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Carl Icahn Is At It Again

Many ascribe Monday?s 312 point plunge in the Dow Average to an informational webinar posted by legendary corporate raider and hedge fund manager, Carl Icahn.

I have known Carl for 30 years, and I once owned and apartment in his building on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, near Sutton Place (which I later sold for a quick double).

Even then, he was opinionated, cantankerous, and never hesitated to make the bold move. Wall Street hated him.

At 79, he is nothing less than a force of nature. Whenever I see Carl, I say I want to be like him when I grow up.

I just watched the controversial video, entitled ?Danger Ahead ? A Message From Carl Icahn?, which has ruffled more than a few feathers in the establishment. But that has always been Carl?s strong suite.

Here are the high-points:

1) We should end the ?carried interest? treatment of hedge fund profits, which lets billionaire managers get off scot-free, while sticking a big tax bill with the little guy.

2) Foreign profits of US multinationals, some $2.2 trillion, should be brought home, taxed, and put to work.

3) Corporate inversions, whereby American companies reincorporate overseas to beat taxes, should be banned.

4) Corporate share buybacks, which amount to 4.5% of the outstanding float per year, are a short-term fix for company share prices only at the long-term price of a weaker balance sheets.

5) Some $4.5 trillion in borrowing by the Federal Reserve has crowded out the little guy. On this one, I disagree with Carl. With overnight rates at zero and ten year Treasury bonds yielding 2.06%, nobody is getting crowded out from anything.

6) Artificially low interest rates are fueling an unwarranted takeover boom and encouraging risky financial engineering.

7) Junk bonds (HYG), (JNK) are a bubble begging to pop. They are the result of a runaway Wall Street selling machine that saw big firms selling short their own issues to unwary customers.

Carl sums up by saying that while the Fed saved the US economy during 2008-09, they created the problem in the first place with Greenspan?s excessive easing in 2002-03.

He believes that the candidacy of outsider Donald Trump is a natural reaction to peoples? dissatisfaction with Washington and Wall Street.

I have to admit that Carl has brought up some serious points here. I agree with all, except the above-mentioned ?crowding out? issue. Combined, they are a detrimental tax on the long-term economic health of America.

Could this be an attempt by Carl to throw his hat into the political ring? Treasury Secretary in a future Trump administration was mentioned in later media interviews.

But at his age, even for Carl, that would be a reach.

While Icahn has been ringing the alarm bell on the stock market and junk bonds all year, he has been aggressively acquiring major stakes in in the energy and commodities sectors all year, while they are trading at generational lows.

He has zeroed in on two of my own favorite trades, Freeport McMoRan (FCX) and Cheniere Energy (LNG).

Carl is also holding a major position in Apple (AAPL), which he acquired two years ago just after I jumped in at $395. He believes the shares are absurdly cheap.

To watch the 15 minute video in full, please click: http://carlicahn.com.

Good for you, Carl Icahn!

HYG 9-29-15

FCS 9-29-15

LNG 9-29-15

AAPL 9-29-15

Carl Icahn

 

The Case Against Treasury Bonds

My friend, Texan money manager Mike Robertson, asked me the other day if there was one asset class that I truly despised.

I didn?t hesitate: bonds.

In fact, fixed income investments are about to regain the nickname they earned during the 1980?s: ?certificates of wealth confiscation.?

That leaves me within a hair?s breadth of pulling the trigger on some new short positions in fixed income instruments. My hedge fund buddies are lining up varies short plays here, like clay ducks in a shooting match.

With the ten year Treasury bond yield at a microscopic 2.30%, and 3.06% for the 30 year, you have a classic ?heads I win, tales, you lose? trade. Best case, you break even over the next decade. Worst case, you lose half or more of your capital.

The US has no history of excessive debt, except during WWII, when it briefly exceeded 100% of GDP. That abruptly changed in 2001, when George W. Bush took office.

In short order, the new president implemented massive tax cuts, provided expanded Medicare benefits for seniors, and launched two wars, causing budgets deficits to explode at the fastest rate in history.

To accomplish this, strict ‘pay as you go’ rules enforced by the previous Clinton administration, were scrapped. The net net was to double the national debt to $10.5 trillion in a mere eight years.

Another $5 trillion in Keynesian reflationary deficit spending by President Obama since then has taken matters from bad to worse.

This year, the national debt just nudged past our GDP at $17 trillion. The Congressional Budget Office is now forecasting that, with the current spending trajectory, total debt will reach $23 trillion by 2020, or some 160% of today’s GDP, 1.6 times the WWII peak.

By then, the Treasury will have to pay a staggering $5 trillion a year just to roll over maturing debt. What’s more, these figures greatly understate the severity of the problem.

They do not include another $9 trillion in debts guaranteed by the federal government, such as bonds issued by home mortgage providers, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. State and local governments owe another $3 trillion. Double interest rates, which they inevitably will, and our debt service burden doubles as well.

It is unlikely that the warring parties in Congress will kiss and make up anytime soon. It is therefore likely that the capital markets will emerge as the sole source of any fiscal discipline, with the return of the bond vigilantes.

They have already made their predatory presence known in the profligate nations of Europe, and they are expected to arrive here eventually.

Such forces have not been at play in Washington since the early 1980’s, when bond yields reached 13%, and homeowners (including me) paid 18% for mortgages.

Since foreign investors hold 50% of our debt, policy responses will not be dictated by the US, but by the Mandarins in Beijing and Tokyo. They could enforce a cut back in defense spending from the current annual $700 billion.

Personally, I think the US will never recover from the debt explosions engineered by Bush and by ‘deficits don’t count’ Vice President Chaney. The outcome has permanently lowered standards of living for middle class Americans and reduced influence on the global stage.

But I’m not going to get mad, I’m going to get even. I am going to make a killing profiting from the coming collapse of the US Treasury market through buying the leveraged short Treasury bond ETF, the (TBT).

I am sticking to my short term forecast for this fund to rise from the current $58 to $100, then $150. And that is despite a hefty and rising cost of carry of nearly 0.5% a month.

TLT 7-21-15

TBT 7-21-15

 

JNK 7-21-15

 

Uncle SamWhere?s My Social Security?

2015 Annual Asset Class Review

Zephyr

I am once again writing this report from a first class sleeping cabin on Amtrak?s California Zephyr. By day, I have two comfortable seats facing each other next to a broad window. At night, they fold into bunk beds, a single and a double. There is a shower, but only Houdini could get in and out of it.

We are now pulling away from Chicago?s Union Station, leaving its hurried commuters, buskers, panhandlers, and majestic great halls behind. I am headed for Emeryville, California, just across the bay from San Francisco. That gives me only 56 hours to complete this report.

I tip my porter, Raymond, $100 in advance to make sure everything goes well during the long adventure, and to keep me up to date with the onboard gossip.

The rolling and pitching of the car is causing my fingers to dance all over the keyboard. Spellchecker can catch most of the mistakes, but not all of them. Thank goodness for small algorithms.

 

station

As both broadband and cell phone coverage are unavailable along most of the route, I have to rely on frenzied searches during stops at major stations along the way to chase down data points.

You know those cool maps in the Verizon stores that show the vast coverage of their cell phone networks? They are complete BS. Who knew that 95% of America is off the grid? That explains a lot about our politics today. I have posted many of my better photos from the trip below, although there is only so much you can do from a moving train and an iPhone.

After making the rounds with strategists, portfolio managers, and hedge fund traders, I can confirm that 2014 was one of the toughest to trade for careers lasting 30, 40, or 50 years. Yet again, the stay at home index players have defeated the best and the brightest.

With the Dow gaining a modest 8% in 2014, and S&P 500 up a more virile 14.2%, this was a year of endless frustration. Volatility fell to the floor, staying at a monotonous 12% for seven boring consecutive months. Most hedge funds lagged the index by miles.

My Trade Alert Service, hauled in an astounding 30.3% profit, at the high was up 42.7%, and has become the talk of the hedge fund industry. That was double the S&P 500 index gain.

If you think I spend too much time absorbing conspiracy theories from the Internet, let me give you a list of the challenges I see financial markets facing in the coming year:

 

JT & conductor

The Ten Highlights of 2015

1) Stocks will finish 2015 higher, almost certainly more than the previous year, somewhere in the 10-15% range. Cheap energy, ultra low interest rates, and 3-4% GDP growth, will expand multiples. It?s Goldilocks with a turbocharger.

2) Performance this year will be back-end loaded into the fourth quarter, as it was in 2014. The path forward became so clear, that some of 2015?s performance was pulled forward into November, 2014.

3) The Treasury bond market will modestly grind down, anticipating the inevitable rate rise from the Federal Reserve.

4) The yen will lose another 10%-20% against the dollar.

5) The Euro will fall another 10%, doing its best to hit parity with the greenback, with the assistance of beleaguered continental governments.

6) Oil stays in a $50-$80 range, showering the economy with hundreds of billions of dollars worth of de facto tax cuts.

