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Slouching Towards Wall Street… Notes for the Week Ending Friday, December 25, 2009

The Committee To Trash The World

 

There ain’t no way to find out why a snorer can’t hear himself snore.
  - Mark Twain

 

“Economist heroes?  It all sounds silly unless you understand how close the world came to economic meltdown last year.”  That quote is not Fox News’ latest endorsement of Bernanke and Geithner, nor is it the Wall Street Journal’s grudging acknowledgement of Paul Krugman.  No, it is Time magazine trumpeting “the Committee To Save The World”, as they praised Alan Greenspan, Lawrence Summers, and Robert Rubin on February 15, 1999.  Ten years later, they anointed successor Ben Bernanke as Person Of The Year for 2009.

 

For many observers, the handing on of the politicized economic legacy could not have been more explicit if a puff of white smoke had issued from a turret atop the Fed building, for Ben Bernanke is the child of his Trinity of spiritual fathers. 

 

A glimpse into the world of ten years ago is instructive.  Making him seem like some international sex symbol, Time describes Summers sitting in the Frankfurt airport on his way back from “a hectic trip to Moscow.”  After presenting a litany of the globe’s financial woes, the article gives us this prescient gem: “awful as the Asian correction is, it was, in a sense, inevitable because those economies had trundled billions of dollars into useless real estate and industrial development.”  Apparently Summers – returned to Washington with the Obama Administration – failed to see a correspondence to the real estate excesses, coupled with the overbuilding in the financial sector that combined to tip America and the world into the toilet this time around.  We aren’t economists, and even we get it.  The scary thought is, perhaps the reason that we get it is because we are not economists.

 

“We start with the idea that you can’t repeal the laws of economics” says the Ghost of Larry Summers Past, “even if they are inconvenient.”  Astonishingly, even as he spoke those words, Summers and his two partners were in the process of giving that fundamental point the official heave-ho.  Indeed, as this triumvirate was directly responsible for the government policy of abandoning regulation, one might say the laws of economics had been suspended by government fiat, even as they were being touted.

 

Tracing the waves of financial disaster as they emerged from the “Asian Contagion”, Time identifies the “breathtaking” speed of the global collapse as proof that markets had changed and become fundamentally much more volatile.  Quoting Summer’s favorite analogy, the article likens the global capital markets to a jet plane.  “They are faster, more comfortable, and they get you where you are going better.   But the crashes are much more spectacular.”

 

The fact is that this team of three Really Smart Guys had also been credited with some major accomplishments.  The Time story credits Rubin, for example, with single-handedly preventing the Korean debt panic from morphing into a crash in the US marketplace.  Students of economic history disagree about the extent to which Rubin also directly caused that crisis by forcing the Korean financial markets to buy up derivative contracts created by US investment banks as a condition of Korea receiving $57 billion in loans from the IMF. 

 

A fourth RSM (“Really Smart Guy”) makes a cameo appearance in the article.  Tim Geithner, then a 37-year-old Undersecretary for International Affairs, is quoted as saying Rubin ran Treasury “more like an investment bank”.  We are not told what Geithner meant by that remark, though in the next sentence, other staffers credit Rubin with fostering discussion and eliciting ideas from his staff.  It is astonishing to think that the development of brilliant ideas might not be what the job of governing is supposed to be about – and perhaps equally surprising to realize that investment banking is less about coming up with brilliant concepts than it is about forcing someone else to hand over their money.


The remaining question is: how did these RSM’s get it so wrong?  And maybe the answer is simply that they blurred the distinctions between government and business with the conviction that the private sector knows best.

 

President Clinton supposedly found Hillary’s friend Brooksley Born too boring to make her his Attorney General.  As a consolation prize, she was put in charge of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.  She has long refused to speak for the record, but her staffers were unequivocal that in her first meeting with Greenspan, the Fed Chairman attacked the notion that free markets need any kind of regulation at all.  Free markets, he is supposed to have told the newly-minted CFTC chief, do not need regulation.  They will regulate themselves.

 

As with every other idea the RSM’s came up with, this notion of self-regulated markets worked really well. Until it didn’t.

Let’s face it, Wall Street executives think politicians are a bunch of idiots, so going into politics is seen not so much as making a contribution, as showing them how to really run the system properly.  Folks like Rubin really believe that the best “service” they can perform is to show government how it’s really done.  As young Tim Geithner said: run Treasury more like an investment bank.  You know, winners and losers…  It’s a short step from bringing private sector know-how into government, to placing government at the service of the private sector.

 

Fade out, fade in.  Ten years have gone by and the latest RSM, Bernanke, is on the cover of Time magazine.  While we have admiration for his intellect, and for his academic achievements, both Mr. Bernanke and those who rely on him would do well to keep an eye on the interface between Government-Think and Wall Street-Think.  If the Fed’s job is to manage inflation, then its brief is to permit growth, not stimulate it. 

 

The place of speculation in the marketplace is to add liquidity, resources, information and a certain depth to the markets.  The social policy reason banks are allowed to engage in investment banking – and in lower-risk ways of making outlandish returns, such as overdraft charges and ATM fees – is to provide low-cost capital for lending, which is the legitimate purpose of banking.  Indeed, this is the clear social policy reason for what we have dubbed the “piggy banker spread” – the lopsided yield spreads that are pouring billions of dollars of revenues into the pockets of Wall Street were supposed to stimulate lending and business investment.  Instead, they are going to year-end bonuses to managements who have generated staggering losses, drawn down a trillion dollars in government bailouts, and wiped out their shareholders.  Financial institutions whose existence is predicated on speculation were transformed into banks by regulatory legerdemain that would make Harry Potter jealous.  Now that they have the backing of people’s life savings, and the guarantee of the Fed, they can continue to speculate without jeopardizing their bonus pools.

