Although no one can be sure of Buffett's motives, it would be naïve to believe that someone as intelligent as Buffett has not considered the benefits of pushing through this tax structure. Higher taxes are always problems for entrepreneurs and regular people in the economy. However, they're often beneficial to the well-connected, who receive government bailouts and favors. And with Buffett even on the president's lips, he is becoming more connected to the power mechanism in D.C. every day. With many of Berkshire's companies, your loss as a taxpayer will be their gains.
Much has been said in the past about the world's largest university endowment fund - that of Harvard University, whose most famous overseer is the current Pimco CIO and part-time blogger Mohamed El-Erian. Yet relatively little light has been shed on the endowment fund of that "other" school - the one with the original business school, and whose alums have been largely credit with shaping the modern financial world as it stands: the University of Pennsylvania. Also, the one which for many years has oddly underperformed its peers, yet which during the financial crisis suffered the least of its peer Ivy League peers. Until now. In his latest letter, Oaktree's Howard Marks shares the lessons he learned as the Chairman of the Penn endowment in the period from 2001 to 2010. He also analyzes the various angles from which one should approach in evaluating investment performance and track records, in his traditionally meticulous and informative style - a lesson very much needed in today's market climate of bipolar euphoria.
It appears that while we were busy over the past month spreading the Greek pre- and post-bankruptcy balance sheet, and otherwise torturing Excel (something we urge other financial journalists to try once in a while - go ahead, it doesn't bite. In fact, it is almost as friendly as your favorite Powerpoint) our peer at such reputable financial publications as Forbes, and many others, were laying of carbon-based reporters and replacing them with... robots. As Mediabistro reports, "Forbes has joined a group of 30 publishers using Narrative Science software to write computer-generated stories. Here’s more about the program, used in one corner of Forbes‘ website: "“Narrative Science has developed a technology solution that creates rich narrative content from data. Narratives are seamlessly created from structured data sources and can be fully customized to fit a customer’s voice, style and tone. Stories are created in multiple formats, including long form stories, headlines, Tweets and industry reports with graphical visualizations.”" In other words, with well over 70% of stock trading now done by robots, we have gotten to a point where robots write headlines and stories read, reacted to and traded by robots. Surely, what can possibly go wrong. And here we were this morning, wondering why the market is not only broken but plain dumb.
It seems everyone has positioned for what is to come as today was blah. The volume on the NYSE was decent which is expected given the OPEX but trading in the e-mini S&P futures contract (ES) was dismal - lower even than the 2/6 and 2/13 low levels at what looks like the lowest non-holiday trading day since 2006. A very narrow range day (basically from last night's day session close) with a small pop this morning around the day session open saw the highs of the day but ES tried to inch back up there in the afternoon - as credit (IG, HY, and HYG) went sideways from after the European close. Financial and Discretionary stocks outperformed as XLF made new recent highs (while credit spreads remain near 5 week wides). VIX futures tracked stocks for the most part (with a slight push higher into the close) but implied correlation diverged (bearishly) higher. FX markets were relatively calm with in EURUSD with AUD and JPY (-2.5% on the week) weakness the main drivers of USD strength off European session lows - but USD ended the day practically unch (+0.5% on the week). The USD strength dragged Silver down over 1% on the week and Copper down 3.8% (biggest loser today) while Gold outperformed the USD and ended green on the week above $1720. Oil was the winner up almost 5% on the week - its biggest gain of the year - ending above $103.5 for WTI. Treasuries came back off their high yields of the day after Europe closed with a little more push into the close leaving 30Y unch for the week and the short-end +3-4bps.
We wish we had good news, but we are not going to lie: This is the worst possible news for any gold bull out there.
"All the options from here are bad, I am afraid" is how MEP Daniel Hannan describes the way forward in Europe in this FOX News interview. In one of the clearest and least status-quo-hugging explanations of what has occurred (gentile and bloodless coups in Italy and Greece), the 'cruel and irresponsible behavior' of European leaders stuns him and all in the name of the 'wretched single-currency'. When asked why they (the EU leaders) just don't get it (channeling Upton Sinclair's now infamous quote), Hannan replies "It is remarkably difficult to make a man understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it" as he makes it clear that the vested interests in keeping the Euro going (well paid and powerful government jobs for example) means they are prepared to inflict this shocking poverty on the Mediterranean countries. Summing it up nicely: until they leave the Euro, the Greeks have got no light at the end of the tunnel, making the point that Greece's least painful option is to Default, Decouple, and Devalue.
It is time for the US administration to remind everyone that while every other piece of bad news may be priced into the markets in perpetuity, there is still geopolitics. Although that may also be priced in. Either way, the WSJ has just reported that "Federal agents on Friday arrested a man who they allege planned carry out a suicide bombing at the U.S. Capitol, part of a sting operation in which undercover agents posing as al Qaeda operatives provided fake explosives. The Federal Bureau of Investigation's Washington field office said the man was arrested "in the vicinity of the U.S. Capitol." It said the suspect never posed a danger to the public." Ah yes, the good old "threats are among us" gambit. And let's just go with the most trivial cliche possible. If nothing else, it sets the stage for next steps. As for what next steps may be, here is a hint, via Reuters: "Two Iranian naval ships have sailed through Egypt's Suez Canal into the Mediterranean, in a move likely to be keenly watched by Israel. "Two Iranian ships crossed through the Suez Canal (on Thursday) following permission from the Egyptian armed forces," a source in the canal authority said Friday. Two Iranian warships sailed along the strategic waterway on February 17 last year, in a move that Israel called a "provocation." Either way, Suez developments may be Israel's issue for the time being. We now apparently have our own suicide bombers to be 'very worried about.'
In the past week we have seen the Banks of Japan and China join the queue for printing ink along with the Fed, the Bank of England, the ECB and the Swiss National Bank; many other minor central backs have either cut rates or are about to. Admittedly the Chinese have not actually cranked up the Hewlett Packards but PBOC Governor Zhou said that “China will continue to invest in EU countries’ government bonds, and will continue, via possible channels, including the IMF, the EFSF and the ESM, to be involved in resolving the euro-zone crisis”. He added that he hopes Europe can offer “more attractive investment products”. I wonder what he has in mind. With the support he can muster Greek 2 year bonds on a 200% yield should do the trick surely…
While the rest of the world is conveniently distracted by events in Europe, where conventional wisdom dictates that even an all out default of Greece would be manageable, whatever that means, the smart money in the room - the world's now 21 Primary Dealers (ex MF Global, whose CEO is "almost", but not quite, about to be prosecuted for the theft of billions in client funds) has been quietly bracing for impact in the only way they know - buying up Treasurys. In fact, according to the US Trasury's weekly update, in the most recent week ended February 8, 2012, Primary Dealer Treasury holdings of Dealers surged to an all time high of $102 billion, a whopping increase of $37 billion on the week, which matches only the surges seen during the post end of quarter window dressing discussed extensively before. The driver were exclusively bonds in the "Bills" and "Under 3 Year" category, which rose by $37.7 billion. As a reminder, courtesy of ZIRP through 2014, bonds with a sub-3 Years maturity are the functional, and liquidity equivalent, of Bills - or cash equivalents from a liquidity standpoint, with the added benefit that these are repoable at a moment's notice, to the Fed or anyone else. The last time we have seen such a dramatic increase in Dealer Bill and Coupon concentration was in early 2009 when the world was ending and when Dealers went from zero Bill holdings to tens of billions in Bill holdings overnight. These holdings only declined as QE1 starting to improve risk conditions, and dropped further in the aftermath of QE2. This time, there is no backstop from the Fed, at least no public one. Which means that, for all intents and purposes, Dealers are hunkering down in anticipation of something that affords maximum liquidity yet is not stocks.
While we have done our best to explain what the implications are of the actions of the various parties in the Greek/German/ECB/Euro swap/default/CAC/PSI/Austerity events, it is perhaps worth one more try to address how we see this playing out and exactly what the ECB just did. The weakness in GGBs today along with the rise in the cost of Greek basis packages (a hedged bond trade that looks to profit from a credit event or compression) suggest markets are beginning to wake up to reality but the dead-currency-walking behavior of the EUR (and ES) since last night's close suggests many remain sidelined or have all their chips on the constantly-tilting table. In the end every private holder will write-off 50 percent permanently and those that live in a mark to market world (fewer and fewer live in that world in Europe) probably lose another 20 points or so. CDS will be triggered and we will be told how great it was that Greece avoided a default and that it is an isolated case. Is that scenario priced in?
Ze Price Stabeeleetee...
The equities market is acting like we know Greece's default will be orderly and no threat to financial stability. It is also acting like we know the U.S. economy can grow smartly while Europe contracts in recession. Lastly, the high level of confidence exuded by market participants suggests we know central bank liquidity is endlessly supportive of equities. What do we really know about the coming default of Greece? Whether we openly call it default or play semantic games with "voluntary haircuts," we know bondholders will absorb tremendous losses that are equivalent to default. We also suspect some bondholders will refuse to play nice and accept their voluntary haircuts. Beyond that, how much do we know about how this unprecedented situation will play out?