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Where There’s Smoke… Notes for the Week Ending Friday, April 24, 2009

Investigate This


It's the oldest established, permanent floating crap game...
  - Frank Loesser, "Guys and Dolls"


Bloomberg (April 21) reports that House Speaker Pelosi has proposed a bipartisan (there's that word again!) panel along the model of the 1933 Senate Banking Committee hearings led by Ferdinand Pecora.  These were key to the creation of the Securities Act and the Glass Steagall Act - both in 1933 - and of the Securities Exchange act of 1934, which created the Securities and Exchange Commission.


Speaking in half-hearted support of his compatriot's proposal, Barney Frank said "I think it's useful to have it, but that should not be a reason to hold off on legislating."


Why wait until we figure out what actually happened?  In a development worthy of Kurt Vonnegut, Barney "Roll the Dice" Frank is getting ready to remake the markets in his own image yet again.


The Obama Administration has made rewriting the rules governing Wall Street a top priority.  We hope the Democrats recognize that this will take considerable finesse, otherwise we will gain not merely a Super-regulator, but a Super-Duper Regulator.  Legislators need to recognize that, until we change the approach to actually confront the existing mechanisms and structures that have contributed to the demise of the markets, each new layer of regulation will merely serve to set back the cause of capitalism, free markets and global fiscal well-being.


Connecticut Democrat John Larson of Connecticut, the No. 4 House Democratic leader, said "We need to provide a narrative."


That does get to the issue.  We Americans are willing to be beaten within an inch of our lives.  Just tell us why.


Writing on the Wall Street Journal's OpEd page (24 April) Nobel Prize winner George Akerlof and Yale University Economics Professor Robert Shiller point to the late 1980's as a time when "our economic system was remarkably well-adapted to weather any storm."  They take the S&L crisis as their case in point, saying that "government protections isolated this collapse into a microeconomic event that, while it cost taxpayers quite a bit of money, only rarely cost them their jobs."


We are a nation driven not by cash, but by cash flows.  Americans grumbled and chafed, but as long as we had jobs and paychecks to cash - and access to credit - we have not balked at this nation's Bizzarro version of capitalism, where losses are socialized and profits are privatized. 


But the American Way is changing.  The true "credit crisis" is not the refusal of banks to lend to one another.  It is the refusal of Americans to borrow.  While economists and senior government officials are taking the Average American to task for saving money instead of spending, those same Average Americans are in a state of shock, wondering how their government could have let things get this far out of control.  The days of "You Auto Buy!" are over.  Average Joe and Jane have put away the credit card in favor of the passbook, signaling that the old narrative is dead.  Congressman Larson had hit the nail on the head: they had better get the new narrative right, or Speaker Pelosi will have no one left to speak to.


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None of them along the line know what any of it is worth.
- Bob Dylan, "All Along the Watchtower"


Wall Street has its own unique form of Stockholm Syndrome - the psychological phenomenon where hostages come to identify with their captors.  Those who work around incredibly wealthy, successful people come to take on the characteristics of those they serve, sometimes with devastating results.  Permit us to coin the term "Stockbroker Syndrome."
We have seen compliance officers become swaggering mouthpieces for their firms, bragging that the regulators can't touch them.   Perhaps the most egregious was Stuart E. Winkler, compliance officer and CFO of the now-defunct brokerage firm A.S. Goldmen.


Winkler, who spent seven years as an NASD examiner, was caught on tape offering $35,000 to a hit man to kill the judge trying him for stock fraud.  Winkler is currently serving 8 1/3 to 25 years for conspiracy to commit murder, plus three to nine years for stock fraud.


This is an extreme case.  But we can not emphasize strongly enough: risk management is about preparing for extreme cases.


Speaking of extreme cases, a devastating case of Stockbroker Syndrome seems to have affected the ratings agencies, who were paid fortunes to assess the creditworthiness of public companies.  Now, under Chairman Schapiro, the SEC has announced it will look closely at the raters' work.  (WSJ 16 April, "SEC Puts Ratings Firms on Notice").


Where conflict is inherent, conflict will surely arise.  Let this lesson be lost on no one.  Take the following excerpt from USA Today, for instance.  "The nation's largest credit-rating agencies failed to protect investors during the real estate boom because of sloppy business practices and inadequate staffing, federal regulators said in a report issued Tuesday.


"An investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission, launched 10 months ago because of the subprime mortgage meltdown, says the big three ratings firms - Moody's, Standard & Poor's and Fitch - struggled to keep up with the workload of rating an ever-increasing number of mortgage-backed securities from 2002 to 2007.


