Sunday, August 7, 2011

G7 Conference Call on US Downgrade?

Tom Cohen of CNN reports, G7 finance ministers to hold conference call on U.S. credit downgrade:
Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner will take part in a conference call Sunday evening with representatives of the other G7 nations to discuss the downgraded U.S. credit rating, a G7 official told CNN.

The talks expected to occur before Asian markets open for Monday trading follow Friday's downgrade by Standard and Poor's of the U.S. credit rating to AA+ from the top rank of AAA. It was the first time in history the nation was rated below AAA.

The G7 nations are the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Canada and the United States.

Middle Eastern markets, the first to open since the downgrade, were sharply lower on Sunday. Israel's market temporarily halted trading at one point and finished down more than 6%, while the Dubai Financial Market General Index fell 3.7%.

The General Index on the Abu Dhabi Securities Exchange was down more than 2.5%, while in Saudi Arabia, the Tadawul All-Share Index dropped nearly 5.5% in trading Saturday.

U.S. officials are talking to a "wide range of investors" about the downgrade by the credit agency to try to "mitigate" any short-term negative impact from Friday's announcement, a Treasury official told CNN.

Top Standard & Poor's officials said Sunday that the downgraded credit rating for the United States was both a call for political consensus on significant deficit reduction and a warning of possible further credit problems down the road.

"We have a negative outlook on the rating and that means that we think the risks currently on the rating are to the downside," said David Beers, the S&P global head of sovereign ratings, on "Fox News Sunday."

However, Beers said markets were reacting to the debt crises in some European countries and fears of global economic slump, rather than the U.S. credit downgrade alone.

John Chambers, the S&P head of sovereign ratings, told ABC's "This Week" program Saturday that it could take years for the United States to return to AAA status.

"Well, if history is a guide, it could take a while," Chambers said. "We've had five governments that lost their AAA that got it back. The amount of time that it took for those five range from nine years to 18 years, so it takes a while."

The agency's concerns "are centered on the political side and on the fiscal side," Chambers said.

"So it would take a stabilization of the debt as a share of the economy and eventual decline," he said. "And it would take, I think, more ability to reach consensus in Washington than what we're observing now."

Both Beers and Bill Miller, chairman and chief investment officer at Legg Mason Capital Management, told the Fox program that they don't expect the U.S. downgrade to cause a spike in interest rates, one of the possible results of the higher risk now attached to U.S. debt.

"I don't think we'll pay more in interest," Miller said, calling the downgrade more of a symbolic event than an economic event. However, he warned of continuing market volatility in coming days driven by uncertainty.

Rating agencies such as S&P, Moody's and Fitch analyze risk and give debt a grade that is supposed to reflect the borrower's ability to repay its loans. The safest bets are stamped AAA. That's where the U.S. debt has stood for years.

Moody's first assigned the United States an AAA rating in 1917. Fitch and Moody's, the other two main credit ratings agencies, maintained the AAA rating for the United States after last week's debt deal, though Moody's lowered its outlook on U.S. debt to "negative."

A negative outlook indicates the possibility that Moody's could downgrade the country's sovereign credit rating within a year or two.

Beers told CNN on Saturday there were two reasons for the downgrade. The first centered "around the uncertainty we think the political process, as it's playing out in fiscal policy, is creating in the U.S.," Beers said. He cited the difficulty in creating consensus across the political spectrum when it comes to fiscal policy choices.

Second, the recent plan reached by Congress that raised the debt ceiling and provided some reductions in spending was not enough in the agency's eyes, he said.

Stock market values fell Friday across Europe and Asia, where reaction to news of the U.S. credit downgrade was mixed.

A scathing editorial in the Chinese state-run Xinhua News Agency criticized the United States for living outside its means.

"China, the largest creditor of the world's sole superpower, has every right now to demand the United States to address its structural debt problems and ensure the safety of China's dollar assets," the editorial said. "To cure its addiction to debts, the United States has to re-establish the common sense principle that one should live within its means."

Beers of S&P repeated calls for Democrats and Republicans to find consensus on further significant deficit reduction steps. The debt ceiling deal passed last week by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama represents a potential first step by implementing initial spending cuts and calling for further deficit reduction steps by the end of the year, he said.

Under the debt ceiling agreement, a special bipartisan congressional committee will recommend a series of deficit reduction steps to Congress by November, with a vote required by each chamber by the end of the year. The committee plan cannot be amended and would require a simple majority to pass.

If the committee's plan fails to pass Congress or get signed into law by Obama, across-the-board spending cuts of discretionary spending, including the military budget, would be automatic. The so-called trigger mechanism for the automatic cuts is intended to apply pressure on legislators to work out an acceptable deal through the committee.

The 12-member panel will comprise an equal number of Democrats and Republicans from the House and Senate. It is expected to come up with a package of reforms to entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security, as well as changes to the tax code that would lower rates and eliminate loopholes and subsidies to increase revenue.

Republicans have opposed any tax increases or increased tax revenue, while Democrats oppose substantive changes to entitlement programs.

A possible committee member, House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, told "Fox News Sunday" he had doubts about whether the panel can achieve what needs to get done.

Ryan, a fiscal conservative favored by the tea party movement, said he would serve on the panel if asked but added: "I'm not putting my stock in this committee."

"I think people are overemphasizing what this committee is going to achieve," Ryan said. Democrats are unwilling to make the kinds of reforms needed in entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security to effectively rein in rising long-term costs, he said.

"We have yet to see any commitment to bring the spending line down," Ryan added.

