit expansion."

Econbrowser Bernanke on subprime mortgages

Forget that 13% subprime delinquency number you heard about so much in the press ... I quizzed the MBA and got this in response from Jay Brinkmann, vice president of research and economics:

... our latest subprime numbers are 14.4% delinquent by at least one payment, plus another 4.5% in foreclosure, for a total of 18.9% either delinquent or in foreclosure. For just subprime ARMs that number is 21.1%...

[May 21, 2007] Faber Says U.S. Stocks Are More `Reasonably Priced' Than Others By Adria Cimino and Naga Munchetty

What we don't know is how or when this bubble period will end.

May 21, 2007 (Bloomberg)

U.S. stocks are more ``reasonably priced'' than other markets following the dollar's decline, according to Marc Faber, who oversees $300 million at Hong Kong- based Marc Faber Ltd.

``U.S. stocks are not the biggest bubble,'' Faber said in an interview. Emerging markets and the Spanish property market reflect larger bubbles, he said.

Faber predicted on March 29 that the U.S. Standard & Poor's 500 Index was more likely to fall than rise above a six-year high reached the previous month, citing prospects for slowing economic growth. The index has climbed more than 7 percent since then amid a record run of takeovers.

There are bubbles across asset classes, but it's difficult to predict when they will deflate, Faber said.

``We're in the final stages, but the bubble can be very steep,'' the investor said. China's equity market could still double again from this level, he said.

[May 16, 2007] Paper Money - A US Real Estate Bubble Blog Conspicuous Correlation

Recession might correlate with withdrawal of the USA troops from Iraq.

It’s important to consider that, given the reckless lending and borrowing seen during the latest housing boom, it’s likely that consumers are not only going to feel their housing wealth decline, but also the burden brought by servicing their outsized debt obligations.

Either way, the “wealth effect” is a particularly important macroeconomic phenomenon as personal consumption accounts for over 70% of GDP.

So the key question is, has the recent decline in housing had a measurable effect consumer spending?

The answer appears to lie in data released in the Census Debarments Retail Sales Report which tracks total receipts at stores that sell durable and nondurable goods.

To reveal the trend, I have combined several of the key, discretionary retail sub-category results into a single “discretionary” retail sales series, and then charted the year-over-year percentage changes since 2000.

I then added the year-over-year percentage changes of the S&P/Case-Shiller Composite index which broadly and accurately tracks single family home prices using data from Boston, Chicago, Denver, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, San Diego, San Francisco, and Washington DC.

The result is a significant correlation between the deceleration, and now outright decline, of home prices and a deceleration and subsequent decline in consumer spending.

The first chart (click for larger version) shows the complete series comparison from January 2000 to the latest reported months of 2007.

Note the precipitous deceleration and decline to home prices starting in January 2006 and the very well correlated decline in “discretionary” retail sales.

Also note that the latest decline to retail sales is easily the most significant and sustained seen since 2000, handily surpassing the decline that occurred during and preceding the 2001 recession.

Comments:

           anon,

I think there is a bit of a disconnect between Wall Street and the actual economy.

The one thing you can say is that there is certainly heaps of optimism out there even with the obvious risk factors posed by the housing/consumer decline and energy /gas costs.

The DOW is a spectacle but the truth is it's only up 14% compared to January 2000.

That said, I think Wall Street is underestimating the the threat posed by a potential consumer lead recession though.

It's possible that the next recession will run longer and be more widely felt than the previous two recessions (90s, 2001 dot com bust) which were short and generally contained to certain specific sectors.

I think it's safe to say that If the worst case scenario happens with housing (which so far seems to be occurring) the worst case for the consumer will like follow.

We could be in a for a rough ride but only time will tell.

[May 14, 2007] Economy Is Clawing Back, but Not Much - WSJ.com

Consumer spending in the USA is mostly spending by the rich (more then 60%). So they are essentially acyclical and the troubles experienced by mid and low income families mean very little.  The discrepancy in income is now probably close to gilded age: the highest-paid hedge-fund manager took home US$1.7 billion in 2006, while the average US worker's annual pay was $28,000.
Still number of industries in recession is growing and non-discretionary retail industry joined the "recession club."
Stagflation is looming with inflation around ~4% a year. Merrill Lynch chief North American economist David Rosenberg stated: “After sifting through 60 years of data, whenever real GDP growth has been below 3% for five consecutive quarters, the economy was either already in recession, on the precipice of recession or about to double-dip back into recession.”

