Sunday, November 23, 2008

How Low Can It Go?

No, I'm not talking about the stock market. I'm talking about crude oil and gasoline.

Back when oil prices were still well over $100 per barrel, I wrote in Forbes magazine that they were likely to fall. I thought the global slowdown and the rapid change in driving habits would bring oil down to about $70. Of course, we've already fallen well below that mark. Crude is now selling for less than $50. Gasoline prices have also plunged. According to the AAA Fuel Gauge Report, the national average retail price for regular unleaded gasoline is currently $1.93 per gallon.

It would be nice if prices were falling because the world had discovered a lot more oil. Unfortunately, prices are falling because demand is being destroyed. Much of the demand destruction is due to the global economic slowdown. In particular, people are driving less in the U.S. They are also driving more efficient cars. U.S. auto manufacturers are struggling in part because no one wants to buy a gas guzzler anymore. The Honda Civic is suddenly chic.

Other countries are being impacted as well. Europe and much of Asia are in recession. Although demand is still growing in China, it is growing at lower-than-expected rates.

So how low can oil go? It all depends on the severity of the global recession. It also depends on how serious we remain about alternative energy. Plug-in hybrids and all-electric vehicles seemed to make economic sense when oil was at $140 per barrel and $5 gasoline was within sight. But how many drivers would be willing to give up their internal combustion engines if gasoline is expected to remain below $2 per gallon?

Not long ago, no one seriously thought we'd see $40 crude oil again. However, now it appears that we'll see $30 very soon.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

This Recession Will Last Longer Than Average

Most sensible economists agree the U.S. economy is in recession. Yet the fact remains that no recession has been officially declared.

The textbook definition of recession is two successive quarters of contraction. After posting very strong growth during the second and third quarters of 2007, GDP fell 0.2% during the fourth quarter of that year. However, it rebounded to 0.9% growth in the first quarter of 2008. The tax rebate checks, billed as an economic stimulus plan, boosted second quarter 2008 GDP to 2.8%. GDP fell 0.3% in the third quarter. So if the economy contracts during the fourth quarter, which it certainly will, we will have satisfied the textbook definition of recession.

The more relevant definition, however, is the one stated by the National Bureau of Economic Research. This is the entity that has the authority to declare official recessions in the U.S. According to the NBER, "a recession is a significant decline in economic activity spread across the economy, lasting more than a few months, normally visible in real GDP, real income, employment, industrial production, and wholesale-retail sales." By this definition, it appears that a case could be made that we have been in recession for almost a year.

The NBER takes its time in declaring recessions. According to the NBER, the last recession began in March 2001 and ended in November of that year. But the NBER did not declare the start of the recession until November, when the recession was already over. Furthermore, it did not declare the end of the recession until July 2003. That's almost two years after the recession had already ended.

Employment is one of the many factors the NBER studies when trying to determine if the economy is in recession. In December 2006, the unemployment rate stood at 4.6%. One year later, it had climbed to 5.0%. After dipping a bit in January and February of 2008, it resumed its upward drift. The unemployment rate for October hit 6.5%, 150 basis points higher than it was just 10 months earlier. The last time the unemployment rate visited this level was in April 1994.

Given layoffs like the one announced yesterday by Citigroup, there is no doubt unemployment will jump to much higher levels. Some economists hope the unemployment rate will peak around 7%. I think this forecast is much too optimistic. In June 1992, the unemployment rate hit 7.8%. In November and December of 1982 it peaked at 10.8%. Furthermore, it is not unusual for the unemployment rate to continue rising for some time even after a recession has ended. This is because employers are wary about hiring until they are convinced that better times lie ahead. At this time, I am expecting the unemployment rate to rise to somewhere between 8-9% by June 2009.

I believe the current (undeclared) recession began in January 2008. I am optimistic that it will end around June 2009. If I have the starting and ending points right, this recession will have lasted 18 months in duration. That is about the average length of all recessions recorded in the U.S. since 1854, but it is 10 months longer than the average since 1945. In fact, 18 months would set a post-WWII recession record.

Of course, if businesses become more aggressive with layoffs, retail sales continue to fall, and housing prices fail to stabilize by next spring, this recession could last considerably longer than 18 months. That would be a dire outcome indeed.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Tax-Related Selling Will Keep Market Volatile Until 2009

The following is from a Special Report sent to subscribers of the Forbes Special Situation Survey.

