At some point, absorbing more information about the unsustainability of modern society yields diminishing returns. It becomes emotionally draining and thus counterproductive. Part of this exhaustion results from recognizing our powerlessness within the Status Quo, where independent thinking and structural innovation are intentionally winnowed out as threats to existing institutions and industries. Another part arises from the burden of knowing that the supposedly permanent Status Quo is far more vulnerable than generally believed. This is the psychology of knowing what lies ahead in The Burden of Knowing. These 'burdens of knowing' can diminish the small but real joys of the present - anti-thesised by an attitude such as “don’t worry; be happy.” And it certainly makes sense when life is still comfortable and enjoyable. But the philosophy of “thinking about the future is a downer, so I live in the present” ultimately rests on a false confidence that the future will take care of itself. Though Keynesian economists argue that nations are not like households, in truth debt/financial fragility is scale-invariant, meaning that rising debt, a high cost basis, and zero savings/investment lead to fragility in households, enterprises, communities, and nations alike.
Chronicling the collapsing Greek socioeconomic reality would be an interesting business school case study of what a zombie monetary regime kept alive at all costs does to the "weakest link(s)" (most recently "Greek Economy Grinds To A Halt As New Construction Implodes By 66.6%"), if only there weren't real men and women suffering as a result of the stupidity and greed of a few entrenched individuals who will stop at nothing to see their paper wealth preserved at all costs. The latest salvo of the utter misery Greek society finds itself in comes from Nielsen research, which reports that Greeks are now the most pessimistic consumers on the planet, with the Greek consumer confidence index dropping to 35 points in the last quarter of 2012. That is the lowest level among a total of 58 countries surveyed and 11 points lower than the same period last year in Greece. It gets worse. As Kathimerini reports: "Four out of 10 Greeks told the same survey that they no longer have any disposable money left after covering their basic needs, which is the highest rate ever recorded in Greece and the biggest in the October-December period in Europe. A year earlier (in Q4 2011) that rate had stood at 34 percent and in Q4 of 2010 it had been at 25 percent." Obligatory spin: once nobody has any disposable income, things can only get better. Unless, as Rajoy might add, they get much worse.
Volumes were pitiful once again and while the range picked up a little (after yet another top-side stop-run) average trade size remains falling as equities appear all gung ho on the surface but the S&P 500 has closed the day session in a 2 point range for the last 4 days - 1518, 1517, 1519, 1518. All this as Treasury yields have actually been bleeding higher (+6-8bps this week), USD flat, Oil up 1.5%, and Gold and Silver -1.5%. Homebuilders remain in a high-beta world of their own +3% on the week with all the other S&P sectors between -0.25% and +0.75% (as Tech is dragged lower along with AAPL again). S&P 500 futures saw quite a drop intraday (9 points high to low) which is sad to get excited about but the ubiquitous VWAP ramp into the close saved the day and limped us into the green on the day (which was oddly accompanied by a huge sell block volume in AAPL). VIX pushed back up to 13% and credit made some more correction back up to stocks right at the close. The last 3 days in ES have seen the lowest aggregate volume in six months - not exactly the new bull market meme?
Something totally bizarre has happened in the last three years. Oil in America has become much, much cheaper than oil in Europe. Oil in America is now almost $30 cheaper than oil in Europe. Why? The ostensible reason for this is oversupply in America. But there’s something fishy about this explanation...
"The financial problems of the Postal Service are getting bigger every year," is how US Postmaster General Donahoe tried to convinced Congress not to block the bill the end Saturday delivery of mail. Raising the specter of mutually assured destructive bailouts in the future, the CEO rattle lawmakers (and other stakeholders) as NBC News reports, Representative Darrell Issa noting "It's very clear that ultimately, either the rate payer or the taxpayer will have to pay the $20 billion in debt of the Postal Service." Indeed Mr. Issa - so by our reckoning the plan to tax emails was a non-starter and so we compare the 73.5 billion pieces of mail handled by the USPS and the $20bn budgetary gap, it would appear the answer is simple - the current 46c stamp will have to rise in value by 27c or 60% in order to meet the shortfall. The problem of course is the legal limit on increasing stamp prices is bounded by what the BLS' official annual inflation report is, and which as the Fed is happy to reminds us, is at best 2% per year. Luckily, every problem, in this case too little inflation, has a solution: in this case hyperinflation.
