November 24, 2009

Global Market Comments
November 24, 2009

Featured Trades: (PCY), (LQD), (TM),

1) I spent an evening chewing the fat with James Lentz, the president of Toyota Motor Sales, USA, (TM) who let loose some incredibly insightful views on the long term future of the global economy. I have been following Toyota for 35 years, hobnobbing with senior management, touring their factories in Japan, and driving their marvelously engineered products. It is far and away one of the best run multinationals, with awesome research resources, spending $9 billion a year on R&D, but are also one of the most secretive organizations on the planet. If the CIA only kept its secrets so well! Peak oil is going to hit in 2017-2020, making gasoline prohibitively expensive. Toyota is racing to get as many hybrids out there as possible by then, converting a Mississippi factory from Highlanders to the hugely popular Prius. In Japan there is a backlog of 200,000 orders for these cars, and Toyota makes a profit on every one. The plug in version of this car will be fleet tested in the US next year, and sold to the public from 2012. But hybrids, which reduce emissions by 70%, compared to conventional cars, are just a transitional solution until the technology for hydrocarbon free alternatives, like electric only and fuel cells, mature in the 2020's. The US car market will come in at 10 million units this year, but will rebound to 15-16 million units by 2015. At 9.3 years, the average age of the American car fleet is the oldest on record, and replacement demand will be huge. New car based consumer societies are also emerging in Argentina, Mexico, Thailand, and Indonesia. The American car industry, accounting for 4% of GDP and 10% of total employment, isn't going away, as many fear. However, it will evolve beyond current recognition. Toyota is certainly putting its money where its mouth is, with an $18.2 billion investment in 14 American factories, directly employing 34,000, and indirectly another 380,000. Long term, I love this stock. James has worked for Japan's largest car maker for 26 years, but still can only order one beer in that impossible pictographic language. By the time the evening was out, I made sure he could order a second, and a third, in Japanese. 

Toyota.png picture by madhedge

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2) Last September, I suggested emerging market sovereign debt ETF's as safe, high yielding investments in which to hide out in case the equity markets swoon again (click here for the link). Well, the stock market hasn't swooned yet, so let's see how they performed. The Invesco PowerShares Emerging Market Sovereign Debt ETF (PCY), which has 40% of its assets in Latin American bonds and 31% in Asia, rose by a modest 3% before pulling back to unchanged. The two year old fund now boasts $340 million in market cap and pays a handy 6.20% dividend. This beats the daylights out of the one basis point you currently earn for cash, the 3.40% yield on 10 year Treasuries, and still exceeds the 5.38% dividend on the iShares Investment Grade Bond ETN (LQD), which buys predominantly single 'A' US corporates. The big difference here is that PCY has a much rosier future of credit upgrades to look forward to. It turns out that many emerging markets have little or no debt, because until recently, investors thought their credit quality was too poor. No doubt a history of defaults in Brazil and Argentina in the seventies and eighties is at the back of their minds. With US government bond issuance going through the roof, the shoe is now on the other foot. A price appreciation of 125% over the past year tells you this is not exactly an undiscovered concept. Still, it is something to keep on your 'buy on dips' list.

PCY.png picture by madhedge


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I'm safer than US paper, and pay a higher dividend too!


3) I managed to catch up with David Wessel, the Wall Street Journal economics editor, who has just published  In Fed We Trust: Ben Bernanke's War on the Great Panic. I doubted David could tell me anything more about the former Princeton professor I didn't already know. I couldn't have been more wrong, as David gave me some fascinating insights into the inner soul of our much vaunted chairman of the Federal Reserve.  Bernanke was the smartest kid in rural Dillon, South Carolina, who, through a series of improbable accidents, ended up at Harvard. He built his career on studying the Great Depression, then the closest thing to paleontology economics had to offer, a field focused so distantly on the past that it was irrelevant. Bernanke took over the Fed when Greenspan was considered a rock star, inhaling his libertarian, free market, Ayn Rand inspired philosophy in great giant gulps. Within a year the landscape was suddenly overrun with T-Rex's and Brontesauri. He tried to stop the panic 150 different ways, 125 of which were terrible ideas, the remaining 25 saving us from the Great Depression II. This is why unemployment is now only 10.2%, instead of 25%. The Fed governor is naturally a very shy and withdrawing person, and would have been quite happy limiting his political career to the local school board. But to rebuild confidence, he took his campaign to the masses, attending town hall meetings and meeting the public like a campaigning first term congressman. The price of his success has been large, with the Fed balance sheet exploding from $800 million to $2 trillion, solely on his signature. The true cost of the financial crisis won't be known for a decade. Now that having pulled back from the brink, the biggest risk is that we grow complacent, and let desperately needed reforms of the system slide. How Bernanke unwinds this bubble will define his legacy. Too soon, and we go back into a real depression. Too late, and hyperinflation hits. That's when we see how smart Bernanke really is.

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'The whole US market is pretty much low quality these days,' said Richard Bernstein, of Bernstein Capital Management.

BrandX.jpg picture by madhedge