Despite a litany of bleak economic and corporate news confronting investors during the past week, global stock markets digested the bearish fodder with a sense of aplomb. The MSCI World Index and the MSCI Emerging Markets Index gained 4.4% and 10.9% respectively on the week, with other reflation trades such as gold (+9.1%) and oil (+20.4%) also putting in a strong performance.

But investor angst was never completely allayed as seen from the yields on US one- and three-month Treasury Bills briefly trading in negative territory for the first time since 1940, indicating the willingness of risk-averse investors to pay the government for the “privilege” of holding their money. Three-month T-Bills ended the week in positive territory but barely so at a minuscule 0.036% yield, indicating that liquidity was still being hoarded. (Also see my “Credit Crisis Watch“.)

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Source: Nick Anderson, Slate

The week kicked off on a positive note after US president-elect Barack Obama had spelled out his plans on Sunday for the biggest infrastructure investment in the US since the 1950s. According to CNN, Obama said: “We understand that we’ve got to provide a blood infusion to the patient right now to make sure that the patient is stabilized. And that means that we can’t worry short term about the deficit [which might surpass $1 trillion before his spending plans are included]. We’ve got to make sure that the economic stimulus plan is large enough to get the economy moving.”

“The resultant infrastructure and physical assets will be far better than endowing busted banks, insurance companies and other financial entities with US taxpayers’ cash, which effectively goes down a black hole,” remarked Bill King (The King Report).

Financial markets reacted negatively to the US Senate’s failure to agree on a $14 billion loan to the troubled automakers. The prospect of the biggest industrial failure in US history caused a sell-off on global stock markets, a widening of credit spreads and an onslaught on the US dollar.

However, the US Treasury was quick to signal its readiness to provide funds to prop up the “Big Three”, as quoted in the Financial Times: “Because Congress failed to act, we will stand ready to prevent an imminent failure until Congress reconvenes and acts to address the long-term viability of the industry.” This indication resulted in an improved tone on financial markets by the close of the week.

Next, a tag cloud from the plethora of articles I have devoured over the past week. This is a way of visualizing word frequencies at a glance. Key words such as “credit”, “debt”, “economy”, “Fed”, “government”, “market”, “rates” and “stock” occur often, but “gold” is also becoming increasingly prominent.

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Back to the issue of markets shrugging off bad news for the second week running. Richard Russell (Dow Theory Letters) commented as follows: “On top of everything else, Lowry’s Selling Pressure Index dropped substantially yesterday [Wednesday] and is now in a definite declining trend. At the same time, Lowry’s Buying Power Index is trending higher. Thus, the odds are saying that the trend of the stock market is turning up.

“This is all the more dramatic since this potential upturn has arrived in the face of black-bearish news. Markets bottoming and rising in the face of bearish news are often the most profitable ones. I have never seen a bear market hit its low amid happy news headlines.”

On a fundamental note, 39% of the constituents of the MSCI World Index sell at a discount to shareholders’ equity. “The cash-rich companies allow investors to pay nothing for future earnings streams,” said Jean-Marie Eveillard in an interview with Bloomberg.

A positive for the bulls is that the period post Thanksgiving through the end of the year has usually been a bullish time for stocks, based on studies by Jeffrey Hirsch (Stock Trader’s Almanac). Should the bullish seasonal tendencies provide a tailwind on this occasion, possible first targets are the 50-day moving averages of 8,784 for the Dow Jones Industrial Index (current level 8,630) and 910 for the S&P 500 Index (current level 880).

The last word on equities goes to Hong Kong-based Puru Saxena: “I cannot say with any certainty whether we are already in the early stages of the next cycle. Under my best case scenario, we are in the very early stages of a new multi-year bull market. And under my worst case scenario, we are going to get a very strong rebound (30% move higher in the S&P 500) over a short period of time, which will probably take the markets back to their 200-day moving averages.”

Before highlighting some thought-provoking news items and quotes from market commentators, let’s briefly review the financial markets’ movements on the basis of economic statistics and a performance round-up.

Economy
“Global business confidence has been shattered. Sentiment is equally negative in North America, South America and Europe. Asian business confidence is not quite as dark, but it is falling rapidly,” said the latest Survey of Business Confidence of the World conducted by Moody’s Economy.com. “Pricing power is quickly evaporating and approaching that which prevailed in 2003, the last time deflation was a concern.” According to the survey results, the global economy is suffering a severe recession.

