The geopolitical foreplay is getting ridiculous. At this point it is quite obvious that virtually everyone involved in the US-Israel-Iran hate triangle is just itching for someone else to pull the trigger. And the latest report out of the IAEA will only precipitate this. Who - remember the IAEA? The same IAEA which did not find nukes in Iraq in 2003 only to be overriden by Dick "WMD" Cheney to "justify" an invasion. As RIA reports: "The International Atomic Energy Agency officially confirmed that Iran has started enriching uranium to the 20-percent level, which can easily be turned into fissile warhead material. "The IAEA can confirm that Iran has started the production of uranium enriched up to 20 percent using IR-1 centrifuges in the Fordo Fuel Enrichment Plant," the agency said in a statement. However, IAEA Spokeswoman Gill Tudor said that all nuclear materials and operations in the Fordo facility are “under the Agency's containment and surveillance."" Naturally, that leaves the "use of uranium" variable quite subjective and in the hands of political manipulation. Which means at this point it is only a matter of days before the meme that Iran already has nuclear warheads becomes actively adopted by warmongers everywhere.
Gold registered its eleventh consecutive annual gain, extending the bull market that began in 2001. The yellow metal gained 10.1% – a solid return, though moderate when compared to previous years. Silver lost almost 10% year over year, due primarily to its dual nature. Currency concerns lit a match under the price early in the year, while global economic concerns forced it to give it all back later. Gold mining stocks couldn't shake the need for antidepressants most of the year, and another correction in gold in December dragged them further down. Meanwhile, those who sat in US government debt in 2011 were handsomely rewarded, with Treasury bonds recording one of their biggest annual gains. In spite of the unparalleled downgrade of the country's AAA credit rating, Treasuries were one of the best-performing asset classes of the year. The driving forces there are expanding fear about the sovereign debt crisis in Europe, combined with the Fed's promise to keep interest rates low through 2013.
NYSE total volume was the lowest for the year today. Almost 20% below December's average and down 10% from Friday's already low volumes, US equity markets managed to limp higher post the European close. Notably, volume in ES (the e-mini S&P 500 futures contract) was also the lowest of the year (at around 1.43mm cars vs 2.11mm 50-day average) and what volume there was focused on the European trading session (and right at the close). Today saw the average ES trade-size rise to recent peak levels as we note trade-size picked up into the Europe close (considerably higher average trade size around the European close than normal) and then again at the close. Peaks in average trade-size have often pre-empted turning points in the market and we note that while markets closed quietly unchanged (practically), high yield credit lost ground on the day and broad risk assets (while mostly showing small net changes) did not as a whole rally off the European close lows as enthusiastically as stocks. VIX futures and implied correlation continue to diverge as we note that VIX actually closed higher for the first time in five days.
Alcoa was expected to generate $(0.03) in EPS in Q4 and so it did. However, it took it 5.99 billion in top line revenue just to not miss traditionally lowered Wall Street estimates. This compares to the $5.7 billion it was expected to make: so there goes your margin. And when one looks at EPS on a purely operational basis, the Company had a loss from operations of $193 million or $(0.18) EPS which included a $74 million benefit from taxes. But of course who cares: after all Alcoa reported "restructuring and other charges" of a whopping $232 million for the quarter, just to make sure everything is apples to oranges. Otherwise the reported $445 million in EBITDA (on $449 million in consensus) would have been more like $200 million. Even so: EBITDA margin dropped from 13.8% in Q4 2010, and 12.8% in Q3 2011, to a measly 7.4% in Q4 2011. Other notable items: CapEx jumped from $325 million in Q3 to $486 million in Q4, meaning that based on the traditional Free Cash Flow definition of EBITDA-CapEx, that used for bond indenture purposes, Alcoa actually burned cash in Q4. Finally, the company forecasts global aluminum demand and supply deficit (probably does not explain why it has been shuttering smelter capacity all around the world) of 7% in 2012- a big drop from recent years. All in all - not quite the right way to start the new year.
