Friday, January 15, 2010

Got Bank Stocks? Sell Them on Monday.

Ever since the financial meltdown - which actually began in August of 2007 (Trust me, I'm a doctor.) when the Primary Trend in the Down Jones Industrials turned from a bull to a bear - the banks have gotten a lot of attention. Many of us do our banking at either a locally-owned bank or a friendly Credit Union. If you're smart enough to have made the decision to keep your money out of major national banks, good or you.

The too-big-to-fail national banks - Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Citigroup and JP Morgan Chase - also known as money center banks, are the main reason for the economic calamity which still grips this country, and to a lesser extent, the rest of the world. These were the ones engaged in all that risky behavior with sub-prime mortgages, credit default swaps and, more recently, the bailouts. Add to them Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley and you have the gang of six which nearly brought down Western capitalism as we know it.

Two of their brethren - Bear Stearns and Lehman Bros. - could not be saved, and were more than likely swallowed up more or less whole to hide the extent of the fraud, inside dealings, manipulations and other horse-trading that was so widespread during the late 90s and though the first years of the new millennium. What's troubling is that they are nowhere near out of the woods. The four big banks mentioned above are nearly insolvent. Only free money from the Federal Reserve, in the form of overnight loans at just about ZERO percent, has kept them from complete collapse. They are still poring though the toxic assets on their books, hiding and keeping off market millions of foreclosed homes and struggling to stay in business.

In case you're unaware of the ongoing problems with the big banks, just consider: JP Morgan's provision for credit losses totaled $7.28 billion during the fourth quarter.

That's about all you have to know... well, and that the other banks will report similar losses. Somehow, through financial alchemy which only the banks can perform, JP Morgan Chase posted a 4th quarter profit. Let's face it, They're full of brown stuff. Credit card delinquencies were at 8.64% in the 4th quarter. People are defaulting on credit cards at an historic rate. They're also walking away from homes in droves, many of them because they are upside-down, in other words, the amount of the mortgage exceeds the fair market price of the home.

Without work and with mortgages higher than the value of their homes, the latest trend is to make a strategic default, either through bankruptcy or by just failing to make mortgage payments, leading to the eventual foreclosure. This is what's known as a self-reinforcing feedback loop. The more home prices fall, the more people default, leading to more foreclosures and lower prices again. Soon enough, it's going to become cheaper to rent than to own as vulture landlords scoop up the foreclosed properties at a fraction of their value and rent them out to strapped, credit-less former homeowners.

The banks will never survive the onslaught of foreclosures that are due to escalate once again this Spring. Common practices by the banks now are to offer buy-downs, short sales, loan modifications and extensions in order to avoid foreclosure. Once a property is foreclosed upon, the banks are on the hook for the upkeep of the property and the taxes. With homes in some areas sitting on the market for a year to two years, eventually selling for much less than the foreclosed value, the banks are in a tough spot and doing all they can to prevent foreclosure, a lengthy, expensive process which seldom produces a positive result.

Eventually, in a foreclosure, the bank gets the property, the homeowner is put out and the vacant property deteriorates, leading to further losses. There are numerous reports, especially in the Northeastern "rust belt" of banks starting foreclosures but never finishing the process. Homeowners, thinking they have to bail, leave the property, only to receive tax bills later on, because the bank did not proceed with the sheriff's sale.

The whole mess is not going to end soon or well. It's going to take 6-10 years for the banks to work off the excesses of the sub-prime credit expansion. In The meantime, property values and interest rates will remain at historically low levels. If you own shares of any of the aforementioned banks, you should dump them if you haven't already. In fact, with the market close to highs, today could have been a warning shot for further declines to come. The economy continues to stumble along and eventually, the stock wizards will get out of the way, Government bailouts and stimulus have only paved the way for another round of declines in the stock market and in prices generally.

Dow 10,609.65, -100.90 (0.94%)
NASDAQ 2,287.99, -28.75 (1.24%)
S&P 500 1,136.03, -12.43 (1.08%)
NYSE Composite 7,356.79, -91.73 (1.23%)

Losers beat winners by a wide margin, 4664-1864; there were still 340 new highs, to just 44 new lows. Volume was substantially better than it has been all week. Uh, oh.

NYSE Volume 5,426,332,500
NASDAQ Volume 2,662,195,750

With the dollar stronger, oil took a nosedive, losing $1.44, to $78.00 (still too high). Gold lost $12.00, to $1,131.00. Silver was down 22 cents, to $18.44. The pause in the rise of the precious metals may be signaling a buy. If the economy worsens, the dollar should weaken (though as gauged against other currencies, some of which aren't doing very well themselves, the dollar may just waffle around), sending gold and silver higher. Even if the dollar doesn't lose value, the metals may still be the play as more and more people look for their perceived safety.

Tip for the day: Go to a coin dealer and buy a common silver dollar, or, as many as you can reasonably afford to put away for a couple of years. It's a near-certainty they'll be worth just as much or more in 2012. You can't say that about any other asset class, except maybe bonds.

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