Readers familiar with my views know that I believe that the current stock market rally is a bullish chapter in an otherwise bearish novel. In the spring of this year, I had said I would not be surprised if the Dow were to hit 10,000 by the end of summer. While I was a little too optimistic on that particular forecast, it now looks as if U.S. stock markets are a bit ‘toppy’ and a reversal may be in the cards. Seven factors, five tactical and two strategic, cause me to see a change in the wind.
Tactically, the employment situation, falling house prices, tight credit, a sliding U.S. dollar and depressed world trade are cause for deep concern. But as these factors could show rapid changes over the short term, I am less inclined to set my investment bearings by these readings. More troubling are the two strategic issues, the continued creation of excessive debt in the United States and the continued growth of consumer spending as the overwhelming driver of U.S. gross domestic product (GDP). In order for a bull market in U.S. stocks to be sustainable, these problems must be brought to heel. However, making a dent in these imbalances would require the sort of political courage that is vanishingly rare in D.C.
For the tactical investor, the following portends a coming correction:
Recently, Wall Street cheerleaders seized on the falling rate of unemployment growth as a sign of economic recovery. In July, the official figures showed unemployment increasing by some 216,000. If this were a reflection of reality, it would be a sign of possible improvement. However, the often-ignored figure for employment, as opposed to unemployment, showed some 980,000 less people employed, or 4.5 times more than the unemployment figure!
How could these two vitally important totals differ by some 764,000? The short answer is that the government excludes from the unemployment figures all those who have given up hope of finding a job and all those who have settled for part-time jobs. In other words: if you have stopped looking for a job, congratulations, you are no longer unemployed! So much for government statistics. The true level of unemployment has been estimated at 20 million, or double the official figure.
In recent days, reports have emerged to show that home prices have stabilized. Given the dismal fundamentals of the real estate market, we had projected that national home prices would have needed to fall an additional 20 percent from current levels in order to return to the Case-Schiller 100-year trend line. But given the massive and continued Federal involvement in every facet of the home buying process, there is nothing at all ‘fundamental’ about home prices today. Absent this intervention, prices would continue to fall. Since the federal treasury does have its limits, the outlook for real estate subsidies, and therefore the entire sector, is still negative.
Despite reckless federal efforts to boost liquidity, credit remains tight. This reality is the market’s own discipline signaling that the fundamentals remain unsound. Meanwhile, the Fed is inhibiting liquidity to shore up the money center banks by, for the first time, paying interest on bank reserves it holds. The banks thus have little incentive to lend to small businesses, the largest job creators, or to individuals. As an aide, this may also be serving to hide the effects of the Fed’s currency expansion by slowing the velocity of new cash.
Meanwhile, for Americans, the plummeting U.S. dollar is forcing up the price of most commodities, despite decreased demand. This stagflation is a dangerous recipe not only because it neuters any attempt at policy manipulation of the market, but because it hits the underemployed and unemployed with rising prices for everyday goods.
While some investors fixate on the symptomatic issues above to determine their strategy, we choose to focus on the underlying malady itself. Keeping your eye on these unfortunately static conditions will provide a solid point of reference by which to navigate:
The Obama Administration has shown no appetite for allowing consumers to reign in their spending habits. So, consumption still accounts for some 70 percent of American GDP. Where individuals have tried to reduce spending and increase savings, stimulus programs and quantitative easing have overridden their gains. Indeed, President Obama’s massive expenditure plans for health and educational entitlements will serve to magnify this crucially damaging strategic imbalance.
Finally, contrary to election promises of “change,??? the Administration shows no signs of controlling its expenditure and massive debt. Indeed, the ill-advised wars fostered by President Bush in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to drain blood and treasure. This Administration appears set to continue its predecessor’s mission of unending debt expansion.
Due to our failure to restructure, America is finding it harder and harder to compete globally. Instead of taking our lumps, Washington is lashing out with suicidal measures like this week’s Chinese Tire Tariff, an ominous prelude to next week’s Pittsburgh G-20 meetings.
And the markets just don’t get it. Technically, S&P profits are down some 90 percent, but the Index has risen to push P/E ratios to levels not seen since 1929. The financial media’s cloying banter about ‘green shoots’ is reminiscent of “Baghdad Bob,” the comically delusional Iraqi information officer who denied the advances of American forces even as U.S. tanks overran Saddam’s headquarters.
Some talk of a “jobless recovery.??? In the past, such an event could only occur when an asset boom (such as a real estate bubble) provided Americans with non-employment income. Today, there is little prospect of such a boom.
Stock markets tend to reflect financial hope. Given today’s situation, investors might be wise to prepare themselves for economic reality by investing selectively in more prudent economies abroad.