The Hero's Dilemma: Kill the Dragon or Rescue the Princess?
Our previous experiences with "stagflation," as the double economic whammy of slowing growth and rising inflation is known, occurred in the '70s and early '80s.
Market veterans still recount the Legend of Former Fed Chief Paul Volcker as if it were a cautionary tale for children -
"...and then, Volcker held interest rates aloft (to a now unthinkable 20%) and vanquished the foul worm (inflation rates of 13%)."
Volcker made his heroic choice. He fought the dragon first. Once that threat is no more, living happily ever after with the princess is no problem.
But if we understand the true nature of this Hero's Dilemma, we see that stagflation isn't really a double whammy. In the modern era (the only era that matters), stagflation is caused by one thing: high oil prices.
Sure, one could argue that the condition of stagflation is exacerbated by several factors, like a bombed out housing market, a weak U.S. dollar or a financial crisis. But ultimately, it's rising oil prices that both slows economic growth and causes prices to rise.
Volcker really had no choice at all.
Any attempt to invigorate the economy with lower interest rates would only push oil prices higher. In other words, if you rescue the princess first, then the dragon eats you both.
Memo to Bernanke: The Dragon's Breathing Down Your Neck
So another FOMC meeting has come and gone. And as expected, the Fed did nothing to surprise the financial markets. Most of the time, it's good monetary policy to give the market what it wants.
But we're quickly getting to the point where Fed Chief Ben Bernanke has to make a heroic choice. At least, that's how it seemed a week ago, before oil prices dropped 20%.
It would appear that Bernanke is keeping his sword in its sheath, hoping that falling oil prices will render the necessity of choosing between the princess and the dragon moot.
Stocks rallied strongly today in reaction to Bernanke's non-decision. The average investor can usually be counted on for hope. But ultimately, I don't think many investors are comfortable with a Fed relying on luck to take care of the problem.
The meteoric rise of oil prices could have been a bubble. And we could be seeing that bubble deflating right now. But there's one way Bernanke can be sure: raise interest rates, strengthen the dollar and actively force oil prices lower.
That might put the princess through the ringer for another few quarters, but princesses have a way of coming out of tough situations looking pretty good.
For my money, I'd rather see Bernanke deal the dragon a mortal blow.
Time to Live Happily Ever After?
I'd like to think that the oil "bubble" is popping. I'd like to think that the effects from that main driver of inflation will soon be reversed. But I just don't see the current economic problems having a fairy tale ending without a fight.
That's probably why interest rates rose on T-bills after the Fed's statement. Investors might like the news. But the bond market seems to think that higher rates are coming. And that's probably not good news for stocks.
So what's an investor to do? Well, my stock picking machine (which, by the way, is called TRIGR) is still turning up some great stocks to short. In fact, on July 29, one of its Top Shorts was WCI Communities. Yes, that WCI Communities, the one that filed for bankruptcy on August 4.
Actually, TRIGR's been pulling up WCI Communities regularly since May 8. Of course, it also targeted IndyMac on May 12, 2008, and we all know how that turned out.
We also closed two other short positions yesterday - Western Refining (NYSE:WNR) for 17% since July 31 and Accuride (NYSE:ACW) for 16% since July 30.
Today, TRIGR turned up Hansen Medical (Nasdaq:HNSN) as a Top Short. In light of the decent gains TRIGRs pulled up with its Top Long Biotech stocks, the sight of a medical devices company on the Top Short was worth another look.
I'm not sure how Hansen Medical ever commanded a $1 billion market cap on $16 million in revenues. And I suspect it'll have difficulty holding on to its current $300 million market cap without a massive jump in revenue. Judging by the ever-widening loss estimates from the covering analysts, such a jump in revenue isn't forthcoming.
You might want to give this stock a look as a potential short opportunity while Bernanke tries to figure out what to do about that pesky dragon.
Chief Investment Strategist
TRIGR is an electronic stock-picking machine that selects long and short opportunities for the TradeMaster Daily Stock Alerts service. For more information on how you can have your profits powered by TRIGR, click here.
08-05-2008 4:47 PM
Filed under: stagflation, Accuride, FOMC, short profits, oil, oil prices, dragon, short, IndyMac, Western Refining, U.S. dollar, Fed, housing market, inflation, interest rates, WCI, bonds, Bernanke, Volcker