 

The fundamental – though far from simple – job of financial regulation is to keep speculation as a layer in a functioning marketplace.  Speculation, from a regulator’s perspective, should serve the market.  Our markets are being run with the express purpose of serving the speculators. 

 

As we wave farewell to an eventful year, we suggest Time’s new Person of the Year would do well to look closely at his predecessors’ mistakes.  Events have a nasty habit of proving over and over again that no one is smarter than the market, though quite a lot of folks have turned out to be dumber.

 

Happy New Year, Chairman Bernanke.

 

 

 

 

 

The B.S. Artists Of The Possible

 

It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them.
  - Mark Twain

 

We have to admit to a bias in favor of SEC Chief Schapiro.  We always thought she was decent, and were impressed by what the market professionals engaged reported about her handling of the NASD/NYSE regulatory merger that gave rise to FINRA.  While we are the first to admit that even we are susceptible to having the wool pulled over our eyes, we think it would be a shame if Mary Schapiro gets knocked down from her pedestal.

 

A shame – though, in the world of Wall Street, not a total shock.


Slouching Towards Wall Street… Notes for the Week Ending Friday, December 25, 2009 - CS


Bloomberg filed a story on the first day of winter (21 December, “Hot Seat For SEC Chief Schapiro Won’t Cool Off”) reporting on two lawsuits claiming that Schapiro colluded with other senior NASD officials to dupe the membership out of substantial amounts of money in the lead-up to the merger of the NASD and NYSE regulatory regimes that resulted in FINRA.

 

Those who were NASD members at the time will recall the hoopla about the $35,000 demutualization payment that the NASD doled out to its member firms.  Firms were disdainful, demoralized and disgusted at the pittance they were being handed for their trouble as Schapiro et al showed them the door.  At the time, the NASD insisted that was the maximum the IRS would permit them to pay.

 

Fade out, fade in, and enter who of all people but Judge Jed Rakoff – will no one rid me of this meddlesome jurist?! – who is hearing the case against Schapiro.  He has instructed FINRA’s counsel to tell the court what the real IRS number was.  The IRS letter on which Schapiro based her statement – which Bloomberg reports was not even issued by the IRS until three months after the number was announced to the membership – is presently under seal, at the request of guess who (hint: not the IRS).  Judge Rakoff is due to rule in January whether the seal will come off. In the meantime, he instructed FINRA to indicate to the court whether the IRS’s number was, in fact, as represented by FINRA, or perhaps somewhat different.  In response to Judge Rakoff’s instruction, FINRA’s counsel said the actual IRS number was “something like $35,000 to $76,000 on top” of the $35,000 figure the member firms actually received.


A stalwart member of the legal profession, a warrior who has crouched in his fair share of foxholes in the Wall Street wars, attorney Bill Singer offered a doozy of a piece on Forbes.com (8 December, “Regulators Plead Poverty”) in which he tossed around some of FINRA’s numbers. 

 

In November of 2008 – right at the time then-SEC Chairman Cox was admonishing Wall Street firms not to cut back on compliance as a cost-saving measure – “FINRA asked 300 of its senior staff (about 10% of its staff) to take voluntary early retirement.”  Singer estimates this to be a savings on the order of $30 million – taken precisely at the time Chairman Cox was wagging his well-manicured finger at Wall Street about maintaining the Culture of Compliance.

 

Why did FINRA need all that money?

 

Singer references an investigative report from Investment News that claims FINRA “spent some $13 million on salaries for just 13 of its heavy hitters” in 2008, the same year that FINRA reported a $696.3 million loss.  The Chief Administrative Officer alone made $4.4 million.  Singer muses “how the hell does a regulator lose $696 million?”  We muse: how does a regulator pull down seven figures?  And when can we apply for the job?

 

Having that kind of hole in the budget explains FINRA’s need to save cash.  We wonder whether early retirement was also made attractive enough that none of the senior staffers who were mustered out will be disappointed with what they are getting.  These are precisely the folks who know where the bodies are buried.  It is presumably in FINRA’s best interest to keep them happy – and hence, quiet.

 

As to the magnitude of FINRA’s losses in 2008, loyal readers of this Screed will recall (week ending May 8, 2009, “An Offer We Can’t Refuse”) disgusted FINRA member firms speculating that the reason for a sudden surge in FINRA examinations – and their attendant laundry list of nit picking procedural fines – was not regulatory zeal, but an empty till.  “I can’t believe how many times they’ve been here so far this year,” one incredulous compliance officer said.  “FINRA must be broke!”  How zealous can a regulator be, after all, if it gave its top 300 executives the chop in the midst of the greatest financial crisis in generations? 

 

In that column we reported on speculation that FINRA had been a substantial investor in Madoff’s hedge fund – a logical connection, given how deeply enmeshed Madoff was in NASDAQ/FINRA, not to mention a straightforward explanation of where such a large loss came from.  We also pointed out the coincidence that FINRA had sold out its entire position in auction rate securities – some $800 million in its $1.5 billion endowment portfolio – before this market segment melted down, and before securities regulators in New York and Massachusetts – ultimately even FINRA – issued public warnings to investors on the risks of investing in auction rate securities.

