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Is The Recession Over? Donít Bet On It

FORECASTS & TRENDS E-LETTER
by Gary D. Halbert
August 18, 2009

IN THIS ISSUE:

1.  Economic Signs of Improvement

2.  Fed Vows to Keep Rates Low

3.  Market Comments from John P. Hussman, Ph.D.

4.  Conclusions

Introduction

We have seen some encouraging economic news in recent weeks, and President Obama and his cronies in the mainstream media have declared that the worst recession in post-war history is all but over.  The advance estimate of 2Q GDP was down considerably less than expected (-1.0%); the unemployment rate actually fell slightly in July to 9.4%; and the ISM manufacturing index posted a nice improvement last month.

While these reports were better than expected, and continue to suggest that the worst of the recession is behind us (as I have suggested often in recent weeks), this economy is far from out of the woods yet.  Growth prospects continue to look muted, although a growing number of forecasters are suggesting that GDP will register a positive number in the 3Q due largely to the rebuilding of inventories, as I discussed in my August 4 E-Letter.

This week, we will look at the latest economic reports, as well as the Federal Reserve’s latest decision on interest rates and purchases of Treasury securities.  Also, the Fed says it will end its record large purchases of government agency debt in October.  If indeed this happens, it will be the first step in ending the Fed’s massive stimulus spending.

Next, so that we don’t all get caught up in the latest hype that the recession is over, I will reprint excerpts from a recent Weekly Market Comment written by John P. Hussman, Ph.D.  Dr. Hussman is best known as the president of Hussman Investment Trust, and he manages the Hussman Strategic Growth and Hussman Strategic Total Return Funds, which are actively managed and can go to cash in bear markets.

Dr. Hussman’s latest analysis is consistent with the view many of us have that the recession, while improving in some areas, is not over yet, and that the ensuing economic recovery over the next year or longer will be disappointing – even if there is a bump up in the 3Q.  All of this should make for interesting reading, so let’s get started.

Economic Signs of Improvement

Over the last several weeks, we’ve seen some encouraging economic reports.  In some cases, “encouraging” simply means that the reports weren’t as negative as expected.  That was certainly the case with the advance 2Q GDP estimate at the end of June, which showed a decline of only 1% (annual rate) versus pre-report estimates which were considerably worse.  Some analysts expect that number to be revised downward somewhat when the second estimate is released later this month.

On the manufacturing front, the ISM Index rose more than expected in July to 48.9, up from 44.8 a month earlier.  Industrial production rose 0.5% in July, and construction spending and the factory operating rate both rose modestly last month as well.  These are all signs that the recession may be leveling out.

On Thursday of this week, we get the latest Index of Leading Economic Indicators (LEI) for July, and the pre-report consensus is for a rise of 0.6%, following +0.7% in June.  If the LEI is up for July, that will mean the fourth consecutive monthly increase.  That would be very encouraging and a sign that we will likely be out of this recession by the end of the year.

The US unemployment rate unexpectedly dropped from 9.5% in June to 9.4% in July, as employers slashed 247,000 jobs, the slowest rate of decline in nearly a year.  This news temporarily sent stocks to their highest level of the year since the pre-report consensus was for a rise to 9.6%

However, the July decline in the jobless rate came about not because more people had jobs, but because almost 800,000 “discouraged workers” - people who have essentially given up on looking for a job - were not counted as unemployed, thereby allowing the official unemployment rate to fall modestly in the latest jobs report. The number of long-term unemployed people - those who have been out of a job but looking for more than 26 weeks - rose by another 584,000.  Thus, it appears we are still headed for 10% employment before this cycle reverses.

Despite the still troubled employment situation, investors welcomed the reports above, and more and more forecasters have apparently decided that the recession is over.  I continue to believe that we are still at least a few months from concluding that the recession has ended.  The Consumer Confidence Index fell for the second month in a row in July, and retails sales were down slightly last month.  Therefore, it is premature to declare that the recession is over.

Fed Vows to Keep Rates Low

To no one’s surprise, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) announced last Wednesday that it will continue its policy of keeping interest rates at their historically low levels.  The FOMC also maintained its position that interest rates could remain historically low for an “extended period of time.”  In other words, the floodgates of liquidity are still wide open.

