Posts tagged ‘QE2’

Helicopter Ben to QE3 Rescue

Faster than a speedy credit default swap, more powerful than a federal funds interest rate cut, and able to leap a tall Mario Draghi in a single bound, look…it’s Helicopter Ben! How did Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke become a monetary superhero with such a cool nickname as Helicopter Ben (a.k.a. “HB”)? Bernanke, a former Princeton University professor, has widely been known to be a diligent student of the Great Depression, and his aviation nickname stems from a 2002 speech in which he referenced dropping money from a helicopter to combat deflation. While investors may worry about HB’s ability to fight the inflation thugs, there should be no questions about his willingness to implement accommodative, deflation-fighting monetary policies.

Chairman Bernanke may not epitomize your ideal superhero, however this slightly past middle-aged bearded and balding man has helped mastermind some of the most creative and aggressive monetary rescue efforts our country and globe has seen in the history of man (and woman). This week’s money-printing QE3 announcement solidified Bernanke’s historic capital saturating ranking.

Since Helicopter Ben’s heroic appointment as Federal Reserve Chairman in 2006 by George W. Bush, Bernanke has instituted numerous monetary gadgets in hopes of meeting the Federal Reserve’s dual mandate, which is i) to achieve low inflation and ii) to strive for maximum employment. Arguably, given the anemic growth here in the U.S.; the recession in Europe; and slowing growth in the emerging markets (i.e., China, Brazil, India, etc.), slack in the economy and static labor wages have largely kept inflation in check. With the first part of the dual mandate met, Bernanke has had no problem putting his monetary superpowers to work.

As referenced earlier, Bernanke’s bazooka launch of QE3, an open ended MBS (Mortgage Back Securities) bond binging program, will add $40 billion of newly purchased assets to the Fed’s balance sheet on a monthly basis until the labor market improves “substantially” (whatever that means). What’s more, in addition to the indefinite QE3, Bernanke has promised to keep the federal funds rate near zero “at least through mid-2015,” even for a “considerable time after the economic recovery strengthens.”

HB’s Track Record

Throughout superhero history, Superman, Spider-man, and Batman have used a wide-array of superhuman powers, extraordinary gadgets, and superior intellect to conquer evil-doers and injustices across the globe. Bernanke has also forcefully put his unrivaled money-printing talents to work in an attempt to cure the financial ills of the world. Here’s a quick multi-year overview of how Bernanke has put his unique talents to print trillions of dollars and keep interest rates suppressed:

Rate Cuts (September 2007 – December 2008): Before “quantitative easing” was a part of our common vernacular, the Fed relied on more traditional monetary policies, such as federal funds rate targeting, conducted through purchases and sales of open market securities. Few investors recall, but before HB’s fed funds rate cut rampage of 10 consecutive reductions in 2007 and 2008 (the fed funds rate went from 5.25% to effectively 0%), Bernanke actually increased rates three times in 2006.

Crisis Actions (2007 – 2009): Love him or hate him, Bernanke has been a brave and busy soul in dealing with the massive proportions of the global financial crisis. If you don’t believe me, just check out the Financial Crisis Timeline listed at the St. Louis Federal Reserve. Many investors don’t remember, but Bernanke helped orchestrate some of the largest and most unprecedented corporate actions in our history, including the $30 billion loan to JPMorgan Chase (JPM) in the Bear Stearns takeover; the $182 billion bailout of AIG; the conversion of Morgan Stanley (MS) and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS) into bank holding companies; and the loan/asset-purchase support to Fannie Mae (FNMA) and Freddie Mac (FMCC). These actions represented just the tip of the iceberg, if you also consider the deluge of liquidity actions taken by the Fed Chairman.

HB Creates Acronym Soup

In order to provide a flavor of the vastness in emergency programs launched since the crisis, here is an alphabet soup of program acronyms into which the Fed poured hundreds of billions of dollars:

  • Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility (TALF)
  • Term Auction Facility (TAF)
  • Money Market Investor Funding Facility (MMIFF)
  • Commercial Paper Funding Facility (CPFF)
  • Primary Dealer Credit Facility (PDCF)
  • Asset-Backed Commercial Paper Money Market Fund Liquidity Facility (AMLF)
  • Temporary Reciprocal Currency Arrangements (Swap lines)
  • Term Securities Lending Facility (TSLF)

Plenty of acronyms to go around, but these juicy programs have garnered most of investors’ attention:

QE1 (November 2008 – March 2010): In hopes of lowering interest rates for borrowers and stimulating the economy, HB spearheaded the Fed’s multi-step, $1 trillion+ buying program  of MBS (mortgage backed securities) and Treasuries.

QE2 (November 2010 – June 2011): Since the Fed felt QE1 didn’t pack enough monetary punch to keep the economy growing at a fast enough clip, the FOMC (Federal Open Market committee) announced its decision to expand its holdings of securities in November 2010. The Committee maintained its existing policy of reinvesting principal payments from its securities holdings and to also purchase a further $600 billion of longer-term Treasury securities by the end of the second quarter of 2011 (an equivalent pace of about $75 billion per month).

Operation Twist (September 2011 – December 2012): What started out as a $400 billion short-term debt for longer-term debt swap program in September 2011, expanded to a $667 billion program in June 2012. With short-term rates excessively low, Bernanke came up with this Operation Twist scheme previously used in the early 1960s. Designed to flatten the yield curve (bring down long-term interest rates) to stimulate economic activity, Bernanke thought this program was worth another go-around. Unlike quantitative easing, Operation Twist does not expand the Fed’s balance sheet – the program merely swaps short-term securities for long-term securities. Currently, the program is forecasted to conclude at the end of this year.

The Verdict on HB

So what’s my verdict on the continuous number of unprecedented actions that Helicopter Ben and the Fed have taken? Well for starters, I have to give Mr. Bernanke an “A-” on his overall handling of the financial crisis. Had his extreme actions not been taken, the pain and agony experienced by all would likely be significantly worse, and the financial hole a lot deeper.

With that said, am I happy about the announcement of QE3 and the explosion in the Fed’s money printing activities? The short answer is “NO”. It’s difficult to support a program with questionable short-run interest rate benefits, when the menacing inflationary pressures are likely to outweigh the advantages. The larger problem in my mind is the massive fiscal problem we are experiencing (over $16 trillion in debt and endless trillion dollar deficits). More importantly, this bloated fiscal position is creating an overarching, nagging crisis of confidence. A resolution to the so-called “fiscal cliff,” or the automated $600 billion in tax increases and spending cuts, is likely to have a more positive impact on confidence than a 0.05% – 0.25% reduction in mortgage rates from QE3. Once adequate and sustained growth returns, and inflation rears its ugly head, how quickly Helicopter Ben tightens policy will be his key test.

Until then, Bernanke will probably continue flying around while gloating in his QE3 cape, hoping his quantitative easing program will raise general confidence. Unfortunately, his more recent monetary policies appear to be creating diminishing returns. Even before QE3’s implementation, Helicopter Ben has witnessed his policies expand the Fed’s balance sheet from less than $900 billion at the beginning of the recession to almost $3 trillion today. Despite these gargantuan efforts, growth and confidence have been crawling forward at only a modest pace.

No matter the outcome of QE3, as long as Ben Bernanke remains Federal Reserve Chairman, and growth remains sluggish, you can stay confident this financial man of steel will continue dumping money into the system from his helicopter. If Bernanke wants to create a true legendary superhero ending to this story, the kryptonite-like effects of inflation need to be avoided. This means, less money-printing and more convincing of Congress to take action on our out-of-control debt and deficits. Now, that’s a comic book I’d pay to read.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients hold positions in certain exchange traded funds (ETFs), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct positions in JPM, AIG, MS, GS, FNMA, FMCC,  or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC Contact page.

September 16, 2012 at 5:46 pm 1 comment

Playing Whack-A-Mole with the Pros

Source: Flickr

Deciphering the ups and the downs of the financial markets is a lot like playing a game of Whack-A-Mole. First the market is up 300 points, then down 300 points. Next Greece and Europe are going down the drain, and then Germany and the ECB (European Central Bank) are here to save the day. The daily data points are a rapid moving target, and if history continues to serve as a guide (see History Often Rhymes with the Future), the bobbing consensus views of pundits will continue to get hammered by investors’ mallets.

Let’s take a look at recent history to see who has been the “whack-er” and whom has been the “whack-ee.” Whether it was the gloom and doom consensus view in the early 1980s (reference BusinessWeek’s 1979 front page “The Death of Equities) or the euphoric championing of tech stocks in the 1990s (see Money magazine’s March 2000 cover, “The Hottest Market Ever), the consensus view was wrong then, and is likely wrong again today.

Here are some of the fresher consensus views that have popped up and then gotten beaten down:

End of QE2The Consensus: If you rewind the clock back to June 2011 when the Federal Reserve’s $600 billion QE2 (Quantitative Easing Part II) monetary stimulus program was coming to an end, a majority of pundits expected bond prices to tank in the absence of the Fed’s Ben Bernanke’s checkbook support. Before the end of QE2, Reuters financial service surveyed 64 professionals, and a substantial majority predicted bond prices would tank and interest rates would catapult upwards.   Actual Result: The pundits were wrong and rates did not go up, they in fact went down.  As a result, bond prices screamed higher – bond values increased significantly as 10-year Treasury yields fell from 3.16% to a low of 1.72% last week.

Debt Ceiling DebateThe Consensus: Just one month later, Democrats and Republicans were playing a game of political “chicken” in the process of raising the debt ceiling to over $16 trillion. Bill Gross, bond guru and CEO of fixed income giant PIMCO, was one of the many pros who earlier this year sold Treasuries in droves because fears of bond vigilantes shredding prices of U.S. Treasury bonds .

Here was the prevalent thought process at the time:  Profligate spending by irresponsible bureaucrats in Washington if not curtailed dramatically would cascade into a disaster, which would lead to higher default risk, cancerous inflation, and exploding interest rates ala Greece. Actual Result: Once again, the pundits were proved wrong in the deciphering of their cloudy crystal balls. Interest rates did not rise, they actually fell.  As a result, bond prices screamed higher and 10-year Treasury yields dived from 2.74% to the recent low of 1.72%.

S&P Credit DowngradeThe Consensus: The S&P credit rating agency warned Washington that a failure to come to meaningful consensus on deficit and debt reduction would result in bitter consequences. Despite a $2 trillion error made by S&P, the agency kept its word and downgraded the U.S.’s long-term debt rating to AA+ from AAA. Research from JP Morgan (JPM) cautioned investors of the imminent punishment to be placed on $4 trillion in Treasury collateral, which could lead to a seizing in credit markets.  Actual Result: Rather than becoming the ugly stepchild, U.S. Treasuries became a global safe-haven for investors around the world to pile into. Not only did bond prices steadily climb (and yields decline), but the value of our currency as measured by the Dollar Index (DXY) has risen significantly since then.

Dollar Index (DXY) Source: Bloomberg

What is next? Nobody knows for certain. In the meantime, grab some cotton candy, popcorn, and a rubber mallet. There is never a shortage of confident mole-like experts popping up on TV, newspapers, blogs, and radio. So when the deafening noise about the inevitable collapse of Europe and the global economy comes roaring in, make sure you are the one holding the mallet and not the mole getting whacked on the head.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in JPM, MHP, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

October 1, 2011 at 5:53 am Leave a comment

Soft Patch Creating Hard-Landing Nightmares

Boo! Was that a ghost, or was that just some soft patch talk scaring you during a nightmare? The economic data hasn’t been exactly rosy over the last month, and as a result, investors have gotten spooked and have chosen to chainsaw their equity positions. Since late April, nervous investors had already yanked more than $15 billion from U.S. equity mutual funds and shoved nearly $29 billion toward bond funds (Barron’s). Jittery emotions are evidenced by the recently released June Consumer Confidence numbers (Conference Board), which came in at a dismal 58.5 level – significantly above the low of 25.3 in 2009, but a mile away from the pre-crisis high of 111.9 in 2007.

Economic Monsters under the Bed

Why are investors having such scary dreams? Look no further than the latest terror-filled headlines du Jour referencing one (if not all) of the following issues:

• Inevitable economic collapse of Greece.
• End of QE2 (Quantitative Easing Part II) monetary stimulus program.
• Excessive state deficits, debt, and pension obligations.
• Housing market remains in shambles.
• Slowing in economic growth – lethargic +1.9% GDP growth in Q1.
• Accelerating inflation.
• Anemic auto sales in part caused by Japanese supply chain disruptions post the nuclear disaster.

Surely with all this horrible news, the equity markets must have suffered some severe bloodletting? Wait a second, my crack research team has just discovered the S&P 500 is up +5.0% this year and its sister index the Dow Jones Industrial Average is up +7.2%. How can bad news plus more bad news equal an up market?

OK, I know the sarcasm is oozing from the page, but the fact of the matter is investing based on economic headlines can be hazardous for your investment portfolio health. The flow of horrendous headlines was actually much worse over the last 24 months, yet equity markets have approximately doubled in price. On the flip-side, in 2007 there was an abundant amount of economic sunshine (excluding housing), right before the economy drove off a cliff.

Balanced Viewpoints

Being purely Pollyannaish and ignoring objective soft patch data is certainly not advisable, but with the financial crisis of 2008-2009 close behind us in the rear-view mirror, it has become apparent to me that fair and balanced analysis of the facts by TV, newspaper, radio, and blogging venues is noticeably absent.

Given the fact that the stock market is up in 2011 in the face of dreadful news, are investors just whistling as they walk past the graveyard? Or are there some positive countervailing trends hidden amidst all the gloom?

I could probably provide some credible contrarian views to the current pessimistically accepted outlook, but rather than recreating the wheel, why not choose a more efficient method and leave it to a trusted voice of Scott Grannis at the Calafia Beach Report, where he resourcefully notes the market positives:

“Corporate profits are very strong; the economy has created over 2 million private sector jobs since the recession low; swap spreads are very low; the implied volatility of equity options is only moderately elevated; the yield curve is very steep (thus ruling out any monetary policy threat to growth); commodity prices are very strong (thus ruling out any material slowdown in global demand); the US Congress is debating how much to cut spending, rather than how much to increase spending; oil prices are down one-third from their 2008 recession-provoking highs; exports are growing at strong double-digit rates; the number of people collecting unemployment insurance has dropped by 5 million since early 2010; federal revenues are growing at a 10% annual rate; households’ net worth has risen by over $9 trillion in the past two years; and the level of swap and credit spreads shows no signs of being artificially depressed (thus virtually ruling out excessive optimism or Fed-induced asset price distortions). When you put the latest concerns about the potential fallout from a Greek default (which is virtually assured and has been known and expected for months) against the backdrop of these positive and powerful fundamentals, the world doesn’t look like a very scary place.”

 

Wow, that doesn’t sound half bad, but rock throwing Greek vandals, nude politicians Tweeting pictures, and anti-terrorist war campaigns happen to sell more newspapers.

