Wednesday, January 10, 2007

December 2006 Review and Year End Chat


As we begin 2007 and close the curtain on 2006, our first year of trading for Cervino Capital Management LLC, we look back at a year of many accomplishments:

- robust and positive performance – our Diversified Options Strategy program was up 0.46% for December and 10.35% for the year

- steady growth of assets under management

- established test investment portfolios in Master Limited Partnerships and Closed End Funds that exceeded S&P 500 returns

- an increasingly important role in the investment community stressed by speaking engagements on matters of finance at various academic institutions, and articles published in investment magazines and on websites

These accomplishments, however, are no reason to rest on our laurels as we recognize that the path to trading success is arduous and unpredictable. Year-end, on the other hand, is a good opportunity to make an introspective review our trading and risk management philosophy and approach. Interested investors should note that the best place to begin a thorough review of our trading program, associated risk factors and specific risk management strategies is our disclosure document. What can better be discussed here is the broader context in which our trading operates.

Our core philosophy is based on the principles of modern portfolio theory which states that, the addition of an uncorrelated asset with a positive expected return to an existing portfolio will increase that portfolio's risk-adjusted return.

While past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results, Barclay Group reports that our correlation to key indices (based on monthly returns Jan. - Dec. 2006) are as follows: S&P
-0.03, EAFE -0.18, Barclay CTA Index -0.32, and US Treasury +0.53. Within the context of a diversified portfolio of stocks/bonds and based on our correlation numbers and positive returns to date, an allocation to our program this past year would have likely enhanced the efficient frontier of the typical stock/bond portfolio.

At the same time proper diversification of trading styles is important when seeking to construct a robust multi-advisor managed futures portfolio. This is a complicated subject made much more difficult by the intricacies of standardizing/comparing performance records and risk/return profiles. Jack Schwager (of Market Wizards fame) wrote an excellent book on the subject we highly recommend called "Managed Trading Myths & Truths" which delves into various factors related to the evaluation of Commodity Trading Advisor (CTA) performance and the potential pitfalls and issues when comparing a CTA's performance with other CTAs or industry indices.

Below are some broad risk/return considerations when comparing our program relative to other CTA programs, and within the context of a multi-advisor portfolio:

1) Generally speaking we believe a good risk-return profile for CTAs is one that over the long run can consistently generate 2.5 to 3 times positive return relative to subsequent drawdowns. For example, a CTA that generates 30% return should manage peak-to-trough drawdowns to no more than 10%, and so on. Given that our fully-funded return objective is 10-15% annually, we designed our options program with the intent of keeping peak-to-trough drawdowns between 3-5%. That said we cannot guarantee that we can always contain drawdowns as such, and there is ample risk as better explained in our disclosure document for substantially greater loss.

2) Trading futures is less than a zero sum game; for every winner there is a loser plus commission. The key question is who in the futures market is taking money from whom (hedger, speculator)? What's the trader's "edge" (blackbox, scalper, etc.)? What type of market does the program best operate: choppy, trending, high volatility, low volatility, time horizon?

When putting together a multi-advisor CTA portfolio it is important to try and combine trading programs that are non-correlated and smooth out overall portfolio volatility. For example, a potential complimentary match is a trend following futures program with our program which often trades options on a contra-trend basis. While our options program may underperform a trend following program for any particular period, it is likely to outperform when markets are choppy or at turning points, thereby helping smooth out the portfolio's overall returns as this is most likely when trend following programs have difficulty.

3) The high degree of leverage in futures and options can work both for you as well as against you. Unfortunately many investors involved in managed futures are geared toward chasing "hot returns" without due consideration as to the risk/leverage that was utilized to generate outsize returns. It is a common tendency for many new CTAs to start out with strong proprietary or first year returns that quickly attract assets but also set up return expectations that are unsustainable over the long run, especially when assets substantially increase and capacity/liquidity constraints become an issue.

