US Strategy – Financials Breaking Down

On Wednesday, the S&P 500 closed at 1,081, down 0.9%.  The S&P declined for the second straight day on accelerating volume, although the market was in positive territory for most of the day.  Yesterday’s move at the end of the day was on outside reversal, which is also a bearish sign. 


On the MACRO front, the global RECOVERY theme provided the upside support ahead of the release of the Chinese economic data. Chinese GDP rose 8.9% in the 3Q; the median of 34 estimates in a Bloomberg News survey was for a 9% gain. 


Yesterday, portfolio activity included buying GS and shorting MS. Keith also shorted TOL, AAPL and PENN.  We also shorted more of the USO. 


The dollar weakness continued yesterday as the UUP declined 0.6%.  Yesterday the VIX surged 6.3%.  With dollar weakness, Energy (XLE) outperformed the S&P 500.  December crude finished  up $2.25 at $81.37 a barrel, the highest settlement since October 9th 2008.  The materials (XLB) did not benefit from the dollar weakness, as an earnings miss from Dow Chemical (DOW) weighed on the chemicals.  Further weakness is expected in the XLB today as Potash (POT), which is one of the world’s largest fertilizer companies, missed numbers this morning. 


Yesterday, only two sectors were up on the day (XLU and XLK) and five sectors outperformed the S&P 500.  The three best performing sectors were Utilities (XLU), Technology (XLK) and Energy (XLE), while Healthcare (XLV), Consumer Discretionary (XLY) and Financials (XLF) were the bottom three. 


The Financials have been the worst performing sector in the market in 4 out of the last 5 days and is now broken on the TRADE duration.  The regional banks have been dragging down performance of the XLF on real estate and credit concerns, which has been further emphasized by Fifth Third Bank this morning who reported weak earnings on the back higher than expected bad loans.


On the political front related to financials, Elizabeth Warren was on CBS’ Early Show this morning discussing compensation for “piggy” bankers.  Warren, whom heads the Targeted Asset Relief Program's oversight committee, stated: "Guys, you have to understand that you can't party on like it's 2007. If you're going to take taxpayer dollars, then the game has to change. In that sense it's real." Indeed.


Today, the set up for the S&P 500 is: TRADE (1,065) and TREND is positive (1,007).   The Research Edge quantitative models have 9 of 9 sectors in the S&P 500 positive on TREND and 8 of 9 sectors are positive from the TRADE duration.  Yesterday, Financials broke trade.           


The Research Edge Quant models have 0.5% upside and 1.5% downside in the S&P 500.  At the time of writing the major market futures in the U.S. are lower.


The Research Edge MACRO team.


US Strategy – Financials Breaking Down - S P500


US Strategy – Financials Breaking Down - s pperf

US Strategy – Financials Breaking Down - s plevels




October 22, 2009





With the sports apparel data showing large increases and an acceleration yesterday, we suspect that there is some underlying strength in the licensed apparel business. It has been sometime since the licensed business has been mentioned as a positive, but we believe there are some interesting trends developing that give the fan-based merchandising business a tailwind. While we are not making a call that license apparel is back in full force like it was three to four years ago, here are few reasons why we could see a pick up:


  • Season to date, NFL viewership has increased the most since 1989, with average games being viewed by 17.4 million fans.
  • CBS and Fox have averaged 22.3 million viewers for their doubleheader games on Sundays, which makes these broadcasts television's most-watched each week.
  • The MLB playoffs have benefitted from close games and extra innings helping to increase viewership 13% over last year.
  • The New York Yankees could add a boost to the licensed business as its fan appeal spans far beyond the local NY market. Participation from other large market teams such as the LA Dodgers is also a plus.


We don’t want to get too carried away, but the beginnings of the trend should not be overlooked. Companies that could benefit from the surge in licensed apparel and fan based apparel:


  • Adidas - it’s impact might be insignificant on the grand scheme of things, but owning the NFL license helps.
  • Sporting good retailers: DKS, HIBB- the big winners who benefit from all fan based apparel,
  • UA: although the brand isn't being displayed across the headlines or on the jerseys, Under Armour is closely associated with football and could benefit from a rub-off effect. Fans identify with their favorite athletes and ultimately attempt to mimic their look.







Some Notable Call Outs


  • It’s not often that a retailer shares its weather forecast for the upcoming quarter with the Street. However, Tractor Supply included its weather outlook along with other more traditional guidance on its 3Q conference call. The company’s weather analytical provider is forecasting a slightly colder October followed by a slightly warmer November and December. I wonder if they get an hourly breakdown as well…


  • As M&A continues to heat up in the retail and apparel space alongside a growing IPO calendar, capital raising also appears to be building momentum. (supposedly the fastest growing retailer in the U.S over the past 3 years) just secured $30 million in financing from existing and new investors including Accel Partners and Bessemer. The company intends to use the capital to secure its position as a leading online merchant of baby products. Looks like Babies R Us and BuyBuyBaby are in for some formidable competition.


  • In case you missed it, Kroger hired General Motors’ former head of Global Human Resources to lead its human resource efforts. On the surface it appears there are many similarities between the two businesses. Large union workforces, outsized cost structures, and aggressive competition are just a few worth mentioning. Oh, the irony…





China’s Economy on a Road to Recovery - China’s economy grew by 8.9 percent in the third quarter of this year, the government announced, shoring up the notion that the world’s third-largest economy is on a road to recovery. Still, questions remain about the sustainability of China’s recovery from the world economic downturn, with much of the growth dependent on massive government spending and public works projects. Central government leaders have not ruled out funneling more money into stimulus spending, and have repeatedly said recovery is in its initial stages. <>


USTR to Address Counterfeiting at U.S.-China Talks - Amid rising trade tensions, Obama administration officials plan to raise concerns about intellectual property rights and enforcement at high-level meetings in China next week. The U.S.-China Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade, set for the industrial city of Hangzhou on Oct. 28 and 29, is a forum to address bilateral trade issues. U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke will cochair the meeting with Chinese Vice Premier Wang Qishan. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack also will be in the U.S. delegation. <>


Germany May Apply VAT Charge to Municipal Services, FTD Says - Germany’s new coalition government may require municipal companies to pay value-added tax on services they provide, Financial Times Deutschland reported, without saying where it got the information. Under the proposal, services including state sewage and refuse collection would no longer be exempt from VAT and would pay a 19 percent tax, the same rate as private firms, the newspaper said. The move may provide federal and regional authorities with as much as 4 billion euros ($6 billion) in added revenue, the newspaper said. <>


China: Textile, garment exports' biggest plunge in 3 decades - China's textiles and garments exports are expected to shrink by 10% this year, the biggest decline in 30 years, said Sun Ruizhe, vice president of the China National Textile and Apparel Council. Data from the General Administration of Customs of China show that the value of the country's textiles and garment exports in the first nine months of 2009 amounted to $121.64 billion, down 11.17% year-on-year. The export value of textiles and garments in the first eight months of 2009 amounted to $104.89 billion, down 11.81%, compared with the same time period of 2008. <>


Holiday Survey Suggests Shopping Early and On the Cheap - Retailers are squaring off with both their consumers and their landlords this holiday season, and so far they’re winning only half the battle. A new survey from Accenture showed that, even though more shoppers might come out on Black Friday, consumers generally plan to make gift purchases early this year with a focus on discounted goods. And the Federal Reserve’s Beige Book showed consumer spending was weak in most of the country in September and early October. Already, projections place holiday sales at about even with last year’s dismal take and well below 2007 levels. Meanwhile, stressed-out stores are asking for deals from their landlords and getting them. Accenture, which surveyed 526 consumers last month, found that 69 percent expect to do the bulk of their holiday shopping by Dec. 7, up from 60 percent last year. <>


Sears enters the online books price war - Amidst the online book price war between, and—and Barnes & Noble’s Inc. entry into the electronic book reader business— is launching its own merchandising tactic. Once customers have purchased a book online from any of those retail sites, they can e-mail the receipt to and receive a credit equal to the purchase price of a $9 book and apply the credited amount toward a purchase of $45 or more on “The $9 credit can be used at on the purchase of any items, so it`s like getting the books for free,” says Sears senior vice president of online Imran Jooma. <>


Best Buy and Netflix partner to stream movies to TVs on the Internet - Best Buy Co. and Netflix Inc. have taken a step to bridge the gap between Internet and television. Best Buy is now selling online and in stores exclusive, Insignia-branded Blu-ray disc players that enable Netflix members to stream movie and program picks over the web to their televisions. <>


China: Implementing anti-dumping measures on nylon imports - To protect local companies, China is planning to impose anti-dumping duties up to 36% on imports of nylon 6, which is widely used in the production of hosiery and knitted garments, from the US, EU, Russia and Taiwan. While tariffs for the other countries will be between 4% and 9.7%, the highest duties will be given to products from US companies. <>


Bob Pressman Among Fred Leighton Bidders - On Monday, a set of investors that includes former Barneys New York principal Bob Pressman asked a judge to approve its $25.8 million bid for the 38-year-old vintage fine jewelry brand in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Manhattan. According to court documents, the prospective offer came from a group made up of Och-Ziff Capital Management Group, jewelry firm Kwiat and Triton Equity Partners, where Pressman serves as chief executive officer. <>


Designers Rally to Save Garment Center - “This is the game changer.” That’s how Yeohlee Teng summed up Wednesday’s Save the Garment Center rally that drew 750 supporters including Michael Kors, Diane von Furstenberg, Nanette Lepore, Elie Tahari and other designers onto Seventh Avenue to raise awareness of the New York neighborhood’s plight. “This will change the conversation with the city,” Teng said after the event. “It won’t just be about square footage anymore. It will be about issues that are more indicative of what is going on now — saving jobs, being American and cultural identities.” <>


Nigeria: Textile revival fund aims to boost economy - Speaking at an International Conference on Nigeria's Textile Industry in Lagos, the Minister of State for Commerce and Industry, Mr. Humphrey Abah, said the Nigeria's Federal Government is planning to launch a revival fund to save the country's shrinking textile industry, which aims to inject $57 billion growth to the economy, according to Minister of State for Commerce and Industry Humphrey Abah. <>


Under Armour Settles Sunglasses Lawsuit - Under Armour Inc. settled the trademark infringement lawsuit against a Denver company’s sunglasses. The suit alleged Navajo Manufacturing Co.’s “Ultimate Action” shades copied the design and style with a logo like an italicized version of Under Armour’s interlocking “U” and “A.” Navajo’s lawyer, Simor Moskowitz, told the Daily Record in Maryland tha “the parties had a meeting of the minds.” Terms of the settlement were not disclosed <>


PSS Tops WWD Growth in Brand Strength List - Landor Associates studied 2,500 brands to determine which showed the greatest increase in brand strength from 2005 to 2008. All were selected from Young & Rubicam Brands’ BrandAsset Valuator database. Top scorers, called Breakaway Brands, were evaluated on the basis of relevance, how necessary the brand has been in a consumer’s life, and what made it special or unique. 1 PAYLESS SHOESOURCE: Growth in brand strength 58 percent, “Payless was thought of as a not nice, but cheap place to get shoes,” said Landor’s Nelson. “They transformed into a shoe shop that democratizes fashion.” Matthew Rubel was hired as chief executive officer in June 2005, and promoted to ceo of parent company Collective Brands Inc. in 2008. He sparked the change to redesign dark stores, created children’s play areas, and expanded offerings to name brands, including Airwalk and Dexter, along with designer labels Lela Rose and Alice + Olivia. For his spring runway show, Project Runway alum Christian Siriano paired couture gowns with shoes from his Payless collaboration. In 2010, new Payless stores are planned in Russia through Collective Brands and franchise partner M.H. Alshaya Co. <>


Billionaire Green’s Arcadia Says Profit Rose on Young Fashions - Arcadia Group Ltd., the U.K. fashion retailer owned by billionaire Philip Green, said full-year profit rose 2.1 percent as the Topshop and Miss Selfridge chains increased sales of cut-price fashions to young shoppers. Operating profit climbed to 266.2 million pounds ($441.6 million) in the year ended Aug. 29 from 260.7 million pounds a year earlier, the London-based company said today in an e-mailed statement. Arcadia didn’t report net income. Revenue increased 2.7 percent to 1.89 billion pounds, while sales at stores open at least a year were unchanged. <>

Dancing With The Bear

“Problems cannot be solved by the level of awareness that created them”
-Albert Einstein

I’m in beautiful Camden, Maine this morning. It’s getting chilly up here, and the bears don’t like it.
Born and raised in the northwestern woods of Ontario, I know a thing or two about Black Bears. My Dad likes to say that you “don’t want to dance with the bear” and, although that’s probably local consensus, that’s not a consensus you want to try fighting. Consensus can be right.
What is consensus? Is consensus when everyone is long or short something? Or is it when you think everyone is long or short something? Is it consensus when you aren’t making money alongside people you deem to be consensus? Or are you consensus when you say something is consensus?
After making enough mistakes hunting in global markets, I have come to conclude that I can either be Bullish, Bearish, or Not Enough of one of those two things. My daily risk management task is to figure out how to not to be mauled. If that means being called consensus on my bearish US Dollar stance at this stage of the hunt, so be it. I remain short the US Dollar this morning because I don’t think consensus is Bearish Enough.

To be truly Bearish Enough on the Buck requires some reading beyond your latest tweet. You can listen to the Johnny-Come-Latelys on CNBC, who are now running segments with lead-ins like “When Nixon abandoned the Gold Standard in 1971” (sound familiar?), to truly appreciate that consensus still has no idea how to analyze this fundamentally. “Problems cannot be solved by the level of awareness that created them.”
On the topic of the Burning Buck, Niall Ferguson at Harvard is amongst the most aware. Ferguson is what I would call Bearish Enough. He’s looking for a -20% drop in the price of the US Dollar in the next 6-12 months. That would put the US Dollar index at $60!
Let’s think about what a -20% drop, from here, in the US Dollar would mean. We call this TAIL risk. Since March, the US Dollar has crashed, losing -16% of its value. Over the same time period, the price of oil (priced in those dollars) has had a Minsky Meltup of +102%. Let’s say Niall is not right, and the Dollar only loses another -16% of its credibility. Using the same leverage ratio of down dollar to up oil, that could equate to $160/barrel oil. Is that consensus?
Required reading from Fergusson would be his book titled the Ascent of Money. This fantastic analysis of economic history was all part of the studying we did to make this Burning Buck call 9 months ago, but my having been early on this doesn’t matter anymore. What matters is the here and now.
The US Dollar remains in what we call a Bearish Formation. That’s simply when then TAIL sits on top of the TREND, and the TREND sits on top of the TRADE. Bearish Formations are very powerful because they force all types of investor durations (from 3 weeks to 3 years) to either pay attention or “dance with the bear.”
My updated risk management levels for the US Dollar are as follows:
1.      TRADE (immediate term) = $76.39

2.      TREND (intermediate term) = $78.03

3.      TAIL (long term) = $82.29

So what do you do with these levels? You definitely don’t run from them. That’s what consensus does when being chased by a Black Bear. Instead, you hold your ground, and stare at them. Start yelling too, if you want.
Provided that the US Dollar cannot breakout above the TRADE line ($76.39); the Volatility Index (VIX) can’t breakout above hers (VIX immediate term TRADE line = $24.19); and the SP500 cannot breakdown and close below her TRADE line at 1065, I think US equities will make another higher-low during this correction.
Sometimes, doing nothing – waiting, I mean – can be the best option in avoiding a dance with the bear. In Thunder Bay, Ontario, that’s local consensus – but it’s a consensus that I’m more than happy to be called.
Best of luck out there today,



XLU – SPDR Utilities
We bought low beta Utilities on discount (down 1%) on 10/20. Bullish formation for XLU across durations.

FXC – CurrencyShares Canadian Dollar We bought the Canadian Dollar on a big pullback on 10/20. The currency ETF traded down -2%, but the TRADE and TREND lines are holding up next to Daryl Jones’ recent note on the Canadian economy.

EWG – iShares Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel won reelection with her pro-business coalition partners the Free Democrats. We expect to see continued leadership from her team with a focus on economic growth, including tax cuts. We believe that Germany’s powerful manufacturing capacity remains a primary structural advantage; with fundamentals improving in a low CPI/interest rate environment, we expect slow but steady economic improvement from Europe’s largest economy.


CAF – Morgan Stanley China Fund A closed-end fund providing exposure to the Shanghai A share market, we use CAF tactically to ride the more volatile domestic equity market instead of the shares listed in Hong Kong. To date the Chinese have shown leadership and a proactive response to the global recession, and now their number one priority is to offset contracting external demand with domestic growth. Although this process will inevitably come at a steep cost, we still see this as the best catalyst for economic growth globally and are long going into the celebration of the 60th Anniversary of the People’s Republic.

GLD – SPDR Gold We bought back our long standing bullish position on gold on a down day on 9/14 with the threat of US centric stagflation heightening.   

XLV – SPDR Healthcare We’re finally getting the correction we’ve been calling for in Healthcare. We like defensible growth with an M&A tailwind. Our Healthcare sector head Tom Tobin remains bullish on fading the “public plan” at a price.

CYB – WisdomTree Dreyfus Chinese Yuan
The Yuan is a managed floating currency that trades inside a 0.5% band around the official PBOC mark versus a FX basket. Not quite pegged, not truly floating; the speculative interest in the Yuan/USD forward market has increased dramatically in recent years. We trade the ETN CYB to take exposure to this managed currency in a managed economy hoping to manage our risk as the stimulus led recovery in China dominates global trade.

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. We believe that future inflation expectations are currently mispriced and that TIPS are a efficient way to own yield on an inflation protected basis, especially in the context of our re-flation thesis.

UUP – PowerShares US Dollar
We re-shorted the US Dollar on strength on 10/20. It remains broken across all 3 investment durations and there is no government plan to support it.

FXB – CurrencyShares British Pound Sterling
The Pound is the only major currency that looks remotely as precarious as the US Dollar. We shorted the Pound into strength on 10/16.

XLP – SPDR Consumer Staples Strong day for Consumer Staples on 10/16, prompting a short versus our low beta long position in Utilities (XLU).

USO – US OIL Fund We shorted oil on 10/12 and 10/21 and are currently off sides, but with oil getting more over bought we are adding to the position.  Ultimately, the threat of higher interest rates, will be bearish for oil.  In addition, we are concerned with the bearish supply in the shorter term.

EWJ – iShares Japan While a sweeping victory for the Democratic Party of Japan has ended over 50 years of rule by the LDP bringing some hope to voters; the new leadership  appears, if anything, to have a less developed recovery plan than their predecessors. We view Japan as something of a Ponzi Economy -with a population maintaining very high savings rate whose nest eggs allow the government to borrow at ultra low interest levels in order to execute stimulus programs designed to encourage people to save less. This cycle of internal public debt accumulation (now hovering at close to 200% of GDP) is anchored to a vicious demographic curve that leaves the Japanese economy in the long-term position of a man treading water with a bowling ball in his hands.

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. Yields are going to continue to make higher-highs and higher lows until consensus gets realistic.

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A Tale of Two Asset Classes: The Dollar and Oil




“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” –Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities



Despite being a knucklehead hockey player, I have found time over the years to read a few classics, and Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities is one of them.   The longish quote above is, of course, the well known first paragraph of this book.   The book was set in Paris and London during and before the French revolution and would go on to become the most printed original English book with over 200 million copies. 



I won’t endeavor to make too many parallels between investing, and Dickens’ classic, but I do think the opening paragraph is an apt description for what we have seen in the oil and U.S. dollar markets in the year-to-date.  For oil bulls, it has been the best of times, while for U.S. dollar bulls it has been the worst of times.



Our Lead Desk Analyst, Andrew Barber, prepared the chart below, which outlines the performance of oil, the U.S. dollar index, and the U.S. dollar versus the Canadian dollar over the past three years.  We referenced the chart at 100 to start and then graphed the performance of all three over the past three years.   Not surprisingly, the peak of oil last summer coincided with the trough of both the U.S. dollar index and the strength of the Canadian dollar versus the U.S. dollar.  This is a theme that we have been harping on consistently all year, but was really set in motion in 2008 with the meteoric rise, and then crash of oil.



