Last week we had the Fed's hawks line up one after another telling us how no more QE would ever happen. We ignored them because they are simply the bad cops to the Fed's good cop doves. Sure enough, here comes Bernanke's right hand man, or in this case woman, hinting that one can forget everything the hawkish stance, and that ZIRP may last not until 2014 but 2015! Which, by the way, is to be expected: since ZIRP can never expire, it will always be rolled to T+3 years, as the short end will never be allowed to rise, until the Fed has enough FRNs in circulation to absorb the surge in rates without crushing the principal, as explained yesterday.
Much has been made, and rightly so, of the echoing crisis that is evolving in Spanish bank and sovereign credit (and equity) markets in the last few weeks. The impact of the LTRO on the optics of Spain's problems hid the fact that things remain rather ugly under the surface still and with the fading of that cashflow and reach-around demand from the Spanish banking system, the smaller base of sovereign bond investors has shied away. Stephane Deo, of UBS, notes that while the Spanish budget is a positive step (with its labor market reforms), Spain's economy remains weak and will face a severe recession this year followed by still significant contraction next year. However, he fears the measures announced may not be enough to calm investor angst as he doubts the size of fiscal receipts numbers and the ability to half the deficits of local authorities. Furthermore, the measures will have a large impact on corporate earnings - implicitly exaggerating the dismal unemployment numbers (which is increasingly polarizing young against old) with expectations that the aggregate unemployment rate could well top 26% and youth well over 50%. This will only drag further on the housing market, which while it has suffered notably already, is expected to drop another 25% before bottoming and credit is contracting rapidly (compared to a modest rise overall in Europe). Spanish banks remain opaque in general from the perspective of the size and quality of collateral and provisioning and Deo believes they are still deep in the midst of the provisioning cycle and tough macro conditions will force restructuring and deleveraging. Spain scores 5 out of 5 on our crisis-prone indicator and markets, absent intervention, are starting to reflect that aggressively.
While US equity futures continue to do their thing as the DJIA 13K ceiling comes into play again (two weeks ago Dow 13K was crossed nearly 80 times), ahead of today's 2:15pm Bernanke statement which will make the case for the NEW QE even more remote, none of the traditional correlation drivers are in active mode, with the EURUSD now at LOD levels, following headlines such as the following: "Euro Pares Losses vs Dollar as Germany’s ZEW Beats Ests" and 20 minutes later "EUR Weakens After German Zew Rises for 4th Month." As can be surmised, a consumer confidence circular and reflexive indicator is the basis for this Schrodinger (alive and dead) euro, and sure enough sentiment, aka the stock market, aka the ECB's balance sheet expansion of $1.3 trillion, is "improved" despite renewed concern over Spain’s fiscal outlook after better than expected German ZEW per Bloomberg. Next, investors await U.S. retail sales, which have come in consistently weaker in the past 3 month, and unless a pick up here is noted, one can scratch Q1 GDP. None of which will have any impact on the S&P 500 policy indicator whatsoever: in an election year, not even Brian Sack can push the stock market into the red.
Jon Hilsenrath Is Scratching His (And The NY Fed's) Head Over The Job Number Discrepancy And Okun's LawSubmitted by Tyler Durden on 03/12/2012 07:40 -0500
A month ago Zero Hedge, based on some Goldman observations, asked a simple question: is Okun's law now terminally broken? Today, with about a one month delay, the mouthpiece of the New York Fed (which in itself is nothing but a Goldman den of central planners, and Bill Dudley and Jan Hatzius are drinking buddies), Jon Hilsenrath shows that this is just the issue bothering his FRBNY overseers. In an article in the WSJ he ruminates: "Something about the U.S. economy isn't adding up. At 8.3%, the unemployment rate has fallen 0.7 percentage point from a year earlier and is down 1.7 percentage points from a peak of 10% in October 2009. Many other measures of the job market are improving. Companies have expanded payrolls by more than 200,000 a month for the past three months, according to Labor Department data. And the number of people filing claims for government unemployment benefits has fallen. Yet the economy is barely growing. Many economists in the past few weeks have again reduced their estimates of growth. The economy by many estimates is on track to grow at an annual rate of less than 2% in the first three months of 2012. The economy expanded just 1.7% last year. And since the final months of 2009, when unemployment peaked, the economy has expanded at a pretty paltry 2.5% annual rate." Hilsenrath's rhetorical straw man: "How can an economy that is growing so slowly produce such big declines in unemployment?" The answer is simple Jon, and is another one we provided a month ago - basically the US is now effectively "printing" jobs by releasing more and more seasonally adjusted payrolls into the open, which however pay progressively less and less (see A "Quality Assessment" Of US Jobs Reveals The Ugliest Picture Yet). After all, what the media always forgets is that there is a quantity and quality component to jobs. The only one that matters in an election year, however, is the former. As for whether Okun's law is broken, we suggest that the New York Fed looks in the mirror on that one.
