The Markets Need Psychotherapy

December 15th, 2014

“The whole idea that the stock market reflects fundamentals is, I think, wrong.  It really reflects psychology.  The aggregate stock market reflects psychology more than fundamentals.”

Robert Shiller, Nobel Prize-winning economist

Tired of low returns?  You may be a bond investor.

Bond investors have been “growing tired of low returns, the endless warnings that rates are about to rise, and constant reminders of the dangers of riskier bonds,” according to Jeffrey Matthias, CFA, CIPM of Madison Investment Advisors.

At the same time, they’ve watched the stock market continue to break new records every time there’s another sign that a central bank somewhere may buy a few bonds or lower interest rates into negative territory.

“None of us have ever lived through this kind of extreme, long-lasting suppressed rate environment,” Matthias wrote, and, as a result, those bond investors who are mad-as-hell-and-are-not-going-to-take-it-anymore have been frustrated enough to take on a lot more risk for a little more yield. Central Bank Assets

When you chase yield, you catch risk.  It’s a dangerous reaction to the yin and yang of investing – fear and greed.

“Typically, when markets are moving higher,” Matthias wrote, “most investors turn greedy and want more.  Should an investor’s more conservatively positioned portfolio produce lower returns when the market surges, the investor may regret not having taken more risk.  In contrast, should a riskier portfolio drop significantly in market value, the opposite may happen and an investor may begin to regret (his or her) decision to have invested in risker assets.  This can be accompanied by a fearful overreaction.”

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Inflation Is Too Low? Tell That To American Consumers.

December 8th, 2014

We’ve explained in the past how the federal government puts a yellow smiley face on its unemployment figures by excluding Americans who have given up looking for work and including part-time workers as if they are fully employed.

Similarly, the Congressional Budget Office estimates the cost of a tax increase or tax reduction under the assumption that the increase will have no impact on taxpayer behavior – so tax cuts have no economic benefit and tax increases produce revenue without harming the economy.CPI

So we shouldn’t be surprised that the Consumer Price Index (CPI), which measures inflation, rigs the numbers by excluding increases in the cost of food and energy.

The Federal Reserve Board’s $3.5 trillion in bond buying failed to boost inflation to the target rate of 2%, but the Fed could have accomplished its goal without buying a single bond.  All it had to do was change the method used for calculating CPI.

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Give Us Back Our Gold!

December 1st, 2014

“This is gold, Mr. Bond.  All my life I’ve been in love with its color … its brilliance, its divine heaviness.”

                                                   Auric Goldfinger

Gold prices recently hit a four-year low, while stock prices seem to hit a new record almost weekly.  So which is the better investment today?

Before answering that question, consider the latest worldwide trend.  “Repatriating” gold is becoming as fashionable as quantitative easing and stimulus spending.

Germany’s central bank started the trend last year with its decision to return some of the country’s gold home from vaults in the U.S. and Paris.  It was followed by a campaign called “Bring Our Gold Back Home,” but Germany has since backed off on plans to repatriate more gold.Gold Prices

Netherlands has already moved 122 tons of gold back home.  And Switzerland voted yesterday on its “Save Our Swiss Gold” initiative, which would force the Swiss National Bank to buy gold every time it buys euros, which it has done to curb the rise of the Swiss franc.

If the initiative were to pass, Zerohedge noted, “it will undoubtedly set off alarm bells throughout the gold market, as yet more physical gold will need to be repatriated and another sizeable, price-insensitive buyer will enter the marketplace.”

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Land of the Setting Sun

November 21st, 2014

Let’s pretend that the United States economy is a football team.  The coach calls the play.  The running back runs right up the middle and is thrown for a loss.  What does the coach do on the next play?  Run the ball up the middle for a loss.  And the play after that?  Run the ball up the middle for a loss.  And the play after that?  Run the ball up the middle for a loss.

Other teams see what’s happening to the U.S. economy.  So what do they do?  Run the ball up the middle for a loss.  In Japan, in Europe and elsewhere the losses mount.  What’s the conclusion?

  1. Running the ball up the middle every play will result in a loss, or
  2. We need to run the ball up the middle more often.

JapanThe answer, if you’re paying attention to central banks and the actions of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is, of course, B., as logic and politics rarely travel on the same highway.

Formerly the world’s number two economy behind the U.S., Japan’s future couldn’t have been brighter back in the ’80s, when “Japan Inc.” was all the rage.  Today, if there really was a Japan Inc., it would have long ago declared bankruptcy.  The “Land of the Rising Sun” has become the “Land of the Setting Sun.”

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Why It’s Called “the Almighty Dollar”

November 14th, 2014

It may be a good time to plan that European vacation.  The long-weak dollar is gaining strength again, which means you may be able to afford good food, good wine and a quality hotel if you visit the Old World.

During the Fed Reign of the past five-plus years, the dollar was like that elderly lady in the commercials who says, “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.”  Other countries tried to help by weakening their currencies, of course, but the resulting currency wars appear to have ended along with quantitative easing and now the dollar is strong and getting stronger.

Dollar Index
The good news is that the strengthening dollar will make foreign goods cheaper for American consumers (so much for boosting inflation).  American companies may also reduce prices or keep them from rising to remain competitive.

As a result, Americans will spend less on essentials like oil and will have more money left to spend on other things, which should boost the economy.  A strong dollar will also attract foreign investors to American assets, such as U.S. Treasury bonds.

