Friday, October 30, 2009

While you were out celebrating the end of the recession…

There have been a series of articles touting the end of the recession this week.

ECRI calls it the
giant error of pessimism (the pessimism prior to a recovery)

ECRI and pretty much everyone now, thinks that we are going to see a stronger than expected recovery and that the recession is over. Q3 GDP came in at 3.5% (caused 100% by government spending, per Dave Rosenberg and others) and I would not be surprised to see positive Q4 GDP. However, this is not enough to declare an end to the recession. A quarter or two of positive GDP, especially with an avalanche of government stimulus, is not enough. The key, in my opinion, will be Q1 2010.

Bernanke and his clueless cohorts continue to cheerlead the recovery from a recession that they did not see coming.

Call me a realist.

I am wondering, where is continuing growth going to come from? The stock market is not always good at giving us guidance on the economy but in a post-bubble credit contraction, when it turns down or up, it can give us immediate clues to the health of the economy. In October 2007, the market topped and so did the economy a month later. In September 2008, the market tanked and so did the economy. Remember, until that point, all the so-called experts were not even conceding that a recession had started! In March 2009, the market rallied and the economy began to improve from a -6% clip to 3% in Q3 2009.

The same thing happened in 1929 when the economy shrunk in August 1929 and the stock market peaked in September 1929. Ditto for 1873 (hat tip Bob Hoye)

Let’s look at some important sectors that are not joining the celebration:

1) Restaurants: Most US based restaurants bottomed ahead of the market in November 2008. They led the rally since March. Many are down sharply in recent weeks. McDonalds, which is doing well and benefitting from the dropping USD, has said that customers are in retreat mode.
2) Housing: Sure, Case-Schiller is up for 3 straight months. Then why are housing stocks down almost 20% in the past month. There is a ton of foreclosed housing that is not even on the market yet. I believe that this recent rise in Case-Schiller is a blip.
3) Semiconductors: Again, another leading group that led the rally this year. Down about 12% in recent weeks.
4) Transports: A key sector, that has really stunk it up in recent weeks. Down 12%.
5) Russell 2000: Down 10%. This represents smaller companies that have little international exposure, and therefore, a good proxy for the US economy.
6) Financials: Key financials such as Bank of America, Citigroup, Wells Fargo are down over 20%. Also, credit continues to contract at alarming rates as consumers pay down debt and banks cut credit. Again, this is not your father’s typical recovery playbook.

Hat tip to Smita Sadana of Minyanville.com who has been tracking these groups.

So what is holding the market up here in the stratosphere?

1) US dollar. The sinking greenback has been giving fuel to commodities and the large sectors in the S&P. In addition, it props up the earnings of the multinationals that dominate the Dow and S&P. Finally, it is the fuel for
the carry trade in which traders borrow USD at near zero and invest it is risky assets. In particular, corporate bonds have done very well, and I suspect that if the USD has put in a bottom, look out corporate and junk bonds. If the credit markets go, so will the stock market.
2) Large cap tech. Apple, Google, Microsoft and Amazon have had great runs of late keeping the Nasdaq strong. Any breakdown in the overall market will force these names to play catch up to the downside.

What is going to lead the recovery?

It does not look like restaurants, housing, rails, semis, domestic companies or the banking sector are going to lead 2010 growth, at this moment.

The sectors that are still holding on?

Energy/Commodities?
Multinationals?
Tech?

If the US dollar has put in a bottom, then I would expect commodities, multinationals and tech to enter a downleg, as revenues would fall and cost-cutting will not generate a recovery.

How about pharmaceuticals? These are a fairly steady sector of the economy that is unlikely to generate a strong recovery or start a recession at this time.

How about manufacturing and autos? Boeing and the automakers are struggling and don’t see a big near term pickup. This leaves the 3M, Duponts and Caterpillar. Jury is still out on these, and if the US dollar turns, good luck!

How about the consumer (70% of the economy)? See comments above on restaurants and hosuing. Unlikely, that retail will lead with housing and credit very tight and 10% unemployment.

How about government? This has been the single largest contributor to growth as stimulus and printed money have found their way in to the economy this year. Sustainable recoveries need more than government spending. And with $1.5 trillion dollar deficits as far as the eye can see, even if the Obama administration is somehow able to cobble another stimulus package for the economy, I believe investors are not going to be fooled again.

For a recovery to happen, you will need some participation from retail, banking and housing in my opinion.

Conclusion:

I understand the logic of ECRI's giant error of pessimism. I also understand the logic of the message of the stock market and the logic of an aging undersaving, tapped out consumer who is getting foreclosed. I also understand the logic that there is too much debt out there that needs to be extinguished once the banks "extend and pretend" shenanigans are "discovered".

If the US dollar has bottomed and the stock market has peaked, then I believe it is telling us that there was no sustainable recovery. Canada and the UK’s recent disappointing GDP reports only further confirm my suspicion.

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