 

Returning to Singer’s piece, he gives FINRA Chair Mary Schapiro’s compensation as on the order of $3.3 million in her last year at the agency, plus over $7 million in accumulated retirement benefits.  This is a gracious exit, though not excessive for a senior regulator of Schapiro’s stature and accomplishment.  Indeed, the NASD/NYSE consolidation alone was worth millions, and she gets the lion’s share of the credit for making it a reality.  In should not be forgotten that NASD was a private corporation, not a government agency.  Its officers’ compensation was really an issue for the membership, not the public.  Not for nothing, in comparison to what NYSE head Dick Grasso walked away with, Schapiro’s compensation package is an insult. 

 

Among the losses FINRA racked up, Singer also points out a $1 million item in the budget for lobbying.  This was for their trips to Washington to press for more resources.

 

On balance, we are more a fan than a critic of Chairman Schapiro.  She has trod the difficult path of being an intelligent, effective woman in the world of both Wall Street and Washington, and has retained her composure.  No mean feat.  In the politics of her current job, she steps far too gingerly to be effective.  Still, if politics is the Art of the Possible, we understand the attitude that believes it better to do 10% of a good job, and do it well, than fight for 100% of what one believes is right, with the assurance that one will lose.  We don’t like it, but we understand it.  In an environment where Congress are looking not for solutions, but scapegoats, and the President is running a severe testosterone deficit, it would be mean-spirited to criticize Chairman Schapiro for not being more like Sheila Bair.

 

We think the Bloomberg article heralds a coming press onslaught that will savage the regulatory agencies and reveal politicians in all their dirty little pettiness and greed.  Why on earth would anyone want to do that?

 

There has been much talk in the press about financial reform. Re-Regulation.  It is largely, we note, in the press.  It is not yet a Washington reality. Indeed, Washington seems to be doing everything in their power not to address financial regulatory reform.  On the heels of the greatest financial disaster our generation has known, President Obama immediately mobilized his political troops in an all-out assault on… health care reform.  Having set that well in motion, President Obama then turned his full attention to… climate change.

 

Now that President Obama has participated in the Copenhagen fiasco, and is on the verge of having his health non-care, non-reform bill signed, he will, like his predecessor, be able to proudly announce “Mission Accomplished!” to the American people and head off to slay the next dragon.  Which will be… financial reform?  Well, in case you forgot, January was the drop-dead date for negotiating with Iran.

 

We think that ultimately the changes on Wall Street will be far milder than threatened or feared.  When the dust settles, it will emerge that AIG and their ilk were well served by the muscle flexing of Pay Czar Feinberg.  This one-time slap – really a chump change grab in the grand scheme of things – will take most of the wind out of the sails of re-regulation, and will still leave the US looking more hospitable to crooks and capitalists than the UK and its Euro-buddies. 

 

The US is the only country in the world that does not require hedge funds to register.  So will they now have to do so?  Certainly.  Except for those who do not.  Private equity and venture capital, for example, are likely to be exempted because – so Senator Dodd – they do not pose systemic risk.  Final word on that will likely come only at the end of the SEC rule-making process. 

 

For those advisers who do register, will the SEC and FINRA become much more of a nuisance?  Certainly, since their examination and inspection functions will likely be run by the same kind of uneducated staffers who have traditionally been in charge.

 

This is good news for compliance professionals who have been in the business for a long time.  Note to hedge fund principals: you want to seek out compliance people with broker dealer experience, as they have spent years dealing with FINRA staff – of whom least said, soonest mended.  The SEC will no doubt be beset by a new zeal to get the Bad Guys, and cool heads and well organized compliance programs will be the order of the day.  If the past is anything to go by, FINRA and the SEC will hire more people, but not smarter ones.

 

But this is small stuff.  Wall Street, don’t worry.  This too shall pass – and quickly.  President Obama has not had the intestinal fortitude either to spank his own party for their bad behavior, or to strong-arm the opposition into submission.  As America’s leading Artist of the Possible, Obama has abdicated on both health care and climate change, merely to achieve a vote.  And there are bigger problems looming – problems where Wall Street will be able to play the role of a good citizen by expressing concern and outrage, and by financing the political campaigns of those who agree with them.

 

Who are you more scared of – Lloyd Blankfein with a registered handgun, or Ahmadinejad with an atom bomb?

 

Uh-huh.  We thought so.

 

 

Moshe Silver

Chief Compliance Officer

 


Oil: Eye on the Dollar, But . . .

In 2009, oil was driven by one primary factor, the U.S. dollar.  As the dollar weakened, those global commodities that were priced in U.S. dollars strengthened, namely oil and copper.  We measured this inverse correlation at almost 4.5:1.  Time will tell whether this relationship holds for 2010, but it is likely safe to assume any major move in the dollar will continue to impact oil in a similar manner.

 

Obviously, the price of oil is a critical component to any sustained consumer spending recovery.  The dramatic decline in oil in early 2009, on a year-over-year basis, was a key component of our theme, the MEGA squeeze, which played out in the first half of 2009 as the key components of consumer spending improved leading to a major short squeeze in consumer discretionary stocks.  Gasoline pricing in the back half of 2009 was incredibly stable, which is likely the best case scenario for consumers as one can plan their spending with a stable input.  From July 2009 to December 2009, gasoline was in a range of $2.46 to $2.69, which if sustained into 2010 would be a positive scenario for consumers.

 

Fundamentally as it relates to oil supply and demand, incremental growth in global GDP will lead to incremental growth in global oil demand, which should tighten the global oil market.  The inventory balance in the U.S. over the past 4-weeks may be foreshadowing a tighter supply and demand picture globally in 2010.  Inventory has fallen from 339MM barrels to 327MM barrels and days of supply has fallen in the same vein from 24.5 to 23.7.  While inventory levels are still slighly above their 5-year range, they are only marginally above that range.

 

Two weeks ago, the Department of Energy highlighted a key point as it relates to supply in their weekly statistical note, This Week In Petroleum.   According to the DOE:

 

"The majors’ upstream capital expenditures declined relative to Q308 but by much less than the fall in net income, and were about equal to the third quarter average for 2004-2008. In particular, worldwide oil and gas production capital expenditures fell 35 percent relative to Q308 and by a much smaller 1 percent relative to the third quarter average for 2004-2008."

 

Interestingly, according to this analysis, while capital expenditures for the world's major oil companies was down dramatically from 2008, in aggregate it was at a comparable level to the prior 5-years.  The implication of this is likely that while the oil price was volatile in 2009, companies continued to spend on exploration and development of future oil reserves, which is a signal that these major producers still believe supply in the future will be tight.

 

As the article goes on to note, despite this year-over-year drop off in capital expenditures, production is still growing:

 

"Notwithstanding the reduction in capital expenditures, oil and natural gas production in Q309 continued to show growth. In each of this year’s quarters (Q109, Q209, and Q309) the reporting companies’ aggregate domestic oil production, foreign oil production, domestic natural gas production, and foreign natural gas production all increased over the comparable quarter in the prior year and are the only quarters in which this has happened since Q401. Further, domestic and foreign oil and gas production in Q309 all exceeded the third-quarter average over the previous five years. The increases in production, despite the sharp drop in capital expenditures, resulted from the lagged effects of higher capital expenditures in earlier periods."

 

While the U.S. dollar will likely continue to drive the price of oil for the forseeable future, as oil comes back into balance on the demand side and the reduced capital expenditures in 2009 have some, even if muted, impact on supply, it seems likely that supply and demand data points become more important for the price of oil in 2010.

 

Daryl G. Jones

Managing Director


R3: How Sweet It Is

R3: How Sweet It Is 

December 28, 2009

 

So many people fail to realize both the uniformity and magnitude of the group move in retail. Today, we’re looking at 56% of companies in the ‘sweet spot’ of our SIGMA analysis. That’s absolutely not sustainable, and  with a 95% relationship to moves in the stocks this can’t be ignored.

 

 

TODAY’S CALL OUT

 

We’re seeing unprecedented uniformity in the triangulation between sales, inventories and margins among retailers.  While we all know this, I don’t think people realize the magnitude – which is evident by each company’s positioning in our SIGMA analysis. As a reminder, this analysis shows the trade-off a company is making at any given point in time on the balance sheet to drive the P&L, and vice versa. In a perfect world, both the balance sheet and P&L are headed in a positive trajectory at the same time. Today, we are looking at 56% of the 107 companies in our analysis in the ‘sweet spot’ of our analysis (sales growth outpacing in inventory growth, and margins headed higher), which is up from a mere 32% in 2Q. I have not seen a more meaningful positive move – ever. ‘Ever’ is a long time. As one might imagine, the stock moves associated with moves from one quadrant to the next are meaningful. Whenever a company moves out of Quadrant 1 – or even heads to a less attractive place in that quadrant, it is a negative stock move. And I’m not saying ‘sometimes it is a negative-ish move.’ We’re talking a .95x R2 with the average move usually squarely in the double digits.

 

What’s my point here?  Welcome to 2010. It is a stock picker’s market. Generating alpha by way of getting the group call right doesn’t mean squat anymore. Company fundamentals matter, and they matter big. When we re-run the analysis below in 13 weeks, we won’t see 56% of the companies in the sweet spot. Pick your battles…

 

 

R3: How Sweet It Is  - Ind sigma1 12 09

 

R3: How Sweet It Is  - sigma2 ind 12 09 

 

 

LEVINE’S LOW DOWN 

 

  • The longest line of the holiday season award goes to Uggs! The brand’s Soho, NY retail outlet consistently (before and after Dec 25th) had a line 20 deep with customers waiting for entry into the store. Thankfully there were “bouncers” keeping the line in order as customers waited, rain or shine.

 

  • Gamestop.com saw a 45% increase in its number of unique visitors for the month of November, attracting 7 million visits for the month and making it the second most visited consumer electronics site. Despite the large increase, Bestbuy.com remained the number one most trafficked consumer electronics site, with 24 million unique visitors.

 

  • According to a survey by the National Retail Federation, 17% of retailers were expected to tighten their return policies following this holiday season. Fraud reduction is he main reason behind more restrictive policies.

 

  • For the first time, JCPenney's opened at 5 a.m. the day after Christmas and offered more than 100 in-store doorbuster deals. Sales were offered between 5 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Dec. 26 in stores and online.

 

 

MORNING NEWS 

 

US Retail Sales Grew over 3% Between November and Christmas Eve - U.S. retail sales rose an estimated 3.6% this holiday season from a year earlier, helped by online shopping and purchases of electronics, data from MasterCard Advisors’ SpendingPulse showed.  The spending estimate for Nov. 1 to Dec. 24 excludes automotive and gasoline sales, the Purchase, New York-based researcher said in an e-mail yesterday. SpendingPulse measures retail sales across all payment forms, including cash and checks. The firm didn’t disclose dollar spending totals. A jump in purchases the week before Christmas helped year- over-year electronics sales increase 6 percent since Black Friday on Nov. 27, and 5.9% for the holiday season starting Nov. 1, SpendingPulse said. More shopping occurred online, with sales rising 18% from Nov. 27 to Dec. 24. “People were more comfortable doing last-minute shopping online, especially with the bad weather,” Kamalesh Rao, director of economic research for SpendingPulse, said in a telephone interview yesterday. A snowstorm on the east coast the weekend before Christmas closed some malls early on Dec. 19 and kept shoppers at home. Sales of women’s and specialty apparel fell less than 1% from Nov. 1 to Dec. 24 compared with a year earlier as gains since Nov. 27 helped mitigate the drop. Colder weather may have accounted for a pickup in purchases, Rao said, while men’s clothing and footwear sales increased throughout the season. Jewelry sales rose 5.6 percent for November and December, while luxury retail excluding jewelry edged up 0.8% , SpendingPulse said. Men’s clothing sales gained 3.9% for the season and footwear sales rose 5%. <bloomberg.com>

 

Retailers across Britain enjoyed a good finish to a tough year, as the number of people hunting for a Boxing Day bargain soared by almost a fifth - This will further fuel expectations, backed up by data to be released today, that 2010 will be an easier year for retailers than the one just passed, despite the likelihood that consumers face big tax increases, further unemployment and lower public spending. The UK national preliminary figures for retail sector activity published by Experian yesterday showed that the number of shoppers on Boxing Day was 18.5% higher than last year. <independent.co.uk>

 

It hasn’t been a cakewalk, yet after the final big shopping weekend of the year and the onset of steeper markdowns, retailers are easing out of holiday selling into clearance mode feeling OK about business and ready to bring on spring. There’s been a discernible shift in the tone among retail executives in the last few weeks. Many predict improved margins and profits for the fourth quarter even with flattish sales, a consequence of lower inventories and demand. Beyond that, some suggest real and long-awaited top-line growth occurring in 2010, most likely in the second half. The upbeat outlook stems from a more controlled, less panicky holiday season. On Christmas Eve, “We went home with big smiles on our faces,” said Bloomingdale’s chairman and chief executive officer Michael Gould. “We feel good about the business and the quality of the business we ran. Last year in December we were drastically reducing inventory to get ourselves in a better position for spring. This year we had a very good flow of receipts all season long. We will continue to bring in newness unabated. With new receipts coming in, we have a good opportunity to keep the momentum going.” “There is certainly a more positive feeling and the sense that we’re back to a normal rhythm” of business, said Pete Nordstrom, president of merchandising for Nordstrom Inc. “We are happy we made our plans.” Lord & Taylor said it’s already been building up inventory. “Taking a more aggressive stance has paid dividends,” said Brendan Hoffman, president and ceo. “We have been trending in the mid- to upper-single digits. December should end up right there. We seemed to have recovered most of what we lost in the storm” that blanketed the Northeast on Dec. 19. American Apparel Inc. founder and ceo Dov Charney said that this year’s buy-one-get-one hosiery promotion was successful, but something the company wouldn’t typically turn to, given American Apparel’s dedication to all-season, basic mainstays like T-shirts. Rain and a little snow did affect Boscov’s, the Reading, Pa.-based department store chain, the day after Christmas. “It was not a plus day,” said a spokesman. ”But it was a successful season. While it wasn’t plus volume, it was volume at a very high level,” meaning less discounting. “We are predicting to be right on our inventory plan. We won’t have problems liquidating in January and February.” As far as sales next year, “We see a gradual improvement.” <wwd.com>

 

Forever 21 is moving quickly to boost its footprint in Japan with plans for three new stores next year - The fast-fashion giant said it will open the units in Tokyo late next spring in three shopping districts: Ginza, Shinjuku and the LaLaport Tokyo Bay development in Funabashi City. The Los Angeles-based chain launched its first store in Japan in April, an 18,000-square-foot location in Tokyo’s Harajuku shopping area. Company executives said then the chain wanted to have as many as 100 stores in the country, although the timing of the rollout hinges on finding the right locations.  “The business in Japan has been good, things are OK,” said Larry Meyer, executive vice president at Forever 21. “That market can easily absorb more stores. The retail districts in Japan are much different than the U.S. People don’t often cross from one into the other while shopping. ” With continuing turbulence in the U.S. economy, Asian markets have been a powerful lure. In another development, the trend-driven brand will open a large-concept, department-style store in Cerritos, Calif., in January in a freestanding former Mervyns location that spans 86,000 square feet, a move beyond malls that the company began exploring with the 2006 opening of a Forever 21 in a 40,000-square-foot former Saks Fifth Avenue in Pasadena, Calif. Forever 21 and Kohl’s Corp. won a joint bid to move into 46 vacant Mervyns stores last year after the midrange department store filed for bankruptcy. Forever 21 now operates more than 450 stores in the U.S., with international operations in Canada and Japan. <wwd.com>

 

NFL Looking into Helmet Safety - The NFL has begun to test models of helmets worn by players to try to determine which models might best protect players from suffering concussions during on-field collisions. But an article in the New York Times states that some rivals of the league's helmet sponsor, Riddell, as well as some outside experts claim faulty testing is being used to come up with new guidelines. <sportsonesource.com>

 

U.K. retailers offered fewer discounted products and cut prices less in the post-holiday season this year as consumers stepped up spending.

