Market Update – Part Two, “The Why” – What’s Causing Market Angst

This is part two of a two-part post on recent market declines. Part one contained what I call “The What”, defining the declines and trying to give some historical perspective. Part two contains “The Why” by trying to summarize, in layman’s terms, what is causing the market angst at the moment and what to do about it.

Trying to understand the stock market is like trying to understand a baby. Everything tends to be perfectly fine until suddenly, it’s not. Even when you can pinpoint the immediate cause of a meltdown, it’s often underlying issues that have been building (tired, hungry, getting sick… in the case of the baby) that are the root cause of the meltdown. There is little to no communication about the why… you just know it’s not good. I’m going to give you my opinion on what has caused the stock market to act like a baby over the past couple of months. Like the baby, the stock market hasn’t told me precisely what’s wrong… I just pay close attention to things that could be root causes so I know what’s going on when a triggering event occurs and causes a meltdown. While we can’t do anything about the meltdown, and we know it’s not abnormal (see Part one of this post), it’s reassuring to know the potential causes. I see six of these, with the last two being the most important:

1) Rising interest rates – the Federal Reserve has been raising the overnight lending rate by 25 basis points per quarter for about two years. It now targets 2-2.25% with markets expecting another quarter-point hike later this month. 2.5% is historically low and the Fed still considers it to be stimulative to growth. However, after nearly a decade of ZIRP (zero interest-rate policy) there is an anchoring effect that must be considered. Suddenly, investors can earn 2% (which is still just barely the rate of inflation) in a savings account or 3-4% in a fairly safe bond fund and it feels like a huge win vs. a decade of zero. On the margin, more may be choosing conservative investments over stocks. Mortgage rates climbing back to near 5% (historically very low) suddenly makes home purchases a lot more expensive when everyone was used to paying 3.5%. We’re seeing home sales decline and price increases halt as a result. Corporations borrowed massive amounts of money at low rates over the past decade and used it to invest in growth, pay dividends, and buy back stock. As those loans become due, where will the money come from to pay it all back? New loans at higher rates? That’s going to hurt the income statement. Secondary equity offerings? Not good for the stock. Then there’s the massive debt that governments, including ours, have taken on. At low rates, that debt is affordable. But as rates rise, the interest payments start to swamp the tax collections (especially after “mandatory spending”). This is how debt spirals to a point where it can’t be paid back. If the Fed stays on its current course to return rates to historically normal levels before the economy can anchor to non-zero levels, it will act as an economic shock and stop growth in its tracks. Last week, Fed chief Jay Powell indicated that the Fed isn’t on a pre-determined course, is close to “neutral”, and will be data dependent. This eased some market concerns, but a Fed policy mistake is still a big market risk.

2) Global trade issues – I think this one is pretty easy to understand. If the US and China are entering a long, drawn-out trade war with tariffs and other impediments to global trade issued on both sides, then there will ultimately be less global trade. Less trade means less growth and less growth means corporations make less money (or grow more slowly) while debt issues are exacerbated. Tariffs as negotiating weapons are ok to the market, especially for long-term gains like protection of intellectual property across borders. Tariffs as the end game will not be ok with the stock market. Every time it looks like there’s a path to easing of tensions, markets rally. Every time tensions increase, markets fall. Lack of communication as to the plan and inconsistent messages cast doubt on ultimate resolution. The stock market is only going to put up with that for so long before pricing in a higher probability of an extended trade war.

3) Strengthening US Dollar – the dollar has been on the rise vs. most other currencies as the US has been doing better economically than most other countries. As the dollar strengthens, US exports seem more expensive to foreign consumers, hurting US demand. US multi-national corporations lose on currency exchange when repatriating foreign profits (weak currency) into US dollars at home (strong currency), thereby hurting profits. Foreign debt issued in US Dollars becomes bigger to the foreign country that owes the money. This weakens the foreign currency further and can spiral into a currency crisis. All of these things are bad for US stocks.

4) European Union Issues – I’ll lump Brexit and the overall fiscal fiasco of the EU into one major issue. If a Brexit deal can’t be reached with the EU and there is a “hard Brexit”, Great Brittan and the European Union essentially stop doing business with each other, resulting in massive job losses and other economic dislocations. The possibility of that happening has ramped up recently as deadlines approach. In the rest of the EU, budget issues continue to challenge the southern countries who need ongoing support from Germany and the wealthier, less debt-riddled countries. The threat of Italy losing its borrowing lifeline, potentially ditching the Euro, and maybe setting off a chain reaction with other countries doing the same is like the Greek issues of a few years ago times 100. It’s becoming more and more apparent that the European Union experiment, in its current form, has failed and it’s now just a matter of stretching out the unraveling for a long enough period so that it can be creatively redesigned or unwound in the least shocking way possible. If Europe can fix itself over the next decade, even if it involves some up-front pain, that would be a massive lift for the global economy. If it can’t and there is a financial shock as a result of unraveling, it certainly won’t be good for stocks.

5) Too much government debt – the world simply has taken on too much debt over time. Governments have promised too much to their people in return for votes (low taxes, high spending). Either defaults are going to happen or inflation is going to spike, thereby making those fixed rate debts seem smaller in future dollars. Either one is going to hurt. The more time that passes with already bloated debts growing faster than the economies they rely on, while interest rates rise, the closer the world gets to a point of no return. We don’t know where that point is, when the debt markets will turn on borrowers that can’t repay, or if / when governments would start the inflationary printing presses to avoid default. This risk moves in slow motion but is probably the biggest one for the long-term.

6) The self-fulfilling prophesy – we’re pretty far from this happening in my opinion, but this is the biggest short-term risk. If the stock market volatility goes on for too long or if the market falls too far, then consumer and business confidence will wane. Our economy is built on confidence. If companies stop hiring, expanding, and investing, and/or consumers stop spending, recession is right around the corner. Similarly, you may have heard about the inverting yield curve lately. Generally, long-term interest rates are higher than short-term rates (positive, upward sloping yield curve if you plot rates on the y-axis and term on the x-axis of a graph). This positive yield curve is an indicator of expected future growth. Lately, short-term rates (specifically the two-year treasury) have been approaching long-term rates (specifically the 10-year treasury). That 2-10 spread is closely watched as an indicator of future growth and it’s dangerously close to inverting. The last several times that happened after a period of normal rates, a recession has been on the horizon. Higher short-term rates than long-term rates are deadly for banks who borrow short (pay on deposits) and lend long (loans and mortgages). If banks can’t make money on that spread (“net interest margin”, their profits dry up and they may wind up with less money to lend or be unwilling to lend. Less lending can impact the ability for businesses and consumers to borrow, potentially leading to recession. This means that an inverted yield curve that predicts recession could actually lead to it… another self-fulfilling prophecy. Keep in mind though that even if recession happens, the typical one is a pause that refreshes, that brings valuations back in line, that scares off the weak hands, that kills the companies that took on too much leverage, that leads to the birth of the next growth cycle. A recession in a world with too much debt though could intensify and accelerate the debt issues described in #5.

Here’s the good news… when there are reasons for concern in the stock market, the eventual elimination of those concerns often leads to new growth. This is frequently called “climbing the wall of worry”. When the worries are all gone and everything is perfect, then perfection is priced into the market and there’s often no more room for prices to increase. No more wall of worry means nothing to climb. So, it’s highly possible that these worries will provide the legs for the next bull market to stand on. I have to admit, when the tax cuts went through, unemployment dropped near 4%, corporate profit margins hit all-time highs, inflation remained low despite low interest rates, I started to worry that there wasn’t much to worry about. Now there’s a real wall of worry to potentially climb.