When we developed our Diversified Options Strategy the goal was to design an absolute return type program that reflected conservative performance utilizing a 15-45% initial margin/equity range. Rather than leveraging up performance in an effort to quickly attract assets, we sought to establish a program with reasonable and sustainable risk/return expectations. We think that is best done by setting specific performance goals and margin constraints, and then allowing investors to adjust leverage of risk/returns through notional funding.

4) In order to properly compare multiple CTA track records one has to take into consideration the cost structure (commissions, trading velocity, management/incentive fees, interest, etc.) reflected in the actual performance of each CTA being evaluated, as well as the respective "model trading levels" including leverage utilized (margin/trading level) to generate returns. Unfortunately, "model trading levels" are not standardized from CTA to CTA. Moreover, as margin/equity ratio is a misleading indicator of value at risk, standardizing the performance measurement of risk adjusted returns becomes complicated, especially when option trading is involved and time decay and probabilities are factors.

Most investors fail to recognize the nature of the returns they are analyzing; in many cases returns are just a function of leverage and higher risk rather than “alpha” or in layman terms the component of return generated by a trader’s skill. If not for the mechanism of price arbitrage with the underlying cash asset, as well as the insurance premium bona-fide hedgers are willing to pay, the returns that speculators in futures generate should largely be a function of skill or “alpha.” For previous generations of professional futures traders profitable trading opportunities were more easily exploitable. But now the playing field is increasingly competitive and a trader’s “edge” is more likely to be linked to a particular systematic approach that does well under certain market environments.

Options on the other hand are wasting assets linked to probabilities of an event risk. For the most part, premium writers can “allow time to do the heavy lifting” in producing returns. The trading model for pure option writers is simple, easily repeatable and generally profitable provided that again certain favorable and consistent market conditions prevail.

To a sophisticated investor we are restating the obvious. But this is where we believe ourselves to be differentiated from the majority of other CTA option programs which from our analysis tend to be one-dimensional and systematic in their approach…

Market conditions are constantly changing, bringing along with it new unforeseen risks. Regardless of instruments traded, we believe that what investors are ultimately hiring us for is our trading skill; that is, the skill in being able to recognize and adapt to different market conditions, readiness to exploit opportunities as they arise, and most importantly the flexibility to manage associated risk. With that perspective in mind, the question we constantly ask ourselves when working to adapt and refine our trading is whether we are increasing “alpha” or just leveraging risk exposure in order to enhance returns.

Paradoxically, a flexible and adaptive trading approach needs to be integrated within a disciplined trading/risk management framework, which for our program we have outlined below:

A) Unlike most other CTA option programs that focus only on the SP, Cervino trades a diversified portfolio which includes equities, currencies, fixed income, agriculturals, energies and metals. We routinely studies in excess of ten markets (SP, EC, JY, CL, GC, SI, NG, C, OJ, US, SB, HG) and our program is typically engaged in active trading on an average of 3-4 contracts.

By performing market analysis across a variety of asset classes and underlying contracts we expose our program to increased profit opportunities as well as diversify risk exposure. Additionally, we can observe the interplay between contracts and their fundamentals thereby placing ourselves in a better position to identify “viral” market risks.

B) Because options include directional, time decay, volatility and probability characteristics, various multi-dimensional strategies can be established on any single underlying contract simultaneously thereby diversifying opportunity and risk exposure further. For example, we may have on the SP between 3 and 6 different option positions/tactics in play at any particular time each with different opportunity objectives and risk profiles.

Effectively, the trading strategies we deploy are designed to capture returns in several ways, including but not limited to: (i) replicable relative value spread positions with the intent of capturing premiums; (ii) fundamentally based trades involving a directional trend bias that can be deployed through either long or short option positions, or debit or credit spreads; and (iii) opportunistic volatility plays that take advantage of option under- or over-valuations as well as trend reversal/mean reversion opportunities.

C) Our trading methodology allows for regular adjustment of positions as material shifts in market conditions may warrant. From a risk management perspective this is an advantage over many CTA systematic option writing programs we have analyzed and who typically rely on the probability that their routine option positions will expire worthless. But as a result, our program may have higher commission costs than other option programs.

