Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Over Extended

We note with some amusement all of the talk about cash "on the sidelines" as if it's ready to pour into the stock market at the drop of a hat and take us to new highs. Nobody wants to admit that this is the cash that doesn't really exist. That fact was recognized by the market last year and earlier this year but has been obscured by a massive campaign of deception, propaganda and guarantees from Washington and Wall Street. Because the current mutant economic system depends on citizens digging themselves ever deeper into debt slavery, anything which causes them to save instead of borrow and spend is seen as the enemy and this includes the truth.

Much of the "cash" is in banks and money market mutual funds, both of which invest in debt that has become extremely dubious. The truth is that none of the "assets" (loans) that are backing the "cash" have gotten better and most have gotten significantly worse over the last 3-4 months. Credit card default rates now stand at a record high (again) for the fourth straight month. Auto loans are nearly as bad. 12% of all mortgages are now either in foreclosure, default or delinquent - but in any case they are not being paid. Commercial mortgages are quite bad now on the way to much worse and the State of California is so broke it is issuing IOUs instead of checks.

So what is going on here? The government-banker campaign has succeeded in getting one important group of people to dig themselves deeper into debt - speculators. If you look at the NYSE margin data, you will see that the ratio of margin debt to credit balances in margin accounts is at the highest it has been in a long time - 1.61. One can think of this as the ratio of margin actually used to unencumbered cash balances in those same accounts and so it measures the willingness of brokerage account holders to take on leverage as a percentage of their portfolios. The last time the ratio was this high was July 2007, just before the crisis began with the first round of emergency Fed intervention. Slightly lower levels were seen at the absolute top in October 2007 and again in September 2008, just before the largest leg of the stock market crash.

The latest data is from May and we await the June report with anticipation. The recent data show the speed with which a wildly speculative spirit has returned to stocks despite the small gains relative to the preceding decline. The fact that so many speculators have already leveraged up so heavily means that much of the fuel has already been burned off, leaving the market in a very vulnerable and over-extended position. These speculators have set themselves up for more crushing losses - note how much smaller both the margin and credit balances are than at any time in the recent past. Any significant decline at this point holds the potential to become self-sustaining as heavily leveraged positions become unsustainable in the face of the decline and subsequent margin call. In fact a cascade of margin calls could easily result.

Stocks are being bought but not by the cash on the sidelines. It appears that existing speculators margining themselves deeper into debt are the key driver of the bear market rally. The fact that they have used nearly all of their firepower and exposed themselves to potential forced selling is hardly bullish.

2 comments:

Leslie said...

May I introduce myself? I am Leslie Scott. I created the game Jenga and have just finished writing a book entitled 'About Jenga:the Remarkable Business of Creating a Game that became a Household Name' - in which I comment, among other things, on how Jenga has become a metaphor for a certain kind of instability. Financial Jenga is a wonderful example.

Fiomarkie said...

Hello dataSlave,
I found your (very interesting & highly informative) blog this afternoon by complete fluke. I was sitting at my desk contemplating the subprime crisis and noted that the layering of risky debt upon the shaky foundation of subprime lending was akin to the methodology of Ms Scott's much loved game. On typing "financial jenga" into the searchbox, up popped your blog at #1. :)