Pretend for a second that you recently retired with a decent amount of money in the bank, and all you have to do is generate a paltry 5% to live in comfort for the rest of your days. But lately that’s been easier said than done. Your money market fund yields less than 1%. Your bond funds are around 3% and your bank CDs are are down to half the rate of a couple of years ago. Stocks, meanwhile, are down over the past decade and way too volatile in any event. If you don’t find a way to generate that 5% you’ll have to start eating into capital, which screws up your plan, possibly leaving you with more life than money a decade hence.
Now pretend that you’re running a multi-billion dollar pension fund. You’ve promised the trustees a 7% return and they’ve calibrated contributions and payouts accordingly. But nothing in the investment-grade realm gets you anywhere near 7%. If you come up short, the plan’s recipients won’t get paid in a decade or – the ultimate horror – you’ll have to ask the folks paying in to contribute more, which means you’ll probably be scapegoated out of a job.
In either case, what do you do? Apparently you start buying junk bonds. According to Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, junk issuance is soaring as desperate investors snap up whatever paper promises to get them the yield they’ve come to depend on. Here’s an excerpt:
U.S. companies issued risky “junk” bonds at a record clip this week, taking advantage of keen investor appetite for returns amid declining interest rates and tepid stock markets.
The borrowing binge comes as the Federal Reserve keeps interest rates near zero and yields on U.S. government debt are near record lows. Those low rates have spread across a variety of markets, making it cheaper for companies with low credit ratings to borrow from investors.
Corporate borrowers with less than investment-grade ratings sold $15.4 billion in junk bonds this week, a record total for a single week, according to data provider Dealogic. The month-to-date total, $21.1 billion, is especially high for August, typically a quiet month that has seen an average of just $6.5 billion in issuance over the past decade.
Size matters. And it particularly matters when the size of the financial system grossly exceeds the productive capacity of the underlying economy. Then problems arise. Surplus capital flows into paper assets triggering a boom. Then speculators pile in, driving asset prices higher. Margins grow, debts balloon, and bubbles emerge. The frenzy finally ends when the debts can no longer be serviced and the bubble begins to crumple, sometimes violently. As gas escapes, credit tightens, businesses are forced to cut back, asset prices plunge and unemployment soars. Deflation spreads to every sector. Eventually, the government steps in to rescue the financial system while the broader economy slumps into a coma.
The crisis that started two years ago, followed this same pattern. A meltdown in subprime mortgages sent the dominoes tumbling; the secondary market collapsed, and stock markets went into freefall. When Lehman Bros flopped, a sharp correction turned into a full-blown panic. Lehman tipped-off investors that that the entire multi-trillion dollar market for securitized loans was built on sand. Without price discovery, via conventional market transactions, no one knew what mortgage-backed securities (MBS) and other exotic debt-instruments were really worth. That sparked a global sell-off. Markets crashed. For a while, it looked like the whole system might collapse.
The Fed’s emergency intervention pulled the system back from the brink, but at great cost. Even now, the true value of the so-called toxic assets remains unknown. The Fed and Treasury have derailed attempts to create a public auction facility--like the Resolution Trust Corporation (RTC)--where prices can be determined and assets can be sold. Billions in toxic waste now clog the Fed’s balance sheet. Ultimately, the losses will be passed on to the taxpayer.
Now that the economy is no longer on steroids, the financial system needs to be downsized. The housing/equities bubble was generated by over-consumption that required high levels of debt-spending. That model requires cheap money and easy access to credit, conditions no longer exist. The economy has reset at a lower level of economic activity, so changes need to be made. The financial system needs to shrink.
The problem is, the Fed’s "lending facilities" have removed any incentive for financial institutions to deleverage. Asset prices are propped up by low interest, rotating loans on dodgy collateral. While households have suffered huge losses (of nearly $14 trillion) in…
First, welcome to Michael Pettis. Michael is a professor at Peking University’s Guanghua School of Management, where he specializes in Chinese financial markets. He is also Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Second, this is an excellent article that provides insight into the thoughts of the Chinese people. – Ilene
Three weeks ago China Daily published a pretty funny article about a recent survey on credibility that had taken place in China. According to the article,
At a time when shamelessness is pervasive, we are often at loss as to who can be trusted. The five most trustworthy groups, according to a survey by the Research Center of the Xiaokang Magazine, are farmers, religious workers, sex workers, soldiers and students.
A list like this is at the same time surprising and embarrassing. The sex business is illegal and thus underground in this country. The sex workers’ unexpected prominence on this list of honor, based on an online poll of more than 3,000 people, is indeed unusual.
It took the pollsters aback that people like scientists and teachers were ranked way below, and government functionaries, too, scored hardly better. Yet given the constant feed of scandals involving the country’s elite, this is not bad at all. At least they have not slid into the least credible category, which consists of real estate developers, secretaries, agents, entertainers and directors.
I am not sure what secretaries have done to get themselves such poor rankings (could they mean party secretaries?), and I am not sure what kind of directors they mean (movie directors? managing directors?) but not everyone found this survey funny. Last week a columnist in the People’s Daily had this to say about the same survey:
In recent years, China has already paid a high price for the prevailing credibility crisis. The annual losses caused by bad debts have reportedly amounted to about 180 billion yuan, and the direct economic losses induced by contract fraud each year is also up to 5.5 billion yuan. Besides, shoddy and fake products contribute to another great loss involving at least 200 billion yuan. Generally, credibility crisis would cost China as much as 600 billion…
The exceptional market conditions of the last couple of years are a reminder that we should regard stable markets as a pleasant interlude rather than the normal state of affairs. In general, of course, people tend to expect tomorrow to be much the same as yesterday and to behave as such. It’s little wonder, then, that when everything goes wrong people start to panic, assuming the world is coming to an end.
Of course, so far, the world hasn’t come to an end – although a lot of people have lost lots of money in the meantime. What we can see from history is not that market panics are exceptional but that they’re the norm.
Kindleberger on Economic History
Every investor should read and re-read Charles Kindleberger’s seminal “Manias, Panics and Crashes’ which details the course of market disasters over a near three hundred year period. Kindleberger was an economist of a different hue to many we’ve met before: an economic historian who relied not on mathematical models – about which he was enjoyably and pointedly vague – but on historical incident and anecdote. At the very least, he argued, the various competing economic schools have to explain the happenings of the markets rather than either ignoring them, or simply claiming that they shouldn’t happen so they’re going to stick their fingers in their ears and go “tra-la-la” until they go away.
Underpinning the concept is a simple idea – people are irrational, they do the irrational things which it suits them to do and the consequences are often very nasty. What he set out to show was that the mental behaviour of market participants that we’ve recently witnessed is a perfectly normal state of affairs. Indeed, based on the historical records one ends up wondering how anything ever works at all in the markets. Everything going wrong is what happens, all the time, it seems.
The Fallacy Of Composition
However, it’s not simple irrationality that drives the market. Underlying this is a sneaky human behavioural failing known as the fallacy of composition – a trait that sees every individual acting in their own self interests yet, at the same time, acting in a
This is a non-trading topic, but I wanted to post it during trading hours so as many eyes can see it as possible. Feel free to contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions.
Last fall there was some discussion on the PSW board regarding setting up a YouCaring donation page for a PSW member, Shadowfax. Since then, we have been looking into ways to help get him additional medical services and to pay down his medical debts. After following those leads, we are ready to move ahead with the YouCaring site. (Link is posted below.) Any help you can give will be greatly appreciated; not only to help aid in his medical bill debt, but to also show what a great community this group is.
Sellers were going to make an appearance at some point and today was the day they paid a visit. Whether a larger pullback emerges will depend on events over the coming days, but today's selling did emerge at some natural attack points for shorts.
The S&P finished with a 'bearish cloud cover,' but it did manage to hold declining resistance turned support, and the 20-day MA has entered the fray as an area for bears to work. But this wasn't the most bearish of the indices, and today's finish actually gives bulls a long play tomorrow (for a bounce off support). Technicals also suggest a bounce.
While the S&P may give bulls something tomorrow, th...
There is lots of action in Southwest Airlines Co. November expiry call options today ahead of the air carrier’s third-quarter earnings report prior to the opening bell on Thursday. Among the large block trades initiated throughout the trading session, there appears to be at least one options market participant establishing a call spread in far out of the money options. It looks like the trader purchased a 4,000-lot Nov 37/39 call spread at a net premium of $0.40 apiece. The trade makes money if shares in Southwest rally 9.0% over the current price of $34.32 to exceed the effective breakeven point at $37.40, with maximum potential profits of $1.60 per contract available in the event that shares jump more than 13% to $39.00 by expiration. In September, the stock tou...
When forecasting investment returns, many individuals make the mistake of simply extrapolating recent returns into the future. Bull markets lead investors to expect higher future returns, and bear markets lead them to expected lower future returns. But the price you pay for an asset also has a great impact on future returns. Consider the following evidence:
The average historical P/E ratio for the market has been around 15. A study covering the period from 1926 through the second quarter of 1999 found that an investor buying stocks when the market traded at P/E ratios of between 14 and 16 e...
Last week brought even more stock market weakness and volatility as the selloff became self-perpetuating, with nobody mid-day on Wednesday wanting to be the last guy left holding equities. Hedge funds and other weak holders exacerbated the situation. But the extreme volatility and panic selling finally led some bulls (along with many corporate insiders) to summon a little backbone and buy into weakness, and the market finished the week on a high note, with continued momentum likely into the first part of this week.
Despite concerns about global economic growth and a persistent lack of inflation, especially given all the global quantitative easing, fundamentals for U.S. stocks still look good, and I believe this overdue correction ultimately will shape up to be a great buying opportunity -- i.e., th...
Now that bitcoin has subsided from speculative bubble to functioning currency (see the price chart below), it’s safe for non-speculators to explore the whole “cryptocurrency” thing. So…is bitcoin or one of its growing list of competitors a useful addition to the average person’s array of bank accounts and credit cards — or is it a replacement for most of those things? And how does one make this transition?
With his usual excellent timing, London-based financial writer/actor/stand-up comic Dominic Frisby has just released Bitcoin: The Future of Money? in which he explains all this in terms most readers will have no tr...
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What do falling energy prices mean for the US consumer? Sober Look writes a brief yet thorough overview of the consequences of the correction in the price of crude oil. There are good aspects, particularly for the consumer, bad aspects, and out-right ugly possibilities. For more on this subject, read James Hamilton's How will Saudi Arabia respond to lower oil prices? In previous eras, Saudi Arabia would tighten the supply to help increase prices, but in this "game of chicken," the rules m...
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Well PSW Subscribers....I am still here, barely. From my last post a few months ago to now, nothing has changed much, but there are a few bargins out there that as investors, should be put on the watch list (again) and if so desired....buy a small amount.
First, the media is on a tear against biotechs/pharma, ripping companies for their drug prices. Gilead's HepC drug, Sovaldi, is priced at $84K for the 12-week treatment. Pundits were screaming bloody murder that it was a total rip off, but when one investigates the other drugs out there, and the consequences of not taking Sovaldi vs. another drug combinations, then things become clearer. For instance, Olysio (JNJ) is about $66,000 for a 12-week treatment, but is approved for fewer types of patients AND...
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