Despite a preponderance of evidence, the markets continue to rely on the “hope” that Europe will solve its enormous financial issues, that the U.S. will somehow miraculously begin to grow at or above GDP potential, and that the emerging markets will continue to grow by exporting to the developed world. There are those on Wall Street still pushing “buy and hold” indicating to clients that, based on forward earnings forecasts, the equity markets look cheap, as if those forward forecasts aren’t subject to downward revisions. Thus, the “buy and hold” is really “buy and hope.” There are no quick fixes to any of the economic problems so evident in a world awash in debt.
- Europe is clearly entering a recession, and is likely to be in it for an extended period.
- The value of the sovereign debt of the European periphery countries is a huge issue. Greece can afford to pay “normal” interest rates on about 20%-30% of its current debt. Therefore, when its inevitable default occurs (looks like soon), the haircut on its external debt may be as high as 80%. Once the default is announced, the markets will pounce on the next weakest – at this time, that looks like Italy, although Portugal and Spain are also in the race.. To keep Italy from defaulting, the Troika (the European Union (EU), the European Central Bank (ECB), and the International Monetary Fund (IMF)) may have to finance Italy’s deficit and purchase its debt rollover for as many as 3 years. The rollover of central government debt alone is €705 billion. The regional debt is also significant. The risk is that Germany or one of the other 17 European Monetary Union (EMU) members balk.
- The real issue revolves around the European financial system. There isn’t enough capital in it to mark the sovereign debt they hold on their books to market values. The haircuts given to the peripheral sovereign debt when a Greek default occurs will cause an ugly reaction in the financial markets. Huge liquidity infusions from the ECB (and likely the Fed) will be required. Morgan Stanley says that €140 billion in new capital is needed, but I have seen estimates as high as €800 billion.
- Discussions among Europe’s finance ministers about using the European Financial Stability Fund (EFSF) as a Special Purpose Vehicle to provide liquidity or to provide capital to the banking system (the discussion seems to change on a daily basis) have caused the financial markets to rise on such hope. As far as I can tell, the €780 billion of capital that is being voted upon by the 17 EMU members (14 have approved so far) could be used as capital to lever up to higher levels and use the resulting funding for either or both liquidity and capital.
- This is all still in discussion stage. Somehow, Greece miraculously found funds to keep itself solvent until mid-November, so the European finance ministers have kicked the can down the road for another month. The real risk here is whether or not the Europeans can agree. History is not on their side. Unlike the U.S., the EMU requires unanimous consent and monetary contributions from each of its 17 members to cope with unusual circumstances not envisioned in the EMU treaties. Malta and Cyprus have the same veto power as Germany. It should be noted that, as of this writing, the Slovakia vote on an expanded EFSF is not a sure thing, and that Finland received special guarantees for its approval vote. Imagine the chaos if every small member demanded special treatment – it could look like the earmark system used in the U.S. Congress.
- Italy was recently downgraded 3 notches by Moody’s, from Aa2 to A2 with a negative outlook. The Credit Default Swap (CDS) market believes Italy is still significantly overrated, as is most of the rest of Europe. CDS may not be the best indicator of financial stability, but it appears that there are enough skeptics on European sovereign debt to make investors wary. If much of Europe eventually gets downgraded, what kind of rating will the EFSF’s debt have?
- In its current form, the EFSF must wait for a support request from a member country, and then must get unanimous consent from the 17 finance ministers. (I smell gamesmanship in the form of holdout for special concessions – just like Finalnd!)
As you can see, the machinery is quite cumbersome and very slow to act. Things must go flawlessly for Europe to avoid significant calamity over the next few quarters. The excitement recently seen in the equity markets appears to be based on hope – not a very reliable investment strategy.
Japan and the Emerging Markets
- Japan has too much debt coupled with deteriorating demographic trends. Since the 1990s, they have not addressed the issues on their banks’ balance sheets, and real estate prices (land) have continued to decline for those two “lost” decades. Their August industrial production numbers were weaker than expected. Don’t look for Japan to lead. Their two decaded economic malaise may, in fact, be what is in store for Europe and the U.S.
- There are also troubling signs in China and the emerging markets (BRICS). HSBC’s PMI index for China has been below 50 for three consecutive months (below 50 implies contraction). Whatever the case, growth is clearly cooling, most likely indicating some success in China’s fight against rising inflation, especially in real estate where prices are now flat to falling. This, of course, is having a significant impact on natural resource and commodity prices.
- It is unlikely that China, which still has positive, but slower, growth, will repeat the stimulus package they unleashed in ’09. That helped the rest of the world climb out of recession. The rapidly falling prices of industrial commodities (e.g., copper) is symptomatic of the slower pace of growth in the emerging world.
- Some emerging markets, like Brazil, which have been fighting the inflation caused by the influx of capital from the developed world, are now seeing declining growth rates, most likely due to the slowing growth in the developed world which has a huge impact on emerging world exports and prices.
