Words from the (investment) wise for the week that was (January 5 – 11, 2009)

Global stock markets reversed course during the last three days of the first full trading week of 2009 as investors were confronted with dreadful economic data, escalating layoffs and a bleak earnings outlook.

As investor sentiment soured, the MSCI World Index and the MSCI Emerging Markets Index declined by 2.5% and 1.7% respectively during “turnaround week”.

The US stock markets – leaders among mature markets since the November 20 low – were on the receiving end of the selling orders and recorded relatively large weekly losses of 4.8% for the Dow Jones Industrial Index and 4.4% for the S&P 500 Index. On the other end of the performance scale, Brazil (+11.8%) and Ireland (+11.0%) brought investors cheer. (The Dublin ISEQ Index was the worst bear market performer, losing 76.8% from June 2007 to November 2008.)

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Source: Daryl Cagle

Elsewhere, the US Dollar Index (+1.0%) closed up for the week, but off its highs on the back of dismal US labor market data. As governments seek to raise record amounts of debt to stimulate declining economies, the increasing supply of sovereign paper pushed up yields of longer-dated bonds in the US, UK and eurozone. “The long-held assumption that US assets – particularly government bonds – are a safe haven will soon be overturned as investors lose their patience with the world’s biggest economy,” said respected economist Willem Buiter in The Telegraph.

Despite geopolitical problems and the disruption of European gas supplies, West Texas Intermediate Crude closed 11.9% down on the week as the severity of the global recession raised fresh concerns about demand. Platinum (+6.2%) made up lost ground relative to its precious metal cousins, gold (-2.8%) and silver (-1.5%). (Also see my post “Picture du Jour: Gold or platinum?“.)

The release on Tuesday of the minutes of the Federal Open Market Committee’s meeting of December 15 and 16 showed committee members very concerned about the economic outlook. It was decided to move beyond using the Fed funds rate as the key policy tool, expand the central bank’s balance sheet to buy assets to help reduce longer-term interest rates, and make it explicit to keep the Fed funds rate low for an extended period of time, also in an attempt to bring down longer-term rates.

The Fed on Monday started its $500 billion program of buying securities guaranteed by Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and Ginnie Mae, resulting in a decline in home loan rates.

Meanwhile, President-elect Barack Obama’s incoming administration is planning an economic stimulus package worth more than $800 million, including $300 million of tax cuts. Obama said: “The economy is very sick. Economists from across the political spectrum agree that if we don’t act swiftly and boldly, we could see a much deeper economic downturn …”

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Source: Daryl Cagle

The past week saw some progress on the credit front, with the TED spread (down to 1.20% from 4.65% on October 10, 2008), LIBOR-OIS spread (down from 3.64% on October 10 to 1.07%) and GSE mortgage spreads having narrowed markedly since the record highs. More recently, high-yield spreads have also seen a strong improvement, with the Merrill Lynch US High Yield Index declining by 23.7% since its high of December 15 (see chart below).

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Although credit spreads still have to narrow considerably before the world’s financial system functions normally again, the recent action has been a step in the right direction.

With many analysts warning that the bubble in Treasuries looks ready to pop, corporate credit seems to beckon. According to a Financial Times survey of 30 leading asset managers and strategists “high-grade corporate bonds are set to outperform other asset classes in 2009″.

The iBoxx Investment Grade Corporate Bond Fund (LQD) and High Yield Corporate Bond Fund (HYG) both rallied over the past week and increased by 2.0% and 3.8% respectively. These Funds have performed excellently since their October/November lows, with LQD up by 26.7% and HYG by 26.2% from November.

Next, a quick textual analysis of the dozens of articles I have read during the past week. Interestingly, many reports were concerned with “bonds” and “yields”.

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Turning to the outlook for the stock market, Bennet Sedacca (Atlantic Advisors Asset Management) warned as follows in a guest post entitled “Setting the bull trap“: “The Fed has declared a war on savers, a war on prudence and provided the ultimate Moral Hazard Card – and with our money no less. They are also setting up the ULTIMATE BULL TRAP – a trap so large that when it is sprung, perhaps as early as the end of the first quarter/beginning of second quarter, there will only be sellers left.”

“It is difficult to see how equities can sustain an advance until the monetary transmission mechanism begins to function more normally,” added BCA Research. “In addition, the poor earnings outlook will be a persistent headwind for stocks throughout 2009 and analysts are likely to be disappointed in their overly optimistic profit forecasts: earnings could fall by as much as 25 to 30% as revenue growth slows and margins contract.”