7) Gold finally bottoms at $1,000 after one more final flush, then rallies (My jeweler was right, again).

8) Commodities finally bottom out, thanks to new found strength in the global economy, and begin a modest recovery.

9) Residential real estate has made its big recovery, and will grind up slowly from here.

10) After a tumultuous 2014, international political surprises disappear, the primary instigators of trouble becalmed by collapsed oil revenues.

 

windmills

The Thumbnail Portfolio

Equities – Long. A rising but low volatility year takes the S&P 500 up to 2,350. This year we really will get another 10% correction. Technology, biotech, energy, solar, and financials lead.

Bonds – Short. Down for the entire year with long periods of stagnation.

Foreign Currencies – Short. The US dollar maintains its bull trend, especially against the Yen and the Euro.

Commodities – Long. A China recovery takes them up eventually.

Precious Metals – Stand aside. We get the final capitulation selloff, then a rally.

Agriculture – Long. Up, because we can?t keep getting perfect weather forever.

Real estate – Long. Multifamily up, commercial up, single family homes sideways to up small.

 

farmland

1) The Economy – Fortress America

This year, it?s all about oil, whether it stays low, shoots back up, or falls lower. The global crude market is so big, so diverse, and subject to so many variables, that it is essentially unpredictable.

No one has an edge, not the major producers, consumers, or the myriad middlemen. For proof, look at how the crash hit so many ?experts? out of the blue.

This means that most economic forecasts for the coming year are on the low side, as they tend to be insular and only examine their own back yard, with most predictions still carrying a 2% handle.

I think the US will come in at the 3%-4% range, and the global recovery spawns a cross leveraged, hockey stick effect to the upside. This will be the best performance in a decade. Most company earnings forecasts are low as well.

There is one big positive that we can count on in the New Year. Corporate earnings will probably come in at $130 a share for the S&P 500, a gain of 10% over the previous year. During the last five years, we have seen the most dramatic increase in earnings in history, taking them to all-time highs.

This is set to continue. Furthermore, this growth will be front end loaded into Q1. The ?tell? was the blistering 5% growth rate we saw in Q3, 2014.

Cost cutting through layoffs is reaching an end, as there is no one left to fire. That leaves hyper accelerating technology and dramatically lower energy costs the remaining sources of margin increases, which will continue their inexorable improvements. Think of more machines and software replacing people.

You know all of those hundreds of billions raised from technology IPO?s in 2014. Most of that is getting plowed right back into new start ups, accelerating the rate of technology improvements even further, and the productivity gains that come with it.

You can count on demographics to be a major drag on this economy for the rest of the decade. Big spenders, those in the 46-50 age group, don?t return in large numbers until 2022.

But this negative will be offset by a plethora of positives, like technology, global expansion, and the lingering effects of Ben Bernanke?s massive five year quantitative easing. A time to pay the piper for all of this largess will come. But it could be a decade off.

I believe that the US has entered a period of long-term structural unemployment similar to what Germany saw in the 1990?s. Yes, we may grind down to 5%, but no lower than that. Keep close tabs on the weekly jobless claims that come out at 8:30 AM Eastern every Thursday for a good read as to whether the financial markets will head in a ?RISK ON? or ?RISK OFF? direction.

Most of the disaster scenarios predicted for the economy this year were based on the one off black swans that never amounted to anything, like the Ebola virus, ISIS, and the Ukraine.

Being continually afraid is expensive.

 

Moose on Snowy MountainA Rocky Mountain Moose Family

 

2) Equities (SPX), (QQQ), (AAPL), (XLF), (BAC), (EEM),(EWZ), (RSX), (PIN), (FXI), (TUR), (EWY), (EWT), (IDX)

With the economy going gangbusters, and corporate earnings reaching $130 a share, those with a traditional ?buy and hold? approach to the stock market will do alright, provided they are willing to sleep through some gut churning volatility. A Costco sized bottle of Jack Daniels and some tranquillizers might help too.

Earnings multiples will increase as well, as much as 10%, from the current 17X to 18.5X, thanks to a prolonged zero interest rate regime from the Fed, a massive tax cut in the form of cheap oil, unemployment at a ten year low, and a paucity of attractive alternative investments.

This is not an outrageous expectation, given the 10-22 earnings multiple range that we have enjoyed during the last 30 years. If anything, it is amazing how low multiples are, given the strong tailwinds the economy is enjoying.

The market currently trades around fair value, and no market in history ever peaked out here. An overshoot to the upside, often a big one, is mandatory.
After all, my friend, Janet Yellen, is paying you to buy stock with cheap money, so why not?

This is how the S&P 500 will claw its way up to 2,350 by yearend, a gain of about 12.2% from here. Throw in dividends, and you should pick up 14.2% on your stock investments in 2015.

This does not represent a new view for me. It is simply a continuation of the strategy I outlined again in October, 2014 (click here for ?Why US Stocks Are Dirt Cheap?).

Technology will be the top-performing sector once again this year. They will be joined by consumer cyclicals (XLV), industrials (XLI), and financials (XLF).

The new members in the ?Stocks of the Month Club? will come from newly discounted and now high yielding stocks in the energy sector (XLE).

There is also a rare opportunity to buy solar stocks on the cheap after they have been unfairly dragged down by cheap oil like Solar City (SCTY) and the solar basket ETF (TAN). Revenues are rocketing and costs are falling.

After spending a year in the penalty box, look for small cap stocks to outperform. These are the biggest beneficiaries of cheap energy and low interest rates, and also have minimal exposure to the weak European and Asian markets.

Share prices will deliver anything but a straight-line move. We finally got our 10% correction in 2014, after a three-year hiatus. Expect a couple more in 2015. The higher prices rise, the more common these will become.

We will start with a grinding, protesting rally that takes us up to new highs, as the market climbs the proverbial wall of worry. Then we will suffer a heart stopping summer selloff, followed by another aggressive yearend rally.

Cheap money creates a huge incentive for companies to buy back their own stock. They divert money from their $3 trillion cash hoard, which earns nothing, retire shares paying dividends of 3% or more, and boost earnings per share without creating any new business. Call it financial engineering, but the market loves it.

Companies are also retiring stock through takeovers, some $2 trillion worth last year. Expect more of this to continue in the New Year, with a major focus on energy. Certainly, every hedge fund and activist investor out there is undergoing a crash course on oil fundamentals. After a 13-year bull market in energy, the industry is ripe for a cleanout.

This is happening in the face of both an individual and institutional base that is woefully underweight equities.

The net net of all of this is to create a systemic shortage of US equities. That makes possible simultaneous rising prices and earnings multiples that have taken us to investor heaven.

 

SPX 12-31-14

QQQ 12-31-14

IWM 12-31-14

XLE 12-31-14

snowy hillsFrozen Headwaters of the Colorado River

 

3) Bonds ?(TLT), (TBT), (JNK), (PHB), (HYG), (PCY), (MUB), (HCP), (KMP), (LINE)

Amtrak needs to fill every seat in the dining car, so you never know who you will get paired with.

There was the Vietnam vet Phantom jet pilot who now refused to fly because he was treated so badly at airports. A young couple desperate to get out of Omaha could only afford seats as far as Salt Lake City, sitting up all night. I paid for their breakfast.

A retired British couple was circumnavigating the entire US in a month on a ?See America Pass.? Mennonites returning home by train because their religion forbade airplanes.

If you told me that US GDP growth was 5%, unemployment was at a ten year low at 5.8%, and energy prices had just halved, I would have pegged the ten-year Treasury bond yield at 6.0%. Yet here we are at 2.10%.

Virtually every hedge fund manager and institutional investor got bonds wrong last year, expecting rates to rise. I was among them, but that is no excuse. At least I have good company.

You might as well take your traditional economic books and throw them in the trash. Apologies to John Maynard Keynes, John Kenneth Galbraith, and Paul Samuelson.

The reasons for the debacle are myriad, but global deflation is the big one. With ten year German bunds yielding a paltry 50 basis points, and Japanese bonds paying a paltry 30 basis points, US Treasuries are looking like a bargain.

To this, you can add the greater institutional bond holding requirements of Dodd-Frank, a balancing US budget deficit, a virile US dollar, the commodity price collapse, and an enormous embedded preference for investors to keep buying whatever worked yesterday.

For more depth on the perennial strength of bonds, please click here for ?Ten Reasons Why I?m Wrong on Bonds?.

Bond investors today get an unbelievable bad deal. If they hang on to the longer maturities, they will get back only 80 cents worth of purchasing power at maturity for every dollar they invest.

But institutions and individuals will grudgingly lock in these appalling returns because they believe that the potential losses in any other asset class will be worse. The problem is that driving eighty miles per hour while only looking in the rear view mirror can be hazardous to your financial health.

While much of the current political debate centers around excessive government borrowing, the markets are telling us the exact opposite. A 2%, ten-year yield is proof to me that there is a Treasury bond shortage, and that the government is not borrowing too much money, but not enough.

There is another factor supporting bonds that no one is looking at. The concentration of wealth with the 1% has a side effect of pouring money into bonds and keeping it there. Their goal is asset protection and nothing else.

These people never sell for tax reasons, so the money stays there for generations. It is not recycled into the rest of the economy, as conservative economists insist. As this class controls the bulk of investable assets, this forestalls any real bond market crash, possibly for decades.

So what will 2015 bring us? I think that the erroneous forecast of higher yields I made last year will finally occur this year, and we will start to chip away at the bond market bubble?s granite edifice. I am not looking for a free fall in price and a spike up in rates, just a move to a new higher trading range.

The high and low for ten year paper for the past nine months has been 1.86% to 3.05%. We could ratchet back up to the top end of that range, but not much higher than that. This would enable the inverse Treasury bond bear ETF (TBT) to reverse its dismal 2014 performance, taking it from $46 back up to $76.

You might have to wait for your grandchildren to start trading before we see a return of 12% Treasuries, last seen in the early eighties. I probably won?t live that long.

Reaching for yield will continue to be a popular strategy among many investors, which is typical at market tops. That focuses buying on junk bonds (JNK) and (HYG), REITS (HCP), and master limited partnerships (KMP), (LINE).

There is also emerging market sovereign debt to consider (PCY). At least there, you have the tailwinds of long term strong economies, little outstanding debt, appreciating currencies, and higher interest rates than those found at home. This asset class was hammered last year, so we are now facing a rare entry point. However, keep in mind, that if you reach too far, your fingers get chopped off.

There is a good case for sticking with munis. No matter what anyone says, taxes are going up, and when they do, this will increase tax free muni values. So if you hate paying taxes, go ahead and buy this exempt paper, but only with the expectation of holding it to maturity. Liquidity could get pretty thin along the way, and mark to markets could be shocking. Be sure to consult with a local financial advisor to max out the state, county, and city tax benefits.

 

TLT 12-31-14

TBT 12-31-14

MennonitesA Visit to the 19th Century

 

4) Foreign Currencies (FXE), (EUO), (FXC), (FXA), (YCS), (FXY), (CYB)

There are only three things you need to know about trading foreign currencies in 2015: the dollar, the dollar, and the dollar. The decade long bull market in the greenback continues.

The chip shot here is still to play the Japanese yen from the short side. Japan?s Ministry of Finance is now, far and away, the most ambitious central bank hell bent on crushing the yen to rescue its dying economy.

The problems in the Land of the Rising Sun are almost too numerous to count: the world?s highest debt to GDP ratio, a horrific demographic problem, flagging export competitiveness against neighboring China and South Korea, and the world?s lowest developed country economic growth rate.

The dramatic sell off we saw in the Japanese currency since December, 2012 is the beginning of what I believe will be a multi decade, move down. Look for ?125 to the dollar sometime in 2015, and ?150 further down the road. I have many friends in Japan looking for and overshoot to ?200. Take every 3% pullback in the greenback as a gift to sell again.

With the US having the world?s strongest major economy, its central bank is, therefore, most likely to raise interest rates first. That translates into a strong dollar, as interest rate differentials are far and away the biggest decider of the direction in currencies. So the dollar will remain strong against the Australian and Canadian dollars as well.

The Euro looks almost as bad. While European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, has talked a lot about monetary easing, he now appears on the verge of taking decisive action.

Recurring financial crisis on the continent is forcing him into a massive round of Fed style quantitative easing through the buying of bonds issued by countless European entities. The eventual goal is to push the Euro down to parity with the buck and beyond.

For a sleeper, use the next plunge in emerging markets to buy the Chinese Yuan ETF (CYB) for your back book, but don?t expect more than single digit returns. The Middle Kingdom will move heaven and earth in order to keep its appreciation modest to maintain their crucial export competitiveness.

 

FXY 1-2-15

FXE 1-5-15

CYB 1-2-15

mountains

5) Commodities (FCX), (VALE), (MOO), (DBA), (MOS), (MON), (AGU), (POT), (PHO), (FIW), (CORN), (WEAT), (SOYB), (JJG)

There isn?t a strategist out there not giving thanks for not loading up on commodities in 2014, the preeminent investment disaster of 2015. Those who did are now looking for jobs on Craig?s List.

2014 was the year that overwhelming supply met flagging demand, both in Europe and Asia. Blame China, the big swing factor in the global commodity.

The Middle Kingdom is currently changing drivers of its economy, from foreign exports to domestic consumption. This will be a multi decade process, and they have $4 trillion in reserves to finance it.

It will still demand prodigious amounts of imported commodities, especially, oil, copper, iron ore, and coal, all of which we sell. But not as much as in the past. The derivative equity plays here, Freeport McMoRan (FCX) and Companhia Vale do Rio Doce (VALE), have all taken an absolute pasting.

The food commodities were certainly the asset class to forget about in 2014, as perfect weather conditions and over planting produced record crops for the second year in a row, demolishing prices. The associated equity plays took the swan dive with them.

However, the ags are still a tremendous long term Malthusian play. The harsh reality here is that the world is making people faster than the food to feed them, the global population jumping from 7 billion to 9 billion by 2050.

Half of that increase comes in countries unable to feed themselves today, largely in the Middle East. The idea here is to use any substantial weakness, as we are seeing now, to build long positions that will double again if global warming returns in the summer, or if the Chinese get hungry.

The easy entry points here are with the corn (CORN), wheat (WEAT), and soybeans (SOYB) ETF?s. You can also play through (MOO) and (DBA), and the stocks Mosaic (MOS), Monsanto (MON), Potash (POT), and Agrium (AGU).

The grain ETF (JJG) is another handy fund. Though an unconventional commodity play, the impending shortage of water will make the energy crisis look like a cakewalk. You can participate in this most liquid of assets with the ETF?s (PHO) and (FIW).

 

CORN 1-2-15

DBA 1-2-15

PHO 1-2-15

JT snow angelSnow Angel on the Continental Divide

 

6) Energy (DIG), (RIG), (USO), (DUG), (DIG), (UNG), (USO), (OXY), (XLE), (X)

Yikes! What a disaster! Energy in 2014 suffered price drops of biblical proportions. Oil lost the $30 risk premium it has enjoyed for the last ten years. Natural gas got hammered. Coal disappeared down a black hole.

Energy prices did this in the face of an American economy that is absolutely rampaging, its largest consumer.

Our train has moved over to a siding to permit a freight train to pass, as it has priority on the Amtrak system. Three Burlington Northern engines are heaving to pull over 100 black, brand new tank cars, each carrying 30,000 gallons of oil from the fracking fields in North Dakota.

There is another tank car train right behind it. No wonder Warren Buffett tap dances to work every day, as he owns the road. US Steel (X) also does the two-step, since they provide immense amounts of steel to build these massive cars.

The US energy boom sparked by fracking will be the biggest factor altering the American economic landscape for the next two decades. It will flip us from a net energy importer to an exporter within two years, allowing a faster than expected reduction in military spending in the Middle East.

Cheaper energy will bestow new found competitiveness on US companies that will enable them to claw back millions of jobs from China in dozens of industries. This will end our structural unemployment faster than demographic realities would otherwise permit.

We have a major new factor this year in considering the price of energy. Peace in the Middle East, especially with Iran, always threatened to chop $30 off the price of Texas tea. But it was a pie-in-the-sky hope. Now there are active negotiations underway in Geneva for Iran to curtail or end its nuclear program. This could be one of the black swans of 2015, and would be hugely positive for risk assets everywhere.

Enjoy cheap oil while it lasts because it won?t last forever. American rig counts are already falling off a cliff and will eventually engineer a price recovery.

Add the energies of oil (DIG), Cheniere Energy (LNG), the energy sector ETF (XLE), Conoco Phillips (COP), and Occidental Petroleum (OXY). Skip natural gas (UNG) price plays and only go after volume plays, because the discovery of a new 100-year supply from ?fracking? and horizontal drilling in shale formations is going to overhang this subsector for a very long time.

It is a basic law of economics that cheaper prices bring greater demand and growing volumes, which have to be transported. However, major reforms are required in Washington before use of this molecule goes mainstream.

These could be your big trades of 2015, but expect to endure some pain first.

 

Baker Hughes Rig Count

WTIC 1-2-15

UNG 1-2-15

OXY 1-2-15

Train

7) Precious Metals (GLD), (DGP), (SLV), (PPTL), (PALL)

The train has added extra engines at Denver, so now we may begin the long laboring climb up the Eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains.

On a steep curve, we pass along an antiquated freight train of hopper cars filled with large boulders. The porter tells me this train is welded to the tracks to create a windbreak. Once, a gust howled out of the pass so swiftly that it blew a train over on to its side.

In the snow filled canyons we sight a family of three moose, a huge herd of elk, and another group of wild mustangs. The engineer informs us that a rare bald eagle is flying along the left side of the train. It?s a good omen for the coming year. We also see countless abandoned gold mines and the broken down wooden trestles leading to them, so it is timely here to speak about precious metals.

As long as the world is clamoring for paper assets like stocks and bonds, gold is just another shiny rock. After all, who needs an insurance policy if you are going to live forever?

We have already broken $1,200 once, and a test of $1,000 seems in the cards before a turnaround ensues. There are more hedge fund redemptions and stop losses to go. The bear case has the barbarous relic plunging all the way down to $700.

But the long-term bull case is still there. Someday, we are going to have to pay the piper for the $4.5 trillion expansion in the Fed?s balance sheet over the past five years, and inflation will return. Gold is not dead; it is just resting. I believe that the monetary expansion arguments to buy gold prompted by massive quantitative easing are still valid.

If you forgot to buy gold at $35, $300, or $800, another entry point is setting up for those who, so far, have missed the gravy train. The precious metals have to work off a severely, decade old overbought condition before we make substantial new highs. Remember, this is the asset class that takes the escalator up and the elevator down, and sometimes the window.

If the institutional world devotes just 5% of their assets to a weighting in gold, and an emerging market central bank bidding war for gold reserves continues, it has to fly to at least $2,300, the inflation adjusted all-time high, or more.

This is why emerging market central banks step in as large buyers every time we probe lower prices. For me, that pegs the range for 2015 at $1,000-$1,400. ETF players can look at the 1X (GLD) or the 2X leveraged gold (DGP).

I would also be using the next bout of weakness to pick up the high beta, more volatile precious metal, silver (SLV), which I think could hit $50 once more, and eventually $100.

What will be the metals to own in 2015? Palladium (PALL) and platinum (PPLT), which have their own auto related long term fundamentals working on their behalf, would be something to consider on a dip. With US auto production at 17 million units a year and climbing, up from a 9 million low in 2009, any inventory problems will easily get sorted out.

 

GOLD 1-2-15

SILVER 1-2-15

sunsetWould You Believe This is a Blue State?

8) Real Estate (ITB)

The majestic snow covered Rocky Mountains are behind me. There is now a paucity of scenery, with the endless ocean of sagebrush and salt flats of Northern Nevada outside my window, so there is nothing else to do but write. My apologies to readers in Wells, Elko, Battle Mountain, and Winnemucca, Nevada.

It is a route long traversed by roving banks of Indians, itinerant fur traders, the Pony Express, my own immigrant forebears in wagon trains, the transcontinental railroad, the Lincoln Highway, and finally US Interstate 80.

There is no doubt that there is a long-term recovery in real estate underway. We are probably 8 years into an 18-year run at the next peak in 2024.

But the big money has been made here over the past two years, with some red hot markets, like San Francisco, soaring. If you live within commuting distance of Apple (AAPL), Google (GOOG), or Facebook (FB) headquarters in California, you are looking at multiple offers, bidding wars, and prices at all time highs.

From here on, I expect a slow grind up well into the 2020?s. If you live in the rest of the country, we are talking about small, single digit gains. The consequence of pernicious deflation is that home prices appreciate at a glacial pace. At least, it has stopped going down, which has been great news for the financial industry.

There are only three numbers you need to know in the housing market: there are 80 million baby boomers, 65 million Generation Xer?s who follow them, and 85 million in the generation after that, the Millennials.

The boomers have been unloading dwellings to the Gen Xer?s since prices peaked in 2007. But there are not enough of the latter, and three decades of falling real incomes mean that they only earn a fraction of what their parents made.

If they have prospered, banks won?t lend to them. Brokers used to say that their market was all about ?location, location, location?. Now it is ?financing, financing, financing?. Banks have gone back to the old standard of only lending money to people who don?t need it.

Consider the coming changes that will affect this market. The home mortgage deduction is unlikely to survive any real attempt to balance the budget. And why should renters be subsidizing homeowners anyway? Nor is the government likely to spend billions keeping Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac alive, which now account for 95% of home mortgages.

That means the home loan market will be privatized, leading to mortgage rates higher than today. It is already bereft of government subsidies, so loans of this size are priced at premiums. This also means that the fixed rate 30-year loan will go the way of the dodo, as banks seek to offload duration risk to consumers. This happened long ago in the rest of the developed world.

There is a happy ending to this story. By 2022 the Millennials will start to kick in as the dominant buyers in the market. Some 85 million Millennials will be chasing the homes of only 65 Gen Xer?s, causing housing shortages and rising prices.

This will happen in the context of a labor shortfall and rising standards of living. Remember too, that by then, the US will not have built any new houses in large numbers in 15 years.

The best-case scenario for residential real estate is that it gradually moves up for another decade, unless you live in Cupertino or Mountain View. We won?t see sustainable double-digit gains in home prices until America returns to the Golden Age in the 2020?s, when it goes hyperbolic.

But expect to put up your first-born child as collateral, and bring your entire extended family in as cosigners if you want to get a bank loan.

That makes a home purchase now particularly attractive for the long term, to live in, and not to speculate with. This is especially true if you lock up today?s giveaway interest rates with a 30 year fixed rate loan. At 3.3% this is less than the long-term inflation rate.

You will boast about it to your grandchildren, as my grandparents once did to me.

 

Case-Shiller Home Prices Indices

ITB 1-2-15

BridgeCrossing the Bridge to Home Sweet Home

9) Postscript

We have pulled into the station at Truckee in the midst of a howling blizzard.

My loyal staff have made the 20 mile trek from my beachfront estate at Incline Village to welcome me to California with a couple of hot breakfast burritos and a chilled bottle of Dom Perignon Champagne, which has been resting in a nearby snowbank. I am thankfully spared from taking my last meal with Amtrak.

Well, that?s all for now. We?ve just passed the Pacific mothball fleet moored in the Sacramento River Delta and we?re crossing the Benicia Bridge. The pressure increase caused by an 8,200 foot descent from Donner Pass has crushed my water bottle. The Golden Gate Bridge and the soaring spire of the Transamerica Building are just around the next bend across San Francisco Bay.

A storm has blown through, leaving the air crystal clear and the bay as flat as glass. It is time for me to unplug my Macbook Pro and iPhone 6, pick up my various adapters, and pack up.

We arrive in Emeryville 45 minutes early. With any luck, I can squeeze in a ten mile night hike up Grizzly Peak and still get home in time to watch the season opener for Downton Abbey season five. I reach the ridge just in time to catch a spectacular pastel sunset over the Pacific Ocean. The omens are there. It is going to be another good year.

I?ll shoot you a Trade Alert whenever I see a window open on any of the trades above.

Good trading in 2015!

John Thomas
The Mad Hedge Fund Trader

 

JT at workThe Omens Are Good for 2015!

The Run in Bonds is Over

This is a bet that the ten-year Treasury bonds, now trading at a 2.50% yield, don?t fall below 2.40% over the next 14 trading days. It has to make this move on top of an unbelievable decline in yields from 3.0% to 2.50% since September. And it has to do it quickly.

The Federal Reserve on Wednesday to consider whether they should raise rates, lower them, or leave them unchanged. Some traders are looking for hints of a taper that may arrive earlier than expected. I think there is zero chance of this. The futures markets for overnight money are trading at prices suggesting that this won?t occur until April or May of 2015! (No typo here). We could be setting up for a classic ?buy the rumor, sell the news? move here.

We are also blessed with a short calendar for the November 15 expiration, as November 1 falls on a Friday. This also takes us into the usual volatility sapping Thanksgiving holidays.

My standing view on bonds is that we will trade in a 2.40%-3.0% range for some time. Given that the ?Great Reallocation? trade may begin in earnest in 2014. We should take a run at the higher end of that range as we go into yearend.

Loss of 1.5% in fiscal drag from Washington next year could take US GDP growth up from a sluggish 2.0% to a more sporty 3.5%. This is not an environment where you want to own any kind of fixed income security.

You might also consider buying November call spreads on the double short Treasury bond ETF, the ProShares Ultra Short 20+ Treasury Fund (TBT), or just buying the (TBT) outright. Another run at the highs for the year from here is worth ten points.

While examining your own fixed income exposure, you might want to use the current strength in bonds to lighten up in other areas. Municipal bond prices (MUB) are now so high that the capital risk no longer justifies the tax savings. Get rid of them! The only successful muni bond strategy here is to die, and let your heirs sort out the wreckage. That way, your widow gets the step up in the cost basis.

Ditto for junk bonds (JNK), (HYG), which after the latest humongous rally, also see low yields no longer justifying the principal risk. The only bonds I like here are master limited partnerships (LINE), where double digit yields adequately pay you for your risk. I also like sovereign bonds (ELD), which will be supported by emerging market currencies appreciating against the US dollar.

TLT 9-24-13

TBT 10-28-13

MUB 10-28-13

ELD 10-25-13

JNK 10-28-13

The End is Near-signThe Run in Bonds is Over

Welcome to the Sack of Rome

Let?s face it, the carnage in the bond markets in May outdid the sack of Rome.

