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2014 Year In Review (Part 1): The Final Throes Of A Geopolitical Game Of Tetris

Every year, David Collum writes a detailed "Year in Review" synopsis full of keen perspective and plenty of wit. This year's is no exception. "I have not seen a year in which so many risks - some truly existential - piled up so quickly. Each risk has its own, often unknown, probability of morphing into a destructive force. It feels like we’re in the final throes of a geopolitical Game of Tetris as financial and political authorities race to place the pieces correctly. But the acceleration is palpable. The proximate trigger for pain and ultimately a collapse can be small, as anyone who’s ever stepped barefoot on a Lego knows..."

The Burning Questions For 2015

"Most investors go about their job trying to identify ‘winners’. But more often than not, investing is about avoiding losers. Like successful gamblers at the racing track, an investor’s starting point should be to eliminate the assets that do not stand a chance, and then spread the rest of one’s capital amongst the remainder." So as the year draws to a close, it may be helpful if we recap the main questions confronting investors and the themes we strongly believe in, region by region.

The Fed Is "Confused & Confusing"

"At the end of the day, the Fed is confused and confusing, so if you spend too much time addressing their comments you end up confusing as well." The FOMC meeting was, simply put, slightly hawkish. Unfortunately, the markets’ outsized and illogical reactions are signs and symptoms that financial markets are broken. The FOMC’s meddling in financial market behavior could easily catch up to them in an ugly fashion.

Deciphering Yellen's Rub-Goldbergian Message

Through the overly-complex verbiage riddled with a copious number of contingencies, a simple message was actually able to surface.  The net result is modestly hawkish and one consistent with our "Sooner but Slower" rate cycle perspective. Markets are being driven more by fear of missing the upside, and fear of under-performing peers and benchmarks, than by any other factor.  This Pavlovian response has worked well in recent years and encouraged by the Fed.  However, this pattern is in the 9th inning.  Moreover, such herd-like behavior will run into great difficult due to dreadful market liquidity that is the result of regulatory over-reach; indications that were evident in markets over the past few weeks.

Soaring Inflation Around The Globe: Cartier Hikes Russian Prices By 50%, Suntory Whiskey Prices Surge 25% In Japan

As the Fed continues to rely on seasonally-adjusted survey data to validate its belief that the time to hike rates is coming, even as market-implied inflation swap rates are back to 2008 levels, the one thing that continues to happen everywhere but in the US is precisely what the Fed wishes for the US (as we reported yesterday): devaluaing currencies and spiking inflation (and expectations), without any accompanying rise in wages, have lead consumers to a buying frenzy in Russia, and to a far lesser extent Japan. As a result, providers of products and services in these countries have been scrambling to match prices to demand, especially since the demand is purely the result demand brought forward due to plunging currencies, not the result of some magical source of widespread wealth. Case in point, Cartier, the luxury jewelery maker, raised its Russian prices by as much as 50 percent after the ruble plunged to a record low.

Frontrunning: December 17

  • Citigroup is pleased: Obama signs $1.1 trillion government spending bill (Reuters)
  • Oil holds below $60 as OPEC, Russia keep pumping (Reuters)
  • 5 Things to watch at the December Fed Meeting (WSJ)
  • Russia Tries Emergency Steps for 2nd Day to Stem Ruble Rout (BBG)
  • Ruble crisis could shake Putin's grip on power (Reuters)
  • Apple Curbs Russia Sales as McDonald’s Lifts Prices (BBG)
  • Traders Betting Russia’s Next Move Will Be to Sell Gold (BBG)
  • China Warms to a More Flexible Yuan (WSJ)

Crude Continues Slide, Ruble Stabilizes, US Futures Rebound As Global Stocks Slump: All Eyes On Yellen

Previewing today's market: near record low liquidity, with chance of ridiculous volatility in the Ruble, energy and equity markets. While no doubt today's main event will be the "considerable" FOMC announcement and the Fed's downward-revised economic projections followed by Yellen's press conference, what traders will be most excited by is that, finally, Jim Bullard will no longer be bound by the blackout period surround FOMC decisions, and as such can hint of QE4 again at his leisure during key market inflection (i.e., selling) points.

Frontrunning: December 16

  • Ruble Sinks to 80 a Dollar Defying Surprise Russia Rate Increase (BBG)
  • Oil slumps near $59 for first time since 2009 on oversupply (Reuters)
  • Oil sinks, Russian moves fail to quell nerves (Reuters)
  • Fed Seen Looking Past Low Inflation to Drop ‘Considerable Time (BBG)
  • Students Among Dead as Pakistan Gunmen Kill 126 at Army School (BBG)
  • Repsol to buy Talisman Energy for $13 billion (Reuters)
  • Indonesia’s Rupiah Erases Decline After Central Bank Intervenes (BBG)
  • Anti-Islam Rally Grows as Immigrant Backlash Hits Europe (BBG)
  • Saudi Arabia is playing chicken with its oil (Reuters)

Meet The 17-Year-Old High School Junior Who Made $72 Million Trading Penny Stocks. Allegedly

It never fails: every year we get a story of that one individual who, as simple survivorship bias would suggest, made a killing in the same market where 999,999 others lost (you won't ever read about them though). This year that someone is a 17-year-old from Queens who, according to rumors at Styuvesant High School in NYC where he is a junior, made $72 million by trading pennystocks, oil and gold. Meet Mohammed Islam, who as the photo below shows, is like most other high school kids... with a few exceptions: he rents a Manhattan apartment, drives a BMW. And eats caviar and apple juice. Allegedly.

Frontrunning: December 15

  • Sydney Siege Sparks Muslim Call for Calm Amid Backlash Fear (BBG)
  • Oil Spilling Over Into Central Bank Policy as Fed Enters Fray (BBG)
  • Biggest LBO of 2014: BC Partners to acquire PetSmart for $8.7 billion (Reuters)
  • Tremble algos: the SEC has hired... "QUANTS" (WSJ)
  • When the bubble just isn't bubbly enough: There’s $1.7 Trillion Locked Out of China’s Stock Rally (BBG)
  • Oil price slide roils emerging markets, yen rises (Reuters) - may want to hit F5 on that
  • Libya Imposes Force Majeure on 2 Oil Ports After Clashes (BBG) ... and will resume production in days
  • Amid Crisis, Pimco Steadies Itself (WSJ)

What's The Biggest Loser Since Oil Prices Peaked?

Since oil prices peaked in June this year, there is one clear loser (according to the narrative) - Russia. Russian stocks have dropped 41% during that time and the entire Russian market capitalization is now only 60% of Apple! And while Greece's recent demise has it close to being the worst performer of the year, it's not quite. However, since oil peaked in June, both Russia's and Greece's epic demise is trumped by another stock market index...

Frontrunning: December 12

  • Oil slide hits European stocks, safe-haven assets sought (Reuters)
  • IEA Cuts Global Oil Demand Forecast for 4th Time in Five Months (BBG)
  • Cue constant pro-Abe propaganda out of Japan: Japan’s Secrecy Law Takes Effect as Abe Seeks Fair Vote Coverage (BBG)
  • As if it has a choice: Japan’s GPIF Bets on Abenomics-Driven Recovery (WSJ)
  • Heather Capital: How a $600 Million Hedge Fund Disappeared (WSJ)
  • Senate Panel Votes to Authorize U.S. War on Islamic State (BBG)
  • Japan’s 28 IPOs in 11 Days Give Abe a Lift as Startups Boom (BBG)
  • U.S. authorities face new fallout from insider trading ruling (Reuters)
  • Greek Stock Rout Means ASE Is 2014 Worst After Russia (BBG)