The fact is that the US has been on a slippery slope for decades, and it's about to go over a cliff. However, our standard of living, while declining, is still very high, both relatively and absolutely. But an American can enjoy a much higher standard of living abroad. On the other hand, if I were some poor guy in a poverty-wracked country with few opportunities, I'd want to go where the action is, where the money is, now. Today, that means trying to get into the United States. The US is headed the wrong direction, but it's still a land of opportunity and a whole lot better than some flea-bitten village in Niger...This is one of the advantages of studying history, because it shows you that things like this rarely happen overnight. They are usually the result of trends that build over years and years, sometimes over generations. In the case of the US, I think the trend has been downhill, in many ways, for many years. Pick a time. You could make an argument, from a moral point of view, that things started heading downhill at the time of the Spanish-American War. That was when a previously peaceful and open country first started conquering overseas lands and staking colonies. America was still in the ascent towards its peak economically, but the seeds of its own demise were already sewn, and a libertarian watching the scene might have concluded that it was time to get out of Dodge –
When it comes to the markets one can easily ignore the fact that the world is one big ponzi and things, as we know them, are coming to an end as long as the can can be kicked down the street at least one more time. In other words, without a hard deadline, there is nothing that can force change upon a system already in motion, no matter how self-destructive. Unfortunately, the clock in Europe is ticking as a deadline approaches, and somewhat poetically, the place where it all started is where it may end. In March Greece faces a redemption cliff: if by then the €130 billion promised to it by the Troika as per the July 21 second bailout, is not delivered, it is game over - first for Greece which will default, then for the ECB, which will be forced to write down holdings of Greek bonds, in effect wiping out its equity and credibility, and lastly, for the Euro, which will see a core member leaving (in)voluntarily.
Retail Investors Pull $140 Billion From Equity Funds In 2011 Which Close The Year With 19 Consecutive OutflowsSubmitted by Tyler Durden on 01/04/2012 - 17:55
The Santa rally into the year end was taken good advantage of by retail America. As ICI reports, in the week ending December 28, investors pulled another $3.988 billion out of domestic equity mutual funds (and $1.2 billion out of foreign equtiy funds). This represents the 19th consecutive outflow since a tiny inflow in mid-August, which if excluded would mean 36 consecutive weeks of outflows beginning in late April, or roughly the time when the market peaked. Altogether a whopping $140 billion has been redeemed from domestic equity-focused mutual funds, which compares to "only" $98 billion in 2010. Unfortunately for the permabulls, the rangebound market since then indicates that absent retail investors returning to the broken casino that is the equity market, the probability of another break out of previous high is slim to nil. In fact as the chart below confirms judging by how long the area chart has been negative (or in outflow territory), the only thing Joe Sixpack wants is to get his money out of the rigged ponzi scheme pronto. And the longer the market trades like an irrational, pustular (for all the 19 year old HFT Ph.D's out there) and outright rabid teenager, the more investors will just say no and park their cash in either taxable bond funds (another $1.2 billion inflow in the past week), in their mattress or in gold. And unlike the Fed, equity funds can not print their own money: given enough redemptions and the liquidation selling will be inevitable. It also means that following $140 billion in redemptions with the market ending unchanged, the leverage used by mutual funds, whose cash is already at record lows, must be at record levels. And we all know how "record leverage" situations end...
The S&P 500 closed practically unchanged today - recovering from decent selloff to a late-Europe-session low - amid volume that was over 30% lower than at the same time last year. Investment grade credit, the high-yield bond ETF HYG, and broad risk assets in general kept pace with ES (the e-mini S&P 500 futures contract) but high yield credit (tracked by the HY17 credit derivative index) outperformed considerably - moving to its best levels since late October. This disconnect appeared as much driven by technicals from HY-XOver (Long US credit vs Short EU credit) and HYG vs HY17 (a high premium-to-NAV bond ETF vs relatively cheap high yield spread index) trades as it was a pure risk-on trade. Elsewhere, the USD retraced only marginally the earlier gains of the day (with EUR hanging under 1.2950 by the close) as Treasury yields jumped 5-7bps more (30Y +14bps on the week now) as we can't help but notice the correlation between TSY weakness and EUR strength for a few hours this afternoon (repatriation to pay up for tomorrow's French auction?). Commodities were very mixed with Copper sliding notably (decoupling from its new friend Gold which rose and stabilized this afternoon over $1610) as Oil pushed higher all day (over $103) on Iran news and Silver leaked back this afternoon (under $29.5).
