Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Blue Chips Seeing Red

Stocks spent all day Tuesday trading underwater and ended near the lows of the day. It seems the sense of the rally from the past few days has been lost on most people with eyes, ears and brains still functioning. Any number of major firms announced more layoffs and/or 2009 forecasts that were well below previous expectations, ranging from poor to dismal, including such notables as Sony Corp., Texas Instrument, Dow Chemical, Nucor, Altera, Broadcom, Disney and FedEx.

The realities of unemployment at 8 or 9% by February, with real unemployment (including the underemployed - part time workers - and those who have simply given up looking and are not counted in government churned and massaged figures) at 14-16%, have begun to sink in, even on Wall Street.

The idea that stocks could go anywhere but down or sideways over the coming six to nine months is beginning to look like a pure pipe dream. Stocks, already battered and beaten down, are sure to fall even further, perhaps as much as 30% or more from current levels. I do not enjoy making these kinds of predictions, but somebody must speak the truth.

Bankruptcy protection is being sought by entities as diverse as the Tribune Co. and the Baltimore Symphony. The list of companies already having announced layoffs is so massive that it took CNBC three full pages to cover them all. But that's hardly the end of it. CNBC also reports that even more job losses than predicted are possible. They're looking at 400-500,000 again in December.

Once again, one has to question where this is all heading. It's pretty simple if you are unafraid to face reality. We are entering a global depression, the likes of which the world has not known since the dreadful 1930s. The culprits are the same - overleveraged bankers without supervision from government led to massive failures (see Citigroup, AIG, Lehman Bros. Bear Stearns, Countrywide, Merrill Lynch, et. al.), government assistance arrived too late and in too arcane a form, credit markets either collapsed or were so severely reigned in by the creditors that almost nobody could borrow for anything, leaving ordinary citizens without work, without credit, and mostly without money to pay for even basic necessities. It's time for the churches to re-open the soup kitchens en masse.

If 16% of the employment force is realistically not working, not earning and thus, not spending, consider the effect that has on all businesses, at every level. There is going to be a shortfall in either gross sales or profits, but more than likely, both. That will only lead to more layoffs, less sales, slimmer profits and a reinforcement of the deflation cycle. Prices will become cheaper for everything, though few will have the money to afford anything.

All of this will take some time, but in the meanwhile, class warfare will break out between haves and have-nots. The haves will be mostly those in the employ of various government entities - towns, cities, states and the feds. The have-nots will generally be everyone else. Somewhere in between these will be a new class of entrepreneurs, hardened like steel to the new environment, who will eventually take the lead in retooling the old establishment and redefining business for the 21st century. Many of these people will be unseen, toiling on the internet or otherwise in relative obscurity, but they shall be the long-term winners. Business models of the past, along with any needless government intervention and regulation, will be tossed aside, ignored or worked around. Give them a broken economy, a computer, keyboard, a mouse, and about four to six years and these new business leaders will reshape everything from journalism to banking to energy. Many of them have already begun.

That there will be a silver lining in the form of new structure of economics, business and leadership won't matter much to the millions who will lose jobs, homes, self-respect and sadly, for some, lives. America and the world is about to embark on a terrible journey to hell and back. Some will not survive the trip.

It was only yesterday that I was informed - much to my surprise - that some very well-heeled-looking people had actually considered filing for bankruptcy over the weekend, and they still may. This is the plight of the typical American suburban family with kids, no savings and loads of debt who are being squeezed by banks that are cutting lines of credit, mostly the home equity variety. The bankers are more than happy to loan cash or credit for goods at 15-25%, but those 6% lines are quickly becoming a thing of the past.

More than any one group, it is the banking institutions - those we've been attempting to "bail out" and "keep from collapsing" - that have caused and continue to exacerbate the conditions extant in the US and broader economies. There's nothing new about this. Brain-dead bankers have always been at the forefront of the worst of any condition: wars, famine, pestilence, foreclosure, bankruptcy, you name it, the bankers will be there with unbending rules and outstretched hands. They are the scourge of every society, from the Pharaohs of Egypt to modern times.

So, is the general investment community and Wall Street finally "getting it?" Not quite yet. There are still advertisements and commercials touting investing in stocks. There will be fewer of them in coming months as the value of stocks sinks further. I've seen ads so convoluted as to suggest that the best time to make money with stocks is during bear markets. Since stocks go down during bear markets, nothing could actually be further from the truth. Others are calling bottoms, touting "sectors" and pimping the stock du jour to the increasingly-desperate and clueless crowd that hasn't already thrown in the equities towel.

But, as each day passes, there is more evidence that hope is fading faster, that even the mighty will fall, and fall harder than most. When 11 of the 30 Dow stocks are trading at $25 per share or less, none of them higher than $85 and all of them down for the year, the seriousness of our current economic condition can hardly be overstated.

Dow 8,691.33, -242.85 (2.72%)
NASDAQ 1,547.34, -24.40 (1.55%)
S&P 500 888.67, -21.03 (2.31%)
NYSE Composite 5,522.66, -117.02 (2.07%)

For the day, only 3 of 30 Dow Industrials finished with gains - Citigroup, DuPont and Intel. In the broader market, the selling intensified as the day wore on, with declining issues outdistancing advancers by a margin of 4452-2264. The number of new lows increased again, to 182, versus a paltry 20 new highs. Volume was a little stronger than normal. All indications are pointing to a retest of the October 27 and November 20 lows. Chances of falling below the year's bottom (Dow 7527) are high, and general concerns are mounting again.

NYSE Volume 1,434,055,000
NASDAQ Volume 2,277,691,000

Oil fell another $1.55, to $42.16. Gold gained $6.40, to $775.70, while silver dropped 16 cents to $9.82. Commodities continue to tell today's story and that of the future. As commodities slump, so will prices of all goods. In addition to drops in the main trio followed here daily, prices for everything from natural gas to pork bellies have taken hits over the past few months.

The remainder of the week offers little in the way of economic data until Friday, when the PPI figures are released along with November retail sales, which have already been demonstrably weak according to data supplied by the retailers themselves and various tracking firms. If no news is good news, it would likely be preferable to ignore what is sure to be a dismal day of data to finish the week.

Only 16 days until Christmas!

No comments: