Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Some objectivity

I had several conversations over the last days with distinguished financial professionals. What I find intriguing about all of them is the unanimous feeling and need to take a gamble on market potential that depends solely on the action of a central bank, a government or a traditional attempt to take a gamble in a knowingly unstable environment simply because that's what feels like the appropriate action is. A simple approach would be just do nothing or the safe thing - right? But, regardless of that, why not bet on stimulus, emerging markets, china, sovereign debt, corporates or junk bonds...Just look at our Tepper character at Appaloosa Capital Mis-management - that clearly is his approach.

The reality, in my opinion, is very simple.
  1. Interest rates are at or near record lows
  2. Lending is primarily occurring between banks and the Treasury not small business or in real estate
  3. Stocks are pricing in perfection
  4. Mutual Funds have spend nearly all their cash
  5. Hedgefunds are shutting down or blowing up due to de-leveraging activity
  6. Cash flows do not support debts being repaid

Interest rates are at or near record lows.

Lets discuss point number one. Interest rates are at record lows and what does that mean? Well just like the prices of merchandise that has not been sold, and are lying in inventory within a very limited market - prices must come down as a mechanism of incentivizing transaction. The facts are, if some one does not want something prices have become cheaper for that thing in order to encourage them to find a reason to make a decision. In this case, rates have been brought very very low in order to try to sell a product that no viable candidate wants or needs. The people who think they need it are not viable clients since they can not afford it. It is important to understand that low prices equal low demand and urgency to sell by market participants. This translates to central banks and other financial market participants desperately attempting to sell debt money at nearly any price since there is little demand for their product - money made out of debt.

Low interest rates are occurring at precisely the most dangerous time to be handing out loans. At the time that real-estate is nearly as overvalued by my analysis as in 2005 and 2006 we are selling credit at the cheapest price available. If there is ever a recipe for disaster this is it. In nearly every case, quality  of credit and mark-ing has aggressively deteriorated since 2009 and additionally, most collateral/asset prices have not reflected inflation, with the exception of stocks, bonds and a select few commodities.

Lets talk about bonds. People seem to think that because the Fed can QE anything they want, even if its not in their charter, then bonds, especially MUNI's are safe, safe, safe. Well, do you remember auction rate securities - I believe that they were marketed as safe, safe, safe way back when - and the obligations did not add up for them just as they don't add up for MUNI's now. There are not enough tax receipts or accruing investments owned by municipalities to pay the obligations on these bonds. The result will be a light switch. When people finally realize that they have been sold on tax free income and the illusion of safe, safe, prices that absolutely reflect a panic rush into that illusionary safety at pricing that reflects extremely low risk, the door will no longer be open and there will be no bid. Not even one bid...just like auction rate securities.

Muni's are part of the ponzi scheme to push ever increasing debt into the system at low interest rates...this is not dissimilar to the the derivatives markets or other money inflation tools that the fed has used in the past. The requirement for our system to stay afloat is to create new debt money without creating interest or as little of it as possible. Given the mechanisms in place that is a very hard job.

The statistic and ironically question that many experts pose, is: "There is real buying and demand out there!?". Well, my answer is simple, there isn't demand. It's not real and one of the issues with myopically looking at markets is that, as with any thing you stare at all day, you can see things that are not there. There is no demand, and if QE was soo good at doing anything other than blowing bubbles in the bond and stock markets, how come the Fed has been unable to move any economic metric in any significant way without deliberately falsifying and optimistic promoting contrived and trumped up numbers that only get revised lower.  They just can not demonstrate real improvement on the scale that one would expect from QE when debt destruction is not factored in. QE is not increasing the volume of money. That's why its not having an effect. However, it is having a side effect and that's called - bubbles. Bubbles are the only thing the fed is good at, the sad thing is that the taxpayer will get the bill, tax roles and municipal revenues will decline dramatically when this bubble starts to burst.

Contraction in the volume of money (Total Money plus Credit) results in a shortage of cash. The fed is not creating nearly enough cash to deal with the credit destruction that is occurring via insolvency embedded and masked deep within our system. It will not fly. The bankruptcies are already there and what's more, just like long-term capital, people with assets know they are there and will force them out in the open. The FDIC, FHLN, SIPC and other assorted government complacency schemes will not be able to mask the fake accounting hiding insolvency deep within our financial system. JP Morgan, BAC, Goldman Tax, Morgan Stanley and many other institutions are hiding huge losses using mechanisms that no individual would be allowed to use without going to jail. But all this is simply cronyism and regulated fraud.

Lending is primarily occurring between banks and the Treasury

Now lets take a look at point two. Banks are borrowing at 0% and lending to the treasury at 2 to 3%. I don't really care what the percent number, so I am not interested in being precise...the concept is the essence of what I described above. Additionally to that, a setup like that is representative of a bubble, faulty financial regulations and structure - it does not usually end well.

Additionally, due to these contrived dynamics, the yield curves are making it treaterous and expensive to hedge market exposure in many types of lending activity, therefore, it may appear on the surface that banks are making nothing but money with this strategy but the reality, as usual does not connect directly with our perceptions of it nor the media's generally trivial and optimistic portrayals.

Small business is not getting lending activity nor are individuals. The irony is not for the interests trying their level best to incent people to borrow. But that qualified businesses and individuals see no reason to borrow. What's the upside - more liabilities and risk. People are risk adverse and see an unstable future, so even if they can afford and are qualified to borrow the extent of their activity will likely be to refinance existing obligations not to establish new ones.

Stocks are pricing in perfection, cash reserves, de-leveraging and cashflow

Stocks reflect both optimistic assumptions and market dislocation. Stocks have been heavily shorted via false breakouts and just as they are fairly strongly covered and longed at false upside breakouts like the one that we are potentially having right now. Liquidity is constrained, alpha is hard to generate and people are getting more and more desperate. To this end, mutual funds have very little cash left and additionally the shorts have been separated from most of theirs. These conditions setup a wonderful environment for that Fatfinger guy at Citibank pumped by CNBS to reappear. Who will be a buyer of inflation assets when there is limited real cash to buy and Muni's and other debt instruments are imploding?

Ironically, the de-leveraging process is not obvious. One would normally associate de-leveraging with deflating prices and forced selling. However, the reality is the highly correlated and specifically de-correlated activities in the markets are causing disruptions in arb market activity that has traditionally been active with highly leveraged risk taking due to its lower perceived risks. Therefore, de-leveraging is occurring as prices are actually going up in many markets. Arb is not working, just as most risk avoidance schemes are failing aswell. I suspect there will be a lot of body-bags required in the not too distant future.

On the subject of cashflow, there are 22 million unemployed (though probably higher) and a lot of under employed people in the US, that's a lot of pressure on unions, wages and incentive for business to lower costs with less expensive resources. These cycles tend to be self fulfilling, lowering the costs creates more unemployment which creates less demand which ultimately depletes cash and lowers asset values due to continued contraction in the volume of money. The results effect tax receipts, sales and cash reserves. Additionally, many of the US corporations touted as having huge cash stores have that cash held tax free offshore. if they need that cash to operate they will have to give 30+% to uncle sam...that creates a very different looking balance-sheet - one that most people are not factoring in.

Most of all people are paying a hefty price for risk with a rather low potential for return in almost all markets. This creates a dynamic that Fatfinger would just love to revisit. Sugar plum fairies and Ben Bernake fantasies may offer some restful nights at this point, but sleeplessness lurks right around the corner when fraudulent and regulated insolvency is no longer viably masqueradable as solvency.
© 2009 m3, ltd. All rights reserved.