Dressed in the ominous black of his alter ego (Lewis), Charles reflects on his recent trip to NYC with the same incredulity as we do with our many and varied conversations with equity fund managers - they're long and terrified. The recognition of total dependency on Central Bank manipulation leaves an investing public seemingly believing in miracles. From Europe, where the consensus (media) belief is that 'all-is-now-fixed' or at minimum the can is a long way down the road (though the velocity of deterioration in Spanish spreads this week - largest 2-day widening in over 3 months - has many funds we know greatly concerned) when the reality is a dis-union declining into recession relying on more and greater money printing (while disparaging the Greek bailout and offering some crazy facts on the Greek population); to the US as incomes (and the economy) is growing modestly (very modestly) but the impact of earnings dropping (as margins/profits mean-revert) implied far less buybacks to fund the continued expansion of equities; to Asia where China (and EM implicitly) appears to be slowing. The reality is that in an election year he believes Central Banks will do all they can though warning that at some point in time even Wile.E.Coyote has to fall back to Earth.
While T.Boone talks sense and gets to vent his frustration regularly on air, the sad reality is that although the obstacles for substitution to NatGas are not insurmountable, as Michael Cembalest notes we do not get the sense that an NGV fleet is imminent, even with very high gasoline prices. The best shale gas plays are the ones that involve finding liquids in addtion to (or instead of) dry gas. Given the price for coal, natural gas and crude oil per unit of heat/energy humans would stop using oil and gasoline and use more natural gas instead. But in the real world, in which Michael and you and I live oil and natural gas are not frictionless substitutes. As the EIA shows, oil is primarily used for transportation whereas natural gas is used mostly by industry and to create electricity. As a result, there is no substitution effect pulling up natural gas prices, particularly as more natural gas is being found in shale plays. But for shale investors, there are liquids that can be found in shale plays that are worth a lot more than dry gas: shale oil, and natural gas liquids. Shale oil obviously is valued based on oil prices, and natural gas liquids are valued close to oil prices as well. Whether over time natural gas can displace coal or be exported successfully to 'correct' the demand-supply equation is the question that remains but for now it seems a long way off and along with the normal operating risks, there is of course a broader issues of fracking - and what operation safeguards will need to be put in place to allay concerns in the future. The point is that demand possibilities are there but seem far off and while broadly the energy sector has been on a positive ride the last few years, we remember the lost two decades of underperformance during the 80s and 90s but it would seem should we 'dip' again in the global economy that integrated oils, drilling/services will underperform from their elevated levels.
UPDATE: TVIX has now perfectly recoupled with its underlying index (TVIXIV) after a week of HTB dislocation.
With the double-levered long Vol ETF TVIX down 30% in the face of a falling equity market and rising VIX, reality appears to have been suspended. The crushing divide seems driven by the fact that Credit Suisse halted share creation forcing the ETF to behave more like a closed-end fund and with its massive premium to NAV (thanks to extreme hard-to-borrow-ness), this compression makes some 'technical' sense. While the Vol ETFs are designed to track VIX futures not spot, we remain skeptical of these instruments (or the options on them in their wonderfully compound manner) and although CS has said this cessation of share creation is temporary, it definitely brings up significant operational risks for anyone considering trading these vol plays. The TVIX premium to NAV was huge at over 80% as it became hard-to-borrow and with today's action that premium is cut in half (and we assume NAV will rise given the pop in risk).
One of the biggest surprise stories of the past several months, in addition to economic activity skewing record warm weather, and the New Normal seasonal adjustments (which as Albert Edwards noted earlier are giving data an upward bias for each of the past three years), is the consistently "better than expected" jobs numbers. There is one problem: as discussed previously, the rising jobs are purely a quantity over quality trade off, as every month more and more temp jobs take the place of permanent ones, especially those of former professionals from the FIRE sector. In fact, in January temp jobs soared by the most on record, and the total number of temp workers was just shy of all time highs. Ironically, as this happened, discretionary online retail companies have seen their stock price soar to record highs. One of the primary drivers for this has been the increased "efficiency" at these companies' hubs - their warehouses. Which just happen to be staffed with temp workers. The following infographic presents the reality behind these American "sweatshops" - because this is the "quality" of job that is rising rapidly in the current economy (at the expense of traditional permanent jobs) to give the impression of an economic recovery. There is no point in making an ethical judgment - work conditions are as they are. Just as workers at FoxConn likely have far better conditions than their peers, at least in their view, so do these temp workers view their life as better than the alternative, which is unemployment. It is, as they say, what it is.
