Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Goldman Execs Grilled; Market Stumbles as Greek Tragedy Unfolds

Aeschylus or Sophocles could not have written such a story as is unfolding in the finances of the nation of Greece and the Senate hearings on Goldman Sachs. It is as though the Gods themselves have delivered their wrath upon the wealthy, the greedy and the high-and-mighty of society.

On Capitol Hill, Senator Levin opened the current round of hearings in the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations by outlining the purported abuses by Goldman Sachs which helped lead the US real estate market and the general economy into what some are calling the "Great Recession" of 2008.

As the day and the questioning wore on, Goldman Sachs executives squirmed and cajoled and grimaced through arguments designed to clear them of even the appearance of impropriety in their mortgage securitization dealings and subsequent profiteering off the collapse of such investment vehicles. The polished and evidently well-trained Goldman executives kept a sombre tone as they alternately denied wrongdoing and admitted "mistakes" in the handling of their own and clients' money as the real estate market ballooned, popped and dropped from 2006 through 2008.

The questioning focused on a key point: whether Goldman Sachs was purposely betting it's own money against the very investments it had sold to clients. The firm admits losing money as the market cascaded lower, but then making more by buying credit default swaps which eventually paid off as the CDO market crashed. Goldman executives have steadfastly denied making trades at odds with those of their clients, though the argument is paper-thin and the Senate investigation has unearthed scores of examples exactly the opposite. Goldman calls their investments in credit default swaps pure hedging, but the tide certainly seems to be working against them, both in the hearing room and in the court of public opinion.

A continent away, Greek bond yields soared to over 18% on 2-year notes, as S&P cut its rating to junk status. Greece continues to struggle through one of its worst fiscal and monetary crises of the modern age, with government pay, pensions and entitlements pushing the government close to default. Today's development come in the wake of weeks of negotiations by the IMF and EU on a bailout package for the southern European nation.

There seems to be little doubt that Greece will default in part or in total, with Portugal, Italy and Spain next in line for the pain of financial armageddon. What worries officials in other European nations is the fate of the European Union itself and the ten-year experiment with the unified currency, the Euro.

Reaction was mostly aligned to the Greek story, though the Goldman Sachs hearings were riveting attention as well. Stocks in Europe suffered huge losses in all of its equity markets, with values of the major nation indices falling anywhere from 2% to nearly 4%. France's CAC 40 fell the most, down 3.82% on the day.

In the Americas, a similar story, with major indices piling on losses. The Canadian markets fared best of all, losing just more than 1 percent.

US stock losses come fast on the heels of an 8-week buying splurge despite signs everywhere that the global economy and sovereign debt issues were coming to a head. Even though it's the height of earnings season in the US, nothing could stem the stampede of sellers which descended on Wall Street. Stocks fell by their largest one-day amounts in months, on heavy volume, signaling that the worst may be yet to come.

Dow 10,991.99, -213.04 (1.90%)
NASDAQ 2,471.47, -51.48 (2.04%)
S&P 500 1,183.71, -28.34 (2.34%)
NYSE Composite 7,463.09, -214.56 (2.79%)

Declining issues overwhelmed advancers, 5396-1220, a better-than 4:1 ratio. The number of new highs was shaved down to 407, with 51 stocks recording new lows.

NYSE Volume 8,348,664,500.00
NASDAQ Volume 2,766,927,750.00

Commodity prices were mixed, due to differences in their utility. Crude oil, which is consumed worldwide, fell $1.76, to $82.44, mostly on fears of reduced demand. Gold, primarily a store of wealth or a hedge against currencies, was higher by $8.10, finishing at $1,161.70. Silver, however, which carries investment qualities and industrial functions, dropped 22 cents, to $18.12.

Elsewhere, consumer confidence in April galloped ahead to 57.9, from a March reading of 52.3, though the encouraging number was largely ignored. The Case-Shiller 20-City Real Estate index rose a disappointing 0.64% year-over-year for the month of February, stirring speculation that the US residential real estate market may be months - if not years - from recovery, with the potential for another 15% downturn still on the horizon.

All is not well in our financial world. Titans are being brought under the whip, nations may fail, social unrest may reach a fever pitch by the time our next federal elections roll around in November. With the usually-slow months of summer approaching, stocks seem unstable investments, at best.

Cash, equivalents, Treasuries and other highly-liquid assets are being preferred for the moment.

Making matters even more convoluted, on Monday, Republicans in the Senate blocked debate on Senator Dodds' Financial Reform legislation by a 57-40 vote. 60 votes are needed to bring the bill to the Senate floor. Another test vote failed on Monday, with Republicans grandstanding, saying dishonestly that the bill would reach deep “into every nook and cranny of American business.”

Bring on the sirens and the wailing.

No comments: