My Overview of a Special Year 2008

By: Thomas Tan | Sun, Nov 30, 2008
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What a year. It has been 11 months since I put out "My Ten Predictions for 2008". In general, I think my predictions have luckily turned out to be about right, but I underestimated the severity of both the up and down movement.

Former Goldman Chairman John Whitehead said on Nov 12th that the current crisis is worse than the great depression in 1930s. For the past year, I have been saying all along that this crisis is a repeat of the 1930s and 1970s, but I didn't expect it would be worse than the 1930s, probably only a repeat of the 1970s. However, like Mr. Whitehead, I am beginning to feel that he may be right. I hope we both are proved wrong, but I will likely take that view into consideration for my upcoming 2009 predictions. Perhaps Mr. Whitehead has been aware of the situation for a long time, but felt he was unable to say it freely to the public due to his position, until now.

Gold, HUI and US Dollar

In my ten predictions from last year, I correctly predicted that gold would hit $1,000, silver would hit $20 in 2008. Also, the US dollar index almost hit my target of 70 (71 to be exact). HUI didn't hit my target of $600, and only reached around $520 at peak before crashing. I didn't foresee the severity of the precious metal correction, especially the PM mining industry due to the deleveraging process when commodity hedge funds have been dumping everything for margin calls, for cash, and for redemption. I correctly predicted the volatility of $50 movement in gold which has occurred many times so far this year, including the almost $100 rebound within 24 hours back in September.

During the 1970s, gold underwent 2 years of severe correction, falling 40% between 1974 and 1976. This year, gold has dropped 34% from $1,030 to as low as $680 twice in the last two months. Hopefully, this is the final correction. Even the current correction is more than I originally anticipated. I am still holding my view, as discussed in previous articles, that $700 provides a strong support on a monthly close chart, even on a daily (three times) and weekly (not yet) close chart. It is possible that gold might dip below this level for a short time. After the current correction, gold should start several years of its inevitable rise, which will lift all other boats such as silver, HUI companies and many financially strong PM mining juniors, just like the 2nd half of 1970s.

Banking Crisis and Citigroup

No one can reasonably discuss 2008 without talking about banks and the banking crisis, so I will spend more time in this area. My best call in this sector was that Citigroup would fall to the teens (below $20). This call was made when Citi was trading at $30 after already falling from $60, and 3 months before Meredith Whitney from Oppenheimer gave her famously bearish view on Citi and her price target of $15 when many people were highly doubtful of her prediction at that time.

Why did I pick Citi out of so many banks in the entire banking industry? My view on the financial industry has been heavily influenced by Jeremy Grantham of GMO when he predicted in the summer of 2007 (not 2008) that a major US bank would fail, and half of the hedge funds and private equity firms would get wiped out by 2010. I was trying to pick a major bank as a candidate of failure to reflect both of our bearish views on Wall St. I didn't name Bear Stearns or Lehman since they were small, AIG and WaMu were not even real banks, Merrill was a possible candidate, but more of a brokerage house, Wachovia was a bank, but not quite a major one and not on my radar screen.

In order to fulfill Jeremy's prophecy, the only candidate, a symbol for the US banking industry and financial dominance, a financially weak but a major bank, had to be Citi. In February, when Whitney put out her report after she studied in detail Citi's balance sheet and especially off-balance sheet (pages of footnotes), I immediately knew that my target was too conservative (too high), I should have said in single digits instead of teens. The timing of 2010 by Jeremy was also too late, it could happen even this year. Usually, analysts from institutions are hesitant to state bearish views on the firms they cover (even for the indomitable Whitney); they would rather stop their coverage than give out potentially financially damaging ratings and targets, such as a share target in single digits. For banks to be in single digits, especially if below $5, it means it can be out of business anytime, when trading partners stop transactions with the bank, and if customers were to withdraw their funds. This is what collapsed Bear Stearns.

For many years, since the old Sandy Weill days, I have never thought Citi's business model would work. Putting all the financial services under one umbrella, the so-called financial power house to leverage the scale and customer base, was only a fantasy even during the good old days. During bad times like now, this model is only leveraging viruses of toxic structured products, contagious OTC derivatives and amplifying losses. In addition, I have always voiced strong disagreement when Citi's board picked the current CEO. I predicted that he wouldn't last until the end of 2009, now he will be lucky to survive this year. Asking a salesman selling toxic structured products from Morgan Stanley, and a money losing hedge fund manager, to lead a banking conglomerate is similar to asking a used car salesman to fix all the problems at GM.