Not only did the Treasury bonds (TLT) get hit. The entire high yield space was slaughtered, including corporates (LQD), junk bonds (JNK), REITS (VNQ), master limited partnerships (KMP), municipal bonds (MUB), and high dividend equities. Anything that looked and smelled like a bond got dumped.

As American bonds get their clocks cleaned, so did virtually the entire fixed income space worldwide. Yields on ten-year Japanese government bonds nearly tripled from 0.37% to 0.95%. German bond yields skyrocketed, from 1.20% to 1.55%. Suddenly, a global capital shortage broke out all over like a bad rash.

So has the Great Reallocation out of bonds into stocks begun? Has the Great Bond Crash of 2013 only started? Or is there something more complex going on here?

Don?t worry, the bond market is not about to crash. All we are seeing is a move to a new trading range for the ten year, from 1.50%-2-10% to 1.90%-2.50%. This has been my forecast for the Treasury bond markets all year. High yielding instruments, like those in junk bonds and REITS, will see more dramatic price declines. There are several reasons why this is the case.

For a start, the economy is just too weak to support any further back up in rates. Much of corporate American has grown so used to free money that even a modest rise in rates would be cataclysmic. It was also drop the residential real estate recovery dead in its tracks. Watch the US government?s budget deficit soar, once again, if interest rates continue their assent.

A 2% GDP growth will never be a springboard for 4%, 5%, or 6% yields. In fact, the risk is that we slow down from here, forcing the Fed to come to the rescue with more accommodative swaths of quantitative easing.

Look at the inflation, that great destroyer of bonds. The last reported unadjusted YOY CPI by the Bureau of Labor Statistics came in at a gob smackingly low 1.1% in April (click here for the website).? Real deflation is anything but a major threat, and will not provide the rocket fuel for further bond selling. When you here of friends getting surprise 20% pay hikes, then you can expect a return in inflation. That has been happening in China for several years now. But so far, I have not heard the good news at home.

Check out who has been buying bonds for the last five years? More than half of the Treasury auctions have gone to foreign governments. First it was China, and more recently to European central banks. These people don?t sell. They just redirect new cash flows. You can count on them keeping the bonds they already have until maturity, even if it is 30 years out. They will never be the source of large scale selling.

Examine who has the highest fixed income weightings in the US. It is the fabled ?1%.? When I serviced some of the wealthiest old money families on behalf of Morgan Stanley during the 1980?s, I was struck by one thing. These were the most conservative people in the world. Protection of principal was their primary consideration. Interest income was almost an afterthought.

This is because the majority of wealthy investors inherited their money, and lived in constant fear they would lose what they have. This is because, as trust fund kids, they had no idea how to earn their own money and create new wealth. Once capital disappeared, it was gone for good. Get a job? Heaven forbid! This investor class also has no desire to get hit with the long-term capital gains such sales would generate. So don?t expect selling from them either.

So, at worst case, you might see another 20-25 basis point rise in Treasury yields to the top end of the new range. At that point, they will be a buy for a rally that might correspond to a stock market selloff and flight to safety bid for bonds which I expect this summer. This takes the ten-year back to a 1.90% yield.

This will be particularly crucial for those who have been trading leveraged short fixed income instruments like the (TBT). They saw a dramatic 12-point, 20% rally in May from bottom to top. Any further gains from here will be of the high risk, low return variety. Maybe, it?s time to sit down and smell the roses? Or take a long summer vacation, as I plan to.

VNQ 6-4-13

JNK 6-4-13

MUB 6-4-13

TBT 6-4-13

Statue

Bonds Certainly Got Roughed Up in May

Take a Ride in the New Short Junk ETF

When you look at the profusion of new ETF?s being launched today, you find that they almost always correspond with market tops. The higher the market, the greater the demand for the underlying, and the more leverage traders bay for it. The resulting returns for investors are disastrous.

But occasionally a blind squirrel finds an acorn, and if you fire buckshot long enough, you hit a barn. That was the case a year ago when the corn ETF was launched (CORN), after five months of stagnant performance by the grain. I smelled a bargain for my readers, piled them into the ETF the day it launched, and caught a quick double in six weeks, just as the Russian fires were igniting.

That?s why I am getting interested in the new ProShares Short High Yield ETF (SJB). After riding the bull move in junk all the way up with (JNK), I have recently turned negative on the sector. Junk bonds have moved too far too fast. Current spreads for junk paper are now only 300 basis points over equivalent term Treasury bonds, and investors at these levels are in no way being compensated for their risk.

If the stock market starts to roll over this summer, as I expect, then the junk bond market will follow it in the elevator going to down to the ladies underwear department in the basement. Keep in mind that when shorting the junk market, you run into the same problem you have with the (TBT), a leveraged short ETF for the Treasury bond market. Buy the (SJB) and you are short a 6% coupon, which works out to a monthly costs of 50 basis points. That is a big nut to cover. So timing for entry into this fund will be crucial.

SJB 5-7-13

JNK 5-7-13

Car-Junk

When Sterilization is Not a Form of Birth Control

I received a flurry of inquires the other day when Ben Bernanke mentioned the word ?sterilization? in his recent congressional testimony. And he wasn?t giving advice to the country?s wayward teenaged girls, either.

Sterilization refers to a specific style of monetary policy. Sterilized policies seek to manipulate the money markets without changing the overall money supply. The Fed implemented just such a strategy in 2011 when they initiated their ?twist? policy. This involved buying 10, 20, and 30 Treasury bonds and selling short an equal amount of short-term Treasury bills.

The goal here was to force investors out of the safety of Treasury bonds and into riskier assets like stocks, commodities, and real estate. Given the market action since then, I?d say they succeeded wildly beyond their dreams.

Dollar for dollar there is no change in the Fed?s balance sheet when sterilized actions are undertaken, although there is a huge increase in the risk profile of their portfolio. A private institution would be insane to do this at this stage of the economic cycle, as the risk of capital loss is great. But governments are exempt from mark to market rules and can carry this paper at cost or par, whatever they want. That?s why we have a central bank.

The Fed is now running up against a unique problem. The twist program is so large that it is literally running out of short-term securities to sell. When this happens, they may well resort to 28-day repurchase agreements instead, which are essentially sales of short term paper out the back door. This is what Uncle Ben was attempting to explain to our congressional leaders, which I?m sure went straight over their heads.

The really interesting thing here is why Bernanke is suddenly interested in sterilization? These are the types of policies you pursue to head off inflation. With wages continuing to fall, it is difficult to see why this should be an issue.

Maybe he?s looking at the price of homes and the stock market instead, which have recently been going through the roof. Perhaps he?s looking several years down the road. The great challenge for the Federal Reserve from here will be unwinding their massive $3.5 trillion balance sheet it built up during the Great Recession, without triggering runaway price increases.

For an excellent explanation of the history of monetary sterilization, please click here at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sterilization_(economics).

TLT 3-20-13

JNK 3-20-13

PCY 3-20-13

MUB 3-20-13

Pills

No, Not This One

The Muni Bond Myth

Have I seen this movie before? Four years ago, analysts were predicting default rates as high as 17% for Junk bonds in the wake of the financial meltdown, taking yields on individual issues up to 25%.

Liquidity in the market vaporized, and huge volumes of unsold paper overhung the market. To me, this was an engraved invitation to come in and buy the junk bond ETF (JNK) at $18. Since then, the despised ETF has risen to $41, and with the hefty interest income, the total return has been over 160%. What was the actual realized default rate? It came in at less than 0.50%.

Fast forward to two years ago (has it been that long?). Bank research analyst Meredith Whitney predicted that the dire straits of state and local finances will trigger a collapse of the municipal bond market that will resemble the ?Sack of Rome.? She believed that total defaults could reach $100 billion. This cataclysmic forecast caused the main muni bond ETF (MUB) to plunge from $102 to $93. Oops! That turned out to be one of the worst calls in the history of the financial markets. But the fees she earned making such a bold prediction landed her on Fortune?s list of the wealthiest women in America.

I didn?t buy it for a second. States are looking at debt to GDP ratios of 4%, compared to 100% for the federal government. They are miles away from the 130% of GDP that triggered distressed refinancing?s by Italy, Greece, Portugal, and Ireland.

The default risk of muni paper is being vastly exaggerated. I have looked into several California issues and found them at the absolute top of the seniority scale in the state’s obligations. Teachers will starve, police and firemen will go on strike, and there will be rioting in the streets before a single interest payment to bond holders is missed.

How many municipal defaults have we actually seen in the last 20 years? There have only been a few that I know of. The nearby City of Vallejo, where policemen earn $140,000 a year, is one of the worst run organizations on the planet. Orange County got its knickers in a twist betting their entire treasury on a complex derivatives strategy that they clearly didn’t understand, sold by, guess who, Goldman Sachs (GS). The Harrisburg, PA saga continues. To find municipal defaults in any real numbers you have to go back 80 years to the Great Depression. My guess is that we will certainly see a rise in muni bond defaults. But it will be from two to only a dozen, not the hundreds that Whitney is forecasting.

