Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Inflation Ahead

According to the Hulbert Financial Digest, which tracks the performance of almost 200 investment newsletters, the Forbes Special Situation Survey is the best-performing letter year to date. Hulbert has us up 28.1% through the end of May.

Obviously, we are extremely pleased with this result. However, stocks have weakened considerably in June. Indeed, one of our holdings, Coventry Health Care (CVH), took a big hit last week when management warned that earnings would fall well short of expectations. Yet CVH will report strong revenue growth for the year, and 2008 earnings will likely exceed $3.50 per share. With a forward multiple of just nine times earnings, the stock is extremely attractive. Assuming management does not unload any more surprises, CVH should stage a bit of a rebound in the near term

Of course, macroeconomic factors continue to cast a pall over the entire market. Consumer confidence fell to a 16-year low and housing prices are still falling at an accelerating rate. It is at least a little encouraging, however, to see that the rate of change of the rate of change in housing prices is finally slowing down. Nonetheless, housing prices will probably keep falling on an absolute basis throughout 2008 and possibly into 2009.

Energy prices are another major concern. The extremely high price of gasoline is one major reason why shares of General Motors have plummeted to levels not seen in three decades. But crude oil prices are not just high; they are also remarkably volatile. Intra-day swings of 2% or more now occur on a regular basis.

As for the Fed, its most recent statement mentioned rising inflationary expectations and an uncertain outlook. The FOMC chose to hold interest rates steady at 2%, but it now has a clear upward bias. One member, Richard Fisher, voted against the decision to keep rates steady. He believes the time has come to start increasing interest rates. This comes as no surprise to Fed watchers since Mr. Fisher has dissented on every decision since being appointed to the FOMC in January. He may be a party pooper, but it looks as if he is also the only FOMC member who is ahead of the curve.