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Navigating the road with only one eye proves not so easy in today's financial markets.
My dad had amblyopia as a child, and it left him nearly blind in his right eye.
When I was in my teens, I was a little nervous about riding in the car with him, because sometimes he drove with his right eye closed. He explained that he shut it occasionally because it was useless when he drove, but since you couldn't see his left eye from the shotgun seat, you wondered if he was nodding off at the wheel.
I don't know how he managed to drive in that condition. I've covered one eye while I drove just to see what it's like, and the lack of depth perception is unnerving. I suppose that, never having had stereoscopic vision, he found some way to compensate. In any case, he managed to stay out of accidents somehow.
We're in a similar fix as we cruise through the landscape of markets, financials and the economy. Our vision is not too good, quite frankly, and the fog before us is so thick we have to spend most of our time driving by the rear-view mirror. It's as if we have just one good eye, and we're forced to keep looking over our shoulder with it to see where we've been. We perceive the descending channels of the stock indices and the US dollar, and we can make out the rising trajectory of commodities and the precious metals. But we can hardly see the road ahead of us at all, and Wall Street, the Fed and the Treasury Dept conspire to throw spike strips in our path every few days.
On top of all that, the unwashed rabble is shouting that the "commodity bubble" is already over, burst and deflating rapidly. If that's the case, then we have to guess where the money will go next. After all, these bubbles are not accidental, nor do they occur in a vacuum. The economy in the United States is now so feeble and fragile that the Fed is forced to create one investment bubble after another to keep the decrepit thing afloat. Technology and internet stocks first, real estate second, then commodities – each bubble blowing and bursting faster than the previous one, and leaving worse excesses of credit and margin in its wake.
What market can the Fed possibly set its crosshairs on next, to drag out of bed and inject full of credit adrenaline? We look for likely targets, and come up empty-handed. Our backward-looking eye can't tell us what comes next, and our other eye, the forward-looking one, is no use. It peers into the murk ahead, but there's no visibility. So we just shut that eye, and drive on.
Still, we need to have some idea where we're going. Nothing is more dangerous than blasting down the road with no notion of what's ahead. We'll end up looking like the Fed and the Treasury, who obviously are out of their depth without a road map, and are making it up as they go along. Maybe they can afford a million-car pileup, but we can't. It seems to me that we need to remind ourselves of the few things we know, and orient ourselves by the landmarks we can be sure of.
We know that business earnings in general will have to decline in a recessionary environment, and stock prices can't keep going up while the corporate bottom line suffers. We also know that markets look ahead two quarters or more, and respond to expectations for the future. Nothing in our timeline suggests that mortgage troubles or the economy will be all shipshape by the end of this year. We know that more credit can't fix bad debts, and the tab must ultimately be paid by someone, someday. We know who that's likely to be. (A hint: It isn't the multinational bankers.)
In a frenzy to delay that day of reckoning, the Fed may be attempting to resuscitate both equity and housing markets at the same time. Good luck with that, in an unraveling economy. To fix the mortgage fiasco, the Fed must get house prices going up again, and get people persuaded that they can get rich by taking on huge mortgages to buy overpriced houses once more. That won't happen. Failing that, the Fed hopes to engineer a "soft landing". Soft Landing is Fed-speak for an economic train wreck in slow motion.
I doubt very much that the boom for commodities is over, just because the U.S. is sliding into recession. I doubt very much that stock prices in general can be pushed higher in real terms. I doubt very much that gold and silver have seen their best days, or that India is through buying gold.
But most of the markets seem to be completely blind to the obvious, and blunder ahead with confidence that the Fed will bail us out of a mess they created, by applying more of the cheap credit that caused it. And that somehow businesses will increase profits in a recession, and home prices will go up even though there's a dwindling base of qualified buyers and a shrinking pool of lending capital.
Meanwhile, the rest of us are driving with one good eye, and the other one shut because we can't see anything with it anyway. It reminds me of that old saying: "In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king." Let's hope it works out that way this time.
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