It’s the Earnings Stupid

Grannis’s view on corporate profits supports what I recently wrote in It’s the Earnings, Stupid. What really drives stock prices over the long-term is earnings and cash flows (with a good dash of interest rates). Given the sour stock market sentiment, little attention has been placed on the record growth in corporate profits – up +47% in 2010 on an S&P 500 operating basis and estimated +17% growth in 2011. Few people realize that corporate profits have more than doubled over the last decade (see chart below) in light of the feeble stock market performance. Despite the much improved current profit outlook, cynical bears question the validity of this year’s profit forecasts as we approach the beginning of Q2 earnings reporting season. However, if recent results from the likes of Nike Inc. (NKE), FedEx Corp (FDX), Oracle Corp. (ORCL), Caterpillar Inc. (CAT), and Bed Bath & Beyond Inc. (BBBY) are indicators of what’s to come from the rest of corporate America, then profit estimates may actually get adjusted upwards…not downwards?

Source: Scott Grannis - Calafia Report

There is plenty to worry about and there is never a shortage of scary headlines (see Back to the Future magazine covers), but reacting to news with impulsive emotional trades will produce fewer sweet dreams and more investment nightmares.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Performance data from Morningstar.com. Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds and FDX, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in NKE, CAT, ORCL, BBY or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

June 30, 2011 at 11:05 pm Leave a comment

Economic Tug-of-War as Recovery Matures

Excerpt from No-Cost June 2011 Sidoxia Monthly Newsletter (Subscribe on right-side of page)

With the Rapture behind us, we can now focus less on the end of the world and more on the economic tug of war. As we approach the midpoint of 2011, equity markets were down -1.4% last month (S&P 500 index) and are virtually flat since February – trading within a narrow band of approximately +/- 5% over that period. Investors are filtering through data as we speak, reconciling record corporate profits and margins with decelerating economic and employment trends.

Here are some of the issues investors are digesting:

Profits Continue Chugging Along: There are many crosscurrents swirling around the economy, but corporations are sitting on fat profits and growing cash piles owing success to several factors:

  • International Expansion: A weaker dollar has made domestic goods and services more affordable to foreigners, resulting in stronger sales abroad. The expansion of middle classes in developing countries is leading to the broader purchasing power necessary to drive increasing American exports.
  • Rising Productivity: Cheap labor, new equipment, and expanded technology adoption have resulted in annualized productivity increases of +2.9% and +1.6% in the 4th quarter and 1st quarter, respectively. Eventually, corporations will be forced to hire full-time employees in bulk, as bursting temporary worker staffs and stretched employee bases will hit output limitations.
  • Deleveraging Helps Spending:  As we enter the third year of the economic recovery, consumers, corporations, and financial institutions have become more responsible in curtailing their debt loads, which has led to more sustainable, albeit more moderate, spending levels. For instance, ever since mid-2008, when recessionary fundamentals worsened, consumer debt in the U.S. has fallen by more than $1 trillion.

Fed Running on Empty: The QE2 (Quantitative Easing Part II) government security purchase program, designed to stimulate the economy by driving interest rates lower, is concluding at the end of this month. If the economy continues to stagnate, there’s a possibility that the tank may need to be re-filled with some QE3? Maintaining the 30-year fixed rate mortgage currently around 4.25%, and the 10-year Treasury note yielding around 3.05% will be a challenge after the program expires. Time will tell…

Slogging Through Mud: Although corporate profits are expanding smartly, economic momentum, as measured by real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth, is struggling like a vehicle spinning its wheels in mud. Annualized first quarter GDP growth registered in at a meager +1.8% as the economy weans itself off of fiscal stimulus and adjusts to more normalized spending levels. An elevated 9% unemployment rate and continued weak housing market is also putting a lid on consumer spending. Offsetting the negative impacts of the stimulative spending declines have been the increasing tax receipts achieved as a consequence of seven consecutive quarters of GDP growth.

Mixed Bag – Euro Confusion: Germany reported eye-popping first quarter GDP growth of +5.2%, the steepest year-over-year rise since reunification in 1990, yet lingering fiscal concerns surrounding the likes of  Greece, Portugal, and Italy have intensified. Fitch, for example, recently cut its rating on Greece’s long-term sovereign debt three notches, from BB+ to B+ plus, and placed the country on “rating watch negative” status. These fears have pushed up two-year Greek bond yields to over 26%. Regarding the other countries mentioned, Standard & Poor’s, another credit rating agency, cut Italy’s A+ rating, while the European Union and International Monetary Fund agreed on a $116 billion bailout program for Portugal.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper.

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in any security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

June 1, 2011 at 9:38 am Leave a comment

My 10 Holiday Thank You’s of 2010

Source: Photobucket

10.) I am thankful for “QE2” (Quantitative Easing) because it broadens my thesaurus with another acronym meaning “printing press.”

9.) I am thankful for the Goldilocks “-flation” fears. Not too hot inflation and not too cold deflation makes Goldy feel just right.

8.) I am thankful for weak housing prices. Who wants to pay high property taxes?!

