Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Savvy Consumers Shun Credit; Markets React Poorly

There truly is a disconnect between Wall Street and Main Street. The pinstriped crowd looks at the world through some-colored glasses, and while we're not sure whether they're rose or some other shade, their view of the world is certainly clouded by dollar signs, at the least. Their vision is that of an amorphous blob, a mass of numbers and data points and signals, charts and vector graphs all pointing in one orderly direction: toward their commission check. It is difficult for the average Wall Streeter to comprehend how people could miss a payment, budget and save, or go without something they desire.

Main Street's view is much more realistic. People are paid - and taxed - according to their worth, for the most part. You produce or you go home. You work or you become part of the underclass. Most Main Street Americans - businesspeople and consumers alike - comparison shop, love a good bargain and are generally (as compared to their Wall Street counterparts) frugal. They try to make ends meet, keep their places of employment and their homes clean and operable and they do most of these manual chores themselves. They understand just how much a dollar can buy and how many dollars they need to get through the week and the month. They have real needs and many of them are just a paycheck or three away from despair, if not already there.

These differences were never more noticeable than this afternoon, when the Federal Reserve announced that consumer credit outstanding declined at an annual rate of 5.6%, seasonally adjusted, down $11.5 billion, to $2.448 trillion in Febraury.

Wall Street's reaction to Main Street's frugality? You guessed it: fear and near-panic. Consumers not spending like drunken sailors is anathema to Wall Street. And not using credit is regarded as almost other-worldly. Wall Street just cannot get it through their heads that the rest of the world doesn't drive a Bentley, wear $2000 suits and fly to Curacao for weekends. Thus, when evidence like today's consumer credit condition - in decline 16 of the past 17 months - the investor class runs scared.

Sooner or later, they're also going to find out that many people can't afford the homes they're living in, and when that reality strikes home, it will make today's little scurry to the downside look like a walk in the park.

To illustrate just how much a drag on the US economy housing really is, this post and these graphs point out how far above historical levels housing prices galloped in the 2000s and just how poor the government's attempts to "stimulate" the market have been.

Since that's a story for another day, suffice it to say that Wall Street took a hit from the old reality pie straight in the kisser this afternoon. Following an exceptionally-well-received 10-year Treasury auction (another condition the "experts" had completely wrong), stocks were basically treading water until just before 3:00 pm, when the consumer credit news hit.

The Dow was off 124 points at the worst level, having earlier recovered lost ground after the $21 billion, 10-year Treasury auction which witnessed a 3.72 bid-to-cover ratio (far above the recent average of 2.87) and a solid 3.90% yield rate, which pushed 10-year yields further down, to 3.86%, by day's end. Yesterday, I wrote about fears of the 10-year heading North of 4% and why it isn't going to happen. Today we saw what was true. Indirect bidders (foreign central banks) accounted for 42% of the total, suggesting that maybe some people like US Treasuries at under 4% more than Greek's at around 7%.

Sure the Greek bonds offer more bang for the buck, but, then again, their economy might just blow up, too. Risk-avoidance is "in" once again.

Dow 10,897.52, -72.47 (0.66%)
NASDAQ 2,431.16, -5.65 (0.23%)
S&P 500 1,182.44, -6.99 (0.59%)
NYSE Composite 7,546.18, -58.26 (0.77%)

For a change, declining issues outpaced gainers, 3928-2577; new highs remained high at 600, compared to just 48 new lows. The most significant numbers were the volume readings, however, which evidenced a noticeable spike in trading activity. From a technical perspective, after days of low volume gains, a high-volume decline is a harbinger of doom and a sign that a corrective phase could soon be upon the markets. Almost everybody knew that stocks were overbought heading into earnings season and these upcoming 2-3 weeks could be damaging to sentiment long term.

NYSE Volume 5,700,141,000
NASDAQ Volume 2,872,620,250

The commodity market seemed uniformly confused by the day's data. Crude oil took a bit of a breather, losing 96 cents, to $85.88, but gold galloped ahead $17.20, to $1,152.30 and silver pushed higher by 27 cents, to $18.18, close to 52-wee highs. The metals moves make no sense at all in what can only be described as a deflationary environment, unless there was a rampant short squeeze, which many suspect this was. The metal may be giving an extended head-fake or be reacting to the credit numbers in a flight to safety.

Either way, the US is far from being clear of the crisis. Wall Street may be just beginning to find out what Main Street already knows.

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