1/2/2013 9:45 PM ET|
An epic bear market is coming
Evidence is mounting that stocks could fall to 2011 lows -- or worse. Such a drop would be worth at least 21% from here.
Forget the New Year's celebration and optimism. Shake off the holiday cheer. Ignore the euphoria over the fiscal cliff deal. There is pain coming in 2013 for pretty much everyone, especially investors.
In fact, we could be on the cusp of a powerful new bear market in stocks. The more I review the data and examine the year-ahead research, the more worried I become. Over the past two weeks, I've sketched out why a new recession looms (see "Welcome to the new recession") as well as why it could prove to be a great buying opportunity for the long term (see "A happy new year -- eventually"), in an effort to dull the pain of what's coming.
But first, we've got to trudge through the muck. And the evidence suggests that both Wall Street insiders and Main Street everymen are beginning to position themselves for the pain.
A recent piece by The Associated Press provides the basic outline: Average Americans have lost faith in equities and have consistently been selling into strength over the past few years, something that hasn't happened since records started at the end of World War II. Since early 2007, the AP calculates, $380 billion has been pulled out of the market, equivalent to all the money put in between 2002 and 2007. The new craze has been in bonds, a perceived safe haven that has attracted more than $1 trillion since 2007.
I can't say I blame those investors.
Wall Streeters are pulling out, too. Major banks' short-term Treasury bond holdings have surged since 2011's credit-rating downgrade and the subsequent market meltdown. Over the past few weeks, total holdings have climbed to a record, according to Federal Reserve data.
This is the equivalent of hunkering down in a bomb shelter.
Exodus in action
Stocks are unattractive because the economy is unattractive. Deep, structural problems remain unresolved, discouraging fresh money from coming into stocks.
Middle-class households are still struggling with stagnant wages, higher prices for food and fuel, higher medical costs and, now, rising rents. Young adults are on the same tragic trajectory as Japan's lost generation, as economic turmoil is poised to do lasting damage to their lifetime earnings. These folks are having trouble moving out of Mom's house and paying their student loan debt, let alone investing a meaningful portion of their income in equities.
At the same time, boomers are starting to pull money out of stocks as they approach retirement, shifting to bonds and cash in a big way.
The result has been a drop in NYSE market volume to levels not seen since 1998.
The thinning has been accompanied by other, related trends: the rise of predatory computer trading algorithms, hedge fund insider-trading shenanigans and cross-asset correlations. For most people, the playing field is not level, and portfolio diversification does not offer the safety it once did. Plus, the heavy hitters now actively play against the little guys, using strategies with names like "momentum ignition" and "quote stuffing."
All this has investors throwing their hands up in disgust. Add in the economic head winds starting to develop -- from corporate profit margin pressure (slowing top line growth and an already streamlined cost structure) to fiscal austerity by rich-world governments (even a best-case bipartisan resolution to the looming debt ceiling fight would see taxes go up further and spending fall) to new recessions in Japan and Europe -- and we're in the early stages of an outright exodus.
Stepping back, this decline in NYSE volume reverses an uptrend that began in the late 1940s -- which itself marked the end of the Great Depression malaise.
Put another way, this is no ordinary market. And traditional rules based on the multigenerational performance of the stock market don't apply -- including the belief that retail investor flows are a contrary indicator worth betting against.
What's worse is that if the market drops out of the sky next year, it's hard to see any near-term positives breaking the fall.
Households remain under intense pressure, with the job market stalled and home prices well off their highs. The government and the Federal Reserve have already made exhaustive efforts to solve the problem, as have their overseas equivalents. We've done stimulus fueled by debt and deficit. We've done currency debasement and ultracheap money. Not much is left, as the new leadership in Tokyo tasked with ending Japan's long debt-depression death spiral is about to realize.
Although I mentioned a few positives last week (strong corporate balance sheets and excess liquidity, mainly) the path out of this is tricky and strewn with dangers.
There is the risk of political unrest (witness Greece's violent protests) and gridlock. There is the risk of an outright global currency war as all the major economies try the currency-devaluation trick in a simultaneous push to boost exports -- a war the Brazilians claim to be winning. There is a risk of credit-rating downgrades on a lack of deficit reduction -- which Moody's warned of last week. And there is the risk of a bloody end to the stalemates in the Middle East, with flare-ups possible on the Israeli-Iran, Israeli-Arab and Sunni-Shia fronts.
And the bond market is looking risky as well. As I explained two weeks ago, people are overpaying for the "safety" offered by corporate bonds, ignoring the risk of default or a rise in interest rates. With rates so low, exposure to these risks -- and the potential losses from them -- is much higher than many realize.
(Bond traders are already familiar with this concept, known as "duration," that results in steeper losses on small increases in interest rates. Lower overall interest rates, all else equal, will increase duration and therefore exposure to losses.)
From a purely technical perspective, warning signs abound that the current bull market is on its last legs.
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There is a lot going on right now, and it all has to be dealt with at some point:
- Taxing the rich more, although we are at historical levels of income inequality, doesn't solve the problem. Spending is our problem, not that we don't get enough in taxes. The Constitution is written to protect the people from the Government. The Founding Fathers were right to fear Government. And how does Government become more powerful? They take and spend more and more of our money. People continue to be complacent and give up freedom in order for our inefficient government to deliver more services to us.
-The Fed is debasing our dollar. Sure, it injects liquidity into the market, which can be good at times. However, what happens when we have to tighten monetary policy? Here's an analogy: Ever plug your toilet? Sometimes you can get it to flush simply by holding the lever down and letting more and more water rush in. That's what Ben B is doing. However, there's only so much water a toilet can hold, so if it doesn't get things moving quickly you shouldn't keep putting more water in.
- The Fed's injections of money have caused commodities to go up, causing stagnant workers' wages to buy less and less of what we use to heat our homes and feed our families. The Fed claims this is to stave off deflation. Well deflation is a necessary market mechanic. Our wages have been stagnant, or reducing, so should prices of the items we buy with those wages. Wages and prices should, somewhat, correlate in a macro sense. When the fed artificially supports commodity pricing like this, there is no correction to the prices of those commodities to coincide with lower wages. What happens when the economy comes back? Prices continue going up widening the gap between wages and prices.
- Corporations don't want to do business in America because our tax rate is too high. We need the jobs. Lower the rate absurdly low. Get businesses and jobs back here. Broaden the base and reduce the tax deductions (loopholes) to nothing. Don't blame Corporations for moving jobs oversees when that's where they can get a better margin. Give them a better margin here. Don't blame water for taking the path of least resistance, it isn't going to flow uphill.
We need intelligent people setting up a system where there is a lot of opportunity to succeed. Too bad the rhetoric, on both sides, makes it difficult to sift through to what is really happening. Everything is a spin.
During the big crash the S+P 500 fell to 665, it is now up over 100% from that low point. This fact alone should tell you something.
If congress and the president would actually accomplish something like the Domenici-Rivlin Bi-partisan groups work, big corporations could plan for the future and invest some of their giant cash reserves and those of us who save for the future would be willing to invest in a market that would be predictable with the giant US debt finally starting to be brought under control. The speaker of the house said it right... it's time that the leaders of the United States got to work and make a comprehensive solution. Avoiding the cliff and finding congress stuffed billions of pork into the emergency bill just showed the public, they're not working for the good of the people, they've been working for the good of the lobbyists and the huge donations to their campaign chests.
Until the government starts taxing high frequency traders at say 1% for every trade over one per minute and enforcing a level playing field for small investors nothing will change.
Long gone are the days when how a company performed matter, now it's all about how the very people who caused the 2008 meltdown want the stock to perform! They have trillions to spend to force companies to do what they want.
The fact is most people in this Country do not want to accept the reality of our fiscal problems....they have been conditioned to believe debt does not imply responsibility. The Fed will continue to mask the problem and the dollar will lose value.....
People that depend on Government Handouts don't care....people that work, save and invest will care.....soooo, it looks like the responsible people will have to bear the burden for now.....peoples vote or lack of it has consequences.
When it all turns to, I can't get my freeride...help!, we will correct the problem...Conservative America will show them the way.....yep.
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