Economic indicators released in the US during the past week mostly pointed to a deepening recession.

BCA Research said: “The year-end spending season will be the biggest bust in several decades, as consumers have been hit by a double whammy: a meltdown in financial and residential asset prices; and a sharp rise in layoffs. The government’s failure to deliver a fiscal stimulus plan and unfreeze the credit markets imply that the recession will deepen and any recovery will be pushed farther into the future.

“The contraction in payrolls and economic growth will persist until there are some signs that policy actions are finally becoming effective. The fiscal stimulus plan needed to stabilize the economy will be massive and policy rates will stay near zero for a long time.”

The precarious position of the US consumer is illustrated by a plunge of 21.9 points to 63.7 in the annual average of the University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index – the largest annual average decline in the history of the Index which began in 1952, according to Asha Bangalore (Northern Trust).

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The Fed fund futures are pricing in a 76% chance of a 75 basis-point cut in rates from 1.0% to 0.25% when the FOMC meets on December 16.

However, Bill King questioned the Fed’s approach: “[Effective] Fed funds traded at zero late last night. We have screamed for months that the official or ‘target’ Fed funds rate was irrelevant because the effective funds rate was much lower, and near zero. Now Fed funds are trading at zero. Yet there will be pundits and experts that will assert that the Fed might cut its target funds rate this week to 0.50% or even 0.25% – even though the cut in the target rate is meaningless. Now that the Fed is paying interest to banks, why did the Fed allow the funds rate to trade at zero? Yep, they are terrified by something.”

Also, the Fed is considering issuing its own debtto further expand money supply without clogging up bank balance sheets and making it harder for the Fed to maintain interest rates at the desired level. RGE Monitor said: “… there are upper limits to Treasury issuance and lower limits to the amount of Treasuries the Fed can sell off from the asset side of its balance sheet. One hurdle to issuing Fed bills: The Federal Reserve Act doesn’t explicitly permit the Fed to issue notes beyond currency.”

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Elsewhere in the world, economic reports compounded anxiety about a severe global recession. Specifically, Chinese exports in November declined by 2.2% from a year earlier as a result of a drastic slowdown in demand in many of its main markets. The figures were far below forecasts and the +19% figure for October. “This is the worst collapse in Chinese exports since 1999 and is probably just the beginning of a prolonged export contraction,” said Isaac Meng, economist at BNP Paribas, as reported by the Financial Times.

Week’s economic reports
Click here for the week’s economy in pictures, courtesy of Jake of EconomPic Data.

Date

Time (ET)

Statistic

For

Actual

Briefing Forecast

Market Expects

Prior

Dec 9

10:00 AM

Pending Home Sales

Oct

-0.7%

-3.0%

-4.3%

Dec 10

10:00 AM

Wholesale Inventories

Oct

-1.1%

-0.2%

-0.2%

-0.4%

Dec 10

10:35 AM

Crude Inventories

12/06

392K

NA

NA

-456K

Dec 10

2:00 PM

Treasury Budget

Nov

-$164.4B

NA

-$171.0B

-$98.2B

Dec 11

8:30 AM

Export Prices ex-agriculture

Nov

-2.9%

NA

NA

-1.3%

Dec 11

8:30 AM

Import Prices ex-oil

Nov

-1.8%

NA

NA

-0.9%

Dec 11

8:30 AM

Initial Claims

12/06

573K

520K

525K

515K

Dec 11

8:30 AM

Trade Balance

Oct

-$57.2B

-$53.5B

-$53.5B

-$56.6B

Dec 12

8:30 AM

Core PPI

Nov

0.1%

0.1%

0.1%

0.4%

Dec 12

8:30 AM

PPI

Nov

-2.2%

-2.1%

-2.0%

-2.8%

Dec 12

8:30 AM

Retail Sales

Nov

-1.8%

-2.1%

-2.0%

-2.9%

Dec 12

8:30 AM

Retail Sales ex-auto

Nov

-1.6%

-1.9%

-1.8%

-2.4%

Dec 12

10:00 AM

Business Inventories

Oct

-0.6%

0.0%

-0.2%

-0.4%

Dec 12

10:00 AM

Mich Sentiment-Preliminary

Dec

59.1

58.0

55.0

55.3

Source: Yahoo Finance, December 12, 2008.

