Disclaimer. After nearly 40 years managing money for some of the largest life offices and investment managers in the world, I think I have something to offer. These days I'm retired, and I can't by law give you advice. While I do make mistakes, I try hard to do my analysis thoroughly, and to make sure my data are correct (old habits die hard!) Also, don't ask me why I called it "Volewica". It's too late, now.

BTW, clicking on most charts will produce the original-sized, i.e., bigger version.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Daily Obsession

Curious how the market commentators focus on day-to-day movements and try to draw insight and understanding from them. The market is down/up today by x%.

What matters is the longer-term sweeps, and since these are made up of shorter shallower sine waves intertwined with longer deeper sine waves, what matters is the waves. Or, if you like, is the tide coming in or going out, never mind the ripples on the sea. So Wall St was down 2% Friday. Big deal. What do you expect, after a 10-14% rally? All advances consist of up days and down days, just all all retreats are interspersed with days when the market goes up.

China is 30% off its lows, Chinese eco and financial data show a recovery has begun, and it will prolly take the rest of Asia up with it, just as it took Japan, South Korea, Taiwan etc down when it spiked downwards in the second half of last year. China doesn't have a banking crisis (this time anyway) It has the financial wherewithal to stimulate. And guess what? Its balance of payments might well go into deficit as it assumes the locomotive role in the recovery. Will that be a worry? No. And it will be perfectly consistent with the US moving into surplus as savings rates rebound.

So... the short-term waves are probably down or sideways, the longer-term up. Except perhaps in the US which is in such deep trouble that the best it can expect is an L-shaped recovery. We will prolly test the previous lows here in Oz. But I'm confident they'll hold.

Interesting times.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Happy Days Are Here Again

The song -- full of joy -- first came out in 1929. Of course, we all know what happened after that, don't we? The greatest depression in a hundred years. US real GDP declining 26%. The Nazis rising to power as a result in Germany. And so on and so on.

Wall St up 14.1% since the low. The All Ords up 9.8%. And the rally has happened because of the best possible reason -- the banks are profitable. Or so they say.

Well, it's time. Recent eco data have been better than expected, especially in China. And maybe the big slump after Lehman's failure is over. The technicals don't yet confirm that a new bull market has begun. I certainly hope it has, but... it has to exceed previous highs. It's close in Oz, but not in the US. All the same, emerging markets -- the canary in the coal mine -- have bottomed, technically. China is 30% off its lows. Latin America is holding up.

We shall see. In the meantime, why not party? And not to the tunes of the noughties but the happier music of the 20s and 30s. Like this one.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

V-Shaped recessions (and such stuff)

There are at least three different kinds of recessions -- though no recession is 100% purely of one kind. One happens because of the bursting of an asset price bubble. That is the kind that has happened in the US. House prices rose too far, too fast. People borrowed heavily – and banks were happy to lend to them – in the expectation that this would continue indefinitely. The stupidity and greed of those involved is exactly comparable to the follies shown by speculators in previous asset price bubbles, starting with the Tulip mania in Holland in the early 17th century, and frequently repeated since. Recovery from this kind of recession is slow and difficult – though it always occurs! Bank balance sheets have to be restructured. Individuals have to repay debt (or go bankrupt, which worsens the banks’ difficulties). This takes time -- years, usually

Another happens because inflation starts to rise as free capacity in labour and equipment is reduced by a strong economic expansion. Central banks tighten policy in response to the rising inflation and often overdo it, producing recessions rather than growth slowdowns. The recessions of the 70s and 80s were of this kind.

The third kind of recession occurs when, for whatever reason, inventories are seen as being too high. Often the reason can be because of one of the other kind of recessions, but the "trade cycles" of the 19th century were usually inventory recessions, often triggered by a banking panic (does that sound familiar?) Imagine, for example, a company producing and selling 100 units a month of some item, while keeping one month’s worth of production/sales to hand. Now suppose its sales fall 10%, and it decides to cut production to keep it in line with sales. Production must fall 10%, right, to 90 units a month? Wrong. Because now the company must keep just 90 units in its inventories (the new level of sales per month), but actually has 100, production must fall by 20 units, temporarily, i.e., twice as fast as the fall in sales. Once the adjustment period is over, production goes back up from 80 to 90, because desired inventories now equal actual inventories. Of course, it’s not as simple as that, because one company’s orders are another company’s sales. As each company responds to the downturn, the decline is sales and production is exacerbated by feedback. But – and this is crucial – inventory recessions inevitably end, because inventories reach desired levels, production and orders start to rise, and the whole process reverses. The inventory cycle produces “V”-shaped recessions – a sharp drop off in sales, output and employment is followed by an almost as sharp recovery.

