Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Manufacturing Survey is Lame Excuse for Rally

Today's strong rally in stocks is being credited to a favorable Empire State Manufacturing Survey. This survey is administered by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Not surprisingly, investors reacted primarily to the headline, which does indeed suggest that things are getting better. Keep in mind, however, that the survey covers business conditions in just one state. Furthermore, the results are derived by surveying only 200 top executives at New York manufacturing companies; of which only about 100 actually responded.

That so many investors would pay this much attention to a rather esoteric report seems a bit odd. At least for today anyway, investors chose to buy stocks due to how 100 executives responded to this one question: "What is your evaluation of the level of general business activity?" The New York Fed was not looking for a well thought out essay. Instead, it was a multiple choice question with only three possible answers: Decrease, No Change, and Increase. The Fed then creates an index from the answers. Investors apparently got excited because the index was somewhat higher than it was a month ago, which suggests a positive trend.

The survey does contain other questions as well, but stocks surged primarily because of how 100 executives answered that lead question. Of course, the value of the index could have been quite different if just one or two executives responded in a different manner, or if some of the 100 who skipped the survey had actually responded. Which brings up another question, why didn't those executives respond? Was it because business conditions were so good that they were simply too busy? Or was it because business conditions were so bad that they were too disillusioned?

The survey also asked about the number of employees and about the average employee workweek. The results from the 100 executives who responded suggest that manufacturing companies added employees, but at a slower pace than they did a month ago, and that employees are working longer hours. The survey results also indicate that the executives are optimistic about future business conditions (i.e., six months from now), but not as optimistic as they were a month ago.

Overall, the survey does not really tell us much that we did not already know. Results are better than they were a year ago, but not that different than they were a month ago. Nonetheless, investors seized on the report as an excuse to buy stocks. However, the real reason they started buying was because they were convinced stocks were oversold. As I've argued before, there will be many days on which stocks rally strongly, yet the overall trend is still unfavorable. A somewhat upbeat manufacturing report is certainly nice to see, but we still have to deal with much larger problems in the economy, including huge amounts of sovereign debt, stubbornly high unemployment, a still sick housing market, and a general lack of demand for goods and services. (Except, of course, when demand is being fueled by generous government subsidies!)

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Greece and the Gulf Oil Spill Scare Investors in May

April 20 marks the start of the biggest environmental disaster in U.S. history. It was on this date that an oil rig operated by British Petroleum in the Gulf of Mexico exploded. Initial reports said oil was leaking into the Gulf at a rate of 1,000 barrels per day. That sounds like a lot, but most of us probably figured BP would stop the leak quickly. Days later,we learned that not only was oil still leaking, but that the rate of flow was more like 5,000 barrels per day. Forty-two days later, oil is still leaking, but now they say the flow could be as high as 19,000 barrels per day. The level of incompetence seems to prove Murphy’s Law. The scale of the catastrophe is so extensive and unimaginable that we have all but forgotten the 11 people who died on the rig on the day of the explosion.

On May 6,we had a bit of an explosion in the financial markets, which distracted us from the oil spill—at least for a while. That was the day the Dow Jones Industrial Average suffered its largest intra-day point drop ever. Almost suddenly, the Dow fell 998.5 points before bouncing back and closing down 347.8 points for the day. The blame for the “flash crash” was initially placed on everything from computers that automatically executed programmed trades to a trader with “fat fingers” who hit the wrong letter on his keyboard. The SEC is still investigating the events of the day and has yet to determine what the actual cause was.

There can be no doubt, however, that part of the blame goes to the rioting in Greece. Gil Scott Heron, a 1970s poet and musician once said, “The Revolution Will Not be Televised.” He was wrong—at least in this case. The selling of stocks took off in earnest at the same moment that Greek police and demonstrators clashed, an event widely televised on the trading floor of the NYSE. Investors were already nervous about Greece. Not only was there doubt about Germany’s commitment to saving Greece and the euro, but there was also a real Greek tragedy that took place the day before when three employees, one of them pregnant, were killed by a demonstrator who decided to firebomb their bank.

The events in Greece have brought the risks of sovereign debt to the forefront. At the CFA Institute’s annual conference in mid-May, several speakers focused on the dire consequences of too much sovereign debt. Niall Ferguson’s remarks were the most sobering. He suggested that the situation in Greece pales in comparison to what could happen in many larger economies—including the U.S. He said that focusing on debt as a percentage of GDP can be misleading. A more relevant metric is the percentage of tax revenues that must service the debt. In the U.S., interest on the federal debt already eats up more than 9% of our revenues. Yet at a time when rates are at historic lows, the government continues to rely on short-term financing, taking on tremendous rollover risk. Ferguson says that if rates were to rise just slightly,we could soon be spending 20% of our tax revenues on interest payments, a situation that would be untenable.

Unfortunately, stocks suffered one of their biggest monthly declines just as many reluctant retail investors decided to go back into the market. I expect more selling ahead.