Sunday, September 14, 2008

What If The Worst is Yet to Come?

As unlikely as it seems that I would turn to the mainstream media to support my Crash thesis, this article from Friday's Washington Post sets out a scenario where, quoting from the last sentence of the article,
"We are nowhere near the resolution of a financial crisis that has been years in the making and that has only begun to have its impact on a newly globalized economy."

Rather then piece meal the author's ideas with my own, here is the column in it's entirety, posted in the spirit of I couldn't have said it better myself (or, in the spirit of laziness on a Sunday afternoon).

A

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A Vicious Cycle, Gone Global


By Steven Pearlstein

Friday, September 12, 2008;

Oil prices have now dipped back near $100, other commodity prices are in a free fall, interest rates are down, and the dollar is up smartly against just about every currency.

From one angle, that all looks to be good news. Since food, energy and commodities were behind the recent surge in prices, inflation suddenly looks like less of a threat, particularly since a strong dollar also lowers the prices of other imports. Lower energy prices take some of the pressure off such hard-hit industries as autos and airlines, and off households that have been forced to cut back on other expenditures. More growth, less inflation -- nothing to complain about there.

But what if it weren't that simple?

What if what's really happening is that sky-high energy and commodity prices weren't a reflection of a fundamental shift in supply and demand, but merely another speculative investment bubble?

And what if that bubble burst because the investment herd finally realized that double-digit annual economic growth in developing countries was not a sure thing -- that it was actually unsustainable, the result of underpriced currencies and an investment boom that had created bubbles in asset prices and economic output?

That, of course, would be a very different story. It would explain why prices for just about every financial asset you can think of are now falling all around the world, sending desperate investors fleeing to the apparent safety of U.S. Treasury bonds and the U.S. dollar. It would explain why the slowdown in the United States had spread to other once-bubbly economies such as Spain, Ireland and Britain, to commodity-dependent economies such as Russia, Canada and much of the Middle East, and to export-dependent economies such as Germany, China, India, Vietnam and South Korea. And it would explain why the financial turmoil that began on Wall Street had finally gone global.

To put the question slightly differently: Are we witnessing an overdue unwinding of economic imbalances and market excesses, or are the markets and the global economy now caught in a vicious cycle of panic selling and de-leveraging that has begun to spin out of control and threatens to take the global economy down with it?

I'd love to be the optimist on this one, but with each passing day it feels more like global contagion. Here at home, the government has taken extraordinary steps to rescue failing institutions, while governments abroad have begun to move aggressively to prop up their falling currencies. Money is rushing out of developing markets at a rate not seen in a decade, driving down major stock indexes 30, 40, even 50 percent on the year. For the first time in years, auto sales were down last month in China, while Infosys Technologies, India's outsourcing giant, warned investors of disappointing sales growth. And what does it tell you that, among major economies, the lone bright spot is Brazil?

It's also hard to be an optimist when the United States continues to report near-record monthly trade deficits and when its government is on a path toward a $500 billion budget deficit next year. Lower oil prices should quickly help to bring down both deficits, but a rising dollar and slower export growth are pushing things in the opposite direction.

On financial markets, meanwhile, you have near-record spreads between interest rates on risky bonds and loans and those on U.S. Treasuries. You also have wild hour-to-hour and day-to-day swings in the price of financial assets in response to the latest rumors about hedge fund losses or any shred of news about WaMu or AIG. Want to finance a shopping center or corporate takeover, float a junk bond or new stock issue, or securitize some vanilla-variety college loans? Forget it.

As one market-savvy economist told me yesterday, "We've been at this for more than a year already and it's not getting any better. People still don't understand what is happening."

The next chapter in this saga is expected to be written over the weekend with the government-orchestrated takeover of Lehman Brothers, the latest financial institution to get trampled by the retreating herd. But it's unlikely Lehman will be the last to get hit. We are nowhere near the resolution of a financial crisis that has been years in the making and that has only begun to have its impact on a newly globalized economy.

Steven Pearlstein can be reached atpearlsteins@washpost.com.

8 comments:

Tom D said...

"And what does it tell you that, among major economies, the lone bright spot is Brazil?"

Hmmmmmm, that writer may need to get out more often:

http://ichart.finance.yahoo.com/1y?brlusd=x

http://screencast.com/t/kkDPe9nHE4q

Allan said...

Tom - Pearlstein seems to be a devotee of the Gainesville gang, but a good writer and journalist. Check out his archives at the link.

Dave said...

Allan:
Looks like you nailed another one with the crash warning...or certainly close enough for govt work. I didn't make it in time to snap-up some SKF last week and I didn't want to chase it. Ironically I was laying awake this morning around 5:00am thinking about the open today and when I turned-on cnbc and bloom, there it was. So, do you have your cabin in the mountains ready to go? Hope it doesn't come to that. Keep up the good work.

Cruiseguy said...

Allan,

Just my luck I missed your crash warning..traveling too much. It definitely looks like it will be worse before it gets better...BofA is sure an optimist to continue buying companies like Countrywide and Merril...seems like the same greed that got us into this mess?

Cruiseguy

Fiftybillioncent said...

Hey Allan,

I found you blog after I joined INO.COM.

I am currently a student at Suffolk. What a small world. I am adding you to my blogroll at Earthtowallstreet.com

Have a good one,
Chris

Singlengle said...

How is B of A different than the rest. AND there BUYING ? Time to short B of A ? I'm definately not on either side of them.

Dave said...

Allan:
If you were just now looking to get into SKF, what would be your desired entry point? If I didn't know better (and I don't), I'd think this thing could have legs to run to $220+. Thoughts?

OR...are you hoarding gold and silver and packing for the cabin?

Allan said...

dave, if SKF is destined to break above $200, and its trading today around $130, best entry is any entry around today's levels.

singlengle, BAC seems to have weakened it's standing as a safe bank, so maybe we throw it in the pile of doomed banks, trading in single digits?