Dow 36,000 Is Back

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In a testament to just how euphoric stock markets are right now, James K. Glassman the co-author of the fabled Dow 36,000 — a book published in 1999 that claimed that stock prices could hit 36,000 by as soon as  2002 (and which quite understandably is now available for just 1 cent per copy) — has written a new column for Bloomberg View claiming that he might have been right all along:

When we wrote our book, we expected that the stock market, as represented by the 30 blue chips of the Dow, would rise to 36,000 for two reasons.

First, investors had mistakenly judged the risk in stocks to be greater than it really was. Here, we drew from the work of Jeremy Siegel of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He showed that, over long periods, stocks were no more volatile, or risky, than bonds.

We saw indications that the risk aversion of investors was declining — as we believed it should. Lower perceived risk would mean higher stock valuation measures: rising price-to- earnings ratios, for instance.

Second, we assumed that real U.S. gross domestic product, the main driver of corporate profit growth, would rise at 2.5 percent a year — a bit below the historic post-World War II rate, but still a decent clip. We warned, however, that small changes in growth rates could have big effects on stock prices.

What’s happened since 1999?

First, investors have become more frightened of stocks, not less — as reflected in a higher equity risk premium, the excess return that investors demand from stocks over bonds.

These fears may be perfectly reasonable. We wrote our book before the Sept. 11 attacks, the dot-com debacle, the 38 percent decline in stocks in 2008, the “flash crash” of 2010 that sent the Dow down 1,000 points in minutes, the Japanese tsunami and the euro crisis. There’s a good case to be made that, because of the instant interconnections wrought by new technology, unprecedented “black swan” events are increasing and markets are becoming more volatile as a result.

The heightened fears of investors are reflected in lower valuations. Currently, for example, the forward P/E ratio (based on estimated earnings for the next 12 months) of the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index is about 14. In other words, the earnings yield for a stock investment averages 7 percent (1/14), but the yield on a 10-year Treasury bond is only 1.9 percent — a huge gap. Judging from history, you would have to conclude that bonds are vastly overpriced, that stocks are exceptionally cheap or that investors are scared to death for a good reason. Maybe all three.

Explaining why Glassman and Hassett were wrong is simple. They believed that they had found a fundamental truth about how stocks should be valued — that stocks were really less risky than the market perceived them to be — and that the market would correct to meet their beliefs. The problem is that there is no fundamental truth about what stocks are worth. The fundamentals of a company are determined by profit and loss, but the market prices of stocks are created from the meeting of different parties with different subjective beliefs. A buyer of a stock at $10 might believe it will become worth $100, and the seller might believe it is really worth $5. The future performance of that stock will be determined by the future beliefs of market participants in light of the future performance of the firm. Market participants have for some reason always valued equities as a class within a certain P/E range:

P/E

With one exception — the peak during which Dow 36,000 was written — equities have traded roughly between 5 and 30 times earnings. That’s a large range.  Glassman and Hassett believed — and subsequently tried to convince markets — that they were pricing equities wrong, and that stocks should be priced at roughly 100 times earnings.  They failed. Markets just wouldn’t go there.

One significant issue with such predictions is that there are far too many unknown variables. They didn’t know future technology or energy trends. They didn’t know future geopolitical trends. They didn’t know future social or demographic trends. They didn’t know the shape or style of future financial markets. All of these trends are critical in determining market sentiment, and the financial, economic and material fundamentals that drive earnings. It was all a big extrapolation with a catchy-sounding number that they effectively pulled out of the air and dressed up in the false clothes of economic rigour. And the real economy — as Glassman candidly admits — just didn’t match up to their assumptions.

Glassman thinks that Dow 36,000 is attainable with a return to strong growth:

Let’s set investor fears aside for a moment. For investment gains over the long term, there is absolutely no substitute for faster economic growth.

To get it, we need policy changes that will create a better environment for businesses to increase revenue, profits and jobs: a rational tax system that keeps rates low and eliminates special deductions and credits; immigration laws that encourage the best and the brightest to move here and stay; entitlement reform to bring down costs and provide incentives for productive seniors to keep working; sensible environmental, workplace and financial regulation that allows entrepreneurship to thrive; a K-12 education system that boosts student achievement and holds teachers, administrators and politicians accountable …

Chime in and make your own list, because it’s time to focus on what counts in an economy: growth. Even with relatively high risk aversion (let’s say, what we have now), faster growth would significantly increase stock prices.

How fast can the U.S. grow? Four percent is attainable, but I’d settle for 3 percent. Get there quickly, and we’ll get to Dow 36,000 quickly, too.

Back in the real world, we have the opposite problem. Stocks are soaring, on the back of a very weak economy. In fact, the fact that Glassman is being given a platform again to talk about the possibility of huge future stock gains is probably testament to just how overvalued stocks are. The market has more than doubled since the trough in 2009 on the back of the idea that Bernanke will do whatever it takes. But that illusion could easily be shattered, because there are many kinds of negative shocks that central bankers cannot prevent or control. To justify present valuations in the next two years, we would need a significant uptick in American and probably also global growth. Instead we have what may be the biggest housing bubble in history, declining global growth, North Korean threats to start a nuclear war, and so on. And all the while the market is setting new nominal highs.

The uber-optimistic atmosphere permeating much of the financial press is frightening to me. The resurrection of the Dow 36,000 zombie is a symbolically significant event that likely signals much the same thing as it did first time around: a correction.

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Will Tsipras Blow Up Europe?

The world’s eyes are on the Greek election, and whether or not Greeks will elect New Democracy’s Samaras (widely-assumed to be pro-bailout, pro-status quo), or SYRIZA’s Tsipras (widely-assumed to be anti-bailout, anti-status quo).

The Eurocrats have very sternly warned Greece against voting against austerity. Merkel said:

It is extremely important for Greeks to elect lawmakers who would respect the terms of the bailout.

In recent days, opinion has swung back toward the status quo, with Intrade rating New Democracy’s chances of winning the largest number of seats at 65%, and SYRIZA at just 33%.

While I cannot rule out New Democracy winning, I think that I’d flip those odds. Greece widely reviles German-imposed austerity, but fears the consequences of leaving the Euro — 85% of Greeks want to stay in. A vote for New Democracy would reflect fear of Drachmatization. Meanwhile, a vote for SYRIZA would seem to reflect the idea that through brinkmanship and the threat of Euro collapse, Greece can negotiate their way to a much more favourable bailout position.

So why do I think SYRIZA are the likelier winner? The election is on a knife-edge, so I think the difference might be football.

Greece — against all odds — managed to bumble through the Euro 2012 group stage, beating Russia 1-0 and likely setting up a poetic quarter final against Germany. I think that that victory against Russia will fire enough Greeks to try their luck and assert themselves against austerity.

For Greece, this is an important election. Inside the euro, their heavily state-dependent economy will continue to suffer scathing austerity. Outside the euro, they can freely debase, and — as Nigel Farage has noted — enjoy the benefits of a cheaper currency like renewed tourism and more competitive industry. If Greeks want growth sooner rather than much later, they should choose life outside the euro (and by voting for Tsipras and trying tough negotiating tactics, they will be asking to be thrown out).

But for the rest of the world, and the rest of Europe, this is all meaningless. As Ron Paul has noted, when the banking institutions need the money, central banks — whether it’s the ECB, or the Fed, or the BoE, or a new global central superbank — will print and print and print. Whether Greece is in or out, when the time comes to save the financial system the central bankers will print. That is the nature of fiat money, as much as the chickenhawks at the ECB might pretend to have hard-money credentials.

Tsipras, though — as a young hard-leftist — would be a good scapegoat for throwing Greece out of the Eurozone (something that — in truth — the core seems to want).

The real consequence throughout Europe as austerity continues to bite into state-dependent, high-unemployment economies will be more political fragmentation and support for political extremes, as the increasingly outlandish and unpopular political and financial solutions pushed by Eurocrats — specifically more and deeper integration, and banker bailouts — continue to help special interests and ignore the wider populations.

Enter the Swan

Charles Hugh Smith (along with many, many, many others) thinks there may be a great decoupling as the world sinks deeper into the mire, and that the dollar could be set to benefit:

This “safe haven” status can be discerned in the strengthening U.S. dollar. Despite a central bank (The Federal Reserve) with an avowed goal of weakening the nation’s currency (the U.S. dollar), the USD has been in an long-term uptrend for a year–a trend I have noted many times here, starting in April 2011.

That means a bet in the U.S. bond or stock market is a double bet, as these markets are denominated in U.S. dollars. Even if they go nowhere, the capital invested in them will gain purchasing power as the dollar strengthens.

All this suggests a “decoupling” of the U.S. bond and stock markets from the rest of the globe’s markets. Put yourself in the shoes of someone responsible for safekeeping $100 billion and keeping much of it liquid in treacherous times, and ask yourself: where can you park this money where it won’t blow up the market just from its size? What are the safest, most liquid markets out there?

The answer will very likely point the future direction of global markets.

Smith is going along with one of the most conventional pieces of conventional wisdom: that in risky and troubled times investors will seek out the dollar as a haven. That’s what happened in 2008. That’s what is happening now as rates on treasuries sink to all-time-lows. And that’s what has happened throughout the era of petrodollar hegemony.

But the problem with conventions is that they are there to be broken, the problem with conventional wisdom is that it is there to be killed, roasted and served on a silver platter.

The era of petrodollar hegemony is slowly dying, and the assumptions and conventions of that era are dying with it. For now, the shadow of that old world is still flailing on like Wile E. Coyote, hovering in midair.

As I wrote last week:

How did the dollar die? First it died slowly — then all at once.

The shift away from the dollar has quickly manifested itself in bilateral and multilateral agreements between nations to ditch the dollar for bilateral and multilateral trade, beginning with the chief antagonists China and Russia, and continuing through Iran, India, Japan, Brazil, and Saudi Arabia.

So the ground seems to have fallen out from beneath the petrodollar world order.

Enter the Swan:

We know the U.S. is a big and liquid (though not really very transparent) market. We know that the rest of the world — led by Europe’s myriad issues, and China’s bursting housing bubble — is teetering on the edge of a precipice, and without a miracle will fall (perhaps sooner, rather than later).

But we also know that America is inextricably interconnected to this mess. If Europe (or China or both) disintegrates, triggering (another) global default cascade, America will be stung by its European banking exposures, its exposures to global energy markets and global trade flows. Simply, there cannot be financial decoupling, not in this hyper-connected, hyper-leveraged world.

And would funds surge into US Treasuries even in such an instance? Maybe initially — fund managers have been conditioned by years of convention to do so. But how long  can fund managers accept negative real rates of return? Or — much more importantly — how long will the Fed accept such a surge? The answer is not very long at all. Bernanke’s economic strategy has been focussed  on turning treasuries into a losing investment, on the face of it to “encourage risk-taking” (or — much more significantly — keep the Treasury’s borrowing costs cheap).

All of this suggests a global crash or proto-crash will be followed by a huge global money printing operation, probably spearheaded by the Fed. Don’t let the Europeans fool anyone, either — Germany will not let the Euro crumble for fear of money printing. When push comes to shove they will print and fiscally consolidate to save their pet project (though perhaps demanding gold as collateral, and perhaps kicking out some delinquents). China will spew trillions of stimulus money into more and deeper malinvestment (why have ten ghost cities when you can have fifty? Good news for aggregate demand!).

So Paul Krugman will likely get something much closer to what he claims to want. Problem solved?

Nope. You can’t solve deep-rooted structural problems — malinvestment, social change, deindustrialisation, global trade imbalances, systemic fragility, financialisation, imperial decline, cultural stupefaction (etc, etc, etc) — by throwing money at problems. All throwing more money can do is buy a little more time (and undermine the currency). The problem with that is that a superficial recovery fools policy-makers, investors and citizens into believing that problems are fixed when they are not. Eventually — perhaps slowly, or perhaps quickly — unless the non-monetary problems are truly dealt with (very unlikely), they will boil over again.

As the devaluation heats up things will likely become a huge global game of beggar thy neighbour. A global devaluation will likely increase the growing tensions between the creditor and debtor nations to breaking point. Our current system of huge trade imbalances guarantees that someone (the West) is getting a free lunch , and that someone else (the Rest) is getting screwed. Such a system is fundamentally fragile, and fundamentally unstable. Currency wars will likely give way to economic wars, which may well give way to subterfuge and proxy wars as creditors seek their pound of flesh, and debtors seek to cast off their chains. Good news, then, for weapons contractors and the security state.

The United Kingdom of Massive Debt

Perhaps it is unpatriotic of me to ask, but are France’s shrill politicians right? Is the United Kingdom the weak link?

From the Guardian:

The entente is no longer so cordiale. As the big credit rating firms assess whether to strip France of its prized AAA status, Bank of France chief Christian Noyer this week produced a long list of reasons why he believes the agencies should turn their fire on Britain before his own country.

France’s finance minister François Baroin put things even more bluntly: “We’d rather be French than British in economic terms.”

But is the outlook across the Channel really better than in Britain? Taking Noyer’s reasons to downgrade Britain – it “has more deficits, as much debt, more inflation, less growth than us” – he is certainly right on some counts.

Britain’s deficit will stand at 7% of GDP next year, while France’s will be 4.6%, according to International Monetary Fund forecasts. But Britain’s net debt is put at 76.9% of GDP in 2012 and France’s at 83.5%. UK inflation has been way above the government-set target of 2% this year and the IMF forecasts it will be 2.4% in 2012. In France the rate is expected to be 1.4%.

On growth, neither country can claim a stellar performance. France’s economy grew 0.4% in the third quarter and Britain’s 0.5%. Nor has either a particularly rosy outlook. In Britain the economy is expected to grow by 1.6% in 2012. But in the near term there is a 1-in-3 chance of a recession, according to the independent Office for Budget Responsibility. In France, the IMF predicts slightly slower 2012 growth of 1.4%. But in the near term France’s national statistics office predicts a technical, albeit short, recession.

There is one significant factor everyone is overlooking.

Total debt:

From Zero Hedge:

While we sympathize with England, and are stunned by the immature petulant response from France and its head banker Christian Noyer to the threat of an imminent S&P downgrade of its overblown AAA rating, the truth is that France is actually 100% correct in telling the world to shift its attention from France and to Britain.

France should quietly and happily accept a downgrade, because the worst that could happen would be a few big French banks collapsing, and that’s it. If, on the other hand, the UK becomes the center of attention then this island, which far more so than the US is the true center of the global banking ponzi scheme, will suddenly find itself at the mercy of the market.

And why is the debt so high? Well, the superficial answer is that the UK is a “world financial centre”. The deeper answer is that the UK allows unlimited re-hypothecation of assets. Re-hypothecation is when a bank or broker re-uses collateral posted by clients, such as hedge funds, to back the broker’s own trades and borrowings. The practice of re-hypothecation runs into the trillions of dollars and is perfectly legal. It is justified by brokers on the basis that it is a capital efficient way of financing their operations. In the US brokers can re-hypothecate assets up to 140% of their book value.

In the UK, there is absolutely no statutory limit on the amount that can be re-hypothecated. Brokers are free to re-hypothecate all and even more than the assets deposited by clients. That is the kind of thing that creates huge interlinked webs of debt. And much of Britain’s huge debt load — particularly in the financial industry — is one giant web of endless re-hypothecation. Even firms (e.g. hedge funds) that do not internally re-hypothecate collateral are at risk, because their assets may have been re-hypothecated by a broker, or they may be owed money by a firm that re-hypothecates to high heaven. The problem here is the systemic fragility.

Simply, the UK financial sector has been attracting a lot of global capital because some British regulations are extremely lax. While it is pleasing to see the Vickers report, that recommends a British Glass-Steagall separation of investment and retail banking, becoming government policy, and while such a system might have insulated the real economy from the madness of unlimited re-hypothecation, the damage is already done. The debt already exists, and some day that debt web will have to be unwound.

Now Britain does have one clear advantage in over France. It can print its own money to recapitalise banks. But with inflation already prohibitively high, any such action is risky. If short sellers turn their fire on Britain, we could be in for a bumpy ride to hell and back.

UPDATE: Readers wanting to understand the true extent of economic degradation in some parts of the UK ought look no further than a recent post

The Great Treasury Dumping Game Continues

A few months ago I wrote:

A couple months ago, I hypothesises about the possibility foreign treasury dumping:

It is becoming clearer and clearer that America cannot and will not produce a coherent economic strategy. China seems to be beginning to offload not only its Treasury balance, but also its dollar pile.

Then I noted some of the prospective dangers:

Now we get the news that creditors are currently engaged in a huge Treasury liquidation.

A new post from Zero Hedge establishes that Russia is joining the Treasury-dumping party:

  • IMF’S LAGARDE SAYS EUROPE DEBT CRISIS `ESCALATING’
  • IMF’S LAGARDE: CRISIS REQUIRES ACTION BY COUNTRIES OUTSIDE EU

Well, we know the UK is now out, courtesy of idiotic statements such as this one by Christina Noyer. So who will step up? Why Russia it seems.

  • RUSSIA CONSIDERS PROVIDING UP TO $20B TO IMF, DVORKOVICH SAYS

Why’s that? Because like China (more on that in an upcoming post), Russia just dumped US bonds for the 12th straight month and instead both Russia and China are now focusing on making Europe their vassal state. So now we know where the money is coming from – sales of US debt of course!

Source: TIC

Is the US quietly becoming increasingly isolated in global affairs?

The question as to whether the US is becoming increasingly isolated is completely spurious; the United States isolated herself politically way back when in 1971 she took itself off the gold standard, and decided that she could get a free lunch at others’ expense from printing money.

The key thesis I have advanced seems to be hotting up:

What would a treasury crash look like? Most likely, it would be dictated by supply — the greater the supply of treasuries coming onto the market, the more there are for buyers to buy, the lower prices will be forced before new buyers come onto the market. Specifically, a treasury crash would most likely begin with a big seller dumping significant quantities of treasuries bonds onto the open market. I would expect such an event to be triggered bylower yields— most significant would be the 30-year, because it still has a high enough yield to retain purchasing power (i.e. a positive real rate). Operation Twist, of course, was designed to flatten the yield curve, which will probably push the 30-year closer to a negative real return.

A large sovereign treasury dumper (i.e. China with its $1+ trillion of treasury holdings) throwing a significant portion of these onto the open market would very quickly outpace the dogmatic institutional buyers, and force a small spike in rates (i.e. a drop in price). The small recent spike actually corresponds to this kind of activity. The difference between a small spike in yields and one large enough to make the (hugely dogmatic) market panic enough to cause a treasury crash is the pace and scope of liquidation.

Now, no sovereign seller in their right mind would fail to pace their liquidation just slowly enough to keep the market warm. After all, they want to get the most for their assets as they can, and panicking the market would mean a lower price.

But there are two (or three) foreseeable scenarios that would raise the pace to a level sufficient to panic the markets:

  1. China desperately needs to raise dollars to bail out its real estate market and paper over the cracks of its credit bubbles, and so goes into full-on liquidation mode.
  2. China retaliates to an increasingly-hostile American trade policy and — alongside other hostile foreign creditors (Russia in particular) — organise a mass bond liquidation to “teach America a lesson”
  3. Both of the above.

Did Cameron Just Kill the Euro?

I find it hard these days to praise any establishment political figure. Too often their actions are devoid of principle, too often their words are hollow, and too often their demeanour smacks of a rank ignorance on matters of economics and liberty.

And undoubtedly, Cameron’s austerity policies are not sound. As I have noted in the past, the time for austerity at the treasury is the boom, not the slump.

But today David Cameron seems to have bucked that trend.

From the BBC:

David Cameron has refused to join an EU financial crisis accord after 10 hours of negotiations in Brussels.

Mr Cameron said it was not in Britain’s interest “so I didn’t sign up to it”.

But France’s President Sarkozy said his “unacceptable” demands for exemptions over financial services blocked the chance of a full treaty.

Britain and Hungary look set to stay outside the accord, with Sweden and the Czech Republic having to consult their parliaments on it.

A full accord of all 27 EU members “wasn’t possible, given the position of our British friends,” President Sarkozy said.

There is an obvious fact here: scrabbling to reach an agreement in the interests of political and economic stability — which is exactly the path Japan has taken for the past 20 years, and America for the past 3 — allows broken systems to continue to be broken. All this achieves is more time to address the underlying issues, which as we are discovering is something that does not happen, because markets and policy makers fool themselves into believing that the problems have been “solved”, and that there is “recovery”.

Cameron’s intransigence could well be the spark that Europe — and perhaps even the globe — needs to degenerate to the point where the necessary action — specifically, some kind of debt jubilee — can occur.

Death by Hawkery?

Joe Wiesenthal presents an interesting case study:

These two charts basically explain everything.

The first chart shows the yield on the Swedish 5-year bond.

As you can see, it’s absolutely plummeting right now.

chart

Image: Bloomberg

Now here’s a look at its neighbor, Finland, and the yields on its 5-year bond.

chart

Image: Bloomberg

Basically they look identical all through the year up until November and then BAM. Finnish yields are exploding higher, right as Swedish yields are blasting lower.

The only obvious difference between the two: Finland is part of the Eurozone, meaning it can’t print its own money. Sweden has no such risk.

This is a narrow version of something that much of the media picks up on earlier last week that UK gilts were trading with a lower yield that German bonds, a reflection of the same principle: In UK the government can print. In Germany, it can’t.

Yes — investors are happier with the idea of buying bonds which may be debased by money printing, than they are with the idea of buying bonds which may be defaulted on because the sovereign cannot print. But there is another element at play here, which may be much bigger.

Easing, of any sort won’t solve the underlying global problem — as explained by Reinhart and Rogoff in better detail than I have ever done — of excessive debt levels. By conducting QE (i.e. taking sovereign debt out of the market) governments are simply artificially contracting the supply, and in my view pumping up a debt bubble.

It’s important to consider Japan here — yields in Japan are as low as ever, and creditors are still taking their pound of flesh. That can’t be a bubble, can it? Creditors aren’t losing their money? Well, it depends how you define return on investment. Investors in Japanese bonds may be getting their money back, but Japanese society is slowly being strangled by a lack of organic growth and a lack of any real kind of creative destruction. Wages and living standards fall while unemployment rises. So Japan has become zombified, and in theory similar cases like the United States and Britain should follow down the path of death by slow Keynesianism (they won’t, because they are far more combustible societies than Japan, but that is another story for another day).

In light of all that, while the Teutonic monetarist hawkery may superficially look stupid, if we look at the resulting Euro-implosion as a potential trigger to crash global markets, burst the global bond bubble, trigger a cascade of AIG -esque events, culminating in the breakdown of the global financial system, a debt reset, and a new global financial order well then it’s really quite clever. Ultimately, a debt reset is what is needed to effectuate new organic growth and new jobs, and to clear out the withered remains of umpteen bubbles that have been created in the last twenty years through easy money.

I doubt that the stern bureaucrats at the ECB are anywhere near as clever or far-sighted as this (their most significant concern appears to be sound monetarist economics) but there is quite possibly genius in this stupidity.

So — rather than death by hawkery, I foresee rebirth.

Of course, on the other hand the “hawks” may just end up printing like their American counterparts.