If you’ve read this far, I know what you’re probably thinking… This is all well and good and thanks for explaining all that but… is this an opportunity to buy cheap, or a last chance opportunity to get out before a big fall? No one ever knows that answer in advance. What we do know for certain is that there are going to be big falls at some points in the future. I tell clients to expect a 50% decline in stocks at some point in life (we had two of them in one decade in the 2000’s). This of course doesn’t mean your portfolio will fall 50% because not all of your money is in stocks. Young clients with decades until retirement and only a small percentage of what they’ll ultimately need to retire have retirement money primarily invested in stocks. But, they actually benefit from a decline in prices because they have much more to contribute to their retirement portfolios (at lower prices if prices fall) than would be lost from a temporary decline in the value of existing assets. On the other extreme, clients who are well into retirement, or those with shorter-term goals where money is needed over the next few years, are not primarily invested in stocks. A portfolio that is 30% stocks / 70% bonds will experience about a 15% loss if the stock market falls 50% (generally less than 15% because bonds tend to do well when stocks fall dramatically). It’s essential to get the mix right, but once you do, it doesn’t matter what happens with stocks over the short-term. You’re either in stocks for the long-term or you’re not primarily in stocks.

We know declines will happen. We just don’t know when they’re going to happen. When you invest, you accept that stocks are going to fall, and create a plan that works despite the stock market’s short-term swings. If a stock market decline scares you off your plan, you’re doing yourself an injustice by allowing that to happen. As I pointed out in Part one of this update, stocks are down at least 5% from recent highs almost half the time. So, should you buy, or should you sell? If your plan calls for adding money to your portfolio to target a future goal and you have free cash flow to do that, then add money (buy). If your plan calls for liquidation to support retirement expenses or to buy that next house, then withdraw money (sell). React to life events, not stock market events. Avoid the temptation to put your emergency fund in stocks during the good times or to pull your retirement money out of stocks in the bad times. In the meantime, we will be using the volatility, where appropriate, to rebalance portfolios back to target (sell what’s up, buy what’s down) and tax-loss harvest (sell securities with unrealized losses and repurchase similar securities to unlock the loss for tax purposes). Volatility fees bad, but without it, stocks would be risk-free. If they were risk-free, they’d be paying 2% like savings accounts. The risk has to be there in order to justify the long-term returns. I will continue to remind you that when the market is smiling, a tantrum is around the corner. When the market is throwing a tantrum, happier times and then more tantrums are ahead. It is the nature of being a parent… er umm… an investor 🙂

Market Update (08-07-2011)

*** 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 the S&P downgrade of the U.S. credit rating as part of that communication effort***

As you all know by now, S&P downgraded U.S. long-term debt from AAA to the next notch down, AA+ on Friday night. Before digging too far into that, I’d like to reflect back on what happened this week, one of the worst for the stock market since the Lehman Bankruptcy era, to make sure you understand why there are far bigger issues out there than one rating agency’s opinion of our debt repayment prospects. I apologize in advance for the length of this message, but I’d rather provide you with too much information which you can choose not to read than to leave you wondering about what’s going on.

On Monday of last week, we received the good news that the leaders of both parties in Congress had reached an agreement that would enable a majority of both the Senate and the House to pass a bill to raise the debt ceiling. The vote passed, the president signed the bill into law, and the crisis, if you believed there ever was one, was behind us. Markets initially rallied on the news as the general public had been told there was a chance of the end of the financial world stemming from a default on U.S. debt. When that chance disappeared, there was a lot of relief from those who believed it. Like I said in recent updates though, the debt ceiling was not a crisis, it was a political game using a completely irrelevant measure of how much debt we allow ourselves to have, rather than how much debt the market (i.e. our lenders) allows us to have. So, it didn’t take long for the markets to erase the “debt ceiling has been raised” gains and start to really worry about the banking system in Europe and the potential for a U.S. debt rating downgrade by the credit agencies.

