Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Stocks Climb to Fresh Highs; Housing Still Slumping

I'll begin where I left off yesterday. My final words were:

"Wall Street will continue to trade in what it knows best: equities. And until there comes an alternative, they will continue to rise."

I have now no doubt attained the status of a genius, but I cannot explain the explosiveness of today's venture into equity-land, but I'll attempt to make some sense of it.

Stocks, without alternatives, will no doubt provide positive returns. Since there are few alternatives in today's environment - real estate is a mess, bond returns are paltry, art is illiquid, over-priced and risky - all the money is going into stocks.

Partially to blame for Wall Street's current bubbly stock markets is the near-complete meltdown in the mortgage securitization market. It's a two-pronged attack that has virtually frozen the market for what just 5 years ago was the whitest-hot money machine in the world.

First, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have already announced that they would be prepaying a large number of soured loans. In other words, investors will be paid a lump sum - the remaining principal - on loans delinquent by more than 120 days, decimating their long-term value and consistent cash flow. Once these and other quasi-federal agencies own the loans, they're combing through them, looking for discrepancies and hammering the banks that issued them. One such instance is a recently-filed lawsuit by the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco, seeking $5.4 billion from the usual suspects including Deutsche Bank; Bear Stearns; Countrywide Securities, a division of Countrywide Financial (now Bank of America); Credit Suisse Securities; and Merrill Lynch (also Bank of America).

So, where's the money? And, where's it going? Simply put, there must be a lot of mortgage investors out there sitting on large chunks of cash, because Fannie and Freddie have no doubt begun the process of prepayment. Stuck in the middle are the large banks which originated the mortgage melee in the first place, having first to pay back investors and then, sweat out the heat from the G-men scouring the bad loans for errors, omissions or outright fraud.

It doesn't require a huge leap of faith to believe that both the investors who have been made whole (Here's a dirty little secret, though: those investors, including the banks servicing the loans, don't get hurt from day 1 when a mortgagor defaults if it's a Fannie or Freddie loan. The agencies make the payments) and the banks, each looking for places to make money might dip a toe into equities. The banks would no doubt be the more aggressive and the parties with more money to move, which makes the recent rally all that more suspect.

Loads of liquidity are thus fueling the stock market rally, and, as usual, the Fed is sitting on its hands, watching the bubble inflate. With the NASDAQ already back to the level before the economic collapse of 2008 and the Dow and S&P fast approaching theirs, shouldn't the Fed be raising interest rates to slow down the rampant speculation?

You'd think so, but the Fed is in a box. Any rate hike - even a tiny 25 basis points - would kill the stock rally. Worse, it would likely touch off discussions of the broader economy and the unseemly truth that jobs aren't being created, banks aren't lending and most consumers are still stretched pretty thin. Even worse, all of the recently-issued government debt would begin to cost more to service. The Fed is quite literally dammed if they do and dammed if they don't, but the Wall Street money-grabbers are having a field day.

The sorriest part of the story is going to be the ending, other than the idea that most small investors haven't fully participated in the most recent money party. They are still too scared of the markets after the horrifying events of 2008.

Major banks and brokerages are now in nearly-complete control of the stock markets, so they're not trustworthy. Most of the current financial commentary resides somewhere below the ethereal, along the lines of, "this or that stock is up; it must be a good buy."

The oldest adage on the Street is to buy low and sell high. Since the Dow was languishing around 6600 a year ago and today its closing in on 11,000, even a third-grader would know that now is not the optimum time to buy stocks.

During the housing boom, the attitude filling the balloon was that housing prices would always go up. We know how wrong that was. Now, it appears that stocks will continue to rise. I remain on the bearish side of that statement, awaiting the eventual collapse. We have gone too far, too fast.

Dow 10,888.83, +102.94 (0.95%)
NASDAQ 2,415.24, +19.84 (0.83%)
S&P 500 1,174.17, +8.36 (0.72%)
NYSE Composite 7,478.76, +59.74 (0.81%

Advancers pounded decliners, 4550-1942. New highs exploded to 757, to just 73 new lows. Volume was actually good, especially on the NASDAQ.

NYSE Volume 4,955,676,500
NASDAQ Volume 2,305,962,750

Oil drifted 31 cents higher, to $81.91. Gold also was up $4.20, to $1,103.50. Silver gained 9 cents, to $17.01. All three commodities remain stuck in a range they've maintained for close to 9 months.

The National Association of Realtors (NAR) announced that existing home sales slipped 0.6% nationally for the month of February, but that inventory of unsold homes rose 9.5%, the largest jump in 20 years. The increase is due to banks finally releasing some of their foreclosure inventory onto the market and the overall lack of qualified buyers.

The sales rate improved in the Northeast and Midwest, but fell in the South and West, which has generally been the story for the past two years.

Better? That's a no.

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