*** We believe communicating with our clients is of utmost importance, especially during turbulent times in the market. While we don’t claim to have a crystal ball on the future of any financial market at a given point in time, we do believe that keeping clients informed on why things are happening increases their comfort level and understanding. This post contains a message initially sent to clients just after what turned out to be the market bottom in March of 2009 as part of that communication effort***
With so much focus on the seemingly endless economic collapse that is happening around us I’ve been looking forward to begin able to send a more optimistic update for quite a while. Toward the end of 2008, I provided a few regular updates to all of you as events unfolded that led us into this decline. Over the last week, much has changed and while I’m sure it won’t get as much TV airtime as the bad news did, it’s just as important. Many of you know by now that the stock market rallied more than 7% today. This followed previous rallies over the past two weeks such that the market is now up more than 20% from its recent lows. Many regard the stock market as a view into what is around the next corner for the broader economy. This was certainly true last October when the credit markets froze, the stock market fell 25% in a week, and the real impact hit most people a few months later when layoffs rapidly accelerated. Similarly, I suspect the events of the last week, including today, will not be felt by Main St. until mid to late summer when those layoffs will slow down or cease. So, I wanted to provide a similar update to you now on what has changed, and why the market is reacting the way it did today.
To some of you in our conversations, I’ve already described the announcement by the Federal Reserve last week as a “game-changer”. In case you don’t know what I’m talking about, let me summarize what the Fed said they’re going to do. First some background. We all know that the government is spending a ton of money right now and that we don’t have enough tax revenue to pay for it all. This is commonly known as “The Deficit”. Years of deficits have added up to a very large national debt of just over $11 trillion, or some $36,000 per U.S. citizen. The debt is financed by issuing government bonds called “treasuries”, which are purchased by individuals, corporations, and foreign nations. Because the U.S. has a very stable political system and has never defaulted on its debts in the past, it is considered credit worthy and lenders don’t demand a very high rate in return for their money. But, the deeper the hole we dig, the greater the interest that we have to pay on our debt. As that interest becomes a bigger and bigger slice of the tax revenue, it creates some risk that we might not pay our debts off. This risk would push interest rates up, just at a time that the government wants to keep them low for investment, refinancing, etc. So, we seem to have to choose between deficit spending (needed to turn the economy around) or low interest rates (also needed to turn the economy around). Quite the dilemma. Meanwhile, the recession continues to take its toll on asset prices (stocks, real estate, commodities, etc.). To put it simply, there is just less money out there than there used to be which means people can’t afford to pay what they previously could for similar assets. This creates a deflationary spiral where asset prices are falling because of the recession, and the recession is deepening because of falling asset prices. To combat this, the Fed announced last week that they will now be buying treasuries directly from the Treasury to finance the deficit, and mortgages directly from mortgage lenders to free up capital for new lending and keep mortgage rates low. Where will they get the money? Good question. Believe it or not, they’re just printing it.
Printing money is highly inflationary. If we just double the amount of dollars in the economy, then we double the demand for everything which raises prices until it takes two dollars to buy what we used to be able to buy with one dollar. No one is wealthier, but because prices are rising so quickly, people start to hoard assets pushing up prices further, which can start an inflationary spiral. But, if we’re in a deflationary spiral now, putting some seemingly inflationary actions into play could break the spiral. If done carefully, we’ll end up perfectly replacing the lost wealth that is pressuring the economy which will put a floor under asset prices and return confidence to the normal buyers of those assets. In short, the recession will end and growth will be restored… a game-changer. Things won’t get better overnight, but for the first time in several months, I believe recovery is in sight and that the economy will begin to slowly stabilize over the next 3-6 months. Note that by stabilize I don’t mean the Dow returns to 2007 levels, that unemployment returns to 5%, that housing prices start increasing 10% per year, and that things feel “normal” (per 2004-2006 expectations) again. I mean that stocks will stop falling, unemployment will stop rising, and we’ll have time to get used to the new normal (stable, sustainable, moderate growth). It’s likely that the stock market today and over the past couple of weeks senses this as well, and is pointing toward signs of recovery.