Interestingly, both the U.S. dollar index and the Canadian and U.S. Dollar exchange rate are once again near the extremes of last summer when the oil hit its all time highs.  In fact, on a weekly basis the U.S. dollar index is 87.73 as of Oct. 20th and the Canadian Dollar to U.S. Dollar ratio is 91.687 as of Oct. 20th.  These are close to the all time lows for both ratios, which imply a weak dollar. In fact, when oil peaked in July of 2008, the U.S. dollar on both ratios was at very close to the same place.  Oil, on the other hand, was north of $140 per barrel versus its current price of just under $80. 



In our Oil Black Book from September, we cautioned about using expert projections for Oil, as collectively they tend to converge around the current month price and project that forward based on recent price action.  The consensus projections for the spot price of crude oil in early September were:



A Tale of Two Asset Classes: The Dollar and Oil - a6



Obviously based on where we are today, those price targets seem way off.  And likely they will be adjusted upwards if they haven’t been already.  Now the point is not to highlight that 35+ experts in aggregate were way off (although that is important to remember), but rather just to emphasize that consensus itself can be way off, and in a much shorter period of time than anyone could have imagined.



A question we often get is whether the U.S. dollar is a consensus short.  While its weakness may be well known and the reasons for that weakness as well, the question remains, even if consensus is bearish, is it bearish enough?  While we have shorted oil recently and are currently off sides, our longer term view is that oil price has an upwards and to the right trajectory, primarily for supply reasons.



When I look at the U.S. dollar market and oil market over the last three years, I am certain of one thing, they will move together and the move will be on a larger scale than anyone expects.  So, if your thesis is that oil will retest its July 2008 highs in the coming months, a primary factor will be the U.S. dollar and in the scenario of parabolic oil prices, no one is currently bearish enough on the U.S. dollar.




Daryl G. Jones
Managing Director


A Tale of Two Asset Classes: The Dollar and Oil - a2

Slouching Towards Wall Street… Notes for the Week Ending Friday, October 16, 2009

Market Crash Anniverary Edition – Monday, October 19th 2009


This Week in the Screed:

Springtime for Blankfein – It’s the Real Economy, Stupid!


Wall Street Forced To Share The Wealth – With Washington?


Ken Lewis, Meet Hester Prynne – Immaterial Girl



Springtime For Blankfein


Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.

                   - F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Rich Boy”


It has been a treat, watching the people of this great land as they twist and writhe and try like hell to dodge each gold-clad salvo from Wall Street.  Like peas hopping in a skillet, the Common Folk have been trying to find a place where they can set down, without being set off again by the scorching metal.


Maybe a better analogy is a cornered fox set upon by hounds.  What a thrill to watch the tiny animal as it yelps and leaps and twists and snaps and tries to save itself from being crushed and mangled when the dogs finally decide which of them will have first go at it.


Yes, that would be it.  A small, cornered beast trying desperately to find an escape – even a corner to hide in, small enough that the predators can’t rout it out.


A year ago there was no end of hand-wringing from Washington and the nation’s press as politicians and pundits prognosticated, columnists and commentators caviled, editorialists execrated, reporters ratiocinated, nabobs nattered and bloggers… uhm… blogged about the danger that “this” might spill over into “the real economy.”


There’s good news.  The Wall Street Journal, in an appropriately modest one-column headline (14 October, “Wall Street On Track To Award Record Pay”), reports that Wall Street is “on pace to pay their employees about $140 billion this year – a record high.”  The top 23 investment banks, hedge funds, and exchanges paid aggregate compensation of $130 billion in 2007 – the record so far.  Lucky for them, last year saw a market meltdown of Biblical proportions.  As has by now become excruciatingly clear to all – particularly excruciating to those who are still kicking themselves for missing perhaps the greatest one-two punch short-the-world to massive-short-squeeze trading opportunity in history – the markets have been rocked by successive tsunamis of volatility.  And, in case you still haven’t figured it out, Wall Street doesn’t get paid to make you money.  It gets paid to handle transactions.

Volatility = lots of transactions.


Lots of transactions = lots of transaction fees.


Lots of transaction fees = the biggest payday in Wall Street history.


We hope you made some money along the way, too.  Because your broker sure did.


The Journal reports the combined revenues of these firms are projected to hit $437 billion – an increase of some 27% over 2007’s all-time peak of $345 billion.  At these levels, we’re talking orders of magnitude.  And you used to chuckle when you teased them by calling them “Masters of the Universe”…


Banks and investment firms argue that they must continue to pay top dollar, otherwise their top talent will leave.  As witness the government forcing Citi to divest its Phibro trading unit, that prediction was dead on the money.


Are you shocked to read (Financial Times, 14 October, “AIG Staff Resist Pressure On Bonuses”) that Neil Barofsky, the SIGTARP (“Special Inspector-General for the Troubled Assets Relief Program”.  Sigtarp – it sounds so Star Wars, doesn’t it?) “found that AIG staff were resisting paying back part of the $168m retention payments” – the “stay bonuses” that were handed out to make sure that the people who understood how these ditzy instruments worked would stay on at AIG until a good portion of their positions were unwound – although we are not told who these instruments will  be sold to.  We bet the New York Fed is on the short list of potential bidders.


