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A Matter of National Security
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Shifting Risk to the Innocent
Uncle Sam, You Sly Devil!
Is the US Facing a Cash Crunch?
Gaming the US Tax Payer
Manufacturing a Minsky Melt-Up
Hitting the Maturity Wall
An Accounting Driven
Market Recovery

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POSTS: Tuesday, 01-04-2011
Last update:  01/05/2011 5:14 AM Postings begin at 5:30am EST
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TIPPING POINTS
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Prof Rogoff, along with Carmen Reinhart of the University of Maryland, has done research that suggests that a country’s growth potential slows significantly once its debt-to-GDP ratio goes above 90 per cent. The US is currently at about 93 per cent.

Companies and banks in Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Italy have huge refinancing needs. Of the €1,300bn ($1,734bn) of bank debt that is estimated to need refinancing in the next three years, €700bn will come from banks in those nations, according to Deutsche Bank. Italy and Spain dominate, with about €280bn each. Deutsche highlights five banks with the highest proportion of debt maturing in the next three years: Greece’s Piraeus Bank and EFG Eurobank, Anglo Irish Bank, Italy’s Cassa Depositi & Prestiti, and Spain’s Bankinter. .

“Whether you get a problem largely depends on confidence.

That is why the situation in the US is more fragile if Europe blows up again.”

 

“Kicking the can down the road only works for so long. You kick it less distance each time. And then things become unstable."

El-Erian -PIMCO

 

Let's check out the latest overlays of the three valuation indicators I routinely follow. Here are links to some background explanation.

To facilitate comparisons, I've adjusted the Q Ratio and P/E10 to their arithmetic mean, which I represent as zero. Thus the percentages on the vertical axis show the over/undervaluation as a percent above mean value, which I'm using as a surrogate for fair value. Based on the latest S&P 500 monthly data, the index is overvalued by 62%, 43% or 38%, depending on which of the three metrics you choose.

I've plotted the S&P regression data as an area chart type rather than a line to make the comparisons a bit easier to read. It also reinforces the difference between the two line charts — both being simple ratios — and the regression series, which measures the distance from an exponential regression on a log chart.

The chart below differs from the one above in that the two valuation ratios (P/E and Q) are adjusted to their geometric mean rather than their arithmetic mean (which is what most people think of as the "average"). The geometric mean weights the central tendency of a series of numbers, thus calling attention to outliers. In my view, the first chart does a satisfactory job of illustrating these three approaches to market valuation, but I've included the geometric variant as an interesting alternative view for P/E and Q.

 

1. US Municipal Bankruptcies Head to Center Stage

Look for Detroit and at least one other city in Michigan to go bankrupt. Also look for increasing discussions regarding bankruptcy from Los Angeles, Miami, Oakland, Houston, and San Diego. Those cities are definitely bankrupt, they just have not admitted it yet. The first major city to go bankrupt will cause a huge stir in the municipal bond market. Best to avoid Munis completely.

2. Sovereign Debt Crisis Hits Europe

The ECB and EU are hoping things return to normal and they can deal with things more calmly in 2013. The markets will not wait. Expect a new Parliament in Ireland to want to renegotiate whatever horrendous deal Prime Minister Brian Cowen agrees to. Portugal and Spain will need bailouts. The surprise play in Europe will be Italy, a country not on anyone's front burner. Italy will come under intense credit market pressure, and when it does the whole Eurozone comes unglued. Europe's banks are insolvent and ECB president Jean-Claude Trichet will have a choice, haircuts or massive printing.

3. Cutbacks in US Cities and States

With Republican governors holding a majority of governorships, with Republicans holding a majority in the House, and with a far more conservative Senate, there is going to be little enthusiasm for increasing aid to states. There will be some aid to states of course, but nowhere near as much as needed to prevent cutbacks. Expect to see a huge number of layoffs and/or cutbacks in services. Cutbacks in cities and states will be a good thing, but that will counteract other gains in employment. The unemployment rate will stay stubbornly high.