As a result, all three lowered their standards in rating complex investments known as residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS) and collateralized debt obligations (CDOs).
Because many institutional investors can put money into only investment-grade bonds (i.e., bonds with a rating of "AAA"), investment banks scrambled to win the highest ratings for the mortgage-backed securities they developed during the real estate bubble.


When the subprime mortgage crisis erupted last year, bondholders demanded to know why so many of these securities, constructed with toxic subprime mortgages, had been awarded "AAA" ratings."


For those of you about to congratulate Chairman Schapiro, we admit that we tricked you.  This story ran in USA Today in July of 2008, and recounted an initiative by then SEC Chairman Christopher ("Can't We All Just Get Along") Cox to reform the ratings agencies.


The story just keeps getting better and better.


The Wall Street Journal reports (21 April - yes, of this year) that the ratings agencies have taken the position that their published ratings are Protected Speech, under the First Amendment.  McGraw-Hill says that their ratings are "of public concern and entitled to all the protections of the First Amendment."


We make no claim to expertise in matters of Constitutional Law, but we know a howler when we see one.  The ratings agencies are paid not by those who rely on the ratings - the investors - but by those who want to flog their securities to the public - the issuers.  Clearly, an inherently conflicted model.


We agree with Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who has filed an action against S&P.  Blumenthal maintains that securities ratings are "very different from the classic First Amendment-protected expression.  It's much more akin to an advertisement that misstates the price of an item on sale than a political candidate on a soapbox."  Far from providing risk assessment, ratings became a marketing tool. 


 The inability of the raters to keep up with the volume of work was blatantly obvious (it was even noted by Chris "Get Along" Cox).  And nothing was done about it (because it was uncovered by Chris "Get Along" Cox?)  This inefficiency was voraciously exploited.


Then, when the markets got nervous, investment-grade ratings became ever more important to propping up price and creating liquidity.  The CDS issuers received AAA ratings based on the rating agencies' internal formulas of the market's opinion of the issuer's creditworthiness, which is to say, it's a proprietary process.  Which is to say, we're not going to tell you what standards we apply.  All Wall Street was effectively in collusion.  Face it, would Lehman question the AAA rating of an AIG CDS sold to a hedge fund by Bear Stearns?  


At the beginning of 2008, as has been widely cited, there were 12 AAA-rated public companies in the world - and some 64,000 AAA-rated structured finance instruments.  No practical distinction existed in the minds of most buyers between ratings of operating businesses - with assets and a vested interest in profitable operations - and synthetic securities issued by financial firms, which are ultimately only moral obligations of the issuers.


Reporting on the SEC's current initiative, Time writes (15 April) that "in the wake of the Enron collapse, the Senate held hearings about the role of the ratings agencies - which considered the company's debt investment-grade until just days before it went bankrupt. The Senate investigation found that the ratings agencies hadn't asked particularly probing questions of Enron and had glossed over warning signs like accounting irregularities. In other words, the ratings agencies didn't objectively and accurately rate."


Clearly, the failure of a ratings agency to publish negative rankings is the equivalent of not shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater when the theater is ablaze.  We are not sure whether neglecting to save someone's life qualifies as protected speech under the first Amendment.
The Financial Times reports (13 April, "Moody's Reveals Level of Credit Quality Has Hit 25-Year Low") that "the ratio of companies having their credit ratings cut versus the number of companies being upgraded - an indicator of declining credit quality - had reached its highest level since 1983."  We would welcome a study that would assess how much of this sudden decline in credit quality is the direct result of inflated ratings awarded to companies and instruments that did not deserve them.


New York Times chief financial correspondent Floyd Norris (23 April, "Subprime, Corporate Style") uncovers a parallel mess in the market in Collateralized Loan Obligations, or CLO, which are repackaged corporate debt.  Norris quotes Moody's Investor Services as saying "as of the beginning of April, a record 27 percent of speculative-grade debt issuers had a rating on their senior debt ranging from Caa down to C. These are the lowest rungs of credit quality - rungs that once rendered a borrower ineligible for a loan."  He goes on to note "The default rate on leveraged loans and speculative grade bonds is rising rapidly."


According the Norris, defaults in this sector could range to as high as 24%, double the peak level of past recessions.  Norris foresees a possible wave of corporate bankruptcies attributable to lax credit practices by lenders - fostered by irresponsible practices by the rating agencies.  