About the only new revelation was that the Fed announced that it will stop buying long-term Treasuries in October of this year.  This could be the ultimate case of good news/bad news, in that it’s good that the Fed may no longer be printing money to buy Treasuries, but bad in that these securities will soon have to compete in the open market, and this could lead to higher interest rates.  Remember that this is why the Fed committed to start buying Treasuries in the first place.

However, the Fed’s printing press will not be idle as it said it will continue to purchase up to $1.25 trillion in agency mortgage-backed securities and other agency debt from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.  The Fed’s hope here is to keep a lid on mortgage rates in an effort to stimulate the housing market.

From an economic standpoint, the latest FOMC statement notes that US economic activity is “leveling out,” meaning that the rate of descent has slowed.  However, this simply means that the recession may not get deeper.  The Fed’s prospects for recovery, however, were modest, at best.  The Fed expects economic activity to remain weak “for a time” (whatever that means) and a return to sustainable economic growth is likely to be gradual.

Market Comments from John P. Hussman, Ph.D.

Dr. John Hussmanis best known as the president of Hussman Investment Trust (a mutual fund family), and he manages the Hussman Strategic Growth and Hussman Strategic Total Return Funds.  Dr. Hussman is also the chairman, president and controlling shareholder of Hussman Econometrics Advisors, Inc. which has published his Weekly Market Comment letters for years, and they always have some interesting points about the economy, the markets, etc.

As a mutual fund manager, Dr. Hussman is somewhat unique in that he not only actively seeks the best opportunities in the stock market, but will also move to neutral positions in his funds during market downturns.  In other words, the investment strategies he employs are similar to those used by the active money managers my firm recommends.

The following excerpts are from Dr. Hussman’s August 10, 2009 Weekly Market Comment. [Note that we have removed discussions about specific funds where possible.] Pay particular attention to Dr. Hussman’s outlook for the economy.

QUOTE:

The U.S. economy lost a quarter of a million jobs in July. Meanwhile, over 400,000 workers abandoned the labor force (and are therefore no longer counted among the unemployed), which prompted a slight decline in the unemployment rate despite the job losses. In the context of an economy still strained by high levels of consumer debt and still record delinquency and foreclosure rates, labor market conditions are still troublesome. Still, the pace of job losses and new unemployment claims has clearly softened from the pace we observed early in the year.

If we knew that this was a standard economic downturn, we might conclude that the recent improvements are durable. However, nothing convinces us that this is a standard economic downturn. As for market action, the major indices have generally been strong, as has breadth (as measured by advances versus declines), but the “investor sponsorship” evident from trading volume has been uncharacteristically dismal compared with initial advances of past bull markets. So here too, we have very strong concerns that the recent advance may not be as durable as investors appear to believe.

All of that said, we aren't inclined to fight even what we view as errant analysis, and the Strategic Growth Fund has about 1% of assets allocated to near-the-money index call options – about enough to gradually close down about 40% of our hedge in the event that the market advances markedly higher from here, but without putting us at risk of much loss in the event of failure. With investors now anticipating and pricing in a sustained economic recovery, as well as a spectacular earnings rebound, a lot of things will have to go right from here in order to sustain higher prices than we currently observe.

Frankly, our call option allocation here is something of a paean to a notion – a sustained economic recovery and new bull market – that I have no belief in whatsoever. But at this point, the broad strength in the major indices, even lacking volume sponsorship or favorable valuation, requires that we allow for the possibility of additional investor speculation. Even if we do observe such an outcome, it's difficult to envision that the S&P 500 will clear the 1000 level for all time, without revisiting it again in the months (not to mention years) ahead. To the extent that we don't clear 1000 permanently, establishing investment exposure here with anything but call options amounts to a game of trying to “ride” the market higher and to get out before it returns to or below current levels. With the market strenuously overbought already, that game strikes me as exquisitely difficult to get right. Hence the use of a modest allocation to call options only, without closing our downside hedges.

Call me skeptical. But if you look carefully at the economic data that shows improvement, and correct for the impact of government outlays, it is difficult to find anything but continued deterioration in private demand and investment. What we do see is a government that has run what is now a trillion dollar deficit year-to-date, representing some 7% of GDP. That sort of tab will undoubtedly buy some amount of Cool-Aid, but it has been something of a disappointment to watch how eagerly investors have guzzled it down. It is not at all clear that short-term, deficit-financed improvement necessarily implies sustained growth in the context of a deleveraging cycle. This is like somebody borrowing money from their Uncle and then celebrating that their income has gone up.

Moreover, it might be enticing to look at a chart of the S&P 500 and envision a quick return to 2007 highs and beyond, but it is important to recognize that those highs were based on profit margins about 50% above historical norms, combined with an elevated P/E multiple of about 19 against those earnings. Even if the economy is poised for a sustained recovery here, the belief that those joint outliers will be quickly re-established goes against historical precedent.

In any event, we've got some call option coverage to gradually allow participation if this run continues.

Post-Crash Dynamics

When markets crashes are coupled with changes in the fundamentals that supported the preceding bubble – as we observed in the post-1929 market, the gold market of the 1980's, and the post-1990 Japanese market, and currently observe in the deflation of the recent debt bubble – they typically do not recover quickly. Indeed, the hallmark of these post-crash markets is the very extended sideways adjustment that they experience, generally for many years.

The chart below updates the position of the S&P 500 (red line) in the context of other post-crash bubbles. The horizontal axis is measured in months. Note that very strong and extended interim advances have been part and parcel of similar experiences.

The intent here is not to argue that the U.S. stock market must by necessity follow the same extended adjustment that followed prior burst bubbles. Rather, the intent is to underscore that it is dangerous to infer that structural difficulties have vanished simply because a market enjoys a strong post-crash advance.

My friend James Montier at SocGen draws a similar pattern from a larger historical collection of post-crash bubbles - including the above instances, as well as others such as the South Sea Bubble and the Railroad Bubble of the 1840's. The underlying theme is that the adjustment period following the bursting of a bubble tends to be very extended.

I understand the eagerness of investors to put the entire credit crisis behind them and look ahead to a recovery of the prior highs, but these hopes are based on the assumption that a positive boost to GDP, once achieved, will propagate into a full-fledged recovery. Again, however, no economic improvement is evident in the behavior of consumer demand and capital spending, once you adjust for the impact of government spending (particularly transfer payments).

Yes, we have observed a massive reallocation of global resources from savers (who have bought newly issued Treasury debt) toward mismanaged financial institutions that made bad loans. Yes, there are certainly favorable short-run economic numbers that can be achieved by running a year-to-date federal deficit equal to seven percent of the U.S. economy. The problem is that this money does not come from nowhere. We have effectively sold an identical ownership claim on our future production to those individuals and foreign governments who bought the Treasuries. Government “stimulus” is not free money. The continued attempt to bail out bad loans with good resources (largely foreign savings) will end up costing our nation some of our most productive assets, which will be acquired by foreign countries and investors for years to come.

From my perspective, investors have gotten entirely too far ahead of themselves with the assumption of a sustained recovery. Nevertheless, we again have about 1% of assets in index call options to allow for further market strength if it emerges. I expect that if they move “in the money,” we will leave their strike prices unchanged unless market internals deteriorate measurably. Leaving our call option strikes fixed would open us up to losing on any subsequent downturn whatever we make on a further advance, but again, our opening exposure is fairly limited. We'll let the market put us into a more constructive position if investors are inclined to continue their exuberance here. [Emphasis added, GDH.]

Market Climate

As of last week, the Market Climate for stocks was characterized by unfavorable valuation and mixed market action, but enough evidence of speculation (reasonable or not) to own about 1% of assets in index call options. We are otherwise hedged.

During earnings season, there are often days where most of the performance of the Fund is driven by significant movement in a small handful of Fund holdings. These movements can be positive or negative, and may cause the Fund to move differently than one would expect that the Fund “should” move based on our investment position, and on what the market did on a particular day. As I've frequently noted, short-term movements, particularly day-to-day, are not effective indicators of the Fund's investment position, or predictors of Fund performance. Performance is always best measured from the peak of one market cycle to the peak of the next, or over an extended period of years representing neither a peak-to-trough nor trough-to-peak movement in the market.

Based on our standard methodology, which considers normalized earnings (not the far more depressed level of current earnings) the S&P 500 is now priced to deliver 10-year total returns in the area of 6.9% annually. This is a figure that has historically been associated with bull market peaks, including 1969 and 1987. In most instances, such valuations turned out badly in reasonably short order. It is, however, true that prospective returns were even worse prior to the 1929 crash, and during the bulk of the period since 1996, so there have been some historical periods where speculators have driven valuations to higher levels, and during these times, it has not been particularly effective to stand in front of speculators saying ‘no, stop, don't.’ [Emphasis added, GDH.]

Ultimately, all of those periods where valuations were driven to higher levels were followed by poor long-term returns, with stocks generally trading at lower levels at some point one or more years later. So we can say with a reasonable degree of confidence that even if the present advance continues, investors will most likely observe current levels again either within the current market cycle or (worse) several years out. Overvalued markets simply do not “run away” for good. Still, it can be painful or at least unenjoyable to remain defensive during a speculative advance.

In bonds, the Market Climate last week was characterized by relatively neutral yield levels and moderately unfavorable yield pressures. As usual, we will tend to increase our bond durations on spikes in yield (weakness in bond prices), and these are becoming more interesting – though not strongly attractive. Our most recent extension of durations was in the 3.9%-4% area for 10-year Treasuries, and a push materially above that level would represent enough of a yield pickup to move a modest amount of short-maturity Treasury allocations into mid-maturities. As I've noted in recent weeks, we don't anticipate much in the way of extended directional movement in the bond market, so most of our portfolio activity will probably tend to be modest reallocations in response to yield fluctuations. At the point where we observe either fresh inflation pressure or general declines in Treasury yields (i.e. general downward pressure on real interest rates), I expect that we'll observe fresh pressure on the U.S. dollar and upward pressure on precious metals shares. For now, those markets are likely to be somewhat range-bound as well.

We've got an extended economic adjustment ahead. Most probably far longer than most investors presently expect. As always, we'll take our opportunities as the evidence emerges, with the objective of outperforming our respective benchmarks over the complete market cycle, and an additional emphasis on defending capital over the course of that cycle. [Emphasis added, GDH.]

END QUOTE

Conclusions

While we have seen some encouraging economic reports over the last few weeks, it is premature to declare that the recession has ended.  As discussed above, the unemployment rate is very likely to rise even higher before this cycle is over.  Remember that consumer spending is still the main driver of this economy, and retail sales fell slightly in July well below the pre-report consensus.  The Consumer Confidence Index fell a second month in a row in July.

On the positive side, the Fed remains committed to keeping interest rates very low for an extended period, and liquidity is plentiful for now.  If this Thursday’s Leading Economic Indicators report is positive, that will market the fourth consecutive monthly increase, which will be a very good sign that the recession will end by the end of the year.

I agree with Dr. Hussman that stocks are overbought at this point, as many investors who bailed out in February and March are now jumping back in.  The stock market has felt like a mini-bubble since the March lows and especially in July.  Thus, I would not be surprised to see the downward correction that began last week to continue in the weeks ahead.

Finally, I recently told you about our online webinar featuring the Potomac Guardian Program on August 6th.  We had hundreds of investors register for the webinar and it was well-received.  If you were unable to attend this webinar but would still like to learn more about the Potomac Guardian Program and its investment strategy, you can now find a recorded version on our Internet website at www.halbertwealth.com.

Wishing you profits in a difficult market,

Gary D. Halbert

SPECIAL ARTICLES

Stocks: Five Key Signals for Investors
http://www.businessweek.com/investor/content/aug2009/pi20090817_099111_page_2.htm

Why Obama's Ratings Are Sinking
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204683204574354383543314054.html

Public Spending's Day Of Reckoning
http://www.forbes.com/2009/08/12/public-spending-finances-economy-debt-opinions-contributors-desmond-lachman.html

 

 


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Forecasts & Trends E-Letter is published by ProFutures, Inc. Gary D. Halbert is the president and CEO of ProFutures, Inc. and is the editor of this publication. Information contained herein is taken from sources believed to be reliable but cannot be guaranteed as to its accuracy. Opinions and recommendations herein generally reflect the judgement of Gary D. Halbert (or another named author) and may change at any time without written notice. Market opinions contained herein are intended as general observations and are not intended as specific investment advice. Readers are urged to check with their investment counselors before making any investment decisions. This electronic newsletter does not constitute an offer of sale of any securities. Gary D. Halbert, ProFutures, Inc., and its affiliated companies, its officers, directors and/or employees may or may not have investments in markets or programs mentioned herein. Past results are not necessarily indicative of future results. Reprinting for family or friends is allowed with proper credit. However, republishing (written or electronically) in its entirety or through the use of extensive quotes is prohibited without prior written consent.

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