VIX & Put:Call starting to make puts attractive again

A fair degree of complacency has snuck back into markets over the last month.  We don’t have a strong sell signal in stocks yet, but if April marked the high in US and European markets and economic indicators are turning down again, this could be a good spot to start building short positions again:


Here’s the equity put:call vs the 20 day moving average, back to one standard deviation under its mean. Dipping lower would require the kind of extreme complacency that we’ve only seen twice in the last decade, so I wouldn’t count on it:


The dollar has also corrected its overbought condition (and is actually very oversold), which is key for a resumption of the deflation trade:

Not much between here and Dow 8500

Many of the world’s stock markets have already retraced large portions of the entire rally from the 2009 lows, but US equities have a long way to go before they give traders a scare. Judging from the sanguine attitudes expressed by various managers on Bloomberg TV, the majority remains firmly convinced that the lows are in and that any sell-off is just a healthy correction on the way to new all-time highs. This is exactly the same attitude expressed from late 2007 to mid-2008 before the crash got underway in force.

Since we are still in the early phase of the credit deflation and most people remain unconvinced of its magnitude and implications, this next decline in asset prices could be very swift and deep, driven by the panic of recognition. Technical support has already been taken out, and dip buyers will be less eager, since they have seen that stocks can indeed crash. We could see an unrelenting slide like the two years from April 1930 to July 1932.

There won’t be another bounce of the magnitude we’ve just seen until real value is restored by attractive dividend yields. A 7% yield on today’s dividends would put the S&P 500 at 350 or the Dow under 4000, but this assumes dividends won’t be cut and that the recent years of extreme overvaluation won’t be matched by an era of extremely low valuations as the culture of financial speculation dies off.

Commodities crash underway: straight down or choppy?

Commodities did spectacularly well from winter 08-09 to winter 09-10. Many tripled in price, such as oil, copper and palladium. The world seemed convinced that another great phase of inflation was underway or would start real soon now.

The reality is that demand is anemic and that there has been little or no economic growth. The only exceptions are property bubbles in China, Australia and Canada that are just running on fumes, where America’s was circa 2006. The commodity bounce was purely a technical reaction from an extremely oversold condition, exacerbated by mistaken faith in Keynesian policies deployed worldwide. The rally began to stall out from mid-autumn to this March, and is now starting to roll over in force.

Here’s a 3-year chart of copper, a very liquid and widely followed market. Many believe it is an economic guage, but this is nonsense IMO, since it was trading well under a dollar as the economy was booming a decade ago, and like a lot of other commodities was very expensive in the stagnant 1970s (and right now of course). Prices are driven first and foremost by fads. Why else would you expect it to trade at $3.50 in the middle of a deflantionary depression when stockpiles are huge?

I don’t like to brag, since I get plenty of timing wrong, but back in April I noted the divergence in RSI and MACD right as copper made its top around $3.60.

Another favorite guage of risk appetite is the silver:gold ratio, which has remained stalled for the better part of a year now, and looks set to decline again:

Also check out the palladium:gold ratio, since palladium experienced a major speculative bubble lately which has started to crash very hard:


Here’s oil, West Texas Intermediate… in all of these commodity charts, note the severity and unrelenting nature of the last drop in 2008. There were few rallies where one could safely get on board for a short sale — you were either short from the top for the ride of your life or just had to watch.


I’m not expecting a lot of chop in these markets. I’d love a nice rally here to increase short positions, but it’s not the nature of commodities to take their time on the way down. Traders had months to see this trade coming and set up shorts, but for those who don’t over-leverage themselves it is by no means too late to get on board.

By the way, the commodity currencies (Australian, New Zealand, Canadian dollars, Brazilian Real and South African Rand) have also started to fall hard but have a long way to go to correct their rallies from last winter.

Want to see one commodity market that we’re definitely not too late to short? Gold and silver mining stocks (GDX ETF below). The gold bugs have been extremely confident and their ranks have swelled lately, so a deep set-back is much needed in this sector. After all, mining stocks often have a greater correlation with the S&P 500 than with the gold price (which I expect to fall, though not as much as stocks).


Ironically, I’m part of a group that’s building a huge database and stock screener in this space, called the Mining Almanac. Launching our beta site right at the top of a commodities bubble couldn’t be worse timing, so I’m trying to make lemonade and using it to search not for value stocks (what I designed it for) but the opposite so that I can short them!

For safety, don’t buy gold stocks, which are a financial asset with value contingent upon stock market conditions, tax laws (seen in Australia lately as their leftist government has slapped an extra tax on the mining industry) and myriad operational concerns. Along with plenty of cash and treasury notes, buy gold itself, either stored in your name in a vault oversees or in your personal posession. Gold is money, and in a deflationary depression with undertones of currency crisis, you want the very best.

Video on Greece w/ Hugh Hendry: Never compromise when it comes to moral hazard.

On Russia Today via Zerohedge:



-  ”This is a bailout of the banking community… especially in France but of course also in Germany.”

-  Questionable whether the French banking system could take the hit, estimated at 35 billion euros.  This would raise questions about their Spanish, Portuguese and Italian bonds. This is not the end, but the “end of the beginning.”


-  How does this help the Greek people? They will be “paupers in Europe.”


-  There is a remedy. The remedy is that Greece could leave the Euro. If it were to bring back the drachma, the currency would be very, very cheap. This would bolster tourism and exports. London is full of foreign shoppers now that the pound is down 25%.

-  Soveriegn bankruptcy is the normal and healthy procedure. Bankers take the hit they deserve.

-  Great political flaw in the euro, trying to join cultures that don’t want to join. Angela Merkel is not being generous. Spending taxpayers’ money is not generousity. She’s trying to salvage a bankrupt philosophy.


- Moral hazard issue is not being talked about. This gives a green light to Spain, Portugal, etc to spend away.


- The truth is unpalatable. Giving an over-indebted country more debt is not the solution. We need to restructure the debt and punish the irresponsible banks and investors.

- We should never compromise with bailouts, and certainly not on Greece, which is just 2% of the European economy.

Take this week’s equity drop seriously.

Longs are playing with fire here. This market is at least as dangerous as 2007 or 2000. What happens when this multi-decadal asset mania fizzles out, like they all do? The last 12 months show that it won’t give up the ghost without a fight, but it is very long in the tooth, as is this huge rally. Also, the short-term action of smooth rallies followed by sudden drops is uncannily similar to 2007.

Stocks left the atmosphere in 1995, but since 2000 gravity has been re-asserting itself. After extreme overvaluation comes extreme undervaluation. On today’s earnings and dividends, even average or “fair” multiples would put the Dow near 4000, right back to 1995.


Charts from

A note on gold and the dollar:

I suspected a few weeks ago that gold had a rally coming, and now that we’ve seen it I’d be careful to use stops and not get too confident.

I still like gold for preservation of purchasing power through this secular bear market in real estate and stocks, but when financial markets turn down again in earnest it won’t be spared. Remember, it kept going to new highs in late 2007 and early 2008 after stocks had peaked, but then tanked with everything else when panic hit. Cash is still king, especially in US dollars and Treasury bonds. We may have only seen the start of this deflation.

Prechter in the morning (King World News interview)

Eric King is one of the best financial interviewers out there, so he gets the best guests of anyone I know.

Listen to the MP3 here, recorded last Saturday, March 20.


The last of the bears are capitulating, just as the last of the bulls turned bearish last winter. Everybody loves stocks after a 73% rally, and there is huge psychological pressure to be bullish.

The market only gives away free money for so long (unbroken strings of up days often come near the end, as in Spring 1930).

The last two times that the market made a double top (July/Oct 2007 and the 2000 top), the Nasdaq surged at the very peak, leaving the Dow and SPX behind. SPX has just barely made a new high, but it feels like it’s much higher than in January.