When it comes to labor-wage parity, nowhere has this topic been more debated than in the context of China and the US. Specifically, with US wages declining consistently for the past 3 years despite commodity price inflation spiking with a 2-3 month lag following every coordinated central bank printing episode (such as the one we are experiencing now), many have proffered their predictions as to when Chinese secular inflation would make wage pay equivalent on both sides of the Pacific, and stop the exporting of jobs from the US to China (a good discussion on the topic can be found in "With China Forecast To Reach Wage Parity With The US In Five Years, Is A New Manufacturing Golden Age Coming To The US?"). And while labor equivalency between China and the US likely still has a ways to go, we have now crossed a critical Rubicon, as Chinese and European wages, at least in one part of European Union, have caught up. Net result, as Spiegel reports, carmaker "Great Wall this week became the first Chinese automobile manufacturer to open an automobile assembly plant inside the European Union in the latest move suggesting the country's carmakers are seeking to establish a beachhead into the European market." Yes, that's right: it is now cheaper for China to make cars in the European Union: "It used to be that European carmakers opened plants to assemble their cars in China. Now the Chinese have turned the tables with the opening of their first factory in Bulgaria, an EU country with low labor costs and taxes. Increasingly, Chinese carmakers are setting their sights on the European and American automobile markets." The ramifications of this landmark development are massive for virtually every aspect of the economy: for domestic labor migration, for inflation, for the trade balance, and certainly for US workers.
Between the Chinese 'surprise' RRR and the Iran export halt to UK and France (and escalating tensions), Oil prices are off to the races this evening. WTI front-month futures have just broken $105 (now up more than 10% in the last two weeks), the highest levels in over nine months and just 8% shy of the 5/2/11 post-recession peak just under $115. Brent (priced in EUR) remains off last week's intraday highs (as EUR strengthens) but still above the pre-recession peak but in USD it traded just shy of $121 - well above last week's peak. Of course, this will be heralded as a sign of demand pressure from a 'growing' global economy rather than the margin-compressing, implicit-taxation, consumer-spending-crushing supply constraint for Europe and the US that it will become in the not too distant future. As we post, The Guardian is noting that US officials are commenting that "Sanctions are all we've got to throw at the problem. If they fail then it's hard to see how we don't move to the 'in extremis' option." The impact of any escalation from here is gravely concerning with PIMCO's $140 minimum and SocGen's $150-and-beyond Brent prices rapidly coming into focus - and for those pinning their hopes on the Saudis coming to the rescue (and fill the Iranian output gap), perhaps the news that our Middle-East 'allies' cut both production and exports in December will stymie any euphoria.
ZeroHedge’s post on the apparent breakdown of Okun’s “Law” highlights the ongoing tragicomedy of how the science of central economic planning eventually confounds, and then consumes itself. Economics is, after all, a social “science”, an elaborate study of human beings and, most importantly, human interactions. Robert Okun, for his part, merely observed in 1962 that when “output” (whatever statistical measure is en vogue) rises by 3%, the unemployment rate seems to fall by 1%. For some reason, economics assumes that if it is true in the past, it will be true forever, so it was written into the canon of orthodox economic practice. Economics has inferred causation into that relationship, giving it a layer of permanence that may not be warranted. Econometrics has always had this inherent flaw. The science of modern economics makes assumptions based on certain data, and then extrapolates them as if these assumptions will always and everywhere be valid. There is this non-trivial postulation that correlation equals causation. In the case of Okun’s Law, it seems fully logical that there might be causation since it makes intuitive sense – more economic activity should probably lead to more jobs, and vice versa. But to assume a two-variable approach to something that should be far more complex is more than just dangerous, it is unscientific. In fact, Okun’s Law has already been adjusted somewhat, most famously by Ben Bernanke and Andrew Abel in their 1991 book. It was upgraded to a 2% change in output corresponding with a 1% inverse change in unemployment. Apparently with the economic “success” of that period, Okun needed a re-calibration.