First, a quick explanation of what’s going on in Europe. Several countries in Europe have taken on too much debt, well more than the U.S. as a % of their GDP (though our trajectory will have us catching up too soon to be comfortable about it). The markets have started fear that lending more money to those governments is too risky unless there’s a high interest rate to go along with the loan to account for the chance of not being paid back. The higher interest rates lead to more interest payments as a percentage of the tax revenue these countries collect which strains their budgets farther and requires more borrowing. More borrowing means even higher rates, and eventually there is no way out of debt and the only answer is default. Who owns most of Europe’s debts? Generally speaking, the banks in Europe do. The story from here should sound very familiar as it’s much the same as what happened during our mortgage meltdown that caused the same stress on the financial system. If the bank holds something that is starting to look worthless, it can become insolvent, it can fail, and depositors as wells as other banks that have lent it money can be left in the dust. In a way, it becomes self-fulfilling. The fear that the bank could become insolvent removes depositors and stops lending to that bank which can in turn make it insolvent (see the history of Bear Sterns and Lehman for a deeper dive into the process). So, to stop the rapid downward spiral in our case, our government got involved. They essentially provided the liquidity that the banks needed to reassure lenders and depositors they weren’t going out of business, while they raised money privately so that the government could be paid back. Most of you now know this campaign as TARP. The market is hoping that something similar can be pulled together in Europe to temporarily save the countries that are in jeopardy of defaulting on their debts. It’s more difficult there though, because each country has its own government, but they don’t have their own currency. It would take a huge amount of collaboration in good faith by the countries who don’t have debt problems, led by Germany, to rescue the other countries and prevent a banking collapse and a collapse of the Euro. In return for the effort, the debtor countries have to respond by agreeing to stop their over-spending ways and stop adding more debt… essentially providing a plan that will get them off life support over the medium term. The details over the possible coordinated efforts and the austerity measures would make this email longer than I imagine you want to read, so I’ll just leave it with this: if Europe as a whole doesn’t come to the rescue of the countries in Europe, then Europe as a whole is in for far worse than what we’ve seen from the mortgage meltdown. In a globally integrated world like we have, a depression in Europe would spread fairly quickly across the Atlantic and hit our companies and employment prospects very hard. Many don’t realize this but the European economy as a whole is even bigger than ours. Start to project a major haircut in their production and consumption and that is why the stock market plunged last week, with some areas down more than 25% from their highs less than a month ago, and the broad market down more than 10%.

Friday afternoon, there were rumors of a rescue package agreement in Europe and the stock market had a fairly dramatic turnaround. As of the time I’m writing this, the details have not be revealed, nor has the agreement’s existence been confirmed, but I have to believe there is a scramble going on to reveal some positive news before Asian markets open tonight and definitely before the U.S. market opens tomorrow. What happens this week is highly dependent on whether there is an agreement, and if there is one, whether the market believes it will work.

Adding fuel to the fire now is S&P’s downgrade of the U.S. credit rating on Friday night. There were rumors of the downgrade happening on Friday all week, and pretty strong ones on Friday morning. S&P telegraphed the measure to allow markets to prepare so it wouldn’t be a shock to the system. My personal opinion is that this is the last straw in S&P’s credibility as a rating agency (these are the same people who rated the mortgage-backed securities that went belly-up in our crisis as AAA in many cases). While my opinion of S&P is not relevant, the market’s opinion of U.S. long-term debt is, and it’s far more relevant than S&P’s opinion of U.S. long-term debt. A $14.3 Trillion market is made of so many people, institutions, and countries that to think S&P has some crystal ball, research ability, or magical formula that the collective $14.3 Trillion worth of market of participants does not have, is ludicrous. We need S&P to do the due diligence on individual companies and their sometimes hundreds of securities because there isn’t enough time in the day for every fund manager or individual to do the research on their own. But here, we’re talking about the U.S. government. Do we really think that China isn’t doing their homework on our ability to repay our debts before they decide to lend us a trillion dollars at 2.5% interest for 10 years?!? There’s no doubt we’re on a bad fiscal path, no doubt. Without getting into political views, I think it’s also safe to say that our political system is showing signs of weakness as well. But the markets say we’re the safest thing out there. Add in our ability to print money as a last resort if we need it, which we could use to pay off debts at the cost of high inflation, and there’s just no more chance of default today than there was before the S&P downgrade, and certainly not more chance of a default than during/after World War II.

