Tuesday, June 1, 2010

US Markets the World's Laughing Stock; Second Great Depression Still Looming

US equity markets must be the laughing stock of the entire planet. Whenever there's a risk of a serious downturn, especially on days in which Asian and European markets have already taken a hit, the globalists can count on a comedic interlude supplied by insider trading schemes run amok here in the cradle of free market economics and democracy.

Tuesday was just another shining example of how rigged and moronic US stock markets have become after years of manipulation by government operatives generally identified as the President's Working Group on Financial Markets, created in 1988 after the blowup of Long-Term Capital Management (LTCM), by then-president Ronald Reagan with Executive Order 13621, along with complicity by major banking and trading firms such as Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America and Citigroup.

While the existence of the "Working Group" (or PWG, as it has evolved) is a matter of fact, some decry the operations of the group as clandestine market participants (formerly known as the Plunge Protection Team, or PPT), such as this blog entry by Barry Ritholtz, complete with an array of illuminating comments and links.

It's more than plain and obvious that government is working in collusion with major banks, though whether or not they are involved in significant "market pumping" is still an unresolved question. Market volatility has become a semi-permanent fixture in US equity (and other) markets for many years, and recent policy decisions mostly made by the Federal Reserve, to ensure liquidity, and the Senate, to bail out generally-insolvent banks and states suffering from enormous budget shortfalls, beg the question.

The Fed's official federal funds interest rate has been at it's lowest level in history for 18 months (since December 2008) and while equity markets have bounced off their March 2009 significantly, there's worry that the momentum cannot be maintained. The Fed is pretty much out of bullets, but underhanded trading schemes should be able to avert another major market collapse for the near term.

That's the general condition of US equity markets today: volatile, manipulated and operating on the adrenaline of fear while the talking heads on CNBC glad-hand the purveyors of the pump all day, every day, relentlessly trotting out this or that analyst or trader with positive spin, keeping the whole charade of "recovery, growth and prosperity" churning along.

Meanwhile, the major indices have fallen below their 50-day moving averages and a sitting upon their 200-day MAs for the most part. Like all other government work, whatever the PWG is doing to prop up markets, they're doing a pretty shabby job of it. The entire US - and, to a large extent, global - financial system resembles a creaking ship adrift at sea, burdened by an overload of bad debt, faulty rigging and deficits billowing out of its hold.

Intra-day market actions only help to keep the ship afloat, hoping it can reach shallow enough waters so that when it does sink, it won't be resting too far below the surface.

In sum, market manipulation always fails. One only has to bear witness to the magnificent drops in markets in 2000 and 2008 to verify that point. Government intervention only works in the near-term, pushing the longer-term, systemic issues further out into the future, for another generation or another government to handle. The game cannot continue for long without some major disruption. We've just been through the worst month of May on the markets since 1940, and while the "double-dipsters" have been effectively silenced by the media, the level of fear and apprehension is still palpable.

Pushing markets off their lows through whatever conception available still seems to be bad business and one that cannot eventually, effectively halt the onslaught of dreadful deflation in assets of all classes. Globalization began the deflation process; the banks and inept or corrupt government operators witlessly helped it along. With no way out of what has morphed into a global currency "race to the bottom," equities will eventually falter, flat line or die. The only question is how long it's going to take.

History, always a great guide and usually ignored, provides the best answer, with the operative time period being the Great Depression of 1929-1942. Taking Fall of 2008 as the starting point, we're at roughly the equivalent of September, 1930.

On August 3, 1929, the Dow closed at 381.17. Then came the crash in October and November, with the Dow falling from aournd 352.86 on the 10th of October to 198.69 on the 13th of November, a 44% drop in just over a month, which compares to the Fall of 2008 and Winter, 2009, quite favorably. On the 17th of April, 1930, the Dow rebounded and stood at 294.07, a 48% gain off the lows and a level it would not approach again for nearly 24 years.

Yes, you read that right, 24 years. After the crash of 1929, the market rebounded, just as it did in recent history, from its bottom of 6,547.05, on March 9, 2009, to a peak of 10,725.43 on January 19, 2010, a gain of nearly 64%, though still well short of its all-time high of 14,164.53 on October 9, 2007.

President Herbert Hoover and his Republican counterparts in the banking community and the congress could not revive the slumping US economy, however. On July 8, 1932, the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell to it's all-time low of 41.22, helping usher in FDR and his New Deal policies. Elected in November, 1932, Roosevelt worked quickly to keep Americans out of financial misery, but for many it was too late. The country survived, barely, through the 30s and into World War II, which had been raging in Europe for more than 5 years before the US formally became involved in 1942. It wasn't until February 26, 1954 that the Dow surpassed that 1930 high, closing on that date at 294.54.

Thus, contrary to widely-held beliefs, the crash of 1929 was just a prelude for more pain to come. From the peak in August, 1929, to the bottom in July of 1932, the Dow lost nearly 90% of its value. A similar slide in today's terms would wipe the Dow all the way down to 1450.00, a number not seen since late November 1985, about 9 months into Ronald Reagan's second term as president, in the full throes of the supply side financial revolution.

It's an interesting point in history. From November 1985 to October, 2007, a period of nearly 23 years, the Dow Jones Industrials increased in value some ten-fold. That kind of expansion is unprecedented in economic history and it was largely fueled by low tax rates on wealthy individuals, lax tax compliance by major corporations, and, notably, little advance in the overall wealth, prosperity or wages of the middle class. So, a major, dramatic fall, similar to that of 1930-1932, might still be ahead for those of us who still give a damn.

The timeline of history is not without flaws, to be certain, but, taking the case of a largely manipulated market which is the current, dominant theme in American finances, the overhang of burgeoning federal and state deficits, unresolved banking issues from 2008, it is not outside the realm of possibility that stock markets and the global economy could suffer a blow even more dreadful than the shock of 2008-09. In fact, we are looking at January, 2010 as comparable to April 1930, we have an eerily-similar timeline, with the worst yet to come.

Just as in the Spring of 1930, politicians and financial experts explain how we averted crisis and survived a major financial event. Back then, just as today, nobody knew what was ahead, though today's "experts" apparently have not done a detailed analysis of history, though the one man who may know more about the subject than anyone on the planet, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, hasn't exactly sounded the "all-clear" alert. In fact, Bernanke has been assiduously most cautious during this critical period. Though he has reassured the nation that the recession has ended, his remarks of late - few that they are - have been quite tempered and reasoned. Certainly, he reasons that more trouble may lie ahead and his actions - keeping rates low and maintaining full liquidity - speak volumes about his inner thinking.

Should the "recovery" stumble and the economy remain weak, stocks could face armageddon again, though this time, it will be long-lasting and severe, making the episode of 2008-09 look like a walk in the park by comparison.

I'm going to reiterate some of the things I've said repeatedly in various posts over the past three to four years, but they should be maintained within the context of the foregoing discussion. Jobs will continue to be scarce. Prices for everything from gold, to homes, to food, to shoes, will fall demonstrably. The goals of many will be survival, not prosperity. By the time the bulk of the baby boomer generation reaches retirement age - within the next 5-7 years, the Social Security system - already broke - will be running a deficit so large that it will break the will of the markets and the government completely. That event could come sooner, though by no means later than 2017, unless radical changes are made today, and, considering the dithering aspect of the current congress, that doesn't seem likely.

Mortgage interest rates will likely fall to below 3%. Some friends have already told me that their home equity lines are hovering around 2%. Most banks cannot make money with rates at 3-4% long term. More bank failures are a near certainty, possibly peaking in 2012, with the number in the thousands, rather than today's hundreds. Foreclosures and bankruptcies will overwhelm court systems which are already stressed beyond a level at which they can operate efficiently. Inner cities, many already slums of third world order, will become hell-holes of crime and depravity. Suburbs will become vacuous spaces for survivors of the crisis. Most people will cash out of their retirement plans if they can, because they need the cash. The next few years will be telling times indeed.

