WEEKLY ISSUE: Positioning for Fed Stress Test Result

WEEKLY ISSUE: Positioning for Fed Stress Test Result

Key Points in this Issue

 

Positioning for the Fed Stress Test Results

Over the last few weeks, as the last of the March quarter earnings have been reported, investors have been focused on fresh economic data as well as the escalating back and forth on trade and tariffs. As that escalating conversation has taken up more headlines, it’s rankled the market with uncertainty, which has led the market to once again move up and down in the span of not weeks, but days.

Odds are not all investors have been paying attention to the Federal Reserve’s annual stress tests for banks.  As we’ve seen in the past, the likely outcome of these tests is a dividend increase, a boosted share repurchase program or a combination of the two.

This very topic was the focal point of a piece in Barron’s over the weekend. While the article touched on several banks, including Citigroup (C) and Goldman Sachs (GS), it clearly called out expectations for JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM):

“Among the biggest banks, JPMorgan Chase may raise its dividend by about 50%, boosting its yield to 3%… Overall, banks are expected to return an average of 100% of their earnings to shareholders over the next 12 months, the highest capital return of any major industry group.”

The results of the first round of annual stress tests by the Federal Reserve were released last week, and the second set, which takes into account capital adequacy in stressed environments after planned distributions to shareholders, will be announced after today’s market close. That means in the coming days, JPMorgan and others are likely to make their capital return announcements.

With investor sentiment bouncing between Fear and Greed amid escalating trade talks, as I shared in yesterday’s Tematica Investing weekly issue, odds are we will see a rocky 2Q 2018 earnings season as companies do their best to guesstimate the potential impact. Harley Davidson (HOG) was the canary in the coal mine for this. As that happens,  I suspect the investing herd will once again flock to higher dividend yielding stocks and other safer ports in an earnings storm.

The prospects of a higher dividend and stepped up share repurchase program at JPMorgan combined with the likelihood of greater investor demand is a mixture to drive JPM shares higher. To capitalize on that, I’m adding the JPMorgan Chase & Co. August 110.00 calls (JPM180817C00110000)that closed last night at 1.37. As we add these calls, I’m setting a stop loss at 0.90.

  • We are issuing a Buy and adding the JPMorgan Chase & Co. August 110.00 calls (JPM180817C00110000) that closed last night at 1.37 to the Tematica Options+ Select List. As we add these calls, we are setting a stop loss at 0.90, and will look to adjust that higher as the underlying JPM shares and the calls move higher.

 

 

Comcast still circling 21stCentury Fox keeps these two call positions in play

As we all know, Disney (DIS) recently upsized its bid to acquire 21st Century Fox (FOXA) and Fox quickly endorsed the new deal. Even as the proposed transaction received conditional approval from the Department of Justice provided that Disney divests 22 of its regional sports networks, I am hearing that Comcast could be making another counteroffer. This likely means there could be more media M&A drama in the short-term, but nonetheless, one of the bidders for Fox will be left on the dancefloor and that will more than likely lead to another round of takeovers. As such, I continue to have a Buy on both on both AMC Networks (AMCX) September 2018 $65 calls (AMCX180921C00065000)and Discovery (DISCA) October 2018 30.00 calls (DISCA181019C00030000)

 

 

The Rise of the New Middle-Class theme lets India air traffic take off and much more

Month to month economic and industry data can fluctuate, which is why we look at the data over a longer term. While passenger air traffic spiked in February, we see the annual growth rate of more than 20% over the last several years reflecting the growing economy and rising disposable income that are drivers of our Rise of the New Middle Class investing theme. In addition to incremental spending on travel, other areas benefitting from this theme include leisure spending, housing and furnishings, premium branded apparel, higher end autos, restaurants and connected devices. In short, those devices and activities that denote some degree of status have been achieved.

Even though Goldman Sachs (GS) lowered its real gross domestic product (GDP) forecast on India for the year to March 2019 to 7.6% from 8%, the level of growth is far stronger than anything expected in the US, a country that sees more signs of our Middle-Class Squeeze investing theme.

 

Passenger air traffic in India grew at the fastest pace in 13 months in February, even as fears mount over demand weakening due to rising air fares.

The number of passengers flown last month jumped almost 24% on-year to 10.7 million, according to government data.Air travel in India traditionally records a spurt from October through March, rebounding from a lean period in the previous months.

The country’s air travel has grown at an annual pace of more than 20% in the past few years as rising incomes and the advent of no-frills carriers prompted more people to shun trains for long-distance travel.

The south Asian nation is already the third-largest aviation market behind the U.S. and China with domestic traffic of more than 100 million passengers.

Source: India aviation traffic rises at fastest pace in 13 months- Nikkei Asian Review

Something more than Harvey and Irma have Goldman Sach’s CEO “unnerved” about the current stock market?

Something more than Harvey and Irma have Goldman Sach’s CEO “unnerved” about the current stock market?

As we witnessed over the weekend, the Caribean and Florida took a beating from Hurricane Irma, and its impact is going to be a major source of weakness in the economy for the current quarter. Paired with the impact of Hurricane Harvey, we’re looking at one-two punch to the GDP gut and we expect existing GDP forecasts for 3Q 2017 will be revised sharply lower in the coming days. That’s enough to rattle the market, but there are other reasons investors should be increasingly cautious. Last week, when speaking at a conference in Germany, Goldman Sachs (GS) CEO Lloyd Blankfein shared that he was “unnerved” by things going on in the stock market. As we’ve been analyzing the economic data and watching the political landscape in Washington, we here at Tematica have been talking about a growing sense of unease in the market over the last several months. Yet, the market has at least thus far managed to shrug these mounting concerns off its proverbial shoulders.

In today’s increasing frenetic society, short attention span filled society sometimes it takes a “voice from on high” to catch people’s attention and wake them up. All it took was a short comment from Blankfein during the question and answer session of his presentation at a conference in Germany:

“Things have been going up for too long,” he told attendees at a Handelsblatt business conference in Frankfurt. “When yields on corporate bonds are lower than dividends on stocks? That unnerves me.”

 

We certainly share Mr. Blankfein’s concerns and have been hammering the points home weekly in our Monday Morning Kickoff report and the Cocktail Investing Podcast.  To fully understand the source of Mr. Blankfein’s current unease let’s explore his statement:

 

#1: “Things have been going up for too long.”

While there have been modest pullbacks in the market, like the ones in late 2014 and the second half of 2015, a longer view shows the major averages have moved sharply higher over the last five years, with the S&P 500 in the upper range of its long-term upward trend. Before factoring in dividends, the S&P 500, a key benchmark of institutional investors, is up more than 70% since September 2012.

More recently, the S&P 500 has gone more than 300 trading days without a 5% or more pullback, the longest such streak since July 19, 1929. For those wondering, the record still sits at 369 trading days per Dow Jones data. Historically speaking periods of suppressed volatility tend to be followed by periods of heightened volatility, as market volatility reverts back to its mean. Given the extended period of low volatility, the probability of entering a period of heightened volatility moves higher.

As the stock market has moved higher, so too has its valuation. As we write this, the S&P 500 is trading at 18.7x expected 2017 earnings versus the 5 and 10 year average multiples of 15.5x and 14.1x, respectively. In 2015 and 2016, we saw earnings expectation revised lower during each year until annual EPS growth was nil. With economic data that is once again leading the Atlanta Fed to reduces it GDP forecast, we’re seeing downward earnings revisions to EPS expectations in the back half of 2017. We at Tematica classify that as “unnerving.”

 

#2: The Current “Recovery” is Now Over 100 Months

If we look back to when the stock market bottomed out during the Great Recession, the timeframe for the current “recovery” has been over 100 months. By comparison, the average economic expansion over the 1945-2009 period spanned 58.4 months. In other words, the current expansion is rather long in the tooth and a variety of data points ranging from slowing growth in employment to peak housing and auto to a flattening yield curve support this assessment. While the length of expansion has likely been affected by the Fed’s aggressive monetary policy, the bottom line is at some point

While the length of expansion has likely been affected by the Fed’s aggressive monetary policy, the bottom line is at some point it will come to an end. As the Fed looks to unwind its balance sheet and gets interest rates closer to normalized levels, we’re reminded that the Fed has a track record of boosting interest rates as the economy heads into a recession. Let’s not forget that every new presidential administration coming in after a two-termer going all the way back to 1900 has experienced a recession within the first twelve months. Yep, we color that as “unnerving.”