United States Housing Market
- Housing normally leads the U.S. economy into recession, and then leads it out. Not so this time. Housing issues are getting worse, not better. Prices, especially those of higher end homes, continue to fall, even with mortgage rates at historic lows (below 4% for 30 year fixed). Qualifying is now extremely difficult and requires a large down payment. On October 1, FNMA and FHLMC lowered the maximum amounts they will lend. Since they purchase over 90% of all new loans made, this will significantly lower sales volumes, and eventually prices, in high priced areas like California.
- Foreclosure trends are on the rise, both because the financial institutions have worked their way through the “robo” signing issues, and because most foreclosure moratoriums have expired. Given the sorry state of housing, more and more underwater homeowners are simply giving up on ever seeing positive equity again. “Strategic” defaults are on the rise. These occur when a homeowner who can afford the payments walks away because the mortgage balance is significantly higher than the home’s value, and the owner believes it will be years, if ever, before he breaks even. As a result, Fitch has recently lowered the ratings on what used to be called “prime” mortgage loans causing some dislocations in mutual and hedge funds that specialize in holding such non-agency paper, especially the ones that also use leverage.
- Lawsuits are proliferating around mortgage issues. The Mortgage Electronic Registration System (MERS), a private corporation with about 50 employees, claims to hold title to about half of the mortgages in the U.S. They have filed foreclosure actions on behalf of the mortgage “owners” (there could be several hundred or even thousands of owners of a securitized pool). Many jurisdictions require the “owner” to file the foreclosure. Imagine having to get signatures of everyone that owns a share of a securitized mortgage pool each time one of the mortgages in the pool goes into default. In addition, many jurisdictions require that title transfers be recorded in county recorder offices. Since that did not occur, lawsuits are now being filed against major private sector mortgage purveyors (like JPM, or WF) for lost recording/title transfer fees. The Dallas DA recently sued MERS and BAC for $100 million. According to Mark Hanson, since MERS has been operating since 1995, there could be billions of dollars of such thwarted fees.
- Mortgage trustees are also not immune from lawsuits. According to Bloomberg, US Bank, Bank of NY Mellon, Deutsche Bank, Wells Fargo, HSBC, Bank of America, and Citibank are the major mortgage trustees. Bloomberg speculates that since these institutions didn’t underwrite, sell, securitize, service, or ship loans according to regulations, the odds are low that the trust departments got it right. So far, NY AG Schneiderman has requested documents from Deutsche bank and Bank of NY Mellon.
- The $8.6 billion mortgage servicer settlement that Bank of America thought was a done deal has now fallen apart. NY’s AG, Schneiderman thinks that the settlement should be closer to $25 billion.
- With all of the lawsuits and the state of housing, the large mortgage originators are sorry they are even in the business. Jamie Dimon recently announced that JPMorganChase may be leaving the business. In early October, Bank of America announced they would stop their correspondent mortgage business by year’s end, which means that they won’t be buying mortgages originated by others. One more nail in housing’s coffin.
So, let’s review: 1) Home prices continue to fall; 2) FNMA and FHLMC lowered their loan maximums; 3) Foreclosures are rising; 4) Lawsuits are proliferating on private sector lenders; 5) large private sector lenders are either leaving the business or curtailing it. So, how is it that housing can lead the way out of the economic funk?
Other U.S. Indicators
- 70% of GDP in the U.S. is from consumption. The fact that real consumer income (after inflation) has fallen for three months in a row and is no higher than it was in 1997 is a very troubling sign because credit can no longer be used to consume. In the months in which we actually see consumption rising, we see the savings rate fall. Increasing consumption in an economy with falling consumer income can only last as long as there is savings. So, it can only be a short-run phenomenon.
- Washington, D.C. finds it impossible to come to terms with their overspending. Nothing they have done, including the $1.5 trillion “Supercommittee” mandate will make a dent in the entitlement spending increases coming at us like a speeding train. We know no changes in the entitlement rules will occur before 2013, at the earliest.
- What is occurring at the Federal, State and Local levels is significant belt tightening. President Obama’s Jobs Bill was DOA in Congress. Because of the tax increases proposed, the Democrats even had a difficult time in finding a sponsor to introduce the bill. With the funds provided in the ’09 stimulus package now gone, with a Congress not interested in more tax and spend, and with the Fed now out of real ammunition, there isn’t going to be much government help for a weakening economy.
- Sarbanes-Oxley, Dodd-Frank, Obamacare, EPA pronouncements, other regulatory burdens, the uncertainty surrounding taxes and tax rates etc. has led to an environment of business uncertainty. Under such conditions, there is virtually no chance that labor markets will pick up anytime soon. As a result, consumer confidence continues to bounce along well below traditional recessionary levels.
The preponderance of the evidence makes it clear that the risks in the equity markets are to the downside. There are no quick fixes to any of the European or U.S. problems. Europe’s financial issues can easily morph into a worldwide financial panic. The U.S.’s housing, deficit, and employment issues will linger without a new approach, one that we won’t see until at least 2013. Safety is clearly a better investment strategy than hope.
Robert Barone, Ph.D.
October 10, 2011
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