Howard Marks once wrote that being a "contrarian" is a lonely profession. However, as investors, it is the downside that is far more damaging to our financial health than potentially missing out on a short term opportunity. Opportunities come and go, but replacing lost capital is a difficult and time consuming proposition. So, the question that we will "ponder" this weekend is whether the current consolidation is another in a long series of "buy the dip" opportunities, or does "something wicked this way come?" Here are some "words of caution" worth considering in trying to answer that question.
Chart 1 proves it is crystal clear that every time the US Federal Reserve acts to "save us" from one crisis, it directly sows the seeds for an even bigger crisis in the future.
Having discussed the links between economic growth and energy resource constraints, and with the current geo-political fireworks as much about energy (costs, supply, and demand) as they are human rights, it would appear the following chart may well become the most-important indicator of future tensions...
The tyranny of models is rampant in almost every aspect of our investment lives, from every central bank in the world to every giant asset manager in the world to the largest hedge funds in the world. There are very good reasons why we live in a model-driven world, and there are very good reasons why model-driven institutions tend to dominate their non-modeling competitors. The use of models is wonderfully comforting to the human animal because it’s what we do in our own minds and our own groups and tribes all the time. We can’t help ourselves from applying simplifying models in our lives because we are evolved and trained to do just that. But models are most useful in normal times, where the inherent informational trade-off between modeling power and modeling comprehensiveness isn’t a big concern and where historical patterns don’t break. Unfortunately we are living in decidedly abnormal times, a time where simplifications can blind us to structural change and where models create a risk that cannot be resolved by more or better modeling! It’s not a matter of using a different model or improving the model that we have. It’s the risk that ALL economic models pose when a bedrock assumption about politics or society shifts.
Size matters, it would seem, in the world of elite hedge fund managers. George Soros' Quantum Fund had its 2nd-best year on record, adding $5.5bn (22%) to the pound-breaking billionaire's horde and has now shifted above Ray Dalio's Bridgewater fund as the most successful hedge fund of all time. As The FT reports, since inception in 1973, Quantum has generated almost $40bn. Four other funds including Tepper's Appaloosa, Mandel's Lone Pine, and Klarman's Baupost also made more than $4 bn for their investors. Since they were set up, the top 20 hedge funds have made 43 per cent of all the money made by investors in more than 7,000 hedge funds.
With just a tad more than three weeks left in the year it is time to start focusing on what 2014 will likely bring. Of course, what really happens over the next twelve months is likely to be far different than what is currently expected but issuing prognostications, making conjectures and telling fortunes has always kept business brisk on Wall Street.
"What keeps us up at night? Well I can’t speak for the others, having spoken too much already to please PIMCO’s marketing specialists, but I will give you some thoughts about what keeps Mohamed and me up at night. Mohamed, the creator of the “New Normal” characterization of our post-Lehman global economy, now focuses on the possibility of a” T junction” investment future where markets approach a time-uncertain inflection point, and then head either bubbly right or bubble-popping left due to the negative aspects of fiscal and monetary policies in a highly levered world. ... investors are all playing the same dangerous game that depends on a near perpetual policy of cheap financing and artificially low interest rates in a desperate gamble to promote growth. The Fed, the BOJ (certainly), the ECB and the BOE are setting the example for global markets, basically telling investors that they have no alternative than to invest in riskier assets or to lever high quality assets. “You have no other choice,” their policies insinuate.... Deep in the bowels of central banks research staffs must lay the unmodelable fear that zero-bound interest rates supporting Dow 16,000 stock prices will slowly lose momentum after the real economy fails to reach orbit, even with zero-bound yields and QE." - Bill Gross
If public pensions don't delay and start plugging their funding holes now, they will need to contribute just under $200 billion per year over the next 30 years, amounting to 1.2% of GDP and 8.8% of state and local tax revenues. If funds wait a decade, the impact per year explodes to $325 billion over 30 years and will "cost" 1.2% of GDP and 12.2% of tax revenues. But the most likely, and worst case scenario, is if pension funds do nothing at all, "let the machine run its course", then the economic damage is unquantifiable as low asset returns inevitably cause lower income through benefits after assets are fully depleted.