At the same time, Citi's problems have been developing for many years, from his predecessors beginning with Sandy Weill. There has been wide speculation that Mr. Prince was just a scapegoat for someone else still there. Since during his CEO tenure, he was not the one behind the scene to aggressively push Citi into holding huge positions in CDOs, OTC derivatives and off-balance sheet financing to chase phantom "profit", which is what has brought down the house. The only solution for shareholders to recoup some value is to break up Citi into 8 to 10 pieces of small financial service firms, with some eventually going out of business. This is still better than the entire firm going out of business.

The 2nd bailout of $20 billion for Citi this week (11/24) came only a month after the 1st one of $25 billion. More importantly, the government will guarantee Citi's losses up to $306 billion. But Citi is not Lehman which had only $600 billion in assets. How could the government know that the loss on Citi's $3.3 trillion assets ($2 trillion on its balance sheet and $1.3 trillion on its off-balance sheet), was 5 times bigger than Lehman's, would] maximize at $306 billion? What would happen if the loss turns out to be $600 billion? Will the government put up the difference? Where is the limit? Will government only cover the balance sheet assets, not the more questionable off-balance sheet ones? How about the estimated $700 billion toxic assets under the $1.3 trillion off-balance sheet, the loss of which can wipe out Citi's equity not only once but 10 times? What happens to other smaller banks? Should government let them fail like Lehman just because they are small?

There has been four phases of bank rescue by the Fed and the Treasury Dept so far. The 1st one was to let a large bank to rescue a small one, represented by the famous $2 initial offer from JP Morgan to Bear Stearns. Pretty soon, no one wanted to be the white knight or sucker anymore. Then the 2nd phase was just to let them fail, as in the case of Lehman. It has caused more trouble of leading other investment banks to fail. So it didn't work either. The 3rd phase was to get the $700 billion capital to buy MBS, CDOs and OTC derivatives, except no one knows how to value them and whether they are still worth anything at all. At the same time, it will also force banks to realize and accelerate losses, especially for their off-balance sheet items. So it didn't work either. Finally, it has entered the 4th phase of injecting capital by buying preferred shares of only the large banks. I think this phase will only buy time for a quarter or two, then another capital injection, then...until the government eventually owns and nationalizes all the major banks in the US, as British government now owns RBS.

The best decision I have seen recently is the $50 billion deal of selling Merrill to BOA. How much was Merrill worth? Maybe at 0.5 of its tangible book value (around $14 billion) based on the share prices of many banks trading these days (PNC bought National City only at 0.3 of its BV), but BOA paid 1.8 of tangible BV. Kudos to Mr. Thain, cash out whenever you still can and if you are lucky, find a sucker to pay a high price. A great deal for Merrill's shareholders (and bondholders), but really bad news for BOA shareholders. This is actually the 2nd time BOA took the bait and acted as a sucker: the 1st time was with the purchase of Countrywide at an unbelievably over-inflated price, resulting Angelo Mozilo happily cashing out and dumping all his troubles to BOA. Did they forget the "fool me once...and fool me twice...." saying?

Apparently, BOA wants to be another Citigroup by following Citi's business model, i.e., by becoming another financial power house to offer all kinds of financial services under one roof, only to watch Citi collapse. It didn't work for Citi, neither will it for BOA. BOA hopes cost cutting will do the trick; just look at how many jobs Citigroup has cut in the last year or so. The more people they cut, the lower their share price. It is inevitable that BOA will follow the same path.

OTC Derivatives and GE

My other calls on OTC derivatives (credit default swaps or CDS) being land mines, skyrocketing numbers of lawsuits (among rating agencies, bond insurers, banks, state/local governments and investors), credit card losses, sovereign wealth funds stopping investing in US banks, etc., have unfortunately all turned out to be true. Early this year, I have followed up with another article specifically discussing CDS: "Why Wall St. Needed Credit Default Swaps?", the main points of which can be summarized as: Wall St. had used CDS for,

1) quick profits;
2) earning manipulation on financial statements; and
3) taking advantage of the accounting loophole "negative basis trading" in order to pay themselves huge bonuses based on phantom earnings.

Let us look at GE. GE had been buying back stocks around $35 for the 1st 9 months of this year, but had to issue new dilutive shares to Warren Buffet and others at much lower prices last month (October), in a unusual buy-high-sell-low act of pure shareholder equity destruction. All their business units are solid and still making money except no one knows what is going on at GE Capital, which is one of the largest OTC derivative dealers and holders of many structured products such as ABS through securitization. GE is never transparent about what is in their portfolio to investors, unlike investment banks, so their stock price has been heavily punished to around $15. Maybe all other GE business units are worth $15, but what happens if GE Capital, like many banks these days is without a government bailout capital injection, a negative worth of $5?

GE has assured public that they only use OTC derivatives for hedging, and are very careful and conservative in their usage (whatever that means). Sure, that is exactly what Lehman said a few days before filing for bankruptcy (Lehman's derivative positions were all fully hedged), so was AIG. AIG said they had only used CDS very carefully and conservatively, until one day out of blue people suddenly found out that a 300 people small AIG subsidiary in London wiped out the whole firm by selling $450 billion undisclosed "insurance" in the form of CDS? When counterparties are being wiped out one after another, where would GE get their "hedges" from? In addition, when AIG's rating was downgraded from AAA, the liability of its CDS shot up exponentially, a fate GE will face soon.

Another risk about GE is its dependence on the commercial paper (CP) market to constantly refinance their large $80 billion liquidity needs. The CP market is too big and too complex for the US government to support on a daily basis. The government can save it for a few days, maybe even a few weeks, but not forever. If the CP market freezes up again or worse shuts down eventually, GE immediately faces liquidity problem which can put them out of business. GE has many good and viable industrial operations, and the only solution for them is to shut down GE Capital, even at the price of losing half of their earning power and a vital tool for all their past earning manipulations to deliver quarterly targets that Wall St. had wanted, and to sell assets and business units to raise a lot more cash in order to stop reliance on the CP market.

Commodities and Energy

I was correct about the inflation concern, the booming of agricultural commodities and crude oil, but only for a half year. Inflation expectation has given way suddenly to scary deflation worries and because of that, commodity prices have collapsed in the 2nd half. Is inflation dead? I don't think so, especially in the eye of recent unprecedented monetary inflation by the Fed. There is usually a lag between monetary inflation and real price (CPI) inflation.

While the US dollar is temporarily experiencing a slight reprieve from its decline in purchasing power, its future, due to the lag time (velocity of circulation) which is somewhat retarded when an economy is in recession, should not be expected to continue in this trend. However, once inflation is out of cage, it is impossible to put it back in. The current debate about deflation vs. inflation could turn out to be both right. In other words, it seems more and more likely that we will face the worst nightmare of inflationary depression. No wonder Mr. Whitehead said this is worse than 1930s.

When I wrote "My Ten Predictions for 2008", crude oil was traded around $90. I only gave out a target of $100 since oil had been doubled in 2007 from $50 to almost $100 and I expected that there should be a correction in 2008. But oil had a good run in late December and at the 1st trading day of 2008, it already hit $100. I knew then that I set the target too low, and I should've predicted $125. Well, even so, it was still too low since oil went all the way to $147.

However, I don't think the current collapse of crude to $50 has anything to do with demand and supply, nor did the $147 oil. The high was purely greed out of speculation and now the low is purely fear that people will go back and live in caves again to stop using energy. The reality is demand will grow more slowly than previously anticipated, but it will still remain at least flat, if not up, especially with the larger population from emerging market countries demanding more energy. In addition, peak oil is a fact, and it is always a big question whether fast economic growth and higher living standards, especially in emerging market, will be able to accommodate the fast growing population on mother earth.

