Archive for December, 2012

Housing Recovery Continues … Sort Of

Saturday, December 29th, 2012

For the economy to recover, the housing market must recover.  When consumers can barely pay their mortgages, they’re unlikely to spend money on other things – and when consumers don’t spend money, the economy stagnates.

There have been signs of recovery in the housing market in recent months, as we’ve reported, and now there’s more good news:

  •  The Case-Shiller Index, a composite of statistics from 20 cities, showed that housing prices rose 4.3% from October 2011 through October 2012.
  • It appears that housing prices will see their first gain for the year since 2006.
  • The National Association of Realtors’ Pending Home Sales Index is at its highest level in five years and has risen for 18 consecutive months.  At the end of October, it was at 104.8, up 13.2% from a year earlier.

While these are positive trends, statistics can be misleading.  Many current buyers are investors, who are purchasing homes to rent out, not to resell.  If investors believed that housing prices were going to continue rising, they would buy and resell.

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From Goldfinger to Groundhog Day

Friday, December 21st, 2012

Tick.  Tick.  Tick.

It’s like that scene in “Goldfinger,” where the seconds are ticking down and James Bond is trying to defuse the bomb.  He succeeds, of course, just in time.

Of course, John Boehner is not James Bond and real life is far more complicated than the movies.

Tick.  Tick.  Tick.

The real problem is not a cliff, but a chasm.  The degree of separation between Democrats and Republicans in Congress has never been wider.

On one side, President Obama and his Democratic supporters are hell-bent on raising taxes on the wealthy, which may not do much to tame the deficit, but may achieve the goal of moving toward class equality.  Democrats believe that more spending is needed to stimulate the economy, even though spending is at an all-time high and the economy is still in dismal shape.

On the other side, Republicans are dead set against raising taxes, and want spending cuts, tax reform and entitlement reform.  Medicare, Social Security and government employee pensions have created unfunded liabilities of more than $86 trillion, but the chances of working out a rational reform before the end of the year are about the same as the chances of winning Powerball.  Maybe less.

Tick.  Tick.  Tick.

Congressman Boehner’s “Plan B,” which would have raised taxes on millionaires, did not even make it to a vote.  He could go through the entire alphabet and the results would likely be the same.

Republicans in Congress would rather go over the fiscal cliff than approve taxes on the wealthy, who are viewed as job creators.

Democrats would rather go over the fiscal cliff than approve major spending cuts, as spending is viewed as an economic stimulant.

Tick.  Tick.  Tick.

Maybe Gary Cooper in “High Noon” provides a more appropriate comparison.  The clock on the wall ticks down and you know that confrontation is unavoidable and blood will be spilled.

Take a look at the futures market and you’ll see that it’s already spilling.  Last night, S&P 500 futures dropped from 1437.25 to 1391.25 as soon as Congressman Boehner’s plan was scrapped.  The value of the dollar also tumbled, as witnessed on the EUR/USD, which pairs the dollar with the euro.

Tick.  Tick.  Tick.

Another movie that comes to mind is “Groundhog Day,” where Bill Murray’s day is endlessly repeated until he gets life right.

The déjà vu is appropriate to today’s negotiations.  Consider the U.S. Macro Surprise Index, which quantifies the extent to which U.S. economic indicators exceed or fall short of consensus estimates.  This year’s path is almost identical to last year’s, when Congress put off making tough decisions by extended tax breaks for another year.

Then again, “Groundhog Day” had a happy ending.  Maybe “The Day the Earth Stood Still” is a better comparison.

Ignoring the Cliff

Monday, December 17th, 2012

The fiscal cliff beckons and, as previously predicted, a resolution is unlikely.  So let’s ignore the cliff this week and consider what’s happening elsewhere.

Viva Europe!

Last week was a good week for Europe – at least in comparison to most weeks.

The Eurozone is in a recession; unemployment continues to rise, and both industrial production and retail sales have dropped even further than had been predicted.

So where’s the good news?  Well, for starters, European leaders were given the Nobel Peace Prize.  While we’re not sure what the sovereign debt crisis has to do with war and peace, at least Europe is not the Middle East.  In what other continent do neighboring countries lend billions of dollars to each other when they have no hope of ever getting it back?

