Words from the (investment) wise for the week that was (Dec 22 – 28, 2008)

Investors spent the holiday-shortened Christmas week in an un-merry mood, digesting more gloomy economic data and taking stock of a tumultuous 2008.

With the S&P 500 Index and the Dow Jones Industrial Index down by 35.8% and 40.6% respectively for the year to date, many investors would be anxious to wave the old year goodbye. But changing the calendar digits from ’08 to ’09 will regrettably not make an iota’s difference to the perilous nature of the investment environment facing investors as we usher in the New Year.

Come January 1, investors will not only be hung over from 2008’s market rout (and possibly the previous night’s exuberance), but also still be battling with the implications of the credit crisis for the global economy and financial markets, and in particular with the question of where to invest for decent returns during 2009. (Also see my post “Video-o-rama: Will markets bail you out in ’09?”.)

“2008 was the year of the crisis of the financial system. 2009, unfortunately, will be the crisis of the economic system,” said Mohamed El-Erian, co-CEO of Pimco in a CNBC interview. “So the news is going to be full of unemployment, defaults, etc.”

Most markets were down during the past week (albeit on light holiday volume), with the MSCI World Index (-1.5%), the MSCI Emerging Markets Index (-5.2%), the US Dollar Index (-0.3%), the Reuters/Jeffries CRB Index (-1.6%), West Texas Intermediate crude (-11.0%) and US government bonds all closing in the red.

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Source: Daryl Cagle

However, not all the Christmas stockings were left empty. On the equities side, the Japanese Nikkei 225 Average (+1.8%) and the Russian Trading System Index (+5.8%) confounded the bears as both countries are faced with a particularly grim economic situation. Among fixed-income instruments, emerging-market government debt and corporate bonds were in demand. Gold (+4.0%) and platinum (+4.5%) also fared excellently – for the third week running – on the back of a solid supply/demand situation, store-of-value considerations and upbeat charting patterns.

But if Santa has not yet made his way to your investment portfolio, don’t despair. According to Jeffrey Hirsch (Stock Trader’s Almanac), the “Santa Claus Rally” normally occurs during the last five trading days of a year and the ensuing first two trading sessions of the new year. During this seven-day period stocks historically tended to advance (by 1.5% on average since 1950), but when recording a loss, they frequently traded much lower in the new year.

Christmas Eve trading on Wednesday marked the start of this year’s Santa Claus Rally period, which ends on Monday, January 5. So far so good, as the combined gain for the S&P 500 Index for the first two days (Wednesday and Friday) was 1.1%.

Given the extreme turbulence that characterized stock markets during 2008, most investors would be wishing for a calmer 2009. The red line in the chart below shows the daily percentage change in the S&P 500 Index (green line), illustrating how the volatility has been declining since the panic levels of October.

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Still on the topic of volatility, the CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) has declined from 80.9 in November to 43.4 on Friday. It is not uncommon for short-term volatility to be at extreme levels at bottom turning points, and for stocks to improve as the “storm” grows quieter.

Heading into the new year, President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team is still negotiating the nuts and bolts of its economic stimulus plan with Congress, but the two-year jobs target has in the meantime been raised by 500,000 to 3 million. The planning is to have legislation for the package ready by the time Obama takes office on January 20.

As far as bailout news goes, on Christmas Eve the Fed accepted GMAC’s application to become a bank holding company. The lending unit thereby qualifies for TARP funds and hopefully won’t have to cut off credit to the General Motors (GM) dealerships.

Next, a tag cloud from the dozens of articles I have read during the past week between Yule-tide activities. This is a way of visualizing word frequencies at a glance. As expected, keywords such as “bank”, “economy”, “financial”, “government”, “market”, “mortgage”, “prices” and “rates” feature prominently.

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The debate regarding the outlook for the stock market is still concerned with what represents good value. Comstock Partners commented that the S&P 500’s reported (GAAP) earnings estimate for 2009 had dropped to just over $42. “In the past, secular bear markets troughed at 8 to 10 times reported earnings, NOT operating earnings, which didn’t even exist until 1984. In terms of timing, on average the market bottomed five months before the end of the recession. Therefore the odds are that unless the economy starts to recover five months from the November 2008 bottom, the market decline is not over, although a bear market rally is always a possibility between now and the eventual low,” said Comstock.

Richard Russell (Dow Theory Letters) said: “Lowry’s Selling Pressure Index is now down substantially from its recent high. With the urge to sell subsiding, all that’s needed now is an increase in the demand for stocks, an increase in the urge to buy … will buyers come in? I suspect we’ll get the answer to that question next week.”

