May 20, 2009

Global Market Comments
May 20, 2009

Featured Trades: (VIX), (JAPAN)

1) California voters resoundingly rejected all five out of six budgetary measures by an overwhelming two to one margin, setting the stage for a new financial crisis. Trashed at the polls were plans to create a rainy day fund, improve education, borrow from the state lottery, and pay for children's services and mental health. Only prop 1F, freezing legislator pay raises during deficit years, passed. The state now has to immediately cut spending by $21 billion by laying off 10,000 teachers, 5,000 other state workers, and shortening the school year by seven days. It will raid every city and county government for additional cash. The state will also release 20,000 non violent state prisoners and suspend maintenance and construction on thousands of projects. My home town high school is closing their sports and music programs. If the state's latest round of $6.5 billion in bond issues did not carry federal government guarantees, they would have been wiped out in the market. No doubt our well tanned, Austrian immigrant governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was in Washington DC for a CAFE photo op with Obama, will be sent back to the gym to pump iron sooner than he thinks.

arnold1.jpg picture by sbronte

2) Traders are making much of yesterday's drop of the volatility index (VIX) under 30% for the first time since the Lehman bankruptcy in September. Please see my April 7 forecast that it would collapse from 40%.  Are we now at the bottom of a 30%-50% range, or will 32% be the new ceiling on the way back down to the 10% we saw two years ago? Part of the confusion springs from a misunderstanding of what the VIX is by ordinary investors. It is just a mathematical guess about how big the next move in the market will be.  A 40% VIX implies that one out of three days will see a 2.25% palpitation, and once a month we will suffer a 4.5% gyration. You can have the market drop 10%, rise 11.1%, remaining unchanged, but still generate a tremendously high VIX. The equation doesn't care what the direction is. VIX unfairly picked up a bearish connotation because of the panicked rush by long side only investors to buy downside protection in falling markets, driving 'put' implied volatilities through the roof. This is why investors associate a high VIX with falling markets. In the end, this debate can only be resolved in one way, and that is to the downside. Smart hedge funds that shorted out of the money calls on VIX higher up, are now taking profits. But the VIX will crash again when markets go to sleep, as they inevitably will. Believe me, trading around a low VIX is your worst nightmare. Traders don't pull down million dollar compensation packages playing 'Solitaire' on their computers.

VIX-2.png picture by sbronte

sleep2.jpg picture by sbronte

3) You know things are bad when traders celebrate a Q1 GDP of minus 4%, better than the 4.4% that had been forecast, but still the worst in history. The main causes were a 26% decline in exports and a strong yen, which diluted foreign profits. Apparently, people don't rush out and buy a new Lexus when they lose their jobs. Many economists are hoping for a recovery when the government's $160 billion stimulus package hits seriously pared back inventories. However,  global asset allocators are facing a larger quandary. What is Japan's role in the 'new' world? It is not an emerging market, nor is it Europe or the US. It is on the doorstep of the world's worst demographic problem, and its labor is not exactly cheap. But chastened by its own financial crisis that started 20 years ago, it has some of the few global banks left standing, as well as some world beating companies, and a great neighborhood customer in China. As American power declines, will it fall into the Chinese orbit? Maybe country allocations don't matter anymore. Until either the Japanese or I figure this out, I'd rather stand aside. This is coming from someone who lived there ten years.

sNIKKEI.png picture by sbronte

Japanmap.jpg picture by sbronte

4) I never cease to be amazed by the feedback I get on my work from around the world. Yesterday, I published a piece on the dire state of shipping in Singapore. So of course, I find a chart of the exact locations of all of the troubled ships in question in my in box this morning, sent by a follower in the island nation. If I go to Google Earth, I can even get a close up satellite view of bored crews lounging around the decks playing cards. There truly is nowhere to hide anymore.

singapore4.jpg picture by sbronte


'The people of California don't like to be told what to do,' said California's Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

arnold3_.jpg picture by sbronte

I Won't Be Back