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Could This Rally Be a Head-Fake?

Let’s say you wanted to engineer a stock market rally that triggered every technical “buy” signal and wiped out those who are short the market–what would you do? First, you’d engineer a new all-time high to signal “all clear for further advances.”

Then you’d crush volatility as measured by the VIX, signaling that there is nothing standing in the way of more advances.

Next, you’d engineer new highs every day for a week or more.

To do this, you’d unleash a wave of strong buying at every bit of “good news,” no matter how jury-rigged, to trigger computer-trading buying: bogus earnings “beats,” any M&A activity, rumors of more stimulus in Japan, a pop up in crude oil, etc.–whatever could be construed as even modestly good news.

This entire rally has an engineered feel. All the technical “buy” signals are precisely what you’d expect in a rigged rally.

The rally’s strength is reminiscent of the 1999-2000 Internet-era stock market, but compare the fundamental backdrop of then and now. Back then, earnings, sales, profits and employment were all up strongly globally, and China and the emerging markets were experiencing trade-based organic (i.e. not the result of central bank stimulus) expansion.

Can the same be said of the present? No. Employment is stagnant once low-paying part-time jobs are stripped out of official cheerleading statistics, and corporate profits are sliding–especially if “one-time charges” and other accounting trickery are stripped out.

As for global trade–it’s stagnant or down. Whatever “growth” is officially reported is either suspect or based on unsustainable expansion of private credit or central bank/state stimulus. Consider the following chart: three major economies out of five are already experiencing declining private credit, and China’s rocket-like trajectory is clearly unsustainable:

The list of global financial weaknesses and potential crises is long and varied. 2016 is not 1999.

If there’s nothing supporting this rally but euphoric sentiment arising from orchestrated buying, any eruption of reality will reveal the rally as a head-fake:having exterminated short-sellers, there won’t be many who will benefit should the rally be transformed into a rout by reality.

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Please Don’t Pop My Bubble!

One person’s bubble is another person’s “fair market value.” What is clearly an outrageously overvalued asset perched at nosebleed levels of central-bank fueled speculative euphoria is to the owner an asset at “fair market value.”

But beneath the euphoric confidence that valuations can only drift higher forever and ever is the latent fear that something could stick a pin in “my bubble”— that is, whatever bubblicious asset we happen to own and treasure as a source of our financial wealth could be popped, destroying not just our financial bubble but our psychological bubble of faith in permanent manias.

Consider housing prices, which are clearly in an echo-bubble of the Great Housing Bubble of 2000-2007. (Chart courtesy of Market Daily Briefing.)

The psychological underpinning of all bubbles and echo bubbles is on display here. In the first bubble, those benefiting from the stupendous price increases are not just euphoric at the surge in unearned wealth–they believe the hype with all their hearts and minds that the bubble is not a bubble at all, it’s all just “fair market value” at work.

In other words, the massive increase in unearned personal wealth is not just temporary good fortune–it is permanent, rational and deserved.

Alas, all bubbles, no matter how euphoric or long-lasting, eventually pop. All the certainties that seemed so obviously true and timeless to the believers melt into air, and their touching faith that the bubble valuations were permanent, rational and deserved dissipates in a wrenchingly painful reconciliation with reality.

The agonized cries of those watching their bubble-wealth vanish do not fall on deaf ears. The same central bankers that inflated the bubble with super-low interest rates suddenly see their much-loved wealth effect (i.e. the bubble-generated psychological sense of wealth that emboldens people to borrow and spend money they shouldn’t borrow and spend) imploding before their eyes.

In the panicky haste of blind expediency, central bankers drop interest rates to zero and unleash unlimited liquidity to save the bubbles they inflated. Instead of flushing the system of bad debt and speculative leverage and allowing the market to reprice impaired assets, central bankers push the perverse incentives that inflated the bubble to new highs.

Should lowering interest rates to zero fail to reflate the bubble, central bankers then start buying assets hand over fist, creating trillions of dollars, yuan, yen and euros out of thin air to boost asset prices with direct and indirect purchases.

The relief of those saved from financial destruction by the heroic efforts of central bankers is palpable. Rather than retrace to pre-bubble levels, valuations are caught in mid-air and pushed higher by central bank liquidity and asset purchases.

But the naive faith of asset owners cannot be restored to its pre-bubble virginal state. The nagging realization that all bubbles are temporary and irrational, and that bubblicious wealth is unearned and undeserved, lingers in the traumatized psyches of the former true believers.

Sensing their vulnerability, every asset owner demands: don’t pop my bubble!Go pop somebody else’s bubble, but please please please leave mine intact.

This knowledge that all bubbles pop sooner or later generates a skittishness that finds voice in sell-offs. Once the skittish owners of a bubblicious asset sense the nail is pushing against the bubble and the inevitable popping is nigh, they sell sell sell.

No wonder the stock market has sold off hard three times in the past 18 months. Every punter who’s not a sucker knows that 1) stocks are overvalued, 2) every bubble eventually pops, and 3) the survivors are those who sell at the first whiff of trouble.

So ride your bubble of choice up–stocks, bonds, housing, bat guano, take your pick–but it’s best to keep your thumb on the sell button and your mind attuned to the many needles and nails pressing aginst the thin membrane of the bubble.

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My new book is #11 on Kindle short reads -> politics and social science: Why Our Status Quo Failed and Is Beyond Reform ($3.95 Kindle ebook, $8.95 print edition) For more, please visit the book’s website.

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Why Real Reform Is Now Impossible

It’s difficult for well-meaning pundits to abandon the fantasy that meaningful reform is possible. Indeed, a critical function of the punditry and corporate media is to foster the fantasy that the status quo could be reformed if only we all got together and blah blah blah.

As I explain in my new book Why Our Status Quo Failed and Is Beyond Reform, real structural reform would trigger the collapse of the status quo. (As a reminder, the status quo benefits the few at the expense of the many.)

But there’s another dynamic that makes reform impossible. I’ve prepared a chart to explain this dynamic:

Central banks have transformed the market–in stocks, bonds, commodities and risk–into the signaling mechanism that tells us all is well. Even though the real-world finances of the bottom 95% continue deteriorating, a rising stock market and suppressed measures of risk signal that the economy is doing well. If you’re not doing well, it’s your personal problem; the status quo is fine and needs only minor tweaks.

Elevating the market into the oracle of economic health creates a systemic risk:If the market tanks, the status quo is called into question. People start asking, is it truly a wonderful arrangement that benefits us all, or is it really just a skimming machine that funnels money and wealth from the many into the voracious maws of the few?

Central banks thwart this existential danger to the status quo by rescuing the market every time it approaches the market clearing event level. (see chart) In a market clearing event, risky loans and bets are liquidated, credit dries up, risk soars and the price of assets falls to levels that once again make fundamental sense.

Market clearing events are a necessary part of a healthy credit and asset-allocation system. If the market is never allowed to clear away the dead wood of mal-investments, high leverage, nose-bleed valuations, bad bets and risky loans that should never have been issued, all this dead wood eventually chokes off healthy expansion.

The problem for central banks is a market clearing event pushes markets to levels that call the entire travesty of a mockery of a sham status quo into question. That is too dangerous to risk, so central banks quickly defend the fantasy that markets only drift higher, stopping any market clearing event in its tracks.

This leaves the economy increasingly vulnerable to the financial equivalent of an uncontrollable forest fire that burns away all the collected dead wood that has been protected by the central banks.

At some difficult to predict point, a random financial flame ignites the accumulated dead wood and the markets are torched in a conflagration so intense not even massive central bank intervention can extinguish the flames.

Structural reform is only possible when markets and sentiment crash far below the market clearing event level. Meaningful reform only becomes politically, economically and socially possible when the status quo has failed so obviously and so painfully that even its most entrenched defenders concedes that the choice has boiled down to either full-blown revolution or meaningful reforms that limit the power of the few at the top of the wealth/power pyramid.

The pyramid by the number of people in each wealth bracket:

The pyramid by the assets and income held by each wealth/income bracket:

But the process of real reform is quickly hijacked by vested interests once the markets recover back to the market clearing event level. Once the crisis has passed, the well-oiled machine of lobbying, grift, graft and campaign contributions kicks into gear and waters down or co-opts the reforms into PR facades designed to fool the masses into believing the reforms will work as advertised (for example, all the “reforms” passed in the aftermath of the 2009 meltdown: thousands of obfuscating pages of Obamacare, bank regulations etc.)

The only time meaningful reform is possible is in a crisis that reveals the true nature of the status quo, and central banks will create as many trillions of dollars, yen, yuan, euros etc. as are needed to erase that moment of clarity and truth.

The endless bleating of well-paid pundits in the corporate media about “reform” is just more circus designed to distract us from the much colder truth:the status quo is beyond reform. The choice is either collapse or well, collapse: letting the status quo strip-mine the bottom 95% will eventually lead to collapse and so will structural reforms that deprive the few of their power to create near-infinite sums of money and credit for their cronies.

My new book is #2 on Kindle short reads -> politics and social science: Why Our Status Quo Failed and Is Beyond Reform ($3.95 Kindle ebook, a 20% discount thru May 1, $8.95 print edition) For more, please visit the book’s website.

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Which Narrative Will Win Out: Bulls or Bears?

The tug of war between Bull and Bear has rarely been so clearly matched–and the stakes have rarely been so high.

Bulls are confident that central banks have their back in 2016. After all,whatever it takes has successfully pushed equities higher for seven years. Why not an eighth?

Many Bulls also believe the global downturn is over and higher growth is just ahead.

Bears see equities in a multi-year topping process that is remarkably similar to the tops in 2000 and 2008. Bears see sagging profits and stagnant sales as evidence that fundamentals no longer support historically high valuations.

Bulls and Bears can tout data, historical patterns and charts to support their case. Two simple charts cut to the chase: a simple chart of the SPX (S & P 500) and a chart of the real SPX (adjusted to present-day dollars, i.e. inflation) and margin debt, which is the debt punters have borrowed against their stock portfolios (courtesy of chartist Doug Short: NYSE Margin Debt Falls Again: More Confirmation of a Major Market Turning Point Last Year?

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The Most Important Chart You’ve Never Seen: Tax Receipts Top-Tick the Stock Market

This may well be the most important chart you’ve never seen. Courtesy of longtime analyst-correspondent B.C., this chart reveals that real per capita tax receipts have reliably top-ticked the stock market since 1973.

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The Scariest Halloween Stock Market Chart

What would Halloween be without a scary chart of The Stock Market That Cannot Die? We know the stock market cannot die because we’re constantly told it’s immortal:

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All Hail Our New Lord and Master, the Stock Market

The all-powerful Federal Reserve is a mere minion of the stock market, a kitten absurdly claiming in public to be a tiger. If the market threatens to drop, the Fed quickly prostrates itself and does the bidding of its Lord and Master: “No rate hikes, minions!”

By cowering in terror of a stock market tantrum, the Fed has surrendered everything: its vaunted (and completely phony) independence; its duty (yes, go ahead and laugh) to the nation and the real economy–everything.

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Will this Manic Stock Market Rally End in Tears?

Judging by October’s rocket launch, the stock market is back to where it should be, i.e. in rally mode. Yee-haw! All it took to keep the party going was another rate cut in China, another “whatever it takes” assurance from Mario Draghi and blowout earnings from a few tech giants.

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Who Will Be the Bagholders This Time Around?

Once global assets roll over for good, it’s important to recall that somebody owns these assets all the way down. These owners are called bagholders, as in “left holding the bag.”

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Is This the Chart of a Healthy Stock Market?

If fundamentals like profits and sales no longer matter, then all that’s left is faith that central banks will never let stock markets fall ever again.

Is this the chart of a healthy stock market? The consensus view is either 1) yes, by definition, as┬ácharts don’t matter because┬áthe central banks will never let markets fall ever again, or 2) the market has been choppy due to a “soft patch” in the economy, which is about to start growing at 3% instead of .3%.

Nice, but this chart says distribution to me: beneath the jolly surface of new highs, the smart money is selling to greater fools who believe the consensus.

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When the Herd Turns

Once market participants realize the top is in and the only possible result from here on is a loss, the herd will turn and follow the leaders who are selling.

A funny thing happens when the stock market herd turns–all the usual central bank tricks no longer push the markets higher.

Though the mainstream financial media reports on central bank policy as if the policies move the markets, the actual mechanism is not policies per se but their effect on the belief structure of market participants.

If market participants believe the markets are going higher, for whatever reason, they will buy more stocks to reap the anticipated gains.

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What Happens to the Stock Market if the U.S. Follows the World into Recession?

History is rather unkind to blind faith in central banks, just as the rising U.S. dollar and stagnant sales are being very unkind to corporate profits.

The quasi-religious faith that central banks can push stock markets ever higher regardless of real-world realities may well be tested in 2015-2016. The global economy spiraling into recession (a.k.a. a period of slow growth–heh) raises two questions:

1. Can the U.S. economy decouple from the global economy, i.e. keep expanding production, sales, income and payrolls while the rest of the global economy falters?

2. What happens to the U.S. stock market if/when the U.S. follows the rest of the world into recession?

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