7.) I’m thankful to have another bloody, partisan midterm election behind us resulting in gridlock. Oops, I forgot, we just started a bloody, partisan 2012 Presidential election cycle. 

6.) I am thankful for May’s “Flash Crash” because I’m an adrenaline junkie and the financial crisis did not provide enough excitement in 2008-2009.

5.) I am thankful for the Irish banking system bailout. Misery loves company.

4.) I am thankful for higher commodity prices, specifically my long wheat futures position. I’ve effectively hedged my daily breakfast bowl of Wheaties

3.) I am thankful for the Chinese…for supporting our gluttonous consumerism by purchasing all our debt.

2.) I am thankful for a record year at Sidoxia. The launch and leading performance of Fusion added  to a memorable 2010 (read more).  

1.) I am thankful for the thousands of readers and followers who stopped by my site in 2010. Not only were the compliments appreciated by the die-hards (“Caffeiners”), but also the constructive feedback from casual visitors (i.e., “Slome, you’re a moron”).

Happy New Year and best wishes for a prosperous 2011!

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP® 

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in BP, wheat futures, or any security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

December 22, 2010 at 1:08 am Leave a comment

Another Year, Another Decade

Article from Sidoxia Monthly Newsletter (Subscribe on right-side of page)
As we approach the 2010 finish line, investors are reevaluating their nest eggs and investment positioning for the New Year and the new decade. After experiencing two “100 year floods” over the last decade in the form of the technology and credit bubbles bursting, a wave of conservatism has swung everyone over to one side of the boat, in the form of cash, CDs, Treasury Bonds, and other fixed income instruments.
 
These conservative tools should absolutely be a part of everybody’s portfolio (especially for those in or near retirement), but an overly conservative portfolio can end up drowning more people than saving them. Bonds run the risk of collapsing in value if interest rates spike or potential inflation rears its ugly head. Under both scenarios, purchasing power and retirement lifestyle can be significantly compromised. Diversification and duration shortening (less sensitivity to interest rate changes) strategies should be explored to better manage these risks.
 
Ignore the Good, Highlight the Bad
 
With the financial crisis so close in our rearview mirror, putting those fiscal fears to rest can be difficult, even if the equity markets have rebounded between +80% (S&P 500) and +100% (NASDAQ) over the last 18 months. These fresh worries have diminished the attention placed on some of the positive undercurrents occurring in the economy:
 ·         GDP Growth: You wouldn’t know it, but we have experienced five consecutive quarters of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) growth with a recently upwardly revised Q3-2010 growth figure to +2.5% (from previous +2.0% estimate).
·       Job Growth: Although the unemployment rate has stubbornly remained in the 9.6% range, the country has created more than 1million jobs over the last year, thanks to ten consecutive months of private job creation. We’ll find out more about hiring trends this Friday.
·         Record Profits:  S&P 500 profits are on track to exceed the $88 peak profit earned by the index in 2006 (Thomson).  Corporations may not be hiring in droves, but the cash is piling up for increased investment and pent-up hiring. Unprofitable companies generally do not hire.
·         Changing of the Guard: Regardless of political leanings, with Presidential re-elections only two years away and Republicans gaining control of the House, some common ground between the Right and the Left could be found. Specifically, gridlock is the default, but there is genuine potential for compromise on taxes, fiscal restraint, tax relief, and investment incentives with the aim of sparking job creation.
·         Holiday Cheer: Holiday sales got off to a good start judging by “Black Friday” (the day after Thanksgiving) and “Cyber Monday” – the day after Thanksgiving weekend. Sales on Cyber Monday rose +19.4% versus last year, according to Coremetrics. Traffic to retail stores and websites over Black Friday weekend increased by +9%, reportedthe National Retail Federation.
 
Keeping a lid on the enthusiasm are the following:
·         Un-Luck of the Irish: With the recently announced $112 billion bailout of Ireland, focus has returned to the other side of the pond. Too much debt at Irish banks and excessive spending by the government has forced a large bailout, which has created contagion worries across some of the weaker Eurozone countries.
·          Korean Skirmish: Apparently sinking a South Korean warship earlier this year was not enough belligerent activity for North Korea in a year, so they decided to bomb and kill innocent civilians recently. Will China help deflate the tension, or will our military just get stretched thinner in support of our southern ally?
·         QE2/Inflation: Yesterday the fear was deflation, today the fear is inflation, but don’t hold your breath, a new “flation” phobia will likely be reintroduced tomorrow. Although the U.S. dollar has bounced of late on European concerns, longer term investors worry about the debasement of the currency because of funny money printing.
·         China Taking a Brake? Inflation is on the upswing (+4.4% in October) and concerns over Chinese government officials pressing the brakes on speculative real estate growth (reserve rate increased by +0.5%) may hamper overall expansion.
·         Insider Trading: Consensus thinking has it that Wall Street is rigged. The SEC is hoping to rebuild credibility after receiving a black eye for its poor handling of the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme scandal. The FBI raided three hedge funds, which may be the beginning of a widespread investigation.
 
