21 July 2009

Persistent ignorance

An excellent peice from "Financial Armageddon....

Persistent Ignorance

It's funny -- or sad, depending on your perspective -- how those who supposedly know best -- the highly paid "experts" on Wall Street -- keep misreading what is happening in the real economy.

For example, all signs point to the fact that what we have been going through these past few years is not just a garden-variety recession, but a full-fledged meltdown spawned by the bursting of the biggest credit/housing bubble in history.

Yet the "Wrong Way' Corrigans" who never saw the unraveling coming, who insisted that the crisis would remain "contained" or otherwise end quickly, who kept seeing rebounds and bottoms that never quite materialized, and who are now proclaiming an end to the "recession" -- their word -- persist in trying to mislead or confuse the masses with their profoundly ignorant assurances.

The latest delusion is the notion that allegedly "good" earnings from corporate America herald the beginnings of an economic recovery. In "The Thesis Continues To Validate: GE," The Market Ticker's Karl Denninger puts paid to this silly theory.

GE (NYSE: GE) was out this morning with earnings and continues to validate my central thesis: severe economic contraction.

Revenues were down 17% - another double-digit contraction, and this is particularly troublesome in what it says about the global economy, given GE's global reach.

Again, we continue to see the same sort of theme in industrial and consumer products reporting - Harley Davidson (NYSE: HOG) reported units shipped down 30% year over year yesterday, and now GE out with a 17% year over year revenue decline.

Stocks are, at their core, priced on earnings growth, with the most-common ratio used for such metrics being P/E/G, or Price-to-earnings-growth.

But earnings are not growing, they're contracting - dramatically - in percentage terms over year-ago levels. How can it be otherwise? Even with no inefficiencies due to firms having too many employees for the revenue contraction that is occurring, a 30% reduction in business done should lead to a 30% decline in profits earned. Add to that the fact that firms are nearly always behind the curve and you have profit declines that are much larger - in some cases 100% or even going from a profit to a loss.

This is not a circumstance that will reverse in the immediate future; in order for it to do so, revenue must come back up, and in order for revenue to come back to pre-bust levels, we would have to re-inflate the credit bubble - which simply cannot happen.

Multiples are going to continue to contract. Those analysts and market callers who are all over the momentum trade can in fact make a good buck trading the momentum, but that's all they're trading - they sure aren't trading earnings acceleration or even stabilization.

The move in the market off the 666 levels in March has been driven by a false premise, egged on by CNBC and the other "mainstream media" - that this is a typical recession, it is short-lived, and we will soon go back to previous spending and business patterns.

That is not going to happen, yet it is what everyone in the media and analyst community is looking for and basing their valuation and market timing calls on.

I don't know how long we have to continue to put up numbers like this before people wake up, but wake up they eventually will. When Harley Davidson ships 30% fewer motorcycles, when GE sells 17% less "stuff" (including their financial cooking) and when company after company, including Intel, IBM and others come out with revenue numbers that are down double-digit percentages on an annualized basis, there is no possible way you can justify the multiples that these firms are selling at.

When The Port of Long Beach shows container shipments down nearly 30%, when freight carloadings are down nearly 25% year over year, when sales tax receipts are down in the double digits and when income tax collections, both personal and corporate have effectively collapsed there is simply no argument that "the recession is over" or that "trend growth is around the corner."

The fact of the matter is that port, rail and tax receipts are not subject to being "gamed" by government number-crunchers, they do not play "seasonal adjustments" (since they're year-over-year numbers), they do not represent wishes, dreams, or desires.

They represent real-time, high-frequency, "right now and in your face" economic performance metrics and are impossible to argue with.

If you, as an investor, are trying to use the market as a "forward indicator" of economic conditions, you need to look at these numbers to see whether or not what the stock market is telling you can be validated with actual economic performance - not in quarterly reports to be published in a few months (the typical economic lead-time cited for the market) but in the "right here and now" reality of economic activity.

What those high-frequency data sources are telling us, here and now, today, is that we are in the middle of a 25-30% economic contraction - exactly as I predicted would occur in 2007.

The problem with this level of indicated weakness in the economy is that we have shielded firms, especially banks, from taking the losses that should have come last year and in 2007 related to their over-extension of credit. Now those institutions are going to have to live with the reality of a much smaller economy, meaning that they will be forced to turn to dramatically increasing credit costs to customers to avoid drowning (e.g. increasing credit card rates and spreads), which is exactly what they're doing. This in turn will suck even more money out of consumers pockets, dragging consumption down even further and will force even more defaults.

This is a vicious cycle that can only be broken when the defaults that are being hidden behind the curtain of our financial institutions are forced into the open and disposed of. Yes, this will likely cause those firms to go bust. But the economic penalty we are and will continue to pay for allowing The Bezzle to continue in these firms will, if not stopped, soon choke off any hope of recovery, just as it did in 1930, and lead to precisely the same sort of economic result.

Everyone seems to be hollering about the "wonderful performance" of the banks that have reported thus far, but let's be honest - if you can borrow for nothing and charge 30% interest on plastic, you make a fortune, right? Well, for a while - until the squeeze of contracting incomes and increasing interest charges force your customers to default, at which point the charge-offs and defaults this forces in the rest of your portfolio (e.g. mortgages) kill you dead.

I see exactly nothing in any of the reported numbers thus far this quarter suggesting that we've turned an economic corner or that there will be a recovery this year or even next.

We could be near or at the bottom, but we're not, and it is precisely because we have protected the financial institutions from the consequences of their own folly in preference to the borrower (to a large degree the consumer) that this has happened. I have warned repeatedly that the actions of our regulators and government, on the path they are on, will make durable economic recovery impossible.

The anvil of these bad loans, being carried far above actual fair-market value, will remain as a millstone around the neck until we either earn them out or default them.

Our government and regulators have chosen "earn them out". The problem is that this path cannot succeed because "earn them out" requires that the economy return to trend growth - that is, 3-4% GDP - before next year. That is not going to happen; the government backstop and artificial support only work so long as they continue, and we cannot continue to borrow two trillion a year for the purpose of propping up these institutions in excess of their natural earnings power in the economy.

Yet without defaulting the bad debt that's exactly what has to happen.

If Roubini's prediction of sub-1% growth (if that) for the next couple of years is correct the squeeze between available revenue and required cash-flow from operations to keep the numbers black at the bottom of the page will become python-like over the next 12-18 months, and as the grip tightens reportable earnings will continue to contract, ultimately leading to a collapse when cash flow is exceeded by expenses.

This is the dreaded "double dip", except that it won't be a "W" as Roubini has postulated - it will look like the first three legs, but the right side "/" will instead be a flat line as credit capacity on the borrowing side collapses, destroying the banks ability to profit - without borrowers there is no interest to charge and no money to make!

Bottom line: Those who bet on the market "going much higher" from here are going to find themselves once again holding a bag handed to them by the media and market callers, just like they did in 2000 when it was said "this is just a small correction in the market" as the Nasdaq came off 5,000.


No comments: