Archive for March, 2009

  • Who Was Responsible for the Great Moderation
    , March 31st, 2009 at 1:08 pm

    In The Atlantic, Virginia Postrel looks at what made the Great Moderation possible. The Federal Reserve thought it was them, and that was a big mistake:

    In 2001, the Fed aggressively cut interest rates, driving them down much lower than its policies since the mid-1980s would have predicted. The goal was to stave off recession and avoid the kind of deflation that Japan had experienced in the 1990s. But the cuts backfired. Those excessively low rates set off a housing bubble and all the consequences that flowed from it. The peak of the boom, Stanford economist John B. Taylor estimates, saw about 250,000 more new housing starts a year than there would have been if the Fed had followed its old practices. (Similar patterns of low interest rates and housing bubbles also occurred in many European countries.)
    To make matters worse, Taylor argues, once the financial crisis began in August 2007, policy makers and many Wall Street traders misdiagnosed the problem as a shortage of liquidity—something the Fed could address by making it easier for banks to borrow from the government. But the problem was really so-called counterparty risk: financial institutions couldn’t trust the securities they were buying from and selling to each other. To compensate for this risk, banks charged each other much higher interest rates.
    “This was not a situation like the Great Depression where just printing money or providing liquidity was the solution; rather it was due to fundamental problems in the financial sector,” Taylor writes in a survey of his published research on the crisis. The only way to fix the problem is to clean up the banks’ balance sheets, bringing in more capital to make them stronger and marking down bad loans (reducing their principal amounts) to make them more trustworthy.

  • Buy List YTD
    , March 30th, 2009 at 5:54 pm

    Since the first quarter ends tomorrow, I thought I’d give an update on the Crossing Wall Street Buy List. It’s not been a good year, but we’re still doing better than the market.
    We’re on pace to beat the S&P 500 for the third straight year. Through Monday, the Buy List is down 8.82% while the S&P 500 is off by 12.81% (neither figure includes dividends).
    Six of our stocks are in the black for the year while 14 are in the red. The top performer is Nicholas Financial (NICK) which is up 18.7% followed by Amphenol (APH) which is up by 17.8%. Interestingly, NICK was our biggest loser in 2008.
    The huge outlier is Aflac (AFL) which down over 60% for the year. Nothing else comes close. In fact, the stock was down a lot lower. Aflac has nearly doubled from its March low to its March high.
    The Buy List rules dictate that I’m not allowed to make any changes throughout the year. I think that helps me in the case of a stock like Aflac.
    Last month, Aflac said to expect operating earnings-per-share to grow by 13% to 15% this year. Remember that with insurance stocks we want to look at the operating figures. That translates to $4.51 to $4.59 per share, and it doesn’t include the impact of the yen, which is stronger against the dollar this year, so Aflac’s estimate is probably on the low side.
    Bottom line, we’re talking about a stock going for around four times earnings that yields 6.4%. Stay tuned for Q1 earnings which will come out at the end of April.

  • Morgan Says Sell Into Bear Market Rally
    , March 30th, 2009 at 11:49 am

    I’m not selling, but I think Morgan may be right. Stocks have climbed so much so quickly.

    Investors should sell into the recent stock market rally, Morgan Stanley’s strategist said Monday, arguing that it can’t last as corporate earnings deteriorate further.
    “We simply do not believe that the market has completely priced in the prospect of further earnings weakness or that it will, without interruption, look through this weakness to recovery,” Morgan Stanley strategist Jason Todd wrote.
    On March 18 the S&P 500 rallied 25% to above 800 points since its low of 666 on March 6 – a technical bull market – spurred by positive comments by bank chief executives about improving business conditions as well as a favorable market reaction to the government’s efforts to support the financial system.

    That’s right. The S&P 500 bottomed at 666.

  • The Golden State Fizzles
    , March 29th, 2009 at 7:18 pm

    California is not in good shape:

    California’s unemployment rate will soar to between 12 percent and 15 percent by next spring and remain in the double digits until at least the beginning of 2012, according to forecasts released by two teams of University of California economists.
    The state’s unemployment rate has not reached those heights since the Great Depression.
    The projections – one released today by UCLA’s Anderson Forecast, the other last week by UC Santa Barbara’s Economic Forecast – paint a grim picture of declining economic growth, lower retail sales, a troubled housing market and falling office prices lasting through much of 2010.
    “It looks like it will be a nasty recession, but not a depression, although the possibility that we could get to a depression has increased,” said Dan Hamilton, director of the UCSB forecast. “Every month and every quarter that goes by is noticeably worse than the month or quarter that went before.”

  • Weekend Reading
    , March 29th, 2009 at 3:12 pm

    There are many good articles this weekend. Here are a few:
    The Quiet Coup” by Simon Johnson
    Now the Long Run Looks Riskier, Too” by Mark Hulbert
    It Pays to Understand the Mind-Set” by Robert Shiller
    America’s liberals lay into Obama” by Edward Luce
    Stocks Through a Wide-Angle Lens” by Lawrence C. Strauss
    Money quote from the last article:

    Now, while corporate-credit markets remain firmer than they were at their 2008 worst levels, debt values have backed up a bit without the close attention of equity markets. Bank-issued debt, in particular, has eroded in value without gaining much attention.
    As a result, once again (nominally) high-grade corporate bonds are looking rather attractive by several measures.
    J.P. Morgan Chase credit analyst Eric Beinstein last week noted that the high-grade bond benchmark is pricing in “a default rate of about 45%” over the next 10 years — and 10 years is the average life of the bonds in the index. He says this means a hypothetical investor could buy the components of the index, funding the purchase at the London Interbank Offered Rate, watch 45% of the bonds go bust, then recover only 20% of face value, and still break even for the decade.
    The worst 10-year default rate for high-grade debt since 1980, he says, was 5%, implying the market is building in truly cataclysmic credit losses, in part because liquidity in this market remains so scarce.
    This is an extended way of illustrating that — outside the ultra-high-quality slice of the market — corporate debt now should reward prudent risk-taking.

  • WaMu: Not Stodgy Old Banking
    , March 29th, 2009 at 2:59 pm

    I bashed this WaMu commercial a few years ago. Who really thinks a banker looks like Mr. Monopoly?
    In retrospect, perhaps WaMu should have paid attention to those stodgy guys.

  • Laid Off Wall Streeters Turning to Stripping
    , March 29th, 2009 at 2:53 pm

    From The New York Post (of course):

    Randi Newton, 28, who lives in Midtown, was a financial analyst at Morgan Stanley before the crash but was fired.
    “A few nights after I got laid off, I went with friends to a strip club to get drunk and forget my unemployment troubles,” Newton said. “The manager offered me a job as a dancer. I thought it was different. And fun.”
    Today, Newton, who calls herself an “independent contractor,” pole dances at Rick’s Cabaret in Murray Hill three or four nights a week and says she makes “$160,000 a year on tips alone.”

    You can read more about Ms. Newman as her blog, Wall Street Stripper.
    (HT: WSF).

  • Weekend Poll
    , March 27th, 2009 at 6:33 pm

  • Freeman Dyson: A Civil Heretic
    , March 27th, 2009 at 4:48 pm

    The New York Times profiles Freeman Dyson:

    Dyson is well aware that “most consider me wrong about global warming.” That educated Americans tend to agree with the conclusion about global warming reached earlier this month at the International Scientific Conference on Climate Change in Copenhagen (“inaction is inexcusable”) only increases Dyson’s resistance. Dyson may be an Obama-loving, Bush-loathing liberal who has spent his life opposing American wars and fighting for the protection of natural resources, but he brooks no ideology and has a withering aversion to scientific consensus. The Nobel physics laureate Steven Weinberg admires Dyson’s physics — he says he thinks the Nobel committee fleeced him by not awarding his work on quantum electrodynamics with the prize — but Weinberg parts ways with his sensibility: “I have the sense that when consensus is forming like ice hardening on a lake, Dyson will do his best to chip at the ice.”

  • Corporate Bonds Don’t Believe the Rally
    , March 27th, 2009 at 1:34 pm

    David Merkel makes a good point: The spread between corporate bond and stocks is getting pretty big. In fact, way too big. Corporates seem to be sitting out this rally. Bottomline: Anything that’s not a Treasury is looking pretty good here.