In some additional good news, the Treasury today announced their long-awaited plan for handling illiquid mortgage-backed securities commonly known in the press as “toxic assets”. The plan includes a public-private partnership that will team up private capital, government programs such as TARP (the name for the $700 billion “bailout” that Congress passed in December), and the FDIC to purchase and create a market for these previously illiquid assets. Without a market to sell them, banks were forced to keep ownership despite their rapidly declining value and uncertain future. This in turn rattled investor confidence and prevented banks from raising new capital from private markets; hence the need for government bailouts. The details of the program make a lot of sense, with the private investors determining what price they’re willing to pay for the assets via an auction process, the government backing their investment in a way that will reward them for taking risk while also rewarding taxpayers alongside the private investors, and no penalties for banks that participate in a sale of their assets. As stated currently, this program should be another big positive for both the markets and the economy.
Before we sound the “All Clear” signal, we have to realize that along with all the positives come some greater risks as well. Buying treasuries and mortgages is bold action by the Fed and while it is likely to end the recession in the medium term, if it’s not done carefully, it will lead to potentially bigger problems down the road. We could face runaway inflation, lost confidence in the dollar as a currency, and political tensions with other nations who suffer because our actions devalue the dollar that they own a ton of in the form of our debt (the financial engineering equivalent to highway robbery). The Treasury, the Fed, and the Federal government will all have to work together to cut spending, remove excess dollars, and reign back the flood of liquidity as soon as confidence is restored and the recession is over. If they don’t, $140 oil will seem like a bargain compared to the prices we’ll be paying in a few years!
In addition to the risk of inflation going forward, there is another risk that is worth mentioning. The government is beginning to meddle in the private markets in ways that could hurt the willingness of corporations to do business with them in the future. Last week, the House passed a bill that would tax AIG bonuses at a 90% rate as a way of punishing the firm for paying bonuses after taking government money via the TARP program. While I think we can all agree that rewarding failure at the expense of the taxpayer is not what was intended by TARP, we have to be very careful in retroactively changing the rules on government programs. When TARP was passed there were no stipulations on how the money could be used. While the focus is on AIG who took the money to keep their business afloat, many firms took TARP money so that they could provide additional loans to homebuyers and businesses that needed credit. Now, the government is imposing additional rules on executive compensation for all companies that took TARP funds. If you change the rules in the middle of the game, it’s possible that no one will play with you anymore. In this case, many companies are now seeking to return TARP money which would cut off the added credit to the economy and reduce the effectiveness of the program. This government behavior could also cause skepticism of the new public-private partnership announced today. If there’s danger that participating banks may face new rules 3 months into the program, they may not want to participate at all. Congress needs to make sure that it writes all the rules ahead of the release of programs like TARP, and whatever those rules are, that it consistently enforces them without modifying them midstream. If we have a fair and consistent set of rules, which encourage participation in government sponsored programs to stimulate the economy, then those programs stand a chance of working. If not, we’re just wasting our time creating the programs that no one will use and the downward spiral will continue.
In conclusion, let me be clear… I’m not claiming that the worst is over for the economy. There will be more layoffs, there will be more housing price declines, and there will be more foreclosures as the current damage flows through the system. But, over the next few months, these new programs and the lack of new damage will stabilize the economy and it will eventually begin to grow again. I’m also not claiming the stock market has necessarily bottomed. The short-term stock market is too unpredictable to say with certainty what will happen over a matter of days. But, IF the risks stated above are controlled, and that is a BIG IF, then I believe these plans are likely to stabilize the market. That is why we saw the gains we saw today and why we probably have seen the last of the 20% monthly market drops for a while.
As always, if you have any questions about this update or anything else, feel free to contact me.