Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Baby Steps

commentary from this week’s “Sectors and Styles Strategy Report”*:

Sunday evening’s US Treasury and Fed actions may seem bold to some. I beg to differ. Here are a few thoughts for your consideration:

A recent report from respected consultancy Bridgewater Associates upped the ante of banking losses to a whopping $1.6 trillion. In consideration of the fact that only ¼ of that number, $400 billion, has been write-off/down thus far was more than enough reason for investors to buy into the panicky feeling experienced these past weeks. For those who like I subscribe to Soros’ reflexivity thesis, the feedback loop to the real economy via a deleveraging contraction is the single most dangerous consequence of the credit crisis (even if the bank loss number is closer to IMF’s $945 billion figure).

As if that weren’t enough, the oil price crisis, with its worldwide inflationary consequences for all countries, is generating demand destruction in developed countries. Here, too, a feedback loop to developing countries presents yet another dangerous outcome to the world economy. Decoupling goes only so far.

These past few weeks, the twin negative forces are being manifested in fear among investors as the valuation inputs from declining earnings and high inflation are producing a dangerous cocktail of lower P/Es and declining earnings that may bring about a stock market decline befitting a super bear.

Investment Strategy Implications

Incrementalism is a product of a belief that what is in place will work. Yes, there may be pain but the tools at hand are the tools that will produce the good result in the end. In the case of the governmental powers that be, that belief is market fundamentalism. This is at the heart of the problem and difficulty in reaching sustainable financial and economic solutions. As long as the Treasury, the Fed, the Administration, and the Congress operate under the rules of market fundamentalism, the actions taken will be like baby steps (such as the Bear Stearns and now the Fannie and Freddie bailouts as well as the Term Facilities to commercial and investment banks) when more serious, more comprehensive, more activist solutions are required.

But let me not restate last Thursday’s blog posting and point to the general market consequences that declining earnings and high inflation will produce.

The following rather simple table provides the P/E levels investors might contemplate should earnings experience even a moderately bad decline from last year’s $82.54:

Does the market fully understand and anticipate such a scenario? I doubt it. More likely shorter-term factors are moving the markets as the dominance by momentum-playing hedge funds produce surges and plunges (mostly the latter of late). Nevertheless, the numbers noted in the above table must not be ignored as its outcome seems more likely the longer market fundamentalism ideology results in baby steps.

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