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What’s This All About?

For most of this year, market action has not been about the economic news. It has been about the Fed. It has been about Greece. It has been about Portugal. It has been about Italy. It has been about France, French banks, and the relationship between the French President and the German Chancellor. It has been about Germany.

It has been about the U.S. debt ceiling and the Swiss zero interest rate floor. It has been about the IMF and what they said most lately. It has been about the ECB. It has been about offhanded remarks by Trichet or Draghi or Monti or Berlusconi. It has been about the rating agencies. It has been about the IIF (the who?).

And now, not even those things matter.

Over the weekend, the Italian Prime Minister announced mild austerity measures that prompted the former PM to immediately declare that a confidence vote is needed. Gee, that’s a good start on the road to sustainable fiscal policies! The IMF approved a €2.2bln loan tranche but expressed an opinion that Greece is in a “difficult phase” at the moment. And Merkel and Sarkozy had a pre-meeting before the Euro summit later this week – it was to be a secret discussion, and word was released that there would be no ‘result’ from the meeting until whatever was released later in the week after the summit.

Somehow, they forgot that last part. Merkel and Sarkozy came out in favor of a ‘new’ treaty for the European Union. Or maybe for the Eurozone. Sarkozy says they’d like the rules to apply to the entire 27 members of the EU, but it was essential that the new treaty – which is likely to be considered an unconstitutional restraint on sovereignty in a number of countries – with automatic penalties for breaching terms would apply to all 17 Eurozone members.

I still don’t see anything bullish in those news items. Making the rules for participation in the EU or EZ more stringent, even if it was the right thing to do, isn’t anything that will affect the economy in the next, oh, two or three years at a minimum. It would probably be a Euro-bullish event, even though it is hard to believe given the coddling that Greece has gotten that an economy in crisis would ever be threatened with expulsion for breaching an “automatic penalty” provision (or for refusing to pay the penalty). In any event, the current treaty took many years to get into place. It is going to be hard to swap out. (Maybe a money center bank could do a “treaty swap,” receiving the current terms and paying the desired terms?)

Yet, stocks shot higher on the open. Related markets moved in sympathy although less convincingly. Year-end illiquidity cuts both ways. Late last month, with stocks poised at 1200 in the middle of the multi-month range, I thought that the technical situation favored a potentially messy selloff since selling might beget selling into a market where no one had interest in buying at year-end. We got a selloff, but there was enough liquidity (and enough engineered ‘good news’) to arrest and reverse momentum. Now equities are rallying, and for no other reason than that they’re already rallying – and equity fund managers are being forced to buy in lest they miss a year-end ‘melt-up’ that is becoming more and more plausible even though the reasons for it are more and more elusive.

Evidence for the momentum-driven nature of this rally appeared in the afternoon. S&P announced that 16 of the 17 Eurozone nations have been placed on CreditWatch negative (it would have been 17 of 17, but they think they’re already on top of Greece) pending the outcome of the EU summit on December 9th. Doubtless the result of the CreditWatch, which ordinarily means there is a 50% chance of a downgrade within 90 days, may also have something to do with the amount of political pressure brought to bear…but then, I’m a cynic. This is shocking, if only because it includes all of the AAA countries on whose joint and several credit all plans seem to depend. Everyone knew that considering France a AAA was questionable at best. Some felt that Germany might be dragged down eventually depending on how much they played the role of being the Sherpa of Europe. But the Netherlands, Finland, Austria, and Luxembourg must be seriously annoyed, because they have assiduously defended their fiscal positions and resisted committing treasure to the defense of the European dream. All of which to say: this is going to be a fun summit!

Stocks initially reacted sharply, with the Dow dropping 140 points or so. Bonds rallied back to near-unchanged and commodities erased the early gains. But then stocks started to rally again. This is nonsensical. The odds of something productive coming out of the summit, which is now more critical than ever, just dropped substantially (to be sure, there may well be some cheerful talk, but the probability of getting the Dutch and Finns to go along even with a pro forma announcement has got to be lower today than it was yesterday). S&P just told Europe that if they want to save the periphery, they do so at the peril of their sovereign ratings and the ratings of their corporations as well (since a corporation cannot have a rating above that of the sovereign).

But the market is illiquid, and that means it is likely to keep on going until the eventual outcome is so obviously bearish that fund managers are willing to take some tracking error on the chance that the market might break before year-end. I know that if I was compensated on the basis of my relative performance I personally wouldn’t want to be very far from my benchmark on December 9th. However, if the next zig-zag becomes obvious that day, it will be hard to change positions very quickly in an illiquid market. I suppose the thing I’m really sure about is that I wouldn’t want to be short gamma!

Categories: Economy, Europe, Politics
  1. onebir
    December 6, 2011 at 2:30 am

    Is there any reason to think the new fiscal monitoring proposals might work better than then old Stability and Growth Pact, which was supposed to prevent the existing mess?

    Does the sovereign rating forming the ceiling for corporate credit ratings make sense any more? Seems to me multinationals in particular might not be particularly affected by defaults or their (nominal) sovereigns…

    • December 6, 2011 at 8:26 am

      Interesting point about corporate credit ratings!

  2. usikpa
    December 6, 2011 at 7:33 am

    This market is headed for the slaughter. What magic are they expecting on Thursday from Mr. Draghi?

    Word has it, the US economic indicators will show low numbers in February and April. Will have fun next year?

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