Thursday, May 7, 2009

Ponzi Would Be Proud On Stress Test Results

First, let's not confuse Charles Ponzi (that's him on the left) with Arthur Herbert Fonzarelli (otherwise known as actor Henry Winkler in the role of "Fonzie" or "the Fonz" on 70s hit TV show "Happy Days" - shown at right). Sure, the names sound familiar, but that's where such familiarity ends.

Charles Ponzi was a swindler extraordinaire, who paid investors outlandish profits by continually bringing in fresh capital from other investors (or "suckers" as the case may be). Ponzi never actually invested any money in anything; he simply churned what seemed to be - at the time - a never-ending supply of money from pigeons to keep the appearance of a grand investment going. Thus, the term "Ponzi scheme" became popularized for this kind of endeavor, also known as a pyramid or airplane scheme.

Alfred Fonzarelli was a fictional character who exuded the hip and cool of a 50's greaser. His trademark leather jacket and slicked-back hair were elements of his persona. But Fonzie was honest, though arguably crude. Ponzi, a real person, was a cheat, and a great one. Some believe Bernie Madoff is the present-day embodiment of Charles Ponzi.

Now that we have the introductions out of the way, let's get to the core issue: that of the government's bank stress tests, which results are finally going to be released to the public, today, at 5:00 pm EDT. After months of nail-biting anticipation, it appears that 10 or 11 of the nation's largest 19 financial institutions are actually not in very good health. Here is a nice capsule of the results. Here is a NY Times article offering some rather scathing reviews on the entire stress test process from some very well-respected economic heavyweights.

Finally, here is a story and video from Yahoo! Tech Ticker which explains how Bank of America needs $34 billion of additional capital, and how they plan to get that by converting the TARP funds ostensibly "loaned" from the government (taxpayers) from preferred stock into common stock, resulting in a surplus of $11 billion with which they can then begin paying back the TARP funds. Yes, you read that right, BofA will use TARP funds to pay back TARP funds.

Only in America can bankers and politicians steal in such plain view from taxpayers. Certainly Charles Ponzi would be proud. Fonzie, for his part, might say, "Heeey, that's no way to treat people." Naturally, the truth-loving Fonzie is right. The US taxpayers are being taken to the cleaners on this one.

Maybe there's a silver lining in all of this hanky panky. Stocks were pounded down pretty well for most of today's session, on relatively strong volume. Could it be that some of the fund managers and top investors are seeing this for what it is - outright fraud - and calling an end to Wall Street's wild rally? Could be, but, considering the length and size of said recent rally, it's going to take more than a day or two of declines to straighten out the newest mess, that of stocks being wildly overvalued again.

As I've been saying all along (and I have plenty of company in my opinions, too), the banks aer not in good health. The stress tests were just a smoke screen, the PPIP is a bad joke at best, almost none of the various illiquid assets held by these banks have been disposed of, rather, they have been revalued using mark-to-model rather then the more accurate (and honest) mark-to-mark accounting, the Fed is now monetizing the national debt in addition to taking on all sorts of toxic waste, and, to top it all off, Thursday's Treasury auction of 30-year notes was a resounding failure, poorly received, with 30-year bond yields hitting 4.309%.

It's a mess of even more gigantic proportions that before the government began its meddling nearly eight months ago. Now, stocks will have to compete with higher bond yields, as will mortgage rates, which the government hoped to keep low, while the banks try to raise a cumulative $65 billion from private sources, in direct competition with the enormous Treasury sales to finance the burgeoning US debt, which will cost more and more to service if yields continue to climb.

So, a good number of investors took today's sloppy news flow and decided it was time to take some of their quick profits off the table. Not such a bad idea, despite the growing consensus that the economy is on the upswing (maybe, but probably not) with the Labor Dept. due to release nonfarm payroll data for April on Friday - tomorrow.

While the estimate is for job losses to total only 490-590,000, certainly less than March's 663,000, it's hardly cause for celebration, in light of the fact that the US economy needs to create 150,000 jobs per month just to keep pace with population increases and new entrants into the labor force. The calculations of the Labor Dept. also do not account for the 54,000 Chrysler employees being furloughed for 30 to 60 days, nor the 200,000 GM employees who will be idled for as many as 9 weeks this summer. Nor does the government count workers who have exhausted their unemployment insurance, those who are working part time instead of full time in their estimate of the unemployment rate of 8.9%. Others, including economists at the University of Maryland, put the figure at closer to 17%.

Add to the malaise that LA Dodger Manny Ramirez has been suspended by MLB for 50 games for violating their banned substance policy. He will not be paid roughly a third of his $25 million salary. So there's another $8.5 million not being spent into the economy right there! Yikes!

So, maybe today was a good time to get out of stocks. After all the major indices have risen by more than 30% over the past 8-9 weeks.

Dow 8,409.85, -102.43 (1.20%)
NASDAQ 1,716.24, -42.86 (2.44%)
S&P 500 907.39, -12.14 (1.32%)
NYSE Composite 5,800.15, -90.40 (1.53%)

Declining issues took the advantage over advancers, 4255-2281; new lows surpassed new highs once more, 95-52, and volume was stupendous, higher even than yesterday's. There certainly is no lack of trading going on as the economic wheels turn, or, grind, whichever case you prefer.

NYSE Volume 1,969,476,000
NASDAQ Volume 3,274,508,000

Commodities were bounced around by conflicting data, but oil managed a gain of 37 cents, to $56.39. Gold rose another $4.50, to $915.50, continuing the recent trend of gains, as did silver, which crossed the $13.80 threshold - the price at which melt value of US coins equals 10X their face value - with a rush, gaining 32 cents, to $14.03.

Most of the news flow for the week complete, investors will have until tomorrow morning's opening bell to weigh all the factors, including the nonfarm payroll figures, due out at 8:30 am. It's anyone's guess which way they'll turn, but one thing's for sure: the economy is not in as rosy shape as the news and pundits would have us believe. The recent bout of "green shoots" and "semi-positive" readings were more of the nature of falling at a less-pronounced pace than earlier this year or last fall. The US economy is still weakening, though not quite as quickly as before.

It's like saying a man clawed and chewed a lion only losing one arm and one leg is good news. He's still alive and he's got one of each type of limb left. Really, how many people would call that "good" news? Seriously, folks, it's not a matter of perception. The reality is not that the glass is half full or half empty, it's that the glass has a hole in the bottom.

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