However, Obama's chief political strategist, David Axelrod, blamed the conservative tea party movement for the S&P downgrade, saying the linking of a necessary debt ceiling increase to political debate on spending cuts caused the gridlock cited by the ratings agency.

"There's no doubt the brinkmanship that we saw was atrocious, and that contributed to their analysis," Axelrod said on the CBS program "Face the Nation."

Obama pushed for a so-called "grand bargain" that would balance deficit reduction among spending cuts, entitlement reforms and tax reform, while House Republicans, spurred by the tea party support that helped them gain a majority in last November's vote, rejected that approach, Axelrod said.

House Speaker John Boehner, who at one point was considering a larger deal pushed by Obama, "had to yield to the most strident voice in his party ... and this is the result," Axelrod said, adding: "The fact of the matter is that this is essentially a tea party downgrade."

On the same program, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina disputed Axelrod's contention, arguing that "the tea party's not the problem" and "Washington was broken before they got here."

He blamed Obama for a failure of leadership, calling the president "a casual observer at a time when he needs to be fully engaged."

"This has been a lousy presidency, only getting worse," Graham said.

On Saturday, Chambers noted on CNN that few governments separate the budget process from the debt-authorization process as the United States does.

Asked who was to blame, Chambers said, "This is a problem that's been a long time in the making -- well over this administration, the prior administration."

Congress should shoulder some of the blame, he said, adding: "The first thing it could have done is to have raised the debt ceiling in a timely manner so that much of this debate had been avoided to begin with, as it had done 60 or 70 times since 1960 without that much debate."

U.S. Treasury officials received S&P's analysis Friday afternoon and alerted the agency to an error that inflated U.S. deficits by $2 trillion, said an administration official, who was not authorized to speak for attribution. The agency acknowledged the mistake, but said it was sticking with its decision.

The administration official called it "a facts-be-damned decision ... Their analysis was way off, but they wouldn't budge."

Saturday, Gene Sperling, director of Obama's National Economic Council, criticized S&P's call.

"The magnitude of their error and the amateurism it displayed, combined with their willingness to simply change on the spot their lead rationale in their press release once the error was pointed out, was breathtaking. It smacked of an institution starting with a conclusion and shaping any arguments to fit it," he said.

But Beers defended his agency's move on Sunday, telling the Fox program: "The underlying debt burden of the U.S. government is rising and will continue to rise over the next decade."

Let me state flat out that S&P's decision to downgrade US debt was stupid, irresponsible and definitely "amateurish" as they openly admitted to making a $2 trillion mistake. Moreover, who cares what S&P or any of the ratings agencies say? Their track record is horrible. For example, they downgraded Japanese debt nearly a decade ago and Japanese bonds (JGBs) have outperformed all other asset classes ever since. The only thing the S&P downgrade does is land a blow to America's national ego.

That's it, that's all. Stock markets might get hit (or might rally on the news) but interest rates will not rise because of this. Foreign investors, especially the Chinese, won't stop buying US Treasuries. I think the bigger concern now should be the ongoing mess in Europe and how they're going to deal with it decisively. I happen to agree with the ECB's governing council member, Luc Coene, who said on Friday that Europe should move towards euro bonds. There simply isn't any choice; the more time European leaders waste "discussing options," the worst the debt crisis will become. I think that should be the main focus of this G7 conference call, not the stupid S&P downgrade of US debt.

And what about the stock market? I have had many people email me asking me "should I buy the dips?" or "should I buy solars?". Some are asking me "do you really have 90% of your money parked in one company, Level Three (LVLT)?" and "should I buy Juniper Networks (JNPR) like you recommended a few days ago on one flew over the cuckoo's nest?"

I have to be very careful when I dispense advice, so please read the following comments below very carefully:

  • First, I am a trader and risk taker, and have openly stated I take very concentrated bets on a few stocks and can move in and out of a position several times a week. I do, however, see long-term potential in many stocks and believe the best time to buy them is when fear reigns in financial markets.
  • Second, while I wrote "FUCK RISK MANAGEMENT," in that comment, it was not a wise thing to write because it could have been interpreted the wrong way. That comment was my frustration that institutions always start talking up risk management after the market has corrected by over 10%! So many pensions funds I know sold global equities at the bottom of the market in March 2009, at very depressed levels, and that really blows my mind. That's not risk management, that's risk mismanagement!
  • Third, most investors should still adhere to old old 60/40 stock/bond allocation and invest in blue chip companies that pay dividends. You can take some calculated risks, but don't mimic me because you will get slaughtered.
  • Fourth, I like small and mid cap stocks because hedge funds play them. I know when they're being liquidated and way oversold, and move in for the kill to make my profits. This isn't a science, it's more of an art, and you only learn by losing money. But when you get the hand of it, you know exactly how to trade them and when to trade them, you can make a lot of money.
  • Fifth, and more importantly, I am not the god of trading, nor do I pretend to be. I played the market lousy this past week. I should have known they were going to sell the news hard and focused on trading ultra short proshares during the post debt agreement crash (only good to trade; never buy and hold these ultra proshares).
  • Finally, these are very difficult markets to trade so please be careful and do not mimic me blindly. I will also temper my comments and raise some caution. I still feel markets are way oversold but they might continue to get even more oversold, so it's best to wait for a weekly gain on the S&P 500 before you jump back in. Of course this means you might miss a huge rally on any given day.
I leave you with an alert I received from Bloomberg: Tonight at 8pm/ET, Bloomberg Television will present a special two-hour live report, "Downgrade: A Special Report," hosted by anchors Tom Keene (@tomkeene) and Adam Johnson (@AJInsight). You can click here to watch it live. Below, watch Bill Gross discuss his thoughts.

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