The rise in energy prices; the surge in food prices; and the march higher in nominal stock market indices - all symptoms of one thing - central bank (or government) policy; and CNBC's Rick Santelli is calling them to task for their two-faced ignorance. "What is the difference between outright currency manipulation versus the collateral damage to one's currency based on central bank programs?" he rhetorically asks, "in my mind, very little, but obviously, in the minds of many leaders of G-7 developed economies, there's a huge distinction." And therein lies the rub. As Japan follows Bernanke's decade-old plan to reflate by literally printing money into existence - just as every other developed fiat currency nation - their argument is that they are fighting deflation - or stimulating growth - when, in fact "The distinction between collateral damage and outright manipulation is absolute malarkey." Now that the currency wars have gone global - no matter what well-placed op-eds will try to convince otherwise - Santelli sums it all up perfectly, "in the end when you don't have a standard and you have printing and fiat currency, what level of value is real?" We remind those bullish Japanese stocks that the 11% rise in the NKY since the holidays has created 0% wealth for a USD investor thanks to the JPY destruction - ask the Zimbabweans how wealthy they felt.
One of the fundamental creeds held by the proponents behind every new technology and gizmo market, including cell phones, smart phones, tablets, Sony Walkmen, 8-tracks, VHS tapes, juice extractors, tape rewinders, etc., is that their growth rate (and by implication the consumers' discretionary income), is completely dissociated with gravity and will grow at a far faster pace than global economic growth virtually in perpetuity. This is the case until empirical evidence reminds them, and everyone else, that gravity eventually always wins. Which is precisely what happened with global mobile phone sales, which in 2012 posted their first decline since the cataclysmic 2009. Gartner reports that the global cell phone market declined by 1.7% in 2012, down from 1.78 billion devices sold in 2011 to 1.75 in 2012. "Tough economic conditions, shifting consumer preferences and intense market competition weakened the worldwide mobile phone market this year," the report says.
On Monday we reported that a car bomb with Syrian plates had exploded at the Turkish-Syrian border crossing. The aftermath included the death of nine people, major devastation, and the latest sharp deterioration in Turkish-Syrian relations. We now have the dramatic footage from this explosion, which we present below courtesy of Reuters. Expect more such explosions as every attempt is made to drag Syria into war with one or more of its neighbors.
It was well-known that today's 10 Year auction would price somewhere north of 2.00%, for the first 2%+ print since April of 2012, it just wasn't known where. Sure enough, moments ago the US Treasury priced $24 billion in 10 Year paper at a high yield of 2.046% (38.76% allotted at high), the highest since last March when we had a 2.076% 10 Year auction (and a carbon copy environment in which every pundit was screaming about a great rotation out of bonds), only to see the April and especially May auction tumble in yield when Europe once again became unfixed. What was notable about today's auction is that it tailed the When Issued modestly, which was bid 2.039% at 1 pm, implying a 0.7 bps tail. Also notable: the Bid to Cover dropped to 2.68, below January's 2.83, and well below the 12 month TTM of 2.99. Dealers took down 47.7% of the auction, Directs as has recently been the case ended up with a sizable 24.2%, while Indirects took only 28% of the auction, higher than the December 24.2%, yet worse than all other auctions going back all the way to April 2009. For those confused - don't be - we have been here in 2012, and 2011, and 2010, when risk assets were surging, and when yields were sliding, only to see a modest subsequent pick up in inflation, mostly in China, but certainly Europe, at which point the global liquidity glut ceased and the economy (if not the centrally-planned market) resumed on its downward glideslope.
