Thursday, April 16, 2009

Be Careful What Bandwagon You Jump Onto

The Financial Times printed excerpts of an interview with Duncan Niederauer, the Chief Executive of NYSE Euronext. (See “NYSE chief cautious over March rally”, In the interview he stated that the recent rally in the stock market was being driven by short-term traders trying to take advantage of the high volatility that currently existed in the financial markets. He continued that the high trading volumes achieved where concentrated in a “handful of stocks.”

The high volatility in the financial markets has resulted from the high degree of uncertainty that plagues the market with regards to what is going to happen to the economy, the financial system and whether or not the programs initiated by the Obama administration will work. The stocks that have been moving the most have been those that have gotten a lot of publicity over the last six months or so and in which there is a lot of uncertainty connected with the unknown future of the companies they are associated with.

Niederauer goes on to say “large institutions and other long-term investors” have basically sat on the sidelines during this little run-up. The short-term traders do not need to take an extended view of prospects and therefore attempt to make money on the ups and downs of the market. Thus, it is hard to use the recent uptick in the stock market as a longer-term indicator of the economy with a lot of confidence at this point. He adds that when the large institutions and other long-term investors come back into the market the trading volumes will become larger and will be more consistently there.

And, why should the longer-term investors come back into the market at the present time. A piece of evidence against jumping in right now is the bankruptcy of mall owner General Growth Properties, Inc., which is recorded as one of the largest real-estate failures in the history of the United States. The cloud over the commercial real estate sector of the economy has been approaching for some time now and this news seems to be just the first of many that will follow.

Also, Capital One Financial, one of the largest issuers of credit cards in the United States, just announced writedowns that have exceeded the unemployment rate, an interesting relationship if you ask me. It seems like this is an indicator of how bad things are when credit card charge offs exceed the unemployment rate but I don’t see any necessary correlation between the two. Anyhow, the expectation is for credit charge write offs to continue to rise as home foreclosures and personal bankruptcies continue to rise indicating more pain in the future. Personal bankruptcies have risen almost to the pre-2005 level, the time when the bankruptcy laws changed.

In addition, although people keep contending that the housing market is getting firmer, housing starts continue to show a substantial weakness. Housing construction in March fell to an annual rate of 510,000 units, the second lowest level on record. This total was almost 50% below the level of starts attained in the same month last year.

Building permits also fell 9 percent from February to an annual rate of 513,000, which is down from 932,000 last year. This number provides some indication of the amount of future construction that will take place.

And, the amount of foreclosures on personal property continues to rise. It has been reported that foreclosure filings increased 9 percent in the first quarter of the year with filings rising 17 percent from February to March. The area of personal finance continues to be unsettled. And, this is not even considering the rising level of small business foreclosures that seem to be rising monthly.

There is little good news to encourage the large or longer-term investor coming from other areas in the financial sector. We still have to see the results of the “stress test” on the banking system. It seems that Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geithner has messed up another public relations opportunity, this time over the announcement of the results of the stress test or the fact that there will be no announcement of the results or that there will be a limited release of information. For an administration that supposedly was going to see to it that the government operated with more transparency and openness, the Treasury Department and its leader have certainly not contributed to the confidence that it is on top of the situation.

Then there is the concern that the banks have not reported accurately the value of their assets in order to obtain TARP funds. (See my post There is seemingly no reason why we, or anybody, should take seriously the financial reports coming out of the banking system, including the quarterly reports being released this week by major financial institutions!

We further read that “Fitch Ratings is warning investors in complex loan investment funds about the practice by their managers of accounting for loans at par, regardless of market value of the loan.” (See “Fitch alert on accounting for CLOs”, Fitch is concerned that managers are attempting to get around rules on how they account for collateralized loan obligations (CLOs) by encouraging investors to consent on having certain restrictions removed so that they can mark assets up to par. In early March, Moody’s warned the market that there would be a review of ratings in response to changes in its rating assumption, including an increase in expectations of the default rate among leveraged loans. In February, Standard & Poor’s warned investors that the debt issued by CLOs could be at greater risk of losses than they realize if only a few companies default.

And, there is more!

The problem is that there is too much debt around. Debt loads have to be worked off and in some way reduced. Of course, one way to reduce debt loads is to inflate away the real value of the debt which is what Bernanke and the Obama administration are trying to do. Otherwise, debt has to either be paid down or written down as Capital One is doing.

A helpful suggestion for government action is to provide money to write down the principal of mortgage loans rather than help troubled mortgagees to get interest rates on the loans reduced. This would have a more stunning effect on home owner performance than would trying to put people to work or to reduce interest rates or to inflate away the debt. It would also probably be cheaper. Pouring money into the banks has not worked! Why not try something else to reduce the debt problem?

Whatever is done, time is going to have to pass. Large investors and longer-term investors will not come back into the stock market until they see that the debt issue is passing and that people, consumers, have their balance sheets more in control. Until then, the stock market will just be a traders’ market. So don’t trust market swings one way or another. Focus on what the real problem is.

No comments: