Theater of the Absurd

Most of the press attention in Washington DC last week was on the healthcare reform revival meeting convened at Blair House on Thursday and for good reason – it was so long it stretched across several news cycles. The summit was convened by President Obama allegedly to see if a bipartisan approach to healthcare reform could be negotiated with Republicans, but that seemed unlikely before the start and positively impossible afterward. With the President defining bipartisan as Republicans recognizing the brilliance of his plan and Republicans content to let Democrats commit healthcare seppuku, the odds of compromise were and are nil. It was theater and nothing more.

Another bit of theater played out in Congress as Ben Bernanke made his semi-annual presentation to Congress on the state of the economy. Bernanke provided an economic forecast that didn’t dare to veer from the accepted consensus – growth will recover to the previous trend over the next two years, unemployment will fall slowly and inflation will fall within acceptable ranges. Bernanke also promised not to tighten too quickly, stay too loose too long, raise interest rates too high or keep them too low or let the excess reserves of the banks be lent out too much or too little. Kumbaya my Lord, kumbaya. Unfortunately, the Fed’s previous track record of predicting the future course of the economy remains unmarred by significant success and so the only value of this forecast is in providing a baseline for what not to expect. 

I find myself spending a lot of time watching Washington these days and it isn’t a pleasant experience. I have always had a disdain for politicians – I know that shocks you - but the current group seems almost perfectly cast for the prevailing political environment. The public is warming the tar and plucking the feathers while both parties willingly straddle the rail. The House ethics committee last week declared that just because a campaign donor makes a donation with the expectation that favorable legislation will be passed, that passage of the legislation is not evidence of corruption. The nuance seems lost on a disillusioned public; only in Washington, DC could something so obviously corrupt be declared innocent.

Healthcare reform at this point seems unlikely to pass, at least in its current form. Speaker Pelosi claims to have the votes in the House to pass the Senate version but that seems fanciful at best and delusional at worst. The speaker may imagine that there are members willing to sacrifice themselves for the alleged common good but my guess is that self preservation is the stronger motivation. Democrats, having failed to pass anything other than a stimulus plan hated by both sides of the aisle, want to pass something they can call healthcare reform but not if it means they have to find a real job after November. My expectation is that little gets done this year and the less the better.

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Weekly Economic and Market Review

The economic data this week continued the pattern that has dominated for months now – manufacturing strong, real estate and consumer weak. The recovery from this recession has been a more traditional inventory cycle recovery. Whether it morphs into something that is sustainable beyond restocking is the $64 question and one for which we don’t yet have enough evidence to answer. If you’ve been reading along here for the last year or so, you know I suspect it will, but so far there is little evidence to support that presumption. Of course that is true of every recession; all you can do is wait and interpret the data as it comes in.

The week started with the Case Shiller home price report which rose on a month to month basis for the seventh straight month (up 0.3% seasonally adjusted)? Year over year prices fell 3.1% which is also an improvement but obviously still a decline. If prices continue on this trend, we should see year over year prices rise around midyear. The big improvement in prices is in the West while the southeast continues to decline. Sales in the trouble states are still rising on a year over year basis though. New home sales and existing home sales were also reported this week and both showed large month to month declines. That isn’t all that surprising; a lot of sales were pulled forward due to the anticipation of the expiration of the first time home buyers tax credit in November. The credit was ultimately extended but not until just before it expired. In addition, sales have probably been hurt by the bad weather. The housing market is scraping along the bottom but all that really means is that there is a lot of room for improvement. At least it isn’t subtracting from growth anymore.

There were conflicting reports on consumer confidence with the Conference Board report plunging while the U of Michigan report showed a milder decline. Stocks sold off Tuesday on the Conference Board report but frankly I’m not sure why anyone would trade off this report. Consumer confidence is not correlated with the stock market or other economic data. If anything it is slightly inversely correlated with confidence low at bottoms and high at tops. 

