Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Agricultural Commodity Prices Weaken on Ample Supplies

The 'Helicopter Economics Investing Guide' is meant to help educate people on how to make profitable investing choices in the current economic environment. We have coined this term to describe the current monetary and fiscal policies of the U.S. government, which involve unprecedented money printing. This is the official blog of the New York Investing meetup.


The USDA report on March 31st was bearish for grains. Wheat, soybeans, corn and rice all had significant drops in their last day of the quarter trading. Agriculture commodities have been weak since they peaked in 2008 and a sustainable rally in the immediate future is extremely unlikely.

Food commodities had big rallies starting in 2007 and these lasted into the spring of 2008, when most prices hit their highs. At the top, wheat was over $13 a bushel, soybeans over $16, corn around $7.50, and rough rice around $25.00.  Significant selling followed in later 2008 and into the summer of 2009. A late year rally from last year has now faded. Wheat closed out the first quarter at $4.505, down 21.5 cents or 4.6% on the day. Soybeans were at $9.41, down 33 cents or 3.4% and corn for May delivery closed at $3.45 down 9.5 cents or 2.7%. Rough rice was the least damaged dropping 24.5 cents or 2.0% to $12.215.

The USDA report didn't actually appear to be that negative. U.S. farmers will be planting 9% less wheat in 2010, although winter wheat plantings from last fall were 2% greater than they were initially thought to have been. The soybean crop should only be 1% larger than last year and corn 3%. In a bear market, news tends to be looked at with a negative bias though and there is overreaction to the downside. Agricultural ETFs with significant grain exposure, such as DBA, RJA, and GRU are all trading in bear market patterns with the 50-day moving average trading below the 200-day moving average. The cross just took place for RJA.

While the short-term picture for the grains appears negative, in the long-term prices will go up again. The ability to increase global food production is limited. There is little additional land that can be opened for cultivation and the big yield increases from the Green revolution - use of cross breeding to produce sturdier and more productive plants, the introducion of nitrogen based fertilizers, and extensive applications of pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides - are in the past. Population continues to grow though and the ability to produce more food isn't keeping up. At the same time, improved economies in emerging markets means a greater demand for food from large numbers of the underfed. The basic realities of supply and demand will eventually cause food prices to go back to their 2008 highs and probably much higher. The charts will tell us when this is likely to happen.

Disclosure: None

NEXT:  March Employment Numbers Better Thanks to Government Hiring

Daryl Montgomery
Organizer, New York Investing meetup
http://investing.meetup.com/21

This posting is editorial opinion. Like all other postings for this blog, there is no intention to endorse the purchase or sale of any security.

Questionable Oil Statistics More Accurate than Other Government Numbers

The 'Helicopter Economics Investing Guide' is meant to help educate people on how to make profitable investing choices in the current economic environment. We have coined this term to describe the current monetary and fiscal policies of the U.S. government, which involve unprecedented money printing. This is the official blog of the New York Investing meetup.


If it's Wednesday, it oil inventory report today. At 10:30AM New York time, the EIA (Energy Information Agency) releases it weekly statistics on the amount of crude oil, gasoline and distillates in U.S. storage. The price of oil can move sharply up or down based on this information. Unfortunately, the numbers in the inventory reports are not reliable.

An article in the March 18th edition of the Wall Street Journal entitled "DOE Documents Cite Outdated Methodology, Errors in EIA's Weekly Survey" revealed why the weekly oil data could not be trusted. The Journal stated that the process utilized by the EIA to determine inventory levels hadn't kept up with important changes over the years. It went on to mention a litany of problems with data collection at the EIA including old technology and out-of-date methodology. It specifically cited an inaccurate report in September that caused an unjustified big move up in oil prices.

Knowing that there are problems with the statistics being published by the EIA, investors should immediately wonder how accurate the other numbers are that the U.S. government publishes. There are more than enough reasons to question the GDP reports, inflation statistics and employment reports. Unlike the EIA reports, which are inaccurate because of neglect, these other reports are inaccurate because of lack of neglect. Government statisticians have gone out of their way to introduce 'improvements' over the past thirty years in the how the numbers are determined in these other reports. These 'improvements' seem to have only made the numbers more and more favorable looking. When statistical adjustments only produce better numbers, they are more accurately referred to as manipulation.

The oil report today indicated that crude oil inventories went up by 2.9 million barrels last week and gasoline inventories were up 300,000 barrels. U.S. crude oil inventories and gasoline were above the upper limit of
the average range for this time of year according to the EIA.  While these numbers don't look good, who knows whether or not they are even close to the actual ones.

Problems with the EIA notwithstanding, investors should be watching oil at this point and paying attention to the stock charts. The price of oil is determined globally, not just by what happens in the U.S. Oil is entering a seasonal strong period that will last until the summer. Light sweet crude has been in a trading range from 70 to 83 for many months now.  A breakout above that range would be bullish and could happen at any time. ETFs/ETNs that investors can use to go long on oil include OIL, DBO, USO and USL.

Disclosure: None

NEXT: Agricultural Prices Weaken on Ample Supplies

Daryl Montgomery
Organizer, New York Investing meetup
http://investing.meetup.com/21

This posting is editorial opinion. Like all other postings for this blog, there is no intention to endorse the purchase or sale of any security.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Market Says U.S. Treasuries Riskier than Corporate Debt

The 'Helicopter Economics Investing Guide' is meant to help educate people on how to make profitable investing choices in the current economic environment. We have coined this term to describe the current monetary and fiscal policies of the U.S. government, which involve unprecedented money printing. This is the official blog of the New York Investing meetup.


On March 24th, swap spreads on 7-year and 10-year treasuries and their equivalent corporate bonds turned negative for the first time ever. With this move, the market signaled that it thinks that U.S. corporate debt is less risky than U.S. government debt. If so, they will have to rewrite the finance textbooks.

A great deal of financial analysis is based on the risk free rate of return. Risk free in this instance means that default is not possible. This rate is the interest rate on government debt. Technically, sovereign governments cannot default on their bonds because they can simply print the money to pay them off if necessary.  This of course devalues the currency, creates inflation and thereby raises interest rates, which are other forms of risk. Corporations should always have higher interest rates than the country they operate in as long as the country is a sovereign nation and not part of a currency union such as the euro. This is the case because unlike government, corporations can't print money so they can go out of business and their bonds can default. The higher interest rates on corporate debt are needed to compensate for possible bankruptcy. The opposite situation makes no sense whatsoever and indicates that some very odd things are going on in the markets. Nevertheless, more than one market observer noted wryly that the fiscal soundness of many U.S. corporations is actually much better than that of the U.S. government.

The U.S. had a series of government bond auctions last week and they did not go well. Purchases by both indirect bidders, which includes central banks, and direct bidders, which includes domestic money managers, were both down. In the case of the 7-year for instance, indirect bidders bought 42% instead of the usual 50%. Direct bidders bought 8% as opposed to their average 11% purchase. When fewer bonds are bought at auction, primary dealers get stuck with the unsold inventory and then they usually dump it on the market. Bonds then sell off and interest rates go up. The yield on the 10-year rose 15 basis points last Wednesday and peaked at 3.94% on the week, almost as high as last June. Interest rates on treasuries of other maturities rose across the board.

Investors should pay particular attention to the lower demand from central banks and wonder if a lack of purchasing by China is behind this. There is an ongoing struggle between the U.S and China on whether or not China is keeping the yuan dollar exchange rate artificially low. There will be a ruling by the Treasury Department on April 15th on whether or not China is a currency manipulator. Needless to say, the Chinese are not particularly happy about this. China was a net seller of U.S. government bonds in December and January. A significant drop in their buying would cause U.S. interest rates to go up considerably.

Investors should keep an eye on treasury interest rates. The 10-year and 30-year rates have been on the decline since 1980. They now look like they are reversing this pattern and are poised to begin a multi-decade rise in interest rates (and lower bond prices). Shorting treasuries is the way to take advantage of this sea change. Two ETFs, TBT and TMV offer leveraged plays on long-term treasuries (twenty to thirty years) for those who think interest rates are going to rise.

Disclosure: None

NEXT: Questionable Oil Statistics More Accurate than Other Government Numbers

Daryl Montgomery
Organizer, New York Investing meetup
http://investing.meetup.com/21

This posting is editorial opinion. Like all other postings for this blog, there is no intention to endorse the purchase or sale of any security.

Monday, March 29, 2010

U.S. Consumer Spending: Not Indicating Economic Recovery

The 'Helicopter Economics Investing Guide' is meant to help educate people on how to make profitable investing choices in the current economic environment. We have coined this term to describe the current monetary and fiscal policies of the U.S. government, which involve unprecedented money printing. This is the official blog of the New York Investing meetup.


The Commerce Department released figures for February consumer spending on March 29th. The report indicated that consumer spending was up 0.3% in February, but personal incomes were flat. The savings rate was lower though, dropping to 3.1% from 3.4% in January. Spending increases were highest for necessities, such as food and clothing. Spending on non-durables actually fell. Nevertheless, somehow the mainstream media looked at these figures and concluded, "Both the spending and income figures in Monday's report point to a modest economic recovery".

Now for a dose of reality.

If income is not going up, but consumer spending is going up, there are only three possible explanations. Consumers have either gotten increased credit and are borrowing more, they are spending savings, or they are selling assets.  If they are spending savings or selling assets to support their spending, the economy is in very bad shape, somewhat similar to the way it was during the Great Depression in the 1930s. Since the savings rate was still a positive number, consumers were not taking more money out of their savings accounts than they were putting into them. So consumers were still saving, but at a lower rate. The 'Personal Incomes and Outlays' report (that's its official name) doesn't analyze buying and selling of assets, but does have a figure on 'Personal Income Receipts on Assets' that includes interest and dividend income. This number decreased by $16.5 billion in both February and January and that may indicate that the public is quite possibly a net seller of assets. Consumer credit is also not handled in the report, but the latest figures from the Federal Reserve indicate that revolving (read credit card) consumer credit declined at a 2.5% annualized rate in January.

While the sources for the supposed increases in U.S. consumer spending are murky at best, the amount of consumer spending in and of itself is not a determinant of whether or not economic recovery is taking place. The increased spending needs to come from economic growth and not government spending. If it comes from more government spending, better numbers are just a shell game and are actually an indicator of just how troubled the economy really is.  U.S. consumer spending rose $34.7 billion in February. Of that amount, $16.6 billion came from an increase in federal government transfer payments. That is only the one-month change in federal spending being funneled directly into consumer's pocket. Government support for the U.S. economy has increased substantially and in myriad ways since the beginning of the recession in December 2007.

While consumer credit has declined significantly since the Credit Crisis began, government borrowing has increased to make up the slack. This is why the U.S. is facing a $1.6 trillion budget deficit in fiscal year 2010.  The record levels of government borrowing are propping up the entire U.S. economy, including consumer spending. Governments don't spend more when economies recover; they spend less. Only when U.S. government spending begins to decline sharply and reports come out that consumer spending is increasing should investors consider believing that economic recovery is really taking place.

Disclosure: None

NEXT: Market Says U.S. Treasuries Riskier Than Corporate Debt

Daryl Montgomery
Organizer,  New York Investing meetup
http://investing.meetup.com/21

This posting is editorial opinion. Like all other postings for this blog, there is no intention to endorse the purchase or sale of any security.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Euro Zone Support Package Doesn' t Solve the Problem

The 'Helicopter Economics Investing Guide' is meant to help educate people on how to make profitable investing choices in the current economic environment. We have coined this term to describe the current monetary and fiscal policies of the U.S. government, which involve unprecedented money printing. This is the official blog of the New York Investing meetup.


After many press reports over the last two months about a possible bailout for Greece, euro zone leaders seem to have finally come up with a plan to handle the crisis. The plan however will only be used as a last resort, is limited to loans at market interest rates, and requires unanimous agreement from all member countries before aid can be granted. Euro zone countries would provide about two-thirds of the loan money and the IMF the remaining third. Given the restrictions, the support package is likely to have limited impact.

While no loan amount has been specified, unofficial sources indicated that 22 billion euros was the proposed amount. Greece has to borrow 20 billion euros in April and May alone. Greece has not had problems borrowing money so far, but has had to pay high interest rates to do so. The high rates are causing problems because more money has to go to debt service and this means less money for other government spending elsewhere. The country has already been plagued with riots because of its enactment of budget cuts and higher taxes. The euro zone support package though doesn't lower borrowing costs for Greece. It only assures that Greece will be able to continue to borrow in case no one else will lend to it. Essentially the euro zone, along with help from the IMF, has established a policy of acting as a lender of last resort for its sovereign entities.

Admittedly, the euro zone has to trod a very narrow path in the extent of its aid to member countries. If Greece were the only member in trouble the situation wouldn't be so delicate. The Credit Crisis has devastated Europe, just as it has the rest of the world. The more economically marginal countries have suffered the most. Greece is merely the canary in the coal mine. Ireland just released fourth quarter GDP figures indicating that its economy shrank at a 5.1% annualized rate. GDP contraction there in 2009 was the largest on record and that includes all the years of the Great Depression in the 1930s. Italy's GDP dropped 5.1% in 2009. Official figures indicate that Spain's economy was 3.6% smaller for the year. Portugal, which just had its debt rating downgraded by Fitch, claims that its GDP was down a mere 2.7% in 2009.

While all of these numbers are bad, they could actually be even worse. The media reported that Greece shocked markets and other EU nations when it admitted it falsified its statistics to make its budget deficit look much lower than it was, even though the numbers was obviously impossible. The original Greek government figures projected a budget deficit to GDP ratio of 3.75% for 2009 and below 3% (the euro zone target for members of the currency union) for 2010. Greece also claimed that its GDP would increase by 1.1% in the midst of the severe global downturn that was taking place last year (as of now it looks like GDP dropped 2.0%). While these fantasy figures were treated as reality at EU headquarters, the OECD didn't buy them. Long before the Greek government admitted to the truth, it estimated that the budget deficit to GDP ratio would be 6% in 2009. So far, it looks like it will actually be 12.7% - around 250% higher than initially claimed by the Greek government. If such outrageous fabrications could be accepted, would 50% or even 100% errors be discovered?  Greece is not the first country to lie about its economic statistics. Only the very naive would assume that there aren't many other countries doing the exact same thing. Moreover, Greece only got caught because it turned itself in.

Denial on the part of euro zone governing bodies is what has lead to the current crisis with Greece. In order to avoid future problems, the euro zone needs to assure the integrity of the numbers produced by its member countries, so no other major surprises will take place. There also needs to be a more formal mechanism to establish economic equilibrium among member nations as well. The potential trouble spots in the euro zone are characterized as relying excessively on consumer spending, having weak public finances, and relying on foreign capital to supplement low savings rates. Interestingly, this is also an excellent description of the United States.

Disclosure: None

NEXT: U.S. Consumer Spending: Not Inidcating Economic Recovery

Daryl Montgomery
Organizer,New York Investing meetup
http://investing.meetup.com/21

This posting is editorial opinion. Like all other postings for this blog, there is no intention to endorse the purchase or sale of any security.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

CFTC's March 25th Hearings on the Metals Markets

The 'Helicopter Economics Investing Guide' is meant to help educate people on how to make profitable investing choices in the current economic environment. We have coined this term to describe the current monetary and fiscal policies of the U.S. government, which involve unprecedented money printing. This is the official blog of the New York Investing meetup.


The CFTC (Commodities Future Trading Commission) held hearings on March 25th on whether to set controls on metal's trading in the U.S. futures markets. A representative from CME (Chicago Mercantile Exchange) testified that the CFTC's attempt to put hard limits on speculative activity in the U.S. metals markets is an attempt by the government oversight agency to overstep its bounds. A spokesman for HSBC claimed that limits on metal trading were simply unnecessary. The CFTC itself said it continues to look into allegations of market manipulation in the silver market in the summer of 2008.