Shoppers in Britain spent 132 million pounds ($210 million) online on Dec. 25 alone, a 29% increase from a year earlier, according to estimates by payment-processing company Retail Decisions. The number of U.K. customers on Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, increased by 19%, Experian Plc said in an e-mailed statement. Retailers avoided last year’s pre-Christmas discounting by cutting inventory to “much healthier” levels. <bloomberg.com>

 

 

R3: How Sweet It Is  - R3 12 28 09 1

 

 

The sports retail group JD Sports has acquired stakes in the Australian and New Zealand distribution companies for rugby brand Canterbury - The move is a futher step by JD to increase its stake in the rugby clothing brand as well as to consolidate control of its global distribution. The retailer has taken 100% of the issued share capital of Canterbury International Australia and 51% of Canterbury New Zealand. Both companies were previously subsidiaries of New Zealand-based company Herald Island.

 

Ross Munro, who has control of Herald Island will hold the remaining 49% stake in the New Zealand organisation, along with CCC Nominees, and has agreed to become the CEO of CNZ. In a statement to the London Stock Exchange, JD said that it did not expect the acquisitions to be “materially earnings enhancing in the short terrm”, but that they would add to the group’s control of the Canterbury brand and its global marketing properties. Peter Cowgill, Executive Chairman of JD, said:”We are delighted with these strategic investments as they further enhance our ability to control the global development of the iconic Canterbury brand.”  <drapersonline.com>

 

Internet attack blocks some California consumers from reaching Amazon.com - A denial of service attack Wednesday left consumers in northern California unable to access web sites that use the Internet domain name system operated by Neustar, the company says. The sites included Amazon.com, according to the retailer.  <iinternetretailer.com>

 

Overstock signs a $20 million financing deal - Overstock.com has signed a financing agreement with U.S. Bancorp to provide financing of up to $20 million. The financing will be used to provide liquidity for the company`s day-to-day operations, says Jonathan Johnson, the e-retailer’s president. <internetretailer.com>

 

E-retail sales will grow by nearly 10% a year through 2013, eMarketer says - Online retail sales this year will be 0.6% lower than in 2008, but they will grow in 2010 and return to double-digit growth by 2011, predicts research firm eMarketer Inc. <internetretailer.com>

 

Chinese department store chain PCD is booming - While department stores in the U.S. face tough competition from online retailers and big-box giants, the department store chain PCD in China is booming. PCD has grown rapidly since opening its first store in 1998. PCD operates 16 department stores and one outlet mall. Earlier this month, it made its Hong Kong trading debut with shares soaring 30%, putting the little-known PCD in the industry's big leagues. The company now has a market capitalization of $1.3 billion, larger than some of the top names in the business. As the Chinese economy rebounds, shoppers are returning to the country's stores and investors are driving up the stock prices of Chinese department store chains. Those doing well include Beijing-based Parkson Retail Group, New World Department Store and Intime Department Store Group. Analysts point to how department stores benefit from double-digit growth in the country's GDP, thanks in part to nearly $600 billion in government stimulus. Beijing has also extended policies to promote consumer spending. In contrast to developed countries, China's e-commerce industry is still in its infancy and poses less of a threat to old-fashioned brick-and-mortar stores. More immediate danger might come from big-box stores. Best Buy and Walmart, for example, have ambitious China plans that could derail growth for some domestic department stores. However, the geography of Asian cities, more clustered and lacking in suburban sprawl, may mean it's harder for big-box chains to take root. <licensemag.com>

 

Best Buy has entered the Turkish market with a 4,200-square-meter store in Izmir. It's also the chain's first store in Europe. Ruşen Kopmaz, Best Buy Turkey president, explained the motive was that Izmir has high purchasing power. He said the company seeks to change the face of retailing in Turkey, a dynamic market with a young population. The company has founded interactive experience zones in the store and employees will provide a distinctive shopping experience. The chairman added that the "Geek Squads" of technology experts will offer consultancy to customer. "We aim to eliminate the chaos and inconsistent service mentality in Turkey's technology sector with these Geek Squads," says Kopmaz. The store is also eyeing Ankara as a store location. <licensemag.com>

 

The Tiger Woods saga has been very good and potentially profitable to some media companies, but there’s a new company that stands to benefit that you haven’t yet heard about. It’s called Off The Market and it’s the brainchild of some of the love partners of NFL players. The idea? To help strengthen the relationships between pro athletes and their significant others. “We want to help athletes sustain a positive and sexy relationship with their mates,” said Tia Robbins, wife of New York Giants defensive tackle Fred Robbins. Robbins will be hosting Off the Market’s first event this Monday in New York City, along with Jerika Johnstone, wife of former NFL player Lance Johnstone and Jasmine Silva, girlfriend of St. Louis Rams safety James Butler. The party is an exclusive, invite-only event that caters to the high-end athlete clientele the company seeks to draw in. The party is free-of-charge, but the company will make money by signing sponsors that will have access to the power players at the parties and through the Web site’s e-commerce page. <cnbc.com>