Durable goods orders were higher than expected but that was mostly due to higher aircraft orders which are very volatile. Ex aircraft, orders fell 0.6% but December numbers were revised significantly higher. In the core components, the big drop was for machinery while computers and electronics and communications gear both rose smartly. One disappointment was the drop in non defense capital goods ex aircraft (-2.9%) which is a good proxy for capital spending. These numbers are very volatile and the trend is choppy but higher.  

Jobless claims rose again. I don’t know how much of this is weather related and how much is real but it is disconcerting to say the least. Of course we shouldn’t be too surprised by a slight retracement – it happens every recovery. And it always engenders a lot of angst and fear of a double dip recession. Here’s Paul Krugman in August 2002:

A few months ago the vast majority of business economists mocked concerns about a ”double dip,” a second leg to the downturn. But there were a few dogged iconoclasts out there, most notably Stephen Roach at Morgan Stanley. As I’ve repeatedly said in this column, the arguments of the double-dippers made a lot of sense. And their story now looks more plausible than ever.

If you don’t remember the double dip recession of 2002 don’t worry – it didn’t happen. You might also remember the slogan from Bill Clinton’s first campaign for President in 1992 – It’s the Economy Stupid. Except it wasn’t because the recession was already over and there was no double dip back then either. The only double dip in most people’s lifetime was the back to back recessions of the early 80s which were caused primarily by lousy monetary policy. I’d be the first to admit that our current policy isn’t exactly great but it is a hell of a lot better than back then when Paul Volcker was experimenting with monetarism and gold was moving from $300 to $800 and back to $300 in the course of two years. Even Bernanke isn’t that bad. The point is that you shouldn’t worry too much about the double dip scenario because it is a low probability event.

The last two reports of the week were revised GDP and the Chicago PMI. 4th quarter GDP was revised slightly higher but there was no surprise in the report. The Chicago PMI, on the other hand, was much better than expected at 62.6 versus an expectation of 60. This report is one of many showing a robust recovery in manufacturing. Deliveries jumped to 62.6 from January’s 55.3. What that means is that deliveries slowed and there are some strains on shipping and warehousing, an indication of economic strength. This was confirmed earlier in the week by a report from the American Trucking Association which showed a further rise in their truck tonnage index:

New orders, backlog orders and production also rose in the Chicago report. Inventories were drawn down which was probably related to production needs rather than just liquidation. Finally, prices paid remained elevated but CPI last week showed that there isn’t any pass through to consumers….yet.

The economy is in the midst of a traditional, inventory led recovery. Like every recovery it isn’t a smooth transition from recession but so far it looks on track. The last component of recovery will be employment and hopefully we see some improvement there soon. If we don’t we might actually get the dreaded double dip but the amazing thing about this recovery so far is how utterly normal it is. The recent retracement of jobless claims is even fairly typical of past recoveries and as such is nothing to worry about yet. The biggest impediment to recovery at this point is the uncertain political situation. I continue to believe that swing state/blue dog Democrats will not be willing to fall on their sword for Obama, Pelosi and Reid – healthcare reform will not pass. When it finally fails, expect the rest of the year to be a great big nothing into the midterm elections. As that unfolds the market and the economy will continue to improve.

Selected Charts

Stocks were resilient last week even with some bad economic news. Technically, the S&P is in no man's land around the 50 day MA.

Stocks were resilient last week even with some bad economic news. Technically, the S&P is in no man's land around the 50 day MA.

It is hard to make a fundamental case for Japanese stocks, but technically it is setting up better than most developed markets. The determination of the BOJ to end deflation may be the driving force here.

It is hard to make a fundamental case for Japanese stocks, but technically it is setting up better than most developed markets. The determination of the BOJ to end deflation may be the driving force here.

 

Taiwan also looks good technically and just reported huge 4th quarter GDP growth on a big jump in exports to China. Closer ties between the two will continue to be beneficial to Taiwan.

Taiwan also looks good technically and just reported huge 4th quarter GDP growth on a big jump in exports to China. Closer ties between the two will continue to be beneficial to Taiwan.

Biotech hasn't corrected with the market and is still near its recent high.

Biotech hasn't corrected with the market and is still near its recent high.

  

Regional banks have also performed well in the correction.

Regional banks have also performed well in the correction.

 

The housing market may still be in a funk but the homebuilder stocks are already starting to look to the recovery of building. Is it too early?

The housing market may still be in a funk but the homebuilder stocks are already starting to look to the recovery of building. Is it too early?

 

Alright, let's close with the contrarian play of the year. What if Toyota's problems are overblown?

Alright, let's close with the contrarian play of the year. What if Toyota's problems are overblown?

7 Responses to Theater of the Absurd

  1. The economy is in the midst of a traditional, inventory led recovery. Like every recovery it isn’t a smooth transition from recession but so far it looks on track. The last component of recovery will be employment and hopefully we see some improvement there soon. If we don’t we might actually get the dreaded double dip but the amazing thing about this recovery so far is how utterly normal it is.

    do you really run other’s people money ? i bet you dont… or they’re just stupid as seems you’re..

    recovery … what recovery ??

    check out http://globaleconomicanalysis.blogspot.com/2010/03/im-sure-glad-recession-ended.html

    or how about that

    federal incoem taxes down 20pct y/y
    corp taxes down 50pct y/y
    unmepl benefits up 100 pct y/y ( 1 hundred)
    un-adj unempl rate is about 20 pct..

    what recovery ???

    alex

  2. Alex,

    Mish is a nice guy and he’s done some great analysis but he’s too negative on the economy and has been for months now. The statistics you cite are all backward looking. Yes, corporate tax receipts in the middle of a severe recession do tend to fall. Same for income taxes and a rise in unemployment benefits. That tells you exactly nothing about the future.

    And yes, I do invest for the benefit of others and they are quite happy with the results.

    By the way, if you want to comment here, you should try to present a coherent argument rather than resorting to name calling. If you have something of value to add to the conversation I will be happy to engage in a discussion. If this is the best you can do, don’t bother.

  3. #statistics you cite are all backward looking.

    do they really ?????

    how about http://www.rockinst.org/pdf/government_finance/state_revenue_report/2010-02-23-State_Revenue_Flash.pdf

    p2… out of 41 states 37 had sales taxes declines in 2009 4qrt vs prev year… why is that ? isnt recovery under way ?

    I dont have time machine SIR, so I KNOW nothing about future,,
    but I pretty much sure about now and past,, its not pretty

    anyway,, I put your site in favorites and hope we will have a talk later this year..

    good luck
    alex

    PS
    I forgot.. please google ‘japan nikkei bubble burst lost decades’.. it will help you in your ivory tower…

  4. Alex,

    Sales tax receipts are at best a coincident indicator and like the other stats you cited give you no insight about the future course of the economy.

    And by the way, since you don’t seem to know this, the recession was not caused by a fall in consumption. The fall in consumption is a reaction to the recession not the cause and consumption will only rise again after the recovery is entrenched and employment starts to rise. That takes time but based on Friday’s report I would say that we are on the verge of that happening. The cause of the recession was the huge drop in investment, primarily construction, and the recovery will be led by investment as well. That doesn’t mean it will necessarily be construction by the way and I suspect it won’t be. Manufacturing is leading the recovery so far and orders for capital goods are starting to rise. That investment is what will produce the recovery and an eventual rise in consumption will be the result. You might want to review Say’s Law.

    I don’t have a time machine either by the way, but you can’t invest based on the past and the present. You have to invest based on a view of the future and there are indicators which provide some insight. The ISM reports, the shape of the yield curve and bond spreads are all forward looking indicators with good track records. And all of them are currently pointing to a very robust recovery.

    Finally, let me just say this about Mish and the other extreme pessimists. Mish makes a lot of very good points about the problems with the US economy. We have some very serious issues which need to be addressed. State and local budgets are a mess and as Mish points out that is primarily a function of public sector union power and greed. Government debt is a serious issue and the budget will have to be tamed at some point, but we aren’t at the point yet where it is an issue that will prevent a cyclical recovery. Housing markets still have some problems although I am not as concerned about residential markets as Mish and some others. The bubble states probably have more troubles on the way, but nationally I don’t think the issue is as bad as he believes, assuming we get some job growth. Commercial real estate is another problem he has spent a good deal of time on and he’s right, commercial real estate has problems. Vacancy rates are high – although not as high as the early 90s by the way – and there will be some defaults. However, there are ways to mitigate the damage from CRE. Suspension of mark to market accounting will allow a lot of these loans to be carried by the banks at face value until they cure. We did that in the 80s with Latin loans and we’ll probably do it again. Is it honest? Probably not, but it will happen. We are also seeing a lot of workout deals in CRE; witness the bidding for General Growth. A lot of equity will be brought into the CRE market to take the place of the existing debt.

    Mish is right to continue pointing out all these problems, but if you try to invest based on the long term issues he’s covering you’ll just be paralyzed. In the meantime, the forward looking indicators are all pointing to a fairly robust cyclical recovery. That has been an investable event and if you’ve been hunkered down reading Mish for the last year, you’ve missed a huge opportunity. I don’t know how long this recovery will last but history suggests that it is just getting started. Maybe this recovery is different and maybe it isn’t. We don’t know yet, but as you point out, I can’t predict the future. I’ll have to react to the data as it comes in and if things change I’ll change with them. We’ll see….check back in every week – I’ll be here.

    P.S. I am obviously aware of what happened in Japan. In fact I suspect I know quite a lot more about it than you do, but that is unimportant. This isn’t Japan in the 90s or the US in the 30s. This is the US in 00s and every period is unique. We don’t know what policies will be put in place in the next few years and so we don’t know if we’ll follow the Japanese experience. For cultural reasons, I suspect not.

  5. this ‘s exactly the problem .. REALITY AND PERCEPTION

    there’s reality that says NONE OF coincident AND/OR backward looking indicators SHOWS any kind of recovery.. nada zilch.. yes in some cases rate of change is better than in past but still…
    taxes, credit, sales AKA real money involved, un-adj, indicators all of them still shows contraction..

    and there’s perception of recovery cause SP500 BOTTOMED, short-long curve at historical high, government runs deficit like
    like 2012 is real end of civilization.. but still IT’S ONLY Perception based on prior examples… its not reality..

    you perception SIR is based on we’re in typical after WW2 recovery.. its simple not true.. just pull out charts w/
    consumer/business credit statistics to understand.. at some point perception of recovery MUST BE CONFIRMED BY real hard facts..
    but it’s not happening and gonna happen any time soon…
    thus market is going down hard sooner or later .. sorry

    # as far as JAPAN concerns..

    WE”RE all Japanese now… just look at CBO projections .. goverment deficits are as long as eye can see..

    only problem is worse here… at least back in 90x Japanese had savings and they’re still ‘export monster’.. Americans don’t save much , still in debt and still import more than export…

    nice talking
    Alex

  6. Republicans want want failure, they want things like the insurance companies to continue to rake in billions and to keep the unwealthy at a disadvantage. The infrastructures portion was what we needed to get us going in advancing our country to come into the present but the old conservatives who want to go back to the “simpler times” (ie. slavery, and racial discrimination via lower education). Our country and everyday people need help due to bad financial policy and they are just not getting it. Who is getting it? Big business. God bless America.

  7. [...] on … you are also right in thinking that the Lord might even respond and actually kumbaya! …Theater of the Absurd | Alhambra InvestmentsMost of the press attention in Washington DC last week was on the healthcare reform revival meeting [...]

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