With few exceptions, the financial press has dramatically under-emphasized the agencies' lax analysis and pandering to their paymasters in the irresponsible awarding of "investment grade" designations.  The fabled AAA rating, referred to as "coveted" in hushed and reverent tones, appears to have been reserved for companies that the rating agencies themselves ran in fear of.  GE, for example, had gotten to a point where it could have "gone naked" - dispensed with ratings altogether.  It was a global empire, more powerful and better capitalized than most sovereign nations.  Imagine the consternation at Moody's and S&P if GE's internal audit staff sent their own CEO a report delineating the weaknesses and gaps in the rating agencies' practices.  GE would have rattled the financial markets by announcing that it would no longer pay for a credit rating.  As a model corporate citizen, and in the interest of market transparency, GE could have gone public with an analysis of the glaring failures in the rating agencies' practices.  For the raters, it would be Game Over.


We wonder what enterprising law firm will make its fortune on class action lawsuits, claiming that public companies had an obligation to their own shareholders to reveal the inadequacies of their own ratings, as set by the agencies.  Because clearly, GE - and everyone else - knew exactly how lax the raters' standards and procedures were.  Just a random thought. 
Brokerage firms that relied on ratings in making suitability determinations for their customers will likely find themselves in the crosshairs, as will hedge funds that relied on ratings in their portfolio valuation process.


The sudden collapse of ratings can surely be traceable to nothing so much as to the excesses and negligence of the raters themselves.  Particularly egregious is not even the fundamentally dishonest structure of this business model - nor even the obvious fact that this practice was so pervasive as to saturate both corporate America and Wall Street - but that, having come to light, the SEC under Chairman Cox did not eviscerate this model.  The collusion of Big Government, Big Business, Big Money, and an acquiescent press was promoted by a regulator who was willing to put all important matters through a slow and deliberate review process, more enamored of administration and unanimity than results.


This brings us back to our proposal to revamp the regulatory system.  The SEC should bring in a team of high-level Wall Street compliance professionals on a limited contract - we recommend a three-year term.  Fifty of the smartest, most competent compliance officers in the industry can easily be brought in at Street compensation levels for only a small increase in the Commission's budget.  Give each of them a team of lawyers and examiners, and turn them loose on the industry.  Trust us, you will see results.


The few truly outstanding Street-side professionals the SEC has managed to lure come into the Commission with high hopes for really making a difference, only to find their efforts stymied by the bureaucratic morass.  In order to make these folks effective, they should be set up as a Chairman's Special Task Force, attached directly to the office of the Chairman of the SEC, and responsible only to the marketplace.  It just might work.


Meanwhile, for all of you still sitting in the theater...




A New York Minute


These criminals have so much political power they can shut down the normal legislative process of the highest law-making body in this land.
 - Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D. Ohio)


What do prisonplanet.com, infowars.com, larouchepac.com, lewrockwell.com, nationalexpositor.com, and blacklistednews.com have in common?


Besides being widely derided by the mainstream media as crackpot websites, they all reported on the interview granted to Tulsa, Oklahoma radio station KFAQ, where Senator James Imhofe described the conference call held by Secretary Paulson on 19 September, pushing Congress for passage of the original TARP bill.  Paulson allegedly told his listeners that, if they failed to pass this emergency measure - for which he frankly stated there would be no transparency, no oversight, and no accountability - there would be an immediate crash in the stock market, followed by civil unrest and martial law.


With visions of National Guardsmen and Army tanks dancing in their heads - and with next to no debate - Congress handed Paulson the TARP in short order.  Not since the Patriot Act have so few moved with such alacrity to deprive so many of so much.


The absence of any mention of Paulson's phone call in the mainstream press is highly instructive.  A search of FT.com brings up nothing on this story, while typing the words "Paulson martial law" into WSJ.com brings the message "No articles match your search criteria. Please try again."


Now we have found someone to try on our behalf.  New York State Attorney General Cuomo is yanking back the tarp from the TARP, and it isn't pretty.  Agreeing with Justice Holmes that sunlight is the best disinfectant, we believe this rot will require mega-doses.


Reading between the lines, we take as our point of departure this week's Wall Street Journal banner headline (23 April), "Lewis Says U.S. Ordered Silence on Deal - Bank of America Chief Testified Bernanke, Paulson Barred Disclosure of Merrill Woes Because of Fears for Financial Systems".