In addition, the European Union reached two agreements this week:

  • The 27 EU countries agreed to give the European Central Bank (ECB) oversight of their banks
  • They also agreed to provide Greece with an additional $64 billion in bailout funds

The ECB has not always shown sound judgment and the wisdom of pouring more money into the Greek sinkhole remains to be seen.  But the Greek funding will at least stall a default, which could potentially bring down the currency union, and the banking agreement should at least expedite decision making.

Whether the new agreements will help solve the crisis or prolong the pain remains to be seen, but at least the European Union negotiated and reached compromises.  That’s more than can be said for President Obama and the U.S. Congress.

Volatility: Europe vs. the U.S.

The inability to compromise is affecting the volatility of U.S. markets.

This week, for the first time this year, Europe’s volatility index (VIX) dropped below the U.S. VIX (16.6% vs. 16.8%).  In addition, Europe’s Euro Stoxx 50, the European equivalent of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, is easily outperforming the DJIA, with a year-to-date return of +13.5% vs. +7.75%.

Zero Hedge reported, “Are we seeing a wholesale capital outflow beginning as US’ Fiscal Cliff fears trump any year-end shenanigans potentially coming from Europe (post-Summit)? One thing is for sure, certain media individuals will have to change their tune now Europe is the year’s winner and the US becomes the center of the world’s event risk focus.”

High-Frequency Trading Is “Predatory”

Credit Suisse’s trading strategy team released a report this week called, “High Frequency Trading – Measurement, Detection and Response,” in which the firm said, as Zero Hedge put it, “that high frequency trading is a predatory system which abuses market structure and topology, which virtually constantly engages in such abusive trading practices as the Nanex-branded quote stuffing, as well as layering, spoofing, order book fading, and, last but not least, momentum ignition.”

Get Your Food Stamps!

With unemployment figures and the housing market improving, the U.S. economy is on the upswing, right?  If that’s the case, why are a record number of Americans receiving food stamps?

According to the U.S.D.A., a record 47.7 million Americans are now living in poverty.  In September, a record 607,544 Americans became eligible for food stamps.

Imagine if we were in a recession!

The Black Cloud in the Silver Lining

Friday, December 7th, 2012

All I want for Christmas is a new economy.  Ours is broken.

While there are a few positive signs that optimists can latch onto, it appears that either the country will go over the fiscal cliff or virtually no cuts will be made in the $3.8 trillion federal budget.  If nothing else, current spending should prove that Keynesian economics doesn’t work.  With a fourth consecutive deficit exceeding $1 trillion, optimists take as good news a drop in the unemployment rate from 7.9% to 7.7%.  Considering the federal spending that has taken place in recent years, wouldn’t the economy be booming now if Keynesian economics really worked?

In November, 146,000 new jobs were added, exceeding expectations of 85,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).  In spite of Sandy, according to the BLS, the unemployment rate declined to 7.7% from 7.9%.  However, these preliminary figures could be more BS from BLS.  Final BLS job figures for September and October were revised downward by 49,000 jobs.  You may recall that the BLS stats brought the jobless rate below 8% just in time for the election.  We’re betting that when final stats are released, the number of new jobs will not have to be revised upward.

Those cheered by the latest job figures can always find a black cloud in the silver lining by visiting Zerohedge.com, which correctly points out: “What is certain is that the broader mainstream media will continue to focus purely on the quantitative aspect of the report, while the real story over the past 3 years has been a qualitative one: a shift to lower paying jobs, a painfully slow (if any) rise in average hourly earnings, a transformation of the US labor pool to ‘Just In Time’ inventory as virtually all new hiring needs are met by temps, and finally a secular shift to an older labor force, as job creation in the 25-54 category since January 2009 is still negative!”

The biggest driver of the U.S. economy is consumer spending.  Over the past four years, income for the average consumer has dropped by about $4,000.  While the inflation rate has been relatively tame, prices for basics such as food and oil have increased significantly.  On top of this, going over the fiscal cliff would cost the average household nearly $3,500 in new taxes, according to BloombergBusinessWeek.

So consumers need to lift the economy while taking a $7,500 hit to their incomes and paying more for essentials.  The only way that will happen is if consumers use the federal government as a role model and spend more money than they earn.  Lots more.

Merry Christmas, indeed!