Federal Government Injects Near Record Amount In Student Loans In January As Consumer Credit Rises

Minutes ago the January Consumer Credit report was released. It was expected to post an increase of $14.7 billion. Instead it rose by $16.2 billion. On the surface this would be great: consumers are spending more, levering up confident in the future, etc, etc. Alas, as always in the New Normal, the story was below the surface. Specifically, of the $16.2 billion rise, a tiny $106 million was due to revolving, or discretionary spending credit card, debt. The balance, or 99% of the total, was non-revolving debt, best known as student loans, and less known as GM NINJA car loans. And here is the scary math: in the past 12 months, of the $153 billion in total consumer credit increase, just $6.4 billion was in revolving credit. The balance: student and car loans.

US Households Have Never Been More Reliant On The Stock Market For Their "Net Worth"

When it comes to assets, there are two kinds: hard, tangible assets such as real estate, equipment and durable goods, and then there are financial assets, or "things" that only have an actual worth in the context of a capital market and a smoothly functioning financial system allowing for value-for-value exchanges and mark-to-market: among these are corporate equities, mutual and pension fund shares and reserves, credit instruments and equity in non-corporate businesses. We bring this up because today, as it does every quarter, the Fed released its Z.1, Flow of Funds report, which shows total US household assets and liabilities. Not surprisingly, with the ongoing surge in the stock market courtesy of the Fed's open-ended QE ticking time bomb, and the second housing bubble courtesy of the banking subsidy known as foreclosure stuffing, in the quarter ended December 31, 2012, at least according to the Fed, the US household's total net worth rose by another $1.2 trillion, taking it to $66.1 trillion. However, one thing was particularly notable in this latest update, and as implied by the above paragraphs, is that as of Q4, 2012, total US household financial assets hit an all time high of $54.4 trillion, well over the previous peak of $52.8 trillion in Q3 2007, and nearly $1 trillion higher compared to the past quarter. In other words, as of Q4 2012, the US household's net worth has never been more reliant on the stock market, which by implication means: Ben Bernanke and his centrally printing colleagues around the world.

Buy-Or-Sell - The Only Chart You Need

Earlier we noted the relative un-cheapness of the US equity market and its elevated expectations that seem just a little excessively hope-driven relative to any historical precedent. However, the decision still remains, do you buy moar here at the highs (as it's different this time) or cover/protect? The following chart, from Morgan Stanley, offers some insight into just how broadly 'expensive' this market is. Each time more than 45% of stocks have reached these valuation levels in the past 13 years, the market has decided enough is enough and shaken loose. But as we keep being told, it is different this time.

Cross-Border Flows Drive European Dis-Integration

Despite reassurances from Draghi this morning, the truth of the matter is that cross-border capital flows - which reflect the degree of integration in the global financial system - have plunged in recent years. As of the end of 2012, cross-border capital flows - including lending, foreign direct investment, and purchases of equities and bonds - remain more than 60% below their peak. In the decade up to 2007, Europe accounted for half of the growth in global capital flows, reflecting the increasing integration of European financial markets. But today the continent’s financial integration has gone into reverse. Clearly, cross-border lending, which dominated capital flows in the years leading up to the crisis, has proven to be short term and can dry up quickly.

Guest Post: Unpopped Housing Bubbles Abound

Though much has been written about the popping of the housing bubble in the U.S. and Ireland, remarkably little has been written about the many housing bubbles that remain unpopped. As a rule, speculative bubbles pop and revert to their pre-bubble levels, so we can anticipate the eventual popping of all remaining housing bubbles. Given the dearth of investment options open to households in China seeking to invest their prodigious savings, it is unsurprising that China's housing bubble continues expanding. Every proponent of housing during bubbles confidently proclaims that "this time it's different," and a decade later the dazed survivors shift through the financial rubble, wondering what went wrong with "guaranteed" fundamentals, trends, valuations, collateral and wealth.

Howard Marks' Full Presentation On "Investing In Uncertain Times"

In the following presentation, given by Howard Marks - the world's largest distressed debt investor - he warns of the perils of "investing in uncertain times." As Reuters notes, he fears the "unsound practices" from before the financial crisis are creeping back into credit markets, with private equity firms bidding increasingly high prices for companies. Marks points out the ease with which lowly rated companies were issuing debt this year, how companies were paying out record dividends to their shareholders and the increasingly high debt-to-equity multiples private equity firms were paying for companies amid a resurgence in deals. "We have a world in which nobody is thinking bullish. Everybody's worried and yet people are acting bullish," and predicts a looming "shake-out" in the hedge fund industry as he asks rhetorically, "today there are 8,000 hedge funds. Are there really 40,000 exceptional people (working for hedge funds)?" In conclusion, Oaktree Capital's founder warns that investors, in their search for returns, were becoming overly confident while the economic background was still gloomy.

Tax-Refunds Won't Save Us From Disposable Income Drop This Year

Tax refunds, which can be an important source of cash flow for consumers early in the year, have totaled $20bn less year-to-date than refunds in 2012. Goldman Sachs notes that this is the equivalent of nearly 1% of disposable income over that period, and some consumer-oriented businesses have attributed lackluster sales in late January and early February to lower refund payments. Balancing the possibility of a small amount of additional catch-up with the possibility that some of the decline versus 2012 is fundamentally driven by the effects of tax law changes or other factors, the upshot is that Goldman believes the cumulative gap of around $20bn looks likely to persist. Since the current rate of change in tax refunds looks similar to last year's, this should not weigh further on consumer cash flow. However, it also implies that we should not expect the consumer to receive much of a tailwind from delayed tax refunds in March or April. It does make one wonder a little if this marginal cash-flow is the reason for the extremely unusual cyclical strength and weakness we have seen in macro data for the last few years.

The ECB's Press Corps Realize They Have No Idea What OMT Is: "The Rules Are What They Are" Explains Draghi

It took six months of humiliatingly empty rhetoric and bluster, before Europe's press corps, or rather just the FT's Michael Steen, finally asked perhaps the one most important question regarding the OMT, which does not stand for On Merkel's Tab, but rather "Outright Monetary Transactions" (full Draghi definition here) and is the magic "open-ended" bond-buying bullet and SMP replacement that has stabilized Europe: namely "what is it?" That it took so long for reporters, and by implication, the markets to actually point out that the emperor is indeed naked and inquire into the legal working of the ECB's deus ex machina is a testament to just what lengths the broader public has been zombified into believing that "the less you know, the better" historically, one of the KGB's better known slogans.

EURJPY Dominates As Europe's Stocks Flatline

A 'successful' Spanish auction and Draghi's reassuring anti-currency war chatter had little to no effect on Europe's equity markets but FX and bond markets moved quite significantly. A mix of small gains (CAC, DAX) and small losses (Italy, Switzerland) in stocks but Italian and Spanish bond spreads dropped 10-15bps further (down 30bps on the week) - back well below the pre-Italian election levels and Portugal goes from strength to strength on the small ratings upgrade last night (-50bps on the week). EURUSD was the story (and EURJPY) as a lack of concern over Euro potential strength by Draghi drove it to run stops above recent highs and end the day at 1.3100 (up around 130 pips on the day). EURJPY is now back to pre-Italian election levels.

Are Stocks Cheap?

Each and every day, we are bombarded by a never-ending series of asset-gatherers whose sole aim in life is to convince investors to put more money to work. Whether it is because 'we are climbing a wall of worry', whether 'long-term' equity investors always do well, whether the 'cash on the sidelines' is coming out (note - remember there is a seller for every buyer and a buyer for every seller); the most frequently proposed reason for buying stocks is 'because they are cheap'. No matter where they are trading - high or low - they are cheap. Well, in an attempt to suggest otherwise - or at least provide fact rather than accepted wisdom, the following two charts from Morgan Stanley's Adam Parker provide the reality that, in fact, stocks are not cheap - and given where rates are, they are in fact expensive. Empirical fact not fiction.

Former Head Of Plunge Protection Team Lands At DE Shaw

Brian Sack, he who held the fattest finger on the Fed's green buy button until Simon Potter and his young protege Kevin Henry stepped into those prodigious shoes, has landed a role at mega quant fund D.E.Shaw. As Reuters reports, the former head of the Fed's Market Group will be the co-Director of Global Economics. The fund, with its reputation for mathematical modeling and computer-driven trading over short-term horizons will, we are sure, benefit from Sack's empirical ability to stomp on the throat of the VIX and tinker with VWAPs, though we hope he lasts longer than Larry Summers did. Of course, this almost guarantees that former-D.E.Shaw alum Jeff Bezos' Amazon.com share price will continue to surge as its fundamental performance plunges. The Plunge Protection Team, it appears, is in strong demand, though we hope someone explains that maybe D.E.Shaw does have a MtM policy (and not unlimited balance sheet).

Guest Post: Retirees No Better Off Than In 1999

ICI recently released their retirement plan data through Q3 of 2012 - including IRA's, defined contribution plans, private defined benefit plans, state and local government pension plans, federal pension plans, and annuities. The good news is that the liquidity induced rally over the last four years has finally, along with plan matches and contributions, recovered much of the lost value that occurred during the financial crisis in 2008.  The bad news is, as shown below, that on average each working age person has roughly only $79,651 saved up for retirement and is no better off today than they were in 1999. There are two major problems that arise from this.  The first is that for individuals trying to save for their retirement they have lost 14 years of irreplaceable time to do so. Secondly, consumption makes up roughly 70% of the overall economy - and with the average income at roughly $55,000 per year - retirees have little margin of error with only 18 months of incomes saved up in retirement plans.