The CFTC has previously held hearings on setting trading limits in energy and agricultural commodities. One of the reasons that the CFTC claims it needs to set position limits in trading is because of the finite supply of any commodity. The limits are supposedly protecting the market (from itself apparently) and the CFTC claims that government bureaucrats know more about how trading should be done than market participants. While there are actual glaring examples of how the gold and silver markets are manipulated by the big players, these are rarely on the CFTC's agenda. Like the other major market regulatory body, the SEC, the CFTC just doesn't seem to notice the behavior from the big money insiders that really distorts the market. For instance, CFTC hearings last summer on energy focused on ETF UNG, which held 20% of natural gas futures contracts. Even though this was an investment vehicle heavily used by small investors, the CFTC decided it was a danger to the integrity of the markets, as opposed to the trading activities of the big banks and hedge funds. The SEC took the same approach by paying limited attention to Bernie Madoff's $65 billion investment scam for almost two decades, but during the same period was very likely to use its resources to investigate some dentist in New Jersey who suspiciously bought a 1000 option contracts and made a couple of bucks.

The CFTC's concerns with energy and agricultural trading are obviously politically motivated. Politicians want to keep the prices of these commodities down since they are necessities and the source of destabilizing inflation. The UK prime minister and French president actually wrote a widely circulated article about how energy prices need to be determined by the big government's of the world just before the CFTC's energy hearings last summer. The U.S. had price controls on energy commodities in the early 1970s and the results were long lines at gas stations and fuel shortages. Under pricing in the markets always leads to trouble down the road.

The excuse for the CFTC considering limits on metal trading is even less justified than for energy or agriculture. As the HSBC representative pointed out, metals are not wasting assets that are consumed and then no longer available as is the case for oil and food commodities. Metals get recycled. Almost all of the gold that has ever been mined is still thought to be in existence. Higher prices increase the recycling rate and bring more supply to market, so the markets for gold and silver are self-correcting. While 50% of silver is used for industrial purposes, only 13% of gold is employed for manufacturing practical items. Most gold is used to make jewelry. Does the gold market need to be controlled, so the rich can be assured of getting good prices on holiday presents?

The CFTC is also not looking at where the actual manipulation is taking place in the gold market. This is done through central bank leasing to the large banks and hedge funds. They lease the gold for a small price and then can sell it on the market to raise some quick cash. This activity held down the price of gold in the 1990s and the early 2000s. The price of gold rose as leasing activity diminished. Artificially lowering the price of a commodity doesn't seem to come under the definition of market manipulation as far as the CFTC is concerned. Central banks, large international banks and big hedge funds also seem to be citizens above suspicion as Madoff was for the SEC.

While the CFTC is looking into manipulation into the silver markets, it may not mean that much. This is probably happening because silver investor Ted Butler has worked tirelessly to bring the situation to the public's attention, thereby putting some heat on the agency. How much the CFTC actually looks this time has yet to be determined. The SEC investigated Madoff many times, but just couldn't discover his blatantly obvious crooked activities. For some time, two big banks have frequently had huge short positions in silver futures -seemingly bigger than the Hunt Brother's who were convicted on federal charges on manipulating the silver prices in the 1980s. The CFTC has already investigated silver twice before in the 2000s and didn't find any irregularities. The SEC investigated Madoff more than two times.

Steve Sherrod, acting director of surveillance at the CFTC’s division of market oversight noted in today's hearings that when Comex silver prices fell sharply in the summer of 2008 that there was no significant change in the total long or short positions in the commitment of traders’ positions in the agency’s weekly data. Nor was there a significant change in open interest during the period of July and August 2008. Sherrod tried to explain away this seeming impossibility by stating, “One could explain a change in short open interest on the BPR (bank participation report) by a change within the classification system; if the usage code changed from non-bank to bank for a trader with a short position, then an increase in the short open interest would appear on the BPR, without any change in the COT (commitment of traders) Report. Another explanation would be a merger or acquisition where a bank assumes the position of a non-bank entity, both of whom were under the same commercial classification. That may not result in a change in open interest and may not result in a change in aggregate position within a COT classification. But it may result in an increase in the reported position on the BPR.”  Readers should carefully note Sherrod's wording (and language that seems more geared to hide what is going on than to clearly explain it). While this may have been what happened, Sherrod indicates that it also may not have been what happened. So how does this enlighten us?

The small investor shouldn't expect much, if anything, from the CFTC. It is realistically a government body that uses its powers to protect the big money interests, although it will claim that whatever it does is to benefit the public. Markets can also not be controlled without serious negative consequences. Government's have attempted to do so hundreds of times throughout the ages and it has never worked. Most commodity trading is international as well (natural gas is an exception), so restrictions in trading in the U.S. means that business will just move overseas. In this doesn't happen quickly enough, shortages will appear. You will have the CFTC to thank for them when they do.

Disclosure: None

NEXT: Euro Zone Support Package Doesn't Solve the Problem

Daryl Montgomery
Organizer, New York Investing meetup
http://investing.meetup.com/21

This posting is editorial opinion. Like all other postings for this blog, there is no intention to endorse the purchase or sale of any security.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Will Expanding Euro Crisis Continue to Benefit U.S. Stocks?

The 'Helicopter Economics Investing Guide' is meant to help educate people on how to make profitable investing choices in the current economic environment. We have coined this term to describe the current monetary and fiscal policies of the U.S. government, which involve unprecedented money printing. This is the official blog of the New York Investing meetup.


The euro has fallen to levels last seen in May 2009, trading as low as 133.01. A downgrade of Portugal's sovereign debt from AA to AA- by rating agency Fitch has created new weakness for the euro zone currency, as a solution to the Greek crisis still remains elusive.  The British pound, the Swiss Franc and Swedish Krona all traded down more than a percent at one point on the news. Money continues to flow out of Europe in general, not just the euro zone. This has been going on since early December. The U.S. dollar has been the beneficiary, as have U.S. stocks.

The stock rally since last March has actually had two distinct phases, although this may not be immediately obvious by looking at the charts. Both phases are connected to actions in currencies. The U.S. trade-weighted dollar sold off between March and December 2009 and U.S. stocks rallied strongly during this period. This pattern has actually been common since the early 2000s. It makes sense because when a currency devalues, stock market caps in that currency need to rise assuming the real value of a company's assets remain unchanged. This drove the first phase of the rally. The driving force then shifted gears in December with capital fleeing Europe and looking for a home elsewhere. A lot of it wound up in dollar-based assets.

The U.S. stock market rally is not healthy however. The recent rally has been on low volume. Trading volume in the Dow Jones actually peaked last March during the market low and has generally declined since then throughout the entire rally. It's gotten even worse lately. Declining volume in a trend is a strong technical negative. The VIX, the volatility index for the S&P 500, has gotten as low as 16.17 - and this is a very low  (it reached the 90 level during the market sell off in 2008). It can go lower though and traded around 10 during the placid days of 2005 and 2006. The current investment environment is not exactly placid however. The VIX is a contrary indicator and low values are a negative for future stock prices, although it can bottom months before the market falls apart. Moreover, it is not even clear that the VIX has hit bottom.

Precious metal investors should keep in the mind that the price of gold and the euro tend to move together. This is also true of oil, but to a lesser extent. The euro has strong chart support in the 1.30 area and very strong support around 1.25, the low during the Credit Crisis. The trend indicators on the daily chart indicate a new sell off has begun, so a fall to 1.30 is very likely. If that doesn't hold, a test of 1.25 will take place. If the 1.25 level breaks, investors should assume that another major crisis is unfolding in the global financial system and that it could be as bad as the one that occurred in the fall of 2008.

Disclosure: None

NEXT: CFTC's March 25th Hearings on the Metal Markets

Daryl Montgomery
Organizer, New York Investing meetup
http://investing.meetup.com/21

This posting is editorial opinion. Like all other postings for this blog, there is no intention to endorse the purchase or sale of any security.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Housing Hype Fades with Sales Numbers

The 'Helicopter Economics Investing Guide' is meant to help educate people on how to make profitable investing choices in the current economic environment. We have coined this term to describe the current monetary and fiscal policies of the U.S. government, which involve unprecedented money printing. This is the official blog of the New York Investing meetup.


