Thursday, November 19, 2009

Perverse Dollar Trade Sends Stocks South

The US Dollar was stronger against most world currencies on Thursday. Stocks fell.

If that sounds odd to you, it should. The normal relationship of a strong dollar to strong stocks has been undercut in recent days as the new carry trade of borrowing cheap dollars and investing in risky equities has produced one of the more remarkable rallies of the past 100 years.

Sadly, it cannot continue. Eventually, days like today, when the dollar strengthens and stocks are obliterated as traders are forced to liquidate out of positions, will proliferate, killing the stock market rally. Either that, or, stocks continue to climb while we kill the dollar. Today's trading may have been illustrative in just how perverse and destructive the inverse relationship has become. One way or another, somebody's got to lose, when the truth is that a stronger dollar should encourage more investment in stocks and US companies, rather than the reverse.

There's a bit of illogic to this trade, so excuse me for thinking out loud here. If it's true that many of the hedge funds are already out of this market, then today's trade would not have occurred. There would have been honest bets on stocks, not liquidity-driven hedge-type activity. So, that argument is probably full of large holes.

Then there's the idea of trillions on the sidelines - some say as much as $3 trillion invested in money market funds, some more in bond funds and plenty in cash. Just because those people don't want to engage in the high risk of equities, it does not necessarily follow that they'll want to jump in when stocks are cheaper. Were that the case, they had ample opportunity back in the Winter of 2009-10. So, toss that rationale.

What makes sense is that the dollar will continue to weaken until the Fed signals that they're going to begin raising interest rates. Estimates of when that might happen range from June 2010 to some time in 2011. What's certain is that the Fed cannot keep rates at "near-zero" for much longer. Other nations have already begun raising interest rates - Australia and Norway to name two - while more are hinting at doing the same. When the Fed decides to begin raising rates the dollar will stop sliding against other currencies. It will actually begin gaining when our blessed federal government decides to start acting like adults and do something about the enormous deficits they are running.

Both of those events - Fed tightening and government responsibility - are inevitably tied to politics, and, with mid-term elections upcoming in less than a year, there's a good bet that there will be action by then, in fact, 4-6 months before the elections. So, June sounds like the right time for the Fed to boost 25 basis points, maybe even 50. It's also likely that the federal budgeting process will begin sounding more Republican, even though it will be dominated by Democrats.

So, where does that leave stocks? Little changed until then. The bull market remains intact, the carry trade goes on for a few more months, because, as the market is the ultimate discounting mechanism, the Fed moves will be baked in long before they actually occur. The rally should run nicely through January, and even into Spring, with a small respite during the summer and glorioski! another rally just in time for the election!

That's one way to play it. Ignore all the talk and chatter about the carry trade, weaker dollar, etc. and focus on good companies making money. Sooner or later, fundamentals will be your friend, and, by all indications, they're not too bad right now. A year from now, the crash of 2008 will be a fast-fading memory.

Dow 10,332.44, -93.87 (0.90%)
NASDAQ 2,156.82, -36.32 (1.66%)
S&P 500 1,094.90, -14.90 (1.34%)
NYSE Composite 7,117.64, -109.07 (1.51%)

Today's final numbers could have been much worse. The dollar actually weakened throughout the session, and stocks pared their losses after 10:30 am. The Dow was down 170 in the early going and gained much of that back by the closing bell. At the end, declining issues outnumbered advancing ones, 5210-1381, or nearly 4:1. It was one of the more lopsided days in recent memory, though hardly a rally-killer. It should be noted that options expire tomorrow, so much of the trading had to do with gains and losses on option trades. There were only 108 new highs, as compared to 67 new lows. The indication is that stocks are weak, though this measure cannot be trusted on a one-day move. We'll need more evidence that the bears have control before changing strategy, which remains bullish with a target of 10700 on the Dow by year end.

NYSE Volume 4,909,767,500
NASDAQ Volume 2,148,559,000

Commodities would be expected to take a hit, especially oil, which fell by $2.12, to $77.46, but gold actually rose $1.00, to $1,142.20. Silver gained 5 cents, to $18.46 per ounce. The precious metals markets have shown a recent trend away from the dollar trade. They can now be considered almost anti-currency, as they act as a hedge against all fiat (paper-based) currencies, which just happens to be everywhere in the world.

Other then the dollar movement, there was a little bit of news that might have moved markets so severely. Tim Geithner testified to the committee looking into financial reform, and any time Timmy opens his mouth in congress, it's usually a bad thing. A couple of members actually think he should resign. Not surprisingly, most of those requests for Mr.Geithner to step aside came from Republicans.

Early in the day, the entire world was reminded that bureaucracies seldom function perfectly, as air traffic across the nation was grounded due to an FAA "glitch."

Unemployment claims data was benign, and the week come to an end with no important economic data due out on Friday, and just 35 days until Christmas.

Leading Indicators for October were down slightly, while the Philadelphia Fed index was up. We have reached what is known as an inflection point.

After the bell, Dell (DELL) announced 3rd quarter results below expectations. The stock was trading down about a point, or 6.5% in after-hours activity. Gap Stores (GPS) reported a 25% improvement in profits, but the stock was being sold off after-hours, down about 1/2 a point, or 2.5%. Shares of the retailer, which includes GAP stores and Old Navy, have more thn doubled since their lows in March.

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