The bad news is that consumer spending on imports will increase the trade deficit – in fact, it already has.  American companies that rely on exports or that have multi-national locations will be hurt.

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“It’s the Economy, Stupid.”

November 7th, 2014

In this week’s election, Democrats attempted to label Republicans as “the party of ‘no.’ ”  Instead, voters labeled Democrats as the party of no jobs, no growth and no clue.

As a political strategist for Bill Clinton, James Carville coined the now over-used phrase, “The economy, stupid.” (which more commonly appears as “It’s the economy, stupid.”).  By focusing on the economy, Bill Clinton won the 1992 presidential campaign, defeating President George H.W. Bush. barack-obama

More than 20 years later, it’s still the economy, stupid.  According to Bloomberg, “The economy was voters’ most pressing concern as they cast their ballots in the midterm election, with seven of 10 rating conditions poor, preliminary exit polls showed.”

Apparently, voters didn’t realize that 2% annual growth and a workforce participation rate of 62.7% represent an economic boom.

In a Gallup poll, climate change, the Democrats’ raison de vivre, ranked 14th out of 15 in a poll about issues that worry voters.  It finished just ahead of “race relations” and just behind “the quality of the environment” – two other big issues for Democrats.  Meanwhile, in the real world, the top voter worries were “the economy,” followed by “federal spending and the budget deficit.”

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QE RIP

October 31st, 2014

So the Federal Reserve Board has made it official.  This is the end of quantitative easing.  It’s quits for QE.  Bond buying has gone bye bye.  Quantitative easing has been eased out of existence, tapered into extinction.  The QE case is closed.

If nothing else, QE has provided us with material for more of our blog posts than any other topic (55, not including this one!), so, given that we’ll now need a new source of inspiration, we’re almost sorry to see it end. Fed Portfolio

So is this an obituary for the greatest (in terms of dollars involved, if not in results) experiment ever in monetary policy?  Should we hoist up the “Mission Accomplished” banner, pop the champagne cork and make a toast to Ben Bernanke and his brethren?

Not so fast.  There’s still an epilogue worth drafting.  Closure is needed.  This may be our last chance to take a shot at QE, so we’re taking advantage of it.

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Repeat After Me: The Economy Is Improving. The Economy Is Improving.

October 22nd, 2014

If you repeat something often enough, you may even start to believe it.

So try this phrase: “The economy is improving.  The economy is improving.  The economy is improving.”

Certainly, the U.S. Bureau of Economic Propaganda (aka, the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis or BEA) would have you think that’s the case.  The BEA initially reported growth in gross domestic product (GDP) of 4% for the second quarter of 2014.  That seemed like quite a leap from the first quarter’s -2.9% contraction, but the BEA adjusted that number to “negative growth” of -2.1%. Household Income

That’s old news, though.  Thanks to “a larger than previously estimated increase in nonresidential fixed investment,” the BEA announced in August that second quarter growth was really 4.2%.  A swing of 6.3% in a single quarter!  Well done!

But wait … there’s more.  The BEA announced in September that second quarter growth was 4.6%!  The BEA cited “growing personal consumption, private inventory investment, exports, both residential and nonresidential fixed investment, as well as local government spending,” none of which apparently existed when the BEA gave its first two estimates.

We can hardly wait for October 30, when the BEA is scheduled to report Q3 results.  Maybe by then, we’ll learn that second quarter growth exceeded 5%.  It will be interesting to find out whether Q1’s negative growth was an aberration or whether Q2’s giant leap forward was an aberration.

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More Consideration of “Considerable”

October 16th, 2014

Yes, we’ve already discussed the word “considerable” at considerable length, in relation to its use by the Federal Reserve Board in its recent policy statement.

But apparently we are on to something of a considerable size.  Maybe it was a slow news day, but The New York Times devoted an article to the Fed’s use of the word, noting that “Federal Reserve officials are looking for a new way to reassure investors that they are not ready to start raising interest rates.” 

Fed Chair Janet Yellen

Fed Chair Janet Yellen

Commenting on the “considerable time” reference in the policy statement, The New York Times article reported that an account of the meeting “suggests that officials are trying to find a new way to say the same thing.”

Think about that.  Unemployment remains high, inflation goals are not being met, the Fed is holding trillions in bonds it will eventually have to sell and the stock market is acting wobbly … but the Fed is looking for a “new way” to say “considerable.”

Fed Chair Janet Yellen could just say the Fed is not ready to start raising interest rates.  She could say the Fed is not planning to raise rates “for a long time,” which would be reassuring to investors.  Or members of the Federal Open Market Committee could go to an online thesaurus and come up with more than a dozen synonyms in seconds.

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Satan Is a High-Frequency Trader

October 10th, 2014

Satan is now firmly in control of the markets.

No, we’re not talking about Ben Bernanke, aka Edward Quince.  His time has passed.  We’re talking about a high-frequency trader who also happens to be hell’s CEO.

satanAs evidence, consider Thursday’s market plunge.  The Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) fell 334.97 points, its largest loss of the year.  The drop took place, as Zerohedge noted, after “ ‘someone’ canceled-and-replaced orders for 666 contracts 26 times in the 1130ET to 1200ET period,” after which “selling accelerated lower, no reversal, to close at the lows on heavy volume.”

The number 666 is, of course, the winning number in hell’s lottery.  To trade 666 contracts 26 times, you need a lot of capital in your account.  Most traders would avoid using the devil’s number, but someone – or, more likely, some firm – was trying to make a statement.

What could it mean?  That Satan is in charge, of course.

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