Monday, March 3rd, 2008: Three people yesterday told me they were sick of winter. They weren’t angry, just tired of fighting Mother Nature. Today we’re supposed to get a touch of spring, high about 50º. Yay!
Boy, I feel bad for President Bush! I like him but he sure has had bad karma and has made some poor decisions. I won’t go through his whole record but his recent decision to push ethanol is sure backfiring! First, ethanol doesn’t reduce our overall energy use, we use energy to produce ethanol, and it isn’t clean which starting early last year became my first/biggest concern, finding clean, green energy alternatives. And look at what’s happened to food prices and thus global inflation. It’s surely not all President Bush’s fault, but the sharply increased demand for corn to produce ethanol has sparked off food inflation, here and worldwide. That’s all I see on CNBC now, how higher prices for all foodstuffs are starting to work their way through to consumer prices. Tortillas in Mexico, bagels and Hershey Bars in the US, etc., etc., etc. with lots more to come. According to long term value investor Jim Rogers, whose investment perspective was formed and weaned during the previous commodity bull market of the 1970s, agricultural commodities would have risen anyway, even if the sharp demand for corn hadn’t led to smaller plantings of other crops, since supply has dwindled for many years. Add sharply rising inflation to the Fed’s other two big issues, battling the suddenly-emerged, global financial and credit breakdown, along with the slow motion US economic slowdown which seems to be accelerating and spreading worldwide now and the Fed, the economy and the stock market all have big problems.
Bottom line, an unusual, if not classic, credit crunch now prevails with FEAR of further losses, call it a “growing risk aversion” dominating institutional investor’s thinking. Banks are thus reducing lines of credit, adding new charges and fees, tightening lending standards and terms, thus causing secondary financing markets to dry up. Even interest rates on consumer loans for cars and mortgages are refusing to follow the Fed’s rate cuts down point for point, moving grudgingly downward, more like one down for every five (basis points) the Fed cuts. So net, net, the Fed is effectively now “pushing on a string” validating my long held theory that the stock market would only be in trouble when the Fed starting cutting rates. The Fed not getting very far with its rate cuts is scary! Jeepers, creepers!
Schwartz View: I just can’t see things getting better any time soon. Worse more likely as we haven’t even seen all the problems emerge yet, although each week, something new crawls out of this now opened can of worms. Last week, while we got some capital injection for the muni bond insurers struggling to keep their all-important AAA ratings so as not to spark a further muni meltdown – munis just had their worst month in memory! -- the muni market got blindsided by the suddenly inoperable auction-rate bond market. Now that this credit vehicle has become unworkable, muni dealers are now bracing for an overwhelming flood of new supply as municipalities all over America need to find a new way to finance. Bottom line, I don’t think we’re even close to having all the problematic issues out on the table yet.
Well, Friday was one of the worse days since January’s first two weeks of day-after-day big drops, with stocks down big right from the get go. Wasn’t a major surprise although the last five weeks of sideways to slightly up action may have lulled some investors into believing the worst was over. You know that old complacency which naturally builds after a big market drop and when stocks stop going down and we can all breathe once more. I commented last week that if the stock market couldn’t rally now, what with: (1) multiple Fed rate cuts, and (2) the emergency government fiscal stimulus plan, and (3) multiple Depression-style homeowner bail out plans, and now (4) Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s reassurance last week that the Fed would continue its rate cuts, we’d be set up for big, big trouble and coming sooner rather than later. If all this monetary and fiscal help can’t support the market along with whatever rigging the government’s “Plunge Protection Team” is implementing as well, the stock market may indeed be ready for another leg down. And remember to go along with the “head feint” sideway triangle patterns which first broke upwards, then reversed downwards, it’s always something fundamental popping up during a bear market. Some quotes about the opaque-to-most-of-us muni market written about in THE ECONOMY above were: “The municipal market in the last week and a half or so has been in a free fall” by one muni bond manager and “The damage has been unbelievable” by another.
Schwartz View: Slammed by this difficult nexus of negatives, even the time-tested Wall Street adage of “Don’t Fight the Fed!” isn’t working. With the major indices having held up somewhat, if you want to call losses of -10% to -15% holding up, many, many stocks have already undergone big bear markets since the Fed starting cutting rates. Bottom line, I expect further losses ahead, coming sooner rather than later after both the Nasdaq Composite and Dow Utilities closed below their previous late January bear market lows last Friday. Though there’s still a chance we hold at January’s lows, the odds against have risen.
Is there ‘blood in the streets’ yet? No, I don’t think so. Although what’s been going on in the stock market and economy is no fun. Because of years of globalization, our economy is much more diverse, varied, deep and resilient today than in decades past. If we had today’s housing crash and auto problems a couple decades past, employment and the US economy would have dropped precipitously by now and the stock market would have followed suit being down some -30% or -40%. But today we are benefiting from the free world economy having become much larger and more integrated. Still I have to figure the old January lows will eventually fall as well; they started breaking last Friday. So for now, I still can’t take a ton of risk. My strategy has been, and remains, to hold much less overall market exposure than normal, stay in those sectors which remain in uptrends like commodities, and where I can find ways to hedge, say in the ProFunds funds family, use some inverse (short) funds and keep closely on top of portfolio values and fight tooth and nail to keep them up. First Rule; don’t lose money! Sure there may be some bargains out there. For example, PIMCO’s Bill Gross, who manages the largest bond fund in existence, says he’s looking to scoop up some fire sale muni bonds which stressed financial companies, hoping to stave of bankruptcy, have to sell. But I don’t have that capability. Or the time necessary to allow these depressed assets to regain fair value. Buy the Pimco Total Return Fund for that. I’m still in protect our assets mode.
My current buy recommendations are listed below: