Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Brink of Economic Collapse

Today's rigging of the major stock indices - pushing stocks higher on one of the most potentially calamitous days ever - is one for the history books.

A little background is necessary to understand the measures taken to prevent a disastrous marketwide sell-off.

Prior to the market opening, MBIA (MBI) announced that they had taken serious writedowns due to the mortgage-backed securities that have imploded due to foreclosures. The company, a single line insurer, which only insures financial instruments, primarily municipal and corporate bonds, lost $2.3 billion, or $18.61 per share, in the fourth quarter. There were also murmurings of the company's AAA rating being cut by Standard & Poors.

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This was no run-of-the-mill insurance company. This is the company which has underwritten a large portion of the subprime loans, repackaged as collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) that have been blowing up all over the place. This was serious business.

Two articles cover the importance of MBIA and the weight of a potential ratings cut:

Mike Whitney, writing for Counterpunch has an excellent overview in his recent article, The Great Credit Unwind of 2008 in which he quotes CNBC stock guru Jim Cramer in an interview with Chris Matthews:
"...there are a group of insurance companies which insure all these bad mortgages and, Cris, I think they are all about to go belly-up, and that will cause the Dow Jones to decline 2,000 points."

Then there is Bloomberg's exclusive report, by Christine Richard and Katherine Burton, on hedge fund manager William Ackman, who ran up a $109,000 photocopying bill studying MBIA's business in 2002: Ackman Devoured 140,000 Pages Challenging MBIA Rating.

With that news in the hopper along with an "unexpected" rise in unemployment filings, when the bell rang on Wall Street Thursday morning, the index slumped an immediate 192 points but suddenly stopped in its tracks. For the rest of the day, it was nothing but roses, as all the indices gained, uninterrupted, for the remainder of the session.

What happened? The principals of MBIA came out and vociferously defended their AAA rating, saying they have met all of the requirements.

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Chief Executive Gary Dunton said in a conference call, "Our own conclusion is that the market has overreacted to the real and obvious problems that we've had, as well as to the fear-mongering and intentional distortions of facts about our business that have been pumped into the market."

Naturally, Dunton could not say just who was doing the fear-mongering or distorting facts about MBIA's business (likely because nobody is), but armed with these reassurances and a helping hand from the omnipresent, of late, Plunge Protection Team (PPT), a/k/a the President's Working Group on Financial Markets, it was nothing but blue skies and apple pie for investors in US equities all day.

Interestingly, with five minutes left in the session, S&P announced that it had cut its "AAA" ratings on FGIC Corp's bond insurance arm, and placed its top ratings on the bond insurance arm of MBIA on review for downgrade.

How inconvenient for investors who sent MBIA up 11% (+1.54, 15.50) on the day and dutifully bought all manner of other equities. All of that money "invested" in the bond insurer and elsewhere may just go "poof" when the market opens on Friday.

Consider that over the past two days, we learned that GDP grew by a mediocre 0.6% in the fourth quarter, unemployment claims are rising (the Labor Dept. laughably argued that Thursday's figures were somehow skewed higher by Martin Luther King's day, though they declined to say just how a day off would affect people filing for unemployment benefits), personal spending in December rose by the slowest pace since June, a tail-dragging 0.2%, yet stocks, somehow, continue to price higher.

Before the opening bell tomorrow, at 8:30 am, the non-farms payroll numbers - or labor report - for December will be released. Experts expect to see an increase of a meager 80,000 new jobs created in the month.

Dow 12,650.36 +207.53; NASDAQ 2,389.86 +40.86; S&P 500 1,378.55 +22.74; NYSE Composite 9,126.16 +131.71

Meanwhile, the number of new lows expanded again in comparison to new highs, 251-83, while advancing issues unsurprisingly held the advantage over decliners, 4567-1800.

Oil fell 58 cents to $91.75, while gold gained $1.70 to $928.00. Silver reached $17.00, up 24 cents on the day.

If the December jobs data is dull and there's more evidence of the US slipping into a recession, don't worry. The way the market is currently being manipulated, your stocks are almost certain to go up. (Please, don't take that advice seriously.)

NYSE Volume 5,369,650,500
NASDAQ Volume 2,925,491,250

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