What should also be noted here is the fact that the option markets have become increasingly efficient. Because we are “upstairs traders” and subject to bid-ask spreads, commissions and other costs/constraints such as market liquidity, our trades are essentially positional in nature with time horizons ranging from 2-3 weeks to 3-6 months. This increased efficiency has also impacted, but to a lesser degree, option floor traders/scalpers as bid-ask spreads have become tighter.

D) Most of the investing public harbor misunderstandings about the mechanics and risks associated with options as an investment tool. We typically establish option positions out-of-the-money where the probability that the underlying goes into-the-money is a major consideration. Such positions will start out with a reduced delta exposure relative to the underlying futures contract; in other words, a point move in the futures contract will result in a reduced directional movement in the options contract.

This is one of the important ways in which we manage account volatility. It also explains why the majority of our daily equity swings tend to be in the 10-40bps range, and why our program’s volatility is generally much lower than that of CTAs who focus their trading mainly on futures.

That said, the main risk concern with respect to short option positions is managing positions when either a trending market evolves against a strike price or an abrupt exogenous event occurs and option writes convert to a futures equivalent exposure. This is why when we write options or credit spreads our trading focus becomes keyed on risk management stewardship.

On the other hand the same above scenarios (trending market, exogenous event) work in favor of long option or debit spreads, assuming it is in the same direction as the established position; which is why when appropriate we encompass those tactics within our portfolio approach too. Alternatively, risk is inherently limited in long option or debit spread positions.

E) Another important underpinning in our managing risk is achieved through position sizing adjusted according to account size, volatility and risk-reward analysis. Generally we adjust positions sizes to $50k levels, and sometimes we refine risk exposure by changing the traded strike. Additionally, we may choose to increase or decrease position size/leverage based on our confidence level in a particular trade. And with delta neutral type strategies (strangles, condors, etc.) we may skew contract quantities to one side or the other.

F) Risk control is also achieved through money management rules and the utilization of stops (see Section 3.10 of our disclosure document for a discussion on risks associated with the use of stop-loss techniques). Occasionally we may adjust positions either by entering into new positions which hedge existing market exposure, or by liquidating/covering existing positions in order to reduce market exposure, or reset a position at a different strike price and/or contract expiration. For example, we may lift one leg of a credit spread to take advantage of a trending market, then “roll-up” and reestablish the credit spread at a higher level.

G) Lastly but just as importantly, what lies beneath our trading framework/methodology as outlined above, and what ultimately triggers trading decisions, is a blended analytical process combining quantitative analysis, fundamental studies, and technical and sentiment indicators. Our disclosure document goes into more detail on this aspect and should also be refer to for a more complete description of principal risk factors associated with our Diversified Options Strategy, something which cannot be adequately addressed in this piece.

When all is said and done, we feel that our approach is unique among many of the other CTA option programs. Our trading encompasses a core disciplined methodology yet allows for the application of multi-dimensional trading strategies depending on perceived market conditions, opportunities and related risk. The result is a program that is not static but dynamic and focused on increasing alpha rather then leverage in order generate consistent risk-adjusted returns.

This piece would not be complete without a macro-level analysis of the current market environment as that reflects in option valuations and by extension our program.

As indicated above, implied volatility is central to any option program and a key factor in the risk associated with collecting premiums. A review of our program's performance shows that three of our best four monthly returns in 2006 were during June, July and August. This is not by accident but reflects a period when implied volatility in the S&P 500 (as measured by the VIX) was at its highest for the year. At the time we were exploiting a premium capture strategy. Conversely, it is transition points in market volatility such as in May when the S&P first began its correction that indicate periods of greater risk to existing option write positions.

October and November 2006 has also been a period of high risk for option writers but for different reasons, specifically the strong trending stock market and imploding volatility. In fact, the VIX hit lows not seen since January 1994.

Sellers of options during this period have had to either increase their positions and/or place their selected strikes closer and closer to the underlying price in order to collect the premium/maintain the returns they have historically generated; or alternatively they have had to reduce risk and accept lower returns by selecting option strikes that are more in line with historical price standard deviations. Our response to this extreme market environment has been to shift more of our tactics to purchasing options through debit spreads. For that reason November ended up being our strongest month with a Euro debit spread position we put on the prior month working strongly in our favor as the contract rallied.

To emphasize this point here is a link to a chart going back to 1990 showing the S&P and VIX (the link also provides an interesting esoteric piece about the construction of the VIX). The chart clearly shows that from 2003 to present volatility has been steadily declining. Given the three year bull market in the S&P and the bear market in the VIX, the chart makes obvious in hindsight the reason for the performance/success of CTAs who just write puts on the S&P.

Our aim here is to illustrate that different trading approaches work best in different market environments. During the late 1990s, breakout and trending markets were a rarity in commodities and therefore trend-following programs generally suffered.

For option programs, however, return potential is not a function of markets going up or down, but of implied volatility which has recently evaporated. The time of greatest risk (as well as profit potential) for option strategies is when implied volatility diverges from mean historical volatility, which happens to be the situation now.

This raises two questions: first, is this trend in low volatility here to stay, or is it just a short-term phenomenon and we eventually return to a period when the VIX averages between 15-25; and second, how prepared are the plethora of option programs that have come into existence in the past few years set up to manage risk in a potentially different market environment in the future.

When all is said and done, we believe our primary job to be sensitive to risks and manage them when they arise. Backed by our many years of professional experience in the managed futures industry, we strive to be the “thinking man’s trader” and deliver for our clients a conservative yet robust trading approach that is a value-added augmentation to an investor’s total portfolio.

In conclusion and given that it is the beginning of a new year, we would like to try our hand at predicting the future and review a few elements we think will become part of this year’s strategy.

Continuing along the line of the last comments, we believe that 2007 will show increasing volatility across a number of markets: equities, dollar, possibly bonds. Volatility in crude oil should remain high and it should increase again in gold albeit not as high as this past spring. As stated in previous pieces, we still expect a recession sometime next year courtesy, among other factors, of a further decline in the housing market. Energy will prove to be a good buying opportunity after the recent declines and should a recession indeed occur and depress oil further we will look to accumulate the commodity.

Having said that, we endeavor to think flexibly and trade the markets as they evolve in real time. We will always strive to be agile enough to never act as if we are smarter than the market, and use prudence when constructing profitable positions with the benefit of our clients in mind.

We wish you a prosperous new year!

- Davide Accomazzo, Managing Director
- Mack Frankfurter, Managing Director

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

The Mysterious Case of Massive Liquidity

“Perhaps when a man has special knowledge and special powers like my own, it rather encourages him to seek a complex explanation when a simpler one is at hand.”
— Sherlock Holmes, The Adventure of the Abbey Grange (1904)

Professionals in the markets are more suggestible than a layman might imagine. Try as we might, we can never know the one thing we really want to know—that is, the future. Not knowing, we compare notes with others. Most are brave together at the tops and meek together at the bottoms.

As we finished 2006, the general consensus was that the latter half was spurred by a wave of global liquidity with U.S. and European stock markets gaining double-digit returns, and the emerging markets doing even better. Alongside the liquidity came a remarkable fall in volatility with the CBOE’s VIX index (known as the “fear gauge”) falling to 13-year lows in November and December.

All was rosy as strategists at twelve of the biggest Wall Street firms agreeing that U.S. stocks will rally in 2007. With everybody lining up in the bull camp, however, Davide and I are a little nervous about the market’s complacency—ironically the last year Wall Street strategists were this rosy was in 2001 when the S&P 500 Index dropped 13%.

Assuming that Bernanke has maneuvered us into a “soft-landing” and we are in a “goldilocks” economic environment, what could go wrong?

Based on last year’s actions by Goldman Sachs when they poached Lachlan Edwards, one of Europe’s financial restructuring gurus, the “smart money” is gearing up for a credit crunch—that is, a reversal of the liquidity tide that investors find themselves floating on. History shows that when mass scale restructurings occur, they tend to do so very rapidly like tsunamis—often triggered by an unexpected economic downturn or political shock.