Our comprehensive monthly chart porn packet comes courtesy of our favorite chartist: The Punchline's Abe Gulkowitz who has just released the January edition: "Jump Ball 2012 Will it all Fall Into Place in 2012?" - the narrative is brief (by definition) by as always cuts right to the chase. "It’s a new year and US economic activity is looking better. But magic is still needed to resolve the numerous challenges ahead. The best scenario is that the cyclical upturn gains momentum here in the U.S. and the rest of the world falls into place. Many are right to expect fourth?quarter GDP growth in the U.S. to have been a 3.5% growth pace, but still expect the spillover from Europe and policy uncertainty to cause GDP growth to decelerate over 2012. We have attempted to flush out some issues that are inadequately covered in the press… First, despite impressive improvement in the U.S. business scene, the recovery remains awkwardly distorted. The continuing deep slump in the housing market is partly to blame. The construction sector added only 47,000 jobs in 2011. More than 2 million construction jobs have evaporated since 2007, and the sector’s job count is back to its level in 1996, when the population and the economy were smaller. Second, the role of government spending has become so extended that it might take years to correct. Third, market liquidity measures have been drying up as big banks and financial institutions play defense. This is both a function of new regulatory underpinnings and the morass in Europe. While the focus of politicians and market players has been to remedy the short term necessities in the fiscal and debt crisis, the long?term challenge for Europe is to find ways of reducing its divisive divergence in economic performance and boosting overall rates of growth. If these issues are not addressed and resolved, the continent will remain locked in an asymmetric pattern of trade and stagnant living standards for both rich and poor countries. Such broader issues will require imagination and structural changes to the current framework, and faster growth worldwide than is currently on the drawing board…" Must read for even the most time-pressed and ADHD afflicted flow desk traders.
What happens when consumer savings plunge to year lows, when a major shopping holiday is just around the corner, and when every TV station tells you to spend, spend, spend for Thanksgiving just to show your friends and family you care for them? Why people go out and buy on credit of course. Lots of credit. As the just released G.19, aka Consumer Credit, data from the Fed indicates, in November US households borrowed a 10 year high amount of $20.4 billion. Of course, reading between the lines confirms that all is as usual not as it seems, and not to conclude that the money multiplier model is back in action. Because of the $20 billion, only $5.6 billion was revolving credit, with the bulk in cheap Subprime loans funded by the government for purchases of GM vehicles and student loans. Granted even so the revolving credit jump was the biggest since February 2008, when deleveraging was the last thing on consumers' minds. So are consumers relevering again? And if so are they doing so because they are confident the economy is improving? We doubt it, and we are fairly confident December data will be quite different and will show a notable reversal when effecting for all the record merchandize returns following the early Thanksgiving retail splurge. Judging by the market's non-reaction to this news, it seems to agree. Because if it didn't it would also means that it is about time for the Fed to start tightening: and if there is one thing that would guarantee a 30% instantaneous correction it is the mere whisper that the Fed needs to withdraw some of its $1.7 trillion in excess liquidity out of the system.
Remember when the hiring of former Wall Street insider and JP Morgan career man, Bill Daley, by the Obama administration as its latest Chief of Staff was big news last January? Well so much for that. The LA Times reports that the detente between Obama and Wall Street has reached new levels, with Daley's resignation expected to be announced at 3 pm by the president and is to be replaced by Citi's Jacob Lew, who in turn was the guy who oversaw the bank unit that "shorted the housing market." Well, at least Obama now knows to keep away from the JPM crew, whose Jamie Dimon is not all that happy with the president, if he wishes to avoid looking like not only the Wall Street's patsy, but also the guy who fails at sloppy seconds.
While Ireland's bond performance is often held up as evidence that living-standard-crushing austerity can indeed lead to positive developments, Citgroup's chief economist William Buiter suggests, in a speech in Dublin today, that they should begin negotiating a new rescue package as soon as possible. Buiter, via The Irish Times, points to the fact that Ireland currently pays around 6% for its 'rescue-money' which could be refinanced (theoretically) at around 3% via the EFSF. He said Ireland was not like Greece but it was in very bad fiscal shape because of its bank guarantee (isn't that what Italy and Portugal are doing with the new Ponzi-bonds?). He said that clearly something had to be done about the "continuing massive sovereign funding gap" that Ireland had and which still existed after three and a half years of "fierce" fiscal austerity. While Merkel's comments today on central bank support as illusory and spending EU money appropriately, it would seem that Ireland remains in a strong negotiating position. We await the term 'referendum' to confirm the discussions have begun - and given the timing (the day before IMF-EU official's fifth review) we would expect to hear it soon.
