Conservative Positions For A Liberal World

Includes: DIA, QQQ, SPY
by: Michael Ashton

Wow, where do we begin after a hurricane-induced hiatus? So much has happened. Since I last wrote, the U.S. elections have fallen into the rear-view mirror, the Bank of Japan has increased its asset purchases again, Greek inflation has accelerated to 0.9% from 0.3% (while Greek Industrial Production contracted for the 49th of the last 53 months, illustrating again how helpful it is to look at the growth rate of a country as a guide to deflationary pressures), and the stock market has moved to 3-month lows (and 10y note yields to 2-month lows) while the dollar has strengthened.

By far the largest event of the last couple of weeks, besides the restoration of power to my home, has been the U.S. elections. The immediate weakness in equity markets is completely understandable, but for the most part doesn't reflect a vote against the President. Real equity market returns will be weaker over the next couple of years, but that's because current valuation levels are high and future earnings will be lower than they would be under a more capitalist government. I don't think investors are putting prices lower on that theory; indeed, as I wrote just before Sandy I thought that stocks are more likely to go higher than lower in the short term with an Obama victory.

But let me define short term, because in that post I completely neglected the very short-term effect of the days just after an Obama victory. I think an important part of the selling of equities now is reflecting investor realization of tax gains now, versus in the future when capital gains and income tax rates are likely to be at least somewhat, and potentially significantly, higher. That's not a long-term effect, because those investors will also buy companies they perceive to be relative bargains in the case of a profligate spending policy (which is what everyone agrees we are likely to get - although some people think that's a good thing; I suppose your own feeling on that matter likely defines how you voted). So this is mostly a cycling of positions, a re-setting of tax basis at a higher level, and shouldn't amount to a major selloff by itself.

There still may be some net selling while the twin risks of the "fiscal cliff" and the Greek exit from the Euro remain uncertain and near-term. And here is where I am getting somewhat uneasy with my bullish argument (which hinged on the notion that typically myopic investors would prefer a 2013 recession that is shallower, due to heavy government spending, than a deeper one due to a Republican shrinking of government aka "austerity"). I think there are some bigger issues that are hard to look past right now, and they are related to those twin risks I just mentioned.

One of those issues concerns the "fiscal cliff." Perhaps I am cynical, but I have long expected the issue to be averted at the eleventh hour (as usual - for example, see the annual 'doc fix' for Medicare). But it now occurs to me that the Republicans have absolutely no reason to compromise on their demand for no increase in taxes. Under a President Romney, the Republicans would have been able to leverage their control, make a few key concessions, and avert much of the damage. Under a President Obama, forcing the cliff to take effect is now the only way that the minority party of smaller government can force any austerity over the next few years. Especially if you believe - and I think it's worth considering - that the failure of the Republicans to unseat a President with sub-50% approval ratings and an ~8% Unemployment Rate indicates that the argument is lost that we should take short-term pain in order to restore fiscal sanity, this represents the best remaining hope for fiscal sanity. The only way I can see the Republicans giving in on the 'fiscal cliff' is if (a) they sell their principles, which is always a possibility, or (b) the Democrats promise considerable compensation in terms of future legislation. I can't imagine what that would be. So, in short, I think the odds that there will be a resolution of the 'fiscal cliff' have dropped considerably.

The second issue is the one of Greek exit from the Euro. I think I have been very consistent on this issue: I do not believe there is a viable future path in which Greece remains in the Euro. Whether the exit is clean and negotiated or sudden and traumatic or painful and drawn-out is the issue. This has been clear for months, even years, now. Yet, for a couple of months there has been relative quiet on this front, until the last week or two as the Eurogroup considers the distribution of the next aid tranche to Greece. We've also stopped hearing much about Spain, Italy, and Portugal although the Spanish 10-year bond yield is creeping back to 6% again (5.88% today). I don't think this silence heading into the U.S. elections was accidental. The relationship between the U.S. President and the citizens of the world ex-U.S. is a very strong one, and I have no doubt that the politicians in Europe recognized that their chances of getting help from U.S. taxpayers would be much better after November 6th if Obama won re-election. Now that he has, the European issue must be confronted as world growth is weakening again. I have no idea whether the U.S. will try and contribute to a solution (which would ensure a painful and drawn-out resolution in which Greece would still, at the end, leave the Euro), but in any event this set of events is back in motion, and is not positive in the short-term for world growth or equity markets.

So in short, while I still think we can trust the myopia of equity investors to push markets higher over the next couple of months, I am less sure of that than I was. The election was a trigger for a lot of potentially bad outcomes, and with equity markets remaining rich I would certainly be maintaining a conservative risk posture here.

At least something can be conservative.

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