 

#3: The Market’s Post-Election Euphoria Has Worn Off

Coming into 2017 there was a wave of euphoria surrounding newly elected President Trump with high hopes concerning what his administration would accomplish. Over the last few months, a number of executive orders have been administered, but we have yet to see any progress on tax reform or infrastructure spending. The risk is that expectations for these initiatives are once again getting pushed out with tax reform that was slated for August now being expected (don’t hold your breath) near the end of 2017. The risk is the underlying economic assumptions that powered revenue and EPS expectations in the second half need to be reset, which will mean those lofty valuations are even loftier.

 

#4: Precious Metals Are Gaining Strength

Since August 1, Gold, Silver and the Utilities sector have significantly outperformed financials and consumer discretionary stocks – never a positive sign. The KBW index of regional banks has fallen below is 50-day, 100-day and 200-day moving averages and is down over 18% from its March 1st

 

#5: The Breadth of Current Rally Isn’t Looking So Hot

The median Dow stock is down more than 4% from its 52-week high and the median S&P 500 stock has dropped nearly 7.5%. Only 44% of Nasdaq members are trading above their 50-day moving average.

 

#6: Another Contra-Indicator Has Reared its Head — Individual Investor Confidence

TD Ameritrade’s (AMTD) Investor Movement Index (IMX) has continued its month-over-month rise. For those unfamiliar with this, it’s a behavior-based index created by TD Ameritrade that aggregates Main Street investor positions and activity to measure what investors are actually doing and how they are positioned in the markets. The higher the reading, the more bullish retail investors are. In August, the IMX hit 7.45, up from 7.09 in July, to hit an all-time high.

Why is that unnerving you ask?

While TD Ameritrade opted to put a rosy spin on the data, saying, “Our clients’ decision to continue buying reflects the resiliency of the markets.” Institutional investors, however, see this continued surge higher as a warning sign. Here’s why: Historically speaking, retail investors have been late to the stock market party. Not fashionably late, but really late, which means they tend to enter at or near the point at which things start to go seriously awry.

Complicating things a bit further, over the last month CNNMoney’s Fear & Greed Index has slumped from a Neutral reading (52) to Fear (38). Taking stock (pun intended) of these two indicators together at face value sends a mixed message on investor sentiment. Not a hardcore piece of data like the monthly ISM data, but one institutional investors and Wall Street traders are likely to consider as they roll up their sleeves and revisit the last few weeks of data.

 

How to Know What’s Next

These are just some of the points that could be unnerving Blankfein. Generally speaking, the stock market abhors uncertainty and anyone of those points on their own would be a cause for concern. Taken together they are reasons to be cautious as we move deeper into September, which is historically one of the most tumultuous months for stocks.

Whether you’re a subscriber to Tematica Investing or not, we would recommend you subscribe to both our Monday Morning Kickoff and Cocktail Investing Podcast to get our latest thoughts on the economy, the stock market as well as thematic signals that power our 17 investing themes.

 

Consumer Sentiment Closer to Economic Reality than Blankfein?

Consumer Sentiment Closer to Economic Reality than Blankfein?

The CEO and Chairman of Goldman Sachs (GS), Lloyd Blankfein, is arguably one hell of a sharp fellow, which leads us to believe there are reasons behind this that go beyond a straightforward assessment of the economy.

Perhaps consumers see something different than what we hear in the mainstream financial media. The University of Michigan’s Consumer Sentiment Index dropped to 94.5 in June, which was well below expectations for 97.1.

Let’s start with a look at the Citi Economic Surprise Index, better known at the “CESI,” which has hit a multi-year low.

While US stocks look to have decoupled recently from this measure.