GDP expansion is very weak compared to the stock rally, bank lending and jobs are still trending negative.

This is not a recession that has ended. This is a depression that has had a big countertrend rally.

States are all bankrupt, because they always spend too much. Governments always go bankrupt in the end. (Interesting factoid: Nebraska’s constitution outlaws borrowing by the state, so they are in the best shape).

All of the dollar-denominated IOUs are going to be worthless in the end. The government’s backstop has delayed this, but the debt will still go bad. The central banks will not take on all the bad debt, so the governments are trying, but they will ultimately default themselves.

Hyperinflation is not an option with all this debt. Default (deflation) is inevitable. Government defaults are deflationary.

Cycles are part of the human social experience. Muni defaults haven’t happened since the 1930s, but that is only because that was the last time we were at this point of the debt cycle. Munis will end up as wallpaper — no way the states can pay them off.

Conquer the Crash was released in 2002, but the stock market rose for 5 more years and the credit bubble got even crazier before finally topping in 2007, but the extra debt is just making things worse now that we’re at the point of no return.

We have a return of confidence. AAII (American Association of Individual Investors) survey shows about 25% bears, same as October 2007 and May 2008 tops. This is not a good buying opportunity.

Every investing group (individuals, pensions, mutual funds, etc) has been overinvested for 12 years. Mutual funds are only holding 3.5% cash. They have never given up on stocks, even in March 2009, which was nothing like in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Very few people think we can end up like Japan, and keep breaking to new lows for 20 years. Everybody always has a “story,” a narrative as to why the market is going to keep going down (at bottoms) and up (at tops).  (Story today, IMO: PPT manipulation and money printing will drive stocks up forever). The story is often exactly wrong at the top and bottom.

Interest rates do not drive stocks. Lower rates are not bullish (just look at the 1930s or 2007-2008). Rates went up from 2003 – 2007 as the market rallied. People’s logic is always incorrect at the turns. Nor do earnings drive prices: stocks fell 75-80% in real terms from 1966-1982 as earnings rose.

Oil and stocks have a correlation that comes and goes – sometimes none, sometimes very positive, sometimes very negative. No predictive power.

Markets have a natural ebb and flow that arises from herding processes in a social setting. Reasoning about causation is a waste of time.

Economists jabber on about all kinds of causation, but they never offer statistics that pass muster.

Bond funds are going to slaughter the masses. The public always buys the wrong thing at the wrong time, and a wave of defaults is coming.

The dollar is likely starting a major rally (up 9% since fall, 11% vs euro). Prechter was early on that call but it still was a good one. Might be the start of a renewed wave of deflationary pressures.

The message in the new edition of Conquer the Crash remains, “get safe.” Find a safe bank, hold T-bills or treasury-only mutual funds, cash notes, and some gold and silver. No downside to safety.

Deflation explained in two simple charts

The charts below come via Mish’s post today on why it doesn’t matter that Bernanke wants to eliminate bank reserve requirements. The quick answer: Greenspan already did that in 1994 when he allowed overnight sweeps on checking accounts to free them from reserve requirements just like savings accounts. In this era, banks lend first and look for reserves later.

Anyway, way back in 2007 I first became convinced that this would be a deflationary depression because of this simple equation: there was $52 trillion in outstanding debt in the US, and only (at the time) $850 billion in base money (all the “cash” that the Fed had created since it was founded in 1913). As defaults and write-downs started to reduce the amount of debt, the Fed was likely to create new money to bail out banks and monetize deficits. It was plain to see that the difference in scale betwean the two pools, debt and cash, would tip the scales in favor of deflation, along with a shift in attitude towards frugality and a new respect for the value of a dollar.

Well, here we are in 2010, and the Fed has indeed created a fresh $1.2 trillion, but the debt pile has stopped growing over the last year, even taking into account the massive issuance of treasury debt. This chart comes from Karl Denninger:


I suspect that if properly marked to market, the private debt figures (household, business credit and financial instruments) would be considerably lower. There is a lot of pretending going on at banks, since they do not want to take write-downs. How much of that household credit card and mortgage debt will really be paid off?How much of those financial instruments are junk (and even investment-rated) bonds that will be defaulted on in the next few years? How many business loans are in arrears or just barely being made?

On the other side of the equation, here is the base money supply since 1999:


If reserve ratios mattered, wouldn’t debt have at least doubled (or more if you believe in the multiplier effect)? The fact is, nobody who can handle a loan wants one, and nobody who wants one can handle it.

Credit conditions and risk appetite are what drive lending, not reserves. Banks simply don’t hold reserves anymore, which is why bubbles get so out of hand and why they are always a few bad loans away from bankrupcy. If bankers’ asses and depositors’ funds were on the line like in the 1800s, you better believe banks would hold reserves. Depositors would sniff out those that tried to scimp, and take their funds elsewhere, nipping any trouble in the bud. Busts were frequent and localized, and freed up capital for productive hands. That’s why that era produced the greatest improvement in living standards and real GDP growth of 3-4% while prices were steady to falling for decades.


Here’s another chart that shows our state of debt saturation from Nathan’s Economic Edge. GDP no longer grows with debt — this is the point of no-return where interest can no longer be serviced with production, so the whole thing starts to collapse.

Commodities running out of steam.

The trend was smartly broken back in January, and now this bounce looks like it’s exhausting right about where the old support line would be. These are the various popular commodity indexes, from Bloomberg:









You can see this loss of momentum in the former leaders: gold, silver, oil, copper, sugar and cocoa have all failed to make new highs as stocks have surged over the last month.

This is a strong sign that the urge to speculate is fading. Without that, there is nothing to keep prices up, since demand is very low for everything from oil to wheels of parmesian cheese (remember the cheese bailout in Italy?) compared to the 2008 commodity peak. When commodities fall, they often drop straight down. No class of assets declines faster. See this weekly chart of sugar for a case in point:


If you are looking for short ideas among commodity stocks, this is a neat tool: (I think so anyway, but then I’m part of the team that’s building it).

Select the exchanges you trade on, then look for stocks without a lot of “burn time,” in other words those that may be running out of money. Or look at the “financial strength” tab to see who has too much debt and too little cash. Right now this beta version has mostly Canadian companies, but it’ll have almost every mining stock in the US, Canada and Australia before long.

Marc Faber and Mish Shedlock on inflation vs. deflation

View on the Yahoo! Tech Ticker by clicking here.



I’m with Mish in this debate of course, since a credit implosion trumps a money printer, I but have the utmost respect for the adroit Swiss. The two of them have much more in common than either has with most other money managers or commentators.

I totally agree with Faber that the US is not a civilized nation anymore, entirely due to the expansion of the state. I could say the same about the UK, Canada, Australia and most of western Europe. The whole region feels like a big kindergarten where the teacher wears a .380 and a bulletproof vest.

Some thoughts on government debt during deflation

A question of Keynes vs. Kondratieff

Until recently, the sovereign debt of nearly all governments would rally during panic episodes as stocks and commodities fell. This makes sense, as strong sovereign debt is cash for big boys, and investors are forced to reach further and further out for yield as short-rates are driven to zero or negative. However, starting with Greece, this pattern may change, as bonds are likely putting in a secular top in the 2008-2016 window. Their last bottom of course was the early 1980s, and their last top was 1946-47. The indebtedness and unabashed Keynesianism of all of the world’s governments seem to virtually guarantee higher interest rates in the coming years, even though US, German and Japanese bonds are still finding a bid during panics.

We have already seen the beginnings of this development in municipal bonds and the crappiest sovereign debt, but the market may slowly realize that it is all crap, beyond the short-term credit of the strongest governments.

Prechter makes the point in Conquer the Crash that higher rates on risky long-dated sovereign debt are part and parcel of deflation, an increased preference for the safest cash and cash alternatives. Steepening yield curves fit right into that trend. If the long bond sells off hard, this does not mean the end of the dollar, but the opposite. All else being equal, if T-bonds fell with stocks this year, it would just mean that the US government would finally feel the same pinch as everyone else.

Now for the tricky part. We have to keep in mind that interest rates are more than just a mechanical product of fiscal deficits, savings rates and politics. They are a kind of natural social phenomenon, a reflection of forces I can’t fully understand. They are not rational: why were short-term rates in the low single digits during the second world war when the US had just abandoned the gold standard, had a debt:GDP ratio of over 100% and inflation was running at 8-12%? Why were they still double-digit in the mid-1980s when the economy was good and inflation was 3-4%? (For some charts and discussion of the long-term rate cycle, see this post). The only answers that make any sense are that it was time for rates to bottom and then it was time for them to top.

We are certainly entering what *Kondratieff described as winter, when debts are called in and defaulted upon and cash is at a premium. This is associated with low interest rates, reflecting a low demand for credit, provided that the monetary unit retains value, which it tends to do since this unit is how debts are denominated and settled. And with deflation very much a reality, low rates can provide a high real yield so long as the credit is sound. With housing and wages falling by large percentages and every consumer good on sale, what is the real yield on a 10-year note priced at 3.6%?

There is no telling how long rates will stay low or how low they will go. See Japan, 1990-

Those are the market rates on the credit of a horribly indebted nation with terrible demographics that has been trying to spend its way out of recession for 20 years. Is there a better way to explain this than Kondratieff winter?

If social forces demand that governments start to shift towards frugality and default like the rest of society (and government is a reflection of social mood), this would be very supportive of the current fiat regimes. Think about it: what would happen to the Euro if Greece defaulted (which is what they should do)? Billions in euro-denominated balances would go “poof” and the remaining euros would be worth more.

What if younger generations of Americans, the ones who most enthusiastically support Ron Paul and even phonies like the new senator from Massachusetts, start to exert pressure for the rolling back of that $70+ trillion in retirement and health-care promises? Those are contracts that the government can’t honor, so by definition, it won’t. It will try to pretend otherwise, but it won’t. In effect, much of the debt will be repudiated.

There are huge caveats to the above, such as radical socialism or expanded warfare, but there are going to be real deflationary undertones to social mood that may effect policy and prolong the current paper regimes for longer than almost anyone suspects. Kondratieff winters are not short episodes, but generational, and if the last two turning points in the interest rate cycle are a guide, there could even be another ten years to the bottom.

That is hard to believe right now, but it is possible if social forces demand default. I can’t gauge the odds very well, but I have to consider this longer-term bull case for treasury bonds and a few strong currencies. Bottom line — history has not been kind to paper money and government bonds in times of crisis, but the nature of deflation may give them a longer life than we have assumed.

If you just can’t wait to short some sovereign debt, try Japan before America. They may be a generation ahead of the west in the rate cycle, and really, how much lower could they go?

*Kondratieff waves in the US (click image to expand):

[email protected], 1.23.09

One thing that strikes me in the above chart is how huge the latest wave is compared to the others. At 60 years and running, it is the longest, and prices, rates and stocks have gone up so much more than during any of the previous three. Just out of proportionality, it would be perfectly fitting if rates and prices fell for another 5-10 years.

Here’s a clearer view of the Aaa corporate bond rate from 1919 to 2010:


Also see Rothbard and then Mish on Kondratieff theory. As Rothbard makes clear, winter is not necessarily an awful time to be alive, judging from the strong economic growth of the 1830s-40s and 1880s-90s. This means that prolonged unemployment and war can’t be blamed merely on the credit cycle, but that fingers must be pointed at the socialists, Keynesians and fascists who’s actions directly brought about the nightmare of 1929-1945.