The 2012 US presidential election is perhaps one of the most unique and important elections in recent history from an economic perspective (with the time-line rapidly approaching). In choosing its leader for the next four years (for which we provide a handy 'where-do-they-stand' cheatsheet), we agree with Goldman that the country will likely be determining the path for near-term economic growth, medium-to-longer term fiscal stability and monetary policy at a time when the stakes are exceptionally high - whether or not the US economy returns to recessionary conditions in 2013, the US sovereign debt rating and the broader credibility of the US government to Americans and foreigners alike all hang in the balance. Goldman sees three factors that set the 2012 election apart.
These dirty little secrets about Europe are being hidden from the general public? Why do you think that is?
Readers may recall that Ron Paul once surprised everyone with a seemingly very elegant proposal to bring the debt ceiling wrangle to a close. If you're all so worried about the federal deficit and the debt ceiling, so Paul asked, then why doesn't the treasury simply cancel the treasury bonds held by the Fed? After all, the Fed is a government organization as well, so it could well be argued that the government literally owes the money to itself. He even introduced a bill which if adopted, would have led to the cancellation of $1.6 trillion in federal debt held by the Fed. Of course the proposal was not really meant to be taken serious: rather, it was meant to highlight the absurdities of the modern-day monetary system. In a way, we would actually not necessarily be entirely inimical to the idea, for similar reasons Ron Paul had in mind: it would no doubt speed up the inevitable demise of the fiat money system. Control can be lost, and it usually happens only after a considerable period of time during which their interventions appear to have no ill effects if looked at only superficially: “Thus we learn….to be ignorant of political economy is to allow ourselves to be dazzled by the immediate effect of a phenomenon."
For those who are curious why Tim Geithner has been invisible in the past 2 months, the answer is he has been manning the phones like a true patriot, and making sure nobody dares to rock the European boat ahead of the US election (as was already disclosed), in this case exemplified by Moody's just released announcement that the rating agency will not downgrade Spain to junk, soaring debt, collapsing GDP and laughable unemployment rate notwithstanding (unless of course the ECB fails in its mission to scare all shorts from approaching within 10 miles of an SPGB, and Spain loses private market access again, in which case Moody's would proceed with a "multiple notch downgrade"). At least not until the US election that is. After that... well, with the fiscal cliff, debt ceiling, Greece vs Troika, etc, etc, buy VIX.
"The consensus view was that QE3 was going to send the stock market to the moon. Yet the peak level on the S&P 500 was 1,465 on September 14th, the day after the FOMC meeting. The consensus view was that the lagging hedge funds were going to be forced to play some major catch-up and take the stock market to the moon too. Surveys show that the hedge funds have already made this adjustment...Q3 EPS estimates are still coming down and now stand at -3% YoY from -2% at the start of October....this is the first time the Fed embarked on a nonconventional easing initiative with the market overbought and with profits and earning expectations on a discernible downtrend. Not only that, but the fact the pace of U.S. economic activity is still running below a 2% annual rate, which is less than half of what is normal at this stage of the business cycle with the massive amount of government stimulus, is truly remarkable. Keep an eye on the debt ceiling being re-tested — the cap is $16.394 trillion and we are now at $16.119 trillion. This is likely to make the headlines again before year-end — the rating agencies may not be taking off much time for a Christmas break."
While earlier we were presented with an extra serving of hypocrisy courtesy of the Fed's James Bullard who lamented the lack of income for America's "savers", next we get a less than random selection of US CEOs, those of UPS Scott "Logistics spending would be great if only world trade hadn't completely collapsed" Davis, Honeywell's David "Look over there, Isn't Iran bombing something" Cote, NASDAQ's Bob "I destroyed IPOs" Greifeld, and, of course, Larry "About to switch jobs with Tim Geithner" Fink, who via Bloomberg TV get to opine on such issues as the fiscal cliff and America's $16.2 trillion, and very rapidly rising debt. Some of their views: "It's Washington's fault we're not hiring and not spending." Honeywell's Cote says, "If we were playing with fire in the debt ceiling, we'll be playing with nitroglycerine now when it comes to the fiscal cliff." Larry Fink says, "We need to speak out as CEOs…Politicians generally address things when their back's against the wall…We have the threat of going into a recession in the first quarter…This is a very uncertain moment." And thanks to the Fed, which has come at just the wrong moments, and always bailed out Congress every time a difficult decision had to be taken, the likelihood of a benign outcome on the fiscal cliff is far worse, than even Goldman's latest worst case scenario which sees just a 33% probability of resolution before the year end.
The overhwelming majority of investors seem to believe that some compromise will be reached to resolve the looming fiscal drag, and as we noted here, this fact is more than priced into markets. As Barclays notes however, a big deal that encompasses entitlement and tax reform is very unlikely before year-end. Hence, if the ‘cliff’ is avoided, it will be because Congress extends all expiring provisions for some time while it works on a bigger deal. Such an 'extension/compromise' move would not reduce investor uncertainty if it were only for a few months; bond markets would simply start counting down to the new date. More importantly, the discussion about the fiscal cliff misses a broader point: the US will probably have significant fiscal tightening over the next decade that is a drag on medium-term growth. Yet more investors dismiss last year's reaction to the debt-ceiling debate - a 17% decline in 2 weeks - as any kind of precedent, claiming (falsely) that this was more due to European financial difficulties. We expect fiscal issues to be the defining drivers of the next several quarters and as BofAML notes, Washington's view of this 'process' as a 'slope' combined with the dangerously negative election campaign (which will need a 180-degree reversal for any compromise) means the likelihood of a Wile E. Coyote Moment is considerably higher than most expect.
