I don’t want to belabor the point but wanted to stress the fact that credit, saving spending and investment will be changed for a generation. People will be forced to save more to buy stuff they could previously buy with little or no money down and low interest. Frugality will be a way of life, not just in the consumer sector, but also in the business and government sector. And the government (federal that is) can not create enough jobs to mitigate the economic pain in any meaningful way because the private sector is likely to cut another 6 million jobs this year and state and local governments will cut more than the federal level is apt to create.
I can’t see how and when consumers and businesses will be willing AND ABLE to spend more. Generation X & Y have pulled forward a lifetime of sales. Many hundreds of billions of dollars worth of stuff bought on credit in the last few years would have been bought in the period ahead if folks had to save for it. Instead, consumers and businesses alike have to retrench in order to pay overwhelming debt service burdens. And one man’s spending is another man’s revenue; and so it goes, the multiplier effect in reverse.
These dynamics don’t change overnight. And to the extent that you buy into the bull crap (pun intended) spoon fed to you by CNBC pundits employed by fees on your assets your net worth and quality of life will suffer for it. Understand that the Abby Joseph Cohens of the world will never implore you to take your money out of the Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS) of the world because it means they get paid less or fired altogether. It’s not good business as they say; but if you ask me its bad business.
Strategists putting a 1100 and 1200 targets on the S&P500 (SPX) as 2009 started were flat out irresponsible at minimum and probably disingenuous as well. I say that because not only are they clueless about what the earnings on the S&P500 might have been if the constituents remained the same; but many names are being changed to protect the guilty as they say, so what does it mean to the market that the new constituents earn whatever. If I recall correctly, they mentioned $53-$55 in EPS this year (which interestingly was at the low end of the street) and $60 next, but many of the top market caps have been replaced with companies with better balance sheets and earnings. Who in their right mind would take a skewed sample and put a high teen multiple on it and say that’s what they honestly expect. I’ll tell you who – its people with a vested interest in you not allocating capital away from equities. But that’s exactly what you ought to do.
Another reason why I doubt equities can snap back a lot anytime soon is because I can’t recall a time when equities have gotten pummeled to the extent they have and other assets are as attractive as they are. Investors that lost 50-60% in what was supposed to nimble “HEDGE” Funds (which didn’t hedge well) are going to be done with them in many cases and shift money back into the mutual funds (which have much less leverage) which never lost that kind of money for them. They will also buy debt securities, corporate bonds, munis, converts and real estate among other things. Sure there’s a lot of money that will come out of treasuries but it's not going into equities to the extent that it has historically. And that money on the sidelines is not all going back into the market either. Much of it will go to redemptions and other asset classes – I doubt many will underweight cash as much as they had in the past, regardless of what yields are.
As the market rallied a couple of weeks ago, I was shocked to see how many were sucked into the idea that the worst was over. Well educated money managers bought into the company line.
Many remain in a state of disbelief and think it can’t get much worse now. They think “I can’t sell now, it’s too late”. Wrong again, uncertainty has never been greater, our financial system is melting down and the meltdown is creating massive collateral damage. Otherwise good companies are seeing credit issues impair their operations; which are already under duress on the demand side. As corporate profits slide and the outlook for growth deteriorates so too will equity valuations. Earnings and Multiples will remain under pressure and equities will decline – if you don’t reallocate out of a long only overweight equities portfolio, the market will do it for you.
So the decline is apt to be more protracted than most think and the downside will be such that the comps can’t be easy enough. Retailers are a good example of this – things got bad with retailers almost 2 years ago, they’ve been up against what should have been easy comps but still comping the high teens NEGATIVE for many. Sure, we may be approaching a point where it's hard to get MUCH worse (much being the key) but I think the disconnect here is that everyone is assuming that things bounce back as they did in past cycles when consumer balance sheets weren’t decimated and banks were healthy and lending.
Generation X & Y have pulled forward a lifetime of sales (which would have gone to sales in the period ahead and would have been more money with interest instead of deficits and unmanageable debt service burdens. One consumer’s/business’ spending is another consumer’s/business’ revenue and the multiplier effect you heard about in econ 101 (when the butcher buys baked goods and the baker then buy candles etc.) works in reverse. That’s how a mild recession turns into a really bad one – the butcher and the baker cut back the spending and employment and the candlestick maker goes out of business.
My point in all of this is not to be doom and gloom for doom and gloom sake – I’m not trying to be Marc Faber or Jim Rogers talking my book on Bloomberg or CNBC. I’m saying all this to impress upon you how important it is to worry more about containing the risk in your portfolio than missing out on a rally that has a very low chance of happening in the first place.
That Goldman Sach’s S&P500 target is now almost 45% away and the hurt is palpable. It’s not too late to reduce exposure to equities and increase exposure to cash, and high quality/much less risky debt. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t hold equities at all, it means to hold less. Avoid the temptation to bottom-fish banks, brokers, cyclicals, industrials, transports, materials, techs and other relatively high beta, economically sensitive sectors and instead focus on well managed, well financed less cyclical names likely to survive this hell of a cycle. I think names like DE and NUE are still good shorts. And am likely to put FSLR on short as well. I’ll be back to you soon with more names both short and long. But first I’ll tell you why I think TARP is a joke and I’ll suggest what I think is a much better way to stabilize the financial system in a much more cost effective way.
Disclosure: short DE and NUE.