Today, we still don’t know who received the $700 billion of TARP money – indeed, we don’t even know whom to blame for the fact that we don’t know.  And Washington has no perceptible sense of urgency regarding either transparency or significantly enhanced capital requirements.


In our world, a surge in market averages is equated with an overall lift in global wellbeing (WSJ, 15 October, “Dow At 10000 As Crisis Ebbs”).  “Crisis Ebbs” as in, the Crisis was on Wall Street – not Main Street.  The definition of “global” is a bit narrower than you might think.


The Wall Street Journal reports (15 October, “Junk Is Hot, Except On Street”) “As investors have piled into high-yield bonds this year and shown a healthy appetite for risk and returns, one contingent has remained notably cautious: Wall Street.”  That opening sentence tells the whole story, and then some.  Curiously, the Journal column does not tie up the loose ends.


We at Research Edge have gone to pains to point out the obvious and fundamental conflict of interest inherent in the finance industry: that the Art of Managing Money is the Art of Having Other People’s Money to Manage.  OPM syndrome drives Wall Street.  Thus, the smart move is to look at what Wall Street is selling – then run the other way.


Read again that opening sentence from the Journal’s report.  Investors are buying high-yield bonds, Wall Street is selling them.  Which side of this trade would you like to be on?  The article quotes one high-yield fund manager as observing that buy orders have run seven to one over sell orders in recent weeks.  The same issue of the Journal (“Bond Ebullience Is Raising Eyebrows”) reports “the BofA Merrill Lynch US High Yield Index has gained nearly 49.4%” since January of this year. 


Put these two reports side by side and a picture of a feeding frenzy emerges, no doubt sparked by Wall Street’s sales force.  What it fails to point out is that Wall Street also has the opportunity to charge more for each transaction. 


Not holding junk bonds in inventory, bond desks have to source them from the street to fill customer orders.  According to regulation and practice, this means it is “harder” to fill these orders, thereby justifying a larger mark-up on each trade.  It also leaves a gap to be filled – and Wall Street abhors a vacuum.  Watch for significant new junk offerings to come flying down the pike, no doubt signaling the death of the sector.


As former World Heavyweight Champion Economist Hyman Minsky would likely point out, a feeding frenzy generally ends badly.  Or, as Marlin Perkins would observe in his fabled Wild Kingdom” television series, when the voracious carnivores have eaten the last scrap, they often turn on one another.


Those in government and the press who noisily worried about Wall Street infecting Main Street are guilty of spreading a pernicious lie.  The global financial crisis was sparked by problems in housing finance.  These problems spawned a human crisis of massive proportions, undercutting decades of wealth building and turning families out of homes in which they had long felt secure. 


Government processes, legal structures, and politicians at every level failed to exercise their legal or moral authority to protect their Main Street constituents in a rush to pander to the financial interests that pay for political campaigns.  Indeed, we suspect that a detailed review of decision failure would show significant instances where local officials attempted to intervene for the benefit of their constituents, only to be warned off by officials at the state level.  This is because of the stratification of sources of campaign monies.  We believe such a detailed study would be highly informative – and we are comfortable that such a review will never take place.


We suffered through what was fundamentally a housing crisis.  Proposals were put forward by academics.  Professor Luigi Zingales at the University of Chicago recommended a program to replace troubled mortgages with a combination of full-recourse financing and government-guaranteed non-recourse financing.  He argued that this would ease the pressure on homeowners who had taken zero-down mortgages by placing them on the hook for what they could actually pay, while limiting the cost to the government. 


FDIC Chair Sheila Bair had similar comments, focused on keeping families in their homes, while limiting the cost to the taxpayers.


But the powers that be weren’t having any of it.  The housing crisis was sold to the public as a banking crisis, and elected and appointed officials lined up to throw America under the bus.  Let there be no mistaking what constitutes the “Real” economy in this country – it’s Wall Street.  Main Street exists to buy our inventory. 


In case you find this troubling, don’t worry.  We will be OK.


Washington does not have the political will to force substantive change in our financial markets.  Which means that as far as Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan and the other 21 largest financial institutions are concerned, the United States of America is still Too Big To Fail.




Tax This


The beggars have changed places, but the lash goes on.

                   - W.B. Yeats


What’s all the fuss?  You would think that the unheard-of had just been broached when the weekend Wall Street Journal ran its piece on the notion of taxing Wall Street where they live (10-11 October, “Democrats Weigh Tax On Financial Transactions”). 


Those who have never been in the brokerage business – or who have never scrutinized their brokerage confirms – may not be aware of the processing fees that have long been part of the standard ticket charges for every retail transaction.  As successive waves of the bull markets surged over the past decades, commissions as a percent of total transaction cost were driven ever lower, even as volume was exploding.  Back in the 1990’s major brokerage firms – and quite a lot of minor ones – started tacking a “processing fee” onto their tickets.  Household name firms with global operations were billing their retail customers $25 per ticket, in addition to commissions.