Just how much havoc does living within one’s means wreak?
Goldman's equity strategist David Kostin has been very quiet for the past year, having not budged on his 2012 year end S&P target of 1250 since late 2011. Today, he finally released a revised forecast, one that curious still leaves the year end forecast unchanged at a level over 200 points lower in the S&P cash, and thus assuming a ~15% decline. The reason: the same fiscal cliff (which would otherwise deduct 5% in GDP growth) and debt ceiling debate we have warned will get the same market treatment as it did in August of 2011 when the only catalyst was a 15% S&P plunge and a downgrade of the US credit rating. However, one the fiscal situation is fixed, Kostin sees only upside, with a 6 month target of 1450 ("We raise our medium-term fair value estimates for the S&P 500 in response to openended quantitative easing (QE) announced by the Fed."), and a year end S&P target of 1575, calculated by applying a 13.9 multiple to the firm's EPS forecast of 114. Of course, this being bizarro Goldman Sachs it means expect a continued surge into year end, then prolonged fizzle into the new year. Why? Because there is not a snowball's chance in hell the consolidated S&P earnings can grow at this rate, especially not if the Fiscal Cliff compromise is one that does take away more than 1% of GDP thus offsetting all the "benefit" from QE. Simply said, companies who have already eliminated all the fat, and most of the muscle, and are desperate for revenue growth to generate incremental EPS increase, have not invested in CapEx at nearly the rate needed to maintain revenue growth, having dumped all the cash instead in such short-sighted initiatives as dividends and buybacks. Also, recalling that revenues are now outright declining on a year over year basis, and one can see why anyone assuming a 14% increase in earnings in one year, is merely doing all they can to make the work of their flow desk easier.
The market appears convinced that it now has nothing to worry about when it comes to the fiscal cliff. After all, if all fails, Bernanke can just step in and fix it again. Oh wait, this is fiscal policy, and the impact of QE3 according to some is 0.75% of GDP. So to offset the 4% drop in GDP as a result of the Fiscal Cliff Bernanke would have to do over 5 more QEs just to kick the can that much longer. Turns out the market has quite a bit to worry about as Goldman's Jan Hatzius explains (and as we showed most recently here). To wit: "our worry about the size of the fiscal cliff has grown, as neither Democrats nor Republicans look inclined to budge on the issue of the expiring upper-income Bush tax cuts. This has increased the risk of at least a short-term hit from a temporary expiration of all of the fiscal cliff provisions, as well as a permanent expiration of the upper-income tax cuts and/or the availability of emergency unemployment benefits." This does not even touch on the just as sensitive topic of the debt ceiling, where if history is any precedent, Boehner will be expected to fold once more, only this time this is very much unlikely to happen. In other words, we are once again on the August 2011 precipice, where everything is priced in, and where politicians will do nothing until the market wakes them from their stupor by doing the only thing it knows how to do when it has to show who is in charge: plunge.
Yesterday we brought you the news that US debt quietly soared by $90 billion overnight to celebrate the new fiscal year end, reaching $16.2 trillion and sending total US debt to GDP to 103%. Needless to say, this comes at an exciting time, with the first Wall Street muppet presidential debate in about 12 hours, where the US debt crisis will be a front and center topic because in about 2 months, the US debt ceiling will again be breached adding to the Fiscal Cliff fiasco, resulting in a flashback to August 2011 when the market had to tumble by nearly 20% for Congress to get the hint that first and foremost its job is to make sure the money on Wall Street keeps flowing, all else secondary. And while it has become fashionable to say that US debt rose by this much under that president, the truth is that the Presidency is merely one of three institutions that are responsible for the shape of the US debt-to-GDP line (which is now going from the lower left to the upper right by default). The other two are, of course, Congress and the Senate. Luckily, to simply things substantially, we have a handy graphic from today's Bloomberg Brief which conveniently plots not only the political affiliation of the presidency, but of the House and Senate, in the chronology of the US debt crisis.
Evoking the dark days of 2009 - after a steep and bumpy slide
The Philly Fed's current September Business Indicators index, long ignored when bearish and cheered when bullish, came slightly above expectations of -4.5, printing higher from last week's -7.1 to -1.9. This was the fifth consecutive negative print. And while there were no major highlights in the index, whose New Orders rose from -5.5 to 1.0 at the expense of Shipments and Inventories, both of which imploded to worse then -20, the real story is the Six Months expectations index, which exploded from 12.5 to 41.2: this was the biggest spike may not ever, but certainly in the past 22 years! Is there any wonder why everyone is transfixed with hope that Q4 will be the deus ex that saves the US economy. And so we are back to being a hopium driven economy - when reality sucks, there may not be much change, but there is always hope that finally, the central planners will get it right, and the future will be so bright you've gotta wear Made in China shades. One word of caution: if the so very much anticipated and 100% priced in Q4 recovery does not materialize, and with the fiscal cliff and debt ceiling issues still unresolved, get the hell out of Dodge, as the spread between hope and reality comes crashing.