Thursday, July 8, 2010

Mid-Year Update: Taxation should be about raising the maximum amount of revenue for the government in the least economically disruptive way.

Equities of all persuasion saw mid-year losses after a first quarter surge.


Year-to-date (1/1/10-07/02/10)*
Dow Jones Indus Avg. -7.38%
S&P 500 -8.44%
NASDAQ -7.96%
Russell 2000 -4.23%
MSCI World Index -11.33%
DJ STOXX Europe 600 -6.55%

Year-to-date (1/1/10-07/01/10)
90 Day T-Bill 0.09%
2-Year Treasury 1.46%
10-Year Treasury 5.91%
ML High Yield Index 2.79%
JPM EMBI Global Diversified 5.40%
JP Morgan Global Hedged 4.42%

Year-to-date (1/1/10-07/01/10)
U.S. $ / Euro (1.26) -11.9%
U.S. $ / British Pound (1.52) -6.2%
Yen / U.S. ($ 87.74) -5.7%
Gold ($/oz) ($1,210.68) 10.4%
Oil ($72.01) -9.3%

*Returns reported as of 9:15 a.m. Pacific Standard Time

What accounts for the second quarter downturn?

Various theories are being put forward.
One is that corporations are pulling pro fits forward into 2010 to avoid the higher taxes coming in 2011. Yes, it is still possible to manipulate earnings despite Sarbanes-Oxley, you just have to be smarter than before.
Another possible reason for the decline is the fear of a double dip recession starting early next year. This is supported in part by numerous factors including robbing 2011 results by the earnings manipulations described above, expiration of the Federal economic stimulus (yes, even bad stimulus has some effect on the economy) and uncertainty arising from the fallout expected from the financial reform legislation now pending in Congress and the actual fallout from the health care legislation.
Finally, there is the expectation that corporate earnings and competitive position internationally will be negatively affected by the higher corporate tax rates
in 2011. The often repeated mantra that ‘the more you tax something the less of it you get’ is running into opposition by the Obama administration which is more concerned with ‘fairness’.
Taxation should be about raising the maximum amount of revenue for the government in the least economically disruptive way. Fairness should be addressed on the spending side of the ledger. To mix the two politicizes revenue raising and invites special interests to corrupt the taxation process with social engineering thereby doing greater harm to the economy.

Individual investors have still to be heard from since they are expected to take profits on their holdings before year-end to avoid higher tax rates.
Such individuals may well opt to sit on the cash proceeds from such tax sales until the outlook clarifies. This will only add to short term market weakness.

Despite the fact that Congress seems to be playing a losing hand, they seem unlikely to change course before the November elections.
Should the Democrats lose control of the House of Representatives, we can expect a major market rally since a stalemated Congress would be a welcome relief for the markets.
This may be short lived, however, since a lame duck Congress may well try to finish their agenda before leaving office (think carbon tax or a VAT). In short, equities don’t look promising between now and November and don’t look all that great for next year.

A healthy position in cash and gold still look like safe bets.

Interest Rate Outlook

At mid-year we see ten year Treasuries below 3% and thirty year Treasuries below 4%.

What would possess an asset manager to buy 30 year Treasuries with a locked in yield of 4% when the outlook for inflation over the next few years promises to make this a loosing proposition if not a disastrous one?

The only answer I can devise is fear and special situations.

Fear by those who have gotten burned in the financial crisis and therefore consider credit risk in the short term more important than market risk over the longer term.

Special situation buyers include insurance companies who are matching long term
payout commitments on annuities with the interest payments on the Treasuries.
Other special situation players would be hedge funds playing the carry trade game where they buy these Treasuries with short term loans at 25 basis points. It is this group who represent the greatest threat to the interest rate outlook since they
will unload their positions en masse the moment they see a turn in rates.
This is why I feel an interest rate rise will come suddenly and not be dependant on actual inflation. It may in fact be a cause of the inflation.

Considerable media attention has been given to the municipal bond market in recent weeks.
We see yields on ten year AAA munis going from 3.91% at year end 2008 to 3.25% at year end 2009 to 3.13% at mid-year 2010.
Much of this decline is due to the high demand for tax free munis by individual investors in high tax states as well as generally, given the pending tax rate rises in 2011.
The decline in muni yields is also influenced by the continued perception that munis are safe because they have always been so. This perception is due some re-evaluation.

Municipalities have rarely faced the kind of budget pressures they are experiencing today because of the revenue declines resulting from the recession. Added to this is the retirement of government employed baby boomers, whose pension liabilities have gone mostly unfunded.

This is an increase in current expenditures which is not discretionary and growing rapidly. It promises to create a budget crisis at the city and county level since these entities now face a cash expense they can no longer ignore.
Warren Buffet, who rushed into the bond insurance business during the financial crisis has since backed away. He notes that in the coming budget crunch, municipalities will likely stiff insurers or bondholders before firing employees. Bankruptcy filings may also prove to be more palatable politically than cutting services.
In any case, don’t think that past history is the best indication of what the future holds for municipal bonds.

Thanks to Richard Lehmann at and Payden & Rygel []for the data tables

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