As you can see, some items fall on both sides of the positive/negative ledger. Although many of the green shoots of 2009 have sprouted, critics complain the recovery process has progresses too slowly. Regardless of the worries, we have had 11 recessions and recoveries since World War II, and the average expansion has lasted five years. While we approach the next decade, do your portfolio a favor and focus on optimizing a proper diversified portfolio taking advantage of current multi-year opportunities, rather than succumbing to the endless fountain of daily pessimism.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP® 

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

December 1, 2010 at 12:37 am Leave a comment

Listening for Dinner Bell or Penalty Whistle?

Excerpt from my monthly newsletter (sign-up on the right of page)…

Investors are eagerly waiting on the sidelines wondering whether to listen for a dinner bell signaling the time to sink their teeth into traditional equity investments, or respond to a penalty whistle by nervously maintaining money in depleted, inflation-losing CDs. A large swath of investors are still scarred from the losses experienced from the 2008-2009 financial crisis and are trying to rationalize the recent +80% move in equity markets (S&P 500 index) over the last 18 months. Eating saltine crackers and drinking water in CDs and money market accounts yielding < 1% feels OK when the world is collapsing around you, but eventually people realize retirement goals are tough to achieve with the money stuffed under the mattress.

Here are some recent bells and whistles we are listening to:

Mid-Term Elections: Regardless of your politics, Republicans are forecasted to regain control of the House of Representatives, while expectations for a narrow Democrat Senate majority remains the consensus. Currently, Democrat Jerry Brown is a handful of points in the lead over Meg Whitman for the California governor’s race. Another issue voters are closely monitoring is the likelihood of Bush tax-cut extensions.

Printing Press Part II: The Federal Reserve has strongly hinted of another round at the printing press in an effort to stimulate the economy by keeping interest rates low (e.g., record low 30-year fixed mortgage rates around 4.2%). The Fed accomplishes this so-called Quantitative Easing (or QE2) by purchasing Treasuries and mortgage backed securities – pumping more dollars into the financial system to expand credit and loans. In addition, QE2 is structured to stimulate the meager 0.8% core inflation experienced over the last 12 months (Bloomberg) to a Goldilocks level – not too hot and not too cold. QE2 asset purchase estimates are all over the map, but estimates generally stand at the low end of the original $200 billion to $2 trillion range.

Growth Continues: Although companies are sitting on record piles of cash ($1.8 trillion for all non-financial companies), chief executive officers continue to have short arms with their deep pockets when it comes to spending on new hires. Persistent growth for five consecutive quarters (2% GDP expansion in Q2), coupled with tight cost controls, is resulting in 46% estimated growth in 2010 corporate profits as measured by the average of S&P 500 companies. For the time being, “double dip” worries have been put on hold for this jobless recovery.

Unemployment Hypochondria: As I wrote in an earlier Investing Caffeine article (READ HERE), there is an almost obsessive focus on the unemployment rate, which although moving in the right direction, remains at a stubbornly high 9.6% rate nationally. Fresh new employment data will be released this Friday.

Foreclosure-gate: As foreclosures have increased and the decline in the housing market has matured, investors have grown more impatient with collections from mortgage backed securities originators. Banks and other mortgage lenders could face more than $100 billion in losses (CNBC) in mortgage “putbacks” related to improper packaging and terms disclosed to investors. Lawyers are salivating at the opportunity of litigating the thousands of potential cases across the country.

Create Your Own Blueprint – Block Noise

In reality, there is no dinner bell or penalty whistle when it comes to investing. Sure, we hear dinner bells and whistles every day on TV from strategists and economists, but in this sordid, cacophony of daily noise, the long line-up of soothsayers are constantly switching back and forth between optimistic bells and pessimistic whistles. The consistent onslaught of this indiscernible noise serves no constructive purpose for the average investor. I strongly believe the correct plan of attack is to create a customized investment plan that meets your long-term objectives, constraints, and risk tolerance. By creating a diversified portfolio of low-cost tax-efficient products and strategies, I believe investors will be more securely positioned for a more comfortable and less stressful retirement.

I have my own opinions on the economic environment, which I detail in excruciating detail through my InvestingCaffeine.com writings. These macro-economic opinions are stimulating but have little to no bearing on the construction of my investment portfolios. More important is focusing on the investment areas with the best fundamental prospects, while balancing risk and return for each client.

Despite what I just said, if you are still determined to know my opinions on the market direction, then follow me to the dinner table; I just heard the dinner bell ring.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®  

Plan. Invest. Prosper.  

