The Fed Goes Long

April 18th, 2014

Few investors today would consider investing in long-term Treasury bonds.

The yield curve, which measures the spread between interest rates for short-term and long-term bonds, is not as flat as it has been in recent years, but that’s faint hope for investors.

A 10-year Treasury is still yielding less than 3% interest.  If the Federal Reserve Board achieves its goal of pushing inflation up to 2%, the real interest on a 10-year bond purchased today will be under 1%, payable at maturity.yield-curve-investwithalex

If the Fed overshoots its goal and inflation moves higher, which is highly likely, a 10-year bond would produce a negative yield.  What’s the probability that inflation will remain lower that the current yield on a 10-year Treasury over that entire period?

The U.S. has not had a period when inflation remained below 3% for a 10-year period since the days of the Great Depression.  During the period of recession then slow growth that we’ve experienced since the financial crisis began in 2008, inflation has remained low and the Fed’s focus has been on fighting deflation.  But when the economy improves and normal growth returns, inflation is likely to move significantly higher, as higher inflation is a byproduct of a healthy economy.

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Shining a Light on Dark Pools

April 11th, 2014

“Unless there are some changes, there’s going to be a massive crash, a flash crash times ten.”                                            Ron Morgan and Brian Levine, Goldman Sachs

As recently as 2005, dark pools made up 3% to 5% of trading activity.  Today, it’s 12%.

Dark pools are like fraternal clubs, but without the secret handshake.  No one talks about them, so they’re a mystery to the world at large.  Many were unfamiliar with dark pools until this past week, when The Wall Street Journal announced that Goldman Sachs is planning to close its Sigma X dark pool, which is one of the industry’s largest and darkest pools.  (Goldman has not confirmed that action.)Dark Pools 2

So what is a dark pool?  It’s a stock exchange where trading takes place in the “dark,” which means the size and price of orders are not revealed to other participants.

To some extent, dark pools are a reaction to high-frequency trading (HFT), which we discussed last week and in other previous posts.  When trades take place in the dark, algorithmic traders can’t take advantage of them.

Theoretically, if dark trades, which are typically high volume trades, took place in the light of day, high-frequency traders would amplify the impact of such trades and potentially cause another flash crash.  Or worse.

But on Wall Street, of course, nothing is ever that simple.  There’s more to dark pools than that.  Consider some of the questions that dark pools raise:

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Good Market Rigging vs. Bad Market Rigging

April 4th, 2014

“The markets are rigged. … These firms make their money by front-running trades. They’re using their speed advantage to buy shares first and then selling them back at a higher price. The result is higher prices for investors in those shares. That’s rigged.”                                                                                                                                      Michael Lewis

Based on the Federal Reserve Board’s actions of the past five years, you may have thought that “market rigging” was a good thing.  After all, a great deal of wealth has been created from the Fed’s bond buying – although, granted, almost all of it went to those who were already wealthy.

But suddenly, high-frequency trading is being charged with rigging the markets and it’s creating a bit of a furor.  Apparently the Fed is responsible for good rigging and HFT is responsible for bad rigging.  Consider this week’s HFT-related news:

  • Michael Lewis, author of Moneyball, was interviewed by “60 Minutes” in advance of publication of his book, Flash Boys, in which he makes the case that HFT rigs the markets against the small investor.

  • There was the heavy backlash from those who disagree with his conclusion … that is, the people who make money off of high-frequency trading.  Supporters contend that HFT has created liquidity and reduced the cost of trading for small investors.  In other words, the market is rigged against small investors, but it costs them less to make a trade.  Yippee!!
  • Then there’s The Wall Street Journal’s announcement this week that HFT is being investigated by the FBI – not the Securities and Exchange Commission (although it is participating in the investigation), the FBI.  You know, the guys who investigate bank robberies, money laundering, drug cartels and the Mafia.  And now you can add high-frequency trading to that list.  Apparently, insider trading was already taken. Read the rest of this entry »

Think Like a Rat

March 28th, 2014

Experiments show that if you put rats in a maze and give them a jolt of electricity when they go the wrong way, they will eventually go the right way.