The Citi Economic Surprise indices have been useful indicators for finding short-term turning points in risk assets for many years. While not perfect, the mean-reverting nature is very instructive as to economist over- or under-optimism through the cycle. A recent SocGen strategy report noted that since the US rating downgrade, the majority of US macro data have beaten consensus - driving the surprise index up to cycle highs (from dramatically bad cycle lows). It appears that the US economic surprise indicator has peaked again and economists are currently upgrading their forecasts. We noted earlier, that markets are getting very sensitive to misses and this turn in 'economic data relative to over-optimistic forecasts' performance creates significant room for disappointment and implicitly, equity underperformance.
There is literally no difference between Obama and a moderate Republican when it comes to the truly important policies governing the nation's insolvent finances, its predatory financial sector, its corrupt and fraudulent sickcare system or its sprawling Empire. Obama's policies have all aided and abetted existing Status Quo cartels and fiefdoms. He has changed absolutely nothing of import except further eroding civil liberties. President Obama can be charitably characterized as an ineffectual Demopublican. From those demanding more, then he can be accurately described as a well-meaning puppet of Wall Street and the rest of the Status Quo cartels and fiefdoms.
Whether its our old friend Binky from Deutsche or Tommy Lee from JPMorgan, the uber-bullish permanence of these well-paid serial extrapolators seems to pivot critically for 2012's forecasts on one thing: multiple expansion. On whatever empirical metric the Bill Millers of the world look at, stocks are cheap - no matter the changing dynamics underlying the entire system that seems so obvious to the rest of us. As JPMorgan notes, even assuming a 15% earnings decline (possible since in Q4 2011, the percent of negative S&P 500 earnings pre-announcements matched its 2001 and 2008 peak) the S&P 500 is priced at the cheap end of history. The answer to why measures such as Price-to-Book and Price-to-Earnings have adjusted down so considerably is, however, very evident when once considers where the profitability has come. In contrast to prior recovery cycles, current cycle profits have been driven significantly by very low labor compensation. David Cembalest says it best: "Given the fiscal, social and political issues this creates, it’s hard to pay a very high multiple for this kind of profits boom."
If there is one lesson to be learned from the Japanese experience with deleveraging over the past few decades it’s that deleveraging cycles have there own special rhythm of reflationary and deflationary interludes. Pretty simple thinking as balance sheet deleveraging by definition cannot be a short term process given the prior decades required to build up the leverage accumulated in any economic/financial system. If deleveraging were a short term process, it would play out as a massive short term depression. And clearly any central bank would act to disallow such an outcome, exactly has been the case not only in Japan over the last few decades, but now also in the US and the Eurozone. We just need to remember that this is a dance. There is an ebb and flow to the greater (generational) deleveraging cycle. Just as leveraging up was not a linear process, neither will the process of deleveraging be linear. Why bring this larger picture cycle rhythm up right now? The recent price volatility we’ve seen in assets that can be characterized as offering purchasing power protection within the context of a global central banking community debasing currencies as their preferred method of reflation for now, specifically recent the price volatility of gold.
While the market continues to simply fret over when and where to start buying up risk in advance of inevitable printing by the US and European central banks, those of a slightly more contemplative constitution continue to wonder just what it is that has allowed the US to detach from the rest of the world for as long as it has - because decoupling, contrary to all hopes to the contrary, does not exist. And yet the lag has now endured for many more months than most thought possible. And making things even more complicated, the market which doesn't follow either the US nor European economy has decoupled from everything, breaking any traditional linkages when analyzing data, not to mention cause and effect. How does reconcile this ungodly mess? To help with the answer we turn to David Rosenberg who always seems to have the question on such topics. His answer - declining gas prices (kiss that goodbye with WTI at $103), and collapsing savings. What happens next: "in the absence of these dual effects — lower gas prices AND lower savings rates — we would have seen real PCE contract $125 billion or at a 3% annual rate since mid-2011 (looking at the monthly GDP estimates, there would have also been zero growth in the overall economy). Instead, real PCE managed to eke out a 2.7% annualized gain — but aided and abated by non-recurring items. Yes, employment growth has held up, but from an income standpoint, the advances in low paying retail and accommodation jobs have not compensated the losses in high paying financial sector and government employment." Indeed, one little noted tidbit in the monthly NFP data is that those who "find" jobs offset far better paying jobs in other sectors - as a simple example the carnage on Wall Street this year will be the worst since 2008. So quantity over quality, but when dealing with the government who cares. Finally, will the market continue to decouple from the HEADLINE driven economy, which in turn will decouple from everyone else? Not unless it can dodge many more bullets: "As was the case last year, the first quarter promises to be an interesting one from a macro standpoint. The U.S. economy has indeed been dodging bullets for a good year and a half now. It might not be October 26, 1881, but something tells me we have a gunfight at the O.K. Corral on our hands this quarter between Mr. Market and Mr. Data." Read on.