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in GE, or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

October 31, 2010 at 11:39 pm Leave a comment

Rams Butting Heads: Rosenberg vs. Paulsen

Source: Photobucket

After a massive decline in financial markets during 2008, followed by a significant rebound in during 2009, should it be a surprise to anyone that economists hold directly opposing views? Financial markets are Darwinian in many respects, and Bloomberg was not bashful about stirring up a battle between David Rosenberg (Chief Economist & Strategist at Gluskin Sheff)  and James Paulsen (Chief Investment Strategist at Wells Capital Management). The two economists, like the equivalent of two rams, lowered their horns and butted heads regarding their viewpoints on the economy. Rams butt heads (two words) together as a way to create a social order and hierarchy, so depending on your views, you can determine for yourself whom is the survival of the fittest. Regardless of your opinion, the exchange is an entertaining  clash:

Paulsen’s Case (see also Unemployment Hypochondria): Paulsen makes the case that although the recovery has not been a gangbuster, nonetheless, the rebound has been the strongest in 25 years if you look at real GDP growth in the first year after a recession ends. He blames demographic atrophy in labor force growth (i.e., less job growth from Baby Boomers and fewer women joining the workforce relative to the mid-1980s) for the less than stellar absolute number.

Rosenberg’s Case: Rosenberg explains that the last two recoveries bear no resemblance to the recent recovery. The recent recession was one of the worst of all-time, therefore we should have experienced a sharper V-shaped recovery. All the major economic statistics are at dismal levels, and nowhere near the levels experienced in late 2007.  He goes on to add that the stimulus, monetary policy, and bailouts have not produced the bang for our buck. Rosenberg says he will put on his bull hat once we enter a credit creation cycle that allows the economy to grow on an organic, sustained basis without artificial stimuli.

Like other pre-crisis bears who have floated to the top of the media mountain, Rosenberg has had difficulty adjusting his doom and gloom playbook as markets have rebounded  approximately +80% from March 2009. Rosenberg maintained his pessimistic outlook as he transitioned from Merrill Lynch to Gluskin Sheff and has been wrong ever since. How wrong? Let’s take a look at Rosenberg’s first letter at his new employer, Gluskin Sheff (dated May 19th 2009):

Statement #1: “It stands to reason that this was just another counter-trend rally.” Reality: Dow Jones Industrial Average was at 8,475 then, and 11,114 today.

Statement #2: “It now looks as though the major averages are about to embark on the fabled retesting phase towards the March lows.” Reality: Dow never got close to 6,470 and stands at 11,114 today. 

Statement #3: “It is unlikely that we have crossed the Rubicon into new bull market terrain and that the fundamental lows have been put in.” Reality: Dow just needs to fall -42% and Rosenberg will be right.

Statement #4: “[Unemployment] looks like we will likely get back to that old peak of 10.8% in coming quarters.” Reality: We peaked at 10.1% in October a year ago, and stand at 9.6% today.

Statement #5: “Deflation risks continue to trump inflation risks, at least over the near- and intermediate-term.” Reality: Commodity prices are dramatically escalating (CRB commodity index skyrocketing) across many categories, including the four-Cs (copper, corn, cotton, and crude oil).

I don’t pretend to be whistling past the graveyard, because we indeed have serious structural problems (deficits, debt, unsustainable entitlements, high unemployment, etc., etc., etc.), but when was there never something to worry about? See 1963 article? Like the endless “double dip” economists before him (see also Double-Dip Guesses). As the evidence shows, Rosenberg’s anything-but-rosy outlook is a tad extreme and has been dead wrong…at least for the last 1 and ½ years or almost 3,000 Dow Points. Just a few months ago, Rosenberg raised the odds of a double-dip recession from 45% to 67%.

Perhaps the sugar high stimulus will wear off, the steroid side-effects will kick in, and the Fed’s printing presses will break down and cause an economic fire? Until then, corporate profits continue to swell, cash is piling higher, valuations have been chopped in half from a decade ago (see Marathon Investing), and money stuffed under the mattress earning 0.5% will eventually leak back into the market.

I do however agree with Rosenberg in a few respects, and that revolves around his belief that banking industry will not be the leading group out of this cyclical recovery, and housing headwinds will remain in place for a extended period of time. Moreover, I agree with many of the bears when it comes to government involvement. Artificially propping up sectors like housing makes no sense. Why delay the inevitable by flushing taxpayer money down the toilet. Did you see the government running cash for clunker servers and storage in 2000 when the tech bubble burst? Does incentivizing capacity expansion with free money in an industry with boatloads of excess capacity already really make sense? Although media commentators and gloomy economists like Rosenberg paint everything as black and white, most reasonable people understand there are many shades of gray.

Gray that is…like the color of two rams butting heads.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®  

Plan. Invest. Prosper.  

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

October 29, 2010 at 12:37 am 3 comments

QE2 Drowning TIPS Yields Below Water

The holiday season is creeping up on us, and the only question building up more anticipation than what gift kids are going to get from Santa Claus is what investors are going to get from Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke – in the form of QE2 (Quantitative Easing Part II)? The inevitable QE2 program is an effort designed by the Fed to keep interest rates low and reduce the threat of deflation. In addition, QE2 is structured to stimulate the meager 0.8% core inflation experienced over the last 12 months (Bloomberg) to a Goldilocks level – not too hot and not too cold. Some pundits suggest the Fed should target a 2% inflation rate. QE2 asset purchase estimates are all over the map, but I can safely guess somewhere between a few hundred billion and $2 trillion (very brave of me).

