Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Gambler

Who knew Ben Bernanke was actually Bret Maverick?

Using its dual mandate – price stability and full employment – as a rationale (excuse!?) for unilateral action, the Bernanke Fed has embarked on a grand experiment hoping that the wealth effect on financial assets will somehow stimulate the deleveraging US consumer to suddenly reverse course, revert to form, and shop ‘til he/she drops. The Bernanke Fed also hopes that the US consumers’ primary asset –his/her home – will somehow overcome the foreclosure fiasco and miraculously increase in value thereby adding spending fuel to the wealth effect fire.

Finally, the Fed is hoping that its actions will encourage the banks and corporations to disgorge themselves from the mountain of cash they have been hording and start lending and hiring again.

The cumulative effect of this grand adventure is to hopefully enable the US economy to reach an economic escape velocity and enter into the self-reinforcing, sustainable virtuous circle thereby enabling the Fed to enter into its exit strategy.

In today’s Washington Post, Mr. Bernanke provided his audacity of hope with arguments that had so many holes in them as to resemble Swiss cheese. Here’s a few morsels with his comments in italics and mine beneath:

Easier financial conditions will promote economic growth.
By how much? And when?

For example, lower mortgage rates will make housing more affordable and allow more homeowners to refinance.
What about the large supply of unsold homes? What about the impact of the foreclosure fiasco?

Lower corporate bond rates will encourage investment.
Possibly, but where will that investment occur – in high cost/low growth markets like the US or in low cost/high growth markets like emerging markets?

And higher stock prices will boost consumer wealth and help increase confidence, which can also spur spending.
Unlikely without the support of the US consumers’ most important asset – the home. (see above noted point) Moreover, deleveraging to save for an uncertain future is a strong force for soon-to-retire baby boomers, who know that entitlement reform is in the offing.

Increased spending will lead to higher incomes and profits that, in a virtuous circle, will further support economic expansion.
Not if companies decide to invest elsewhere, as noted above. Also, small businesses, the driver of jobs growth, will wait to see demand before committing to new hires and higher wages.

The Federal Reserve cannot solve all the economy's problems on its own. That will take time and the combined efforts of many parties, including the central bank, Congress, the administration, regulators and the private sector.
Correct, but unlikely given the looming political gridlock environment ahead.

But the Federal Reserve has a particular obligation to help promote increased employment and sustain price stability.
And this provides the justification to act unilaterally – without the aforementioned other parties involved as well as the cooperation and coordination of other central banks and countries around the world?

Steps taken this week should help us fulfill that obligation.
How's that hopey, changey stuff goin' for ya?

Investment Strategy Implications

The music is playing and the actors are dancing, driven in large part by the underperforming and desperate momentum lemmings from hedge fund land. Valuation levels are now moving well above average (>15 times) anchored in solid corporate profits, low interest rates, very ample liquidity, and belief that the cyclical forces at work will overwhelm the unresolved secular structural issues.

It is imperative that investors remember this one point – just because a company was founded in the US, is domiciled in the US, and derives some of its profits and growth from the US doesn’t mean it has to rely on the US for its future growth and profitability. And therein lies the rub with Bernanke’s argument: will QE2 (then QE3, then QE4) provide strong economic growth and prosperity for the US? Or will it produce yet another bubble in assets and other markets (notably emerging economies) leaving the US economy in worse shape than when it started?

Ultimately, the all important asset allocation question is: To what extent should an investor participate in this monetary Mephisto Waltz? The answer I've come to is listed to your left.

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