Apparently, humans may not be that smart.Two white laboratory rats in a maze

OK, we’re smarter than rats.  We know better.  But we believe what we want to believe.  And right now, a majority of those who invest believe the “trend is our friend.”

We forget that what goes up must come down, regardless of how many bonds the Fed buys.  It’s a scary world and no amount of irrational investor confidence can keep the market aloft forever.

In the first decade of the new millennium, we lived through two difficult bear markets, each of which chopped stock prices nearly in half.  The bear market of 2000 to 2003 was caused by the irrational belief that tech stock prices moved in only one direction.  The bear market of 2007 to 2009 was caused by the irrational belief that housing prices moved in only one direction.

So here we are just five years removed from the last bear market and investors are acting as though stock prices move in only one direction.  Investors have already forgotten that bubbles burst.

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Translating Fedspeak

March 21st, 2014

While the week’s biggest news has taken place in Russia, Ukraine and China, it’s the news out of the Federal Reserve Board’s Federal Open Market Committee that’s most in need of translation.

The Fed regularly uses language that no one understands, because if America’s taxpayers really knew what’s been happening, they’d totally freak.  Keep that in mind and proceed with caution as we attempt a translation of Fedspeak from new Chair Janet Yellen’s first press conference:

“ … the FOMC’s outlook for continued progress toward our goals of maximum employment and inflation returning to two percent remains broadly unchanged.”

The dots are moving and we’re not achieving the results we expected, but you won’t hear it from me. Yellen 2

“Unusually harsh weather in January and February has made assessing the underlying strength of the economy especially challenging.”

The economy still stinks, but we’re going to blame it on the weather.

The unemployment rate, at 6.7 percent, is three‐tenths lower than the data available at the time of the December meeting.  Further, broader measures of unemployment such as the U6 measure, which includes marginally attached workers and those working part‐time, but preferring full‐time work, have fallen even more than the headline unemployment rate over this period.  And labor force participation has ticked up.

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Fundamentally Flawed

March 14th, 2014

Imagine if the outcome of a football game depended more on the weather than on the talent of the players.

Weather, indeed, can have an impact and should, but its role is usually to test the talents of the players, not to be the primary factor in the outcome.  When it is the primary factor, anything can happen.  In such cases, would you put money on the game?

The weather is not the number one factor affecting the performance of the stock market these days, but neither is the talent of the players – that is, the fundamental performance of publicly held companies.

In recent years, The Federal Reserve Board has held sway over the market’s performance via quantitative easing, although under former Chair Ben Bernanke, it was somewhat more predictable than the weather.AUDJPY

Now, with tapering under way, that may change (we’ll see, as many expect plenty of bond buying ahead).  Yet other world events may replace QE in determining the performance of the market.  That means potentially greater volatility than we’ve experienced in the easy money era.

It doesn’t take much to affect today’s global economy, especially when the impact of events is amplified by high-frequency trading.  Consider, for example, the impact of the falling yen and Australian dollar on the S&P 500.

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We’re All Debtors Now

March 7th, 2014

You’ve probably heard that corporate America is swimming in cash.  Something like $4 trillion worth of it.  And once corporate America starts spending it, the economy will boom again, jobs will be created, GNP will soar and the stock market will boom ever higher.

Corporate cash is the good news.  Corporate debt is the bad news.

While cash is at record levels, corporate debt now exceeds the level it was at in 2008 and 2009.  In case your memory is really short, that’s when America was wondering whether its financial system would survive.Corporate Debt

But temper your nostalgia for those bad old days.  When we say “exceeds,” we mean that corporate debt is 35% higher than it was then.