The Chinese economy and its suppliers and markets (Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, South Korea) are suffering a savage inventory recession right now. Industrial production, imports and exports are declining by dramatic amounts. But these countries have not got failing banks or overgeared consumers. The Asian countries learned the hard lessons of their 1997 crisis, a result of overborrowing and overinvestment leading to credit and exchange rate crises. They have been more prudent since. In China the personal savings rate is 40% (in the US about 3%, up from zero), forex reserves are two trillion dollars (equal by some estimates to the amount needed to recapitalise US banks), and consumers have no consumer debt and only very moderate mortgage debt all based on loans made at very conservative ratios to valuation. Asian countries which are not networked into the Chinese industrial machine (India, Indonesia and Pakistan) have to date had to endure merely a moderate slowing in their industrial output, because they have not had the inventory recession taking place in China and its trading partners.

At some point quite soon, the steep industrial declines in China and the economies linked closely to it will end. The Chinese PMI index suggests that this has begun, though IP and exports still look soggy. Car sales have rebounded, fixed investment is up sharply. Even without massive stimulus in China (and the government has already announced a trillion-dollar support program and cut interest rates sharply), inventories will reach desired ratios to sales, production will stop falling and then start rising, and the world economy will bottom. Remember that these countries, at 23% of the world economy, are together larger than the US which is only 21% of the world economy. Asia as a whole is now 30% of the world economy.

Even in the US there are tentative signs of hope. Retail sales in February were flat after a big rise in January. The ISM indices for January and February have lifted off their low points, contrary to the expectations of the gurus. These indices, by the way, are very reliable pointers to the state of the economy.

This is not to say that trends aren’t still down. They are. The US economy will continue to slide for many months more. But the slide has slowed. In mathematical terms we are at a flexion point, where the rate of descent is diminishing, though the descent itself continues. Yet the probability of a rapid recovery is low. The problem at the core of the crisis, the housing market, remains unresolved, and is likely to remain so until the administration nationalises the major banks. Similar problems face other economies where the Anglo-Saxon model of a housing boom fuelled by indulgent government policies was followed, economies such as the UK, Ireland and Spain. In all these countries, the recovery will be slow. But for once the gurus are probably right: the low point for this cycle will be in Q2 or Q3. Which means the low for stock markets may well be happening right now.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Falling more slowly

There are some tentative signs that we are approaching a flexion point in the economy in the US. The descent in the economy has by no means ended, but the rate of decline appears to have slowed.

A good sign of how bad things are at any stage in the cycle is the extent to which new data releases are worse than the consensus of gurus' forecasts. From September onwards, this pattern held -- horrible numbers, consistently worse than expected. But in January and February, data have been a bit better than expected. In particular, the ISM averages have drifted up (they cannot be said to have bounced) from the late 2008 lows. The monthly personal consumption and income data surprised on the upside in January. Payrolls were no worse than expected, and seem to have levelled off at a loss of around 650 K jobs per month.

Alas, without some sort of stability in housing, you simply aren't going to see a sustained recovery. And until the US govt nationalizes the banks, I don't see that happening. Yet even here, there are some scintillas of light. The AR mortgage rate is finally starting to fall. Since cash is effectively zero, and the mortgage rate is just where it was when cash was 5.25, it's easy to see why monetary policy isn't working. But the spread between the both fixed rate and adjustable rate mortgages is pulling in. The global yield curve has steepened sharply.

Based on the Chinese manufacturing ISM, I suspect the Chinese IP numbers will surprise on the upside when they are released next week. We'll see.

There will be a recovery, and just as the gurus missed the steepest recession since 1937, so they will probably miss the quiet signals of the recovery.