This Stock Market Rally Is Rented, Not Owned

Nearly every economic and corporate development over the past few months has been translated into a reason to buy stocks.

But underneath the elation over Dow 10,000 lies the palpable feeling that this rally is to be “rented,” not “owned.”

As cool weather descended upon the Northeast U.S., risk appetites started to wane. At the beginning of October traders and investors finally sobered up. Were they second-guessing whether government spending could actually kick-start a sustainable recovery? Both stocks and corporate bonds sold off sharply.

Then today I woke up to these headlines:

“Stocks Climb as New Week Starts for Wall Street.”

“Hasbro 3Q profit rises 8.8 pct on cost-cutting”

“PetMed Express 2Q earnings rise 12 percent”

Here’s why you shouldn’t believe the hype…

Cost Cutting Does Not Equal Top Line Growth

Over the next several months, mainstream pundits and forecasters will start worrying about tepid hiring, even as the pace of job losses slows. As we “lap” the 2009 corporate cost cutting by early 2010, and top lines fail to rebound, earnings estimates will have to come back down. I’m amazed at how many sell-side analysts are modeling V-shaped recoveries in 2010 earnings. Most stock prices are simply disconnected from reality.

Sell-Off at the First Sign of Trouble

The bulls are now enjoying their victory lap after having bid the Dow Jones industrial average above 10,000 last Wednesday. It’s puzzling to see “investors” happy about buying into a market that’s clearly overvalued. A rational, disciplined investor would be fearful about buying today, after prices have been jacked up by an unprecedented seven-month rally.

Bulls see any cautious sentiment-that “rented rally” feeling-as a source of more untapped buying power, but I see it as a reflection of weak hands being the marginal buyers; at the first sign of disappointment, they’ll look to sell. My read of the sentiment surveys is that patient value investors are skeptical and bearish, while momentum investors are bullish simply because prices have been going up.

Fund Managers Won’t Ride to the Rescue

Despite the popular sentiment that “fund managers gotta keep buying into year-end to avoid underperforming,” which would keep this market in the stratosphere, the odds heavily favor lower stock prices in the coming weeks and months.

Data from reliable sources like TrimTabs show that not only is the labor market far weaker than advertised, but net inflows into stock mutual funds have slowed to a trickle, occasionally turning into outflows. This tends to give mutual fund managers itchier trigger fingers, since cash balances in equity mutual funds are already near record lows.

Pensions aren’t going to ride to the rescue either, since they were, with 20/20 hindsight, overinvested in stocks in 2007.

Buying Momentum Could Run Out

Momentum players face the prospect of having nobody-aside from another momentum investor-willing to buy their expensive stocks at today’s prices. Patient, disciplined investors are only willing to buy at much lower prices. This could lead to an air pocket where the market could correct dramatically and quickly, without an obvious catalyst — not that there is a shortage of bearish catalysts, ranging from bank failures to home foreclosures to a crisis in fiat money.

Some pundits point to corporate mergers and acquisitions as reasons to be bullish, ignoring that fact that most deals occur closer to the peak of markets, and most deals destroy shareholder value, because the buyer overpays.

Corporate CFOs and Treasurers are happy about the recent bull market in risk. They know much more about their prospects than outside investors, so their balance sheet management is telling. In a word, the approach toward capital structure is “defensive.” Heavily indebted companies are flooding the market with follow-on stock offerings to pay down debts. They’re also taking advantage of the Pollyannaish mood of the corporate bond market to issue risky bonds at attractive rates, as default risk seems to be a distant memory of bond buyers. Many corporate bond investors have taken the Fed’s bait to reach for yield, regardless of credit risk.

Most investors, however, have permanently dialed down their risk appetites, and therefore will not chase this expensive market. Those buying stocks at today’s valuations—especially U.S.-centric finance and retail stocks—will have a very hard time finding someone to pay an even higher price in the future.

Will Government Solve the Problem? No.

The big questions back at the beginning of the month: What kind of economic environment do we face? And more important, what’s already priced into the stock market? Here’s my view on these themes: As we see with “cash for clunkers,” government stimuli simply steal demand from the future.

Another big question is how will policymakers respond to a sluggish-to-nonexistent rebound in hiring?

The labor market is dealing with a structural imbalance fueled by government-sponsored housing and credit bubbles. Many will call for the government to “solve” this labor market problem, which will cause a new type of market dislocation. By early 2010, some will push for the federal government to start hiring the chronically unemployed in “New Deal” type of programs. [Count on this-Ed.]

But more importantly — because this is not yet a mainstream view — the real job creators in the U.S. economy, small businesses, will not expand hiring as expected. There are many reasons for subdued hiring plans; an emerging reason to avoid expansion and hiring will be heightened expectations that tax rates will soar in the future to pay for out-of-control government spending.

The economically illiterate, and those with preconceived “big government” agendas, will use any crisis as an excuse to expand government. You’ll be ahead of the game if you realize — as many in the media and academia clearly do notthat the government has no resources. It’ll take money out of one of your pockets, skim some off for its cronies, and expect you to be grateful when they put some of it-debased by the Fed’s inflation, of course-back into your other pocket.

Where you stand on this will determine your expectations for the future performance of most stocks (ignoring special situations). I certainly don’t enjoy having such a bearish outlook on the economy, but it’s the conclusion I reach after weighing all the evidence about the real economy; the credit markets; and policymakers’ damaging, distorting influence.

I’d recommend you adjust your portfolio accordingly.

Dan Amoss

October 19, 2009