The implication is that the government forced the Bank to follow this course of action.  Mr. Cuomo's version of this story, based on testimony obtained in his investigation, is more nuanced.  The website compliancex.com (24 April, "Storm Erupts Over BofA's Merrill Takeover") reports "In a letter to congressional leaders and the Securities and Exchange Commission, Mr Cuomo quoted the BofA chief as testifying under oath that Mr Paulson told him 'we feel so strongly that we would remove the board and management' of BofA if it tried to renege on the deal."


In other words, Mr. Lewis was given a Procrustean choice.  Knowing full well Merrill Lynch's financial position - and of course knowing the magnitude of the bonuses already paid to Merrill executives - Mr. Lewis and his board chose to keep mum and allow the deal to go through, after which they would deal with the outcome.  This is Wall Street's traditional approach.  Get paid now, worry about the details later.  (The same mentality that found it acceptable to lend to unqualified borrowers, on the presumption that real estate would always to go up in value.)


Lewis and the BofA board could have gone public with the reality of the Merrill deal.  Indeed, we argue they had an obligation to do so.  The CEO is an employee of the shareholders, and the Directors have a fiduciary duty to protect their interests.  This is the rock-bottom definition of Speak Truth to Power.


Meanwhile, "Mr Paulson clarified his comments, saying his 'prediction of what could happen to Lewis and the board was his language, but based on what he knew to be the Fed's strong opposition to Bank of America attempting to renounce the deal'. Meanwhile, both Mr Bernanke and Mr Paulson insisted that they had not advised Mr Lewis to conceal Merrill's mounting losses from his shareholders."


Any compliance officer will recognize this gambit.   "I didn't tell him to say that!"  What clearly did happen was that Paulson "predicted" to Lewis what would happen, leaving Lewis to figure out how to pitch it to his shareholders.  In the event, the pitch turned out to be a balk.


We imagine Ken Lewis, fresh from a shower, luxurious white Turkish towel wound around his waist, shaving at his sink.  With the steam rising to his face, he is practicing his speech to the BofA shareholders.  "We are going to acquire Merril Lynch.  Now, you should know that they have hidden tens billions of dollars of losses - all of which will come right out of our net worth.  They have also hidden the fact that they already paid out billions of dollars in bonuses to their executives, and none of those executives will stay on and work for us once the merger is completed.  It gets worse.  Because in order to do the deal we will have to borrow tens of billions of dollars from the government, who will hound us and interfere with us running our business.  We realize this looks bad, but the alternative is worse. We have the assurance of the Secretary of the Treasury that, if we don't acquire Merrill Lynch, there will be a general collapse of the global financial system, leading to armed insurrection worldwide, martial law, and blood in the streets of America."


On second thought, he muses...


By the way, in his letter AG Cuomo tells Congress and the SEC that Chairman Bernanke refused to testify, citing "bank examiner privilege".  We have bad news for you: there really is such a thing.


As to why these stories are not fleshed out in the mainstream media - or sometimes not even reported - it's all in the way you read it.  When someone says "all the news that's fit to print", you need to ask: who is making the determination?


As with torture in time of threat, some people at high places in government truly believe that extreme measures are required.  We have to cling to the comfort that Secretary Paulson truly believed it when he told members of Congress there would be blood in the streets.  And we have to cling to the belief that Chairman Bernanke truly believed the BofA-Merrill merger was the only way to avoid another disaster of the scope of the collapse of Lehman.


We have to believe that Secretary Geithner thinks the only way to rescue the financial system is to blindly continue throwing trillions of dollars into the hands of the banks, without requiring accountability or transparency.  We must believe all this.  Or we must believe that the banks run the world, and President Obama finds himself in the same position as Ken Lewis: just keep your mouth shut and no one will get hurt.


 We like to believe that even we are not so cynical as to think otherwise.


Are you?


Moshe Silver
Chief Compliance Officer

Chart Of The Week: The Green Monster

That's what this chart is - it's GREEN, and for a someone short selling US Equities into it, it's a MONSTER...


Most economists and strategists will have a very hard time convincing me or, more importantly, Mr. Market, that a steepening yield curve isn't a very bullish signal for Equities. Below (see chart) we express this steepening by showing the spread between 10 and 2-year US Treasuries.


One of the main reasons why I was running 70-96% cash levels in my Asset Allocation Model in September/October of 2008 was that this spread was compressing. In both December and March/April, you have seen me drop my average position in US Cash down to the 45-65% range, primarily because, on the margin, I have seen this relationship for what it is - a bullish leading indicator.


