Weighing the Week Ahead: The Dual Theme Continues

It is almost as if the news came from two different worlds.  First, there is Europe.  Colin Barr (one of our featured sources, now writing more fine articles than ever in an expanded role) explains why you should not “sweat Europe”. His article cites several good sources explaining why there will be an eventual solution and contrasting this with the failure to recognize solid domestic news.  Regular readers will recognize these themes from my work of the past month, but it is nice to have Colin and his sources in my camp.  Please read the entire article.

By contrast, the focus of interest for policymakers and for the “attentive public” has already moved to new subjects.  As an investment manager it goes with the territory to know what is going on.  I want to know what is happening and what might happen next.

I have had a number of questions about what I read and how I decide what to follow.  I attempted a summary for today’s WWA piece, but I quickly realized that it is too complicated.  I read too many different sources, each providing something valuable.

For the moment I am going to make a  broad generalization about a duality:

  1. The “real world”  has moved on from the European debate.  You can look at any MSM source from this weekend to discover the top concerns.  There is an understanding that the story is going to play out over a matter of many months.
  2. By contrast, the financial world has a complete fixation on Greece, Spain, and Portugal.  There is a tick-by-tick following on CNBC, with special commentary from tea party hero Rick Santelli.  Every trading floor is focused on comparing European countries with failed US investment banks.

Is Greece the next Bear Stearns?  Is Spain the next Lehman?  These are the questions emphasized in the financial media.  One of the worst features of CNBC is the penchant for taking a stupid question and posing it to people who could not possibly know the answer.

The very posing of the question biases the entire enterprise and reduces the value of their information for the individual investor.  The problem is that CNBC is catering to their (ever-declining) pool of current viewers and not offering help to the broader audience they desperately need.

This is the reality, and we must recognize it.  I will do my regular analysis from this perspective.  I will start with the “real world” in the analysis of the “good” and the “bad.”  We’ll look at Europe in the weekly attention to the “Ugly.”  But first, a little background.

Background on “Weighing the Week Ahead”

There are many good services that do a complete list of every event
for the upcoming week, so that is not my mission.  Instead, I try to
single out what will be most important in the coming week.  If I am
correct, my theme for the week is what  we will be watching on TV and
reading in the mainstream media.  It is a focus on what I think is
important for my trading and client portfolios.

Week’s Data

The actual data from last week generally beat expectations .  If you
had just
been reading the news flow from the US, you would never have predicted
the wild swings and negative bias.  Let us take a closer look.

The Good

The economic news hit the right notes for the key indicators.

  • Home prices moved higher and sales were much stronger.  Check out Calculated Risk for a good summary.  The general media spin attributed this to the expiration of the homeowner tax credit.  In general I agree that the credit “pulled forward” some buying.  Meanwhile, I know a few people who are buying right now.  I asked why they “missed the credit.”  Their explanation was that they could get a good bargain right now — that sellers were well aware of the credit.  Interpreting these effects is pretty tricky.  Critics of cash for clunkers (including me) were wrong, for example.  Some of the programs are working better than originally expected.
  • The sentiment data was pretty good — at least in line with expectations, but still lower than I need to see for strong job growth.
  • The stimulus program helped the economy in Q1.  Only half has been spent so far.  Most people do not realize either of these points, so this contributes to the overall negativity.
  • Truck tonnage was up in April.
  • Mortgage rates declined yet again.  The rates are close to all-time lows.  This is a complete refutation of the predictions of many that rates would spike in the absence of Fed buying.  I understand that there has been a flight to quality in bonds and the dollar, but let us be fair about this.  There were many highly-publicized pundits who have been wrong about this one. When do they expect the prediction to come true?

The Bad

Some of the economic data were a little soft.

  • Initial jobless claims remain elevated at 460,000.  This was down a bit from the prior week, but nowhere close to the level needed for solid net job growth.
  • Personal consumption was unchanged.  While levels are much higher than the collapse predicted by many, there is a need for growth.
  • The ECRI growth index has declined again.  The ECRI leading indicators are still at a level showing solid growth.  There has been a decline from the post-recession spike.  The ECRI does not see another recession on the horizon, but others are predictably putting a more bearish spin on their data.  We shall see.

The Ugly

The daily trading was ugly, although the net change for the week was not dramatic.  It was all about Europe.

The European story continues to dominate financial markets, even though most have moved on.  Here is the challenge for traders.

The Truth about Europe

A reasonable projection of impact for the US is not that significant, which is why most people have moved on to other challenges in the wake of the responses of the European Union and the IMF.  The New York Times emphasizes this point, which you could also have read on “A Dash” in this article.

Another good approach is to follow actual data.  The TED spread (treasury over eurodollar) was a good indicator of stress in 2008.  While it is slightly above normal levels (38 bps or so) and shows an increase over the month, it is nowhere close to the 350 to 460 bp’s of 2008.  This provides little support for those using the domino analogy.

The Rumor Mill

During Wednesday’s trading a rally was turned into a major loss because of an article in the FT.  The story was interpreted as an indication that China was going to dump Euro’s from their reserve holdings  It was a “scoop” and the impact was dramatic.

Any knowledgeable observer would be skeptical of such a report.  The Chinese have embarked upon a tilt toward more European exposure.  A change in policy, as improbable as that might be,  would be likely to affect future buying, not current holdings.  Most importantly, as net exporters the Chinese are likely to be stocking up on all currencies until and unless they adjust exchange rates.  This is what you should know before trading on this rumor.

The market reacts to headline news, so the rumor-based selling was dramatic.  If you were a trader, you had a chance to pounce on the headline, but you needed to cover before the expected overnight denial.  It all took only a few hours, spread over two trading days.  If you were an individual investor you had to avoid a major blunder.

As expected, the revised FT story came out here.

The conclusion they reached is that “investors were left guessing” about China policy.  Another interpretation would be that their scoop-oriented reporting introduced the uncertainty.  When a story is implausible, why not really nail it down before doing something that generates a big market swing?  The original story had plenty of qualifications and nuance, but no one reads that.

It is like crying “fire” in the theater.  The FT is one of my featured sources, but this needless roller coaster was not good for most investors — only for very sharp traders.

And finally, Friday’s trading saw steep selling from a Fitch downgrade of Spain’s credit.  Fitch joined S&P.  Both are concerned about growth prospects given planned austerity.  Presumably they would also have been concerned in the absence of austerity.  Despite the inevitability and predictability of these ratings, they do have an impact for some holders of debt.

Dealing with the European News

The European situation is going to take many months — perhaps even
years — to unfold. The best thing investors can do is to understand
that this is not a replay of 2008.  This
by James Altucher is a good place to start.  You could also
review my WWA articles
from the
last several weeks
, all of which covered this theme.

At some point the continued playing of the same song will no longer influence trading, but apparently we are not there yet.  Meanwhile, it is a difficult trading market, featuring both risk and opportunity.

Our Trading Forecast

Our own indicators turned
neutral two weeks ago and remain so this week.  That was our vote in the
weekly Ticker Sense Blogger Sentiment Poll.   As you can see from the data, the call could easily be a bearish tilt.  It is only the general volatility that suggests a neutral posture.  Here is what we

  • Only 9% ( 33% last week) of our ETF’s have
    positive ratings.  This is very weak.
  • The median strength is only -35 (down dramatically from -5 last week). This
    is a major negative.
  • 100%  (same as last week) of the sectors are in the “penalty box,”
    showing an extremely high level of uncertainty and risk.
  • Our Index Package now has a very strong negative rating.

[For more on the penalty box see this article.  For more on the system ratings, you
can write to etf at newarc dot com for our free report package or to be
added to the (free) weekly email list.  You can also write personally to
me with questions or comments, and I’ll do my best to answer.]

For short-term accountswe were neutral.   We currently have no

The Week Ahead

The most important data by far will be the employment situation report on Friday.  Most observers are looking for a big number, but I have my doubts.  I will look to Tuesday’s ISM report as the last input for my model and do my regular forecast at mid-week.

Investment Implications

short-term trading, our three-week time horizon, the models indicate
that the uncertainty is just too great.  We have no positions.  This
position is a matter of daily review.

For long-term accounts,
there are still many attractive stocks.  This is especially true in technology
where the upgrade story is intact, and the stocks have declined in the
general panic.

I still expect a decline in volatility.  At some point the Europe story will be played out, and it will be back to the interpretation of economic data.  We are still two months away from the next earnings reports.

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  • Alex May 31, 2010  

    The real world knows that MSM is worthless! The MSM will steer you where the Obama administration wants you to look.

  • Mariusz Skonieczny May 31, 2010  

    Thanks for this post. The amount of volatility that we experienced in May was incredible. However, I am much more comfortable buying stocks now at these prices than I was a month ago. The panic is helping everyone to find good deals. I don’t think we are seeing a repeat of 2008, but I think we could see more market declines.

  • Mike C June 1, 2010  

    I would point you to this piece in the context of asking your opinion on the political outcome since you have mentioned that forecasting likely political action is something you have strong expertise in
    Here is the article from Barrons:
    Here are the pertinent excerpts:
    “But the boundaries of the old highs and the boundaries of the lows in the stock market and in the economy will be with us for a long time. If there were to be a decline in economic activity below the prior low, it would be intolerable, and central banks would print money again. The risk to that right now is that public sentiment has turned more negative about perceived bailouts. There is a lot of criticism about saving financial institutions and running a big budget deficit, but if the government didn’t do those things we would be in a terrible situation. It will be impossible to stimulate that way in the future because politically it is untenable. That’s a risk because, between now and 2012, the economy will probably go down again, and it will be important for monetary policy and fiscal policy to be able to be stimulative, and for the Federal Reserve to be able to purchase assets again.
    Indulge me for a moment, and let’s hypothesize that a 2nd leg down in the economy does materialize as Dalio believes (who incidentally has one hell of a track record).
    How does the politics play out? Can we see a repeat of late 2008/early 2009 in terms of fiscal stimulus and monetary policy where the government and Fed can pretty much do whatever is necessary to once again put the brakes on any deflationary spiral. Or have the political winds changed with some of the Tea Party rhetoric and some of the trends out there (New Jersey comes to mind)?

  • steveo June 1, 2010  

    I would agree this is not 2008. Now, there are no jobs being created. Millions have been thrown out of their houses, and they are mad. 48% of Americans say they are stressed with debt. Millions are underwater on their houses, maybe for a decade or more, there is no escape for the most part. USA has drastically increased it’s debt, without proportional changes in future competitiveness. In fact the “take away” from the reckless spending is that recklessness is rewarded or at least made whole. A complete lack of trust of business, finance, and government has been generated. Contract law is now regularly violated.
    So I agree, this is not 2008.