As Bill Clinton once famously stated; "What is....is" and while the current market "IS" within a bullish trend currently, it doesn't mean that this will always be the case. This is why, as investors, we must modify Clinton's line to: "What is...is...until it isn't." That thought is the foundation of this weekend's "Things To Ponder." In order to recognize when market dynamics have changed for the worse, we must be aware of the risks that are currently mounting.
Jefferies, Deutsche Bank, and now Citi and JPMorgan are all facing a collapse in trading volumes as Bloomberg reports the two banks brace for a fourth straight drop in first-quarter trading revenues - a period of the year when the largest investment banks typically earn the most from that business. “It sounds like more bloodletting on Wall Street,” warns one analyst, as Citi expects trading revenue to drop by a “high mid-teens” percentage.
"If I ask you what’s the risk in investing, you would answer the risk of losing money. But there actually are two risks in investing: One is to lose money and the other is to miss opportunity. You can eliminate either one, but you can’t eliminate both at the same time. So the question is how you’re going to position yourself versus these two risks: straight down the middle, more aggressive or more defensive. I think of it like a comedy movie where a guy is considering some activity. On his right shoulder is sitting an angel in a white robe. He says: «No, don’t do it! It’s not prudent, it’s not a good idea, it’s not proper and you’ll get in trouble». On the other shoulder is the devil in a red robe with his pitchfork. He whispers: «Do it, you’ll get rich». In the end, the devil usually wins. Caution, maturity and doing the right thing are old-fashioned ideas. And when they do battle against the desire to get rich, other than in panic times the desire to get rich usually wins. That’s why bubbles are created and frauds like Bernie Madoff get money." - Howard Marks
With the market more bullishly positioned, more euphoric, and more levered than almost any time in history, it is perhaps worth "pondering" what some of the risks to this optimism could be...
People often ask me about the inefficient markets of tomorrow. Think about it: that’s an oxymoron. It’s like asking, “What is there that hasn’t been discovered yet?” The markets are greatly changed from 25, 35 or 45 years ago. The bottom line today is that there’s little that people don’t know about, understand and embrace. How, then, do I expect to find inefficiency? My answer is that while few markets demonstrate great structural inefficiency today, many exhibit a great deal of cyclical inefficiency from time to time. Just five years ago, there were lots of things people wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole, and as a result they offered absurdly high returns. Most of those opportunities are gone today, but I’m sure they’ll be back the next time investors turn tail and run. Markets will be permanently efficient when investors are permanently objective and unemotional. In other words, never. Unless that unlikely day comes, skill and luck will both continue to play very important roles.
Some of the most respected prognosticators in the financial world are warning that what is coming in 2014 and beyond is going to shake America to the core. Many of the quotes that you are about to read are from individuals that actually predicted the subprime mortgage meltdown and the financial crisis of 2008 ahead of time. So they have a track record of being right. Does that guarantee that they will be right about what is coming in 2014? Of course not. In fact, as you will see below, not all of them agree about exactly what is coming next. But without a doubt, all of their forecasts are quite ominous. The following are quotes from Harry Dent, Marc Faber, Mike Maloney, Jim Rogers and ten other respected economic experts about what they believe is coming in 2014 and beyond...
Even if you don't have a Nobel Prize, it should be glaringly apparent to anyone with half a brain - the financial markets have been soaring while the overall economy has been stagnating. Despite assurances from the mainstream media and the Federal Reserve that everything is just fine, many Americans are beginning to realize that we have seen this movie before. We saw it during the dotcom bubble, and we saw it during the lead up to the horrible financial crisis of 2008. So precisely when will the bubble burst this time? Nobody knows for sure, but without a doubt this irrational financial bubble will burst at some point. Remember, a bubble is always the biggest right before it bursts, and the following are 15 signs that we are near the peak of an absolutely massive stock market bubble...
In Feb 2007, Oaktree Capital's Howard Marks wrote 'The Race to the Bottom', providing a timely warning about the capital market behavior that ultimately led to the mortgage meltdown of 2007 and the crisis of 2008 as he worried about "carelessness-induced behavior." In the pre-crisis years, as described in his 2007 memo, the race to the bottom manifested itself in a number of ways, and as Marks notes, "now we’re seeing another upswing in risky behavior." Simply put, Marks warns, "when people start to posit that fundamentals don’t matter and momentum will carry the day, it’s an omen we must heed," adding that "the riskiest thing in the investment world is the belief that there’s no risk."
