The Fed and Zombie Investors

Damn you, World Bank.

The World Bank now says the global economy will contract by 2.9% this year instead of 1.7%. That could be right. But that’s not the reason stocks are falling. The rally that began in March has now run out of steam. It’s also run out of news events to send it higher. So what now?

Well, the primary trend—and by that we mean what we think the dominant trend is for the next few years—is the systematic reduction of debt in the household and business sectors. That ought to lead to write downs in asset prices and a general contraction in credit. Perhaps that is why—despite the mondo auction of $104 billion in new debt—even U.S. government bonds followed stocks and commodities down.

Let’s take a quick look at what the Federal Open Market Committee said yesterday in regard to U.S. interest rates. We’d planned to watch for language that tipped the Fed’s intentions regarding the bond market. It all begins with the bond vigilantes these days. So what did the Fed say?

It made clear low rates-at least the Fed’s target rate-are here to stay. “The Committee will maintain the target range for the federal funds rate at 0 to 1/4 percent and continues to anticipate that economic conditions are likely to warrant exceptionally low levels of the federal funds rate for an extended period.”

Whether the Fed can talk down or manipulate long-term rates into staying dormant is another matter. But it had more to say on the subject. “As previously announced, to provide support to mortgage lending and housing markets and to improve overall conditions in private credit markets, the Federal Reserve will purchase a total of up to $1.25 trillion of agency mortgage-backed securities and up to $200 billion of agency debt by the end of the year.”

The important part here is “as previously announced.” This sounds a bit like, “I really mean it. I’ll do it. I’m dead serious. Don’t make me buy those mortgage bonds. I’ll do it if I have to. Don’t push me.”

In other words, the Fed is merely repeating what it said it would do earlier. It did not announce a new policy or its intention to expand quantitative easing to keep bond yields down. We imagine it would not want to advertise its willingness to keep buying bonds. That might induce a lot of selling and have the perverse effect of pushing U.S. yields up and investors into other assets.

But just for good measure the Fed repeated itself one more time. “In addition, the Federal Reserve will buy up to $300 billion of Treasury securities by autumn. The Committee will continue to evaluate the timing and overall amounts of its purchases of securities in light of the evolving economic outlook and conditions in financial markets. The Federal Reserve is monitoring the size and composition of its balance sheet and will make adjustments to its credit and liquidity programs as warranted.”

So it’s a waiting game now. The Fed hopes the economy recovers this year and that it can withdraw its massive liquidity measures before they leak through into the economy to cause inflation. So far, its credit facilities have not translated into an expansion in the money supply. That’s what the bond market fears (which is also why ten-year Treasury yields were up on the day).

We reckon investors and insiders will wait to wade back into the stock market until this correction (if that’s what it is) runs its course. After all, the insiders have not been buying the rally. They’ve been selling into it.

According to research service TrimTabs insiders of S&P 500 listed companies have unloaded $2.6bn in shares in June, compared with $120m in purchases. “The smartest players in the US stock market – the top insiders who run public companies – are not betting their own money on an economic recovery,” says TrimTabs CEO Charles Biderman.

So the American insiders are bearish. They’ve been net sellers for fourteen straight weeks, according to Ben Silverman at InsiderScore. If the inside money is getting out, we reckon shares are going to do some bottom searching over the next few weeks. The World Bank announcement, then, merely confirmed what the action in the market has been telling us for the last few weeks.

Insider selling is a particularly charged bit of investment intelligence. But in our experience it is a piece of information that confirms what is already apparent through an analysis of other technical and fundamental variables. It doesn’t necessarily tell you anything you can’t figure out by other means.

It’s true that the insiders may be selling because they have access to information not known by the general public (although trading on this information would, of course, not be legal…but there you go). And insider sales—at least on large stocks with lots of liquidity—are easier to conceal in the general course of trading. But the money flow and volume still tell the tale, especially with smaller stocks.

If you step away from the technical guts of the market for a moment, the larger question is whether this last financial year will trigger any shifts in the investment habits or psyche of the Australian public. Judging by the number of people who stayed in balanced or growth funds over the last year, the Australian public is brain dead (zombies!). But then, let’s be fair. Maybe they ARE keeping their eye on the bigger picture. They just see the picture slightly differently than other living, thinking people.

The bigger picture can be seen below, courtesy of Super Ratings, in the value of a balanced Aussie super fund versus cash since 2003. Cash is slow and plodding and lazy and conservative. Very turtelish. The balances super funds, on the other hands, had three ripper years up to 2007, and two disastrous ones since. Even after an epic charge in commodities, balances super has barely beaten cash. Hmmn.

The Tortoise Cash and the Balanced Hare

You can see that after reaching parity earlier this year (at the markets slow) balanced funds have since rebounded. But you have to wonder how balanced they really are. Balance-according to our Super expert Kris Sayce-is supposed to be a kind of middle ground between aggressive growth and conservative cash. It also sounds sensible. Who is against balance? It’s prudent, right?

But if we read the latest report right from Super Ratings, the median balanced fund has 60%-76% of its investment portfolio allocated to growth assets, the riskiest type! That sounds distinctly unbalanced. It sounds, in fact, really stupid, considering this is a bear market in stocks.

Balanced zombie minds will point out that on rolling five, seven, and ten-year periods, balanced funds are all still up (4.75%, 4.99%, and 5.07%, respectively). But we would humbly suggest that there’s never been a better time to question the basic assumptions about investing in balanced funds-or any funds for that matter.

That is, a passive approach that assumes markets always go up and time is on your side is probably going to get you slaughtered in the coming years. If inflation doesn’t kill you, a few bad years could. And if your rolling period coincides with some of the frequent 17-year periods in which stock markets do not go up at all-well then the whole idea of using the stock market as a retirement machine is as dead as a zombie.

Dan Denning
Daily Reckoning Australia

June 26, 2009