But we’re sure that stock prices aren’t anything to worry about. 🙄

The Cyclically-Adjusted Shiller P/E ratio today sits at 29.95, just shy of the 32.54 peak from 1929. The fact that this metric has only been at these levels twice in history, just prior to the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and again before the bursting of the DotCom bubble, is likely immaterial – so say those who derive their paychecks from investors staying fully invested. 🙄🙄

One other thought for those so inclined, in 1929 the Fed rate was at 6 percent – that’s a lot more room to move than we have today.

As we head into the summer driving season, US crude oil stockpiles declined much less than expected while gasoline inventories have actually increased over the past two weeks versus expectations for a decline. Gasoline stockpiles are now above the 5-year average for this time of year as gasoline demand has unexpectedly fallen to well below last year’s level.

According to a recent Bloomberg study, back in March, 31 percent of economists were boosting their GDP forecasts. Today 27 percent are cutting them.

US CPI recently disappointed to the downside, coming in at 1.87 percent versus expectations for 2 percent. Core CPI came in at 1.73 percent versus expectations for 1.9 percent and the 3-month moving average of year-over-year change for Core CPI indicates that this key measure of inflation is rolling over to an impressive degree. This puts that Fed rate hike into a different light!


Used car and truck prices have rolled over hard and are continuing to drop significantly.

Housing has also rolled over, both for multi-family…

and single family…

 

According to the U.S. Commerce Department, housing starts declined 5.5 percent in May, after falling in April and March. Building permits fell 4.9 percent.

The cost of putting a roof over one’s head rolling over has rolled over as well.

The cost of medical care has also rolled over.

While retail sales growth is still pretty decent, it has been declining since early 2015.

Restaurants and bars are having a hell of a tough time, with their businesses experiencing a more severe decline, over the past two years.

Manufacturing inventories remain frustratingly elevated. That is basically capital sitting on the shelves, earning nothing and in many cases wasting away.

 

With elevated inventory levels, not a big surprise to see that U.S. factory output fell in May as manufacturing production dropped 0.4 percent, the second decline in the past three months. Overall factory output was lower in May than in February. Output fell across a wide range of industries, from motor vehicles and parts production to fabricated metal. Manufacturing capacity utilization fell 0.3 percent in May with overall industrial capacity utilization falling 0.1 percent. Where’s the accelerating growth?

There is some good news for a segment of the economy. Online sales continue to command a greater and greater portion of retail sales as our Connected Society intersects with the Cash Strapped Consumer where online shopping is not only fun from one’s couch, but it is a lot easier to compare prices and get the best deal for families concerned with watching their pennies in an economy with weak-to-no wage growth.

The bond market is not telling a tale of accelerating growth, with the 30-year Treasury yield now back where it was in November.

30 Year Treasury Rate Chart

While the 10-2 Year Treasury yield spread is back down to where it was in late 2007.

10-2 Year Treasury Yield Spread Chart

The 30-10 Year Treasury yield spread is also showing a flattening yield curve – more signs of an economy that is do anything but accelerating to the upside.

30-10 Year Treasury Yield Spread Chart

Finally, we have the Bloomberg Commodity Index heading back towards those lows from early 2016, not exactly an indicator of accelerating demand.


Here at Tematica, we are a fairly jovial bunch, with innately optimistic personalities, but we let the data first do the talking and that data is giving us a plethora of warning signs.

Turns out, we aren’t alone in our skepticism as the New York Federal Reserve now expects the economy to grow at an annualized rate of just 1.9 percent in the second quarter!

Post IPO Thoughts on Snap Shares and the $34.7 Billion Market Cap Question

Post IPO Thoughts on Snap Shares and the $34.7 Billion Market Cap Question

Last Thursday, March 2, shares of Snapchat parent Snap Inc. (SNAP) went public at $17, well above the $14-$16 initial public offering range. The shares hit a high of $29.44 on Friday morning before closing the week out at $27.09. That quick gain of just under 60 percent was great for investors that were involved with the IPO, but it wasn’t quite the same for investors that entered into SNAP shares after the shares started trading on Thursday morning.

With SNAP shares now trading in the secondary market and the buildup of the IPO now behind us, the question to us is are SNAP shares really worth the current $34.7 billion in market capitalization? At that market valuation, the shares are trading at about 37 times EMarketer’s estimate for Snap’s 2017 advertising sales. As spelled to out in the S-1 filing, Snap’s Snapchat is free and the company generates revenue “primarily through advertising,” the same was true of Facebook (FB) and Twitter (TWTR).

Actually, that’s not THE question, but rather one of the key questions as we contemplate if there is enough upside to be had in SNAP shares from current levels to warrant a Buy rating? Odds are the IPO underwriters, which include Morgan Stanley (MS), Goldman Sachs (GS), JPMorgan Chase (JPM), and Deutsche Bank (DB), that made a reported $85 million in fees from the transaction, will have some favorable research comments on SNAP shares in the coming weeks.

While SNAP shares fit within the confines of our Connected Society investing theme and are likely to benefit from the shift in advertising dollars to digital and social media platforms like Facebook and Alphabet’s (GOOGL) Google and YouTube, our charge is to question using our thematic 20/20 foresight to see if enough upside in the shares exists to warrant placing them on the Tematica Select List?

Boiling this down, it all comes down to growth

The question when looking at Snap is, “Can it grow its revenue fast enough and deliver positive earnings per share so we can see at least 20 percent upside in the shares?”

Well, right off the bat the company’s user base of 158 million active daily users was relatively flat in the December quarter and grew just 7 percent between 2Q 2016 and 3Q 2016.  Assuming the company is able to continue to grow its user base, something that has eluded Twitter for the most part, it will still need to capture a disproportionate amount of the mobile advertising market to hit Goldman Sach’s forest that calls for Snap to increase its revenue fivefold by 2018.

Snap recorded $404.5 million in revenue last year, up from $58.7 million in 2015, so a fivefold increase would put 2018 revenue at more than $2 billion. IDC projects that mobile advertising spend will grow nearly 3x from $66 billion in 2016 to $196 billion in 2020, while non-mobile advertising spend will decrease by approximately $15 billion during the same time period.

While a fivefold increase in revenue catches our investing ears, we have to question Snap’s ability to garner such an outsized piece of the mobile advertising market when going head to head with Facebook and its several platforms, Google, Twitter and others. The argument that a rising tide will lift all boats will only go so far when all of those boats are vying for the same position in the monetization river.

There are other reasons to be skeptical, including users migrating to newer social media platforms or ones that have been updated like Facebook’s Instagram that launched Stories to better compete with Snapchat. Snap called this out as a competitive concern in its S-1 filing — “For example, Instagram, a subsidiary of Facebook, recently introduced a “stories” feature that largely mimics our Stories feature and may be directly competitive.” With good reason, because as Instagram Stories reached 150 million daily users in the back half of 2016, Snapchat’s growth in average daily user count slowed substantially. Part of that could be due to Snap’s reliance on the teen demographic, which even the company has noted is not “brand loyal.” We’re not sure anyone has figured out how to model teen fickleness in multi-year revenue forecasts.

 

Making things a tad more complicated is the recent push back on digital advertising by Proctor & Gamble’s (PG) Chief Marketer Marc Pritchard, who publicly expressed his misgivings with today’s digital media practices and, “called on the media buying and selling industry to become transparent in the face of ‘crappy advertising accompanied by even crappier viewing experiences.'” As Pritchard made those and other comments, a survey from the World Federation of Advertisers showed that large brands are reviewing contracts related to almost $3 billion of advertising spend on programmatic advertising, which automates digital ad placement. The question to be answered is whether ads are actually seen and this has led to a call for companies like Snap to follow Facebook, YouTube and have Snapchat’s ad metrics audited by the Media Rating Council.

 

One other wrinkle in the Snap investing story is the company has yet to turn a profit.

In 2016, while Snap’s revenue was just over $400 million, it managed to generate a loss off $514.6 million and per the S-1 it will need to spend a significant amount to attract new users and fend off competition. In reading that, the concern is user growth could be far slower — and expensive — than analysts are forecasting, which would impact advertising revenue growth like we’ve seen at Twitter. The thing is, new user growth for Snapchat already slowed in the back half of 2016 as newer messaging apps like Charge, Confide and Whisper have come to market.

