Monday, August 8, 2011

Debt Downgrade Fallout: Stocks Shattered, Gold Soars, Europe a Wasteland

At 9:00 pm Eastern time on Friday night, August 5, S&P officially released their downgrade of US debt from AAA to AA+, prompting widespread panic and sharp rebukes from the White House, who claimed, in effect, that S&P had made what amounted to "math errors."

Over the weekend, much was made of the downgrade, as the Obama hit the airwaves with gusto, rebuking the call from the ratings agency. Fitch and Moody's had previously reaffirmed the US debt as AAA, the highest possible sovereign bond rating, but S&P would not back down, and the downgrade remained in effect.

What S&P reasoned was that the US government did not take the necessary steps - in its theatrical production of waiting until the last possible moment to pass a debt ceiling increase - to address the structural problems facing it. S&P rightly concluded that US debt levels were and continue to rise and discretionary spending levels have not been controlled. Therefore, they downgraded the nation's debt and threaten to do it a second time, sometime around November, if the 12-member congressional committee charged with dealing with long term debt does not come up with actionable, concrete, debt reduction proposals.

As markets opened on Monday, the effects of a global panic were evident, especially on the heels of a 10% decline in US indices over the past two weeks and Thursday's dramatic sell-off of over four per cent on major markets.

First, it was the Asian markets which tanked at their various openings and continued through the day to sell off anywhere from 1.5 to 4.0%. Next up was Europe, where the crisis over bailing out Italy and Spain have reached a point of no return. EU officials stressed that they would be in the market with the ECB, buying up italian and Spanish debt, but that did little to change the outlook of investors, which had turned sour over the past fortnight.

Appetite for risk was at a low, as European markets suffered steep losses. England's FTSE was the best of the lot, down only 2.62%. France's CAC-40 took a 4.68% loss and Germany's DAX shed 5.02%. Other Euro-zone markets fell between 3.76 and 6.11%.

By the time US markets were to open, index futures had been hammered down to presage an inauspicious opening. Within minutes of the bell, the Dow was down more than 200 points, the S&P had taken a 25-point hit and the NASDAQ fell more than 70 points, though those declines were nothing compared to the carnage that lay ahead.

By the end of the day, after a minor rally in the first 15 minutes of the final hour, stocks were trading at or near their lows, with the Dow Jones Industrials surrendering the 6th-worst performance in its history. While the Dow suffered a 5.5% decline on the day, the other indices were actually much worse, with the NYSE Composite topping them all, coming home with a 7.05% loss.

It wasn't just the debt downgrade that spurred the sell-off. Conditions in Europe have worsened significantly over the past few months, to the point that European Union officials are without reasonable solutions to the debt contagion spreading across the region. While the ECB has managed to prop up smaller countries like Greece, Portugal and Ireland, Italy especially poses a much larger concern.

All the European leaders could muster on Monday was a terse statement which offered no concrete proposals but plenty of assurances, which was be roundly written off by markets. To wit:
We are committed to taking coordinated action where needed, to ensuring liquidity, and to supporting financial market functioning, financial stability and economic growth
That was the extent of the communique from the magnificent seven of the United States, Canada, Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Japan.

The irony is that one of them, Italy, has been the source of the most recent anguish.

Essentially, the funds available to the ECB fall short of meeting the debt purchases needed to save Italy and Spain. Europe will have to engage in quantitative easing, as was the case in the United States over the past two years, to stave off defaults and the threat of a cascading crisis which would envelop all of Europe and likely doom the 11-year-old Euro currency.

If the EU decides upon cheapening the currency - which it almost certainly will do - theknock-on effect will be to sink the Euro, probably close to parity with the US Dollar. As the dollar would grow in strength, commodities, particularly oil and gas for auto use, would plummet, a boon to US drivers and to the general economy. Costs of imports would also decline, on a relative basis, giving American consumers more purchasing power.

Within the same scenario, however, are pitfalls for the global manufacturers and companies that populate the S&P 500, NASDAQ and the Dow. A stronger US Dollar would make them less competitive in foreign markets, shrinking margins and thus, profits. Thus, the great selling rush today was more of a statement on the global condition rather than that of the debt downgrade, which, when all is said and done, won't amount to a hill of beans. In fact, treasuries were up sharply today, as yields fell to their lowest levels in over a year.