Let me preface my call here by saying that I don?t know much about the muni bond market. It has long been a boring, quiet backwater of the debt markets. At Morgan Stanley, this is where you sent the new recruits with the ‘C’ average from a second tier school who you had to hire because his dad was a major client. I have spent most of my life working with top hedge funds, offshore institutions, and foreign governments for whom the tax advantages of owning munis have no value.

However, I do know how to use a calculator. Decent quality muni bonds now carry 3% yields. If you buy bonds from your local issuer, you can duck the city, state, and federal tax due on equivalent grade corporate paper. That gives you a pre tax yield of 6%. While the market has gotten a little thin, prices from here are going to get huge support from these coupons.

Since the tax advantages of these arcane instruments are highly local, sometimes depending on what neighborhood you live in, I suggest talking to a financial adviser to obtain some tailor made recommendations. There is no trade for me here. I just get irritated when conflicted analysts give bad advice to my readers and laugh all the way to the bank. Thought you should know.

There are two additional tail winds that munis may benefit from in 2013. No matter what anyone says, your taxes are going up. Balancing the budget without major revenue increases is a mathematical impossibility. That will increase the value of the tax-free aspect of munis. A serious bout of ?RISK OFF? that sends the Treasury market to a new all-time high, as I expect this summer, will cause munis to rise even further.

Perhaps the best way to play this area is through the Invesco High Yield Muni A Fund (ACTHX), which boasts a positively Olympian 5.56% tax-free yield.

MUB 2-12-13

JNK 2-12-13

TLT 2-12-13

Sculpture

This is Not the Muni Bond Market

Buy What Ben?s Buying.

In view of Federal Reserve Chairman, Ben Bernanke, yesterday: ?it is time to reassess one?s investment strategy. ?The former Princeton professor didn?t give us QE3, he gave us QE3 with a turbocharger, on steroids, with an extra dose of adrenaline. ?He could spend another $1 trillion before all is said and done. ?If ever an economic theory was pursued to extremes, this is it. ?No doubt future PhD candidates will be writing theses on this move for the next 100 years.

If the QE3 guessing game was driving you nuts this year, you better sign up for frequent flier points with your psychiatrist. ?After the initial commitment, the Fed reserves the right to renew quantitative easing, with the decision to be rendered on the last business day of each month in any size to buy any securities. ?Yikes! ?Will the market now flat line every month and then gap up or down 500 points on the final day when the August decision is announced? ?Double Yikes!

I am not going to sit in my throne at the beach like King Cnut and order the tide not to rise and wet my feet and robes. ?It is not for us to trade the market we want, but the market we have. ?It is interesting listening to the commentary on all of this. The fundamentalists are pissed off because their hard work led to a near universal conclusion that the economy was tanking, only to be met by a stock market surging to a new five year high. ?The technicians are cautiously optimistic trumpeting new upside breakouts. ?The index players (what few are still in the market, anyway) are ecstatic, now that going to sleep is paying off once again.

The basic strategy here is to throw risk out the window and gun for yield, which the Fed has put squarely back on the table. ?That means buying junk bonds (JNK), (HYG), at a 7.00% yield, emerging market sovereign debt (PCY) at a 4.72% yield, and high-yield equities like the telecoms, such as Verizon (VZ) and AT&T (T), which both yield around 4.70%. ?At least this way, you get paid for waiting out any heat on the downside.

You could even buy exactly what Ben Bernanke is buying: mortgage-backed securities. The central bank will be purchasing half of the $140 billion a month in mortgage backed bonds that Fannie Mae (FNM), Freddie Mac, and Ginnie Mae sell to meet its new commitments. You can easily do that through picking up the Nuveen Mortgage Opportunity Term Fund (JLS), a closed end fund selling at a $2% premium to net asset value. It carries a hefty 7.7% yield, but not for long.

It is 73% invested in residential mortgage-backed securities, 12% in commercial mbs, and 7% in agency collateralized mortgage obligations. ?It does use leverage and hedging strategies to achieve this acrophobic yield, and already had a big gap up in price yesterday. ?But what are the chances that it discounted the next year of Fed bond buying in just one day? ?About zero.

 

 

 

 

2012 Annual Asset Class Review

I am writing this report from a first class cabin on Amtrak?s California Zephyr en route from Chicago to San Francisco. The majestic snow covered Rocky Mountains are behind me. There is now a paucity of scenery, with the endless ocean of sage brush and salt flats of Northern Nevada outside my window, so there is nothing else to do but to write. My apologies to readers in Wells, Elko, Battle Mountain, and Winnemucca. It is a route long traversed by roving banks of Indians, itinerant fur traders, the Pony Express, my immigrant forebears in wagon trains, the transcontinental railroad, the Lincoln Highway, and finally US Interstate 80.

After making the rounds with strategists, portfolio managers, and hedge fund traders, I can confirm that 2011 was the most hellacious in careers lasting 30, 40, or 50 years. With the S&P 500 up 0.4% 2011, following a roaring 0.04% decline in 2010, the average hedge fund was up a pitiful 1%, and thousands lost money.

It is said that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. I am sorry to tell you that we are about to endure 2011 all over again. You can count on another 12 months of high volatility, gap moves at the opening, tape bombs, a lot of buying of rumors and selling of news, promises and disappointments from governments, and American markets being held hostage to developments overseas.

If you lost money in 2011, you will probably do so again in 2012, and should consider changing your line of work. It takes a special kind of person to make money in markets like these; someone who thrives on raw data and ignores the hype and the spin, who invests based on facts and not beliefs, and who thinks all things can happen at all times.? In other words, you need somebody like me, as my 40% return last year will attest. Those who don?t think they are up to it might consider pursuing that long delayed ambition to open a trendy restaurant, the thoughtful antique store, or finally get their golf score down to 80.

If you think I spend too much time absorbing conspiracy theories from the Internet, let me give you a list of the challenges I see financial markets facing in the coming year:

*Long term structural issues will overwhelm short term positives.

*Corporate profits continue to grow, but at a much slower rate, reaching diminishing returns.

*2009 stimulus spending is a distant memory, and there will be no replays.

*Bush tax cuts expire, creating a 1% drag on GDP.

*An epochal downsizing continues by state and local governments, chopping another 2-3% off of GDP.

*A recession in Europe further reduces American growth by 1%.

*Expect an actual default out of the continent in 2012, certainly from Greece, possibly also from Portugal and Ireland.

*There will be no QE3, since QE2 never filtered down to the real economy. There is little the Fed can do to help us.

*Huge demographic headwinds bring another leg down in the residential real estate market.

*The first baby boomer hit 65 last year and it is now time to pay the piper on entitlements.

*The new hot button social issue will become ?senior homelessness,? as millions retire without a cent in the bank and are unable to find jobs.

*Falling home prices bring secondary banking crisis, but this time there will be no TARP and no bail outs

*Gridlock in Washington prevents any real government solution, and there is nothing they can do anyway.

*Candidates from both parties will attempt to convince us that their opponents are crooks, thieves, idiots, or ideologues, and largely succeed. That will leave the rest of us confused and puzzled, and less likely to invest or hire.

*Unemployment remains stuck at an 8-9% level, then ratchets up to 15%. The real, U-6 rate soars to 25%.

Now let me give you a list of possible surprise positives, which may mitigate the list of negatives above.

*American multinationals continue to squeeze more blood out of a turnip and post stellar earnings increases yet again.

*China successfully slams the breaks on the real estate market without cutting the rest of the economy off at the knees and engineers a soft landing with 7%-8% GDP growth.

*Europe somehow pulls a new treaty out of its hat that addresses its structural financial and monetary shortfalls a decade ahead of schedule.

*Through some miracle, the American consumer keeps spending at the expense of a declining savings rate. There is evidence that this has been going on since October.

The Election Will Not Be Good for Risk Assets

So, let me summarize what your 2012 will look like. The ?RISK ON? trade that started on October 4 will spill into the new year, driven by value players loading up on cheap multinationals, chased by frantically short covering hedge funds, hitting a peak sometime in Q1. The S&P 500 could reach 1,350. In Q2 and Q3 traders will have to deal with flocks of black swans, giving 4-7 months of the ?RISK OFF? trade. We should rally into Q4 as markets discount the end of the election cycle. It really makes no difference who wins. The mere disappearance of electioneering will be positive for risk takers.

I Said ?Black Swans,? Not Crows!

The Thumbnail Portfolio

Equities-A ?V? shaped year, up, down, then up again
Bonds-Treasuries grind towards new 60 year peaks, then an eventual collapse
Currencies-dollar up and Euro and Australian, Canadian and New Zealand dollars down
Commodities-Look to buy for a long term hold mid-year
Precious Metals-take a longer rest, then up again
Real estate-multifamily up, single family down, commercial sideways

1) The Economy-The Second Lost Decade Continues

I am sticking with a 2% growth forecast for 2012. I see the huge list of negatives above that add up to at least a 5% drag on the economy. There is only one positive that we can really count on. Corporate earnings will probably come in at $105 a share for the S&P 500 this year, a gain of 15% over the previous year, and a double off the 2008 lows. During the last three years we have seen the most dramatic increase in earnings in history, taking them to all-time highs, no matter how much management complains about over regulation.

Can the magic continue? I think not. Slowing economies in China and Europe will fail to deliver the stellar gains seen in 2011, which account for half the profits of many large multinationals.? A global economy that grew at 4.1% in 2010 and 2.5% in 2011 will probably eke out only a subdued 1.5% in 2012. A strong dollar will further eat into foreign revenues.

Cost cutting through layoffs is reaching an end as there is no one left to fire. Growing companies can?t delay new hires forever. That leaves technology as the sole remaining source of margin increases, which will continue its inexorable improvements. So corporate earnings will rise again in 2012, but possibly only by 5%-10%? to $105-$110 for the $S&P 500. Hint: technology will be the top performing sector in the market in 2012, with Apple (AAPL) taking the lead.

Deleveraging will remain a dominant factor affecting the economy for another 5-8 years. Much of the hyper growth we witnessed over the past 30 years, possibly half, was borrowed from the future through excessive credit, and it is now time to pay the piper. We are still at the beginning of a second lost decade. Don?t expect a robust GDP while governments, corporations, and individuals are sucking money out of the economy. This lines up nicely with my 2% target.

Forget about employment. The news will always be bad. I believe that the US has entered a period of long term structural unemployment similar to what Germany saw in the 1990?s. Yes, we may grind down to 8% before the election. But the next big move in this closely watched indicator is up, possible as high as 15%. Keep close tabs on the weekly jobless claims that come out at 8:30 AM Eastern every Thursday for a good read of the financial markets to head in a ?RISK ON? or ?RISK OFF? direction.

Equities: No Place for Old Men

2) Equities? (SPX), (QQQQ), (AAPL), (XLF), (BAC), (EEM),(EWZ), (RSX), (PIN), (FXI), (TUR), (EWY), (EWT), (IDX)

With a GDP growing at a feeble 2% in 2012, and corporate earnings topping out at $105-$110 a share, those with a traditional buy and old approach to the stock market will fare better taking this year off. While earnings are growing, multiples will shrink from 13 to 12, multiple? for the indexes unchanged. It is also possible that the economy will never meet the textbook definition of a recession, that of two back to back quarters of negative GDP numbers.? But the market will think the economy is going into recession and behave accordingly. ?Double dip? will get dusted off one again. Remember how ?Sell in May and Go Away? has worked so well for the past three years? This year you may want to sell in January.

I am looking for some new liquidity from value players and additional short covering to spill over into the New Year, possibly taking us up to 1,325-$1,350. If we get that high, take it as a gift, as the big hedge funds will be very happy to pile on the leveraged shorts at the top of a multiyear range.

A continuing stream of positive economic data will also help. Since we don?t have the ?oomph? offered by the tax compromise and QE2 a year ago, look for equities to peak much earlier than the April 29 apex we saw in 2011. The trigger for this deluge could be a sudden spike in jobless claims as the temporary Christmas hires are fired combined with economic data that cools coming off a hot Q4.

Let me tell you why the value players up here don?t get it. A 2% growth rate doesn?t justify the 10-22 price earnings multiple range that we have enjoyed during the last 30 years. At best it can support an 8-16 range, or maybe even the 6-15 range that prevailed when I first started on Wall Street 40 years ago. That makes the current 13 multiple look cheap according to old models, but expensive in the new paradigm.

When the guys in the white coats show up to drag away the value managers, they will be screaming that ?They were cheap,? all the way to the insane asylum. What these hapless souls didn?t grasp was that we are only four years into a secular, decade long downtrend in PE multiples, the bottom for which is anyone?s guess.

After that, the way should be clear for a 25% swoon down to 1,000, which will happen sometime in Q2 or Q3. That will be caused by a ton of new short selling triggered by the break of the 2011 low at 1,070, which then get stopped out on the upside. The heating up of trouble with Iran is another unpredictable variable, which is really just a pretext for attacking Syria, their only ally. How will the market decline in the face of growing earnings? That is exactly what markets did in 2011, once the fear trade was posted on the mast for all to see?

Crash, we won?t, and this is what my Armageddon friends don?t get. To break to new lows, you need sellers, and lots of them. Those were in abundance in 2008, when the bear market caught many completely by surprise, everyone was leveraged to the hilt, and risk controls provided all the security of wet tissue paper.

This time around it?s different. Prime brokers now require a pound of flesh as collateral, especially in the wake of the MF Global Bankruptcy, and leverage as almost an extinct species. In the meantime, individuals have been decamping from stocks en masse, with equity mutual fund sales over the past three year hitting $400 billion, compared to $800 billion in bond fund purchases. That will leave hedge funds the only players at an (SPX) of 1,000, who will be loath to run big shorts at multiyear bottoms. You can?t have a crash if there is no one left to sell.

That gives us the juice to rally into Q4, just as the presidential election is coming to an end. It really makes no difference who wins, as long as one doesn?t get control all three branches of government. My money is on Obama, who has the highest approval rate in history with unemployment at 8.6%. The mere fact that the election is over will lift a cloud of uncertainty overhanging risk assets. It will be a real stretch to hope that stock markets will close unchanged in 2012, as we did in 2011. My expectation is for a single digit loss for 2012.

This Could? be the Big Trade of 2012

Equities will be no place for old men

3) Bonds?? (TBT), (JNK), (PHB), (HYG), (PCY)

The single worst call by myself and the hedge fund industry at large this year was that massive borrowing by the Federal government would cause the Treasury bond market to collapse. Not only did it fail to do so, it blasted through to new 60 year highs, sending ten year yields to 1.80%, which adjusted for inflation is a real negative yield of -1.5% a year.

Investors today will get back 80 cents worth of purchasing power at maturity for every dollar they invest. But institutions and individuals will grudgingly lock in these appalling returns because they believe that the losses in any other asset class will be much greater.

What I underestimated was the absolute perniciousness of today?s deflation. The price for everything you want to sell is continuing a relentless fall, including your home and your labor.? The cost of the things you need to buy, like food, energy, health care, and education, is rocketing. Globalization is the fat on the fire. I call this ?The New Inflation?. This goes a long way in explaining the causes behind a 30 year decline in the middle class standard of living.

The other thing I miscalculated on was how rapid contagion fears spread from Europe. When the world gets into trouble, everyone picks up their marbles and goes home. For the financial markets, that translates into massive buying of the core ?flight to safety? assets of the US dollar and Treasury bonds.

While much of the current political debate centers around excessive government borrowing, the markets are telling us the exact opposite. A 1.80%, ten year yield is proof to me that there is a Treasury bond shortage, and that the government is not borrowing too much money, but not enough. Given the choice between what a politician wants me to believe and the harsh judgment of the marketplace, I will take the latter every time.

So what will 2012 bring us? More of the same. For a start, we have seen a substantial ?RISK ON? rally for the past three months where equities tacked on a virile 20% gain. Bond yields have ticked up barely 30 basis points from the lows, not believing in the longevity of this rally for one nanosecond. That tells me that the next equity sell off could see Treasury yields punch through to new lows, possibly down to 1.60%. Given even a modest recession, bond yields could touch 1%.

Surveying the rocky landscape that lies ahead of me, I expect to get five months of ?RISK ON? conditions and a turbulent and volatile seven months of ?RISK OFF?. This augers very well for a continuation of the bull market in Treasuries at least until August.

This scenario does not presage a good year for the riskiest corner of the fixed income asset class – junk bonds, whose default rates are not coming in anywhere near where they were predicted just a few months ago. Don?t get enticed by the siren song of high yields by the junk ETF?s, like (JNK), (PHB), and the (HYG). There will be better buying opportunities down the road.

As for municipal bonds, we are seeing only the opening act of a decade of fiscal woes by local government. Still, there is a good case for sticking with munis. No matter what anyone says, taxes are going up, and when they do, this will increase muni values. The continued bull market in Treasuries will do the same.

So if you hate paying taxes, go ahead and buy this exempt paper, but only with the expectation of holding it to maturity. Liquidity could get pretty thin along the way. Be sure to consult with a local financial advisor to max out the state, county, and city tax benefits. And thank Meredith Whitney for creating the greatest buying opportunity in history for muni bonds a year ago.

Perhaps the best place to live in bond world is in emerging market debt, where you can participate via the (PCY). At least there, you have the tailwinds of strong economies, little outstanding debt, appreciating currencies, and already high interest rates. But don?t buy here. This is something you want to pick up at the nadir of a ?RISK OFF? cycle, when the dollar and Treasury markets are peaking.

(FXC)

The Fat Lady Will Have to Wait to Sing for the Treasury Market

4) Foreign Currencies (FXE), (EUO), (FXC), (FXA), (YCS), (FXY), (CYB)

Any trader will tell you to never bet against the trend, and the overwhelming direction for the US dollar for the last 220 years has been down. The only question is how far, how fast. Going short the currency of the world?s largest borrower, running the greatest trade and current account deficits in history, with a diminishing long term growth rate is a no brainer.