It appears we are, as a nation of desperately consuming investors, becoming increasingly cognitively dissonant. Charles Biderman, of TrimTabs, leaves the ominous clouds of the Bay Area for New York City and addresses our seemingly Pavlovian response for the third year in a row to a rising stock market (flooded with portfolio-rebalancing duration-destroying Central Bank money) as evidence that the real economy must be doing great. Of course, relying on tried and true facts such as real job growth and real wage growth and understanding the seasonally-abused-adjusted housing data realities, Biderman notes that the only money driving stocks up is corporate buybacks dominating selling pressure. While modestly bullish on these flows, he is growing more anxious. He sees insider selling surging (from 5:1 January to 14:1 February to 35:1 in March), there has been no new 'cash-takeovers' announced this month compared to $15bn per month last year, and the IPO pipeline is ramping up fast (supply will dominate demand) as the end of Operation Twist approaches removing yet another prop to the perceived reality of stocks.
How did we get here? An argument can be made that miscalculation, accident, inattention and the like are why things go bad. Those elements do have a role, but it is minor. Potential catastrophe across the board can't be the result of happenstance. When things go wrong on a grand scale, it's not just bad luck or inadvertence. It's because of serious character flaws in one or many – or even all – of the players. So is there a root cause of all the problems I've cited? If we can find it, it may tell us how we personally can best respond to the problems. In this article, I'm going to argue that the US government, in particular, is being overrun by the wrong kind of person. It's a trend that's been in motion for many years but has now reached a point of no return. In other words, a type of moral rot has become so prevalent that it's institutional in nature. There is not going to be, therefore, any serious change in the direction in which the US is headed until a genuine crisis topples the existing order. Until then, the trend will accelerate. The reason is that a certain class of people – sociopaths – are now fully in control of major American institutions. Their beliefs and attitudes are insinuated throughout the economic, political, intellectual and psychological/spiritual fabric of the US.
Whether it was the truthiness of Willem Buiter's comments this morning, the sad reality of Spanish housing, or more likely the ugly fact that LTRO3 is not coming (as money-good assets evaporate), today was broadly the worst day of the year for European sovereigns. Spanish 10Y spreads jumped their most since the first day of the year, Italian yields broke back above 5% (and spreads broke back over 300bps), and Belgium, France and Austria all leaked notably wider. Since Friday's close, Italian and Spanish bonds have suffered their largest 2-day losses in over 3 months. Notably the CDS markets rolled their contracts into Monday and perhaps this derisking is real money exiting as they unwound their hedges - or more simply profit-taking on front-run LTRO carry trades but notably the LTRO Stigma has exploded in the last few days back to near its highs. European equity markets are now underperforming credit - having ridden the high-beta wave far above credit markets in the last few months (a picture we have seen in the US in Q2 2011 and HY is signaling risk-aversion rising in the US currently in the same way). Just how will the world react to another risk flare in Europe now that supposedly everything is solved?
Yesterday, Ben Bernanke dedicated his entire first propaganda lecture to college student to the bashing of the gold standard. Of course, he has his prerogatives: he has to validate a crumbling monetary system and the legitimacy of the Fed, first to schoolchildrden and then to soon to be college grads encumbered in massive amounts of non-dischargeable student loans. While it is decidedly arguable that the gold standard may or may not have led to the first Great Depression, there is no debate at all that it was sheer modern monetary insanity and bubble blowing (by the very same professor!) that brought us to the verge of collapse in the Second Great Depression in 2008, which had nothing to do with the gold standard. And as usual there is always an other side to the story. Presenting that here today, is Antal Fekete with "The Gold Problem Revisited."
We heard it then and we will hear it again (soon we suspect) that unless some huge liquidating bailout event occurs, the world will no longer exist as we know it, iPads will no longer toast pop-tarts, and American Idol will cease to be. The M.A.D. argument remains the go-to move in the government's playbook and Rick Santelli jousts with Steve Liesman (and new glad-man Scott Wapner) in this heated exchange over the reality of TARP's saving the world (from what) and the precedents this sets going forward.
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.