Okun's rule-of-thumb relates the long-term empirical finding that a country's unemployment rate is closely related to a country's output (or GDP) - perfectly sensible and comprehensible. In fact to be a little more explicit, it is the change in unemployment that is more notable in its relationship to the potential GDP (the output gap). His original work noted that a 3% increase in output corresponds to a 1% decline in unemployment rates (and/or rise in labor force participation, rise in hours worked, and rise in labor productivity) but as Goldman Sachs notes this week, Okun's Law has broken. As they point out, even though US real GDP growth has averaged a meager 2.5% pace since the end of the recession, the unemployment rate has fallen almost two percentage points from its peak. There are three implications, in our view: the unemployment rate is hopelessly miscalculated (and is much higher); potential growth is much lower than economists have been expecting (not such good news for real growth); and the multiplier effect of money has dropped structurally (in other words the implied money flow from more workers is not circulating the way it empirically has to juice growth). It seems to us that none of these are good for growth as the reality of a higher unemployment rate (BLS adjustments aside) is negative, lower potential for growth impacts earnings expectations (as we are already seeing in company and analyst outlooks which has perplexed those market watchers pinning their hopes on the jobless rate), and the balance sheet recessionary impacts of the 'employed' minimizing debt rather than maximizing potential gain is a further drag. Either way, as Goldman notes the potential growth rate going forward (2012 and 2013) is likely to remain quite weak, in the neighborhood of 2% in line with the CBO's dismal views and this could be further exacerbated by the drop in labor force participation we have noted vociferously.
Last week we heard from Nomura's bearded bear as Bob Janjuah restated his less-then-optimistic scenario for the global economy. Today his partner-in-crime, Kevin Gaynor, takes on the bullish consensus cognoscenti's three mutually supportive themes in his usual skeptical manner. While he respects the market's potential view that fundamentals, flow, valuation, and sentiment seem aligned for meaningful outperformance, it seems actual positioning does not reflect this (yet). Taking on each of the three bullish threads (EM policy shift as inflation slows, ECB has done and will do more QE, and US decoupling), the strategist teases out the reality and what is priced in as he does not see this as the March-2009-equivalent 'big-one' in rerisking (warranting concerns on chasing here).
There has been a large debate as of late about the economy going into 2012. Will it "muddle through" at a sub -2% rate, rebound sharply to more than 3% as currently estimated, or will we decline into a secondary recession? Cases can clearly be made for all three scenarios and only time will tell who is correct. However, this debate entirely misses the essence of what we are most concerned about - our investment portfolios and the risks to those investments from economic pressures. I have clearly made the case in past missives about the potential for a recession in 2012. When real GDP has declined below 2% growth on a year over year basis the economy has normally been, or was about to be, in a recession. With today's downward revision to Q3 GDP we have now had two consecutive quarters of sub-2% GDP growth. There are only two instances in history (Q3-1956 and Q1-2007) where there were two consecutive quarters of sub-2% GDP annual growth and the economy wasn't already in a recession. In 1956 the economy rebounded for one quarter to 2.93% annual growth in Q4, slipped to 1.88% in Q1 of 1957, rebounded once again to 2.99% growth in Q2 1957 as the recession officially started. The other was in Q1 and Q2 of 2007 and we all know how that worked out in next couple of quarters. These are the only instances where the economy "muddled" along for a period of time before way to the recession. The reality is that an economy cannot muddle along - it will either grow or contract. "Muddling" isn't historically an option.
Since the 2012 Outlooks have now slowed to a drip, its appears retrospectives are the stocking-filler of choice for the week. Goldman's economist group reflects on their '10 Questions for 2011', released at the end of December 2010, and finds they were correct seven times. The tricky thing about judging the 'score' is the magnitude of the error - or more importantly the magnitude of the question's impact on trading views. Jan Hatzius and his team have had their moments this year, for better or worse, in economic sickness or health but they have largely been accurate at predicting Fed policy (or should we say 'directing/suggesting' Fed policy), but were significantly off (along with emajority of the Birinyi-ruler-based extrapolators from the sell-side) on growth (high) expectations and inflation (low) expectations. Nevertheless, the lessons learned from over-estimating the speed of healing from the credit crisis and the disin- / de-flationary effects of a large output gap (which BARCAP would argue is not as wide) when inflation is already low and inflation expectations well anchored are critical for not making the same overly-optimistic mistake into 2012.
