31 December 2008

The Fuel for a Speculative Rally but Not a Recovery

At some point we may stop confusing asset bubbles with economic growth.

In the meantime, we might expect the shallow and immature stewardship of the economy to continue, unreformed and unconstrained. We may get quite a bear market rally in the first quarter of 2009. Whether it is the bottom or a bottom will remain to be seen.

Without a sustained increase in the median hourly wage and significant reform in the financial system and a sustainable construct for international currency exchange and trade there can be no sustained recovery in the real economy.

Excess liquidity and a corrupt financial system provides the fuel for a speculative rally, but it is also the fuel for a greater crisis to come, the longer we maintain this monetary charade. The Fed is pouring gasoline on damp wood.

Still, we ought not to underestimate the power of the Fed, having recently witnessed a counter trend reflationary rally after the Crash of 2000-2 that lasted three years and reached new stock market highs, and a housing bubble that almost crashed the world economy. They appear to have a lot of fuel, from a variety of unconventional sources, and Bernanke has the willingness to use it.

Cash at 18-Year High Makes Stocks a Buy at Leuthold
By Eric Martin and Michael Tsang

Dec. 29 (Bloomberg) -- There’s more cash available to buy shares than at any time in almost two decades, a sign to some of the most successful investors that equities will rebound after the worst year for U.S. stocks since the Great Depression.

The $8.85 trillion held in cash, bank deposits and money- market funds is equal to 74 percent of the market value of U.S. companies, the highest ratio since 1990, according to Federal Reserve data compiled by Leuthold Group and Bloomberg.

Leuthold, Invesco Aim Advisors Inc., Hennessy Advisors Inc. and BlackRock Inc., which together oversee almost $1.7 trillion, say that’s a sign the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index will rise after $1 trillion in credit losses sent the benchmark index for American equities to the biggest annual drop since 1931. The eight previous times that cash peaked compared with the market’s capitalization the S&P 500 rose an average 24 percent in six months, data compiled by Bloomberg show.

“There is a store of cash out there that is able to take the market higher,” said Eric Bjorgen, who helps oversee $3.4 billion at Leuthold in Minneapolis. “The same dollar you had last year buys you twice as much S&P 500 as it did a year ago.”

Leuthold Group, whose Grizzly Short Fund returned 83 percent in 2008 thanks to bets against equities, said in its December bulletin to investors that stocks offer “one of the great buying opportunities of your lifetime...”

The ratio of cash on hand to U.S. market capitalization jumped 86 percent in the first 11 months of the year, the biggest increase since the Fed began keeping records in 1959, as the U.S., Europe and Japan fell into the first simultaneous recessions since World War II.

So-called money of zero maturity, the central bank’s measure of U.S. assets available for immediate spending, is mostly held by households, according to Richard G. Anderson, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis....

Any recovery will depend on a rebound in corporate profits and the economy after $30 trillion was wiped out from world equities this year, according to Frederic Dickson, chief market strategist at D.A. Davidson & Co. in Lake Oswego, Oregon. (At that's the rub, a speculative rally fueled by excess liquidity will fizzle and die if it is not accompanied by a recovery in real corporate profits, and that depends on an increase in consumption that is not dependent on additional consumer debt - Jesse)

Jobless claims reached a 26-year high this month, while economists surveyed by Bloomberg estimate household spending will fall 1 percent next year, the most since the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor. A 13 percent slump in the median home resale price in November from a year earlier was likely the largest since the 1930s, the National Association of Realtors said last week, damping speculation the housing market is close to a bottom.

‘Biggest Cannon’

Analysts estimate profits at S&P 500 companies will shrink 10.3 percent in the first three months of 2009 and 5.8 percent in the second quarter, bringing the stretch of earnings declines to a record eight quarters, Bloomberg data show. Gross domestic product will contract in the first half of the year before growth resumes in the third quarter, according to a Bloomberg survey of economists.

“The fuel supply is there, but people have to have a reason to use it,” said Dickson, who helps oversee about $19 billion. “The Fed fired the shot out of the biggest cannon they know. Now the question is, will it hit the right mark?”

This year’s slump has left S&P 500 companies valued at an average of 12.6 times operating profit, the cheapest since at least 1998, monthly data compiled by Bloomberg show...

The last time cash accounted for a larger proportion of market value was 1990. The ratio peaked at 75 percent in October of that year, after the savings and loan industry collapsed, Drexel Burnham Lambert Inc. was forced into bankruptcy and the U.S. fell into a recession. The S&P 500 rallied 23 percent in six months and almost 30 percent in a year...