For two days now S&P has done its best to kill the Santa Claus rally but the buyers continue to bet on Santa.
On Monday it was an S&P warning on possible downgrades to 15 euro zone countries that caused the markets to lose significant intraday gains. Today S&P warned it could down the European Financial Stability Fund (EFSF) by one to two notches if the EU did not make substantial progress in solving their debt crisis this week. It appears the S&P is trying to single handedly force Europe to pass needed reforms. They are trying to make up the credibility they lost when they completely blew it on the subprime loan crisis.
Threatening a downgrade on the six AAA credits in the euro zone is a serious challenge to the common euro currency. The strength of those six AAA credits is the backbone of the ECB and the various bailout mechanisms like the EFSF and the ESM. A chain may only be as strong as its weakest link but the euro currency is only as strong as the strongest countries in the euro zone. How much credibility would a currency have if the only countries standing behind it were Greece, Italy and Spain? I doubt anyone would be rushing to buy that currency. Germany and France are the strongest countries in the zone and a downgrade to them would be the equivalent of a downgrade to the euro currency.
By threatening a downgrade to those AAA credits and to the EFSF it put all the euro zone countries on notice they better come up with a serious solution this week or else. This is not the time for a bazooka solution as it has been called in the press or even a howitzer solution. This is the time for a nuclear solution or the euro zone is going into self destruct mode starting next week. The time for talk is over. S&P is not going to be impressed by another plan to make a plan. The rest of this week is going to be critical for the zone and the euro currency.
The threat of a downgrade to all concerned carries the implied threat of sharply higher interest rates on future debt sales. Once they lose the AAA rating their debt will be harder to sell and some funds and institutions will be forced to sell that debt rather than try to tough it out in hopes of better times ahead. Personally I don't understand why anyone would want to be buying or holding any European sovereign debt today. The risk of downgrades and/or eventual default is simply too great. With Europe slipping back into a recession conditions are only going to get worse before they get better. Austerity is here to stay and Europe is looking at years of slow or no growth.
If other countries are downgraded the same problems Greece and Italy are having today will begin to migrate over to other countries. The central bank of Greece reported bank deposits fell by 14 billion euros in Sept/Oct. In the first ten days of November they continued on a "large scale" according to testimony to the Greek parliament. "Our banking system lacks the funds to finance growth."
The central bank governor said deposits were 238 billion euros at the start of 2010. They have declined to 170 billion at the start of November. He estimates more than 20% of those funds have been moved out of the country. A bank worker in Athens says they have a steady stream of people withdrawing 3,000 to 5,000 euros in cash. Citizens are in a panic. They don't trust the banks or the Greek government. Unemployment is 18.5%. Bank loans have declined to 253 billion and the banks no longer have the cash to make new loans and that kills growth. The governor said this is a downward spiral with no recovery in sight.
Multiply the Greek problems by a factor of six and you get Italy. If the euro zone does not come up with a real fix this week we could see those same problems migrate to Italy and that country is six times larger than Greece. Spain could follow right behind Italy. The euro zone has reached the end of the road. If they try to kick the can again it will be off a cliff rather than farther down the road.
Current proposals being discussed include rewriting the treaties to enforce stricter fiscal conditions. That is a long term fix that could take over a year and all 17 countries would have to agree. I seriously doubt it will happen. The debtor countries are not going to allow Germany and France to control their budgets.
Secondly they are talking about allowing the EFSF to remain in existence after the official European Stability Mechanism (ESM) fund is finally launched. The EFSF was supposed to be a temporary vehicle to last until 2013 and the official launch of the ESM. This week they are talking about speeding up the launch of the ESM and then keeping the EFSF active at the same time. The EFSF is a 440 billion euro fund. The ESM is expected to be a 500 billion euro fund. The actual treaty language to form the ESM has not yet been formalized so they are really suggesting an acceleration but it still has to be approved by all the countries involved. They will also have to contribute money to form the fund. Also, by making the ESM an international organization like a bank they could also borrow money from the ECB. Germany ruled that out for the EFSF.
They are still talking, keyword there "talking", about leveraging up the EFSF to 600 billion or more but the satisfactory mechanism to do that has yet to be determined. Lastly there is still talk of the ECB loaning the IMF up to 270 billion euros to establish a European debtor trust fund that would loan money to the weaker nations.
The sky is very crowded in Europe this week given all the trial balloons being floated by the various country heads, finance ministers and committees. The key will be whether they can actually come to a real decision and will that plan be acceptable to the rest of the world.
Just remember, the solution to too much debt is not more debt. Having all these funds loan money to insolvent countries may avoid a short term default it also but increases the size of their already massive debt loads. The austerity promises required to qualify for additional loans makes it even harder to grow their way out of debt.
In the U.S. the economic calendar was slim with only the weekly chain store sales snapshot. Sales for last week declined -2.3% compared to a gain of +1.7% in the prior week. That was the biggest decline in 11 months but big declines after Black Friday are common. This report was ignored.
The calendar for the rest of the week remains driven by the events in Europe. The key event is the EU Debt Crisis Summit on Friday. That is Thursday night our time so Friday could be extremely volatile.
In stock news Toll Brothers (TOL) moved to a new four month high after reporting earnings that were down -70%. The key to the move was a major tax refund that distorted Q3 earnings in 2010 and the current earnings on an operational basis were better than last year and better than analysts expected. Toll posted profits of 9-cents compared to estimates of 5-cents. The CEO was upbeat about the market saying the competition had narrowed as small local builders had disappeared. Margins were 23.7%. Contracts increased +15% to 644 with a value of $390 million. The average price of a home rose to $606,000 from $565,000. Toll ended the quarter with a backlog of 1,667 homes, a +12% increase, with a value of $981.1 million. They expect to sell between 2,400 and 3,200 homes in 2012. The CEO said he did not expect a big upsurge in sales until after the election. The Commerce Dept said new home sales in October rose +1.3% and the fastest pace in five months.
Toll Brothers Chart
Delta Airlines (DAL) said passenger traffic fell -1.9% in November even though available capacity declined by -4.1%. Their load factor rose +1.9% to 81.4% as a result of the capacity cut. U.S. Airways (LCC) said they were not seeing any signs of weakness through February. The CFO said corporate travel was still improving. Southwest Airlines (LUV) said they saw "exceptional" revenue growth for November with an estimated +9% gain. December growth is expected to be in the high single digit range. Since 2005 network capacity overall has declined -18%. American's bankruptcy is going to further slash that capacity. They filed over the weekend to reduce flights for Chicago, Dallas and Low Angeles. Rising oil prices are eventually going to impact traffic and profitability. Crude over $100 is going to hurt since more than one third of an airlines expense is related to fuel.
Regional banks were up strongly yesterday. Unfortunately they could not hold their gains. Suntrust (STI) said it recorded a $440 million charge for Q3 to repurchase non performing mortgages. That was a 67% increase and well above previous quarters. In the year ago period that number was $263 million. The CEO spoke at a Goldman Sachs financial conference and he said the foreclosure problem may have peaked but there were still plenty in the pipeline. Banks are being forced by investors to buy back mortgages that were packaged into mortgage-backed securities because of what investors are claiming as misrepresentations when they were sold. These forced payments are killing the smaller banks and what is bad for STI is assumed to be bad for everyone else that initiated mortgages. STI shares declined -6% on the news.
Google shares edged just over resistance at $625 intraday but fell back after news broke that Verizon was blocking the Google Wallet application from Android phones for security reasons. Late in the day Verizon responded with a denial saying they were not blocking it and were still in discussions with Google about the application. "Recent reports that Verizon is blocking Google Wallet are false" according to Verizon spokesman Jeffrey Nelson.
Earlier in the day a Google spokesman had said that Verizon asked it not to include the function in the Galaxy Nexus smartphone due out this month. He claimed Verizon had said the service needed to be integrated into a new, secure and proprietary hardware element in Verizon phones. Google Wallet lets people make payments, redeem digital coupons and earn loyalty points with merchants. Verizon has joined with AT&T and Deutsche Telecom to develop a rival product called Isis to make payments and redeem offers. Apparently Verizon is trying to make competition a little harder. Looks like an antitrust case brewing.
Google shares are still fighting that resistance at $625 and we need one really good Nasdaq spike to push it over and force the shorts to cover.
Starbucks (SBUX) said its first year of nationwide use of its smartphone payment application saw 26 million payments. Starbucks has expended the service to include more than 9,000 stores. Virtual Starbucks cards can be stored on the iPhone and used to pay at the register. In the last nine weeks more than six million payments have been made compared to three million in the first nine weeks of the program.
LinkedIn (LNKD) shares rallied +$3 after JP Morgan upgraded the stock to overweight from neutral. JPM made the call because LNKD shares had lost more than one third of its value since July. Despite the ratings upgrade the analyst lowered his price target to $84 from $98. The stock closed at $73.20.
Darden Restaurants (DRI) warned that lower prices at the Olive Garden restaurants had failed to bring in extra customers. The Garden is its largest chain with 750 stores. Darden has tried campaigns emphasizing high food quality and campaigns stressing lower prices and neither appears to be working. The chain has posted disappointing results for five consecutive quarters. Darden said same store sales would likely decline by -2.5% at the Garden. However, sales at Red Lobster were expected to rise +6.8% and Longhorn Steakhouse +6%. They predicted earnings of 41-cents and analysts were expecting 54-cents. Overall growth is now expected to be only 5% to 7%, down from 12% to 15% in prior estimates. Shares of DRI fell -12%.
The S&P rallied twice over the last two days to strong resistance at 1265 and the 200-day average but both times the rally failed at that point. Reportedly it failed both times on news of potential downgrades in Europe but I think that was a convenient excuse. If the market rallies to resistance and then holds there for several hours until a headline appears was it the headline that caused the failure or was it resistance?
The events in Europe are critical and definitely not to be ignored. Personally I am surprised we are holding at the highs while the officials in Europe try to walk along the edge of a cliff without falling off. As I said before I don't expect any magic bullet fix but the markets appear to be waiting for some positive news regardless of how slim the chance the solution will hold.
Support on the S&P is rising and the daily ranges are narrowing as it moves towards breaking that resistance. Let's hope the dance in Europe ends with at least a temporary solution and we can escape December with some decent gains. I remain skeptical but the market does not reflect my skepticism. When in doubt the trend is your friend.
The Dow broke through downtrend resistance and is now just one hurdle away from challenging the July highs. Resistance at 12,200 and 12,285 are the next levels to watch. The Dow is leading the rally today. With the S&P nearly flat and the Nasdaq and Russell in negative territory.
This suggests this is a blue chip rally with funds putting cash in the highly liquid blue chips so they won't miss any breakout but they can also bail out very quickly if the events in Europe turned negative.
The Nasdaq rallied over resistance at 2,625 on Monday but failed just at the 200-day average at 2,672. Given the rally from last week I don't see this as a major problem. This was normal profit taking ahead of the European decision later this week.
Apple, Amazon, Priceline, Wynn, Bidu and Google were all negative today so for the Nasdaq to post a gain would have taken a super effort. That did not occur.
I believe it was just profit taking as traders position themselves ahead of the Friday decision in Europe.
The Russell finished fractionally negative after a huge rebound from the prior week's lows. This stall happened exactly at strong resistance at 750 and like the Nasdaq I think this was simply portfolio balancing ahead of the Friday event. The Russell has been strong over the last week but nothing rises forever. There needs to be a day of rest and a -0.25 decline is the least possible profit taking we could ask for.
S&P, the company not the index, speaks seldom but it carries a big stick. The threat to downgrade 15 euro zone countries and the EFSF if there is no big resolution at the EU summit this Friday was a very big threat. It would raise borrowing costs for everyone in the euro zone including Germany and France. Germany is considered the strongest country but it also has a very large debt load. German officials definitely don't want to see their interest rates rise because it would be a serious blow to future finances.
Downgrading the EFSF would make it harder to leverage that vehicle and harder to make it more effective. S&P may be trying to make up for its prior sins by forcing the EU leaders to take action. No other entity has a club the size of S&P. A one to two notch downgrade to euro zone countries would be devastating. Hopefully the S&P threat will force the EU leaders to actually make a real decision. We will get some kind of a statement on Friday but odds are good it will be highly qualified and require weeks to months to see if they are serious.
I remain skeptical they can work it out and I am worried the market could react badly on Friday. HOWEVER, clearly the market wants to move higher. Will that desire overcome any negative news I don't know.
I recommend small positions with a bullish bias because leaders facing the equivalent of a firing squad may say anything to keep from incurring the S&P wrath. In this case S&P may actually be Santa Claus in disguise if they succeeded in forcing positive results in Europe.
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