Tuesday, January 27, 2009

How can you be all-in if you still got chips

No Pimco’s Bill Gross, the Fed is not All-In

I’m going to address an issue here that I think its crucial for the US macro picture going forward

If you look the last FOMC statement and minutes the Fed is not yet on full blown panic mode yet, they still say stuff like "the Committee expects inflation to moderate further in coming quarters" "disinflationary effects" "further moderate reductions in inflation expectations caused the staff to reduce its forecast for both core and overall PCE inflation" "Several participants observed that monitoring measures of inflation expectations for signs of disinflationary dynamics would be especially important going forward."

This indicates that the D word(deflation) is still feared, the fed still got hopes the market itself wont jump(or at least that they could exacerbate) in deflationary expectations because of the careful fed language. The fed is somewhat still in some kind of denial phase with regards to deflation

The reason I say the fed is not all in is because they still haven’t gone "Bernanke 2002", if you read the "Deflation, making sure it doesn’t happen here" speech just by noticing the language(starting by the no apologies D word title) and things like "U.S. dollars have value only to the extent that they are strictly limited in supply" "By increasing the number of U.S. dollars in circulation, or even by credibly threatening to do so, the U.S. government can also reduce the value of a dollar in terms of goods and services" "We conclude that, under a paper-money system, a determined government can always generate higher spending and hence positive inflation."

This "US dollar can became garbage at our will" attitude we still haven’t seen from the current Federal Reserve.

In Bernanke’s book "Essays on the Great Depression" he points out an interesting fact which I think its relevant for monetary policy today, countries that went OFF the gold standard(thus removing limitations to print more money) in the 30’s didn’t necessarily saw an increase in their money supplies right away(it only happened later), in fact in the first 2 years the countries on gold and off gold showed little difference in the collapse of their M1s, yet the amount of deflation was smaller in the countries that were OFF the gold standard.

Bernanke theorizes that the reason for that was going off the gold standard(through a devaluation, ending convertibility of paper money) initiated inflationary expectations in the economy, as people get worried the government is about to print or devalue more, which lead people to spend early and spend often.

I believe the same dynamic will be necessary to get the US out of this deflation trap, the fed has hinted sometimes they are printing money with statements like "we will fund our purchases with creation of bank reserves" but Bernanke as recently as Jan 13 lse speech went out of his way in a speech in London to explain why lots of the fed moves are not inflationary and how the people who accuse the fed of money printing are wrong, he explained how they would unwound all the facilities and cut down the monetary base. He still being a apologetic money creator

That’s not how a guy whos all in sounds like. We need to remember the fed is a bureaucracy, they where a bit slow to get in the massive easing, they are also being a bit slow to tell the world "US dollars are garbage, we’ve got printing presses and we will not be afraid of using them", they only have began thinking about an inflation target as a way to make people worried about money printing, ultimately I think they will go there(there meaning, managing expectations) big time because deflationary mindsets will keep sweeping the nation as gas drops to $1 and the output gap stays large and the huge credit bubble gets unwound, so even if some ultra deflation bears are right that banks wont lend and the money printing wont be multiplied through the financial system, all it takes for deflation to stop is for people to get worried dollars will be printed out of existence, money velocity will go up and inflation will come back, the austrian economist portfolio would benefit from this

The next FOMC statement should be interesting because I think they will more and more start hinting they want people worried about inflation but I think the key indicator is the Core CPI(the core PCE as well), when Ben made his speech in 2002, the yoy core CPI had tanked for more than 12 months by then, there was a War hurting comsumer spending, fiscal packages had failed, there was no hope the fed could try lean on, they had already agreed there was a train coming and had to do something, today the core cpi is only starting to tank and is still quite positive y-o-y, there still some hopes attached to the large fiscal package, once they get the final confirmation by a collapsing core CPI we will see the fed mouthpieces(like Bernanke was in 2002) go out and make ‘speeches’ on how dollars will be printed and if inflation comes ‘so be it’, they will try to get a false image the fed doesn’t care about inflation to get Joe and Jane to buy goods and services and I think the fed will succeed. As for right now the fed is still too hopeful deflation will be quick or that the stimulus will work or the commodity parabolic move is still fresh in their memories(what they refer as 'significant uncertainty remains'), reality will change their minds

Monday, January 19, 2009

Warren E Buffett

It's Official: Warren Buffett is Losing His Touch

First let me say that I consider Buffett the best stock picker in history, he’s no doubt richer than any of his critics. I usually think the folks who say Buffett is losing his touch as morons without a clue. But the facts have changed; a simple example is Buffett’s investment in Bank of America. During Q2 2007 Buffett bought 8,700,00 shares of BAC at an aprox avg of $49, he rode them all the way down to
Aprox avg of $30 in Q3 2008 when he sold 3,700,000 shares. He still has 5m shares but Q4 data is not out yet, I would not be surprised to find out he sold out all his position at a large loss. We heard the Buffett minions claiming he saw the crisis coming, yeah right, except he didn’t. All he had was a few unkind words about derivatives in 2003, he had no clue of the implications of a housing bust would have in his portfolio and the bad shape of the US banking system.

The two largest positions at Berkshire Hathway are Coke and Wells Fargo. Buffett has about $10b invested in a company (WFC) who, contrary to what the optimists say, did plenty of bad lending and is trading at unreasonable valuations compared to its peers. I don’t care who manages Wells Fargo, the US economy is bigger than any CEO, specially one who lies about the quality of his performance. Buffett is also long USB, who’s tanking along with the banking sector. Buffett not having sold WFC is like his mistake of not having sold KO during the 90’s stock bubble, banking will be an utility business from now on
The ROE(return on equity) of banks should lag significantly of the average US corporation for the next 10 years, their stocks should lag the averages as well, there is very little reason to be long of banking for the long-run, it doesn’t matter who is managing, you are just giving up better more profitable opportunities out there that are less levered(Not to mention the risk of outright nationalization of certain US banks which will send shares of ALL banks plunging as the market demands lower multiples for bank shares)

Buffett also made investments in GE and GS as an indirect bet they were too big to fail(although he doesn’t admit that, he only claims the GS ‘this or that might happen but they will still be around’ which I take as a cowardly way of saying they are too big to fail), while the preferreds will probably survive its likely his warrants in GS will expire worthless, in GE that risk is also significant

And then there is AXP, I have outlined some reason on why I speculate the US credit card lending industry is in for a nasty hard landing, I haven’t done much research on AXP lending standards but I would not be surprised if they are WFC type liars as well.

You just can’t take the word of management and even if you do in this cycle FICO scores are getting meaningless. Any company who’s levered long US Credit is in risk of blowing up, so my point is that I don’t know if AXP(the common stock) can survive but neither does Buffett, Buffett uses a Value At Risk type mentality in order evaluate some companies which I believe is very dangerous in this environment.

It goes along the lines ‘these guys had a moat in the last 20-30 years, this will likely continue forever’(I can already hear the buffettologists taking issue with this simplification but its essentially the method he uses), this type of mindset lead people to lending to US Real Estate on the expectation that home prices couldn’t fall. The credit card lending industry had the winds of a credit bubble (allowing debt consolidation helping people to pay off their credit cards and helping the ponzy economy to grow) and asset bubble(providing people with means for servicing, paying off credit card debt and allowing the ponzy economy to grow) on their backs for decades, all of that now is gone and my point is Buffett doesn’t have any idea what kind of landing the credit card industry will have. I don’t either, although I speculate it will be a very hard one. But for Buffett to use the type of rear view mirror looking ‘Value At Risk’ as his ‘margin of safety’ and not having sold out AXP before was too late shows he is not sharp these days

Again, Buffett is a hell of a micro analyst. He can analyze company specific issues like no one else can but he has a hardcore belief that you cant predict macro events(why he doesn’t tell that to my banker) or outside the company changes(like regulatory change) and this has lead him to hold 31%(his 2nd largest sector) of his $70B stock portfolio in Financials as of Q3 2008(on top of his financial private company portfolio which he cant sell but he could hedge) just about the time the financial bubble is bursting, he is good at changing his mind, so far he has failed to change about this one. I understand he is not a trader but the amount of fundamental change for the long-run ROE of financials has been massive yet he doesn’t seem worried, after all “they have done so well in the last 20 years”

Monday, January 12, 2009

Ben Shalom Bernanke

Ben Bernanke Is a Lunatic Paranoid Money Printer

First let me say that the title was made just to grab your attention. I actually have a good deal of respect for Bernanke even though he is wrong often,
after reading his book(most of it anyways, the labor chapters are too boring) 'Essays on the Great Depression' I have come to develop a greater deal of understanding for fed policy and specially for Bernanke's tendencies. It made me a hell of lot comfortable to keep holding my quite levered position on fed funds futures which is a bet Bernanke wont raise fed rates in 2009

Now I know what the Austrian economists think when Monetarists say the Fed was supposed to print more money in the 30's and are supposed to do the same now, 'You can't create wealth through printing of currency, otherwise we would not need to work, we would print our way to prosperity', of course they are right but even Milton Friedman acknowledged that in the book 'Money Mischief'.

Where they are wrong is that changes in the price level can affect the economy in a real way. I cannot make it more simpler than through a minimum wage(MW) example. Lets say the MW is $7 a hour, the Fed then allows deflation to take place during a recession and the price level declines by 10% a year, this means the real MW should be rising by about 10% every year and that’s how changes in the price level could affect the real wealth the Austrians are so concerned about.

If deflation is widespread persistent then at some point the top 10% of the population(the very rich) will be earning the MW, everybody else would be either out of work or breaking the law, needless to say that’s not good for the economy and consumer spending(an absurd example but it makes the point)

The MW is simply one channel of how deflation could work its way into affecting real GDP, debt deflation, liquidity traps, etc would be others.

Now how that leads to global macro trading and money making opportunities? The idea here is to understand the position Bernanke is in and realize given a choice he will choose inflation, the conclusion of his book is that during the 30's the countries that kept their currencies tied to gold and refused to devalue(US, France) had a longer and deeper depression than the countries that did just that(UK, Japan, Canada). The modern equivalent of getting off the gold standard and devaluing is 0% policy rates, quantitative easing and purchasing various assets(even private ones) by issuing electronic money. Preventing bank runs was also a factor he pointed out, although the US has succeeded in that through FDIC insurance and TARP bailouts

But whatever happens one of the few certainties we have is that the USD and higher inflation will pay part of the bill for this Credit Crisis given that its one of Fed policies to drive down the dollar(devalue) and reflate during deflationary environments

Which means betting on inflation down the road will be one of the easiest moneys one will ever make, an Austrian Economist Portfolio will look really good down the road(Long Commodities, Short 30Y TBond, Short USD, Long Canada, Brazil, Australian equities, Long Gold and Silver), the trick here is the timing, I wouldn't pull the trigger in The Great Inflation trade because the trend is down and the global recession should last at least 6 more months and there is a possibility(however small) that the Fed will blow this one and stop printing money

Since the financial bubble has burst the Velocity of Money is collapsing and if they fed doesn’t succeed in balancing the formula of Prices = Money * Velocity/Real Output widespread deflation takes place and the consequences of it will be a self-feeding collapse that will put LeeRockwell in bankruptcy faster than he launch a rant on Paul Krugman.

So instead of trying to pick a bottom here I rather way and be late to the party. If the Great Inflation arrives, I expect it to stay with us for years(and will became a huge profitable bubble mostly due the commodity factor like in the 70's) and there will be plenty of time to get in. Just look for the Treasury bull market, you could have gotten in as late as mid 2007 and still made a killing

And for those who expect a soft landing in terms of prices(Those that expect the fed will magically land inflation at 2% after the crisis is over) I have a quote from none other than Alan Greenspan commenting on how does it feel to try to generate a soft landing in the economy through monetary policy in 1994-95 tightening cycle
"It didn't felt like 'Oh, lets execute a soft landing'; it felt more like 'Let's jump off this sixty-story building and try to land on our feet'"
Mr Bernanke will need a lot of plaster

Thursday, January 8, 2009

2009 Global Macroeconomic Outlook

We have all been lied to. There was no global growth story, it was a unsustainable boom fueled by a bubble mindset that kept throwing money and credit at countries with long histories of spectacular busts such as Russia.

Even Pimco, that are usually market savvy guys, bought into a quasi-decoupling theory. The outlook for the global economy is downright awful, so bad that I will describe my current speculative positioning

Spec's Portfolio
Long SPY puts
Short WFC
Short COF(Credit card lender)
Long OSTK puts(Retailer losing money badmouthing short sellers)
Long Fed Funds Futures(they rise in value as the fed eases)
Long C 2014 bonds(A too big to fail bet)
Short C(hedge for the bonds)
Long VLO(beaten down refiner)

I'm also long two penny stocks which shall remain nameless

There will not be a Great Depression I can assure you. Anybody who's read Ben Bernanke's book 'Essays on the Great Depression' can figure out New Yorkers will be swimming in dollar bills printed by the Fed, Broadway Ave will be greener than Central Park before persistent deflation is allowed to happen

The gold exchange standard and bank runs that were so crucial to the 1930's deflation are not present due the current fiat US dollar standard, FDIC insurance and TARP bailouts. We do have a financial bust of spectacular proportions which can create deflation through the Velocity factor of a version quantity theory of money(Prices = Money x Velocity / Real GDP), so one of the most important indicators for 2009 will be the velocity of money(how often money turns over in the economy)

How much the shadow banking system collapse and the widespread fear of banks,consumers and companies and a 'Reverse Minsky Journey' will affect V and whether the fed prints enough money to offset the collapsing V is one of the most important questions for current year
I'm not optimistic about it because economists, which is pretty much the entire FOMC and Fed board, are too backward looking, they use a version of Value At Risk to measure macroeconomic risks.

They could look back in the last 20 years and think 'Velocity doesn't drop all the much in recessions, we cant risk to overprint, lets keep M1 growing at the current rate', this could lead to deflationary disasters of epic proportions because a financial bubble of this size that is bursting could lead to unforeseen consequences the past is not a good guide, we are in uncharted waters. I dont necessarily think this scenario is likely but one should monitor these kinds of tail risks because the consequences will be so large

Another very disturbing factor is the global collapse in the trade sector. I know all the economists and pundits says 'this time its different' because politicians know the damage of protectionism, they 'learned' from mistakes in the past. Where they are wrong in that the idea that free trade is good was a consensus in the US in the 1920's. That did not stop US politicians with a short sighted view to embark in protectionism so they could buy more votes. The Doha rounds failed even during one of the biggest booms in the global economy, I willing to go as far as to say there will be no significant free trade agreements(bilateral or not) in the entire world the next 10 years
The collapsing credit for the trade sector also makes more likely global trade is in for hard landing. A government can engage in protectionism by simply refusing to help importers through government credit

5 Predictions for 2009

1)The SP500 will test and break its lows
Currently investors are engaged in quasi fantasy that everything will be fine after the magical last day of Q2 ends. There is little doubt they are betting in a soft landing scenario for financial crisis which would be an anomaly
What investors don’t realize is that testing the lows is the rule not the exception

2)Emerging Markets(equities and debt) will get another round of spanking
When the US tanks EM always go with it, the decouplers were betting in a 'New World Economy' they got it wrong in 2008, they will be wrong again in 2009, if you think there is value in some EM out there will till you see late in the year. You just can't get US equities down 20%(from current levels) and sustain global risk appetite, even IF some EM will whether this downturn well the bottom line is that trading and speculations is a greater fool game and there wont be a significant sustainable rally in EM equities year, at least not before they tank again

3)The Fed will not raise rates for the entire year of 2009
Economists polls say fed raises by the middle of the year, fed funds futures are pricing a similar outcome(thus providing value for speculations). Its simply not going to happen when Velocity of money is tanking, and deflationary expectations are sweeping the nation. The FOMC minutes show how worried they are about not letting Joe and Jane delay purchases to get a bargain down the road

4)The US stimulus package will help but will NOT lead to recovery
Look at the kinds of pork they attached to TARP legislation. US politicians are pushing for the package because the US apparently needs money for the 'crumbling infrastructure', this is like giving beer to an alcoholic because he is 'chronically dehydrated'. There is little doubt that the package will prop up the numbers(such as GDP and perhaps employment) and provide some kind of help for a while but the long-term fundamentals of the economy will not improve

5)The US Credit Card industry will be blown away on how bad things will get
Which is why I'm short COF. These guys were the lenders of last resort on the credit bubble, the worst consumers maxed out their credit cards just before one of the world economic environments the industry will ever face

The US credit card lending industry has not been historically tested, they have been around for 30 or 40 years, they give credit cards to pretty much anybody who can read and write, they raise rates on consumers behind payments, ask mortgage lenders whether that is a good idea. Credit Card lending is very similar to Pay Option Arms that have destroyed all the banks that engaged on it. Of course they lend a lower amount as a % of income but the borrowers can choose to make minimum payments and get more and more underwater, they can borrow from one card to pay another one. Credit card lenders commit all the sins of bad lending yet they somehow think those principles dont apply to them because they charge a higher rate and can raise it at any time, just how squeezing borrowers even more makes the lending sounder?

To summarize I believe this is one of the most rich global macro environments for trading and speculations in many years since the imbalances are so big and yet the market is still complacent about it. Humans seem to have a 'prosperity premium' in them and are not willing to accept bad scenarios could come true

Anyone with brokerage account, internet and willingness to read bloomberg can and should profit handsomely from the existing large global imbalances in 2009