The mirage of this business cycle

Since 2005 we have been sceptical of the earnings reports coming out of many financial companies and other service industries and sectors that feed off of the credit gravy train: think consumer discretionary, homebuilders, and housing related companies, even the extraordinary, seemingly endless demand for commodities. Our scepticism was based on a belief that there was a false demand in the system supported by reckless spending and credit abuse.
Today The Big Picture, echoes this point as follows:
“There have been many investment theses over the past few years about the market which supported the bullish side of the ledger: Earnings were high, stocks were cheap, risk was moderate, the Fed model favored stocks over bonds.
Regardless of whether you found these arguments persuasive or not, global markets have gone higher. While the U.S. indices may have lagged the rest of the world's bourses, they too, have powered higher.
Here's the odd factor: It turns out that many of the arguments made in favor of U.S. domestic growth have been based on an assumption that turned out to be false. To wit: The Financials, the largest sector in the S&P500, had legitimate, sustainable, normalized risk-based earnings.
That basic premise turned out to be wrong.
Picture a race car driver, going way too fast in the first half of a track. He puts up record breaking lap times, only to crash and burn in the last turn. His driving coach would say his risk-adjusted speeds were irresponsible.
That's how I perceive what has been going on with the Financial sector. It wasn't Fraud, but rather a reckless disregard for Risk that led to outsized returns on many big cap stocks in the group.
Merrill Lynch (MER) just wrote down $8 billion dollars, erasing 5 years of profits. Citigroup (C) dinged $11 billion. Washington Mutual, (WAMU) Countrywide Financial (CFC), Bear Stearns, GMAC — there seems to be an ongoing parade of mea culpas that are erasing not just quarters of profits, but years of earnings. And there are likely to be many more of these, as tier 3 assets get priced appropriately.
What's truly astounding is that we may only be seeing the tip of the iceberg. Its possible that the big brokers and banks have $1 trillion in toxic debt on their books to be written down. That would equal decades — not years — of profits to be wiped out.”
When we back out the false demand from funny money and mortgage equity withdrawls from over-priced housing, we believe we will eventually see that the past few years of this expansion have been more mirage than real.

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3 Responses to The mirage of this business cycle

  1. Anonymous says:

    hi danielle,
    i just lookined up Merrill Lynch on GlobeInvestor and I can't see how $8 billion erased 5 years of profit. I agree, it's not good, but your statement just doesn't seem correct to me.
    PS: i did love your book.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Hi Brodie,
    Thanks for the comment. If you look again at the entry you will note that the reference was taken directly from a piece by Barry Ritholtz on The Big Picutre blog that day: see
    http://bigpicture.typepad.com/comments/2007/11/sp500-ex-risk.html#comments
    and it provoked much discussion afterwards some 76 comments followed. The conclusion was that it was an overstatement as you point out, since the 8b write off took away 5 years of fixed income earnings not for the entire firm.
    Thanks for reading, D

  3. Anonymous says:

    the big picture looks interesting. i wasn't aware of it. thanks for that.

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