During last summer and fall, the mainstream media was filled with glowing reports of recovery in the U.S. housing market. Government programs were juicing the numbers, which doesn't represent recovery of anything, but that wasn't the spin the media put on increased home sales. Special tax credits, which are still in place, were behind the better numbers. They are losing their affect though and the housing market is already beginning to turn down again.

According to the NAR (National Association of Realtors), existing home sales fell 0.6% in February to a seasonally adjusted 5.02 million units. This is the third monthly drop in a row. The impact of the 'seasonal adjustments' seems to have caused sales in the snow-buried Northeast and Midwest to rise significantly during the month. The overall number would have been much worse without the supposed strong sales in those geographic areas. Inventories of homes on the market, which are not seasonally adjusted, jumped 312,000 to 3.59 million. This represents an 8.2 month supply based on current sales rates. The median sales price was $165,100, down 1.8% year over year.

While the federal government has a number of programs to prop up the housing market, including funneling questionable mortgages through the FHA (Federal Housing Administration) and its blank-check support of nationalized and money-bleeding Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the first-time home buyers credit was the most immediate impetus for increased sales during the second half of 2009. The credit was originally slated to expire on November 30th, but at the last minute was extended to this April 30th and expanded to include non first-time buyers. Nevertheless, sales started to dip after November. It is now clear that the credit merely sped up purchases that were already going to take place and higher sales last fall mean lower sales early this year.

Existing home sales peaked in 2005 at 7,075,000. The latest number at 5,020,000 represents and almost 30% drop - and we are now entering the fifth year since the top. The pattern of sales from the homebuyer's tax credit indicates that it was too little to fix what is a massive systemic problem. House prices went too high during the bubble, actually doubling or more in a four-year period in some cities, and they need to come down to market clearing prices. Until this happens, the market cannot recover and grow again, nor can the overall U.S. economy.

Disclosure: None

NEXT: Will Expanding Euro Crisis Continue to Benefit U.S. Stocks

Daryl Montgomery
Organizer, New York Investing meetup
http://investing.meetup.com/21

This posting is editorial opinion. Like all other postings for this blog, there is no intention to endorse the purchase or sale of any security.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Who Really Benefits from the U.S. Healthcare Bill

The 'Helicopter Economics Investing Guide' is meant to help educate people on how to make profitable investing choices in the current economic environment. We have coined this term to describe the current monetary and fiscal policies of the U.S. government, which involve unprecedented money printing. This is the official blog of the New York Investing meetup.


Stock prices anticipate changes six months or more in advance. Healthcare and pharmaceutical stocks have been rising for even longer than that because of proposals in the healthcare legislation that is about to become law. Some ETFs that cover the sector are doing so well that they have even hit all-time highs. The stock market is stating quite clearly that healthcare 'reform' is good for reforming the bottom lines of businesses that operate in the sector.

Certainly there is no question that real reform of the U.S. healthcare system is desperately needed. The U.S. spends much more per capita on its citizens' health and gets less for it than any other developed country. According to UN World Population Prospects, life expectancy in the U.S. ranks 38th worldwide, just behind Chile and Cuba. The system is rife with abuses, only a few of which seem to be addressed by the bill, which by itself will create some more. The myriad minute details of what is actually in the 2000-page bill are known by only very few however, including most of the members of congress who enthusiastically voted for it. Nevertheless, the overarching goals are quite clear.

The key provision of the bill can be summarized as 'everyone will be required to have health insurance, but it won't be provided for, instead you'll have to buy it unless you are poor, and the insurance companies won't be able to exclude those with pre-existing conditions'. The wording of the legislation hides the fact that it is really a gigantic tax increase that will be applied arbitrarily and even worse is subject to unlimited increases without further legislation. The U.S. government doesn't get the tax money however, it merely uses its policing powers to make sure you fork over your money to privately run corporations. Since there is no free lunch, forcing these companies to take customers and engage in behavior that raises their costs, means that they will be raising their prices to maintain their profits. Unlike in a free market, corporate profits are protected in the legislation and the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries will consequently become loosely regulated government protected monopolies (actually oligopolies because there is more than one company involved). For a recent example of what occurs when such entities are created, think of the highly corrupt real estate money-pits Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac that now require unlimited taxpayer funding to keep them operational.

Health care costs in the U.S. have tended to rise faster than inflation for many years now. There seem to be no controls in the healthcare legislation on future price increases. The public is therefore left completely exposed to paying an every increasing percentage of their income for health insurance. This working and middle class will be hit disproportionately hard. Without significant controls on costs, and this is the most serious issue facing healthcare in the U.S. and the one least addressed by the legislation, the average person will see their healthcare expenditures skyrocket. People who engage in responsible preventative behavior and make great efforts to take care of their health will be rewarded for their efforts by paying more in insurance costs to support those who act irresponsibly.

A simple checkup of healthcare and pharmaceutical ETFs shows what the market thinks of how the healthcare legislation will impact the industry. The pharmaceutical companies jumped on board and supported the healthcare bill early on and in exchange President Obama made a deal with them to exclude negotiation for drug prices. Pharmaceutical ETFs XPY, IHE, and PJP respectively made new all-time highs last fall, in January and just recently. Healthcare provider ETFs FXH and IHF are doing well too. FXH hit an all-time high in December and IHF is at a two-year high and has more than doubled off its low from last spring. The market unquestionably sees healthcare 'reform' as good for business in the sector and anticipates huge increases in profits. Those profits will be coming out of your pocket.

Disclosure: None

NEXT: Housing Hype Fades With Sales Numbers

Daryl Montgomery
Organizer, New York Investing meetup
http://investing.meetup.com/21

This posting is editorial opinion. Like all other postings for this blog, there is no intention to endorse the purchase or sale of any security.

Friday, March 19, 2010

U.S. Stock Market in the First Quarter of 2010

The 'Helicopter Economics Investing Guide' is meant to help educate people on how to make profitable investing choices in the current economic environment. We have coined this term to describe the current monetary and fiscal policies of the U.S. government, which involve unprecedented money printing. This is the official blog of the New York Investing meetup.


Today is quadruple witching, a once every quarter event that takes place on the third Friday of March, June, September and December. On these dates, contracts for stock index options, stock index futures, stock options and single stock futures all expire. While media reports usually focus on volatility during the expiration date, far more important is the trading that takes place in the proceeding weeks. Prices will tend to move to minimize the value of outstanding options due to hedging, if not for other reasons. A negative outlook in February seems to have led to a nice rally in U.S. stocks during March.

Stocks started the year off with a mildly bullish tone and hit a peak in mid-January. The Nasdaq and Dow Transports hit a high on January 11th, the Dow Jones Industrial Average on January 14th and the S&P 500 and Russell 2000 on January 19th. All the indices sold off into February on news of reductions in liquidity from the U.S. Fed and restrictions on bank lending in China. The moves withdrew very little money from the global financial system however. The world's markets are still awash in liquidity. The U.S. dollar was also rallying during this time and since the stock market rally began in March 2009, the dollar and stocks have tended to move in opposite directions.

Stocks then started rallying off their February lows in a stronger dollar environment. This pattern first became evident recently in December 2009 when the trade-weighted dollar rallied strongly and so did stocks during the month. It would perhaps be more accurate to say the euro experienced significant weakness during these periods because of the crisis in Greece (the euro represents over half of the trade-weighted dollar). December represented a shift in trading patterns for the U.S. dollar and stocks for the current the rally.  Investors should note if the strong-dollar strong-stock pattern continues. While it was common in the 1990s, the opposite has been the case for much of the 2000s.