The Doves Resume Their Crying: Fed's Evans Sees More Easing As Necessary To Avoid "Debt Trap"; Fed Must Act NowSubmitted by Tyler Durden on 12/05/2011 12:23 -0500
While Italy's Mario Monti earlier said that the country with the still ridiculously high bond yields would be somehow able to avoid a debt trap on its own (for its second largest debt load in the entire Eurozone), the Chicago Fed's Evans just said that America, which has the lowest rates in the world (with the possible exception of Japan) just said that unlike Italy, the US apparently needs far more help, and "further monetary stimulus is needed" to avoid a relapse into the debt trap. This probably means that sooner or later Italy will follow through with statements that "Italy is not the US" - after all, they are perfectly ok as is.
Physics has the elusive Theory of Everything which consists of several Grand Unified Theories and which represents the holy grail of the science and which "fully explains and links together all known physical phenomena, and predicts the outcome of any experiment that could be carried out in principle." In other words, once proven it would make life boring. We doubt it ever will be. Finance does not have anything like it, for the simple reason that while physics is a deterministic science, finance, predicated to a big extent on assumptions borrowed from the shaman cult known as 'economics' is always and everywhere open ended, and depends just as much on chaotic 'strange attractors' as it does on simple linear relationships. Yet when it comes to presentations, especially of the variety that attempt to explain not only where we are in the world, and how we got there, but also where we are headed, we have yet to see anything as comprehensive as the Investment Strategy guidebook from Pictet's Christophe Donay. If there is indeed a holy grail of presentations, this is it, at least for a few more instants, until something dramatically changes and the whole thing becomes an anachronism. In the meantime learn everything there is to know about global decoupling and the lack thereof, the reality of an over-indebted global regime and its 3 incompatible targets, the outlook for the US and the 30% probability of a hard recession, a recessionary Europe and the five possible outcomes of its crisis, China and its hard landing, and how this all ties into an outlook on where the world is headed together with appropriate investment strategies and proper asset allocation, the fair value of the EURUSD, systemic risk evaluation, cross asset correlation, the impact of central bank intervention, debt redemption profiles, the role of gold and commodities in the new reality, and virtually everything else of importance right here and right now.
It is no secret that over the past two months, Goldman has commenced a full endorsement of Nominal GDP targetting as a method to stimulate the economy, not to mention Wall Street's bonus pool, after Ben Bernanke completely ignored Hatzius' advice to reduce the Interest on Overnight Excess Reserve rate as well as subsequent pleading for a start of MBS LSAP. Mathematics once again aside, and as we demonstrated, the math works out to an non-trivial incremental $10 trillion in debt through 2016 on top of what will be issued, to catch up with the GDP growth run rate and to eliminate the excess slack in the economy, the question is whether NGDP would achieve any tangible stimulus at all, or merely reduce the Fed's ever smaller arsenal of non-conventional means to boost the economy by one more approach. The attached rhetorical Q&A just released by Goldman seeks to answer that and any other left over questions one may have on NGDP as a policy measure, and further puts out the inverse strawman argument that it is not coming out any time soon. To wit: "We do not expect a move to an NGDP target anytime soon, although the probability would increase if growth and/or inflation slowed by more than we currently estimate." Then again, with the whole reverse psychology trademark inherent in every piece of Goldman public product, and considering the squid's previous advances to determine monetary policy have been snubbed, it may just mean that the next time the US economy implodes, this is precisely the method the Fed may use in early 2012 to guarantee another record year of Wall Street bonuses considering 2011 will be abysmal for so many Swiss and other offshore bank accounts.
Many wonder why hedge funds underperformed the market as dramatically as they did in October: simple - few, if any, had any conviction in the rally, and only those with an already abysmal Sharpe ratio and a penchant for risky beta chasing threw themselves headfirst into the turbulent short-covering riptide. David Kostin summarizes it best with the title of his latest weekly chartology: "Investors uncertain about lower uncertainty." - and indeed they are, as intuitively all know that nothing has been fixed and the only reason the market lurches from one extreme to another is the fear that a career rally will leave many of them with no LPs, if only to be faced with even worse news tomorrow, and suffer an even greater loss to AUM. Which is why those that are outperforming the market to date have battered down the hatches and are enjoying the sluaghter from the sidelines, knowing full well they will be able to pick off stocks at Greece-like valuations. As for the others: all the best, as the volatility experienced in the past few days will certainly persist through year end: "Investors are generally skeptical about the pace and magnitude of the market recovery. We expect uncertainty and below-trend growth to persist..."