Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Never-Ending Rally

Stocks took a bit of a breather on Tuesday, but, in the larger scheme of things, it amounted to nothing more than a rounding error.

Dow 8,410.65, -16.09 (0.19%)
NASDAQ 1,754.12, -9.44 (0.54%)
S&P 500 903.80, -3.44 (0.38%)
NYSE Composite 5,770.76, -29.46 (0.51%)

In an environment in which the Dow Jones Industrials have gained nearly 2000 points over the past two months, today's marginal loss was about as insignificant as normal intra-day noise. Not only was the decline hardly noticeable, but the range - less than 100 points on the Dow - indicates that all volatility has been wrung out of the market. The VIX, which measures market volatility, closed today at its lowest level since September of last year, prior to the Lehman Brothers failure and various market dislocations that touched off wave after wave of selling.

It's amusing, to say the least, that investor sentiment has quieted down so much, especially with Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke testifying on Capitol Hill and the results of the bank stress tests due out on Thursday. One can credit the mainstream media for selling the government line that the economy is "bottoming out" and recovery on the horizon. In fact, Bernanke actually made comments to the congress to that effect, saying that the economy should begin to turn upwards in the second half of 2009.

That Americans still believe in Bernanke and the general wisdom of congress and the president in dealing with the economy is alarming in itself. Remember that it was Ben Bernanke, along with Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, who said that the subprime breakdown was "well contained" in 2007, and that financial institutions and the underlying economy was strong early in 2008. Are we now supposed to put faith in his prognosis that the economy will be in better shape later this year? Americans are easily duped. The billions of dollars stolen by Bernie Madoff is proof enough of that. Also playing into the equation is the oddly-American optimism in the face of certain doom which, in its simplest forms, merely reduces all negative arguments to sheer pessimism, regardless of the veracity of such doom-and-gloom claims.

Thomas E. Woods, author of various books on economics and the markets including "Meltdown: A Free-Market Look at Why the Stock Market Collapsed, the Economy Tanked, and Government Bailouts Will Make Things Worse," offers some insight, channeling Austrian school economists Henry Hazlitt and F.A. Hayek, in his article at the Daily Reckoning, "No, the Free market Did Not Cause the Financial Crisis."

Regardless of Woods' penchant for lengthy titles, his analysis mirrors what's been said on these pages many times, that the tinkering and intervention by the government and the Fed are more likely to make matters worse, rather than better, simply because they continue to prop up failed institutions and companies, casing good money to be continually thrown down a black hole to prop up insolvent banks and failed corporations.

And, though Woods does not address the condition, it is my belief that throwing money away shortly after it is created out of thin air won't readily induce inflation, because the money just gets wasted. How could anyone believe that printing dollars and then burning them would produce anything other than some flames and smoke? It is for that reason that I have resisted the alarms of runaway inflation. The Fed has created a good deal of money, however, almost none of it has gone into productive activities. Price inflation is caused by money chasing a dwindling volume of goods, and, at this time, there seems to be more of a glut of everything - from cheeseburgers to steel girders - than scarcity.

Maybe that's the case in other countries, but here in America, there's plenty of everything for everybody. The one troubling trend that has developed from "talking up" the economy and relentless government stimulation is that there is no downward pressure on prices, as would be the case under normal circumstances. The more "free money" being thrown around, the more difficult it is to create new businesses because the ones that are broken are being kept alive via government largess. For instance, dinner at Old Country Buffet, a marginal eatery at best, is $12, hardly cheap, and two Egg McMuffins at McDonald's go for over $5.00, another example of the lack of downward price pressure.

For instance, should Burger King go out of business due to lack of demand for their morning offerings, one would expect a similar scenario at McDonald's to develop. with less demand for eggs, cheese and ham, one would expect McDonald's to lower their prices to match market conditions. However, since Burger King isn't failing, and the flow of money is being kept constant with increases to unemployment, welfare and social security recipients, plus all the other bailout and stimulus measures, the natural consequences of a free-falling economy have failed to materialize.

The problem with this scenario is that it's completely and utterly doomed to failure. The moment the government closes off the spigot to free money at 0% interest is the moment business begins to deteriorate. The Federal Reserve and the federal government have painted themselves into a debt-driven corner: they have to keep supplying cheap money or else the economy goes back into the tank. Obviously, they cannot borrow and spend their way out of this mess, though that's exactly what they're trying to do. The natural result, no matter what they believe, is deflation, until prices and actual earned wages come back into equilibrium.

The government and the Fed can pump as much money as they like into the economy, but they will not be able to spark inflation, which is their desire. Most of the money is either being wasted, saved or used in paying down debt, none of which are particularly productive uses of capital. In the interim, the economy will look like it's improving, but it's a mirage. Corporations will be profitable, but they will not be able to maintain their margins once the government cuts off the easy money. This is why stocks have rallied and why people believe the economy is improving. It feels good, but the underlying economics are a complete fraud.

It's why Ben Bernanke has seemed less than fully confident of late. One the one hand, he wants to reassure the American public that the economy isn't dead, but he knows there are more potholes and pitfalls on the road to recovery. He is not certain that his policies have been the correct ones because he's tried to keep the economy afloat without pain, when it is the actual pain - business closings, shutdowns and bankruptcies - that is at the root of real recovery. He's also been less than candid about the condition of the banks, because he knows they are nearly just as leveraged and unregulated as before the crisis that hit last fall.

Here is an article outlining why stimulus money is going unspent, underscoring the concept that the stimulus is nothing more than a band-aid and won't spur recovery.

On the day, declining issues surpassed advancing ones, 3514-2985, and there were more new lows than new highs, 81-48. Volume was average.

NYSE Volume 1,534,299,000
NASDAQ Volume 2,562,924,000

Oil closed down 63 cents, at $54.09. Gold continued its climb, gaining $2.10, to $904.30. Silver galloped ahead of the pack, picking up 31 cents, to $13.42 per ounce, approaching the melt price at which American silver coins are worth 10 times their face value ($13.81).

Tomorrow, the market will face a little bit of reality, as ADP releases it's monthly private sector employment report. The firm's numbers come as a precursor to the government's monthly nonfarm payrolls report, which is released Friday. ADP's numbers are quite reliable and are likely to show that another 610,000 jobs were lost in April. Noting the massive number of job losses since October of last last year and the extensions of unemployment insurance real misery won't being until late this year, exactly when the government mouthpieces say the economy is due to turn around.

Irony. It just isn't funny anymore.

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