The best question you can ask me from here is why can't this curve begin to flatten again? It definitely could, and I'd argue that a compression of this spread + the strengthening of the US Dollar, were the two governing factors behind the US stock market selloff that we saw in February. The problem with that pattern (for the Depressionistas at least) is that it has not repeated itself here in April.


So the point is, beware of the Green Monster - because it can inflict pain on both bulls and bears, depending on its directional move. This morning, despite the manic media's Swine Stress, the yield curve was steepening further. It is now +203 basis points wide, and US Equities have moved to green on the day.


Keith R. McCullough
Chief Executive Officer


Chart Of The Week: The Green Monster - GM

Oil Inventory At An Almost 20-Year High, But Does It Matter?

Research Edge Postion: Long XLE; Long USO


 We had an interesting conversation with a prospective client on Friday.  He has been managing a global macro fund since the early 1990s, has CAGRed 18% in that time period with only one down year (down single digits), and currently manages in the billions.  To say that this gentleman knows what he is doing is, obviously, an understatement.  The one comment he made to us, which we found particularly interesting, was that he thinks he is the only commodity bear left. 


In the year-to-date, it has been challenging to be bearish of most commodity classes.  We use price as a primary factor in our models and, admittedly, that discipline has helped us have a positive return in commodities this year, despite clearly negative short to intermediate term fundamentals in many commodity classes.  In particular, oil, at least from a domestic perspective, has flashed consistently bearish fundamentals this year.


Specifically, inventory has been piling up in the U.S. This point was highlighted in a Bloomberg news article from Thursday of last week which was entitled, "Oil Rises Fourth Day as Stocks, Dollar Outweigh Demand Concern."  The article went on to highlight that oil inventory in the U.S., as measured by the Department of Energy, had hit the highest level since 1990. 


This increase in inventory year-to-date has had a seemingly minimal impact on the price of oil.  We have attached two charts to this point. The first chart highlights a much more interesting point, which is that on a month-over-month basis there has been little correlation between inventory building and the direction of the price of oil over the last three years.  In fact, over the last three years we calculated this correlation at ~0.20.   The second chart highlights the current inventory build, which is at a 19 year high in raw inventories and days of supply.


Over time, we would presume that fundamentals will and do matter. That being said, the lesson of the last three years is that looking at supply data from the U.S. is literally irrelevant in trying to predict the direction of the price of oil in the short term.   Recent history is clearly indicating to us that oil is being supported by drivers other than physical supply and demand data from the U.S.  Clearly, a large portion of the driver is financial demand, which may move price, but not have a direct impact on the actually physical supply.  Therefore, incorporating a view of increasing financial demand may be as relevant as having updated physical supply / demand models for oil.


We are going to touch more on this in coming notes, but as a frame of reference I wanted to attach an excerpt from Michael Masters' May 20th, 2008 testimony to Congress, which discussed the burgeoning and irrational demand in the financial markets for oil.  No surprise this testimony and congress' rhetoric coincided with the top of the oil market in 2008, but the actual thesis is still relevant today.


"Commodities prices have increased more in the aggregate over the last five years than
at any other time in U.S. history. We have seen commodity price spikes occur in the
past as a result of supply crises, such as during the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo. But today,
unlike previous episodes, supply is ample: there are no lines at the gas pump and there
is plenty of food on the shelves.


If supply is adequate - as has been shown by others who have testified before this
committee - and prices are still rising, then demand must be increasing. But how do
you explain a continuing increase in demand when commodity prices have doubled or
tripled in the last 5 years?


What we are experiencing is a demand shock coming from a new category of
participant in the commodities futures markets: Institutional Investors. Specifically,
these are Corporate and Government Pension Funds, Sovereign Wealth Funds,
University Endowments and other Institutional Investors. Collectively, these investors
now account on average for a larger share of outstanding commodities futures contracts
than any other market participant.


These parties, who I call Index Speculators, allocate a portion of their portfolios to
"investments" in the commodities futures market, and behave very differently from the
traditional speculators that have always existed in this marketplace. I refer to them as
"Index" Speculators because of their investing strategy: they distribute their allocation of
dollars across the 25 key commodities futures according to the popular indices - the
Standard & Poors - Goldman Sachs Commodity Index and the Dow Jones - AIG
Commodity Index."


Whether we agree totality with Masters is not the point, but rather the point is to highlight that it is important to not overweight physical supply data points given the financial demand backdrop outlined above.  While oil is down this morning ~5%, the fact that many commodity related stock markets around the globe are up year-to-date, Canada, Saudi Arabia, and Russia as examples, continues to signal to us that there is more risk to being a bear on oil at its current price.


Daryl G. Jones
Managing Director


Oil Inventory At An Almost 20-Year High, But Does It Matter? - ol1


Oil Inventory At An Almost 20-Year High, But Does It Matter? - ol2

Daily Trading Ranges

20 Proprietary Risk Ranges

Daily Trading Ranges is designed to help you understand where you’re buying and selling within the risk range and help you make better sales at the top end of the range and purchases at the low end.

Restaurants - The DARK SIDE of the earnings season

Select restaurant companies have crushed the Q1 recession educed estimates and raised guidance from the Armageddon forecast given last December!  Now we need to keep in mind that business is still soft!


Restaurant industry valuations are significantly higher in a very short period of time.  Looking at EV/EBITDA valuations across the restaurant landscape, it would appear that some companies may even be factoring in “growth” again! Right now the average casual dining chain is trading at 6.4x EV/EBITDA.  We may have hit a 4 handle in December 2008.


With another big week left in the earnings season, I don’t want to fight the tape yet, but this is what I don’t get!  This week we saw massive run ups on cost reductions and “less bad” sales trend.  That is all good!


The upside to the “Great recession” is lower commodity prices and less labor pressure.  Believe me, the restaurant industry needs the help but margins will only improve so much in a declining sales environment.  I guess you just lay off everyone but the servers and a cook to keep it going... we need the top line to come back!    


The dark side to the massive cost reductions implies zero (or little) growth!  If this is the case going forward, and then company XYZ earns a buck, then another buck next year and a buck after that – you get the picture.   Why does that make a stock go up?  I guess we want to pay more and more for the same dollar?


The easy answer is a massive short squeeze on the “stabilization cut the fat” trend – things are bad, but not getting any worse cover the short!  


If this is true, then should we expect a big fade?  Usually the advice is to sell restaurants stocks in the spring.  I don’t think this is a bad idea. 


Let’s take CAKE for example.  The stock is up 259% from its 52 week low and 76% year-to-date.  On Friday the stock was on up 19% on a “stabilization cut the fat quarter.”  After CAKE reported earnings on February 12, the stock traded as low as $7 and was trading at 4.8x EV/EBITDA.  Today the stock is $18 trading at 9.1X EV/EBITDA.  Remember in 2008 Bain paid roughly 9.5x for Outback Steakhouse in a booming economy!   That was a peak!


