Continued Bad Economic Data sends Investors to Safe Harbors

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 10th, 2011

Times are Good when the Junk Market is Good

Junk bonds were big in the Eighties.  During the great economic boom courtesy of Ronal Reagan.  Lower tax rates.  Fewer regulations.  It was a time for entrepreneurs to take chances.  And they did.  Some took some really big chances.  They were thinking way outside the box.  In new technologies.  So there weren’t a lot of people lining up to finance their risky ideas.  Because they were too risky for most.  That’s where junk comes in.  A junk bond is a high yield bond.  It pays a high interest rate.  Because there is a very good chance the bond issuer may fail.  Making those bonds worthless.  So to attract capital to fund these risky ideas required a larger return on investment.  And the junk bond market was the place to go.

A lot of things happened that wouldn’t have had it not been for junk.  MCI Communications is a junk bond success story.  The Chrysler bailout in the Eighties was another.  Even Ted Turner owes the success of Turner Broadcasting to junk.  Yes, there were a lot of failures.  But that’s what makes junk so enticing.  You get a high return for that high risk.  A lot of entrepreneurs became millionaires.  And a lot of rich investors got richer.  So when the junk market is doing well, people are taking chances.  Taking risks.  Creating things.  New technologies.  And jobs.  Growing the economy.  But when the junk market isn’t doing well, few are taking risks.  Few are creating jobs.  And the economy isn’t growing.  Or won’t be growing.  For if the economic outlook is bleak, investors look for safe harbors for their cash.  Until a more favorable business/investing climate returns (see Junk bonds hit a speed bump by Ben Rooney posted 6/10/2011 on CNNMoney).

Investors had been flocking to corporate “junk” bonds since the early months of 2009 amid a broad flight to risky assets because of the high yields that come along with that risk. But demand for those bonds has tapered off in the last few weeks following a spate of lousy economic news.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty in market,” said Jody Lurie, corporate credit analyst at Janney Capital Markets. “We’ve had a lot of bad news in the last few weeks and that’s making people hesitant.”

Business owners as well as investors hate uncertainty.  And there’s a lot of that these days.  Suffice it to say the Obama administration is not the most business-friendly administration.  Unless you’re a crony of the administration.  But few small business owners and entrepreneurs can afford what it takes to be a crony capitalist.  Because special favors don’t come cheap.  And there’s that ugly recession that just won’t end.  Few want to invest and create jobs when so many are unemployed and are unable to buy things.

“This market is extremely expensive,” [William Larkin, a bond portfolio manager at Cabot Money Management] said. “I’m afraid that we could get some hot inflation data on top of the prices,” he added. And that could leave bondholders with a negative return.

Inflation is another reason why the junk bond market is losing its appeal.  The value of a bond lies in the difference between your bond interest rate and the prevailing interest rate on the street.  Inflation increases interest rates.  So as inflation increases, that premium you had over the interest rates of ‘safe’ investments decreases.  Making the return on your junk more similar to ‘safe’ investments.  Only you still carry that high risk of your bonds becoming worthless.  If inflation pushes interest rates over your bond interest rate, you lose money.  Because your high-risk bonds pay less than safer investments like government treasury bonds.  So a bad economic outlook and/or inflation worries will make people run away from junk bonds to something safer.

A Six Week Losing Streak

In fact, when bad economic news comes out that says we’ll have more recession before we have any economic recovery, junk bond holders aren’t the only ones looking for safer investments.  Investors also flee the stock market.  Especially when the stock market is setting near-record losing streaks (see At noon: Dow surrenders 12,000 by David Berman posted 6/10/2011 The Globe and Mail).

The Dow was recently spotted at 11,980.78, down about 144 points or 1.2 per cent, marking its lowest level since March amid ongoing concerns about the health of the U.S. economy…

With Friday’s decline, U.S. indexes are well on their way to posting their sixth consecutive losing week – a losing streak noted by Bloomberg as the worst string of down weeks since 2002…

Meanwhile, investors have been diving into the safety of bonds. The yield on the 10-year U.S. Treasury bond recently dipped below 3 per cent as bond prices (which move in the opposite direction to yields) have risen to their highest levels since early December.

And this despite the possibility of a U.S. default after reaching their legal debt limit.  Everyone in the administration is predicting doom and gloom about a U.S. default.  Apparently the investors are more frightened by the horrible economy, high unemployment numbers and a recession that never ends.

Time to call the Recession a Depression?

Of course, this recession will end.  There hasn’t been one that hasn’t yet.  They’re usually over anywhere from 6 months to a year or so.  That’s usually sufficient for the market to correct.  But it may take a little longer this time (see U.S. Will Trail Global Growth for Decade: Fink by Sree Vidya Bhaktavatsalam and Charles Stein posted 6/10/2011 on Bloomberg).

BlackRock Inc. (BLK)’s Laurence D. Fink, chief executive officer of the world’s biggest asset manager, said the U.S. will trail the global economy for much of the next decade.

The U.S. economy will grow 2 percent to 3 percent for the next five to 10 years, lagging behind global growth of 3 percent to 5 percent, Fink said today in a Bloomberg Television interview with Erik Schatzker from the Morningstar conference in Chicago. ..

A series of reports suggests the world’s largest economy is decelerating. Manufacturing grew at its slowest pace in more than a year in May, consumer spending rose less than forecast in April, and the unemployment rate unexpectedly climbed to 9.1 percent in May.

You know, after 10 years I don’t think you call it a recession anymore.  I think you start calling it a depression.

Where’s a Good World War when you Need One?

The last time we had a depression as bad as this there was a Big Government president in the White House.  He spent money like there was no tomorrow.  And none of it helped.  Every New Deal program was a failure.  They didn’t put people back to work in the private sector.  You know what did?  World War II.  It wasn’t FDR that ended the Great Depression.  It was Adolf Hitler.  Because someone had to build all that war material to defeat him.  And that someone was us. 

Things are different today, though.  There is no villain to come to Obama’s rescue.  It will be up to him alone to make his policies more business friendly.  Or his successor in 2012.


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FUNDAMENTAL TRUTH #11: “Before you condemn capitalism, imagine a world without professional sports, movies, cell phones and tampons.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 27th, 2010

PEOPLE HAVE SOME strong opinions about capitalism.  Both good and bad.  So what is it?  What is capitalism?

Merriman Webster OnLine defines it as:

An economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market.

To explain this let’s start by explaining what it replaced.  In fact, let’s go further back.  A few hundred years when life truly sucked by our standards.  During the Middle Ages, people barely lived.  People worked very hard and had little time off.  When they did they usually spent it sleeping, being sick, dying or being dead.  You grew or killed what you ate.  You built your own house.  You made your own clothes.  You died probably no further than a short walk from where you were born.  And you worked your whole life somewhere in between.

Think of peasant or serf.  That’s what most were.  Tied to the land.  You had no choices.  If you were born on the land you worked the land.  Until you died.  The land owned you and someone owned the land.  You worked the land at the grace of the owner.  You helped produce his food and, in return, he let you have a small parcel of land to grow your food.  There was a bond of loyalty between landlord and tenant.  Land and protection in exchange for backbreaking, never-ending labor.  Doesn’t sound good until you consider the alternative.  Death by famine.  Or death by murder at the hands of roving bands of outlaws.

Improvements in farming led to more food production.  Eventually, there were food surpluses.  This meant not everyone had to farm.  Some could do other things.  And did.  They became specialists.  Artisans.  Craftsmen.  Cities grew in response to commerce.  People went to market to trade for things they wanted.  Then they started using money, which made getting the things they wanted easier (it’s easier to go to the market with a coin purse than with a sack of grain or a side of beef).  Life got better.  People enjoyed some of it.

THUS BEGAN THE rise of a middle class.  Those city folk making things or doing something.  They were good at what they did and people gladly paid for what they did.  These specialists then improved what they did and thought of new things to do.  They created things to make their work easier.  These individual specialists grew into manufacturing shops.  The cost of production only limited their output.  And banking solved that problem.

Alexander Hamilton, one of America’s Founding Fathers, was a capitalist.  And he thought big.  Money is nice but what can it get you?  A few things for the home?  Something for the wife?  Maybe some new farm tools.  Good stuff, yes, but nothing big.  Lots of little sums of money all over the place can buy lots of little things.  But when you pool lots of little sums of money you get one big-ass pile of it.  That money is now capital.  And you can do big things with it.

And that’s what banking has given us.  People with ideas, entrepreneurs, could now borrow money to bring their ideas to market.  And this is, in a nutshell, capitalism.  The free flow of ideas and capital to make life better.  Making life better wasn’t necessarily the objective; it’s just the natural consequence of people mutually partaking in a free market.