In his typical forthright manner, the moustachioed maestro appeared on Bloomberg TV today discussing Europe's crisis and the US economy. While we (ZH) wonder what (or who) the 'we' El-Erian is speaking for, he notes that the Fed "doesn't have enough policy instruments to deal with the challenges facing the economy" and that QE3 will not work (a possibility we discussed last week). From investing in a fat-tailed environment to the Fed's liquidity trap and why Europe needs to 'refound' the euro-zone, his fragile hope is that crises remain 'contained' yet prefers the USD's 'safety' for now and worries on the US stocks 'cleanest dirty shirt' bullish argument, suggesting defense is the better play currently.
Ben Bernanke's zero-interest rate policy (ZIRP) and command-economy efforts to maintain mispricing of risk, debt and assets are destroying capital and capitalism. No wonder his policies have failed so miserably. Bernanke's policy is to punish capital accumulation and reward leveraged debt expansion. Rather than enforce the market's discipline and transparent pricing of risk, debt and assets, Bernanke has explicitly set out to re-inflate a destructive, massively unproductive credit bubble. This is why Bernanke has failed so completely, and why he will continue to fail. He is not engaged in capitalism, he is engaged in the destruction of capital, investment discipline and the open pricing of risk, debt and assets.
As Greek standards of living nose-dive, loans to households and businesses shrink still further, and Troika-imposed PSI discussions continue, there is one segment of the country's infrastructure that is holding up well. In a story on Zeit Online, the details of the multi-billion Euro new arms contracts are exposed as the European reach-around would be complete with IMF (US) and Europe-provided Greek bailout cash doing a full-circle into American Apache helicopters, French frigates, and German U-Boats. As the unnamed source in the article notes: "If Greece gets paid in March the next tranche of funding (€ 80 billion is expected), there is a real opportunity to conclude new arms contracts." With the country's doctors only treating emergencies, bus drivers on strike, and a dire lack of school textbooks and the country teetering on the brink of Drachmatization, perhaps our previous concerns over military coups was not so far-fetched as after the Portuguese (another obviously stressed nation), the Greeks are the largest buyers of German war weapons. It seems debt crisis talks perhaps had more quid pro quo than many expected as Euro Fighter commitments were also discussed and Greek foreign minister Droutsas points out:"Whether we like it or not, Greece is obliged to have a strong military".
While nearly three months after the MF Global bankruptcy nobody still has any idea where the billion + in commingled client money has gone, nor why Corzine is still out and about walking freely, the former CEO of both Goldman, MF Global and New Jersey is rumored to be looking for office space at 40 Wall. Reports the WSJ: " Jon S. Corzine, who resigned as chief executive of MF Global Holdings Ltd. shortly after the securities firm collapsed in October, recently has been looking for office space in Manhattan, according to people familiar with the situation. One of the locations he seems interested in: brokerage firm John Carris Investments, at 40 Wall St., around the corner from the New York Stock Exchange, these people said. Employees at the small firm have been told that the former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. chairman and New Jersey governor might drop by, one person familiar with the situation said." Ostensibly, the space would be in the form of a sublet from John Carris. Which is great: finally all those thousands of people who still have no recourse to their cash will know precisely where to find Jon and express their gratitude and his pillaging of their investments in a failed attempt to cover up his stupidity.
10Y Italian bonds (BTPs) ended the day at their second-widest closing spread to Bunds ever (at 533bps). Only November 9th saw a wider closing print and of course we saw margin hikes at LCH CC&G. 10Y yields are at 7.16%, their highest since just after Thanksgiving but we do note that 2Y yields have stabilized at around 5.00% yields (having peaked near 8% during thin Thanksgiving trading). It seems apparent that perhaps traders front-running LTRO's impact have compressed the 2s10s term structure but much clearer to us is Mr. Market's obvious desire for more money-printing now as BTPs are pushed to unsustainable levels once again - and the banking-to-sovereign vicious circle transmission of insolvency cranks up.
While headlines are reeling with the almost-50% drop (and 8 halts today alone!) in UniCredit's stock price since the start of the year (as it tried and 'succeeded' to raise capital from clearly risk-averse investors), the rest of the Italian banking sector is now 'crashing'. With bank stocks down 12-20% year to date across the board, the clear fear is that the cost of raising real equity capital (not finding some short-term funding crisis solution) remains extremely high and as we tweeted last week, if the EUR7.5bn capital raise caused a 40% sell-off in UniCredit, how is the market going to cope with the EUR115bn more that is needed? Good Luck.