As usual, Oaktree's Howard Marks cuts to the chase in his latest memo. Much as we just discussed the seeming complacency and drop in risk perception that currently exists, Marks scoffs at the 'It's Different This Time'-argument noting "there’s sure to be another cycle, another bubble and another crisis. There’ll be another time when people overpay for exciting investment ideas because their future appears limitless, and then a time of disillusionment and price collapse. There’ll be another period when leverage is embraced to excess, and then, consequently, a period when it gets people killed. And there’ll certainly be another time when people can only imagine the possibility of gain, and then one when – after huge sums have been lost – they can think only of further declines." Touching on the extremes of dysphoria and complacency that summarize the herd of global investors, he nails the reality of the crowd: "common sense isn’t common. The crowd is invariably wrong at the extremes. In the investing world, everything that’s intuitively obvious is questionable and everything that’s important is counter-intuitive."
When it comes to predicting consumer spending patterns, especially those of the baby boomers who are traditionally reliant on fixed income (but lately have had to migrate back into the workforce, as retirement prospects diminish, in effect displacing the young 18-24 year old Americans where unemployment is now at a substantial 46%), the following two charts from today's David Rosenberg letter do a great job at explaining the schism between interest and dividend income. The former, as is well-known, has been crippled and is plunging courtesy of Bernanke's ZIRP policy, which makes cash yields on savings and fixed income instruments virtually negligible, and the latter, which while rising, has a long way to rise if it is to catch up to lost annuity potential. It is here that the primary tension for the Fed resides: it has to force investors to switch their mindsets from the capital preservation of fixed income, to the risky behavior of pursuing stock dividends. It is also here that we see the lost purchasing power of the US consumer: interest income is down $450 billion from 2007-2008 levels to roughly $1 trillion, while dividend income has risen to $825 billion, which is where it was at the prior peak. In other words, when all is said and done, Bernanke's ZIRP policy has eliminated $450 billion in purchasing power, even if he has succeeded in reflating the equity bubble. Yet while bonds at least have capital preservation optics, what happens to dividend stocks whose cash flow yields can be eliminated at the bat of an eye, if and when the next flash crash materializes, or the next financial crisis is finally too big for the central planners to control?
For a third year in a row mainstream economists and analysts are once again planting the seeds of hope for a return to stronger GDP growth. The White House, if you look at their budget estimations, are banking on it as part of their long term deficit reduction plan. Unfortunately, it is highly unlikely that we will see growth in the economy return to 4% for a very long time. Currently, the deficit between real GDP and the CBO's estimated potential GDP, is at the greatest deviation on record. However, that data point really doesn't tell us much other than the economy is currently operating well below its potential level. While most economists will point to the likely culprits of employment, wages, industrial production and consumption as the problem, which is correct, those issues are byproducts of the 50-Trillion pound Gorilla that sits quietly in the corner. That seemingly invisible Gorilla is simply - debt.
Every once in a while an event crystallizes the stark reality behind the lacy curtain of propaganda and artifice. Here is one such event. Correspondent R.T. is a retired accountant who has resided in Arizona since 2001. Prior to 2001, he resided in California. On March 14, he received a letter from the California Franchise Tax Board (the agency that collects income taxes) claiming that he owed $1,343 for the tax year 2006. This was the first notification he'd ever received of this claim. This was an interesting claim given that R.T.:
- Did not reside in California in 2006
- Did not file a State income tax return in California in 2006
- Did not have any outstanding tax issues with California in 2006
- Did no business in California in 2006
- Owned no property in California in 2006
Minutes ago, the US Census Bureau released the February Housing Starts data, which printing at 698K was a mild disappointment, as it was below expectations of 700K, and down from a revised 706K. However, as usual, the headline gives only half the story. Here is the reality: in February, only 48.1k homes were started (Not Seasonally Adjusted). This compares to 46.5K in January. However, of this number Single Unit houses, those which are relevant for actual housing demand, and not the 5+ units more relevant for rental purposes, declined from 33.0K to 31.5K. In fact, the 31.5K number was the weakest since December's 31.0K, and then all the way back to February 26.6K. What offset this? The surge in multi-family housing units, as usual, which rose from 12.3K to 16.1K. Recall that lately there has been a shift from owning to renting, and as such builders are focusing on this. All of this is summarized in the SAAR based (Seasonally Adjusted) chart below. It gets worse: looking at actual completions, far more important in this New Normal economy, where everyone is willing to take credit for a hole in the ground as "new housing" what really matters is the rate of completions. And in January, it was a meager 28.6K, a tiny rise from January, and lowest than any number in 2011, except for last February. Sorry - there is no housing bottom. If anything, true housing continues to creep along the bottom as can be seen in the chart below.
