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Posts Tagged ‘debt’

So do you think that we are still in a recession? According to the agency that dates the starting and ending of recessions, it has been over for a long time. The National Bureau of Economic Research stated today that the recession that began in December 2007 actually ended June 2009. It has been referred to as the Great Recession because it is the longest recession (18 months) since the Great Depression (43 months).

So great! The NBER states we are out of the woods. Let me ask you a question – Is the recession over in your world? Do you feel better off than you did over a year ago? Keep this in mind when it comes to economic numbers – numbers can be manipulated and interpreted in many different ways. It is very easy to misrepresent with numbers – just remember what the government does with the unemployment report each month as a case in point.

Statistically you could say we are not in a recession. However, ask the people who have been laid off, facing or faced foreclosure, dealing with over-indebtedness, etc. if the recession is over in their lives. Statistics say one thing and reality says another. At the end of the day, I don’t think that the Great Recession of 2007 is going to get the press it deserves.

However, these favorable statistics do make for good political sound bites.

    State of the Stock Market

I would state that this is an important week for the stock market. The market has bounced back nicely in September and is at a 4 month high. Further, it has also risen past some key levels. However, it also has done so on very light volume which is not the sign of a healthy market. If the market starts a significant decline from these levels, I would not automatically assume it is just a pullback. I would take it seriously.

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Why hasn’t the economy recovered? Why are there still issues? This week I want to give you an economics lesson. If you can get an understanding of economic cycles, you can get a sense of where we are today.

We can get some insight by taking a look at how a normal economic cycle works. A normal economic cycle goes through 5 stages. The economic cycle starts at the bottom with a recession. Then you start a recovery that leads to a period of prosperity. When the period of prosperity hits a peak, a period of contraction occurs. During contraction, the prosperity period (economic growth) starts to slow down. If the contraction is severe then the slow down becomes economic loss. Economic loss leads to the next stage – recession. The recession acts as a detoxification period. The Government intervenes and then the recovery starts again which leads to a period of prosperity. The economy has been doing it that way for decades.

During a normal economic cycle, the government is effective in providing solutions. The government can intervene, fix things, and shorten the time it takes to get back to economic growth. In order words, the problems that created the recession can be easily fixed.

If we are not in a normal cycle, the cycle has grown much larger, meaning that it takes longer to move from stage to stage. This type of economic cycle is full of structural problems. For instance, the debt feuled prosperity period for this economic cycle was much larger and because of that the downturn is much larger. If that circle gets pushed far enough out, then the economic cycle could result in a much worse scenario like a depression or hyper inflation. It is an economic cycle that has gotten out of balance.

When you get into an abnormal economic cycle, you find the economy has structural problems. Said another way, it is the structural problems that create the abnormal economic cycle. With our current scenario, an irony exists. The very thing that created the growth in our country is the very thing that is creating the problem – DEBT. We were fueled and are being destroyed by the same thing. That creates more and more structural problems. A debt fueled recession or worse is the toughest thing to fix because in an abnormal economic cycle the Government cannot just fix things. They are ineffective as we have witnessed over the past few years.

The problem is only fixed through the destruction of debt. Either the debt is paid back or someone takes a loss. Since the government refuses to allow this to happen, the circle gets bigger and bigger pushing real recovery off into the future.

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There is no question that seeing a positive sign in front of the employment numbers is an encouraging sign.  It has been a very long time since that has occurred.  On Friday of last week, the Department of Labor announced that 166,000 jobs were created last month.  As always, let’s drill down into the numbers and look at the real story.  In order to get on the road to strong economic recovery, we need to start seeing a creation of 250,000 to 300,000 jobs each month.  In fact, we need to see those numbers for a very long time just to get the millions of unemployed workers back into the workforce.

Of the 166,000 jobs created last month, 48,000 were temporary hires by the government in order to take care of the census.  Then there is my favorite government accounting methodology which is the birth/death ratio where the Government “estimates” the number of people who were hired and were not counted in the employment survey.  It is always dangerous to give politicians the license to estimate.  They “estimated” 81,000 jobs were created.  This leaves us with roughly 37,000 that were full time hires.  Temporary hiring is better than nothing at all.  Although any positive number is a welcome sight, this is not a solution to the longer term problem. 

There are a few other items worth noting.  I have written in weeks past that I felt we are in a strong deflationary environment.  Deflation, as you might recall, is an economic phenomenon that causes prices of almost everything to decrease.  Along with deflation, we do have some undesirable inflationary pressures.  Most people are not aware that the cost of oil is now $86.34 a barrel (as I write).  It continues to slowly creep up.  Of course, this ends up being reflected at the gas pump.  The other thing worth noting is the rise in interest rates.  Rising interest rates in a debt-plagued environment is not a good thing, especially when we still have an ongoing foreclosure crisis were people desperately need to refinance at lower interest rates. 