In our Oct. 7 Special Report we discussed the unprecedented level of volatility plaguing the markets. Things have gotten much worse since. Both the intra-day and inter-day swings on the Dow and other major indexes are simply mind boggling. There have been a number of days when the Dow opened up or down several hundred points only to finish in the opposite direction.

We believe this volatility will continue through the end of the year. We believe much of it is due to tax-related trading. Earlier this year, many investors sold stocks for hefty capital gains. They then invested that money back into the market. Now they are sitting on large capital losses. These investors will sell shares in order to realize those losses to offset their earlier gains in order to minimize their tax bill. This activity puts downward pressure on stocks.

Other investors have already realized large capital losses. Because the IRS limits investors to only $3,000 per year in net capital losses, these investors have an incentive to sell into rallies in order to realize whatever gains they can to offset their large losses. This activity keeps the market from going higher than it otherwise would.

Of course, on top of all this, hedge funds and mutual funds are selling in order to meet redemptions. Investors who want their money back from hedge funds by yearend must notify them by Nov. 15. If large numbers of investors do so, selling pressure could increase between now and the end of the year. Mutual funds are also selling heavily. Many investors who have seen the value of their mutual fund holdings collapse will be doubly shocked when they realize they will owe capital gains taxes on shares the mutual fund managers sold at a profit.

Given the extreme sell-off in stocks this year, subscribers should keep a watchful eye on their tax situation. Make sure you realize net losses of $3,000 ($1,500 if married and filing separately). If you realize more than that, you will have to carry forward the losses into the next tax year. That’s not a bad thing, but it is not as valuable as taking them now.

Once all this tax-loss selling is completed, the market will stabilize. We expect volatility to subside once January rolls around. Furthermore, even though the economy will exhibit tremendous weakness for at least another six months or so, the stock market is likely to rally long before the economy improves. A strong rally after a bad year is not unusual. A 50% rally in the Dow from current levels would bring us back to only about 12,750. A 25% rally translates into a 10,625 Dow. This is a level that looks quite achievable by the end of 2009.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Give (Small) Businesses a Chance to Flourish

I gave a talk yesterday at William Paterson University in Wayne, NJ about the economy and stock markets. Many of the participants were small business owners and were very concerned about how the dismal economic climate will affect small businesses in particular.

Small business is the backbone of the U.S. economy. It accounts for about half of all private sector employment, but it also accounts for most of the job growth. At least it did during the last decade. These days, of course, there is no job growth. The economy has shed almost 1.2 million jobs over the past 10 months--more than half a million in the last two months alone.

While the failure rate for new businesses is high, the fact is that owning your own business is one of the best ways to achieve economic prosperity. The new Obama administration should consider ways to make it easier for individuals to start and run businesses. One good idea is to exempt all new businesses from taxes for the first five years. Let them build up some steam before you slow them down. Besides, they will employ more people as they grow and the government will get its due from payroll taxes.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Everyone Should Pay Their Fair Share of Taxes, But Not a Penny More

I just returned from the Fourteenth Forbes Cruise for Investors. We left New York City on Oct. 29 and toured the Caribbean. I got off in Angtigua on Nov. 4, but the cruise is still in progress. I arrived at JFK airport around 11 p.m. on the 4th and entered the baggage claim area just as CNN declared Barack Obama the winner of our presidential election. The place erupted in cheers.

Most participants on the investment cruise were resigned to an Obama victory, but they worried about what this would mean for the economy. Of course, Obama has threatened to raise taxes on the so-called rich. Depending on the day, his definition of rich seems to include anyone who makes $200,000 per year or so. I know in some parts of this country this sounds like a good sum of money, but I do not know anyone in the New York City area who makes this amount of money who considers himself rich--especially if he is supporting a family. With the top 1% of income earners already paying 40% of all the federal income taxes, it seems the "rich" already pay way too much tax.

More than one-third of Americans pay no federal income tax at all. Some are honest hard-working people who simply do not make enough money to pay taxes. But others either refuse to work or work in the underground economy. Many grocers, landscapers, painters, waiters, musicians, etc. deal only in cash. Are all these cash-based businesses declaring their income and paying their fair share of taxes? Some experts estimate that the illegal drug trade alone has a global value of $400 billion--all of it tax free. Instead of trying to squeeze more money out of the rich, Obama should first make sure that everyone pays his fair share.