Monday, August 20, 2007

Gentle PPT nudging

Lest we all believe that 13,000 on the Dow is a number beneath which we dare not tread, today's positive close bears little resemblance to the underlying market realities.

About 2:15 pm ET, the Dow was resting comfortably at the magic 13,000 mark, when all of a sudden buying broke out like a spreading fire. A little over an hour later, the Dow had risen to its high of the day, 13,181.66 - a gentle nudge (no doubt by our friends at the President's Working Group on Financial Markets, otherwise known as the Plunge Protection Team or PPT) of 181 points to the good.

While the market pared off some 60 points of froth over the final 30 minutes, the volume tells much of the story. Nobody was actively trading. In fact, today's action was among the slowest of the year. Fewer shares were traded today than any other since July 3rd, a half-session at that. Apparently, the 600-point boost given to the market between Thursday afternoon and Friday was not enough to quell the fears of traders, other than the most intrepid (or stupid).

The ongoing mess that is the world banking and credit system has recently come within a whisker of complete collapse and Wall Street has taken notice. Either that, or half the brokers and fund managers in the world decided to begin their summer vacation today.

Dow 13,121.35 +42.27; NASDAQ 2,508.59 +3.56; S&P 500 1,445.55 -0.39; NYSE Composite 9,326.21 +11.22

Indicators were not encouraging. Advancing issues led decliners by a narrow 5-4 margin and new lows outnumbered new highs once again, 198-59.

Light crude priced lower, closing 86 cents lower at $71.12. Gold and silver took marginal losses, remaining at somewhat attractive buying levels.

The credit woes that beset Wall Street for much of the past four weeks persist, as stocks in the financial sector were hit once again.
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Merrill Lynch (MER), Bear Stearns (BSC), Bank of America (BAC), Lehman Bros. (LEH) and Citigroup (C) all took on water, with the brokerages all down at least 1.5%. Mortgage lender Countrywide (CFC) was absolutely whacked, losing 1.62 to 19.81, a 7.56% decline.

Countrywide, the nation's largest home mortgage financier, last week said it had to tap an $11 billion line of credit, since they were unable to raise funds in the market. Alongside that message was the disclosure that Countrywide originated more than $40 billion in sub-prime loans in 2006. Lenders have become so skeptical of packaged mortgage instruments that Countrywide finds itself without much support in financial markets. As highly leveraged as it is, a continuation of the credit squeeze could foster even more declines in its stock price and possibly even more serious circumstances, including forced liquidation.

That a company as robust as Countrywide could be facing bankruptcy within months is a startling development. The company is the undisputed leader in originating home mortgages, and its collapse - which was narrowly averted last week - could have far-reaching effects, both financial and psychological.

There is no antidote for non-performing loans. The solutions for lenders are somewhere between horror and catastrophe. Despite all the interventions and happy talk from Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, this crisis is nowhere near an end.

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