All the major indices hit new current year price highs recently. The Russell 2000 was the first on March 2nd, followed by the Nasdaq on March 5th, and the S&P 500 on March 12th. The Dow Transports hit a new high on March 10th before the Industrials hit a new high on March 17th. New highs are of course generally bullish.  Small caps have been doing best in the rally. This indicates higher risk tolerance on the part of investors and is also something that happens in inflationary environments. Small caps outperformed during the second half of the high-inflation 1970s following the deep recession of 1973 to 1975.

U.S. stocks can continue to do well as long as liquidity is being pumped into the financial system. Liquidity is the driver of prices and not the economy as the mainstream media constantly reports. Liquidity shows up first in the markets and later on in the economy if everything works according to plan. The Japanese in the 1990s and 2000s found that this Keynesian style plan didn't always work however. If things get too bad because too many excesses have built up in the financial system, the liquidity fix is no longer effective. U.S. investors also need to realize that money has flowed out of Europe and into the U.S. and a resolution of the Greek crisis will cause funds to flow out of the U.S. and back into Europe. Moreover, actions the Chinese take can also impact U.S. stock prices. China raising interest rates would be a negative for U.S. markets. Revaluing its currency upward would also shake things up.

Disclosure: None

NEXT: Who Really Benefits From the U.S. Healthcare Bill

Daryl Montgomery
Organizer, New York Investing meetup
http://investing.meetup.com/21

This posting is editorial opinion. Like all other postings for this blog, there is no intention to endorse the purchase or sale of any security.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Dollar, Euro, Gold, Oil, and Treasuries

The 'Helicopter Economics Investing Guide' is meant to help educate people on how to make profitable investing choices in the current economic environment. We have coined this term to describe the current monetary and fiscal policies of the U.S. government, which involve unprecedented money printing. This is the official blog of the New York Investing meetup.


Problems in Greece are still impacting the market with the seemingly never-ending on-again off-again possible bailout. Some resolution, even if temporary, is of course inevitable. Problems in the euro zone have set the tone for U.S. dollar and euro trading for almost four months now. These have in turn affected U.S. long-term treasuries, gold and oil. Long-term treasuries and oil have been trading in a sideways pattern since around May 2009. Gold sold down and has been in a sideways trading pattern since December. The U.S. dollar has temporarily broken a long-term downtrend and the euro a long-term uptrend because of the Greek crisis.

The U.S. trade-weighted dollar(DXY)traded down to its 50-day moving average recently and then bounced sharply off of it. The 50-day is above the 200-day, having made a bullish cross in mid-February. It seems that the trend indicators are trying to reconfirm the uptrend. On the flip side, the euro's(FXE)technical picture is the mirror image of the dollar. The 50-day moving average made a bearish cross of the 200-day in mid February. The price rose toward the 50-day recently - an expected move since the 50-day tends to act as a magnet on the downside as well as on the upside. The euro though didn't even reach the 50-day before a sharp drop. Trend indicators look like they are moving to reconfirm the downtrend

Gold (GLD, IAU, SGOL) is apparently trendless at the moment and trading around its 50-day moving average, which is above the 200-day moving average in a bullish configuration. The price pattern seems to be forming a triangle on the charts. A break out could take place either on the upside or downside. Seasonals for gold tend to be weak in late spring and early summer. As seasonals weaken for gold however, they strengthen for oil . Oil (DBO, USL, USO, OIL) is also trading in a sideways pattern and looking for a breakout. The bullish 50-day cross took place between late June and late July 2009 depending on which proxy is being considered. Oil has been stuck in a trading range since last May and needs to break out of that range, the top of which is around $83 a barrel for light sweet crude.

The 30-year Treasury interest rate ($TYX or ^TYX) has been in bullish pattern since May 2009 with the 50-day trading above the 200-day. It has gone nowhere fast during that time period, trading in a sideways pattern on the chart. Technically, it has extremely strong resistance from a 30-year downtrend line in interest rates. A rally in interest rates on the long-term treasuries (and sell off in the bond price) doesn't look imminent at the moment based on the technical picture. When it does, bullish trades on long-term treasury interest rates can be made through TBT and TMV.

Sideways trading (also known as basing) shouldn't surprise investors. It is the norm and not the exception. Most of the time markets are trendless and you need to be a short-term trader and willing to enter and exit your positions quickly to make money under those circumstances. Trends (either up or down) are where the real money is made. You can't make them happen however, you just have to watch and wait until they come along.

Disclosure: None

NEXT: U.S. Stock Market in the First Quarter of 2010

Daryl Montgomery
Organizer, New York Investing meetup
http://investing.meetup.com/21

This posting is editorial opinion. Like all other postings for this blog, there is no intention to endorse the purchase or sale of any security.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Past Recessions Provide Insight Into When the Fed Will Raise Rates

The 'Helicopter Economics Investing Guide' is meant to help educate people on how to make profitable investing choices in the current economic environment. We have coined this term to describe the current monetary and fiscal policies of the U.S. government, which involve unprecedented money printing. This is the official blog of the New York Investing meetup.


The Federal Reserve left the fed funds rate in the zero to 0.25% range at its March meeting. This is the 15th month that the Fed has maintained rates at an all-time low. At the conclusion of the meeting the Fed stated that it will keep rates near zero "for an extended period of time", so no rate increase should be expected for at least several more months. Examining how the Fed reacted to past recessions can provide investors with some insight into when the Fed will actually change to a more restrictive interest rate policy this time around.

According to the official record, the previous U.S. recession took place between March 2001 and November 2001. This recession was unique in that it is the only one in U.S. history where consumer spending didn't drop and it was also one of the mildest recessions on record. Fed funds bottomed at 1.00% in June 2003 - 19 months after the recession was supposedly over. The backdrop was very low inflation. New reports of a jobless recovery were common even in the fall of 2003 and there was great concern at the time because the unemployment rate was at the 6% level (as opposed to 10% today). Fed funds remained at a low point for 11 months. So the Fed started raising its funds rate 30 months after the recession officially ended. If we optimistically assume that the current recession ended in July 2009 because GDP turned positive in the third quarter of the year, this would imply Fed funds would start rising around January 2012.

The recession before the one in the early 2000s took place between July 1990 and March 1991. Fed funds bottomed at 3.00% in September 1992 - 18 months after the recession officially ended. Jobless recovery was also a big news item in 1993. Commentators noted that payroll employment in the 7 previous U.S. recessions had increased on average around seven percent in the two-years following the business trough, but had barely budged in that time period after the 1990-1991 recession. The unemployment rate was around the 7% level. The backdrop was declining inflation. The fed started raising rates in February 1994, so the low rate was maintained for 16 months and this was 35 months after the recession was declared to be over. This would imply that the Fed will start raising rates around June 2012.

The prior recessionary period was the double dip recession that took place between January 1980 to July 1980 and July 1981 to November 1982. This recession was actually created by Federal Reserve policy and sent the U.S. industrial base into a decline from which it never recovered. Inflation was high and at its peak, so interest rates were at the start of a long-term decline. Fed chair Volcker kept raising Fed funds rates until they reached 20%. They last time that they were that high was October 1981. They were then lowered until they had fallen to 8.5% in December 1982. The funds rate was then raised until a new lowering cycle began in September 1984. The funds rate bottomed at 5.875% in August 1986. High fed funds rates did not cause our current recession, so this period of economic history is not necessarily relevant to today's situation. The recession did take place at the beginning of a multi-decade shift in interest rates and this is also occurring now, although we are at the bottom of the cycle and not at the top like we were in the early 1980s. Japan's experience since 1990 indicates that rates can remain at or near their low point for well over a decade.

Before our current recession, the worst post World War II recession occurred between November 1973 and March 1975. Inflation was high and rising during this time period, so interest rates were generally trending upward. Unemployment peaked at 9.0% in May 1975. The concept of jobless recovery was an unknown phenomenon. The fed funds rate reached a low of 4.75% in January and November 1976. The Fed started a consistently more restrictive interest rate policy 21 months after the recession ended. That would imply that April 2011 could be the first Fed funds rate increase this time around.

Historical examination indicates that when the Fed starts raising rates depends on when a recession occurs in the context of a longer-term inflationary/deflationary cycle. When the inflation rate has already been falling for a decade or more or is around its low point, it takes longer for a rate rise than it does in a rising inflationary environment. Two to three years after a U.S. recession has been declared officially ended seems to be the norm before a tighter interest rate environment begins regardless of the inflationary backdrop. If the Fed raises rates on the short side of this number, this will indicate we are heading into rapidly increasing inflation. If it takes more than three years, it will indicate the possibility of grinding deflation as has occurred in Japan since the 1990s. The first alternative is the proverbial devil and the second is the deep blue sea.

Disclosure: None

NEXT: The Dollar, Euro, Gold, Oil and Treasuries

Daryl Montgomery
Organizer, New York Investing meetup
http://investing.meetup.com/21

This posting is editorial opinion. Like all other postings for this blog, there is no intention to endorse the purchase or sale of any security.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The CFTC and Manipulation of the Silver Market

The 'Helicopter Economics Investing Guide' is meant to help educate people on how to make profitable investing choices in the current economic environment. We have coined this term to describe the current monetary and fiscal policies of the U.S. government, which involve unprecedented money printing. This is the official blog of the New York Investing meetup.


The CFTC (Commodity Futures Trading Commission) will be holding hearings on trading in the precious and base metals on March 25th in its Washington, D.C. offices. Possible manipulation of the silver market is on the agenda. Critics have maintained for years now that a few large banks hold down silver prices by having large concentrations of short positions in the market - and this disadvantages the small trader.

The CFTC has investigated manipulation of the silver market by the big banks before in 2004 and 2008. They found nothing. This should provide little comfort to investors however. The SEC, one of the other major U.S. market regulatory bodies, investigated Bernie Madoff many times over more than a decade and also found nothing. Madoff eventually turned himself in when his $50 billion Ponzi scheme fell apart on its own accord. Madoff had never made any trades in his mega sized scam, so the SEC's examination of his trading records couldn't have been very thorough. Running a simulation of Madoff's claimed trading strategy also would have revealed it didn't work. To invest the money that Madoff held in his fund, it would have been necessary for him to hold more than 100% of some S&P futures contracts, an obvious impossibility. Moreover a whistle blower detailed the Madoff scheme to the SEC years before it demise and large numbers of additional investors were bilked out of their life savings. Yet, the SEC still found nothing amiss. Investors should consider what the Madoff incident indicates about the quality of U.S. market regulation.

Silver futures trading is by no means an even playing field in the United States as is. Small traders can be paid in cash when their positions expire. Delivery of actual metal is guaranteed only for commercial users. This was particularly relevant in the fall of 2008, when the price of silver fell to around $9 an ounce on the futures market. The physical metal wasn't available for anywhere near that price in the open market. Prices of bars and coins were much, much higher. The option of getting silver at the exceptionally low futures price was not open to the little guy however. The CFTC, whose motto is 'Ensuing the Integrity of the Futures and Options Market', sees nothing wrong with this.

Silver has been manipulated in the past of course. The Hunt Brothers were convicted on federal charges in 1988 for trying to corner the market in 1980. At one point they controlled a third of the global supply not held by governments. When silver prices went vertical and got to the $50 level, the CFTC ordered COMEX to halt trading in long silver positions. A market that only allows shorting will of course collapse and this is exactly what happened. Silver prices plummeted.  Rumors at the time alleged that a number of well-connected insiders made fortunes by shorting silver just before the CFTC's action. While the authorities were vigilant in prosecuting traders on the long side of the market, their resolve seems to have been non-existent in looking for misdeeds on the short side. The CFTC mandated halt in silver buying, but not selling, also led to the U.S. government bailing out the Hunt Brothers' lenders with taxpayer money to the tune of $1 billion.

Warren Buffett also bought a large amount of silver around 1997. He purchased 20% of global supply, but took delivery of the physical metal and stored it in a warehouse in England. Buffet bought his silver in the UK markets away from the prying eyes of U.S. regulators, or so he thought. U.S. regulators supposedly called up their UK counterparts to find out who was buying so much silver in the British markets and to try to pressure them to stop it. Buffett proved to be a hard person to stop however.

According to a February 25th Financial Times article, 42% of net short silver positions on COMEX were held by four or fewer traders. A similar level of concentration of short positions has been common for a long time. I wonder how would the CFTC react if this amount of concentration existed on the long side of the market?

To find out more about the CFTC hearing on March 25th, you can email them at: questions@cftc.gov, call them at: 202-418-5000, or see their press release at: http://www.cftc.gov/newsroom/generalpressreleases/2010/pr5782-10.html.


Disclosure: None

NEXT: Past Recessions Provide Insight Into When the Fed Will Raise Rates

Daryl Montgomery
Organizer, New York Investing meetup
http://investing.meetup.com/21

This posting is editorial opinion. Like all other postings for this blog, there is no intention to endorse the purchase or sale of any security.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Moody's Sovereign Debt Assurances Should Concern Investors

The 'Helicopter Economics Investing Guide' is meant to help educate people on how to make profitable investing choices in the current economic environment. We have coined this term to describe the current monetary and fiscal policies of the U.S. government, which involve unprecedented money printing. This is the official blog of the New York Investing meetup.


According to ratings agency Moody's, credit ratings of the world's four largest Aaa-rated sovereign nations - the U.S., UK, Germany and France - are currently "well positioned despite their stretched finances". The agency does however admit that risks have grown. Based on Moody's past actions, this should give investors little comfort.

In the current Greek debt crisis, Moody's was behind S&P and Fitch in downgrading Greek government debt. As reported in the Wall Street Journal, it took Moody's until December 23rd to make a downgrade of just one notch from A1 to A2. After the elections on October 4th, the Greek government admitted it had lied about its budget deficit and its ratio to GDP would be 12.7%, several times higher than previously reported. Even though the original numbers from the Greek government should have seemed unbelievably rosy, this apparently didn't make the rating's agencies suspicious. Are they likely to be more suspicious of the numbers generated by the politically powerful major countries that get their top ratings?

Prior to the Greek crisis, there was Iceland. According to the Central Bank of Iceland's website, Moody's downgraded Iceland's long-term debt obligations in domestic and foreign currency to A1 (still well within the investment grade range) on October 8, 2008. This was the same day that the Iceland's krona peg to the euro collapsed. Iceland had already nationalized major banks Glitnir and Landsbanki the month before. The Iceland prime minister had stated on October 6th that there had been a real danger of national bankruptcy. That scenario would have justified a rating of C from Moody's, many notches below the October 8th rating.

Investors should also not forget the role of the rating's agencies in giving securitized sub-prime loans top triple A ratings (Aaa in the case of Moody's). Moody's had to downgrade more than 5000 mortgage securities in 2007. The ratings agencies in general blamed mortgage holders that turned out to be 'deadbeats' and not their own practices. They would like us to believe that it was unreasonable for them to have assumed that people with spotty employment, a history of not paying their bills, and who bought houses they couldn't afford would default on their mortgages. If the rating agencies can ignore those problems, investors should ask themselves what problems they are ignoring with U.S., UK, German and French government financing?

How did the rating's agencies do with problem companies? Moody's downgraded Bear Stearns to Baa1 from A2 on March 14th, 2008. The Baa1 rating is an investment grade rating for Moody's (there are five speculative rating's below that level). That downgrade took place on the last day that Bear Stearns' stock traded. Moody's was still maintaining it was an investment quality company. The rating agencies did a little better with Enron, downgrading it to below investment grade four days before it declared bankruptcy. The stock had already lost almost all of its value before the downgrades, so the move was too little too late.

In its current analysis of sovereign finances, Moody's maintains that the major countries will be able to maintain fiscal stability because interest payments are reasonable compared to government revenues. However, government debts are increasing rapidly because of weak economies. If the global economy continues to stay weak, interest payments will go higher , tax receipts lower and debt will continue to pile up. Recovery, on the other hand, will raise interest rates substantially and this could overwhelm tax receipts and create a major debt spiral. The rating agencies are unlikely to consider that the major countries are caught in a lose/lose situation though since they seem to reserve their most speculative ratings for basic logic and common sense.

Disclosure: None

NEXT: The CFTC and Manipulation of the Silver Market

Daryl Montgomery
Organizer, New York Investing meetup
http://investing.meetup.com/21

This posting is editorial opinion. Like all other postings for this blog, there is no intention to endorse the purchase or sale of any security.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Inflation and 'Adjustments' Explain Retail Sales and Inventory Reports

The 'Helicopter Economics Investing Guide' is meant to help educate people on how to make profitable investing choices in the current economic environment. We have coined this term to describe the current monetary and fiscal policies of the U.S. government, which involve unprecedented money printing. This is the official blog of the New York Investing meetup.


The Commerce Department just released reports on February retail sales and January inventories and business sales. As usual, the mainstream media republished the rosy view of the reports contained in government press releases. Even a cursory examination of the actual data indicates serious problems in the U.S. economy still linger and there is little if any reason to think things are getting better.

Retail sales are important because they represented 72% of U.S. GDP before the Credit Crisis. Without a continuing real increase in them, a sustainable economic recovery can't take place. Increases caused by inflation not only don't indicate recovery, but also indicate additional problems. The government's retail sales numbers are not adjusted for inflation. The place to look for inflation in the report is the gasoline sales figure, since if anything less gasoline is being purchased now than before the Credit Crisis. This number gives you a ballpark sense of whether or not the change in numbers was caused by inflation as opposed to selling more items. Year over year U.S. retail sales were up 3.9% in February. Year over year gasoline sales were up 24%. It is quite clear that inflation is behind the 'recovery' in retail sales and this is bad news.

The 'Manufacturing Trade and Inventories and Sales' report for January demonstrates the incredible impact of the government's statistical 'adjustments' can have on the numbers it publishes.  Inventories were reported as flat in January, but business sales were up 0.6%, the eighth consecutive rise. Table 2 in the report, entitled Percent Change in Sales and Inventories, tells a different story however. The change in the unadjusted numbers from December 2009 to January 2010 state that total sales were down 13.3%. This number was up 0.6% after adjustment. Sales for retailers were down 22.9% before adjustment. They were up 0.2% after adjustment. The chart can be found at: http://www.census.gov/mtis/www/mtis_current.html.

Surveys of consumer sentiment indicate the public has a very different view of the U.S. economy than the government's public relations (a term invented early in the 1900s so the word propaganda didn't have to be used) story usually reprinted without question by mainstream media outlets. The University of Michigan survey, out the same time as the retail sale and business sales and inventory reports, showed a decline in consumer sentiment in February. The 12-month outlook had a fairly sharp drop. The last Conference Board consumer survey indicated a collapse in consumer confidence. Apparently consumers are reacting to their actual experiences with the U.S. economy and not the fantasy economy that exists only in government statistical offices in Washington, D.C.

Disclosure: None

NEXT: Moody's Sovereign Debt Assurances Should Concern Investors

Daryl Montgomery
Organizer, New York Investing meetup
http://investing.meetup.com/21

This posting is editorial opinion. Like all other postings for this blog, there is no intention to endorse the purchase or sale of any security.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Economy's House of Cards

The 'Helicopter Economics Investing Guide' is meant to help educate people on how to make profitable investing choices in the current economic environment. We have coined this term to describe the current monetary and fiscal policies of the U.S. government, which involve unprecedented money printing. This is the official blog of the New York Investing meetup.


Foreclosure stats for February indicate that 308,000 U.S. households received some type of foreclosure related notice during the month. Of all U.S. residential mortgage holders, 15% have either missed some payments or are in foreclosure. Mainstream news outlets reported these depression level numbers as 'good news' because the rate of foreclosure activity was only 6% higher in February than the huge level that had been reached a year earlier.

Housing is at the epicenter of the economy's problems and the situation has consistently gotten worse since the market peak in September 2005. The decline has continued even though there are numerous federal and state programs aimed at shoring up the housing market. Government policy seems to have been highly effective at creating the housing bubble, but impotent in cleaning up the mess. President Obama stated in a speech in Mesa, Arizona in February 2009 that his administration's housing programs would help three to four million homeowners avoid foreclosure through loan modification programs.  More than a year after that speech, the latest figures indicate that 116,300 home mortgages have been modified through federal programs. At that rate, it will take as long as 34.4 years to fulfill Obama's promise.

The abysmal failure of its loan modification efforts seems to have led the administration into new directions. As part of last November's "Home Affordable Modification Program", the federal government will now pay to get people out of their homes by encouraging short sales. A short sale in real estate is when a bank agrees to accept less than the outstanding mortgage owed as payment for a house. The government's plan pays the owner $1500 and the bank $1000 to agree. Real estate agents get much more however. They have to appraise the house (a major arena for corrupt practices during the housing bubble) and get a commission for arranging the sale. Neither homeowners, nor banks are likely to be pleased with this gift to the real estate industry - an industry known for its generous political contributions.

It was noted in news reports by early 2006 that U.S. foreclosure rates were starting to climb and a possible crisis was imminent. After four years, government programs haven't 'fixed' the problem, nor are they likely to in the foreseeable future. Mainstream news outlets are now reporting that U.S. foreclosures this February experienced their lowest rate of increase in four years. Foreclosures are continuing to go up, but at a slower rate. The numbers are not getting better. A casual reader of the news might miss that important point.

The ultimate nightmare ending of a housing collapse in a bad economy can be seen in Detroit today. The mayor of Detroit has just suggested bulldozing up to a quarter of the city. In some areas only one or two buildings are occupied per block. Faced with a $300 million budget shortfall, the cost of maintaining city services for these areas is prohibitive. Youngstown, Ohio and Flint, Michigan already have programs to demolish empty neighborhoods. Kansas City just voted to close down half of its schools and along with a number of Midwestern industrial cities might be implementing such programs in the future. Federal assistance will be needed to help Detroit implement its program. Perhaps this new housing aid program will be called the "Home Bulldozing Modification Program".

Disclosure: None

NEXT:

Daryl Montgomery
Organizer,New York Investing meetup
http://investing.meetup.com/21

This posting is editorial opinion. Like all other postings for this blog, there is no intention to endorse the purchase or sale of any security.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Nova Gold, the Gold Market and the Euro

The 'Helicopter Economics Investing Guide' is meant to help educate people on how to make profitable investing choices in the current economic environment. We have coined this term to describe the current monetary and fiscal policies of the U.S. government, which involve unprecedented money printing. This is the official blog of the New York Investing meetup.


Canadian gold miner NovaGold Resources (NG) raised around $100 million on Tuesday, March 9th after selling 18.2 million shares of common stock at $5.50 each. Despite the dilution from this sale and another scheduled sale of 13.6 million shares for $5.51 on March 11th, the stock rallied 9%, closing at $6.88. Together the two sales will increase the outstanding shares of NovaGold by 17%.

The purchasers of Tuesday's stock offering were funds managed by Paulson & Co. Thursday's sales will be to George Soros' Quantum Fund. Both are renowned investors, bullish on gold, and bearish on the euro. The average investor would have trouble realizing that Soros is bullish on gold because of mainstream media reports misrepresenting his outlook. The press reported that Soros stated the gold was in the ultimate bubble, instead of would be in the ultimate bubble because of governments engaging in excess spending and  money printing globally. Bubbles are where investors make the most money, as long as they can control their greed and sell around the top. Successful investors understand this. Unsuccessful investors like to blame the market, instead of how they interact with the market.

The bullishness of Paulson and Soros is even more interesting because of their funds large bets against the euro. The price of gold and the value of the euro tend to move together. The crisis in Greece caused a sharp drop in the euro and is still holding it down. Gold sold down with the euro, although traditionally gold has been a safe haven during crisis periods. It didn't hold up during Credit Crisis selling in the fall of 2008 either, although it closed up on the year. Gold is currently in a sideways trading pattern and the big January and February buying season in China and India is over. Gold prices tend to be weak in the spring because of lower retail demand for the metal. The technical patterns on the chart indicate its price is trendless at the moment.

Ultimately, the value of NovaGold is dependent on the price of gold. NovaGold is sitting on some very huge untapped mineral deposits of gold, silver and copper. For those who think the price of gold will rise sharply in the future, these deposits are like money in the bank that is paying a very high interest rate. Apparently Paulson and Soros are of this opinion based on their actions. In the short-term, NG stock may be highly volatile however. Sharp up and down moves are common. There is also strong long-term resistance around the 7.00 level that was established in 2004, 2005, 2007, and 2008. Yesterday was the third time in recent months that the stock approached this key price. Breaking and staying above it will be a technically significant event.

Investors should remember that gold is in a long-term (secular) bull market that began in 2001. This doesn't mean that prices go up everyday. There will be pauses and dips. You make your money by buying on the dips.


Disclosure: Have held positions in Novagold and gold several times

NEXT: The Economy's House of Cards

Daryl Montgomery
Organizer,New York Investing meetup
http://investing.meetup.com/21

This posting is editorial opinion. Like all other postings for this blog, there is no intention to endorse the purchase or sale of any security.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Watch What China Does and Not What It Says

The 'Helicopter Economics Investing Guide' is meant to help educate people on how to make profitable investing choices in the current economic environment. We have coined this term to describe the current monetary and fiscal policies of the U.S. government, which involve unprecedented money printing. This is the official blog of the New York Investing meetup.


The Chinese have recently released statements indicating that they are not interested in buying gold and that they plan on remaining "responsible investors" in U.S. treasuries. China is not known for informing the market about what it is actually doing. It instead has a long history of keeping its actions carefully hidden. It would therefore be reasonable for investors to assume that China is buying gold and selling U.S. treasuries.

The case for China doing the opposite of what its official statements indicate goes well beyond mere assumption. When TIC (Treasury International Capital) data was released in November and December, the numbers indicated that China was a net seller of U.S. treasuries. This potentially explosive news got little mainstream media coverage. China also announced in April 2009, that its gold holdings were 76% higher than had been previously reported earlier in the decade. China didn't mention it was buying this extra gold while it was doing so. Don't expect it to announce its gold purchases in the future either.

In its announcement, the director of China's State Administration of Foreign Exchange stated that China is not interested in buying more gold because of its poor returns in the last 30 years. He didn't mention its excellent returns in the last 10 years or even over the last 40 years. A similar argument could have been made to not buy U.S. stocks in 1982 because of their abysmal returns in the previous 16 years. You would have missed out on an 1100% rally in the Dow. This type of argument is meant for the financially naive and unsophisticated.

The director went on to state that China did not want to politicize its trading in U.S. debt and wanted to remain a "responsible investor". It is not clear what charges he was responding to, nor who had made them. There have been attempts to explain away the TIC statistics from November and December by claiming that China was secretly buying U.S. treasuries indirectly through intermediaries in the UK and Hong Kong.  Since this would make China look like it was selling treasuries and potentially devalue its vast treasury hoard, this behavior would make no sense. Furthermore, if you accept that treasury purchases are being funneled clandestinely through intermediaries, it would be far more plausible to assert that the U.S. Federal Reserve has been buying treasuries through Caribbean island off-shore money havens as some bloggers have suggested. The Fed would have good reason to do this in order to hide the extent of its money printing activities.

Investors need to keep the simple rule of 'watch what they do and not what they say' in mind when interpreting the news. Talk is cheap and most governments will say whatever they have to in order to implement their plans.  The mainstream media dutifully reports whatever is said. Unfortunately, they are not very diligent in reporting on what is actually done. That is really the only news that matters and sometimes the only place you can find it is in the blogosphere.

Disclosure: None

NEXT: NovaGold, the Gold Market and the Euro

Daryl Montgomery
Organizer,New York Investing meetup
http://investing.meetup.com/21

This posting is editorial opinion. Like all other postings for this blog, there is no intention to endorse the purchase or sale of any security.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Stocks Experience Irrational Exuberance on Employment Report

The 'Helicopter Economics Investing Guide' is meant to help educate people on how to make profitable investing choices in the current economic environment. We have coined this term to describe the current monetary and fiscal policies of the U.S. government, which involve unprecedented money printing. This is the official blog of the New York Investing meetup.


U.S. stocks rallied strongly on Friday because of the February employment report. In what could only be described as the latest episode of the emperor has no clothes or more appropriately the emperor's people have no jobs, the Dow Jones was up 122 points (1.2%), the S&P 500 up 16 points (1.4%), the Nasdaq up 34 points (1.5%) and the small-cap Russell 2000 up 14 points (2.1%). Oil rallied close to 2% and gold was flat on the day. Bonds sold off. One major media outlet after another trumpeted the reported loss of 36,000 jobs as good news in their Friday and weekend coverage, as did the politicos in Washington. Wall Street was jubilant.

The media clearly wants to tell the story of a recovering economy and will be doing so even if there isn't any evidence to back that viewpoint up. The story of course is coming directly from the U.S. government during a congressional election year. The government writes detailed press releases for each economic report and in those it presents the rosiest scenario possible. It is not going to go out of its way to point out any bad news, but spins the story to make our political leaders look good. Analyzing the numerous detailed and at times poorly laid out charts in the economic reports is a time consuming and difficult process, but is the only way to find out what is really going on.  For those who are interested, the next time there is a major economic news release, look at the time stamp (the moment of publication) on the articles from the major news services. I have seen time stamps of 8:30AM for a news release that took place at 8:30AM. This is merely a reprint of the government's best of all possible worlds press release. This is the only news that most media outlets report.

Looking at the details and footnotes of February's employment report painted an ugly picture of the U.S. job situation. In addition to the 1.2 million census workers that seem to have been placed in the Business and Professional Services category over the last several months, instead of the Government category where they belong, the seasonal adjustments were substantial and made the headline numbers much better than the real numbers. The actual unemployment rate (known as U-3 in the report) was 10.4%, but this became the reported 9.7% through the magic of adjustment. The unemployment rate that takes into account forced part timers and some discouraged workers (known as U-6 in the report) was actually 17.9%, but this became a still whopping 16.8% for seasonal reasons. Does this sound like good news?

For those who want to see the numbers themselves, Table A-15 (yes, there are a lot of tables) of the February Non-Farm Payrolls report can be found at: http://www.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.t15.htm.

The snowstorms in the East during February were specifically used to imply that the employment numbers were actually much better than they appeared. The BLS in its press release said it couldn't calculate their impact (as if it has never snowed in the United States previously). The spin coming from Wall Street was that there must have been huge job losses, which could have taken place in construction, and this meant the 36,000 job loss number would have been a gain otherwise. This is completely implausible. It could only have happened if there were a lot of workers that were going to be working during that time (there weren't, construction employment has fallen severely over the last two years) and couldn't because of the weather and that the numbers didn't already account for this problem through seasonal adjustments (they did). Furthermore, snow removal is frequently done by temporarily employed workers and this would have added substantially to the employment numbers, not subtracted from them. Moreover, it is unlikely anyone fell off the employment rolls as far as the government was concerned because of the snowstorms. Any regular worker who got paid for at least one-hour during the two-week survey period was considered to be employed.

Job losses in the U.S. have been a regular occurrence for the last couple of years. The only exception recently was in November 2009, when the numbers became positive because of after the fact adjustments. While job losses are bad, small job gains are also bad. The U.S. needs to create up to 200,000 additional jobs each year to employ people entering the labor force. Things will really have turned around when that happen and the jobs are from private industry and not the government. Wall Street's reaction to the February employment report indicates more than snow was being shoveled recently.

Disclosure: None

NEXT: Watch What China Does and Not What It Says

Daryl Montgomery
Organizer, New York Investing meetup
http://investing.meetup.com/21

This posting is editorial opinion. Like all other postings for this blog, there is no intention to endorse the purchase or sale of any security.