 

Anti -slavery campaigners in the UK pressure H&M and Zara - Anti-slavery campaigners in the UK are urging two high street fashion retailers H&M and Zara to stop selling clothes made with cotton from Uzbek picked by child labour. The Anti-Slavery International and the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) claim both retailers source garments from Beximco Textimes (Bextex) in Bangladesh, which has admitted it uses cotton from Uzbekistan harvested by children of 10 years old. The campaigners are urging the companies to implement an origin traceability system of the cotton in their products. <fashionnetasia.com>

 

Lingerie is up in the UK at John Lewis stores - John Lewis revealed this morning that sales from Sunday to Wednesday this week were up 27% on 2008 levels. Lingerie was a key drivers to the sales jump. <drapersonline.com>

 

South Korea’s consumer confidence was unchanged this month, reflecting concerns about the sustainability of the nation’s recovery - The sentiment index stood at 113 in December, the Bank of Korea said in an e-mailed statement in Seoul today. The gauge reached 117 in October, the highest reading in more than seven years. A figure exceeding 100 indicates optimists exceed pessimists. The central bank left its benchmark interest rate at a record-low 2% on Dec. 10 as it seeks to strengthen the nation’s economic recovery. Governor Lee Seong Tae said the bank shouldn’t wait too long before gradually raising borrowing costs, provided the recovery maintains momentum. The Korean economy will expand 4.6%bnext year, the fastest pace in three years, as a pickup in the global economy boosts demand for the nation’s goods, the central bank said Dec. 11. The bank said it would “maintain the accommodative policy stance for the time being.” While the economy remains on a “recovery trend” amid improvements in exports and consumer spending, there is “uncertainty” about the outlook, it said. Exports rose for the first time in 13 months in November. The benchmark Kospi stock index has risen 8 percent this month and the won fell 0.8% in the same period against the dollar. The consumer confidence index was based on a survey of 2,200 households in 56 major cities, conducted by mail and telephone between Dec. 11 and 18. <bloomberg.com>

 


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Chiang Mai Time

“Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.”

-Leroy Satchel Paige

 

Satchel Paige was an American baseball legend who played ball from 1. He was the 1st player from the Negro Leagues to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. He was one of America’s great winners.

 

The saddest part about Paige’s success is probably that it took America too long to realize it. The man didn’t play his first game in Major League Baseball until he was 42 years old. American Groupthink isn’t new. It’s always been a part of our culture. We are human. So are the Chinese.

 

This morning the Chinese are reminding us that: 1. they are still wearing the pants in this relationship and 2. they aren’t leaving this new game of global financial risk anytime soon. China is heading into 2010 with a full head of political and economic steam. If America and Europe don’t let her into the major league of global finance, China may very well just start up her own.

 

This morning, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), plus China, Japan, and South Korea, have announced that they are moving forward with the Chiang Mai Initiative and forming a $120 billion foreign-currency reserve pool. In a joint statement, the countries said the move was intended to “strengthen the region’s capacity to safeguard against increased risks and challenges in the global economy.” In Mandarin, that means protect against American crashes.

 

Chiang Mai is a city in northern Thailand that sits strategically on the Ping River. This is where plenty of Asian trading has been done over the last few centuries. This is where Asia’s new economic powers decided to lock arms and play some red rover with Western leaders of Perceived Financial Wisdom.

 

Like MLB ignoring Satchel Paige, Westerners ignoring The New Reality of Asian economic power doesn’t mean it ceases to exist. The Asians have been working on forming their own economic safety nets since the Japanese tried to form the Asian Monetary Fund in 1997. The Chiang Mai Initiative was formed in May of 2006. Today is simply a recognition that the proactively prepared have a plan - and they are executing on it.

 

An analyst at Banker of America is revealing to his squadrons of consensus callers this morning that China could see her property bubble “pop.” Hello, McFly – the Chinese property stocks peaked in July of this year and have been popping for 3 months! Understand that many sell-siders on this side of the pond really don’t know what they don’t know…

 

China’s Premier, Wen Jiabao, is very aware of his liabilities. Unlike Bush and Obama, he seems to actually know what he doesn’t know. He, and his financial leadership team, have been explicitly targeting the property and loan markets for the last 3 months. They are not behaving as willfully blind as we were.

 

This morning, here’s what Wen told Xinhua, the Chinese News Agency: “Property prices have risen too quickly in some areas and we should use taxes and loan interest rates to stabilize them”…

 

Unlike the US, who keeps interest rates at ZERO to fuel debt fueled asset price speculation, at least China has a plan to both generate savings amongst her citizenry (with a savings rate of return greater than ZERO) and, at the same time, show some respect for the cost of capital.

 

On the currency front, Wen said that China will “absolutely not yield” to the Western calls for currency appreciation. He explained that the plan will remain the plan, and that China will move both her currency and interest rate policies whenever she darn well pleases. Sound familiar? It should. That’s what we do.

 

2010 will be here by the end of this week, and so will China overtaking Japan as the world’s second largest economy. For a long time Americans and Europeans could see this economic and political juggernaut coming. For a long time some of us chose to ignore the power of their self-directedness.

 

As America moves the YouTube dials to another populist debate (whether or not we should re-institute Glass-Steagall like regulation in her financial markets in 2010), be certain that the Chinese are going to be moving forward at their already decided pace.

 

After closing up +1.5% overnight, the Shanghai Composite Index closed at 3188. Despite the SP500 closing at a higher-YTD-high on Christmas Eve, it’s only up 24.7% YTD. Relative to China’s +75.1% gain, that’s puny. Kind of like how Satchel Paige made 20-year old men look with a curveball coming out of his 45-year old arm.

 

My immediate term TRADE lines of support and resistance for the SP500 are now 1112 and 1129, respectively.

 

Best of luck out there this week,

KM

 


LONG ETFS

VXX - iPath S&P500 Volatility
For a TRADE we bought some protection at the market's YTD highs by buying volatility on 12/14.

EWZ - iShares Brazil As Greece and Dubai were blowing up, we took our Asset Allocation on International Equities to zero.  On 12/8 we started buying back exposure via our favorite country, Brazil, with the etf trading down on the day. We remain bullish on Brazil's commodity complex and believe the country's management of its interest rate policy has promoted stimulus.

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

CYB - WisdomTree Dreyfus Chinese YuanThe 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.

 
SHORT ETFS
 
RSX – Market Vectors Russia
We shorted Russia on 12/18 after a terrible unemployment report and an intermediate term TREND view of oil’s price that’s bearish.  


EWJ - iShares JapanWhile 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.

XLI - SPDR IndustrialsWe shorted Industrials again on 11/9 on the up move as the US market made a lower-high.  This is the best way for us to be short the hope of a V-shaped recovery.   

XLY - SPDR Consumer DiscretionaryWe shorted Howard Penney's view on Consumer Discretionary stocks on 10/30 and 12/2.

SHY - iShares 1-3 Year Treasury BondsIf 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.


US STRATEGY – GOING OUT ON A HIGHER HIGH

The S&P 500 finished higher by 0.53% in light, pre-holiday trading on Thursday.  The positive tone for the day and week overall was set on the back of strong global markets and generally upbeat economic data points.  As expected the volume was very light, but the breadth was positive.

 

On the MACRO calendar, jobless claims fell 28,000 to 452,000, well below the 470,000 expected by a Bloomberg survey.  This was the lowest reading since September 2008.  Additionally, the November durable goods data further lifted sentiment as orders ex-transportation increased 2.0%, above expectations for a 1.1% gain; while total orders came in at 0.2% and were slightly below expectations of 0.5%.  The durables data offered more support to the global RECOVERY trade. 

 

In Washington, the Senate's passing of a healthcare reform bill dominated headlines.  As a result, Healthcare (XLV) was the worst performing sector on Thursday.  Consumer Staples and Consumer Discretionary rounded out the bottom three.   

 

The positive Economic backdrop gave support to a modest return of the REFLATION trade, as Materials was the second best performing sector on Thursday (+0.8%) and for the week (+3.8%) as a whole.  The best performing sector last week was technology (+4.2%), which benefited from continued M&A activity and better-than-expected earnings. 

 

While Financials (XLF +0.9%) was one of the best performing sectors on Friday; it remains the only sector that is broken on both the TRADE and TREND durations.

 

The range for the S&P 500 is 17 points or 0.5% upside and 1.0% downside.  At the time of writing the major market futures are slightly higher.

 

The futures are benefiting from a positive tone in Asia and Europe.  Last night the Nikkei rose +1.33%; Hang Seng declined 0.17% and the Shanghai Composite was up +1.51%.  In Asia volume remained thin, but optimism about prospects for the global economy continues to be in focus.  China’s strong performance was on reports that the economy is growing faster than expected.

 

In early trading crude oil was little changed after reaching its highest price since Dec 1st as colder-than- normal weather in the U.S. is helping demand.  Crude oil for February delivery traded at $78.26 a barrel, the highest since Dec. 1.  The Research Edge Quant models have the following levels for OIL – buy Trade (75.45) and Sell Trade (78.29). 

 

Gold is trading higher for a third day in London on speculation that a bottom might be in after a 12% from a record high.  The Research Edge Quant models have the following levels for GOLD – buy Trade ($1,071) and Sell Trade ($1,151). 

 

Copper in Shanghai climbed to the highest price in 16 months on optimism demand is improving in the US and China.  The Research Edge Quant models have the following levels for COPPER – buy Trade (3.16) and Sell Trade (3.32).

 

Howard Penney

Managing Director

 

US STRATEGY –  GOING OUT ON A HIGHER HIGH - sp1

 

US STRATEGY –  GOING OUT ON A HIGHER HIGH - usdx2

 

US STRATEGY –  GOING OUT ON A HIGHER HIGH - vix3

 

US STRATEGY –  GOING OUT ON A HIGHER HIGH - oil4

 

US STRATEGY –  GOING OUT ON A HIGHER HIGH - gold5

 

US STRATEGY –  GOING OUT ON A HIGHER HIGH - copper6

 


The Week Ahead

The Economic Data calendar for the shortened week of the 28th of December through the 31st is full of critical releases and events.  Attached below is a snapshot of some (though far from all) of the headline numbers that we will be focused on.

 

The Week Ahead - wk28 1

The Week Ahead - wk28 2

 


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