Swine Stress

"Fear grows in darkness; if you think there's a bogeyman around, turn on the light."
-Dorothy Thompson
In 1939, Dorothy Thompson was called one of the two most influential women in the United States. Eleanor Roosevelt was the other - Thompson was a journalist, and had a proactive and objective research process that remains a far cry from what you see in the manic media today.
Much like the houses in American "foreclosure" that the housing bears perpetually moan about and/or the suggestion that one cannot be long China "because they make up the numbers", what you cannot see, is what seems to suck in the short selling community the most. "Fear grows in darkness", indeed...
This morning's swine flu "news" will move to where the manic media brings it. On Friday, I titled the Early Look "Glaring Groupthink", and today's US market open will reflect the clear and present danger of that. Some people who are scared of their own performance, should be ... and they'll be the first to be running for the exits.
Bertrand Russell said that "collective fear stimulates herd instinct, and tends to produce ferocity toward those who are not regarded as members of the herd." I am certain that the short sellers of everything US Financial Stress Test will be calling me names for NOT agreeing with everyone on CNBC that's telling them that its now the Swine Stress that is going to do us all in for good. Afterall, what else is a short seller of higher lows to do? I guess, just make something up and/or focus on something new...
Is swine flu bad? Of course it is... but is it worse than the expectations the media will create? Can the Swine Test end the mother of all US stock market short squeezes? Could it be that the iggy piggy bankers from Merrill are relieved, metaphorically, by the over 2 billion hogs that graze this earth's mud? Ah, shifting the focus away from the human pigs... wouldn't that be a story book ending to a narrative fallacy that continues to have the most inconvenient of truths.
The New Reality is that, "With the economy still weak, inflation stubbornly high and valuations no longer so favorable, we do not see further catalysts for upside in the market"... oh wait, that's not America's New Reality - that's UBS's reasoning for downgrading Mexico from their "Top Pick" to "Underweight" this morning...
You have to be kidding me right? In a world where even Russia is up +30% for 2009 to-date, the fine folks over at the Swiss Bank that's seeing more money run out their high net wealth barn than Elmer Fudd chasing his pigs had Mexico as their TOP PICK! Better get that recommendation off the sheets boys... and fast! Cuomo cometh!
Given their own aforementioned reasoning, the objective mind has to wonder why in God's good name that UBS would be allowed to call this a "Top Pick." Swine in reckless recommendation is probably what you should be really worried about this morning folks - we're playing with live ammo here...
But enough about Wall Street's pigs, back to what to do with your money this morning. As we approached my upside SP500 target intraday on Friday, I proactively managed risk and sold down 5% of my US equity exposure. I tend to get a lot of questions about why I am not more invested these days, and while I tend to get those questions after market up moves rather than on down ones, I think those questions are very much fair. My personal reality is that I want to have a positive absolute return for both the 2008 and 2009 investment seasons, so I am ultra conservative with where I invest my cash, and more importantly, when.
Understanding that the "when" is where the Street tends to struggle the most, we all know how that narrative fallacy has been built up over the years - the pundits have been potty trained to tell America at large that market timing is impossible.
Timing the Swine Stress may be impossible, but understanding the daily risk/reward in the US market place is not. Every morning I wake up to new risks. Every morning I have to re-adjust my positioning for those risks. I may be not always be really right, but in using this proactive investment process I am rarely really wrong.
Being really wrong would be running max long exposure to US Equities for this morning's open or on last Tuesday for that matter. Remember that -4.3% bombing out of your book from 4/21? I'll assure you that some of the Depressionista short sellers do - if they pressed those lows, they were also really wrong. My call this morning is that pressing the Swine Stress lows will ultimately result in the same inconvenient outcome.
Fully loaded with the pigs, hogs, and swine from Mexico to Bank of America's Board room, this morning my risk/reward setup for the SP500 is as follows: Downside Risk -4% to 829, and Upside Reward +1% to 876. There is an important immediate term momentum line at 852 that will govern how expeditious Glaring Groupthink gets washed into expectations, so if you're looking for line to manage your risk around this morning, use that one.
Otherwise, best of luck out there today, and "if you think there's a bogeyman around" out there on a CNBC market open, just "turn on the light."


XLK - SPDR Technology - Technology looks positive on a TRADE and TREND basis. Fundamentally, the sector has shown signs of stabilization over the last six+ weeks.   As the world demand environment becomes more predictable, M&A should pick up given cash rich balance sheets in this sector (and the game changing ORCL-JAVA deal). The other big near-term factors to watch will be 1Q09 earnings - which is typically the toughest for tech, along with 2Q09 guide.  There are also preliminary signs that technology spending could be an early beneficiary of the stimulus plan.

EWG - iShares Germany-We bullish German fundamentals, especially as a hedge against financially levered and poorly managed Switzerland. While the automotive industry is ailing, the strength of Germany's labor unions will preserve jobs and maintain a slower rate of sequential acceleration in unemployment. Compared to most of Western Europe, Germany has a positive trade balance and will benefit from Chinese demand, especially if the Euro can stay below $1.32. The ZEW index of investor and analyst expectations for economic activity within six months rose to +13 in April from -3.5 in March, the highest reading since June 2007. We're bullish on Chancellor Merkel's proposed Bad bank plan to clear toxic bank assets and believe the country will benefit from a likely ECB rate cut next month.  

EWZ - iShares Brazil- Brazil continues to look positive on a TREND basis. President Lula da Silva is the most economically effective of the populist Latin American leaders; on his watch policy makers have kept inflation at bay with a high rate policy and serviced debt -leading to an investment grade credit rating. Brazil has managed its interest rate to promote stimulus. The Central Bank cut 150bps to 11.25% on 3/11 and likely will cut another 100bps when it next meets on April 29th. Brazil is a major producer of commodities. We believe the country's profile matches up well with our re-flation theme: as the USD breaks down global equities and commodity prices will inflate.

EWA - iShares Australia-EWA has a nice dividend yield of 7.54% on the trailing 12-months.  With interest rates at 3.00% (further room to stimulate) and a $26.5BN stimulus package in place, plus a commodity based economy with proximity to China's H1 reacceleration, there are a lot of ways to win being long Australia.

TIP - iShares TIPS- The iShares etf, TIP, which is 90% invested in the inflation protected sector of the US Treasury Market currently offers a compelling yield on TTM basis of 5.89%.  We believe that future inflation expectations are currently mispriced and that TIPS are a compelling way to own yield on an inflation protected basis, especially in the context of our re-flation thesis.