Bespoke draws the attention to the Yale Crash Confidence survey – a survey that measures investor confidence on a monthly basis, asking investors how confident they are that there won’t be a market crash in the next six months.

“In November, the individual Crash Confidence reading reached its lowest level ever at 22.7%. As the green line in the chart shows, the prior low in Crash Confidence was in October 2002, which was the ultimate market low during the 2000 to 2002 bear market. This negativity is actually a positive for the market going forward,” said Bespoke.

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Although the Fed and other central bank actions have resulted in some progress being made to fix the broken credit machine, the thawing of the credit markets still has a considerable way to go before liquidity starts to move freely and the world’s financial system functions normally again (see “Credit Crisis Watch – Signs of Progress”). In the meantime, stock markets stay caught between the actions of central banks and a worsening economic and corporate picture.

It is too early to tell whether a secular stock market low was recorded on November 20 and, failing further technical and fundamental evidence, I remain distrustful of rallies. As said before, we are in a wait-and-see mode.

Economy “Another week and another new record low for global business confidence. Businesses are equally pessimistic in North America, South America and Europe, and while Asian business confidence is not quite as dark, it is weakening rapidly,” said the latest Survey of Business Confidence of the World conducted by Moody’s Economy.com. The Survey results indicate that the entire global economy is mired in recession.

Data reports released in the US during the past week confirmed an increasingly dire economic situation.

• The contraction in real GDP in the third quarter – an annualized decline of 0.5% – was unrevised in the final report. Real consumer spending expenditure declined by 3.8%, knocking 2.8% off real GDP growth.

• Personal income fell by 0.2% in November, more than expected, after increasing by 0.1% in October. Wage income fell for the second time in the last three months, driven by large job losses. The saving rate rose to 2.8% from 2.4% in October.

• Initial jobless benefit claims increased by 30,000 to a 26-year high of 586,000 for the week ended December 20. Initial claims are elevated from trends earlier in the year, indicating persistent weakening in the labor market.

• New orders for manufactured durable goods fell by 1% in November, following an 8.4% decline in October. This was the fourth monthly decline in new orders, but was a smaller than expected drop.

• Existing home sales dropped by 8.6% month-on-month in November, a reading well below expectations and a new cycle low. New home sales hit a 17-year low of 407,000 annualized units. Inventory remains elevated at more than 11 months.

• In the week ended December 19, the Mortgage Refinance Index gained 62.6% on the back of sharply lower mortgage rates.

A further indication of the severe pullback in discretionary buying came from CNNMoney.com’s report on MasterCard’s SpendingPulse Data which estimates that total store sales fell about 3% in November and December combined – the worst holiday sales season for retailers in decades.

Elsewhere in the world, the economies continued to accelerate to the downside. A case in point is China and Japan that witnessed a number of particularly ugly economic reports during the past week.

• On the back of a sharp decline in Chinese exports, one of the main engines of its economic growth, the People’s Bank of China on Monday lowered its one-year lending rate by 27 basis points to 5.31% – the fifth move in three months – and also reduced the proportion of deposits lenders must set aside as reserves by 0.5 percentage points, according to Bloomberg. Additional steps to spur consumer spending may follow the interest-rate cut. (Also see the Vitaliy Katsenelson’s guest post “A Far-east Fiasco?”.)

• Japan’s exports also plunged at a record annual pace of 26.7% year-on-year in November. The global economic slump and surging yen slashed demand for Japanese products across the board. “The grim outlook could push the Bank of Japan to implement unorthodox monetary easing measures as it has little room left to cut interest rates after reducing them to 0.10% last week,” reported Reuters.

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Source: Bespoke, December 22, 2008.

Summarizing the economic situation, Nouriel Roubini, professor at New York University and chairman of RGE Monitor, said: “It is going to be a year of economic stagnation and recession for most of the global economy with deflationary pressures … I expect a global recession and a severe one. I see a recession throughout 2009 … and maybe there will be a return to positive economic growth by 2010.”

Whether or not the recession persists into 2010 will depend on how aggressive and effective policy actions are, i.e. monetary and fiscal policy and efforts to recapitalize financial institutions in the US and elsewhere.

Still on the topic of the “Bini” – as probably the most prolific credit-crunch economist, it comes as no surprise that he was included as one of Prospect’s Public Intellectuals of 2008.

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Originally published at Prieur du Plessis’s international investment blog and reproduced here with the author’s permission.