Treasuries Weigh Down TIPS Yields

Ever since QE1 expired in the March timeframe, speculation began about the next potential slug of Treasuries and mortgage backed securities to be purchased by the Fed. As a consequence, this speculation became a contributing factor to 10-Year Treasury yields plummeting from around 4.0% to around 2.5%. Simultaneously, 5-Year TIPS (Treasury Inflation Protection Securities) yields have moved to negative territory.

Scott Grannis at Calafia Beach Pundit has a great chart showing the relationship between nominal Treasury yields, real TIPS yields, and expected inflation for 10-year maturities. As you can see below, over the last ten years there has been a tight correlation between the 10-year Treasury bond versus TIPS, with the former 10-year declining yield acting as a weight drowning the latter TIPS yield:

Source: scottgrannis.blogspot.com

Worth noting, absent the brief period in late-2008 and early-2009, inflation expectations have been remarkably stable in that 1.5% – 2.5% range.

Negative Yields…Who Cares?!

Unprecedented times have created an unprecedented appetite for bonds (see Bubblicious Bonds), and as a result, we just witnessed a historic $10 billion TIPS auction this week producing an eye-catching negative -0.55% yield. Sensationalist commentators characterize the negative yield dynamic as a money losing proposition, whereby investors are forced to pay the government. This assertion is quite a distortion and not quite true – we will review the mechanics of TIPS later.

Source: scottgrannis.blogspot.com

If we’re not back to a panic filled environment of soup kitchen lines and bank runs, then why are TIPS paying a negative yield?

  • QE2: As mentioned above, investor expectations are that Uncle Sam will come to the rescue and deliver lower interest rates (higher prices) through purchases of Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities.
  • Rising Inflation Expectations: As fears surrounding future inflation increase, the price of TIPS will rise, and yields will fall.
  • Sluggish Economy: Lackluster growth and fear of double dips have pressured rates lower as debates still linger  about whether or not the U.S. will follow Japan (see Lost Decade).

Nuts & Bolts of TIPS

TIPS maturities come in terms of 5 years, 10 years and 30 years. Per the Treasury, 5-year TIPS are auctioned in April and October; 10-year TIPS in January, March, May (beginning in 2011), July, September, and November; and 30-year TIPS in February and August.

This table from Barclays Capital below does an excellent job of conceptually displaying the differences between vanilla Treasuries and TIPS.

Some Observations:

1)   As you can see, the principal value of the TIPS security adjusts with inflation (Consumer Price Index). The price of the TIPS security, which we cannot see in the example, adjusts upwards (or downwards) with inflation expectations.

2)   The TIPS security pays a lower coupon (3.5% vs. 5.0%), but you can see that under a 4% annual inflation assumption (principal value adjusts from $10,000 in Year 0 to $10,400 in Year 1), the ending value of the TIPS comes up significantly higher ($19,172 vs. $15,000).

3)   The break-even inflation expectation rate is 1.5% (derived from 5% coupon minus 3.5% coupon). If you think inflation will average more than 1.5%, then buy the TIPS security. If you think inflation will average less than 1.5%, then buy the 10-year Treasury.

TIPS Advantages

  • Inflation Protection: At the risk of stating the obvious, if you expect long-term inflation to average substantially more than about 2% (current inflation expectations), then TIPS are a great way of protecting your purchasing power.
  • Deflation Protection: Perhaps TIPS should be called DIPS (Deflation Income Protection Securities)? What some investors do not realize is that even if our country were to spiral into long-term deflationary crisis, TIPS investors are guaranteed the original amount of principal. Yes, that’s right…guaranteed. Interest payments could conceivably decline to zero and the principal value could temporarily fall below par, but the government guarantees the original principal regardless of the scenario.
  • No Credit or Default Risk: The advantage of the government owning its own printing press is that there is very little risk of default, so preservation of capital is not much of a risk.

TIPS Disadvantages

  • Interest Rate Risk: It’s great to be indexed to inflation, but because TIPS include long-range maturities, investors face a significant amount of interest rate risk if the TIPS are not held until maturity. TIPS will likely outperform Treasuries under a rising rate scenario, but will be impacted nonetheless.
  • CPI Risk: Even if you are not a conspiracy theorist who believes government CPI figures are artificially depressed, it is still quite possible your personal baskets of purchases do not perfectly align with the arbitrary CPI basket of goods.
  • Negative Deflation Adjustments: Although a TIPS investor has an embedded “deflation floor” equivalent to original principal value, interest payments will be negatively impacted by declines in principal value during deflationary periods. Also, previously issued TIPS with accumulated principal values from inflationary adjustments run larger principal loss risks as compared to newly issued TIPS.

Although 5-year TIPS yields may have dunked below water into negative territory, the headline bark is much worse than the bite. There has been a massive rally in bond prices in front of the QE2 bond binge by the Fed. Nevertheless, inflation expectations have remained fairly stable and TIPS still provide defensive characteristics under both a future inflationary or deflationary scenario. If the Fed is indeed successful in manufacturing a reasonable Goldilocks range of inflation then TIPS yields should once again be able to come up for air.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®  

Plan. Invest. Prosper.  

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds (including TIP), but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

October 26, 2010 at 10:55 pm 2 comments

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