USO - Oil Fund-We bought more oil on 4/20 after a 9% intraday downward move. We are positive on the commodity from a TREND perspective. With the uptick of volatility in the contango, we're buying the curve with USO rather than the front month contract.  

DJP - iPath Dow Jones-AIG Commodity -With the USD breaking down we want to be long commodity re-flation. DJP broadens our asset class allocation beyond oil and gold. 

GLD - SPDR Gold-We bought more gold on 4/02. We believe gold will re-assert its bullish TREND as the yellow metal continues to be a hedge against future inflation expectations.

DVY - Dow Jones Select Dividend -We like DVY's high dividend yield of 5.85%.

LQD  - iShares Corporate Bonds- Corporate bonds have had a huge move off their 2008 lows and we expect with the eventual rising of interest rates in the back half of 2009 that bonds will give some of that move back. Moody's estimates US corporate bond default rates to climb to 15.1% in 2009, up from a previous 2009 estimate of 10.4%.

SHY - iShares 1-3 Year Treasury Bonds- If you pull up a three year chart of 2-Year Treasuries you'll see the massive macro Trend of interest rates starting to move in the opposite direction. We call this chart the "Queen Mary" and its new-found positive slope means that America's cost of capital will start to go up, implying that access to capital will tighten. Yield is inversely correlated to bond price, so the rising yield is bearish for Treasuries.

EWL - iShares Switzerland - We shorted Switzerland on 4/07 and believe the country offers a good opportunity to get in on the short side of Western Europe, and in particular European financials.  Switzerland has nearly run out of room to cut its interest rate and due to the country's reliance on the financial sector is in a favorable trading range. Increasingly Swiss banks are being forced by governments to reveal their customers, thereby reducing the incentive of Switzerland as a tax-free haven.

UUP - U.S. Dollar Index -We believe that the US Dollar is the leading indicator for the US stock market. In the immediate term, what is bad for the US Dollar should be good for the stock market. The Euro is down versus the USD at $1.3150. The USD is down versus the Yen at 96.6000 and up versus the Pound at $1.4558 as of 6am today.

EWJ - iShares Japan -We re-shorted the Japanese equity market via EWJ on 4/22. This is a tactical short; we expect the market there to pull back when reality sinks in over the coming weeks. Japan has experienced major GDP contraction-the government cut its forecast for the fiscal year to decline 3.3%, and we see no catalyst for growth to return this year. We believe the BOJ's program to provide $10 Billion in loans to repair banks' capital ratios and a plan to combat rising yields by buying treasuries are at best a "band aid".

XLP - SPDR Consumer Staples- Consumer Staples greatly underperformed the market on 4/24. This group is low beta and won't perform like Tech and Basic Materials do on market up days. There is a lot of currency and demand risk embedded in the P&L's of some of the large consumer staple multi-nationals; particularly in Latin America, Europe, and Japan.


I'm not a doctor, nor do I play one on TV, but this swine flu has got me worried.  Remember the Avian Flu?  At the very least, the disease runs a fairly isolated course and the hysteria has already peaked.  At worst, the world has a big problem.  The degree and duration of the uncertainty will ultimately decide what impact this outbreak could have on leisure stocks; it is too early to tell whether a negative trade and/or trend will result.


Even under the optimistic scenario, leisure stocks are likely going lower for more than just today.  The Health Commissioner for the EU urged Europeans to forgo travel to the US and Mexico.  Travel will take a big hit.  For traders, it's difficult to make the case that anything leisure related should be owned at this point, especially given the huge two month run we've had in the space.


The following sectors within Leisure could be affected:

  • Cruise lines: The thought of being stuck on a ship in close proximity with thousands of other people is likely to strike fear into would-be cruisers. Considering the history of contagious pathogens such as the Norwalk Virus, E. Coli, and Entamoeba Histolytica infiltrating cruise ships, this sector could be the hardest hit.


  • Major market gaming: Las Vegas/Macau = lots of people who don't have to be there. One breakout at a hotel casino and that's all she wrote.


  • Lodging: Hotels rely on travel. We all know airplanes are flying Petri dishes. At least some travel is necessary (business, family, etc.), but much is leisure related. Even at today's depressed occupancies, there are still too many people at one location for comfort in a flu outbreak.


  • Regional gaming - Few people fly to regional gaming destinations but there is still a large, concentrated number of people in a casino at any given time.

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