In addition to interest rate announcements by the FOMC (Tuesday) and the Bank of Japan (Thursday), next week’s US economic highlights, courtesy of Northern Trust, include the following:

1. Industrial Production (December 15): The 1.4% drop in the manufacturing man-hours index in November suggests a 1.0% decline in industrial production. The operating rate is projected to have dropped to 75.7. Consensus: -0.8%; Capacity Utilization: 75.7 versus 76.4 in October.

2. Consumer Price Index (December 16): A 0.7% decline in the CPI is forecast for November versus a 1.0% drop in October, reflecting largely lower energy prices. The core CPI is expected to have moved up by 0.1% after a 0.1% decline in October. Consensus: 1.3%, core CPI +0.1%.

3. Housing Starts (December 16): Permit extensions for new homes fell by 9.2% in October, inclusive of a 12.6% drop in permits issued for single-family homes. These figures suggest a sharp drop in housing starts (730,000). Consensus: 740,000 versus 791,000 in October.

4. Leading Indicators (December 18): Interest-rate spread and money supply are the only two components likely to make a positive contribution in November. Stock prices, initial jobless claims, manufacturing workweek, consumer expectations, vendor deliveries, and building permits are expected to make negative contributions. Forecasts of money supply and orders of consumer durables and non-defense capital goods are used in the initial estimate. The net impact is a 0.5% drop in the leading index during November, assuming building permits fell. Consensus: -0.5 %

5. Other reports: NAHB Survey (December 15), Current Account (Q4) (December 17), Philadelphia Fed Survey (December 18).

Click here for a summary of Wachovia’s weekly economic and financial commentary.

Markets
The performance chart obtained from the Wall Street Journal Online shows how different global markets performed during the past week.

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Source: Wall Street Journal Online, December 12, 2008.

Equities
Global stock markets rallied strongly during the past week as bargain-hunters looked past the grim economic and corporate reports. Both mature and emerging markets participated in the rally, as shown by the gains of the MSCI World Index (+4.4%) and the MSCI Emerging Markets Index (+10.9%). Notwithstanding the improvement, these indices were still down by 47.4% and 58.8% respectively since the peaks of October 2007.

Particularly noteworthy, the MSCI Emerging Markets Index has been outperforming the Dow Jones World Index since late October (rising green line), after a period of solid underperformance from May to October (falling line).

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The chart below shows the performance of the four BRIC countries since the November 20 lows. Brazil (orange line), India (green) and Russia (red) have all recovered sharply, but China (blue) has underperformed after initial outperformance following the climactic[MR2] November 10 sell-off.

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Click here or on the thumbnail below for a (pleasantly green) market map, obtained from Finviz, providing a quick overview of last week’s performances of global stock markets (as reflected by the movements of ADR stocks).

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The Dow Jones Industrial Index was one of the few major indices to record a negative return during the past week, with US markets in general lagging other bourses as shown by the major index movements: Dow -0.1% (YTD -34.95), S&P 500 Index +0.4% (YTD -40.1%), Nasdaq Composite Index +2.1% (YTD ‑41.9%) and Russell 2000 Index +1.6% (YTD -38.8%).

The bar chart below shows the US sector performances over the week, and specifically how strongly energy and materials have recovered. Nine of the ten best-performing groups were related to commodities (diversified metals & mining, coal & consumable fuel, aluminum, steel, gold, oil & gas drilling, oil & gas exploration & production, gas utilities[MR3] , and oil & gas equipment & services).

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Jamie Dimon, JPMorgan Chase’s (JPM) chief executive, prompted a sharp fall in financial shares with a warning that his bank was having a tough fourth quarter after a “terrible” November and December. Goldman Sachs’ (GS) earnings report on Tuesday is keenly awaited.