I also believe that alternative energy: solar, wind, biofuel, etc., is more of a fantasy than reality, more driven by political correctness and sloganeering than by economic sense. Alternative energy, e.g., solar and wind, is too small to make any appreciable difference in the larger energy consumption picture. And if they were economically feasible, people would have used them at large scale centuries ago. Biofuel makes little economic sense without government subsidies. It always takes energy to produce energy. When you see it has to waste 80-90% of one form of energy to make incremental 10-20% of another form of energy, you know something is not right and it is not sustainable. The meltdown in alternative energy stocks such as solar this year has indicated that people are abandoning hype and returning to reality.

Other Markets and GM

My other good call was the October 2007 peak being the peak of the past bull market, from which we entered a long lasting bear market and in which we witnessed many severe corrections. However, I didn't expect such a washout so quickly. Originally I thought it was more likely in 2009 and 2010 to see a freefall like that of today's.

My prediction of yield curve getting steep was correct also. However again, I didn't anticipate the severity and the mess in the fixed income market, and who would've expected the short end of the yield curve hitting zero as it did in Japan! The current steep spread between the short and long end is not a good sign. I disagree with some economists who predict a quick economic recovery due to the steep yield curve. Instead, I think the short end shows people dumping anything and everything for cash, and the long end with high yield indicates no confidence in holding US dollars for the long haul. The historical record high spread between corporate bonds, munis and treasuries also indicates big troubles lie ahead. At the same time, I also correctly predicted the double digit fall in the real estate market, as reflected by the national S&P/Case-Schiller Index, which is now common knowledge.

It is hard not to mention GM this year, especially the option of bankruptcy vs. bailout. It is a very tricky and difficult situation for both the government and public. In theory, the auto industry needs to be in bankruptcy before it can rise from the ashes. Auto industry is now paying the price of what they have done in the long past, especially dumping tons of gas-guzzling SUVs onto the public lately--only because they could make 5 times more profit by selling a SUV than a compact car. The environmental damage caused by SUVs will not be reflected in the auto industry's balance sheet, or even any government statistics, but it is a real liability for the whole of society, and someday it may prove to be catastrophic. Even with the strong SUV sales, they were still only able to break even. Now with SUV sales crashed, how will they be able to sell 5 times the number of compact cars to replace all of the SUVs?

For the three big automakers, bankruptcy is the only way to wipe out all their debts, their pension and healthcare obligations, existing union contracts, their ridiculous large dealer network across the country, and their incompetent management which should have been cleaned up long ago. However, the government's bailout on the banking industry makes the auto-maker's bankruptcy option socially dangerous, extremely difficult, ethically wrong, and with many politically incorrect. If the government can spend $5 to 7 trillion to guarantee financially toxic structured loans and products, $300 billion to buy preferred shares of banks which are then used in part to pay bonuses to the already super rich bankers, how can the government not spend what initially appears to be mere pocket change of those sums to rescue the auto industry in order to save millions of jobs and healthcare/pensions for the retirees?

The speculation that bankruptcy in big three could cost 3 million jobs might be a little exaggerated. But we also should realize that the auto industry is not like the airline industry. When all major airlines were in bankruptcy, people still bought tickets for their flight services and there was no competition for domestic routes from foreign airlines, unlikely the auto industry. The consequence of paying bankers while letting even 1 million workers lose jobs and more retirees to lose pensions/healthcare coverage could cause wide-spread social unrest, too much a risk for the government to bear.

At the same time, a "pocket change" of $25 billion doesn't sound like a lot of money (comparing to the banking bailout). But the three big automakers will burn through that in less than a year, then they will come back next year to ask for more, just like Citigroup getting $25 billion last month then asking for more this month. Pretty soon, the US government will own not only the banking industry, but also the auto industry. To be fair to all, maybe they should own the airlines and any other industry in trouble down the road. How can they favor and save one industry but discriminate and dump the others? Where is the end of this?

Year 2008 will definitely go down in the history book as a very special year. It is a year marking the start of the 3rd depression after the 1930s and 1970s. It is the end of the 20 year Greenspan era of financial manipulation, distortion, rip-off and cover-up by Wall St. This resulted in high profits for the few on Wall St. and a huge burden on the mass of taxpayers from trillions in bailout capital, to destroy the political justification and honorable orientation of our free market society. It is also the beginning of a new, real and honest era for money: the gold era!

 


 

Thomas Tan

Author: Thomas Tan

Thomas Tan, CFA, MBA
www.investorwalk.com

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