While the college debt bubble has been extensively discussed on Zero Hedge (here, here and here) and elsewhere, the reality is that without college student loans, as cheap as they may be, the vast majority of students would not be able to afford going to college, untenable (and non-dischargeable) post-graduation leverage be damned. Please ignore for a second the reflexivity of this symbiotic relationship - that college is so expensive only because college debt is so easily obtainable (and as noted here, between car loans and student debt, is the primary source of consumer debt in the past year)... That said there are two sides to every story: on one hand students are conditioned to believe that they need college to survive in the current world (with statistics such as these floating out there: drop outs since 2002 have "cost" the nation $3.8 billion in lost income and over $700 million in lost taxes), while on the other hand, the burden of a massive debt load, even if with manageable interest expenses, leave the student burdened with principal amortization which alone has a crippling effect on the individual psychology. Is it time to reevaluate higher education? Look at this infographic from OnlineCollege, which summarizes the side effects of soaring college costs, and decide for yourselves.
Watching your debates and speeches of late, it is clear that you are all (with possibly the exception of Ron Paul) missing the point and only continuing to widen the gap between the US Government and the American people.
...We find, in the case of Belgium, a 40% Debt/GDP miss from what is bandied about by the Europeans. Then it should be noted that in the case of Dexia, Fortis et al that the guarantee of contingent liabilities may not be the amount of money that is required and so the situation could still worsen from here. Belgium, in fact, is not much better off than Greece and, as their economy sinks into recession, the numbers and ratios are bound to get worse. Not only do I expect further downgrades for this country by the ratings agencies but I also expect a further rise in yields as the more sophisticated investors grasp the reality of Belgium’s issues and respond accordingly.
For today's definitive example of peak cognitive dissonance and self-delusion among those who determine the monetary fate of the world no less, look no further than the Dallas Fed's Dick Fisher, who just said the following according to Reuters:
- No one presently believes that the Fed is going to proceed with QE3
Funny considering earlier, we got this from Goldman's Bill Dudley:
- No decision yet on QE3, New York Fed's Dudley says
And that is why central planning always fails. Because a room of these terminally confused people sits down and determines the fate of the world based on their naive academic interpretation of what they perceive is reality.
Americans have an illogical love affair with their vehicles. There are 209 million licensed drivers in the U.S. and 260 million vehicles. The U.S. has a higher number of motor vehicles per capita than every country in the world at 845 per 1,000 people. Germany has 540; Japan has 593; Britain has 525; and China has 37. The population of the United States has risen from 203 million in 1970 to 311 million today, an increase of 108 million in 42 years. Over this same time frame, the number of motor vehicles on our crumbling highways has grown by 150 million. This might explain why a country that has 4.5% of the world’s population consumes 22% of the world’s daily oil supply. This might also further explain the Iraq War, the Afghanistan occupation, the Libyan “intervention”, and the coming war with Iran. Automobiles have been a vital component in the financial Ponzi scheme that has passed for our economic system over the last thirty years. For most of the past thirty years annual vehicle sales have ranged between 15 million and 20 million, with only occasional drops below that level during recessions. They actually surged during the 2001-2002 recession as Americans dutifully obeyed their moron President and bought millions of monster SUVs, Hummers, and Silverado pickups with 0% financing from GM to defeat terrorism. Alan Greenspan provided the fuel, with ridiculously low interest rates. The Madison Avenue media maggots provided the transmission fluid by convincing millions of willfully ignorant Americans to buy or lease vehicles they couldn’t afford. And the financially clueless dupes pushed the pedal to the metal, until everyone went off the cliff in 2008.
