By Carol Ryan
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.
The stock market has, over time, gotten somewhat more used to the idea that U.S. federal government activities add to market consternation and volatility, not reduce it. In the 1990s, there used to be a catchphrase that “gridlock was good for equities,” but that came during a long period of economic growth and on the back of policies that Wall Street generally supported – financial services reform, welfare reform, and not much else. That’s no longer the case. We’ve already seen the detrimental effects on the markets of the U.S. debt ceiling fiasco that led to the first-ever downgrade of the U.S. credit rating in 2010 and subsequent fights about the debt ceiling (though that has abated somewhat).
All that’s left for investors now when it comes to earnings season is the shouting, but if the rest of the retailers post results anything like Kate Spade did on Tuesday, the shouts will be screams of terror rather than anything that assuages investors over the state of the overall economy. Kate Spade’s executives went into some detail on its conference call as to the nature of its margins shortfall – which Belus Capital chief equity strategist and longtime retail analyst Brian Sozzi said are not likely to improve until the middle of 2015 – and the company then did itself no favors by declaring that it wouldn’t be discussing the margin issues any further on the call. (Craig Leavitt, the CEO, violated that rule to some degree, but basically, investors don’t like it when you tell them flat-out that you’re not going to talk about your problems, and when you’re a company with a forward price-to-earnings ratio of 77.5 and a price-to-book value of 119, that’s going to be particularly true.)
It will be interesting to see if the spiral that yogawear retailer Lululemon Athletica has found itself in over the last year is one that can be arrested. Companies rise and fall often in this world, but the U.S. stock market’s history is littered with retailers that went into a tailspin after series of missteps that turn once-interesting investments into a veritable death trap for investors, and result in the kind of drop that benefits mostly short-sellers, late-night comedians and eventually restructuring lawyers.
Larry Fink is sounding the alarm. The chairman and CEO of $4.4 trillion asset manager BlackRock is worried about leveraged ETFs (exchange-traded funds). Fink thinks they could “blow up the industry.” His statement is a little unclear, but the industry he's referring to is probably ETFs themselves, not the global financial system.
There’s nothing dull these days about the bond market, which is exhibiting an unforeseen, profound level of strength that’s spread through the various asset classes on the fixed income side, and that continues to remain unexpected for the most part.