As if the 20% JPY devaluation over the last few months was not enough, the Japanese government is going directly at the core of the inflation manufacturing business... they have imposed sanctions that Japan's five largest refiners cut their production by 1.1million barrels per day (or 20%). We recently noted (here and here) the rise in both the price of gasoline (at record highs) and JPY-based price of the raw material (WTI or Brent) - and it seems Abenomics can only see the upside of the inflationary cycle (as they cut supply) - as opposed to the consumer-sentiment-sapping margin-crushing deflationary impact of higher input costs to life. One thing is for sure, Abe is all-in - no matter what G-20 defense he offers. Perhaps this is why JGBs have not reacted as much - they are seeing through the short-term inflationary hope to the longer-term deflationary dump.
One of the recurring memes of the now nearly 4 years old "bull market" (assuming the recession ended in June 2009 as the NBER has opined), is that corporate profits are soaring, and that despite recent weakness in Q4 earnings (profiled most recently here), have now surpassed 2007 highs on an "actual" basis. For purely optical, sell-side research purposes that is fine: after all one has to sell the myth that the US private sector has never been healthier which is why it has to immediately respond to demands that it not only repatriate the $1+ trillion in cash held overseas, but to hand it over to shareholders post-haste (see recent "sideshow" between David Einhorn and Apple). However, a problem emerges when trying to back this number into the inverse: or how much money the US government is receiving as a result of taxes levied on these supposedly record profits. The problem is that while back in the summer 2007, or when the last secular peak in corporate profitability hit, corporate taxes peaked at well over $30 billion per month based, the most recent such number shows corporate taxes barely scraping $20 billion per month!
We have shown divergence after divergence as an indication of the market's relative exuberance. One of the key 'supports' for these hope-driven nominal levels has been forward inflation expectations. In fact, inflation expectations have become the anchor for higher equity (P/E) valuations and yet, they remain unconvinced that this time is different. As Barclays' Jordan Kotick notes, perhaps it is inflation break-evens lack of confirmation of new equity highs that is the chart to watch for the 'believers' to really think this time is different.
We are far enough and deep enough into the most heroic monetary and fiscal efforts ever undertaken to finally ask, why aren't these measures working? Or at least we should be. Oddly, many in DC, on Wall Street, and the Federal Reserve continue to steadfastly refuse to include anything in their approaches and frameworks other than "more of the same." So we are treated to an endless parade of news items that seek to convince us that a bottom is in and that we've 'turned the corner' – often on the flimsy basis that in the past things have always gotten better by now. Oil is the primary lubricant of economic growth and that it is not just the amount of oil one has to burn but also the quality, or net energy, of the oil that matters. If we want to understand why all of the tried-and-true monetary and fiscal efforts have failed, we have to appreciate the headwinds that are offered by both a condition of too-much-debt and expensive energy. Neither alone can account for the economic malaise that stalks the world.
With stocks pushing to new multi-year highs - seemingly all-in on the Fed's newfound transmission mechanism - the bond market is beginning to quake just a little. 10Y rates shifted quickly through 2.00% today - hovering around 10-month highs - but the question is, just how bad could it get for bondholders if the Fed were to lift their repressing foot of the yield-seeker's throat. While we believe they are missing the circular nature of any Fed implied tightening on stocks (and therefore bonds reflexively), Goldman sees 10Y yields 120-240bps under 'fair' currently thanks to Fed QE efforts - and believes 4.0% yields are on the cards by 2016. Our question - what exactly would HY spreads look like under this 'bullish' scenario? And for the stock bulls - is this just catch-up by bonds or the great rotation so many hope for? And if Goldman believes this - why is their (and their primary dealer friends') holdings of Treasuries so extremely high?
As we noted yesterday, the credit bubble is in full swing as high-yield covenant protections hit a new low in January. At the same time, new issue premia in high yield credit has remained extremely low (meaning demand is high) - even as leverage (measured in a number of ways) surges to post-financial-crisis highs. With low yields and technical demand so abundant, firms appear to be leveraging-up in favor of shareholders. But, as is always the case, there is a limit to just how much leverage can be piled on before credit spreads 'snap' and raise the cost of capital - hindering the equity price. Finally, for the 'cash on the balance sheet' advocates, US firms' Cash/Debt is its lowest (worst) since pre-crisis. Banks continue to delever, sovereigns relever, and non-financials taking their lead - this didn't end well last time... and this time, exuberance and positioning is very heavy.