The economists don't see any new engines for growth this year. They expect continued weakness in consumer spending, for instance, which accounts for 70% of the economy.

"All of expected growth is addition by subtraction of drags," said Bruce Kasman of J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. "Drags from housing and inventories of manufacturing are fading," he said.

... ... ...

On the whole, the 60 economists predict gross domestic product, the broadest measure of economic output, will grow at a 2.2% annual rate this quarter.

... ... ...

Just a few economists see the Fed changing rates at its June meeting, but 35 expect a change by the end of the year: 26 see a cut and nine forecast an increase.


Almost three-quarters of the economists expect the dollar to fall further this year, and, on average, they expect a 3.42% decline.

Comment: The Street Light Economists' Growth Forecasts

it's almost not worth mentioning (but I'll do it anyway) that actual GDP growth during the 1st quarter of 2007 was not even close to the prediction of 2.4 percent growth. Let's hope that these economists somehow managed to get closer to the mark this time.

[May 12, 2007] Nouriel Roubini: We Are in a "Growth Recession"

Economy might be better then Roubini predicts due to continued military build-up. Slow down probably will not affect stock prices directly until some "trigger" event.  And consumer spending in the USA is very resilient. 

The net effect of these three factors is an estimated 0.7% growth for Q1 (JP Morgan today revised its Q1 estimate downward to 0.8%).

Much more seriously, Q2 started on a very weak note for private consumption based on initial estimates of retail sales. I now expect Q2 growth to be closer to 0% or even negative (i.e an outright recession).

Comments

Well, Nouriel could be very, very close on his call here after the retail sales data this a.m. After lowering Q1 GDP to about .80 and factoring in todays data, my Q2 estimate of GDP is now .03!! The Fed should have lowered, this tells me they want a US recession so they can drag down the rest of the world's growth thus causing other countries to start to e ease and therefor the Fed can ease without collapsing the US $
 
Written by Guest on 2007-05-11 08:23:26 David Rosenberg's posting for May 8 begins with "Equities have been making new highs amid talk about "global decoupling" and "paradigm shifts." We believe that the real decoupling may involve the U.S. equity market and the domestic economy. Eventually, the market is likely to catch up with the macro economy, in our view". Later he states "The stock market clearly is in a cyclical bull phase. But it seems to us that the upturn is being driven by the boom in private equity transaction, mergers and acquisition flows, and global carry trades ("liquidity," for lack of a better term) rather than domestic economic fundamentals." Boris Shlossberg recently posted a set of charts that show a strong correlation between the size of carry trade benefits (interest rate differential) is correlated with the level of US stock markets, consistent with Rosenberg.
 
Margin debt on the NYSE now looks very much like it is in a 2000-style parabolic ascent (see margin data for the NYSE). These two spikes dwarf all previous upward moves in margin debt. I think this is an important factor driving the upward ascent of the stock market, though it is likely one of several correlated liquidity factors that are moving the markets up despite a weakening economy (as suggested by Rosenberg and Schlossberg). Note that in the downturn in markets from late Feb. - mid-March, margin debt stabilised. What will happen if something triggers a decline in margin debt? 
 
The rising stock market is a factor that is supporting the economy itself. Notably, it has probably replaced gains in house prices for the top 20% of US households so 
consumption of this group has not weakened as much as for other groups, I would guess. Weakening more at stores like Wal-Mart is already a symptom of what is happening to the other 80%. Moreover it explains why the savings rate has not started to move upward in a sustained fashion (the top 20% account for most of the swing in savings rates over the past decade). 
 
So my guess is that the stock market will continue up until something triggers an unwinding of margin debt. The economy may stumble along in a growth recession until the stock market turns. Once it does, this will hit the top 20% of households causing their savings rates to start rising and pushing the economy into a deep recession. This reminds me of Galbraith’s analysis of the Great Depression, where he concluded that one cause was the unequal distribution of income. This made the economy heavily dependent on spending on luxury goods – this spending was very susceptible to the stock market crash. 

