Stock Strategies: Random Predictions for 2009

I’m happy to turn the page on 2008. We had a great streak of profitable trades in Strategic Short Report, but it still was a stressful, painful year to be an investor. Even if you’re far more patient and disciplined than most investors, you still were punished in 2008.

Dozens of stocks come to mind that were sold down to insanely cheap levels as hedge funds scrambled for cash. That scramble is probably not over, so we may be in for more turbulence. Plenty of stocks come to mind that are still trading too high relative to their earnings potential. We’ll be looking to bet against those in 2009. Plus, many companies will not make it out of 2009 without going through bankruptcy. I expect to find a few more “short to zero” stocks — like Fleetwood Enterprises (NYSE: FLTW) — in 2009. We sold Fleetwood short in March at $4.43 and covered in October at 27 cents, for a 94% gain.

When asked by family and friends over the holidays what I think about the 2008 stock market and economy, my response has been, “I expected a nasty bear market in 2008, but the carnage since September took me by surprise. The economy will remain weak, but I think the worst of the widespread market carnage is behind us. Future damage should be concentrated in sectors with horrible fundamentals. Thankfully, 2009 should be a year when fundamental analysis should start to matter once more.”

This will be a welcome development, because 2008 was a year when the following strategy worked best:

1) Sell short any stock or ETF, without bothering to do any fundamental research
2) Invest the proceeds in Treasury bonds, preferably with as much margin as possible
3) Repeat Steps 1 and 2, over and over.

Clearly, this “deflation trade” strategy is not sustainable over longer time frames — not in an era of worldwide paper money standards. In fact, I’d expect that such a shotgun-based investment strategy of short S&P 500/long Treasuries could lead to big losses in 2009.

I think the key to approaching 2009 markets will be to view everything form the perspective of the Treasury and the Fed. Everyone knows that the real economy stinks and that America is overly indebted. But I doubt everyone realizes just how extreme Treasury/Fed will be in using the deficit and the paper money system to stop the Great Depression II scenario. Theses tactics will be inflationary at some point.

The U.S. banking system became destabilized because its core collateral – houses and mortgage-backed securities – collapsed in 2008. While the authorities may not be able to re-inflate old bubbles in these assets, I’m betting they can employ cheap Treasury financing to cushion the decline. This involves refinancing homeowners out of toxic mortgages into conventional mortgages. They’ll also find some way to deal with the problem of negative home equity, even if it involves highly inflationary tactics like Treasury assuming losses from principal reductions via Fannie and Freddie. And even if foreigners balk at absorbing new Treasuries, the Fed will monetize them – i.e., buy them itself. Again, these tactics would be highly inflationary.

So let me enumerate a few predictions for the New Year:

1) It’s far too easy and popular to be bearish on everything but Treasury bonds, so odds favor a sharp rally in early 2009 — a rally in the S&P 500, led by stocks with the most sustainable fundamentals, including energy, commodities, and infrastructure. Stocks with weak fundamentals may participate, but quickly roll over as economic reality sets in. Many will go to $0 in bankruptcy.

2) The SEC will suspend mark-to-market accounting, or at least modify it to allow more management discretion in marking values of securities. The era of wholesale shorting of financial stocks is likely over. A massive wave of refinancing is also a backdoor way to recapitalize the banking system; perhaps the most efficient way to increase the value of exotic mortgage-backed securities, (and bank capital) is for many of the mortgages backing these securities to “prepay” upon refinancing. Bankers will re-emerge from their bunkers and look to make new loans to creditworthy borrowers, since a sub-1% cost of funds courtesy of the Fed is too low to ignore.

3) Oil will rebound to $80 per barrel on lower than expected production, despite weak demand. If demand rebounds, oil could go to $120.

4) Gold will rally beyond $1,200 on weakness in the U.S. dollar, unprecedented Treasury bond issuance, and tepid foreign demand for U.S. dollar assets. Weaker foreign demand for Treasury bonds will prompt the Fed to step in as buyer of last resort and monetize debt. In its December policy statement, the Fed signaled that if foreign lenders look to sell Treasuries, it would step in as a buyer to keep rates low. If this happens, more savers and bond fund managers will look to invest in inflation hedges like gold and energy.

5) Many more hedge funds will fold in 2009, but this is good for the long-term health of the market. Most of the new funds should not have been started because they just went “long” everything on margin. Their closure will result in a more efficient – and less volatile – market.

6) 2009 will be a “stock picker’s” market. Nothing worked consistently in 2008 other than indiscriminate shorting of stocks and buying of Treasuries. The worst of the wholesale liquidation of stocks is likely over, so 2009 will offer lots of opportunities to buy and sell short individual stocks using fundamental analysis.

That’s the good news…So let’s end on that note.

Dan Amoss

January 12, 2009