Trekking the Wilderness.

March 23, 2012

Early Saturday, I awoke in Land Between The Lakes, Tennessee, where I joined three teammates for a 12-hour suffer fest involving running, biking, canoeing and orienteering.
The previous evening, we'd been given 21 Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM) coordinates and were left to plot them on a map using a UTM Coordinate Converter.
For the record, I woke up Friday morning devoid of the knowledge that I happened to share this planet with anything call a Universal Transverse Mercator. So underscoring the innate human capacity to learn. Quickly.
The goal of the adventure race was to complete a 12-hour course in whatever fashion best suited the team, while getting passports stamped at each of the 21 UTM check points.
At 7:30 am, we ran into the Tennessee hills and spent the rest of the day (12 hours and 50 minutes) covering roughly 60 miles of wooded, mountainous terrain, dirt paths, dense forest, paved roads, wind-swept lake and muddy path, all on foot, mountain bike and canoe.
Equally exhausting and rewarding, the day's events correlated well with the experience of creating wealth.
In both adventure racing and wealth creation, the goal is to take calibrated risks in the achievement of pre-determined objectives. Along the way, there will be many check points at which one can change course, regroup or simply bail out.
Once on course, one must make a series of decisions, each of which will affect the participant's trajectory, and so the odds of successfully completing each objective. Throughout the course, one must temper all emotions, contend with the changing elements, fight the urge to take the easy--though often less efficient path, and stay focused on the goal at hand.
In both investing and adventure racing, fatigue and confusion can lead to catastrophic decisions. So the more one plans ahead, the better one's chances for success.
As investors currently forge the wilderness of the global equities markets, there are three geographic obstacles that will impact all course participants in the near term: China, Europe, and the U.S.
China Drops Its Pace
Economists joke that, when China sneezes, Asia catches the flu. Well, the contagion may have a more global reach.
Analysts worry about the recent Chinese economic slowdown. The Chinese administration recently lowered the nation's growth target to 7.5%, down from the 8% target maintained for years. Chinese steel demand has fallen. Chinese auto execs are forecasting lower sales in 2012.
As the Chinese economy softens, the Shanghai Composite, China's S&P 500, has broken down like Kim Kardashian's wedding vows. Disconcerting, because China is the largest emerging market in the world. It accounts for nearly 20% of the MSCI Emerging Market index. Since the end of 2007, the Shanghai Composite has reached inflection points before other leading global market indicators. Since equity markets generally act as indicators for broader economic trends, the Chinese equity market has become a "leading indicator of leading indicators," as Citi analysts recently put it.
If that observation holds water, then the recent slump in the Chinese stock market may be a bearish indicator for global equities. This is all the more interesting, as I read this morning that hedge funds are just beginning to reenter the market in mass. Bloomberg reports that many hedge funds have abandoned their bearish bets and are buying stocks at the fastest rate in two years.
So, either the Shanghai Indicator remains valid, and the Masters of the Universe are jumping into the markets at the wrong time, or the Shanghai Indicator fails, and the hedge fund maestros are correct. Given the fact that the HFRX Global Hedge Fund Index has trailed the market for over three years, you figure they've got to get it right at some point. Especially for the fees they take.
Europe Hits The Wall
A month ago, it appeared that Europe had navigated many of the debt difficulties that stood to topple the union. While the European Central Bank still contends that the worst of the sovereign debt crisis is over, the eurozone economy has softened. PMI and manufacturing hit three-month lows last month.
The debt hydra reared its head last week as Spanish and Italian yields have recently risen. Both countries have significant amounts of fiscal tightening to accomplish in order to accomplish their 2013 deficit targets. These goals only become more challenging (if not impossible) if the eurozone economy falls back into recession.
Uncle Sam's Hazardous Terrain
Of course, not all of our worries are foreign. The U.S. economy, while serving as a pillar of strength these last few months, faces uncertainty.
Last week's housing data contradicted the positive performance thus far within the overall sector. Housing stocks had been moving like Jagger until last week's sales figures sent some of them down by nearly 20%.
Analysts are wondering if the warm weather may have pulled some of the summer home sales forward, so skewing the numbers and setting up a disappointing spring. This, at a time when seasonal expectations are usually high.
Further, fiscal headwinds have re-appeared. In a recent op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal, former Fed Vice Chairman Alan Blinder wrote of the "fiscal cliff" our federal government is rapidly approaching.
Blinder warned that unless Congress acts on the Bush tax cuts, the payroll deduction tax, long-term unemployment benefits and the $1.2 trillion in automatic 2013 spending cuts mandated by the super-committee's failure, the U.S. could face a fiscal contraction of 3.5% of GDP next year.
Why does the U.S. face this daunting situation? Because our elected officials have failed to take decisive action at every possible opportunity. Instead, the federal overlords have chosen to kick the can down the road (tiring of that phrase) each and every time.
Last year, both parties could not achieve a compromise. So, both parties and the president created a bipartisan super committee. It also failed. So, $1.2 trillion in spending cuts will kick in automatically next year.
The Bush tax cuts. The Payroll tax reduction. Long-term employment benefits. All of these expire or are otherwise curtailed on January 1,2013. Happy New Year!
Mark my words. In December, following the election, our lame duck Congress will be dealing with all of these issues--yet again at the last minute, immediately before the Christmas/New Years vacation. Will they finally forge a last minute diplomatic pact that contributes to the long-term financial security of the nation? Of course not!
They will, once again, kick the can down the road. Along with a bit of the nation's fiscal security and hopes for prosperity.
Bulls and Bears Jockey for Position
Since October, the market has rallied like opposing hitters facing Francisco Cordero in the ninth inning.
The S&P 500 has risen 27% these last six months. The question becomes, where are we in this market cycle? Six months into a new bull market? Three and a half years into a broader, economic-based bull market?
Bull markets tend to last about four years, and are bookended by corrections of 20% or more. Last April through October, the market corrected by 19.4%--just shy of the traditional Mendoza Line for bears. So, do we round up? Count on the perpetuation of the current rally? From a seasonal perspective, caution is counseled.
For all of those investors arriving just arriving at the party, remember the old adage, "Sell in May and go away." Many institutional managers will have that in mind as April begins. And there are plenty of reasons for such considerations.
China's chop-suey economy. Iran's nuclear standoff. The "fiscal cliff" Ben Bernanke has been warning us about. The eurozone's continuing debt issues. Any one of these could drag the market down faster than Ashton Kutcher can unfunny a sitcom.
Conversely, U.S. manufacturing is improving. Industrial production may be the strongest it has been in 15 years. Central banks continue to flood the world with liquidity, serving as an opiate to global equities.
Bottom line? The markets want to rise. Global headwinds, as always, will remain a deterrent to many who would otherwise be participating. And rightfully so. Any one of the negative blips upon our radar could lead the market to rapidly correct. Keep your downside protection parameters in place.
Like Saturday's race, there will be times these next few months during which investors feel a bit lost. Off the course. Questioning their direction.
If you have a plan, stick with it. If you don't--get one. Mitigate risk at every opportunity. Always default to the safest option. Remember, complacency makes for a long day. In racing, investing, and in life. Even when the path ahead is obscured by obstacles, one must forge ahead or risk never finishing at all.

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