It has often been noted that 4% on the 10 year treasury bond yield is a level that you want to stay below because of its effects on mortgage rates.  As of this morning, we are dangerously close to hitting that level.  The current level is 3.98% as interest rates are soaring upwards this morning.  Yet, all of these issues face the stock market and it looks like no one will be satisfied until the Dow can hit 11,000.  So, once we arrive at that level (19 points away) do we break out the party hats?  We would only if it is sustainable.  The market would need super human powers to sustain these levels with these headwinds.

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How does the market keep going up when we are racking up all of this debt?  How can the market be positive with a shaky future of trillions upon trillions of dollars of debt?  Well the key word has always been in the future.  That big debt problem has always been looked upon as a problem that our kids are going to have to contend with.  

As long as the Government continues to finance the deficits, everything will be OK.  What if we are getting to a point where financing debt becomes the problem?  Well, I see it becoming a problem in 2 phases.  The first phase has to do with our potential lenders.  In the past, other countries have been willing to lend to us.  Today, they are demanding higher interest rates for loaning the US money.   The second problem occurs when even higher interest rates do not even matter.  A serious loss of confidence has occurred.  We just cannot get enough money borrowed to cover the problem.
 
I think that last week we saw phase 1 occur for the first time.  Last week, we had 3 big treasury offerings.  The demand to buy our treasury bonds was very weak.  As a result, we started to see interest rates climb.  Rising interest rates in a debt-filled world is problematic.  For one thing, this has an indirect effect on mortgage costs.  In order to lessen the severity of the foreclosure crisis which has a direct effect on whether or not the real estate markets ever bottom, interest rates need to stay down and not rise.
 
One other interesting development is that investors are being paid more for holding treasuries than in corporate bonds.  You see this in the interest rate swaps market.  This signals that investors feel more confident and that they are taking less risk by holding corporate bonds rather than those of the Government.
 
One of the downsides of this healthcare bill passing is the publicizing of the additional financial burden this is going to create in the future.  This brings the reality of our trillions of dollars of debt to the fore-front.  Don’t for a minute believe that this will cut the deficit.  The CBO’s analysis is performed using government accounting and “estimates.”   When has the Government ever gotten an estimate correct?   Then you have Greece showing us what our future more than likely looks like.  All of that gives investors a reality check and makes them think twice before loaning more to the government.   
 
Watch the interest rate on the 10 year treasury bond.  Below 4% we are fine.  Above 4% creates a dicey environment.  As I write, we are dangerously close that level. 
Incidentally, the Government has to raise 1.6 trillion dollars to cover the short-falls for the year.  That is on top of the 2 trillion that needs to be refinanced this year.  
 
On a Lighter Note…
How about this for a vote of confidence for the politicians?  Since 1897, a year after the Dow Jones started, 90% of gains came on days when Congress was out of session.  This body of research also looked at how investments would have performed while investing in the days that Congress was in session and out of session – The out of session investments strategy had investment returns 100 times greater than when Congress was in session.
 
 

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Every intervention into our life by this government creates a new and uncharted course.  Big government and an ever increasing debt load on our country.  The absolute arrogance of this government to think that they can tinker with the future of our country in this manner and that everything will be just fine.  In the good old days, you really couldn’t see through the charades.  Politics were played behind closed doors.  Today, they are going to rob you blind right in front of your face.

It is a joke to think that these politicians are going to take the numbers from the Congressional Budget Office as reality.  Once these numbers came out last week declaring that this healthcare reform bill will reduce the deficit, there was a swing in the NO votes to YES.  Something that you need to know is that these estimates are based on fairy tale assumptions and in no way reflect reality.  It is the ultimate insult to intelligence that these politicians will use the CBO numbers as validation for voting on this healthcare reform bill.  One politician referred to being “giddy” in reference to them. 

OK, I will refrain from ranting about this abduction of our future and address the ultimate question.  How will this affect the markets?  It is so tough to say.   We have never lived in a time where there is so much agenda attempting to control.  You really have to look at the price levels of the stock market, separate yourself from the news, and see how investors feel. 

We haven’t talked about price levels in a while.  Price levels are important to watch because they tell you how the market is reacting to risk.  So, the current price level on the S&P 500 to watch is 1150.  This is the line in the sand.  As long as the stock market stays above 1150, then that signifies that the markets are OK with our debt-laden world.  However, the inability for the S&P 500 to stay above that price level indicates problems on the horizon. 

Last week, the S&P 500 confidently climbed over that level.  This week will test that confidence level.  I have learned (the hard way) one simple fact.  You can read the news and look at the world around us and draw conclusions as to what should be happening in the stock market.  You can look at all of the debt accumulating and the debt that we have yet to take on (see healthcare reform) and come to the conclusion that this is not sustainable and not good for the stock market.  However, the market might or might agree with that conclusion today.  Tomorrow might be another story. However, today the markets are focusing on other things.