Arguing the bullish case from Hong Kong, Puru Saxena’s MoneyMatters newsletter listed the following reasons to support his viewpoint that “the skies are clearing for a four- to five-year bull market”: surging liquidity, low interest rates, declining corporate bond yields, declining TED spread, low valuations, volatility has peaked, the US dollar rally has ended, global stock markets are making higher lows, and a huge amount of cash on the sidelines.

The short-term technical picture is tricky, with the Dow having pulled back below the 50-day moving average and the S&P 500 (shown in the graph below) testing both the 50-day line and the short-term trendline defining the bottom of a rising wedge (usually a negative chart pattern). The December 22 and 29 lows of 857 are also important initial levels for the uptrend to remain intact.

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Commenting on the chart, Richard Russell (Dow Theory Letters) said: “My guess (and I do have to guess) is that the market will be doing work inside the bottom pattern. This is only natural since it takes a good deal of ‘work’ for stocks to break out of a bottom in the face of the ongoing abysmal news. It looks like we are going to have some bobbing and weaving inside the base that has formed. A breakout either way may be a matter of months away.”

An old stock market saw tells us the first five trading days of January sets the course for January, and if the month of January is higher, there is a good chance the year will end higher, i.e. the so-called “January Barometer”. So far so good, as the S&P 500 registered a gain of 0.7% over the first five days (although the Dow was down by 0.4%).

Jeffrey Hirsch (Stock Trader’s Almanac) said: “The return of seasonal bullish market action is encouraging. Since the week of Thanksgiving the market has been constructive. Thanksgiving week was bullish, as was the last half of December, the Santa Claus Rally and now the First Five Days. The final arbiter of these year-end/new-year indicators is of course the January Barometer at month-end.”

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While a sustained stock market advance will rely on the thawing of credit markets, I am of the opinion that selective buying in global markets is in order. However, make sure to winnow the wheat from the chaff. The current default rate on American high-yield bonds is less than 4%, but Barclays Capital is predicting a rate of 14.3% by the second half of 2009. “If 2008 was the year of systemic risk [i.e. risk affecting all assets], 2009 seems likely to be a year dominated by specific risk [i.e. risk that is unique to each asset],” said The Economist.

For more discussion about the direction of stock markets, also see my post “Video-o-rama: Figuring out the lie of the financial land“.

Economy “Global business confidence began 2009 as dark as it has ever been. While sentiment has improved a bit during the last two weeks, it remains near record lows,” said the latest Survey of Business Confidence of the World conducted by Moody’s Economy.com. “Businesses are nearly equally pessimistic across the globe and across all industries. Hiring intentions have turned particularly negative in recent weeks. Pricing power has collapsed, suggesting that deflation is a significant threat.”

The eurozone economy contracted by 0.2% in the third quarter of 2008, according to Eurostat. Following a similar decline in GDP in the previous quarter, the monetary union has officially entered a recession.

The latest industrial production data for the UK, Germany and France continued a downward spiral. It therefore did not come as a surprise that the Bank of England (BoE) on Thursday lowered its repo rate by 50 basis points to 1.5% – the lowest level since the inception of the BoE in 1694. The European Central Bank (ECB) is also expected to lower interest next Thursday as a result of gloomy economic reports and the eurozone inflation rate last month falling below the ECB’s target.

Nouriel Roubini (RGE Monitor) said: “Manufacturing surveys reflect simultaneous contraction in manufacturing throughout the G7 and in key emerging markets like China, Brazil and Russia, verifying the global recession that is well on course. PMI and industrial production is at decade lows in key emerging markets, and the US and EU PMI surveys reflect the weakest levels in several decades.” The JPMorgan Global Manufacturing PMI, posting its weakest reading ever in December, bears this out.

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As far as the US is concerned, 2008 ended on a depressing note for the US labor market. Payroll employment declined by 524,000 jobs in December, slightly more than expected and the largest one-month decline since December, 1974. Payrolls shrank by 2.6 million jobs over the course of 2008, recording the largest annual decline since 1945. The unemployment rate rose to 7.2% – the highest level since the early 1990s.

“The Bureau of Labor Statistics employed seasonal adjusting chicanery to mitigate job losses. Not seasonally adjusted (NSA), 954,000 jobs were lost. Additionally, the BLS’s hokey Net Business Birth/Death Model unfathomably created 72,000 jobs in December,” commented Bill King (The King Report).

Asha Bangalore (Northern Trust) summarized the US economic situation as follows: “The Fed is expected to stay on hold for all of 2009 in terms of implementing monetary policy changes via adjustments of the target Fed funds rate, but other non-interest avenues to support/ease financial market conditions remain open. The details of the employment report are grim and provide ample evidence for proponents of a large fiscal stimulus package to revive economic activity.”


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