It is hard to believe that the end of the year is fast approaching. This weekend's list of things to ponder covers a range of issues that caught our attention this week. Will the economy continue to grow, are stocks under owned, what about Fed - rising credit risk (and collapsing credit risk premia) and the question of "when or if to taper?" These are all important questions that all investors must answer as the new year rapidly approaches.
While the specter of the debt ceiling debate continues to haunt the halls of Washington D.C. it is the state of retail sales that investors should be potentially focusing on. While the latest retail sales figures from the Bureau of Economic Analysis are unavailable due to the government shutdown; we can look at other data sources to derive the trend and direction of consumer spending as we head into the beginning of the biggest shopping periods of the year - Halloween, Thanks Giving (Black Friday) and Christmas. The recent downturns in consumer confidence and spending are likely being exacerbated by the controversy in Washington; but it is clear that the consumer was already feeling the pressure of the surge in interest rates, higher energy and food costs and stagnant wages. As we have warned in the past - these divergences do not last forever and tend to end very badly.
"When things are going well people become greedy and enthusiastic, and when times are troubled, people become fearful and reticent. That’s just the wrong thing to do. Another mistake that people often make is that they compare themselves with others who are making more money than they are and conclude that they should emulate the others’ actions ... after they’ve worked. This is the source of the herd behaviour that so often gets them into trouble... As long as human nature is part of the investment environment, which it always will be, we’ll experience bubbles and crashes.... People talk about the wisdom of the free market – of the invisible hand – but there’s no free market in money today. Interest rates are not natural. They are where they are because the governments have set them at that level. Free markets optimise the allocation of resources in the long run, and administered markets distort the allocation of resources. This is not a good thing..." - Howard Marks
Confidence leads to spending; spending strengthens the economy; and economic strength buttresses confidence. It’s a circular, self-fulfilling prophesy. Confidence can also fuel market movements. Belief that the price of an asset will rise causes people to buy the asset... making its price rise. This is another way in which confidence is self-fulfilling. But, of course, as Oak Tree Capital's Howard Marks points out, the confidence that underlies economic gains and price increases only has an impact as long as it exists. Once it dies, its effect turns out to be far from permanent. As the economist Herb Stein said, "If something cannot go on forever, it will stop." This is certainly true for confidence and its influence. As far as confidence today, Marks notes significant uncertainty is one of the outstanding characteristics of today’s investing environment. It discourages optimism regarding the future and limits investors’ certainty that the future is knowable and controllable. In other words, it saps confidence. This is a major difference from conditions in the pre-crisis years. In fact, Marks warns he doesn't remember when his list of 'uncertainties' was this long...
Two minutes of rational thinking in the world of irrational omnipotence in which we live. Howard Marks explains that we’re in a low return world. Refuse to recognize that and demand traditional returns, without recognizing that the market simply may not accommodate you, at your own risk - "The market is not an accommodating machine... it will not 'give' you consistently high returns. Blindly accepting more risk to get the returns you 'expect' or 'deserve' is a big mistake."
While stocks could continue to climb higher that does not mitigate the underlying risks. In fact, it is quite the opposite. It is very likely that we are creating one, or more, asset bubbles once again. However, what is missing currently is the catalyst to spark the next major correction. That catalyst is likely something that we are not even aware of at the moment. It could be a resurgence of the Eurocrisis, a banking crisis or Japan's grand experiment backfiring. It could also be the upcoming debt ceiling debate, more government spending cuts, or higher tax rates. It could even be just the onset of an economic business cycle recession from the continued drags out of Europe and now the emerging market countries. Regardless, at some point, and it is only a function of time, reality and fantasy will collide. The reversion of the current extremes will happen devastatingly fast. When this occurs the media will question how such a thing could of happened? Questions will be asked why no one saw it coming.
Everyone seems to have an opinion on asset valuation these days, even commentators who are normally quiet about such matters. Some are seeing asset price bubbles, others are just on the lookout for bubbles, and still others wonder what all the fuss is about. Simply put, our financial markets weren’t (and still aren’t) structured to be efficient, and consistently rational behavior is a pipe dream, history shows over and over that the idea of a stable equilibrium is deeply flawed. Policies focused on the short-term tend to exacerbate that cycle, as we saw when decades of stabilization policies and moral hazard exploded in the Global Financial Crisis. Maybe if macroeconomics were rooted in the reality of a perpetual cycle - where expansions eventually lead to recessions (stability breeds instability) and then back to expansions - we would see more economists and policymakers balancing near-term benefits against long-term costs. Or, another way of saying the same thing is that mainstream economists should pay more attention to Austrians and others who’ve long rejected core assumptions that are consistently proven wrong.