Politically speaking, austerity is a challenge. While we would expect that governments imposing spending cuts on their voting public may face electability issues, in fact, a recent paper from the Center for Economic Policy Research finds that there is no empirical evidence to confirm this - i.e. a budget-cutting government is no less likely to be re-relected than a spend-heavy government. However, what the CEPR paper does find as a factor in delaying austerity is much more worrisome - a fear of instability and unrest. The authors found a very clear relationship between CHAOS (their variable name for demonstrations, riots, strikes and worse) and expenditure cuts. As JPMorgan notes, austerity sounds straightforward as a policy, until the consequences bite. It remains unclear that the road Europe is taking is less costly in the long run, in economic, political and social terms. The history of Europe over the last 100 years shows that austerity can have severe consequences and outcomes and perhaps most notably, the independent variable that did result in more unrest was higher levels of government debt in the first place. Judging from France's Noyer's recent jab at Britain's credit rating, at a time of increasing budgetary pressures and declining growth, there may also be limits to European solidarity.
Those waiting on edge for HSBC hedge fund report #53, aka the year end edition, can now relax: here is the full list of winner and losers. Keep in mind, the Paulson HF update is as of November 30, which explains why Advantage Plus (or is that Minus) still shows it down only 48% when in reality it closed the year more than half down according to preliminary reports. Also, momo superstar JAT Capital is nowhere to be found. That said, the carnage of the year is more than evident. And to think everyone could have just bought gold and gone on a long vacation...
Former Greek PM, and career politician, George Papandreou, is effectively retiring. Per Reuters: "Greece's former prime minister George Papandreou told his PASOK socialist party on Wednesday that he will step down as party leader and not seek re-election, a socialist deputy told Reuters. "He told us that he will resign as PASOK leader and that he will not run for prime minister again," said the deputy who attended a party meeting on the leadership succession. Papandreou stepped down as prime minister in November last year to make way for a coalition government to help Greece exit its biggest financial crisis in decades." Nothing like scurrying away in the last lifeboat just as your country is caught in the 21st century equivalent of the 22nd Catch, where your tax collectors, so critical for procuring the much needed tax revenue (sorry Greece, only America can "print" its revenues) are on what seems to be perpetual strike.
With Unicredit's stock down 14% and sovereign spreads continuing their decompression trend, European corporate and financial credit markets are tanking - dramatically underperforming European equity markets. Perhaps the credit market is much more acutely aware of the 'bumpy road' ahead in terms of supply and the heavy calendar of both sovereign and corporate issuance at a time when demand (away from Ponzi bonds) seems weak. Nowhere is that pressure more obvious than in French government debt spreads which have popped over 40% in the last week, ahead of tomorrow's huge issuance and redemptions.
Since the start of December, the tight correlation between EURUSD and risk assets has deteriorated. Most notably from the middle of December, as LTRO pronouncements began, the positive correlation has flipped to negative and EURUSD became considerably less relevant while AUD (and other carry currencies) dominated as correlated drivers. Citi's Steven Englander notes this divergence and sees two reasons for it: the LTRO has contributed by theoretically underpinning eurozone (EZ) bank funding, reducing one source of EZ risk, but leaving in place broader concerns on sovereign debt (risk transfer from private to public balance sheets once again); and the growing confidence in the US that growth will be mediocre but not disastrous. However, even though growth expectations have bounced back to some degree, taking the S&P with it, expectations of future Fed policy have not adjusted upwards at all. Our fear, in agreement with Englander, is that asset markets may be much more sensitive to economic outcomes than is commonly expected and with growth expectations having angled up, the risk rally may be very sensitive to disappointment. The deterioration of European sovereign and corporate credit along with the EUR, combined with US credits underperforming equities in the last few days suggests cracks in the risk divergence are quickly starting to appear.