4. Public Unions Under Intense Attack

Public unions will face increasing hostility, not only in the US but also the Eurozone and UK. Look for Congress to consider legislation to kill collective bargaining. If it passes, the president would veto it. The problem however will not go away. Cities and states in distress will increasingly outsource every contract they can.

5. China Overheats, Multiple Rate Hikes Coming

China, everyone's favorite promised land, has a hard landing. China will grow at perhaps 5-6% but that is nowhere near as much as China wants, or the world expects. Tightening in China will crack its property bubble and more importantly pressure commodities. The longer China holds off in tightening, the harder the landing.

6. Property Bubble Bursts Wide Open in Australia and Canada

Australia, having largely avoided the global recession runs out of luck this time around. Look for the Australian economy to fall into outright recession. Look for Canada to slow dramatically as its property bubble pops. The US property bubble is much further progressed, by years, than Australia, Canada, and China. This matters immensely.

7. US Avoids Double Dip

The tax cut extensions and the payroll tax decrease will keep the US out of recession. However, growth estimates are still too high. The tax cut extensions do nothing more than maintain the status quo while the payroll tax deduction is just for a year. Most will use it to pay down bills. Look for GDP at 2.0-2.5%. That is the stall rate.

8. Year That Something Matters

For the global equity markets, this will be the year that something matters. Certainly nothing mattered in 2010, and optimism for equities is at extreme levels. I have no targets other than a suggestion this is an extremely poor time to invest in darn near anything.

9. Decoupling in Reverse

I do not think any countries decouple in 2011, including China. However, on a relative basis, the US could. Europe is a basket case, China is overheating, Australia is headed for recession, the UK is going nowhere, and 2.0-2.5% growth in the US just might look damn good compared to anything else. Bear in mind far more than 2.0-2.5% US growth is priced in, but on a relative basis that is likely to smash the performance of the Eurozone, Australia, and Canada. China may grow 5.0-6.0% but with 10% priced in, overweight China, the emerging markets and the commodity producing countries is a serious mistake. Actually, equities are a mistake in general and so are commodities. Finally, falling commodity prices would be US dollar supportive and supportive of a decreasing US trade deficit as well, especially if grain prices stay high while oil sinks. Should grains stay firm while other commodities sink, it would help boost US GDP.

10. US Dollar to Strengthen

Look for the US dollar to strengthen because of the net effect of all the above issues.

Relative Performance Examples

On a relative but not absolute basis I like the US. On a currency adjusted basis I especially like Japan. Here is a hypothetical example: Should foreign equities drop 20% and the US dollar strengthen 10% the loss to US investors would be 30%. Should Foreign investors buy US equities and face a loss of 20% and a 10% rise in the dollar, they would see a 10% loss. US investors of course would see the full 20% loss. Japan looks attractive in nominal terms but strengthening of the dollar compared to the Yen could negate some if not all of that. Equities in general, with the possible exception of Japan do not look attractive.

Miscellaneous Issues

The order in which the above themes play out could be important. If a muni crisis hits the US before a sovereign crisis in the Eurozone and a slowdown in China, the dollar may not initially perform as expected. Similarly, if the US strengthens more than expected in the first quarter while Europe and China stagnate, another leg down in treasuries may be in store with the US dollar quickly blasting higher.

I have no firm conviction for gold, silver, or US treasuries other than gold is likely to hold its own and then some should the ECB decide to print its way out of this mess.

US treasuries are now in no-man's-land dependent on the order of things and the reactions of foreign central banks as the crisis plays out. Seasonally, treasuries are generally weak until June (think tax purposes). However, there are so many factors now, including Fed purchases, it is hard to estimate.

2010 was a lull in the global economic crisis. Don't expect 2011 to be the same. Something, indeed many things, are likely to matter in 2011.

The Western public debt crisis is growing very rapidly under the pressure of four increasingly strong limitations:


.the absence of economic recovery in the United States which strangles all public bodies (including the federal state (10)) accustomed to an easy flow of debt and significant tax revenues in recent decades (11)

. the accelerated structural weakening of the United States in monetary, financial as well as diplomatic (12) affairs which reduces their ability to attract world savings (13)

. the global drying up of sources of cheap finance, which precipitates the crisis of excessive debt in Europe’s peripheral countries (in Euroland like Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, ... and the United Kingdom as well (14)) and is starting to touch key countries (USA, Germany, Japan) (15) in a context of very large European debt refinancing in 2011

. the transformation of Euroland into a new "sovereign" that gradually develops new rules for the continent’s public debts.

These four constraints generate varying phenomena and reactions in different regions / countries.

The second half of 2011 will mark the point in time when all the world’s financial operators will finally understand that the West will not repay in full a significant portion of the loans advanced over the last two decades. For LEAP/E2020 it is, in effect, around October 2011, due to the plunge of a large number of US cities and states into an inextricable financial situation following the end of the federal funding of their deficits, whilst Europe will face a very significant debt refinancing requirement (1), that this explosive situation will be fully revealed. Media escalation of the European crisis regarding sovereign debt of Euroland’s peripheral countries will have created the favourable context for such an explosion, of which the US “Muni” (2) market incidentally has just given a foretaste in November 2010 (as our team anticipated last June in GEAB No. 46 ) with a mini-crash that saw all the year’s gains go up in smoke in a few days. This time this crash (including the failure of the monoline reinsurer Ambac (3)) took place discreetly (4) since the Anglo-Saxon media machine (5) succeeded in focusing world attention on a further episode of the fantasy sitcom "The end of the Euro, or the financial remake of Swine fever" (6). Yet the contemporaneous shocks in the United States and Europe make for a very disturbing set-up comparable, according to our team, to the "Bear Stearn " crash which preceded Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy and the collapse of Wall Street in September 2008 by eight months. But the GEAB readers know very well that major crashes rarely make headlines in the media several months in advance, so false alarms are customary (7)!

 

Confidence Game

Ben Bernanke, Timothy Geithner, Barack Obama, the Wall Street banks, and the corporate mainstream media are playing a giant confidence game. It is a desperate gamble. The plan has been to convince the population of the US that the economy is in full recovery mode. By convincing the masses that things are recovering, they will begin to spend and buy stocks. If they spend, companies will gain confidence and start hiring workers. More jobs will create increasing confidence, reinforcing the recovery story, and leading to the stock market soaring to new heights. As the market rises, the average Joe will be drawn into the market and it will go higher. Tax revenues will rise as corporate profits, wages and capital gains increase. This will reduce the deficit. This is the plan and it appears to be working so far. But, Catch 22 will kick in during 2011.

The United States and its leaders are stuck in their own Catch 22. They need the economy to improve in order to generate jobs, but the economy can only improve if people have jobs. They need the economy to recover in order to improve our deficit situation, but if the economy really recovers long term interest rates will increase, further depressing the housing market and increasing the interest expense burden for the US, therefore increasing the deficit. A recovering economy would result in more production and consumption, which would result in more oil consumption driving the price above $100 per barrel, therefore depressing the economy. Americans must save for their retirements as 10,000 Baby Boomers turn 65 every day, but if the savings rate goes back to 10%, the economy will collapse due to lack of consumption. Consumer expenditures account for 71% of GDP and need to revert back to 65% for the US to have a balanced sustainable economy, but a reduction in consumer spending will push the US back into recession, reducing tax revenues and increasing deficits. You can see why Catch 22 is the theme for 2011.

The government’s confidence game is destined to fail due to Catch-22. Will the consensus forecast of a growing economy, rising corporate profits, 10% to 15% stock market gains, 2 million new jobs, and a housing recovery come true in 2011? No it will not.

By mid-year confidence in Ben’s master plan will wane. He is trapped in the paradox of Catch-22. When you start hearing about QE3 you’ll know that the gig is up. If Bernanke is foolish enough to propose QE3 you can expect gold, silver and oil to go parabolic. Enjoy 2011. I don’t think Ben Bernanke will.