The "Second Round of Pain"

If you’ve been thinking about reducing exposure to stocks, now might be a good time. And if you’ve been thinking about increasing your exposure to precious metals, now might be a good time.

According to Morgan Stanley economist Gerard Minack, the stock market is in for a correction after its 9-month “relief rally.” In a note to clients Minack wrote, “We see the rise from March 2009 as a typical relief rally that follows major bear markets. Those relief rallies can occur regardless of underlying macro conditions, regardless of liquidity conditions and – most importantly – regardless of what happens next… We think risk assets have swung to pricing a better outlook than is likely.”

Minack says that a 25% correction is now in order. To be fair though, he doesn’t think the market will make new lows after that, only that it’s gotten way ahead of itself at these levels. The Grand Old Man of Dow Theory, Richard Russell, is even more direct. He’s predicting a “second round of pain” for stock markets. “I note that most analysts are now bullish,” he observes, “and that they are recommending stocks for the ‘continuing advance.’ At the same time, most economists are optimistic, arguing that the ‘longest recession since World War II has ended.’

“Typical,” Russell gripes, “last March everyone was bearish and the market was establishing a temporary bottom. Now that everyone is optimistic, the stock market is topping out and the public (the amateurs) are about to receive their second round of pain.”

What to do?

Last time the world’s financial markets panicked, something strange happened: the US dollar and US bonds rallied while stocks, commodities, and emerging markets sold off. The same thing could be happening now. It’s not so much a flight to quality as it is a flight to liquidity and a massive case of global risk aversion.

During the dollar’s big rally late 2008 and early 2009, stocks and commodities fell. Yet once low interest rates and government stimuli found their way into stock markets, leveraged traders again bet on equities and higher-yielding risk assets around the global. The dollar fell and the stock market rally got pretty carried away with itself.

This time around, we wouldn’t expect the dollar rally to go as high or last as long. We don’t think the monetary authorities would be inclined to let a deleveraging positive feedback loop set in again. That is, the powers that be don’t want to see falling asset values trigger forced liquidations by leveraged players, leading to more asset sales and further liquidations in property, commodities, and equities.

Now just because Ben Bernanke and the global cabal of counterfeiters don’t want something to happen doesn’t mean it won’t happen anyway. The deflating of the world’s asset bubbles is going to happen sooner or later. The world’s massive inverse pyramid of debt is supported by a very small asset base. When the underlying assets (often commercial and residential real estate) fall, the whole structure becomes unstable (this is what happened in 2008).

That means that this time around, you wouldn’t expect the monetary authorities to let liquidity to dry up again. A ten percent fall in stock prices is just the thing to get policy makers in an accommodative mood again. The US employment figures still stink. And markets are increasingly confused and worried about whether certain sovereign nation states (like Greece and Portugal) can finance their deficits and/or reduce public spending without increasing civil unrest.

Mind you, we don’t think more money, credit, or liquidity is the answer. It is, in fact, the problem. The modern world economy is built on a foundation of unsound money.

When central bankers change the cost of capital willy nilly, they corrupt all sorts of incentives in the real economy. And they alter the economics of tens of thousands of investment decisions. If they make money too cheap (always the preference of governments), they create asset bubbles (in stocks, real estate, and commodities).

In fact there’s a pretty persuasive argument that the commodity super cycle is itself a symptom of the de-facto dollar devaluation engineered by Richard Nixon in 1971. Once the world moved to free floating exchange rates and fiat currencies not backed by any metal, a tsunami of paper, credit, and debt has lifted (inflated) prices for everything (houses, stocks, commodities, and bonds).

Some people call this wealth.

But if the super cycle of paper money is ending (a big claim for sure), wouldn’t it mean a dramatic contraction in global economic activity? Not just a severe recession like in 2008 but really, a long depression in which debts are worked off and paid down, or in which debtors simply default and their creditors must take capital-destroying losses?

Well, yes. All that would happen if the super cycle in paper money is ending. We’ve argued that it IS ending and that one symptom is a series of escalating sovereign debt crises. The funding model for the welfare state is broken because it’s base on unsound money.

But paper money has always been a con game based on belief. Neither the emperors of Rome, the Kings of France and England, or the chairmen of the Federal Reserve have been able to resist debasing the currency. It makes both warfare and welfare possible. Guns and butter are the health of the state and the death of sound money.

The counterfeiters always get first use of the bogus money before its purchasing power is diminished by the increased supply. This is a pretty dodgy way to run a world economy. But the assumption – encouraged by the powers that be – is that the an economy can be controlled with the right tweaks to the right dials by the right people wearing the right suits in the right government offices with the right university degrees.

This is also absurd.

But enough of the theory. What now? If the correction becomes a rout, expect more quantitative easing or policy measures designed to mask the pain (more stimuli). In other words, expect measures that will rekindle inflationary forces. Gold is correcting at the moment. But the risk of inflation remains as real and as potent as ever. So we’d say this is a chance to “buy the dip” on gold and other precious metals.


Dan Denning
for The Daily Reckoning