Investors who believe that history has lessons to teach should take our present concerns with significant weight, but should also recognize that tendencies that repeatedly prove reliable over complete market cycles are sometimes defied over portions of those cycles. Meanwhile, investors who are convinced that this time is different can ignore what follows. The primary reason not to listen to a word of it is that similar concerns, particularly since late-2011, have been followed by yet further market gains. If one places full weight on this recent period, and no weight on history, it follows that stocks can only advance forever. What seems different this time, enough to revive the conclusion that “this time is different,” is faith in the Federal Reserve’s policy of quantitative easing. The problem with bubbles is that they force one to decide whether to look like an idiot before the peak, or an idiot after the peak...
Now that the prevailing mainstream media consensus has finally caught up with our "tinfoil" view, which for years was mocked by the same media, usually on an ad hominem basis, and even the Fed has realized (confirmed by the latest Jackson Hole symposium) it is in a trap as it understands it has to end the market's dependency on monetary heroin but has no idea how to do it without in the process undoing five years of central planning, we have seen some spectacular opinion flip flops take place. Which aside from the occasional headscratcher such as David Rosenberg going bull-retard (we once again wonder: just what does Ray Dalio serve in his cafeteria?) have been almost exclusively from optimistic to pessimistic, or as we call it, realistic. And as the case may be, such as with John Mauldin and his latest missive to potential clients, A Code Red World, a very deep and red shade of pessimistic.
Albert Edwards: "Only the brave can react to what they see and leave the markets. The global macro looks an appalling mess and even more importantly, long-term equity investors can find nothing worth buying. For equity investors we are closer to 2007 than 2001 as the vast bulk of the equity market, as represented by the median PE, PB or Price/Sales, is expensive. The US median price/sales ratios is at a record high, indicating that there is practically nothing cheap in the equity market left to buy."
A week ago, we first reported that Bridgewater's Ray Dalio had finally thrown in the towel on his latest iteration of hope in the "Beautiful deleveraging", and realizing that a 3% yield is enough to grind the US economy to a halt, moved from the pro-inflation camp (someone tell David Rosenberg) back to buying bonds (i.e., deflation). This was music to Bill Gross' ears who in his latest letter, in which he notes in addition to everything else that while the Fed has to taper eventually, it doesn't actually ever have to raise rates, and writes: "The objective, Dalio writes, is to achieve a “beautiful deleveraging,” which assumes minimal defaults and an eventual return of investors’ willingness to take risk again. The beautiful deleveraging of course takes place at the expense of private market savers via financially repressed interest rates, but what the heck. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and if the Fed’s (and Dalio’s) objective is to grow normally again, then there is likely no more beautiful or deleveraging solution than one that is accomplished via abnormally low interest rates for a long, long time." How long one may ask? "the last time the U.S. economy was this highly levered (early 1940s) it took over 25 years of 10-year Treasury rates averaging 3% less than nominal GDP to accomplish a “beautiful deleveraging.” That would place the 10-year Treasury at close to 1% and the policy rate at 25 basis points until sometime around 2035!" In the early 1940s there was also a world war, but the bottom line is clear: lots and lots of central planning for a long time.
Presented without commentary (if confused - wink wink Mario Draghi - Ray Dalio will explain).
Moments ago Mario Draghi's nightmare just got worse following a release by the ECB overnight that loans to the private sector dropped 2 percent from a year earlier. That’s 16th monthly decline and the biggest since the start of the single currency in 1999. "The data shows a depressing picture for the credit market," said Annalisa Piazza, an analyst at Newedge Group in London. "Although the ECB made clear that the ECB cannot do much to boost credit to the corporate sector, we expect the current picture for loans to remain one of the key reasons behind expectations of a prolonged period of accommodation." Translated: all monetary transmission mechanisms in Europe are completely broken, which in turn feeds the feedback loop of the deleveraging depression, leading to even less demand for loans, more deleveraging by banks ad lib.
With yields down for 11 of the last 13 days, 10Y Treasuries are trading at their lowest interest rate since August 13th. The 5Y yield has collapsed 45bps since September 6th when the 10Y briefly broke above the 3.00% Maginot Line. This is the largest absolute decline in interest rates in a 13-day period since the summer of 2011 and the US downgrade... it seems Ray Dalio might be on to something...