When Snap finally does turn a profit, we could see the outsized P/E ratio lead value and growth at a reasonable price (GARP) investors to balk at buying the shares, which means Snap will be relying on growth investors. It amazes us how some investors love companies even though they are not generating positive net income, but balk at P/E ratio that is too high the minute they start to generate positive albeit rather small earnings per share. We get around that problem by using a multi-pronged valuation approach to determine upside and downside price targets.

 

Is Snap the Next GoPro?

While all those numbers and forecasts are important to one’s investment decision making process (we make that point clear in Cocktail Investing: Distilling Everyday Noise into Clear Investment Signals for Better Returns), we have a more primal issue with Snap. Back in late 2015, we shared our view that GoPro (GPRO) was really a feature, not a product. As we said at the time, we saw Yelp (YELP), Angie’s List (ANGI), Groupon (GRPN) and others as features that over time will be incorporated into other products — like Facebook’s Professional Services, those at Amazon (AMZN) or others from Alphabet’s Google, much the way point-and-shoot cameras were overtaken by camera-enabled smartphones and personal information management functions were first incorporated into mobile phones and later smartphones, obviating the need for the original Palm Pilot and other pocket organizers.

When GoPro shares debuted in June 2014, they were a strong performer over the following months until they peaked near $87, but 15 months after going public GPRO shares fell through the IPO price and have remained underwater ever since.

What happened?

We recall hearing plans for a video network of user channels at GoPro as well as the management team touting the company as an “end to end storytelling solution,” but over the last few quarters, we’ve heard far more about new product issues, layoffs, facility closures and falling unit sales.  In 2016, GoPro saw camera unit sell-through fall 12 percent year-over-year to 5.3 million units from approximately 6 million units in 2015.

In our view, what happened can be summed up rather easily — GoPro was and is a feature, not a standalone product. It just took the stock market some time to figure it out once the IPO blitz and glory subsided. While we could be wrong, we have a strong suspicion that Snap is more likely to resemble GoPro than Facebook, which is monetizing multiple platforms as it extends its presence with new solutions deeper into the lives of its users and has changed the way people communicate.

As investors, we at Tematica would much rather own innovators of new products and solutions that are addressing pain points or benefitting from disruptive forces and changing economics, demographics, and psychographics in the marketplace than companies that offer features that will soon be co-opted by other companies and their products. Following that focus on 20/20 foresight, we avoided GoPro shares that fell from $19.50 in December 2015 to the recent share price of $8.84.

GoPro 2-year Share Price Performance

 

And then there’s this . . . 

There is another consideration which is not specific to Snap, but is rather an issue that all newly public companies must contend with — the lock-up expiration. For those unfamiliar with it, the lock-up period is a contractual restriction that prevents insiders who are holding a company’s stock, before it goes public, from selling the stock for a period usually between 90 to 180 days after the company goes public. Per Snap’s S-1, its lock-up expiration is 150 days, which puts it in 3Q 2017. Given the potential that insider selling could hit the shares, and be potentially disruptive to the share price, we tend to wait until the lock-up expiration comes and goes before putting the shares under the full Tematica telescope. This isn’t specific to Snap shares, but rather it’s one of our rules of thumb.

We have a strong suspicion that Snap is more likely to resemble GoPro than Facebook, but we’ll keep an open mind during the SNAP shares lock-up period, after all, companies are living entities that can move forward and backward depending on the market environment and leadership team. Let’s remember too that it took Facebook some time to figure out mobile.

Finally, we aren’t so thrilled that none of the 200 million shares floated came with voting rights, leaving the two founders Evan Spiegel and Robert Murphy with total control of the company. We prefer seeing more direct shareholder accountability… but hey, that’s us.