Our main job as money managers is risk management. Looking forward we try to best assess where potential risks may come from. If the concern is about liquidity and the credit markets, then we need to understand how this sanguine market environment came about.

Monetarists such as Milton Friedman, who recently passed away at age 94, believed that “money supply” was the key to the ups and downs in the economy. Further, he thought that the Fed's sole job was to "expand the money supply in a steady manner by 3% per year."

The Greenspan legacy, however, is for the Fed to intervene in the markets strategically during times of financial crisis. He first did so early in his career back in 1987 when the Fed added heavy doses of liquidity to arrest the stock market crash. Then there was the expansion of money supply in the weeks leading up to the end of the 20th century when the so-called Y2K computer bug was expected to disrupt financial systems. Lastly, in response to the 2001 recession Greenspan lowered overnight rates to a 1958 low of 1 percent resulting in record mortgage refinancings that minimized the recession. Intervention, rather than being a brief rescue effort, seems to have become a permanent policy.

Another wave of stimulus came from the 2001 and 2003 “Bush tax cuts.” There are two ways in which tax cuts can stimulate growth—in the near term by generating extra demand, and in the long run by encouraging increased supply, labor or capital. Add to this the 108th and 109th Congress gone-amuck earmark spending as well as the increased military budget to finance two wars (the Iraq war now is estimated to have cost $350bn so far and is still costing $7bn a month), and the combination of monetary and fiscal stimulus in the first half of this decade set the stage for a tidal wave of liquidity.

The overhang of fear resulting from the 2001-2002 bear market also contributed to the current environment as money gravitated from the stock market into “safe assets” such as government and agency bonds. This in turn drove down interest rates on the long end of the yield curve which further lowered borrowing costs, and functioned to help corporations get their balance sheets in order as well as support real estate prices upwards through the 2001 recession.

Effectively, lower interest rates led to a boom in home buying which caused real estate prices to double and triple in some locations. One result was owners taking advantage of their increased home values in the form of mortgage equity loans. The impact was not insignificant on the economy. According to Calculated Risk, GDP as reported for the last six years has appreciably improved as a direct result of home equity withdrawals, a trend that first began in 2001. The process of incurring debt collateralized by an inflated asset is similar to margining a securities brokerage account as stock prices go up, the result is additional liquidity and leverage.

Because of inflated home valuations the use of exotic mortgage products such as ARMs, I/Os, etc. increased from very limited usage to approximately 50 percent of the mortgages used to finance homes in California. The seriousness of the potential fallout is not lost on the Federal Reserve Board and the Office of Thrift Supervision who recently came out with warnings regarding "payment shock," essentially “margin calls,” associated with sharp upward adjustments of a loan's interest rate after initial low-rate discount periods on exotic mortgage products. Such payment shocks are expected to increase substantially in 2007 and 2008.

In addition, the Center for Responsible Lending just published a report suggesting that 2.2m American households could lose their homes and as much as $164bn due to foreclosures in the ‘subprime’ mortgage market. To put this report into historical perspective, at the peak of the credit boom in the 1930s, home mortgage loans were offered without the usual documentation, a practice that in the last few years has again become enormously popular through so-called “stated income,” “low-doc” or “no-doc” loans. Stated income loans, originally conceived to improve access to prime credit for self-employed people with irregular income, has spread like a virus down through the lending industry, where it is a virtual invitation to fraud.

Credit fraud is a liquidity multiplier. The link between fraud and liquidity is documented by several white papers in relation to international banking. A paper written by Dr. Wimboh Stantoso, Senior Researcher at the Directorate of Banking Research and Regulation Bank Indonesia, points out that the 1998 Pacific Rim currency crisis resulted in the Indonesian government revoking permits on 16 private national banks whose “sources of problems for those banks were mainly illiquidity and insolvency as a result of credit defaults, fraud and liquidity mismatches.” Another paper by Jean-Claude Berthelemy on “Financial Reforms and Financial Development in Arab Countries” writes about non performing loan (NPLs) and “cases of fraud and liquidity problems faced by the banking sector” in regards to bad debt with a delay of servicing over one year.