Based on the outperformance of emerging-market stocks and the sharp recovery of commodity-related groups, it would appear that investors are becoming less risk averse. Another example is the outperformance of small caps since the November 20 lows. A study published by Bespoke on December 8 highlighted the decile performance of stocks in the S&P 500 Index based on market cap. As shown by the chart below, the two deciles of the largest-cap stocks in the S&P 500 increased by about 17%, while the decile of the smallest-cap stocks was 54% higher.

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Fixed-income instruments
The yields on government bonds generally edged up during the past few trading days after a record-breaking plunge since the beginning of November.

The UK ten-year Gilt yield increased by 17 basis points to 3.60% and the German ten-year Bund rose by 26 basis points to 3.30%. Although the US ten-year Treasury Note yield declined by 7 basis points to 2.59% on the week, the yield edged up from an earlier five-decade low of 2.48%.

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John Hussman (Hussman Funds) expressed his concern about the level of Treasuries: “The problem with Treasury yields here is that while there are good economic reasons for the downward yield pressures, the levels are low enough to invite explosive spikes that can easily wipe out a year or more of yield-to-maturity in a few days.”

Emerging-market bonds moved in an opposite direction to mature bonds, with the JPMorgan EMBI Global Index gaining 2.4% during the week.

US mortgage rates were almost unchanged on the week, with the 30-year fixed rate rising by 2 basis points to 5.71% and the 5-year ARM declining by 1 basis point to 5.95%

The CDX and iTraxx credit indices, US Treasury Bills and high-yield spreads are still at distressed levels. Some improvement has been seen as a result of the central banks’ actions, notably the tightening of the TED and LIBOR-OIS spreads, and lower mortgage rates. However, credit spreads need to narrow further to indicate that liquidity is moving freely again and credit markets are starting to thaw. (Also see my “Credit Crisis Watch“.)

Currencies
The US dollar fell sharply as the recent relationship between risk aversion and dollar strength weakened as a result of US-specific factors like the deterioration in the US trade balance and the automaker woes. The greenback plummeted to a 13-year low against the Japanese yen and touched its lowest level against the euro for seven weeks.

As shown by the chart below, the dollar has broken below its 50-day moving average and seems to be topping out. Are foreign investors coming to the conclusion that the US currency, which briefly last week yielded a negative yield, is no longer an attractive option?

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Over the week the US dollar lost ground against the euro (-5.0%), the British pound (-1.8%), the Swiss franc (-3.6%), the Japanese yen (-1.8%), the Canadian dollar (-2.0%), the Australian dollar (-3.0%) and the New Zealand dollar (-2.2%). The US currency also fell against emerging-market currencies[MR4] , like the South African rand (-2.0%).

The British pound came under renewed pressure as the worsening economic situation triggered concerns of a currency crisis. Sterling’s trade-weighted index fell to its lowest level since record-keeping began in 1981.

Commodities
The Reuters/Jeffries CRB Index (+8.8%) closed higher by the end of the week – only its sixth positive week since commodities peaked early in July. The Baltic Dry Index – a benchmark for shipping major raw materials including coal, iron ore and grain – bounced by 15.2% from very oversold levels.

The graph below shows the movements of various commodities over the past week, indicating an improvement across the whole complex (with the exception of natural gas) as a weak US dollar pushed prices higher.

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The International Energy Agency urged a “substantial” cut in Opec output when the oil cartel meets next week, as global oil demand this year is expected to contract for the first time in 25 years. The price of West Texas Intermediate crude surged by 20.4% in expectation of a cut of at least 1 million to 1.5 million barrels a day.

Gold bullion (+9.1%) remained in favor with investors as a result of a solid supply/demand situation, store-of-value considerations and a weaker US currency. The chart below illustrates the strong inverse relationship between gold (green line) and the dollar (red line). In addition, gold has broken above its 50-day moving average (blue line) and trades at about the same level it started off in January 2008 – quite a feat in these difficult markets. Platinum (+4.9%) and silver (+8.5%) improved in tandem with the yellow metal.

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After the storm comes the calm. With only 12 more trading days remaining before we wish the tumultuous 2008 goodbye, let’s hope the calm lies just ahead. And as Richard Russell reminds us: “Calm after a bearish trend is usually bullish.” Meanwhile, the news items and words from the investment wise below will hopefully assist in steering our portfolios on a profitable course.

That’s the way it looks from Cape Town.

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Source: Dave Granlund

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