Blast From Dick Bove's Long And Illustrious Past

No, this is not about Dick Bove's Buy recommendation of Lehman days ahead of the bankruptcy, or what seems like his "Buy" rating on Bank of America since the end of World War II, or 4 years after Bove's birth. No: we have a special surprise for readers out of the overhyped banking analyst, who still inexplicably appears on various TV outlets, even if the anchors have a tough time remembering just what firm he is with these days. So, without further ado, here is Bove's take on the single worst merger in the history of the financial industry: that between Bank of America and the toxic mortgage factory Countrywide Financial.

Chart Of The Day: Plunging Gasoline Demand vs The "Soaring" Recovery And Record Dow Jones

Let's try to spin this: "Gas demand is plunging on a soaring economy, a record DJIA and a more resilient consumer"... Hm, no, that didn't work. Let's give it another try: "Surge in sales of flaming paperweights known as Chevy Volts leads to a plunge in gasoline demand." Uh, no. One last try: "Consumers migrate to Flintstonemobiles, gas up what internal combustion engine cars they have with redbull vodka"... Sorry, we suck at this "spin" stuff -  we will leave it to CNBC. They are the real pros.

Guest Post: Exchange Traded Funds 'Dumping Gold' – Does It Matter?

Imagine the following: you read in a newspaper that a group of investors has sold US dollars to the tune of $820 million over the past two months for other currencies. This incidentally represents approximately 0.082% of the broad dollar money supply TMS-2 (which amounts to roughly $9.3 trillion at present). It means they would have been selling roughly $20 million per trading day. You then learn that $4 trillion of US dollars are traded in global currency markets every single trading day. Would you believe that their selling has influenced the exchange value of the dollar beyond a rounding error? And yet, we are supposed to believe that the selling of an equivalent amount of gold from the gold holdings of exchange traded funds over the past two months (they have sold 140 tons, or 0.082% of the total global gold supply) has greatly influenced the gold price.

Trade Deficit Snaps Back In January, Larger Than Expected

So much for that December plunge in the US trade deficit, which plunged from $48.6 billion to three year low of $38.5 billion supposedly on a drop in energy imports, but in reality was due to a drop in broad imports as the US economy ground to a halt ahead of the Fiscal Cliff. In January, or after the stop gap measure to allow the economy to continue, things went back to normal, with the US returning to doing what it does best: importing, especially importing expensive energy, and sure enough the deficit spiked promptly back to $44.4 billion - it recent long-term average - as exports were $2.2 billion less than December exports of $186.6 billion while January imports were $4.1 billion more than December imports of $224.8 billion. Immediate result: look for banks to trim 0.2-0.3% GDP points from their Q1 GDP forecasts.

Okun Shrugs With Productivity Plunging, Labor Costs Surging, And Claims Improving

Initial claims were expected to rise modestly to 355k from last week's noisy 344k print (which was revised up) but instead (seasonally-adjusted of course) they improved to 340k (from a revised 347k). However, non-seasonally-adjusted claims rose at their fastest rate of the year. Adding further confusing salt to the wound, as we noted here, it seems Okun's Law is broken, with productivity dropping at its fastest since Dec 2008, unit labor costs surging at their fastest since in 11 months - and all with GDP going nowhere and initial claims improving.

Mario Draghi's ECB Press Conference - Live Webcast

No change, no change. Disappointing some who hoped for more of Zee Stabilitee and less denomination risk as EUR loses 1.30, we suspect Draghi will see this as a non-inflationary positive, pat himself on the back for a job well done, urge the Italians to get it together in his independent way, and hint, promise, jawbone, talk-loudly-and-carry-a-big-stick but do nothing. Chatter is of easing collateral requirements to include used Italian voting slips and old Spanish passports but we will have to see...


The markets are where they are for one reason only, just one, the sea of money that the central banks have poured out across the globe. There is no other reason. Money flows into the corporations, money flows into the markets and the tide rises because it must but it is a House of Cards, a dangerous game that works because there is no place else to go with money and the euphoria, New Year’s Eve at the Big Casino, continues but the price will be high when it all ends and it will end because it is not this or that asset class that is in a bubble but the entire world that is a giant soap bubble that will float until the heat of the sun pops the thing in one ugly mess. I fear that subprime loans, dot.com fantasies, and the S&L crisis will pale when we are done with this party because, my friends, the bill for the festivities must get paid. Watch the hat; the rabbit will be coming out soon.