 

We Aren't Out of the Woods Yet

We Aren't Out of the Woods Yet

The growth of an economy is dependent primarily on just two factors, (1) the quantity and quality of the labor pool and (2) the amount of available investment capital. With the current unemployment rate, clearly the quantity of the labor pool is not a problem. The quality of that pool is a discussion for another time. So what about the amount of available investment capital? The talk in the investment world is about QE2, and unfortunately they aren’t referring to the Cunard ocean liner. QE2 refers to the second round of “Quantitative Easing” by the Federal Reserve, which is a politically savvy way of describing the Fed printing money. (Please see “U.S. Banking System” on this blog for more details.) At its November 3rd meeting, the Fed is expected to announce the launch of QE2. Expectations are for an initial level of $500 billion, with room for upward revisions. Last week Goldman Sachs opined that $4 trillion is quite possible, according to their analysis using the Taylor Rule, which is a measure of inflation, GDP and the impact of Fed rate cuts. This rule has been fairly spot on so far in tracking the Fed’s rate decisions so their analysis warrants attention.
When credit contracts, the economy is contracting, when credit expands, the economy is expanding. The Fed is hoping that by increasing banks’ ability to lend, it can jump start the economy. Mr. Bernanke is a bit like 49er and Charger fans in the 4th quarter. This time it will be different! Anyone who saw the 49er and Charger games on October 24th understands our pain. For credit to expand, borrowers need to want to borrow, and banks need to want to lend. According to an August 23, 2010 article in the Wall Street Journal, non-financial companies in the S&P 500 are sitting on a record $2 trillion in cash.  Doesn’t sound like the problem is that businesses are lacking the funds necessary to expand, now does it? So what about existing bank reserves? This chart, using data from the Federal Reserve, shows that bank reserves are at record highs, so that seems unlikely as well.

Both corporate and household lending rates are at historical lows. So the lack of borrowing can’t be because the interest rates are too high, yet the Fed is intent on lowering these already historically low rates. Be wary as history shows that excessively low interest rates inevitably lead to asset bubbles as those who have cash desperately seek some place to generate returns.

Household income is showing slight improvements, savings is trending up while spending is trending down. This doesn’t seem to indicate a desire by households to borrow. (The following chart is derived from Data from the U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Labor Statistics)

What is QE2 likely to accomplish? The Fed will once again create money out of thin air and most likely use it to purchase Treasury bonds to send long-term interest rates even lower. If this works, bond yields should fall, the dollar will fall and stocks and commodities should rise. A good deal of this has already been “baked in” to the market, meaning since the markets are convinced Bernanke is going for round two, they’ve already adjusted as if it were a done deal. Shorting the dollar has become a favorite pastime of many market professionals, so we could even see a rally in the dollar if QE2 doesn’t come on as strong initially as some have predicted. In the short run, things could go in a variety of directions, all of which are becoming increasingly difficult to anticipate. In the long run, inflation and potentially high inflation is a real possibility with all this expansion of bank reserves. I recently attended a meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society, (an international organization composed of economists, Nobel Prize winners, philosophers, historians, and business leaders) in Sydney, Australia. A topic of discussion at this conference was the possible destructive consequence of the developed nations’ seeming race towards the bottom through currency debasement. The investing world is becoming a more challenging jungle to navigate as the actions of individuals in governments around the world have increasing impact on the global economy, rather than market fundamentals. This past weekend the finance ministers of the G20 countries met in Korea to discuss “re-balancing the world.” When 20 fallible human bureaucrats, with imperfect knowledge under great political pressure try to impact the world, it usually doesn’t turn out well. For investors a defensive position that does not rely on strong GDP growth or economic stability is in our opinion, a wise choice.

Now how about those banks that Bernanke wants to nudge along with increased reserves? This past week PIMCO, Black Rock, Freddie Mac, the New York Fed, and Neuberger Berman Europe, LTD., collectively sued Countrywide for not putting back bad mortgages to its parent, Bank of America. This is surely the first in a series of suits aimed at getting control of the mortgage-backed security portfolios. Then there is the testimony from Mr. Richard Bowen, former chief underwriter with CitiMortgage given in April to the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission Hearing on Subprime Lending and Securitization and Government Sponsored Enterprises, (why are government activities always so wordy!?). He stated that, “In mid-2006 I discovered that over 60% of these mortgages purchased and sold were defective. Because Citi had given reps and warrants to the investors that the mortgages were not defective, the investors could force Citi to repurchase many billions of dollars of these defective assets….We continued to purchase and sell to investors even larger volumes of mortgages through 2007. And defective mortgages increased during 2007 to over 80% of production.” Does anyone really believe that Citibank was the only one up to this mischief, and we use the term mischief generously! We could see substantial level of lawsuits launched against these institutions, which would further serve to undermine an already weakened economy.