But once it became every hedge fund trader?s free lunch, and positions became so lopsided against the buck, a reversal was inevitable. We seem to be solidly in one of those periodic bear market corrections, which began in March and could continue for several more months, or even years.

The big driver of the currency markets is interest rate differentials. With US interest rates safely at zero, and the rest of the world chopping theirs as fast as they can, this will provide a very strong tailwind for the greenback for much of 2012. Use rallies to sell short the Euro (FXE), (EUO), the Canadian dollar (FXC), the high beta Australian dollar (FXA), and the lagging New Zealand dollar (BNZ). Australians could see a print of 85 cents before the bloodletting is over, and should pay for their upcoming imports and foreign vacations now, while their currency is still dear.

The Euro presents a particular quandary for foreign exchange traders, with a never ending sovereign debt crisis causing its death through a thousand cuts. Just look at Greece, with a budget deficit of 13% of GDP against the 3% it promised on admission to the once exclusive club. But this is not exactly new news, and traders have already built shorts to all-time records. Still, the next crisis in confidence could easily take the Euro to $1.25, and new momentum driven shorts could take us to the $1.17?s.

As far as the Japanese yen is concerned, I am going to stay away. How the world?s worst economy has managed to maintain the planet?s strongest currency is beyond me. The problems in the Land of the Rising Sun are almost too numerous to count: the world?s highest debt to GDP ratio, a horrific demographic problem, flagging export competitiveness against neighboring China and South Korea, and the world?s lowest developed country economic growth rate. But until someone provides me with a convincing explanation, or until the yen decisively reverses, I?ll pass. Let hedge fund manager, Kyle Bass, figure this one out.

For a sleeper, use the next plunge in emerging markets to buy the Chinese Yuan ETF (CYB) for your back book, but don?t expect more than single digit returns. The Middle Kingdom will move heaven and earth to in order to keep its appreciation modest to maintain their crucial export competitiveness.

Suddenly, Everyone Loves Uncle Buck

5) Commodities (FCX), (VALE), (DIG), (RIG), (JOY), (KOL), (CCJ), (FSLR), (USO), (DUG), (DIG), (UNG), (JJG), (MOO), (DBA), (MOS), (MON), (AGU), (POT), (CCJ), (NLR), (PHO), (FIW), (CORN), (WEAT), (SOYB)

This is my favorite asset class for the next decade, as investors increasingly catch on to the secular move out of paper assets into hard ones. Don?t buy anything that can be manufactured with a printing press. Focus instead on assets that are in short supply, are enjoying an exponential growth in demand, and take five years to bring new supply online. The Malthusian argument on population growth also applies to commodities; hyperbolic demand inevitably overwhelms linear supply growth.

Of course, we?re already nine years into what is probably a 30 year secular bull market for commodities and these things are no longer as cheap as they once were. You?ll never buy copper again at 85 cents a pound, versus today?s $3.40. You are going to have to allow these things to breathe. Ultimately, this is a demographic play that cashes in on rising standards of living in the biggest and highest growth emerging markets. You can start with the traditional base commodities of copper and iron ore.

The derivative equity plays here are Freeport McMoRan (FCX) and Companhia Vale do Rio Doce (VALE). Add the energies of oil (DIG), coal (KOL), uranium (NLR), and the equities Transocean (RIG), Joy Global (JOY), and Cameco (CCJ).

As much as I love the long term case for hard commodities, I am not expecting any action in the immediate future. Commodities will remain a no go area until it is clear whether China?s economy will suffer a soft or a hard landing, or continues to remain airborne. Use this year?s big ?RISK OFF? trade to acquire serious positions. If markets rally into year end, you might catch a quick 50% gain in the more volatile securities.

Oil has in fact become the new global de facto currency, and probably $30 of the current $100 price reflects monetary demand, and another $30 representing a Middle Eastern risk premium. Strip out these factors, and oil should be trading at $40.? That will help it grind to $100 sometime in early 2012, and we could spike as high as $120. After that, the ?RISK OFF? trade could take it back down to the $75 we saw in September.

Skip natural gas (UNG), because the discovery of a new 100 year supply from ?fracking? and horizontal drilling in shale formations is going to overhang this subsector for a very long time. Major reforms are required in Washington before use of this molecule goes mainstream.

The food commodities are also a great long term Malthusian play, with corn (CORN), wheat (WEAT), and soybeans (SOYB) coming off the back of great returns in 2010. These can be played through the futures or the ETF?s (MOO) and (DBA), and the stocks Mosaic (MOS), Monsanto (MON), Potash (POT), and Agrium (AGU). The grain ETF (JJG) is another handy play. Though an unconventional commodity play, the impending shortage of water will make the energy crisis look like a cake walk. You can participate in this most liquid of asset with the ETF?s (PHO) and (FIW).

Here is Your Lead Contract for ?RISK ON?

Meet Your New Currency

5) Precious Metals??? (GLD), (DGP), (SLV), (PTM), (PALL)

Let?s face it, gold is not a hard asset anymore, it?s a paper one. Since hedge funds and high frequency traders moved into this space, the barbarous relic has been tracking one for one with the S&P 500 and other risk assets.

The chip shot here is $1,500 on the downside, once the remaining hedge fund redemptions and other hot money are cleared out. If we have a real recession this year, $1,050 might be doable. Remember, the speculative frenzy is as great as it was in 1979, which saw the beginning of a 75% plunge in the yellow metal.

But the long term bull case is still there. Obama has not suddenly become a paragon of fiscal restraint. Bernanke has not morphed into a tightwad. When I pull a dollar bill out of my wallet, it?s as limp as ever.

If you forgot to buy gold at $35, $300, or $800, another entry point is setting up for those who, so far, have missed the gravy train. The precious metals have to work off a severely overbought condition before we make substantial new highs. Remember, this is the asset class that takes the escalator up and the elevator down, and sometimes the window.

If the institutional world devotes just 5% of their assets to a weighting in gold, and an emerging market central bank bidding war for gold reserves continues, it has to fly to at least $2,300, the inflation adjusted all-time high, or more. ETF players can look at the 1X (GLD) or the 2X leveraged gold (DGP). But you should only go into these as part of a broader ?RISK ON? move.

I would also be using the next bout of weakness to pick up the high beta, more volatile precious metal,+ silver (SLV), which I think could hit $50 once more. Palladium (PALL) and platinum (PPLT), which have their own auto related long term fundamentals working on their behalf would also be something to consider on a dip.

Here?s a Nice Busted Bubble

6) Real Estate

There is no point in spending much time on this most unloved of asset classes, so I?ll keep it brief. There are only three numbers you need to know in the housing market: there are 80 million baby boomers, 65 million Generation Xer?s who follow them, and 85 million in the generation after that, the Millennials.

The boomers have been desperately trying to unload dwellings to the Gen Xer?s since prices peaked in 2007. But there are not enough of them, and three decades of falling real incomes mean that they only earn a fraction of what their parents made. If they have prospered, banks won?t lend to them.

Now consider the coming changes that will affect this market. The home mortgage deduction is unlikely to survive any attempt to balance the budget. And why should renters be subsidizing homeowners anyway? Nor is the government likely to spend billions keeping Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac alive, which now account for 95% of home mortgages.

That means the home loan market will be privatized, leading to mortgages rates 200 basis points higher than today. If this sounds extreme, look no further than the jumbo market for proof. It is already bereft of government subsidy, and loans here are now priced at premiums of this size. This also means that the fixed rate 30 year loan will disappear, as banks seek to offload duration risk to consumers. This happened long ago in the rest of the developed world.

There is a happy ending to this story. By 2025 the Millennials will start to kick in as the dominant buyers in the market. Some 85 million Millennials will be chasing the homes of only 65 Gen Xer?s, causing housing shortages and rising prices. This will happen in the context of a labor shortfall and rising standards of living. In fact, the mid 2020?s could bring a repeat of our last golden age, the 1950?s.

The best case scenario for residential real estate is that it bounces along a bottom for another decade. The worst case is that it falls another 25% from here. Only buy a home if your wife is nagging you about living in that cardboard box under the freeway overpass. But expect to put up your first born child as collateral, and bring in your entire extended family in as cosigners if you want to get a bank loan. Then pray that the price starts to go up in 15 years. Rent, don?t buy.

Rent, Don?t Buy

Well, that?s all for now. We?ve just passed the Pacific mothball fleet and we?re crossing the Benicia Bridge, where the Sacramento River pours into San Francisco Bay. The pressure drop caused by an 8,000 foot descent from Donner Pass has crushed my water bottle. The Golden Gate and the soaring spire of the Transamerica building are just around the next bend. So it is time for me to unglug my laptop and pack up.

I?ll shoot you a trade alert whenever I see a window open on any of the trades above. Good trading in 2012!