The benchmark 10-year note fell 25 basis points in just one day, from 2.56% on Friday to 2.31% on Monday. The 30-year bond fell 19 basis points, to 3.65% as the yield curve continues to flatten. Money is going out of stocks and into bonds, and whether they're AAA or AA+ doesn't matter to those seeking a safe haven. The ridiculously low yields offered are a moot point. As one trader put it, "Investors aren't looking at making money; they're more concerned with getting their money back."

And, therein, the next crisis, in bonds, especially if the US government doesn't get its house in order soon. Higher rates and another downgrade could trigger a default of impossible proportions as the US would be unable to roll over its debt and fund itself without incurring higher borrowing costs. Ditto for Europe. Rising interest rates signals the end game for fiat currencies globally and back to some form of honest money, most likely on a gold standard.

The market events of the past few days, in which the major indices lost more than 10% are not the end of the crisis, but rather the beginning of the end of a great generational bear market that began in 2007 and will eviscerate all risk assets until nobody wants to hold anything any more.

Markets have entered the final stages of the third leg down. QE 1 and 2 staved off the collapse, but there will be no bailouts this time around. It's every man, woman, child and company for itself. There will be some winners, but mostly there will be losers, anguish, agony and the disappearance of great hordes of wealth.

Dow 10,809.85, -634.76 (5.55%)
NASDAQ 2,357.69, -174.72 (6.90%)
S&P 500 1,119.46, -79.92 (6.66%)
NYSE Composite 6,895.97, -523.10 (7.05%)


The internals were equally as stunning as the headline numbers. Declining issues decimated advancers, 6553-375, a ratio of 17.5:1. It was truly one of the deepest, broadest declines in stock market history. On the NASDAQ, there were four (4) new highs next to 725 new lows. The NYSE had just three (3) new highs, but 1292 stocks making new 52-week lows. The combined total of seven (7) new highs and 2017 new lows rivals or exceeds the figures presented during the fallout of 2008-2009.

Volume was at the highest levels of the year, exceeding that of last Thursday, which was then the high volume day of the year. Investors aren't just scared, they are trampling each other running through the exits at breakneck speed.

NASDAQ Volume 4,002,857,250
NYSE Volume 11,046,384,000


Crude oil futures were pounded again, as the front-month contract on WTI crude fell $5.57, to $81.31. Gas prices will soon fall below $3.50 - and possibly below $3.00 - a gallon as current supplies are depleted and replaced by less expensive distillates. According to AAA, the average price of gas in the US is now $3.66 per gallon, but the deep declines have not yet been factored into the equation. That will happen over the next two to three weeks.

Gold was the big winner of the day, soaring $61.30, to $1,713.20, another all-time record price as investors, companies, nations, central banks and housewives scrambled to find reliable assets. Silver, still constrained by high margin requirements, gained $1.17, to $39.38. Silver is almost certainly the most under-appreciated asset in the world, though that will soon change. As the crisis escalates and governments make more and more bad moves, the precious metals will skyrocket to unforeseen heights.

The banking sector took it on the chin, but none more than Bank of America (BAC) which is on the verge of a well-deserved bankruptcy. shares of the nation's largest banks fell 20% on the day, losing 1.66, to close at 6.51. Just a few weeks ago, BofA was trading at a price nearly double that. The unfolding mortgage crisis, brought about by Bank of America's 2008 purchase of Countrywide, has become a fatal blow to the once proud institution.

David Tepper's Appaloosa Management Fund has reportedly sold its stake in Bank of America (BAC) and Wells Fargo (WFC), while significantly trimming Citigroup (C) from the portfolio.

Adding to the irony, AIG has sued Bank of America for $10 billion, citing "massive fraud" in its representations of mortgage-backed securities (MBS).

However, Citigroup analyst Keith Horowitz takes the booby prize for reiterating a "buy" rating on Bank of America shares this morning. Timing is not one of Mr. Horowitz's strong points, it would appear.

On top of all this, the FOMC of the Federal Reserve will issue a policy statement Tuesday at 2:00 pm EDT, followed by a news conference from Chairman Ben Bernanke. That alone should equate to another 300-point decline in the Dow.

For those with a morbid curiosity, check out the slideshow of the 10 worst days on the Dow, already outdated, as August 8, 2011, will go down in the history books as the 6th worst day for the blue chip index of all time.

Henry Blodgett and Aaron Task have a nice summation of the situation in the video below:

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