The justification for this was that there were many costs associated with processing trades.  The real reason the brokerage firms did it was – they could.  Occasionally a customer would balk and sometimes the charge would be stricken or reduced.  But most customers didn’t even notice.


In the pre-emancipation plantation economy, there were two classes of slaves – Field Slaves and House Slaves.  According to popular street sociology, House Slaves saw themselves as superior to the Field Slaves, because they worked in the homes and interacted with the families of the masters.  While a slave is a slave is a slave, we suppose some may draw a modicum of comfort from the notion that they enjoy a unique position in the Great Chain of being – that of being able to look through the window onto large masses of folks who are far worse off.


Everything, of course, is relative.  The retail investors at the height of the bull market were, it turns out, the House Slaves of Wall Street.  Do you remember this television commercial advertising discount stockbrokerage services?  It featured a man being wheeled into the emergency room with frantic doctors racing the gurney down the corridors and shouting “He’s got money coming out the wazoo!”  Turns out what they were really selling was a Bill Of Goods.


Washington has caught on.  We’re all House Slaves now.




The Scarlet Letter


A pure hand needs no glove to cover it.

          - Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Scarlet Letter”


Imagine the chagrin of Citigroup’s risk managers to see their peccadilloes revealed in the Wall Street Journal (16 October, “Muted Cheer As Citi Posts Profit”): “A person familiar with the matter said the lackluster performance wasn’t due to a single bad bet as much as “a collection of immaterial items that in the aggregate were material.”


If that doesn’t describe the global attitude that led to the implosion in the world’s financial markets, we don’t know what does.


By now it is trite to observe that senior management sets the tone in every firm.  It is our hallucination that the risk managers and compliance officers at Goldman Sachs or J.P. Morgan would not have considered those items “immaterial.”  Indeed, to a truly world-beating organization, nothing is ever immaterial.  The world is now reaping the fruits of a politicized global process which steadfastly supports institutionalized incompetence and unbridled avarice.  Entitlement has been substituted for performance, and excess for risk management. 


How else are we to explain, for example, a multi-billion dollar industry where the seller routinely performs the due diligence for the buyer?  We refer, of course, to the ratings agencies, who fell about in a frenzy, handing out triple-A ratings to illiquid interparty contracts like cigarettes in a prison.  CDS issuers all but dictated which issues would receive which ratings, nor did the buyers perform any diligence beyond determining what rating was slapped on the issues they were loading up on.


Everyone – sellers, buyers and raters – knew these contracts were illiquid.  But the sellers were getting paid to manufacture product, and – like taggers in a railyard at midnight – the raters were writing their great big “A” everywhere.  The managers were getting paid a percentage of assets under management.  And what better way to attract new money than by telling your investors you have access to a unique investment with a AAA rating? 


Just imagine the attraction to an investor of dealing with a money manager who has an exclusive in to an investment that provides a steady, above-market yield, and with no risk.  Shades of Bernie Madoff... 


What underlay this cycle of blatant irresponsibility?  The issuers are to blame – but perhaps the least.  They issued instruments for which there was demand.  And, when there was a new condition to that demand – the obtaining of an investment grade rating – they dutifully complied.  The raters are worthy of blame, but their business model was always predicated on conflict, as they sell ratings to the issuers themselves, and not to the end buyer.


So, as shameless as the conduct of the issuers and the ratings agencies was, it is the buyers who should get the biggest and reddest “A” of all.  As managers of OPM, their fiduciary duty was to perform due diligence on the instruments in their portfolios.  This they not only failed to do – we would go so far as to say they consciously refused.  And why?



By issuing a security bearing the AAA rating and by marketing it on the basis of the rating – and by the money managers buying it with their clients’ money – the parties to this transaction, while not particularly careful about the actual exposure to the investors, were certainly working to protect themselves against lawsuits. 


This gives rise to the Perfect Storm theory, where everyone gets to point a finger in a different direction, yet no one has to take responsibility for bad judgment born of willful negligence.


As we read about Citi, the entire world was beset by “a collection of immaterial items that in the aggregate were material.”  This is precisely the refrain we have heard from Pennsylvania Avenue, to Wall Street, to Main Street and back again.  And it doesn’t look set to get any better anytime soon.


In his response to well-informed questioning from Congressman Alan Grayson (D. Florida) earlier this year, Secretary Geithner said the answer to stabilizing the financial system is “Capital, capital, capital.”  Yet, last week Geithner told Maria Baritromo that “credit is the oxygen” of the financial system.  Want to have it both ways?  No problem.  Not only can we can get you that AAA rating, we also have a bunch of retired academics to tell you it’s OK.


By the way, the Obama Administration has gotten a triple-A rating of its own, in the person of Paul Volcker.  The former central banker, widely recognized as someone who actually knew what to do, and did it in the face of political odds, has now voiced (again) his concern that bank bailouts have created a situation of precisely the kind of moral hazard we have been clamoring against.  It turns out that Volcker is the Trophy Wife of the Obama economic team.  He gets trotted out before the press corps whenever the President needs to show off, but like other bimbos, Mr. Volcker is to be seen, but not heard.


