Liquidity is not solvency

Apparently this is not a very well understood concept among the financial elite. Or perhaps they understand it all too well and are milking every incentive and easing measure for all of the salary, stock options and bonuses they can provide.

Not much has truly changed

Other than transferring an enormous amount of risk from the financial system in to the hands of central banks and governments, the underlying fragility of the financial system remains. Further, because the lenders of last resort are now burdened and their arsenal of financial ammunition near empty, there are not many options for the next economic hiccup.

With both US equities and bonds expensive by most measures, the logical alternative for most value conscious investors is to search for value in other asset classes: emerging markets, commodities, foreign exchange and real estate in distressed markets. But these options don’t come without risks of their own as their fates are tied to that of the US dollar (read more below).

With a great rally comes a greater upset

The last 7.5 years have been very generous to equity and bond investors. Perhaps too generous if current valuations are of any indication. What many are not prepared for based on current sentiment readings is a sustained downturn. Yet at the same time expectations of interest rate hikes by the Federal Reserve continue to rise (as they have in fits and bursts since jaw boning about such tightening began in 2013).

When rates rise, lending conditions tighten. And as that happens margin levels shrink, leverage is reduced as the cost of holding positions rises. This means that most of the time a series of rate hikes, as is being priced in to Fed Funds Futures, is the beginning of the end for modern bull markets in equities.

Yet stocks don’t seem to have received the memo. And they usually are last. 10 year Treasury Bonds, however, have seen yields rise from a paltry 1.3% to nearly 1.75% over the last few months. This may be more than just smoke signals as there are many foreign sovereign investors lightening up on Treasury Bond positions over the course of 2016, including China.

King Dollar’s mighty move

The US dollar has been rallying as of late on interest rate expectations as well. This has knocked down many commodities, outside of the energy sector, and caused renewed pressure on foreign currencies. Dollar strength should be watched carefully. If the dollar continues to rally (the dollar index is now testing 97) then we may see a renewal of equity selling as rate hike fears begin to permeate the US stock market.

Fears of the Fed are foolish

They say don’t fight the Fed. But what if the Fed is all talk? Over the last three years, there’s been a lot of talk of higher rates, even normalization. But what we have after all that talk is one lonely rate hike that is almost a year old now. The market seems to key in on every word every Fed official says, almost as if their words were seen as valuable insights.

But if each speaker’s rate forecast, economic forecasting track record and previous speeches are carefully examined the inconsistencies and inaccuracies accumulate. My opinion is that many of these officials, while they probably mean well, don’t have the requisite tools to forecast something as complex and intricate as the US economy. Why? Because no one does. Such tools do not exist.

But one thing is certain…

With a track record as dismal as Fed officials seem to have, their forecasts and banter about tightening should be taken with nothing more than a grain of salt. They don’t have a magic ball  and they can’t see in to the future much more than any other market participant, economist or statistician.

These are the same minds that brought us such failed monetary experiments as quantitative easing, which had the effect of redistributing middle class wealth to the already very wealthy, and bank bailouts which enabled more systemically reckless gambling.

As if flooding the system with credit would resolve the underlying structural solvency problems that our financial system and our government suffer from (hint: it made these issues worse by failing to address them in any meaningful way).

In conclusion, and I’m talking to you Mr. Market, let’s try not to take the hot air too seriously. After all, the people making it don’t seem to recognize the difference between liquidity and solvency.

Where is the Japanese economy headed?

With deflation continuing despite long-term zero interest rate policy, how does the new Japanese government plan to expand its efforts to revive economic growth and lower unemployment?

Is this our future?

Japan paints a very sobering picture of what the future of the United States may be facing in the future should this loose monetary policy continue unabated. Zombie banks, real estate bubbles, deflation and stock market collapses are all themes very familiar to the Japanese economy in the 1990s.

Unfortunately the circumstances are all too similar here at home. Adding to that Japan also has a large aging population that will soon outnumber its workers, akin to the situation we face in the United States. All of these reasons and more are why it’s important to pay attention to where the Japanese economy is heading.

Severe economic routs have no easy cure

Every time a massive speculative bubble implodes it leaves behind a tremendous amount of credit destruction, which in turn absorbs liquidity and pressures equities, corporate bonds and derivatives like credit default swaps. All of these circumstances potentially create deflationary forces that can shrink the capital base of a country and even create a banking panic. After all, debt is money in many modern economies. As that monetary base shrinks each unit becomes more valuable.

Mitigating the risk of severe economic contraction requires an innovative and careful approach to the underlying cause with attention to stimulating the next catalyst. Green energy is one of many appropriate catalysts for a non-speculative sustainable global economic evolution. Others include technology, infrastructure, education and health system improvements.

Japan must lead or become obsolete

For many years Japan has enjoyed the status of second biggest economy in the world, but that status is quickly fading as Japan’s export-based economy contracts in the face of a global recession and slumping industrial production.

The new government in Japan has an opportunity to reverse policy mistakes of the previous ruling party and create a sustainable economic model that is more focused on durable growth rather than speculation. This would prove to be a model for the rest of Asia if Japan can take the lead.

If Japan’s economy can not evolve and take the next step forward, China and other neighbors will gobble up the industrial production for exports that was once taken for granted.

Long term outlook for 2009

Just when a collective sigh of relief was breathed about 2008 ending and a fresh year beginning, 2009 was ushered in by the worst ever index performance in the S&P 500 and Dow Jones 30 for a January.  This was certainly not encouraging for those that believe in the adage, “So goes January, so goes the year”.

Outlook not so good

2009 promises investors and traders one thing.  Uncertainty.  While the market has declined nearly 50% peak to trough, the deleveraging process has not been completed.  Banks still have far too much common stock equity vs. assets on book.   Usually recoveries in any stock market are led by financials, so this turn around prospect seems bleak until the equity to assets ratio improves.

Inflation prospects seem to be rearing their ugly head again, as precious metals are catching a strong bid.  Oil seems to have bottomed.  Gas prices are on the rise again for consumers.  Treasury bonds are selling off.  The baltic dryships index has been recovering based on Asian demand for raw materials.  Certainly ZIRP (zero interest rate policy) has created the possibility of a new carry trade.

Recovery, what recovery?

Most predict that the US markets will tread through a slow, “L-shaped” recovery because of the serious damage to credit and stock markets, and most importantly, confidence.  Nearly $9 trillion is sitting on the sidelines in virtually zero yield short term treasuries and money markets.  That cash has yet to be deployed, and was originally retracted from equities, because of a flight to safety from confidence being lost.

The smart money is watching China and Taiwan, as the markets there have enjoyed a significant recovery from their lows and forming a bottoming pattern.  With the US dollar nearly free to borrow for currency traders, the possibility of the dollar becoming a carry trade currency is quite real.  Long term prospects for the dollar are weak so traders would not feel as though their principle loan is going to increase from dollar strength.

History in the making or repeating itself?

The possibility is striking because when Japan suffered a similar crisis in the early 90s, their currency suffered this very fate.  The carry trade in Japan caused most financial institutions to move money outside of Japan rather than invest in the country and assist its recovery.  Infact, Japanese equity markets have never recovered and still thrash around making significant lower highs and lower lows in recent months.

In my opinion, this is indicative of a significant risk to recovery in the US markets.  Already gold is more valuable per ounce than the S&P index.  Other stock markets are outperforming the US market on their recoveries.  Will the trend continue?