The Dow is off 395 points as I type this. There will be some short covering shortly, and a rally attempt. But what I want to address is the change that has taken place:
What has changed? What is different today than yesterday? Are the prospects of the economy and/or corporate profits so different today than they were merely a week ago?
What has changed is Credit: Risk appetite for anything less than AAA — and that includes the ABX stretched definition of AAA (see WTF is going on in the ABX Markets?) — has waned considerably.
My favorite market metaphor is the multi-engined plane. Each propeller-driven engine represents a different source of power, and each works to propel the markets higher and higher. Over the past few years, this plane has climbed on a variety of sources of "elevation."
What have been the engines?
High Corporate Profits
How are these factors working at present?
-Valuation: We have been more or less fairly valued for some time now.
-M&A activity will likely soften, due to both psychology and unavailability of leverage for cash.
-Corporate profits are still expanding, albeit at a much slower rate
-Consumer spending has been pinched, and retail sales are slowing
Two of the biggest drivers — Share Buybacks and LBOs — are now kaput. What is occurring today is a full blown repricing of the liquidity spigot slowly turning off.
Back to work.
I am back home, rested and refreshed after a wonderful few days on the lakes of Maine (and a grueling weather impaired return trip).
I wanted to give y’all a recap of the "Kansas City Shadow Fed Meeting" up in Grand Stream Lake, Maine. This is an invitation only gathering that David Kotok of Cumberland Advisors has been running for the past few years. We all stayed at Leen’s Lodge on Grand Lake Stream, ME. Economists, strategists, fund managers, Fed employees, traders, journalists all mingle on the water and in the lodge. The participant who traveled the furthest came from Chile. A certain Scotsman regaled us with tales in that charming brogue, frequently punctuated with exclamations of "Crrrappp!" and "Foook!"
The entire event was under "Chatham House Rule" — meaning, I can not quote anyone by name or tell you which economist got drunk and danced until midnight (but one did).
But I can say that this is a very fine group of folk. The weekend was filled with good conversation, lots of wine, fine cigars, too much scotch, and outstanding fishing. we fished all three days — it rained on Friday, cleared on Saturday, was gorgeous on Sunday. I caught more freshwater fish than I ever have (and I spent the summers of my youth fishing in upstate New York). My canoe mate was hedge fund manager Scott Frew. Most days we pulled in 30-40+ fish — everything from Bass to Pickerel to the especially delicious White Perch. We released most of the Bass, and ate most of the Perch. On my last cast of the weekend, I pulled in the biggest freshwater fish I have ever caught — a fat 19" Bass that must have weighed 4 – 5 pound. Simply outstanding.
The weekend’s second biggest highlight — the first being that 19-incher — was the Saturday evening betting. Wagers are made by the group on S&P, 10 year, Fed Funds, Oil, Gold, Dollar/Euro, and CPI exactly one year hence. I made all bets, except CPI, choosing to boycott any BLS data. It was lots of fun.
David and I started an interesting side bet on the price of oil — over/under $66 — which attracted a lot of attention, and quite a few participants.
Here’s a bit of quirkiness: My outlook on the US economy was probably the most bearish of the entire group; at the same time, I probably had the most fully invested investment posture in terms of our managed accounts versus the rest of the fund managers. Kinda weird . . .
A few other interesting items worth relating:
Economics: The general consensus seems to be that the economy is middling, with some expecting it to slow further, and a few of the economists expecting a 2H re-acceleration. No one really thinks housing has bottomed, and I got the sense that I was the most moderate person in terms of how much further real estate prices will fall.
Politics: An interesting split between the two most esteemed political observers in the group: Both expected Mitt Romney to be the GOP nominee, while Obama/Clinton as the Dem nominee.
Markets: There was general caution amongst the group, with the expectation that a 5% correction is very probable. The range of other bets covered whether the markets run much further or get hit much harder in the future.
The Fed: Likely to be on hold for the foreseeable future. The inside line is that Bernanke is a much bigger inflation hawk than Greenspan ever was.
BLS: Clear consensus is there is no vast conspiracy manipulating there data. They have models, all models are biased, therefore their model is biased. I was surprised to hear a very experienced, highly placed participant mention in passing that he thought the Fed paid little attention to BLS data. Rather interesting.
If you have never spent an afternoon gently rocking in a small canoe on an northern glacial-formed lake, surrounded by pristine forests, with Loons crying in the distance as Bald Eagles wheel in the skies overhead, I highly recommend it.
Bottom line is that I expect to be back in Maine next summer . . .