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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Wednesday, June 11, 2014 - Nowhere to Hide

Financial Review with Sinclair Noe

DOW – 102 = 16,843
SPX – 6 = 1943
NAS – 6 = 4331
10 YR YLD + .01 = 2.64%
OIL + .14 = 104.49
GOLD + .70 = 1261.60
SILV un = 19.30

The US posted a $130 billion budget deficit in May and the smallest shortfall for the first eight months of a fiscal year since 2008. The deficit last month was about $9 billion less than May of last year. For the fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, the government is running a budget deficit 30% smaller than it was a year earlier; or about $436 billion compared with $626 billion. Revenues for that period are 7% higher than a year earlier and outlays are 2% lower.

The Congressional Budget Office in April projected that the federal deficit will decline to $492 billion this fiscal year, the smallest in six years; down from $680 billion in 2013 and down from a record $1.4 trillion in January 2009. The CBO estimates that next year, the shortfall will decline further, to $469 billion. The 2014 deficit will be 2.8% of gross domestic product, compared with 4.1% of GDP in 2013.

The World Bank has cut its global growth forecast, predicting the world economy will grow 2.8% this year, below its previous forecast of 3.2% made in January. In its twice-yearly Global Economic Prospects report, the World Bank said tensions between Ukraine and Russia hit confidence worldwide.

The bank also cut its growth forecast for the United States to 2.1% from 2.8%, citing the bad weather at the start of the year that resulted in economic contraction in the first quarter. The good news is that the lower forecast is largely a result of things that have already happened, and the US economy appears to be rebounding.

The World Bank expects growth to quicken later this year as richer economies continue their recovery. It kept its global growth forecasts for the next two years unchanged at 3.4% and 3.5%, respectively. Provided the problems in Ukraine don’t get worse, or something else nasty doesn’t pop up.

In Ukraine, government forces and rebels claiming allegiance to Russia continue to clash in the east of the country. In Brussels today, the European Union served as broker for talks between Ukraine and Russia over future natural gas deliveries. Russia offered to supply gas for about 20% below the current price if Ukraine would settle its outstanding debts; Ukraine rejected that deal.

Maybe the World Bank is looking for trouble in the wrong place. Sunni rebels from an al Qaeda splinter group overran the Iraqi city of Tikrit; you remember Tikrit is Saddam’s hometown. The other day, the rebels captured Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq; now they’re closing in on the biggest oil refinery in the country.

The point is, we don’t know where the next black swan event will occur. Maybe an app will backfire.

Yesterday we told you about Uber, the ride-sharing app; now valued at $18 billion. Today, Uber brought the city of London to its knees. Actually, taxi drivers protesting Uber got fed up and parked their taxis on the streets, and London town suffered a massive case of gridlock. In Paris, taxis slowed traffic on major arteries into the city during the morning commute. Hundreds choked the main road to Berlin's historic center while commuters packed buses and trains, or just walked, to get to work in Madrid and Barcelona. Taxi drivers across Europe say Uber breaks local taxi rules, violates licensing and safety regulations and its drivers fail to comply with local insurance rules.

Mohamed El-Erian is the chief economic adviser at Allianz and the former co-chief investment officer of Pimco, and he says “investors might be surprised to learn that they have a lot riding on something that they pay very little attention to: macro-prudential regulation, or what central banks and other government agencies do to reduce the risk of systemic financial disasters.

“The aim of such regulation is to lower both the probability and potential costs of financial accidents. It does so by enhancing the resilience of the system, establishing circuit breakers to prevent problems in one area from contaminating others and, at the extreme, containing the detrimental impact on the broader economy when failures occur.

“Authorities around the world have imposed higher and more intelligent capital requirements, required financial institutions to value their assets more conservatively and to hold more easy-to-sell assets, placed constraints on allowable risk-taking, insisted on more stable funding, and demanded greater provisions against bad loans.

“The impact of the revamped regulation has gone far beyond the targeted banks and other financial companies. It has allowed central banks to be bolder in maintaining and evolving exceptional monetary and credit stimulus, which in turn has significantly bolstered the prices of stocks, bonds and other assets as a means of stimulating the economy.”

In other words, the Fed has pumped up financial assets in the hope it will trickle down to the rest of the economy and jumpstart consumer spending and jobs and wages and such. But what if the economic recovery doesn’t follow on the heels of the pumped up financial assets? This is the lasting question for investors. What to do when the prices of assets rise above what history and fundamentals warrant?

If you think that prices are too low, you can buy. But if you think prices are too high, what should you do?  One option is to sell short; borrow the security whose price you believe to be inflated, sell it and wait for the price to fall, then buy it back at a lower price and pocket the difference. That is a very dangerous move when the markets are trading at record highs. You might pick the exact top or prices may move higher for a while, and the markets can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent.

Policymakers face a similar asymmetry.  It’s true that for a central bank, liquidity isn’t tied to solvency, so experiencing temporary losses is more a political than an economic or operational concern, but losses still matter. Central bankers can play with the value of a currency, making moves to keep a currency from falling or appreciating; happens all the time.

Sometimes policymakers are trapped in the box that they built. It is precisely investors’ belief in the commitment of policymakers that makes them willing to view some very risky investments so casually. However, when many such investments are made over an extended period without adequate compensation for risk, sharp investors expect a round of bubble trouble on the horizon.

One of the funny things that tends to happen in times like this is that investors rush into areas they think should be safe, looking for a place to hide. Largely ignored during much of last year's 30% rally in the S&P 500 Index, the stocks leading the US market this year rank among its usually sleepiest components.

The best sector in 2014 is utilities, including Consolidated Edison, about as staid a group as one can get. They're up 14.5% on a total return basis this year, compared with 6.4% for the S&P 500 as a whole.

What's happening is the opposite of what ordinarily happens in a moving market. It relates to an investing concept known as "beta," which refers to the amount of risk a particular stock adds to a portfolio. Stocks that tend to rise or fall with the market – but in a more pronounced way – are called "high beta." They generally outperform in up markets and fall the most in down markets.

Best Buy and Priceline, two discretionary stocks that were among the S&P's strongest in 2013, are good examples because their sales and profits rise along with the economy, and they led the way last year. This year, those stocks are lagging the more boring "low beta" stocks – those that tend to move less dramatically than the market. It's a signal that investors are worried about earnings growth and U.S. economic demand, and don't want to bet as heavily on the types of stocks that generally qualify as high beta – often cyclical names in the technology, discretionary and energy sectors.

To be sure, this may change if growth picks up, but after US GDP contracted in the first quarter for the first time in three years, investors are cautious. People are still scared. They're still more worried about protecting to the downside than accentuating the upside. That's helped drive equities' rotation into the more defensive, high-dividend paying names, also typically part of the low-beta camp.

So far this year, the 50 stocks in the S&P 500 with the lowest beta scores, a group that includes ConEd and McDonald's, are up on average by 12%. Meanwhile, the 50 highest beta stocks, which include Citigroup and Best Buy, are up an average of 7%. In 2013, the 50 highest-beta S&P 500 stocks rose an average of 51.4%, compared with 21.3% for the 50 lowest-beta stocks.

Investors who have pursued the high-beta contingent have suffered. Among them are hedge funds, which kept a heavy exposure to momentum-type names and the "beta" strategy. Hedge funds now have 3.8 times more net cyclical exposure to defensive stocks. In January, that measure was 4.7 times - bets that went sour as the market corrected through the first quarter. Once that trade began to break, that also accelerated a rotation back into more value-oriented names and sectors. So, what happens when these defensive plays get overvalued? I’m not saying it has happened; today was just one day after a string of record highs. I’m just posing the question.

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