BUT WHAT ABOUT the Soviet Union?  Didn’t they do big things, too?  They built jetliners.  They had a space program.  They had factories.  They did these and other things without capitalism.  They did these things for the good of the people, not for profits.  Isn’t that better?

Talk to someone who wiped their ass with Soviet-era toilet paper.  Let me save you the trouble.  It didn’t feel good.  Unless you enjoy the feel of sandpaper back there.  And to add insult to injury, you had to wait in line to get that toilet paper.  If it was available.

When you think of the Soviet economy you have to think of stores with empty shelves and warehouses full of stuff no one wants.  This is what a command economy does for you.  Some bureaucrat, not the consumer, determines what to sell.  And one person simply cannot figure out what a hundred million plus want.  To get an idea of how difficult this is, pick a movie that 4 of your friends would love to see.  Pick a couple of guys and a couple of girls.  For diversity.  And remove the possibility of sex completely from the equation.  Now pick.  Not so easy, is it?  Now try to pick a movie a hundred million people would love to see.  Can’t do it, can you?  No one can.  Because people are diverse.  One size doesn’t fit all.

Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev asked Margaret Thatcher how she made sure her people had enough food to eat.  The Soviets were having difficulty feeding theirs.  In fact, they were importing grain from their archenemy.  The United States.  The answer to Gorbachev’s answer was that Thatcher did nothing to feed her people.  The free market fed her people.  Capitalism.

As far as those other big things the Soviets did, they acquired a lot of the knowledge to do those things through an elaborate network of espionage.  They stole technology and copied it.  And they were the first into space because their captured Nazi rocket scientists did it before our captured Nazi rocket scientists did.  (The seed of the space industry was the Nazi V-2 rocket that reigned terror on London and other cities during World War II).

(Lest you think that I’m ripping on the Soviet/Russian people, I’m not.  Just their economic system during the Soviet era.  Their people have suffered.  And persevered.  It was them after all who first threw back Napoleon in Europe.  And it was them who first threw back the Nazis in Europe.  They gave us Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Mikhail Dolivo-Dobrovolsky and, of course, Maria Sharapova to name just a few of the greats.  Good people.  Just sometimes bad government.  As in most nations.  Even in the U.S.)

SO WHAT IS the basic difference between capitalism and a command economy like that of the former Soviet Union?  Probably the freedom to take and accept risk.  Bankers take a risk in loaning money.  They analyze the risk.  If the return on the loan is greater than the risk, they’ll make the loan.  It’s their call.  And they’re pretty good.  Their successes are far greater than their failures.

Some loans are riskier than others.  There’s a greater chance of failure.  But it could also be the next, say, Microsoft.  Or Apple.  If so, even though there’s great risk, the potential of reward is so great that people will want to loan money.  They’ll buy junk bonds (high risk/high yield) or an initial public offering of stock.  They’ll risk their money for a greater return on their investment.  If it pays off.  And they don’t always do.  But good ideas with potential typically find financing.  And investors typically make more money than they lose.  It’s a pretty good system.  Capitalism.

WHEN YOU HAVE risk takers who choose to participate in the free flow of ideas and capital, great things happen.  Modern AC electrical power that we take for granted is invented (thank you Nikola Tesla for the genius and George Westinghouse for taking the risk).  You develop modern commercial jet aviation (thank you Boeing for the 707, 727, 737, 747, well, you get the picture).  You transform the world when you add impurities to semiconducting material and sandwich them together (thank you John Bardeen, Walter H. Brattain and William B. Shockley for the transistor).

These great things, along with others, give us professional sports (stadiums, transportation to and from the stadium, jetliners to take teams to other stadiums, oil exploration and refining for jet and car fuel, etc.).  They give us movies (financing, cameras and production equipment, special effects, theaters, popcorn, DVDs for home viewing, etc.).  They give us cell phones (cellular towers, switching networks, compact and long lasting batteries, interactive handheld devices, voicemail, email, texting, etc.).  And they liberated women to do whatever they want wherever they want by making feminine hygiene protection portable and plentiful (mass production, rail and truck transport, retail and vending outlets, etc.) and by providing convenient privacy (public toilet facilities with vending machines and disposal bins). 

Imagine any of these things provided by the same people who renew our driver’s license.  Do you think any of it would be as good?  Or do you think it would be more like Soviet-era life?  There’s so much we take for granted in capitalism because we can.  It’s a system that works on basic human nature.  It doesn’t require sacrifice.  It doesn’t depend on consensus.  It just needs the free flow of ideas and capital.  And great things follow.


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