The topic of NPLs brings us overseas to the shores of China. China is dealing with a mountain of bad loans—how much is the question. In May 2006 Ernst & Young reported that NPL exposure for China was estimated at US$911bn, but subsequently withdrew the report. According to the China Banking Regulatory Commission, as of the end of the third quarter of 2006, the total number of NPLs in China’s commercial banks was approximately US$160bn. However, this amount does not include NPLs that are presently held by foreign investors such as hedge funds that have been on a buying binge in Chinese distressed debt. Based on the 1999 transfers that investors have resolved, the implication is that E&Y’s NPL estimate is not miscalculated. The main inference, however, is that these NPLs represent a significant liquidity multiplier and risk.

China’s economy, in the meantime, is on track to grow by more than 10 percent for the third year in a row. In November 2006 China reported that its foreign currency reserves, the world’s largest, had exceeded $1,000bn for the first time. China has effectively outsourced its monetary policy to the U.S. resulting in talk of pressure from the incoming Democratic Congress in the form of “currency manipulation anti-subsidy laws” to persuade China’s government to revalue its currency. Even Fed Chairman Bernanke stepped into the fray with his remarks branding China’s undervalued currency an “effective subsidy” for exporters that was distorting trade. At the same time, China’s monetary policy committee complained that the main responsibility for this imbalance lies with the U.S. Treasury printing too much money. The upshot is that a fundamental change in reserve allocation/diversification away from the dollar is taking place and not just with China.

The subject of dollar imbalances brings us to the so-called Japan carry-trade. With the Bank of Japan keeping rates pegged to a measly 0.25 percent, this bubble has been ballooning in which people borrow cheaply in yen and then invest in higher-yielding assets abroad. The economic effect is again similar to leveraging your brokerage account with margin, except that this is taking place on a global scale with hedge funds leading the way. Concern is that a sudden flowback of yen, such as what happened in 1998 when the yen went from Y140 to the dollar to Y110 in just two days, could trigger financial chaos as far abroad as Iceland and India. Even the U.S. is not immune as some market participants blame the limited unwinding of the carry-trade that occurred in April 2006 as initiating the sharp decline in the stock market in May 2006.

Another liquidity multiplier is all the petrodollars that have been created with oil prices rising from the $20-$30 range to $78 dollars as of August 2006. Last year will be remembered in the Middle East for Iraq’s tragic slide into sectarian conflict and Israel’s miscalculated? war in Lebanon. Less noticed, though no less dramatic, has been the oil-fuelled economic boom in the Gulf and a surge in financial liquidity that has been transforming the face of the region. Oil wealth translates into political advantage on the world stage as petrodollars are deployed and recycled in the local region and abroad. The key question is whether oil producers can turn this boon into a lasting opportunity and create more robust economies that can sustain themselves through periods of low oil prices. Referring once again to reserve diversification, Russia and Opec have reduced their exposure to the dollar and shifted oil income into euros, yen and sterling.

But more interestingly has been the proliferation in the issuance of “sukuk” or “Islamic bonds.” Usury in Islam is prohibited, but banks today are adopting methods to get around this by combining Islamically permissible contracts to produce what is effectively interest-bearing loans. The effective result is not only the leveraging of petrodollars, but the evolution of an Islamic monetary system similar to modern Western banking system which had historically evolved from the practices of European goldsmiths in the 17th century. Back then, the receipts issued and backed by deposits of gold coins on deposit for safekeeping with goldsmiths transformed these merchants into money-lenders who manufactured “bank money” on such receipts, giving rise to the concept of money supply.

Money supply creation is no longer something constrained to banks, but now something that is easily produced between two parties through derivatives trading. When Greenspan took over the Federal Reserve Bank much attention was focused on gauges of money supply defined as M-1, M-2 and M-3. Disregarding the debate on the importance money supply as a reliable measure and indicator of future inflation, a new type of money supply which I've coined “M-0” has increased explosively alongside the growth of derivatives since the early 1990s. "M-0" is the “notional” valuation associated with a derivatives contract; that is, for example, the difference between the $250,000 nominal face value of an S&P futures contract and the $25,000 actual cash required to trade the instrument. The definition of financial leverage is liquidity magnified. Derivatives, while very effective as a risk diversifier, also has had the effect of leveraging asset values throughout the economic system.