So what does it mean for the markets? Unfortunately, despite the fact that the downgrade was telegraphed and essentially priced into the market in advance, there are some short-term technical problems that can result from the actual downgrade. There are funds (pension funds, mutual funds, etc.) that have legally obligated themselves to hold AAA-rated securities for a certain percentage of the fund. If they hold long-term U.S. debt, they will be contractually obligated to sell. This forced selling could drive down prices of U.S. Treasuries which in turn drives up interest rates. Over the medium term, I believe others who aren’t contractually obligated to sell will see great value in treasuries at a higher rate and will swoop in to buy up all the Treasuries that the other are coughing up. Short-term though, the forced selling could create instabilities and dislocations in the market. Selling can beget selling and the spillover effects to other markets like the stock market can be severe. In addition to the forced selling, there is the problem that banks, states, government agencies, and municipalities rely on the Federal government as a last resort for funding. The government is now rated AA+, all those organizations who are AAA likely have to be re-rated lower. If you believe the S&P downgrade, you can’t put your full faith in FDIC insurance, in social security, in Medicare, in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (who hold about 50% of the mortgages in the U.S.), or well-capitalized U.S. banks. Downgrades of all those entities could cause a domino effect on everything that relies on them. Trying to see the end of the line of downgrades due to this one is impossible.

But, in thinking about it, I keep coming back to the same thing. There’s not a single entity today who has a lower chance of repaying its debts than last week. If that’s the core guiding principal, then everything else has to have at most a short-term impact. Dislocations in markets that cause violent reactions should have a snap-back effect as value is recognized by those who are not obligated to sell. Of course when dealing with markets like the stock market, we never know how long short-term will last and how long it takes to get back to something grounded in fact, value, and thought vs. rumor, momentum, and fear.

In short, I’m not worried about the S&P downgrade. What happens over the short-term is unknown. It could be very ugly. There’s a part of me that thinks that ugliness would be very short-lived and we could even see the market rise this week if Europe makes a credible announcement that would end their financial downward spiral. So, I’m watching Europe, way more than I’m watching S&P’s opinion about something that $14.3 Trillion dollars have already decided. The U.S. bond market is safe and we remain one of, if not THE safest place to have money in the world.

What we’re doing is preparing to rebalance all portfolios as triggers to do so occur. We don’t anticipate a negative response to short-term bonds which is what makes up much of the conservative portions of your portfolios. As stocks fall, if they fall enough, we will sell bonds and buy stocks to rebalance your portfolio back to its target. It is the same thing we did during 2008/2009 and the reverse of what we’ve been doing as the stock market rose 100%+ over the past 2 ½ years. This results in a natural buy low sell high rhythm that doesn’t require us to predict bottoms and tops in the market, something I know is impossible. 50% of everyone who makes and up or down prediction are going to be correct. You just can’t know ahead of time who they are or that they’ll be in the same 50% the next time. Note that this rebalancing strategy only works if your target allocation is aligned with your broader financial plan. I’m sure there are people out there (obviously not PWA clients) who are 6 months from retirement and have their 401k in funds that hold 90% stocks. I’m sure there are others who want to buy a house in a year and they have most of their liquid assets, needed for the downpayment, in individual stocks. They probably felt pretty good about their portfolio as little as 3 weeks ago but now there’s a chance they can’t buy that house all because their plan didn’t align with their portfolio. As Vanguard’s chief economist Joe Davis has said, “Treat the future with the humility it deserves.” Planning is a much better way to do that than gambling or hoping.

I’ll send out another update (hopefully shorter) as events warrant. As always, if you have questions or comments on this topic or anything else, please don’t hesitate to ask.

Market Update (03-24-2009)

*** 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.