The surprising tale that I will attempt to pen in this blog entry has a very familiar cast of characters; the Obama Administration, the Housing Bubble, "Toxic Mortgages", and Too Big To Fail "TBTF" Banks among others. While the headline of TBTF banks in a $25bil mortgage settlement is known to many, the underlying details of the settlement are less known and quite appalling when you pull back the covers. The wounds on past and present homeowners are still fresh from the housing crisis. As Jonathan Laing points out in this weekend's Barron's cover story, "five million of the country's 76million mortgage holders have lost their homes to foreclosure or lender ordered short sales since 2006, and an estimated 14million more own more on their homes than their properties are currently worth. In all, some $7.4 trillion in homeowners' equity has been destroyed according to Mark Zandi..."
Back in May of last year, just after the now historic silver slamdown of "Silver Sunday" on May 1, 2011, when the metal imploded by nearly 20% in the span of seconds, a move that some considered 'normal', primarily the CFTC, we presented the extended biopic of the infamous "Silverfinger": Bunker Hunt, who attempted to corner the silver market, and succeeded, if only briefly (and they say Playboy has no good articles). Today, courtesy of Grant Williams, we have dredged up the following clip from the archives, which is a 10 minute overview of just how there is really nothing new ever in the silver market, bringing up memories of Silver Thursday, March 27, 1980, and raising questions whether last year the move in precious metals was not due to the same attempt to corner the silver and gold markets as happened 30 years prior. A far more important question perhaps is how was it that tried a redux of the Hunt brothers (and Warren Buffett of course), and when will someone take their place next?
Last week we learned two things: that Jamie Dimon specifically telegraphed he is now more powerful than the Fed, and that the US economy is back down to the same March 2009 optical exercises in financial strength gimmickry to stimulate rallies. Recall that on FOMC day, the market barely budged on Bernanke's ambivalent statement and in fact was in danger of backing off as the readthrough was that of no more QE... until JPM announced a major stock buyback and dividend boost. The catalyst: a successful passing of the latest and greatest Stress Test, which according to experts was "much more credible" than all those before it. Wrong. The test was merely yet another complete farce and a total joke. But as expected, the test had its intended effect: financial shares soared across the board, and banks promptly took advantage of investors and robot gullibility to sell equity into transitory strength. Bloomberg's Jonathan Weil explains.
The Fed is not a “dealer” giving “hits” of monetary morphine to an “addict”… the Fed has permitted cancerous beliefs to spread throughout the financial system. And the end result is going to be the same as that of a patient who ignores cancer and simply acts as though everything is fine. That patient is now past the point of no return. There can be no return to health. Instead the system will eventually collapse and then be replaced by a new one.
In the aftermath of the "Greg Smith" phenomenon, where now a variety of sources (for now of the terminated kind, but soon likely from those still on the payroll) have stepped up against the Wall Street and D.C. omerta, it is assured that we will see many more such pieces before the coolness factor of public employer humiliation. It is our hope that these lead to an actual improvement in America's criminal corporate culture (such as in "How a Whistleblower Halted JPMorgan Chase's Card Collections"), which is nowhere more prevalent than in the corner offices of Wall Street, long a place where "obfuscation" and "complexity" (recall that it was none other than the Fed telling us that "Liquidity requires symmetric information, which is easiest to achieve when everyone is ignorant") have been synonymous with legalized wealth transfer (after all, we now know that nobody ever read the fine print, and when the chips fell it was all the rating agencies' fault). Alas we are skeptical. But while we wait, here is a slightly lighter piece from the Globae and Mail's Tim Kiladze, who while not exposing anything new, shares with his readers just what the transition from "soulless banker" to a "less demanding, more fulfilling life" entails, and that it does, in the end, pay off. As Tim says - "The latter is a real option: I’m proof of it." Here is his story for all those 'wannabe Greg Smiths' who are on the fence about burning that bridge in perpetuity.