Speculative Trading Lends Credence To “Rally Losing Steam” Thesis

A disturbing recent trend has emerged in the U.S. equity market and many are pointing to it as a potential reason to worry that the massive market rally over the last six months may be running out of steam. Investment strategists are concerned that a recent rise in speculative trading activity is signaling that the market’s dramatic ascent is getting a bit frothy.

This kind of trading is typically characterized by lots of smaller capitalization stocks seeing massive increases in trading volumes and dramatic price swings, often on little or no headlines warranting such trading activity. Indeed, in recent weeks we have seen a lot of wild swings in small cap biotechnology stocks as well as some financial services stocks that were previously left for dead.

For instance, shares of beleaguered insurance giant AIG (AIG) soared 27% on Thursday on six times normal volume. Rumors on internet message boards (not exactly a solid fundamental reason for a rally) which proved to be false were one of the catalysts for the dramatic move higher, which looked like a huge short squeeze.

Consider an interesting statistic cited by CNBC’s Bob Pisani on the air yesterday. Trading volume on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) registered 6.55 billion shares on Thursday. Of that a whopping 29% (1.9 billion shares) came from just four stocks; AIG, Freddie Mac (FRE), Fannie Mae (FNM), and Citigroup (C). Overall trading volumes this summer have been fairly light anyway and the fact that such a huge percentage of the volume has been in these severely beaten down, very troubled companies should give us pause for concern.

While not nearly as exaggerated, speculative trading like this is very reminiscent of the dot com bubble in late 1999 when tiny companies would see huge volume and price spikes simply by issuing press releases announcing the launch of a web site showcasing their products.

I am not suggesting the market is in bubble territory here, even after a more than 50% rise in six months, but this kind of market action warrants a cautious stance. Irrational market action is not a healthy way for the equity market to create wealth.

Fundamental valuation analysis remains paramount for equity investors, so be sure not get sucked into highly speculative trading unless there is a strong, rational basis for such investments. Companies like AIG, Fannie, and Freddie remain severely impaired operationally and laden with debt.

As a result, potential buyers into rallies should tread carefully and be sure to do their homework.

Full Disclosure: No position in any of the companies mentioned at the time of writing, but positions may change at any time

Income Tax Rates Must Rise To Offset Higher Deficits? Not So Fast.

Per one’s request, my latest quarterly letter to Peridot Capital clients included a section on the current macro-economic outlook for the United States. The question they wanted me to address had to do with possible hyperinflation resulting from ever-increasing budget deficits at the federal level. As with any question like that I try to completely ignore everything I have heard and instead rely on what the numbers tell me to form an opinion. Numbers don’t lie, people do.

The latest set of numbers I have looked at are very interesting and so I thought they were worth sharing. The consensus viewpoint today is that higher budget deficits will ultimately lead to higher income taxes on Americans, which is likely to hurt the economy over the intermediate to longer term. Interestingly, historical data does not necessarily support his hypothesis. Let me explain.

Despite current political debates, which are more often than not rooted in falsehoods, the United States actually saw its level of federal debt peak in 1945, after World War II. Back then the federal debt to GDP ratio (the popular measure that computes total debt relative to the size of the economy that must support it) reached more than 120%. Even after a huge increase over the last decade, currently the ratio is around 80%. As a result, our federal debt could rise 50% from here and it would only match the prior 1945 peak.

Given all of that the first question I wanted to answer was “how high did income tax levels go after World War II to repay all of the debt we built up paying for the war?” After all, the debt-to-GDP ratio collapsed from 120% all the way down to below 40% before President Reagan spent all that money in the early 1980’s. Surely tax rates went up to repay that debt, right?

The reality is that the top marginal income tax rate went down considerably over that 35 year period and even if Congress maintains the top rate at 39.6% (up from 35% under President Bush) the rate will still be near historic lows since the income tax was first instituted nearly 100 years ago.

Below is the actual data in graphical form. All I did was plot the top marginal income tax bracket along with the federal debt-to-GDP ratio. This makes it easy to see what was happening with tax rates as debt levels were both rising and falling over the last 70 years.

taxratevsdebtratio

As you can see from the data, tax rates did not go up even as debt was paid off dramatically. As a result, it appears to be a flawed assumption that increased federal borrowing automatically means we will have to pay higher taxes in the future. Political junkies won’t like what this data shows, but again, numbers don’t lie.

Chevy Volt Could Get 230 Miles Per Gallon

This seems like the kind of thing that could get more people into GM showrooms and help them recapture lost market share, even if most consumers do not purchase the new Chevy Volt, due out in late 2010.

