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Jim Cook

 

RUNAWAY SOCIAL SYMPATHY

Every once in a while I switch the TV channel from Fox to CNBC to see what the liberals are saying.  After listening awhile I get a deep sense of hopelessness and foreboding for our country.  The most important thing for the left is giving money to people.  They are happy to see the growth of food stamps, disability payments, housing subsidies, free healthcare and all the other welfare benefits.  They utterly fail to see the damage it is doing to the recipients.  Whole cities that once flourished have deteriorated into rotting eyesores populated with shambling hulks of chemically dependent drones.  These people are no longer employable.  They have become incompetent and helpless and the liberals can’t see that it’s their doing.

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The Best of Jim Cook Archive

 
Best of Doug Noland
February 15, 2008
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The question remains: How much will the Chinese, Indians, Russians, American consumers and others be willing to pay for wheat and other vital commodities? For energy? For stores of value such as gold, silver and the other (increasingly) precious metals in an age of unregulated, unrestrained, unanchored, electronic-based, securities-based, and market-driven global "money" and Credit. With trillions of dollar liquidity sloshing vagariously around the global financial "system", there is clearly more than ample high-octane inflationary fuel to destabilize markets for myriad essential things of limited supply. And, increasingly, there is talk of problematic margin calls and derivative-related issues impacting commodities trading conditions. The talk is of trading dislocations and nervous "bankers" pulling away from the financing of hedging activities in various markets. Or, in short, we are witnessing a precarious ratcheting up of Monetary Disorder – in a multitude of key markets and on a global basis.

At the Heart of Monetary Disorder, we have a leveraged speculating community increasingly on the ropes. January was a tough month for the hedge fund community. In particular, it appears the (over-hyped) "long/short" (holding both long and short positions) and (over-hyped) "quant" funds had an especially tough go of it. To begin the New Year, last year’s favorite stocks (i.e. technology, emerging markets, energy, and utilities) were hammered, while the heavily shorted sectors have significantly outperformed (i.e. homebuilders, banks, retailers, "consumer discretionary," and transports). The yen and Swiss franc (currencies traders had shorted to finance higher yielding "carry trades") have rallied. Even the dollar has rallied somewhat. Many speculators have been (caught) short commodities, having expected negative ramifications from the bursting of the U.S. Credit Bubble. Others have been caught over-exposed to emerging equities and debt markets. And, increasingly, it appears various trades throughout the complex corporate Credit arena have run amuck.

Friday, various indices of corporate credit risk moved to record highs, including the previously stalwart "investment grade" sector. Leveraged loan prices fell to record lows late in the week, as talk of further bank and hedge fund liquidations captivated the marketplace. While the status of the ("monoline") Credit insurers is now a central focus, behind the scenes there is increasing angst at the prospect for a disorderly unwind of various leveraged trading strategies in corporate Credits and Credit derivatives. "Synthetic" CDOs (collateralized debt obligations) – pools of Credit default swaps and other derivatives – are especially vulnerable and problematic for the system. In short, the Corporate Credit Crisis took a decided turn for the worse this week. There is, with the economy sinking rapidly and the leveraged speculating community faltering abruptly, little prospect at this point for stabilization. The downside of the Credit Cycle is attaining overwhelming momentum.

The Wall Street punditry seems to go out of its way to get things wrong. The latest talk is that the market will simply look over the "valley" and begin focusing on a recovery from what will be, at worst, a brief and mild recession. The relative strong performance of the banks, retailers, homebuilders, and transports is accepted as confirmation of the bullish view. I’ll instead take the view that the recent major squeeze in the heavily shorted stocks and sectors is only further destabilizing and indicative of dynamics troubling to the leveraged speculating community and the Credit system more generally. "Hedges" have stopped working, creating a backdrop of angst and forced liquidations.

Despite last year’s subprime collapse and mortgage turmoil, the leveraged speculating community overall chalked up another stellar year of performance. Actually, the "community" in total likely boosted returns with bets against subprime and mortgage Credit more generally. Certainly, the hedge funds profited nicely from shorts on the financial and consumer sectors. Ironically, the initial stage of the bursting of the Credit Bubble proved a favorable backdrop for many of the major players and the community in general. The deluge of industry inflows ran unabated through much of the year, a crucial dynamic that masked rapidly developing fragilities and vulnerabilities. These flows were surely critical in supporting speculative trading positions away from the mortgage bust.

In particular, I believe the general backdrop delayed a problematic unwind of leveraged and highly speculative positions in corporate Credits (securities, derivatives and other "structured products"). Shorting mortgage-related Credit last year provided a convenient mechanism for hedging corporate Credit and equity market risk. Meanwhile, the combination of profitable (mortgage bust-related) shorts and hedges – in concert with industry fund inflows – emboldened the speculators to press their (huge) bets on technology, energy, the emerging markets, global equities, and other speculative Bubbles. The relative resiliency of the U.S. corporate Credit market and global markets through 2007 played a critical role in delaying impending economic and stock market adjustment.

Well, I believe the dam broke in January. The leveraged players were hit with losses from all directions. Their long positions were immediately slammed with simultaneous bursting Bubbles round the globe. Meanwhile, a rush to unwind positions led to upward pressure on the heavily shorted sectors, only compounding the leverage speculating community’s predicament. Last year fostered an extraordinary dynamic of ballooning "crowded trades," and January saw the bursting of this multifaceted Bubble.

The leveraged speculating community has suffered the occasional tough month – last August providing a recent case in point. Each time, however, performance quickly bounced back. In true Bubble fashion, each quick recovery from a setback emboldened all involved; industry fund inflows not only never missed a beat – they accelerated. Yet a strong case can be made today that this (historic) Bubble has now burst – that last year was the "last gasp" before succumbing to New Post-Credit Bubble Realities. I don’t expect performance to bounce back, while I do foresee a flight away from the leveraged speculating now beginning in earnest. With "crowded trades" unraveling virtually across the board, marketplace risk is now escalating significantly for leveraged strategies in general. Systemic liquidity issues and dislocated market conditions have created an environment where there is seemingly no place to hide.

Importantly, a leveraged speculating community "unraveling" would prove a death blow for myriad sophisticated trading strategies and risk models, with enormous ramifications for systemic stability. There are unmistakable "Ponzi Dynamics" involved here worthy of a few Bulletins.

Going forward, I expect a foundering leveraged speculating community to be At The Heart of Deepening Monetary Disorder. The initial victims appear the fragile global equities market Bubbles and the U.S. Corporate Credit market. Forced deleveraging of hedge fund corporate debt and derivatives is in the process of creating a massive overhang of securities to sell, in the process profoundly curtailing Credit Availability and Marketplace Liquidity throughout. The ramifications for our finance-based Bubble Economy are momentous. As an economic and financial analyst (as opposed to "fear-monger"), I feel it is imperative to highlight that it is more "technically" accurate to categorize the unfolding scenario in the historical context of an economic "depression" rather than "recession." This is certainly not shaping up as a short-term inventory-led economic adjustment or "mid-cycle" slowdown. Instead, we have now entered the very initial stages of what will likely prove a deep, prolonged and arduous adjustment to the underlying structure of our Credit and economic systems.

Doug Noland is a market strategist at Prudent Bear Funds. Their website is www.prudentbear.com.