And round and round it goes—the examples of liquidity expanding throughout our global monetary system are nearly endless. Many would argue this is all good and point to how robust the world economic landscape has been in the last few years as globablization has spread. And on an encouraging note, the World Bank recently hypothesized in a report that if growth around the world continues at about its current pace, by 2030 the number of middle-class people living in developing nations will triple to 1.2 billion.

However, the problem with liquidity is that it is like an addictive drug—initially it produces euphoria which then disappears with increasing tolerance. Once an economy is hooked it needs more and more in order to sustain itself and withdrawal can be difficult.

Key to the creation of liquidity is credit. “Credit” is a financial term with a moral lineage. Its first meaning is “debt.” John Locke once wrote “Credit is nothing but the expectation of money, within some limited time.” To credit is to believe, and to lend money it is necessary to trust someone. Yet, financial history is rife with periods when prolonged prosperity wore down the skepticism of creditors only to result in eras of economic hardships.

The riddle is whether the central banks have succeeded in breaking the cycle, not the inflationary cycle which in fact it has enthusiastically subsidized, but the deflationary cycle. Has the sheer bulk of global liquidity forestalled the kind of contraction that paralyzed business activity in the depression and demoralized speculative activity for a generation after that?

I started out this piece by asking what could go wrong…

Sudden economic downturns are typically instigated by event risks from unexpected places. Looking at the tea leaves we’ve identified several areas of concern:

The price of oil this past week has dropped to $55. A further implosion in the price of oil would undermine a major source of revenue for countries who produce this commodity. The recent windfall has allowed such nations to build foreign reserves and improve the quality of their debt resulting in lower interest rates and helping drive an infrastructure investment binge. This could unwind if investors begin to pull money from emerging equity and debt markets resulting in an increase in interest rates. In this scenario, the combination of reduced oil revenue and higher interest rates would cause infrastructure projects to grind to a halt triggering a global recession.

Another area of concern is geopolitical risk where mismanagement of monetary and fiscal policies spreads to other markets. For example, the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98 began in Thailand with the devaluation of the baht. Recently Thailand’s newly minted military government stumbled badly by imposing capital controls. Such controls demonstrate a poor grasp of such action’s consequences. In a world where China, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Russia and Singapore control two-thirds of the world’s reserves, we find ourselves exposed to these nation’s monetary or fiscal policies. Who knows where its starts: a miscalculation by China’s central bank in its efforts to manage excess liquidity could trigger a global recession, or the Bank for International Settlement’s Basle II standards forcing new hedge fund investment rules in Japan may trigger widespread redemptions there and an unwinding of the carry trade.

A third concern is that the U.S. economy will in fact grow as expected, but the markets come to realize that growth rate is in fact not so great. Analysts close to the Fed believe most policymakers now see U.S. potential growth as being between 2.5-3 percent, a decline from the 3-3.25 percent range commonly cited a few years ago. Many private sector analysts interpret a decline in productivity growth as likely to put upward pressure on inflation and interest rates. Given that the U.S. stock market is “fairly valued” at earnings ratios based on record productivity levels, if corporate earnings cool off the stock market could begin to melt down. Add to this an economy fueled by leveraged loans and looser lending standards, S&P warns that a sudden change in appetite from investors could force banks to absorb large leverage loans on to their own balance sheets. This in turn could cause a re-pricing of credit risk resulting in higher interest rates causing the economy to spiral downward.

Then again, perhaps given the enormous attention to the riddle of liquidity in the financial press, this is all but a tempest in a teapot—economists can’t seem to agree whether there’s too much or too little. As so eloquently said by Sherlock Holmes, “My dear Watson, there we come into those realms of conjecture where the most logical mind may be at fault.”

- Mack Frankfurter, Managing Director