 So, we have reached the line in the sand, which is 1150 on the S&P 500, and will watch to see how the stock market reacts in this environment.  Today is a new day in America as we continue to go through uncharted waters.  It started a few years ago as the Government hijacked capitalism using the financial crisis as the ultimate excuse.  Today, this agenda filled Government has just taken one more huge step.  This continues to create enormous risk in the markets.  However, it will not matter until the moment that the markets wake up to reality.

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If I were a banker, I would dread Friday’s.  It is the day of the week that the federal regulators walk in and shut banks down.  This past Friday there were 4 more banks in Texas, California, Illinois, and Florida bringing the total bank closures for 2010 up to 20.  This is on the heals of 140 being closed in 2009, 25 in 2008, and 3 in 2007.

The troubling part of this whole process is that last year banks were able to push the problems aside as the Government allowed them in short to hide these bad loans on their books through an accounting adjustment.  In other words, all of those toxic bank killing loans are on the books and have not been dealt with. 

It gets better.  The FDIC gets to pick up the tab each week through the FDIC insurance fund.  Currently, the fund has $21 billion left.  They estimate $100 billion of losses will have to be covered over the next 3 years.  Oh, don’t worry – they have a credit line that can be tapped up to $500 billion dollars through the Treasury. 

Don’t forget, a massive foreclosure problem still lingers as we start a huge wave of adjustable rate mortgages re-setting over the next 3 years.  In 2009, we were in the calm of the storm as the first wave of adjustable rate mortgages which were sub-prime based were finishing up with their adjustments.  This next wave which represents Alt-A and Prime mortgages is much bigger.  In addition, the fun is just getting started in the commercial space where corporations are having to refinance debt on commercial properties and are having no luck because no one is lending money. 

John Mauldin writes this week in his www.frontlinethoughts.com newsletter “Bank loans are being written off at staggering rates. Over 700 banks (I think that is the figure I saw) are officially on watch by the FDIC, with more banks being closed each week.  There is at least $300-400 billion in losses on commercial real estate waiting to be written down. Housing foreclosures are rising and hundreds of billions have yet to be written off.”

He goes on to write that in January, “Foreclosures rang up at 4300 and Notice-of-Defaults at 5100 per day nationally.”

Think through with me what this could look like.  This last Friday’s 4 bank closures cost the FDIC approximately $1 billion.  That’s an average of $250 million per bank.  If we continue at this pace, we could be looking at 100 more bank closures this year.  That could be as much as $25 billion.  That would deplete all of the FDIC money and force the FDIC to borrow from the Treasury before year end. 

This can’t have a happy ending. 

This week the Sovereign Debt Problem will be front and center as Greece attempts to borrow money through a bond offering.  As I wrote last week, this could be a real problem in the event that Greece defaults.  Also this week we have the unemployment numbers that will be released.  It is a critical number each month.  Watch the risk!

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Have you heard of CIT Group?  CIT is a company that lends money to about 1 million small and medium size businesses and has about 40 billion dollars in debt. They are a pretty big player in the lending business, a company mired in debt, a company on the verge of collapse. 

In the event they fail, there could be some pretty significant repercussions throughout the financial system.  Of course, they are not on the same scale as the Lehman Brothers. However, with a financial system on shaky ground, who knows what would result in the collapse of a large lender.  So, a company in trouble should be no big deal.  After all, President Obama is in the bail-out business and hasn’t had a good bail-out in a while now. 

No, not this time.  Poor little CIT doesn’t meet the too big to fail test.  President Obama stated that it had set “high standards” for granting aid to companies and leaving private investors as the one alternative to avoid collapse.  Wait a minute, excuse me while I settle down from that good laugh I had while writing. 

Since when does this administration have standards?  They still think that GM is a good business model.  So will CIT go into bankruptcy if Big Brother doesn’t lend them a hand?  Of course not, because Big Brother is going to lend them a hand.  The secret is that they are going to do it behind closed doors.  Yes, this is what is happening to our taxpayer dollars.  Roughly 7 of their big bondholders are in talks to cough up 3 billion or so to place another band-aid on the festering wound. 

Where do you think that these bondholders get their money?  With the banking system pretty much nationalized, the money easily funnels from the Government through these banks to these troubled companies.  Obama can keep his “high standards” and no problems to deal with in the financial sector.  They have been running the same system with AIG since that major entity was nationalized.

Price Levels

Let’s take a look at price levels. Last week I warned that things were looking bleak for the market.  As soon as I wrote the warning and hit send, the market turned around and put in a big week.  So does that mean we are out of the woods in the near-term?  Well, last week was the one week out of the month that we have options expiration.  Options expiration can be a real dramatic week either positively or negatively.  It is misleading to see the results of options expiration as what is really occurring with the market.

The next significant price level we are looking at is 956.  The S&P 500 has entered into a price level “zone” (over 940) and now we will really see what this market is made of.  Any strength carrying the S&P 500 over 956 could indicate that we are heading towards 1000.

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