As for the banking sectors’ recent financial performance, there were mixed results with Bank of America posting a $7.3 billion loss in the third quarter and Goldman Sachs profit down 40% and Morgan Stanley’s profits fell 67%. Regional banks have shown some positive results, but smaller banks continue to close. There have been more than 300 bank failures since the recession began with 132 this year alone. There is considerable opportunity in the banking sector for mergers and acquisitions and all this tumult provides some opportunities, but again, defensive posturing is the name of the game for those investors who want to be successful in the long run.

Consumer confidence, which improved to August to 53.2, dropped to 48.5 in September. According to Lynn Franco, Directors of the Conference Board Consumer Research Center: “September’s pull-back in confidence was due to less favorable business and labor market conditions, coupled with a more pessimistic short-term outlook. Overall, consumers’ confidence in the state of the economy remains quite grim. And, with so few expecting conditions to improve in the near term, the pace of economic growth is not likely to pick up on the coming months.”

Is there any hope? I attended an investment conference in July where Niels Veldhuis of the Fraser Institute discussed the Canadian success story. Canada came through the recent financial crisis with no major bank failures, stronger GDP than the U.S. and the Canadian dollar is now selling at close to par against the USD. It has one of the lowest debt to GDP ratios among industrial nations and one of the fastest economic growth rates since adopting fiscal reforms in 1995. The Heritage Foundation/WSJ Economic Freedom Index ranks Canada No. 7, the U.S. is now at No. 11.

In 1995 Canada faced a crisis similar to the one facing the U.S. today with a downward spiraling currency, huge deficits, a tripling of the national debt since 1965, ballooning entitlements, government spending approaching 53% of GDP, and rampant inflation. The government cut spending by 10% over two years, laid off 60,000 federal workers over three years and eliminated the deficit in two years. For the next 11 years they ran a surplus, cut the national debt in half and reduced the size of government from 53% of GDP to today’s 39% all without raising taxes.

There is hope, but it will require discipline and an end to kick the can down the road solutions. We are positioning our clients to be able to take advantage of and be protected from the inevitable volatility as sovereign nations take actions that are impossible to predict in addressing their economic and financial problems. We are also cognizant of and prepared for impending inflation, that while unlikely in the short-term is highly likely in the longer-term and will be devastating for those who are not prepared.

KEY ECONOMIC METRICS

Gross Domestic Product (GDP): GDP dropped to 1.7% annualized rate in Q2 from 3.7% in Q1 and 5.0% in Q4 of 2009. GDP is expected to remain at 1.5% in Q3 and drop to 1.2% in Q4. Traditional buy-and-hold strategies struggle with such dismal growth prospects.

Unemployment continues to be the biggest economic concern and appears to be stagnating. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a rate of 9.6% in September with the number of unemployed persons at 14.8 million, essentially unchanged from August. There are currently 1.2 million discouraged workers, defined as persons not currently looking for work because they believe no jobs are available for them, which has increased by a staggering 503,000 over the past year.

Housing: Mortgage rates have dropped nearly 1% in the past year to a historic low of 4.42% for the 30-year, yet existing home sales dropped a record 27% (measured month-over-month) to an all time low, since data tracking began in 1999, of 3.83 million units at an annual rate. If record low rates cannot stimulating housing, pay attention!

Market Volume: CNBC recently reported that currently 90% of all trading volume in the markets is in 5% of the stocks. This means that a very small number of stocks are moving to manipulate the indices, which calls in question the meaning of the trends. In addition, the majority of the trading that is taking place is now generated by high-frequency computers and these programs can enter more orders in one second than a whole trading room of traders can enter in a month. Just one more reason to maintain a defensive portfolio.