Now, back to our normally scheduled daily market recap:

The number of bank failures in 2010 reached 78 on Friday, with the FDIC closing down 5 more - three in Florida and one each in Nevada and California.

At the current pace, bank failures this year will easily surpass the total of 140 from 2009. Regulators will likely shut down between 180 and 200 banks this year as the real estate and banking bust widens and deepens.

When markets opened for trading following the three-day holiday, futures pointed to a lower open and that's exactly what occurred, with the Dow off by 80 points and the other major indices following suit... for about five minutes. That's when the usual/unusual pattern reappeared, buyers emerged and by 10:00 am - just 1/2 hour into the trading day - the indices were all either positive or close to it. With the Dow gaining steadily, then leveling off, finally reaching a peak of 10,218, some 84 points above the previous close, the chicanery was in full blossom.

But, by 1:30 in the afternoon, the bloom was off the rose, and stocks began to sell off, just as Asian and European markets had earlier in the day. Finally settling at the break even line about 3:30 pm, the Dow and other indices took on all of their losses in the final half hour of trading, closing at their lowest levels of the day. One can only wonder where stocks might have been had it not been for the underhanded intervention which has become commonplace and remarkably humorous.

Dow 10,024.02, -112.61 (1.11%)
NASDAQ 2,222.33, -34.71 (1.54%)
S&P 500 1,070.71, -18.70 (1.72%)
NYSE Composite 6,661.10, -130.47 (1.92%)

Declining issues eventually overcame advancers, 5170-1374, and the pattern of new lows surpassing new highs emerged once more, 121-98. Volume was very light, a feature that could endure the entire summer and possibly extend deeper into the year.

NYSE Volume 5,695,913,500.00
NASDAQ Volume 2,001,166,750.00

Commodities tried to play along, though there seems to be no saving grace for the price of oil, which fell again today, losing $1.39, to $72.58 on the July contract. Gold bugs were busy at work, snatching up hat they believe to be the "new" currency (and they may be right), boosting the price $12.60, to $1,224.80. Silver also sported a gain, of 13 cents, to $18.54. Prices for gold and silver should be stable to higher at worst, until deflation grabs hold of them and their ardent admirers as well.

With the action on our horribly-manipulated markets notwithstanding, the global economic crisis seems to have entered a new phase, with governments seriously looking at options from reflation to default and everything in between. It's becoming a something of a game of chicken as currencies take turns being beaten down to levels at which their products can compete in various foreign markets.

Here's a new feature:
Death Spiral Watch List:

I'm opening this one up with two companies which seem to be living on borrowed time. One is obvious, that being British Petroleum (BP), which lost another 15% today, down 6.43, to $36.52, as the federal government announced today that it was opening investigations into potential criminal and civil lawsuits (about time). TARGET=6.00

The second may not be such an apparent loser, but it is eBay (EBAY), formerly the world's online auction giant, which, through a series of ill-conceived management decisions launched by CEO John Donahoe, has effectively destroyed the trust of millions of small merchants globally. Ebay has embarked upon a path of dealing comfortably with larger concerns, offering them much lower fees than are afforded the average small business or occasional seller. It's a long, sad and sordid tale, but ebay has been turning the screws on small business with great force for the past two years, and sellers are actively seeking other platforms, tired of the endless game-changing and lack of responsible management. ebay closed down 0.45, to 20.96. Target=4.50

I call this the death spiral syndrome, recalling the demise of Countrywide Financial in 2007-08. The company was once the darling of Wall Street, at one time originating more than 50% of all mortgage loans nationally. Then came the sub-prime crisis and the company, and the rest, as they say, was history. Bank of America finally took over the company for $2/share, which makes one believe that maybe BofA might someday make this list itself. Time will tell.

The death spiral watch list tracks companies which I believe are headed for insolvency - a list that may grow to unprecedented levels should economic conditions continue to worsen.

An interesting point made today on Yahoo! Tech Ticker, which points to the uncertainty we all face:

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