Written by Alex Grey on 2007-05-11 09:27:39

[May 11, 2007] U.S. foreclosure rate doubles in a year - Newsday.com

U.S. homeowners entered the foreclosure process last month at more than double the rate of a year ago. But it dropped from the rate of the previous month. 

The number of homeowners in all three phases of foreclosure rose last month over the same period a year ago, according to Sacramento, Calif.-based Foreclosures.com, which gathers data from county courthouses nationwide. Those receiving their first notice of foreclosure from a bank climbed 127 percent, those with homes going up for sale by auction jumped 164 percent and those whose homes were repossessed by banks went up 40 percent.

Eight of 10 subprime loans, given to borrowers with bad or limited credit histories, adjust over time to higher interest rates, and many homeowners can no longer afford their mortgages. With existing home sales at a four-year low, it's more difficult to sell because there are so many homes on the market.

"The housing boom was a house of cards," said Alexis McGee, president of Foreclosures.com. "A lot of people who are living beyond their means and borrowing from Peter to pay Paul find that it's starting to catch up with them."

The number of foreclosure filings decreased last month in all three categories compared with March, Foreclosures.com said. Notices of default dropped 16 percent, auctions decreased 12 percent and bank repossessions fell 14 percent. [March,2007 rates were up 7% from the Feb, 2007: U.S. Foreclosure Rate Surges 47 Percent --NNB]

The March 2007 numbers compared with a year earlier were similar to the increases of April 2007 over April 2006. First filings increased 126 percent in March 2007 compared with March 2006, notices of auction climbed 121 percent and the number of bank repossessions grew 51 percent.

[May 7, 2007]Jeremy Grantham All the World's a Bubble

"A critical part of a bubble is the reinforcement you get for your very optimistic view from those around you." Even WSJ  is talking about the degree of leverage being applied to the markets.
The mechanism is surprisingly simple," he wrote. "Perfect conditions create very strong 'animal spirits,' reflected statistically in a low risk premium. Widely available cheap credit offers investors the opportunity to act on their optimism."

And it becomes self-sustaining. "The more leverage you take, the better you do; the better you do, the more leverage you take. A critical part of a bubble is the reinforcement you get for your very optimistic view from those around you."

[May 7, 2007] Econbrowser Recession probability index rises to 16.9

I do not believe in recession in 2007. But can June-July provide some 'fun' for the stock market, as the bad news ( auto sales, etc) continues to come down ?  Or mergers will serve as a powerful pain killers for subprime mortgages worries ?

The Bureau of Economic Analysis reported today that U.S. real GDP grew at an annual rate of 1.3% in the first quarter of 2007, moving our recession probability index up to 16.9%. This post provides some background on how that index is constructed and what the latest move up might signify.

[May 1, 2007] Another Economic Disconnect  By PAUL KRUGMAN

We now have an economy with incredibly high profits and surprisingly low investment.

April 30, 2007 (NYT)

It’s possible that sluggish business investment reflects lack of confidence in the economic outlook — a lack of confidence that’s understandable given the bursting of the housing bubble, which has already caused G.D.P. growth to slow to a crawl.

But as Floyd Norris recently reported in The Times, there is a more disturbing possibility. Instead of investing in physical capital, many companies are using profits to buy back their own stock. And cynics suggest that the purpose of these buybacks is to produce a temporary rise in stock prices that increases the value of executives’ stock options, even if it’s against the long-term interests of investors.

It’s not a far-fetched idea. Researchers at the Federal Reserve have found evidence that company decisions about stock buybacks are strongly influenced by “agency conflicts,” a genteel term for self-dealing by corporate insiders. In the 1990s that kind of self-dealing often led to excessive investment, which at least left a tangible legacy behind. But today the self-interest of management may be standing in the way of productive investment.

Whatever the reasons, we now have an economy with incredibly high profits and surprisingly low investment. This raises some immediate, short-run concerns: with housing still in free fall and consumers ever more stretched, optimistic projections for the economy depend on vigorous growth in business investment. And that doesn’t seem to be happening.

 



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