According to an Associated Press story today GM announced that the Chevy Volt rechargeable electric car should get 230 miles per gallon in city driving, more than four times the mileage of the current mileage leader, the Toyota Prius.

From the story:

“The Volt is powered by an electric motor and a battery pack with a 40-mile range. After that, a small internal combustion engine kicks in to generate electricity for a total range of 300 miles. The battery pack can be recharged from a standard home outlet.”

Despite a hefty initial price tag (expectations are ~$40,000), the car could still be cost effective. Why? According to the story, “If a person drives the Volt less than 40 miles, in theory they could go without using gasoline.”

If we want to reduce our use of foreign oil in a meaningful way, this is exactly the kind of innovation that could do it. Not only will less of our money go to the Middle East region, but we will be reducing pollution and Americans will be able to keep more money in their pockets by saving on the cost of gas. Count me as very much looking forward to the launch of more electric cars in the United States.

Analyst Call on Baidu Shows Why Most Wall Street Research Calls Are Useless

There are several reasons I typically ignore Wall Street analyst calls. The most compelling is the fact that sell side recommendations over the long term have been shown to underperform the market with above average volatility. Those are lose-lose metrics for investors.

Such poor performance is largely attributable to analysts being backward looking when they make research calls, despite the fact that they are supposed to be analyzing the equity market, which is a forward looking mechanism. Too many times analysts will upgrade stocks after the firms report strong numbers and vice versa, which does nothing to add to investor returns relative to the benchmark index they are trying to beat. Successful investing requires insight into the future, not reaction to the past.

To illustrate this point, consider an upgrade from UBS analyst Wenlin Li on Monday. Li covers Baidu.com (BIDU), the internet search giant in China. Baidu reported second quarter earnings of $1.61 per share, above consensus estimates of $1.44.

Prior to the earnings report Li had a sell rating and $150 price target on Baidu, which was trading over $300 per share. That in itself appears to be a contrarian call, which would be commendable (wrong, but commendable nonetheless). After the strong report was released, despite only a small upside surprise, Li upgraded the stock to neutral and raised the price target to $380 per share, a stunning increase of 153 percent.

How does a single quarter’s earnings beat of 12 percent explain a 153 percent increase in one’s fair value estimate for a stock? It doesn’t, not by a long shot. This is the epitome of a completely useless Wall Street research call.

To see how this analyst messed up so badly, we only need to look at the changes made to their BIDU assumptions. Li now estimates 2009 revenue at $658 million, up from $542 million, while 2010 and 2011 sales are revised upward by 33% and 38%, respectively. Gross profit as a percentage of sales estimates were also revised upward, by 60% this year, next year and 2011, and net profit was revised up by about 40% per year.

Remember, an analyst’s sole job is to follow companies and estimate how much revenue they will bring in and what proportion of that will flow through to the bottom line. Without solid insight into these metrics ahead of time, analyst calls are of little use to investors, which unfortunately is the case more often than not on Wall Street.

Full Disclosure: No position in BIDU at the time of writing, but positions may change at any time

Chrysler, Ford Riding Government Incentives to First Sales Gains in 2 Years

It is hard to argue with the success of the “Cash for Clunkers” automobile incentive program so far. With $1 billion already blown through, Congress is working on a $2 billion extension, despite most Republicans being against the program (probably because it was a Democratic idea, not because it is not working).

So far the average consumer is trading in their clunker for a new car that gets 9 miles per gallon more than the vehicle it replaced. The sales spike during the last week of July has led both Chrysler and Ford to report July sales gains, the first increase in 2 years for the domestic automobile industry. General Motors reported a 19% decline in sales, but still saw an enormous benefit from the program.

It remains to be seen if car sales will be sustained at higher levels, but the glass looks half full at this point. New car inventories are near all-time lows so inventory rebuilding in coming months should boost GDP pretty significantly, perhaps leading to a positive GDP print for the third quarter.

The car companies are not the only beneficiaries, however. “Cash for Clunkers” helps consumers and the country as a whole too. Higher fuel efficiency should not be understated. Consumers will save money by spending less to fill up their gas tanks, freeing up money for other things. In addition, less pollution from the new vehicles not only is safer for Americans but the environment in general as well.

Despite skepticism from many, this program does this show that smart government spending can stimulate the economy. In this case it does so in more ways than one, making the investment well worth the several billion dollars spent.

Full Disclosure: No positions in Ford or GM at the time of writing, but positions may change at any time