Net debt – what you get when you subtract cash from total debt – has been climbing steadily for American companies since 1998, as the chart shows.  It doesn’t mean corporate America is insolvent (not yet, anyway), but it does have nasty implications for future corporate growth, profitability, unemployment and income growth.

Given all of that cash on hand, some are making heady predictions about accelerating capital expenditures.  Goldman Sachs’ David Kostin predicted that capex spending will grow 9% in 2014, compared with 2% growth in 2013.

He may be right, given the need to replace aging and outmoded equipment, but a prediction is only a prediction.  And more capex spending will mean less cash for paying down corporate debt.

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Embrace the Bailout, Reduce the Federal Debt

February 28th, 2014

Finally, the U.S. Treasury Department has figured out a way to reduce the federal debt – by giving money away.

That may not make sense, but keep in mind that we’re talking about the federal government.  And that means that money isn’t just given away; there are strings attached, unless you’re a preferred government contractor or an expert in Medicare fraud.

Bailouts

So consider this shocker.  Fannie Mae is scheduled to make a $7.2 billion payment to the U.S. Treasury next month and, when it does, the total payments from Fan and Fred will add up to $192.5 billion, exceeding the $187.5 billion they received from taxpayers.

Granted, a 3% profit over five years isn’t really a profit, but we’re talking about the “toxic twins” here.  And their payments are scheduled to continue, much to the chagrin of Fan and Fred shareholders.  They can just get in line, though.
That’s not the only government bailout that’s been profitable – the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) required a $250 billion investment for troubled banks, but brought in more than $272 billion, a profit of about 9%.  AIG’s bailout was even more lucrative, bringing in $22 billion on an investment of $152 billion, for a 15% return.

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Mission Not-Quite Accomplished

February 26th, 2014

Remember when the announced goal of quantitative easing (QE) was to reduce the unemployment rate to 6.5%?

It’s now 6.6% and heading down.  So can we expect QE to finally end?MW-BS355_CIVPAR_20140110090655_MG

Not really.  While new Fed Czar Janet Yellen talks about continuing tapering, many believe that tapering will stop and some believe she may reverse direction and increase the rate of bond buying.  Even if The Fed continues to cut back bond purchases by $10 billion a month, it will still take more than six months for QE to end.  Minutes of the Federal Open Market Committee’s January meeting, which were released this week, suggest that the final taper would take place in October 2014.

More specifically, the minutes say, “Several participants argued that, in the absence of appreciable change in the economic outlook, there should be a clear presumption in favor of continuing to reduce the pace of purchases by a total of $10 billion at each FOMC meeting.  That said, a number of participants noted that if the economy deviated substantially from its expected path, the Committee should be prepared to respond with an appropriate adjustment to the trajectory of its purchases.”

Tapering aside, does anyone really think the unemployment rate is really decreasing?

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Economic Stagnation of Olympic Proportions

February 21st, 2014

Russian President Vladimir Putin is a busy man.  He’s found time to prop up Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, negotiate a face-saving chemical weapons deal with President Obama and support violence against Ukrainians, all while overseeing the construction of the most expensive Olympic Village in the history of the games.

The Olympic Village at Sochi had a projected cost of $12 billion.  The actual cost was $50 billion.  So no more complaining about The Big Dig.  It could have been worst.

PutinAnd, like The Big Dig, all that money failed to buy quality construction.  Stories abound of shoddy construction and faulty work.  The Olympic Village is more like a Potemkin Village.

At the Olympics, color, pageantry and the world’s best athletes draw the television cameras, while a few hundred kilometers away, the Ukrainian government, with help from the Russian government, is killing its people.  This week, violence in Ukraine was the worst it’s been since the breakup of the Soviet Union.

As with Syria, the U.S. is leading from behind.  While the European Union has at least announced sanctions, the U.S. is only considering sanctions.  President Obama denounced Ukraine violence “in the strongest terms,” but talking is the weakest action.

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