Don’t tell George Costanza, but double dipping is all the rage these days. The possibility of the U.S. slipping back into recession after a brief period of growth is a hot topic of late – and while such an occurrence is unlikely, pundits are feverishly declaring that it can’t and won’t happen.
Here are some of their reasons, some of which appear to strain credulity: Double-dips are “rare.” Simon Hobbs of CNBC is a vigorous promoter of this idea, but let’s face it, the last 15 years of financial-market history is a veritable compendium things that no one expected to happen – LTCM, the financial panic, Lehman Brothers. Rare means nothing. The stock market hasn’t dropped enough. Ah yes, the stock market, that stellar indicator of the economy’s future, such as in October 2007, when it hit an all-time high, two months before the onset of the worst recession since the Great Depression. Next. The yield curve hasn’t flattened enough. This indicator comes with a bit more in the way of history, as a flattened/inverted yield curve has been a reliable indicator of economic weakness ahead. But the Federal Reserve is anchoring the short end of the curve to the ground with its zero interest rate policy. It complicates the curve’s predictive value – something Goldman Sachs noted in a morning commentary. “External shocks” are responsible for the declines in economic activity, such as that in Europe. Similar shocks were enough to spark recessions in the 1930s, 1970s, and in 2008. Everything’s connected now, remember? Corporate profits are strong. As they were all the way through the beginning of 2007, once again, before the most recent eruption.
A recent Reuters poll put the odds of a double-dip recession at about 15 percent. Gluskin Sheff’s bearish strategist David Rosenberg puts it around 50-50, and Jim Bianco of Bianco Research also put that kind of odds on it. It may not happen – but when a lot of people are trying to convince you that something’s not going to happen, it can make you believe that it’s more likely than not.
In a bull market, buying on the dips works like a charm. Pullbacks in the market are quickly cannibalized by hungry investors looking for anything that smells like a bargain.
In a bear market, dip-buying does not work so well, as supposed bargains turn out to be value traps. This brings us to Ken Lewis, retiring as CEO of Bank of America. If dip-buying is a disaster in bear markets, Lewis engineered the M&A version of “dip buying” at the worst time not once, but twice.
The stock market’s penchant for emotional reactions that remind one of a roomful of two-year olds can never be underestimated. Major world central banks are pulling back on their efforts to provide liquidity to the financial system, and the U.S. equity market has flipped out, with stocks falling sharply after the news.Volatility has spiked as well, even though the banks’ move is largely administrative, with demand for certain borrowing programs already diminished. Chris Rupkey, chief financial economist at Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ notes that “demand for dollar liquidity at banks offshore is sharply reduced now that the crisis has blown through. The amount of dollar borrowing in offshore centers is down sharply.”
But equity markets aren’t so easily swayed by reason. The move in stocks follows a similar sell-off late Wednesday, after the Federal Reserve’s statement, which intimated that it would start to reduce the tools that it has employed in keeping things afloat. Joe Saluzzi of Themis Trading pegged the reaction as a predictable one from the notoriously self-interested stock market, saying that “now all the money printing crack addicts who are waiting for more of it are not getting their money printing and they are going to throw a hissy fit.”
The old lore about the best way to cure a hangover is with a few more nips of whatever it was you were imbibing the previous evening, commonly known as “hair of the dog.”
The extension of this rally in stocks and just about every other asset identified with risk feels like a hair-of-the-dog situation. Between 2003 and mid-2008, easy flow of capital facilitated revelry in stocks, emerging markets, real estate, bonds, and high-yielding currencies.
So who is right and who is wrong?The stock market has rallied by more than 50 percent in the last five months. But bond market yields currently hover around 3.4%, and while that’s nowhere near close to the crisis-induced record low reached at the end of 2008, a graph of the 10-year note’s yield shows that it remains lower than almost any point other than when prices spiked in the wake of the Lehman Brothers collapse.
Equity investors would rightly point to better housing data and stronger economic indicators as a sign that things are looking up. The bond market, meanwhile, continues to worry that the outlook remains grim. Yields have been bound in a range between 3.4% and 4% since late May, despite the dark warnings from those “bond vigilantes” that believe crushing U.S. debt will turn off our major foreign benefactors.
It used to be that Citigroup was one of the market’s most important stocks, if not the most important. At the nexus of the banking, securities and lending industries that benefited most from the easy-credit boom of the middle of the decade, its success as a stock mirrored the market and the economy.Somewhere around 2006, when people started to call for a breakup of the company, it was supplanted by a company even more tied to the derivative-fueled mess that masked the holes in the economic landscape – Goldman Sachs.
But Goldman continued to earn massive profits while Citigroup nearly died a painful death. Shares eventually fell to less than $1 a share, it was kicked out of the Dow and investors started to view other consumer banks as better indicators of the market’s health.
How do those green shoots look now?The market got all a-giddy last week after Intel (INTC.O) and Goldman Sachs (GS.N) (a barometer of nothing other than its own ability to navigate turbulent markets) posted better than expected earnings, but the latest round of earnings reports points mostly to the ability of companies to tighten their belts to anorexic levels.
The Street celebrated when Caterpillar (CAT.N) reported earnings Tuesday, but the euphoria leaked out of the early market rally when investors got a second glance. Sales looked terrible as demand has plunged. They, along with Intel, Coca-Cola (KO.N), UTX (UTX.N) and others, are all using China as a crutch right now, thanks to that country’s massive stimulus package. But building earnings strength on hopes that governments will continue to spend money isn’t a winning strategy for years to come.
Sure, things look rosy for Goldman Sachs (GS.N), but the firm hardly represents the broad U.S. economic situation, as investors are looking over a mélange of lousy data, with dribs and drabs of mildly encouraging information in the mix. Goldman Sachs headquarters building in New York. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
Tuesday’s retail sales figures weren’t all that great – the strength comes from auto sales and rising gasoline prices (and rising gas prices aren’t exactly great for consumers) – and Wednesday’s data on capacity utilization and energy inventories are likely to confirm the ongoing slack in the economy.