And so we were swamped by a Perfect Storm of our own making. And having hit upon the formula, we appear to seeding the clouds for the next one.


Meanwhile, the current debate is astounding.  From Washington to the mainstream press – two well-known sources of inaccuracies, misdirection, and outright lies – we hear about nothing but lawyers.


The New York Times reports (16 October, “Bank Chief Forgoes Pay For 2009”) that Bank of America’s Ken Lewis has agreed to waive his compensation for this year.  The factor that appears to have weighed heavily in Ken Lewis’ decision was a change of opinion on the part of the law firm of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, who “initially advised Bank of America to withhold information about the perilous state of Merrill from the bank’s shareholders, but later advised it to alert federal officials to the growing losses.”


Here’s the bit that is missing from the ongoing debate:  The lawyers don’t make decisions.


We remember watching as members of Congress retreated during their grilling of Chairman Bernanke in the early stages of the BofA inquiry.  At key points in his testimony, Bernanke would reply by saying “we conferred with our lawyers.”  We were stunned at the passivity the word “lawyer” induced in the tight-lipped interlocutors.  As though under post-hypnotic suggestion, the questioners’ demeanor would instantly change and a look of helplessness would steal across their faces.  And when the questioning resumed, it was with a marked sense of lassitude. 


Oh, for the days of NYPD Blue!  We allowed ourselves to revel for a brief moment in a vision of Dennis Frantz smacking Bernanke across the back of the head and saying “Now I’m your lawyer, you son of a bitch!”


The debate has completely lost sight of the fact that it was Ken Lewis, his fellow executives (which ones, we may never find out) and – specifically – the board of directors who made the decisions to acquire Merrill Lynch, to hide the fact of the excess losses, and to cover up the whole process after the magnitude of the losses became public knowledge.  Even assuming cajoling and strong-arming from Messrs Paulson and Bernanke, it was still down to Mr. Lewis and his board to determine what course of action to take.  Lawyers give advice, based on what they believe they can justify in a court of law.  No law firm is beholden to BofA’s shareholders.  Buried in the inner page of this same story, the Times sees fit to report “Legal experts say the ultimate responsibility may lie with Bank of America, not its lawyers.”  Since when was there any question?


As to this current crop of disasters, no one in this sorry circle of negligence ever placed the investors’ interests first.  Rather, the guiding thought in everyone’s mind was, we will be all right if we are sued because the paper was rated AAA.  Thus has the world come to rely, not upon analysis and integrity, but upon the prophylactic use of third party advocates who, as Hamlet’s drunken porter says, “could swear in both the scales against either scale.”


Washington and Wall Street alike should note that even a drunken gatekeeper recognized that they could not equivocate their way into Heaven.


And there are some things that even your lawyers can not protect you from.


The New York Times (14 October, “E-Mail Shows Concerns Over Merrill Deal”) quotes an e-mail from Bank of America director Charles K. Gifford to another member of the board.  In the heat of a conference call where Ken Lewis revealed to the Board the egregious terms of the government bailout, and the staggering – and heretofore undisclosed – tally of losses on Merrill’s books, Gifford fired off an email saying “Unfortunately, it’s screw the shareholders!!” 

Thomas May, his fellow director, wrote back, “No trail.” 


So much for discretion.  Sending that “No trail” e-mail is the equivalent of posting a giant sign in the boardroom that says REMEMBER TO SHRED ALL INCRIMINATING DOCUMENTS.  With idiots like this on their board of directors, should any of us wonder at the position BofA finds itself in?

Bearish Buck Consensus?

We re-shorted the US Dollar via the UUP etf again yesterday. The most asked question in my inbox was “isn’t that consensus?”


I don’t mean to demean the question. At this stage of the Burning Buck game, it’s the only one to answer. At the same time, you have to ask yourself if asking about consensus, is consensus?


After making enough mistakes (with real ammo) trading markets, I have come to conclude that you can either be Bullish, Bearish, or Not Enough of one of those two things. When it comes to the Burning Buck, I shorted it’s strength yesterday because I don’t think the newly awakened US Dollar Bears are Bearish Enough.


To be truly Bearish Enough requires some reading beyond your latest tweet. You can listen to the Johnny-Come-Latelys on CNBC, who are now running segments with lead-ins like “When Nixon abandoned the Gold Standard in 1971” (sound familiar?) to truly appreciate that consensus still has no idea how to analyze this fundamentally.


Niall Ferguson at Harvard is who I would call Bearish Enough. He’s looking for a -20% drop in the price of the US Dollar (FROM HERE) in the next 6-12 months. That would put the US Dollar index at $60!


Required reading from Fergusson would be his book titled the Ascent of Money. This fantastic economic history read was all part of the studying we did to make this Burning Buck call 9 months ago, but that doesn’t matter anymore. What matters is the here and now. Now all that matters are my risk management levels. I have outlined them in the chart below. The US Dollar remains in what we call a Bearish Formation.


The Buck is Burning to lower-lows again today (down another -0.5% to $75.19). Alongside that, the SP500 is chasing to higher-highs.


Questions about consensus, can also be consensus…



Keith R. McCullough
Chief Executive Officer


Bearish Buck Consensus? - BUCK