A Bottom in Sight? Buffett Wisdom, Energy Crisis, Eastern Europe and More!

  • Citi sets a record… how it could signal a market bottom by June
  • Dan Amoss on a "rescue" program that might work as advertised — and even touch off a stock rally
  • Buffett dispenses more pearls of wisdom… highlights of his annual letter to shareholders
  • Byron King on the energy crisis the government must solve… soon
  • U.S. still doesn’t have it that bad… the new Iron Curtain forming in the EU

  1.87 billion shares of Citigroup exchanged hands on Friday. That’s easily a record, not just for Citi, but for any stock in the history of the New York Stock Exchange. Shares in the company dropped almost 40%, to $1.40.

The former record holder WorldCom traded 1.5 billion shares on July 1, 2002. The S&P 500 set a bottom three months later. 

  But on this snowy Monday, during the winter of our discontent, a bottom seems unlikely anytime soon. The Dow opened down 100 points today, breaching the 7,000 level for the first time since 1996. On this leg down, if the Dow goes back to Greenspan’s original proclamation of “irrational exuberance,” it will hit 6,500. He first said those words on Dec. 5, 1996.

If the Dow continues to follow the Japanese example, a 27-year low would bring it all the way back to 1,000 during the life of this bear market.

  “I don’t think the market appreciates,” says Dan Amoss, “how much the TALF   could help restart lending.

“Last fall’s screeching halt in bank lending was greatly exacerbated by the crisis of confidence in securitization. Prior to the crisis, many of the consumer, business and mortgage loans originated by banks were sold into asset-backed securities and mortgage-backed securities.

“Securitization was abused to the point that it exacerbated the lending bubble; banks quickly reopened the lending capacity of their balance sheets as soon as they securitized loans and sold them to investors.

“Securitization lies at the root of the collapse in lending standards, but that’s another story for another time. Longtime Strategic Investment readers will recall my view, starting over two years ago, that reckless securitization would lead to major problems once investors noticed the toxicity of the asset-backed securities they were buying. It was the primary reason I recommended the UltraShort Financials ETF in July 2007.

“The comparison is not perfect, but depending on its success, the TALF could provide stability to the securitization market, or “shadow banking system,” much in the way that the FDIC guarantees stabilized the banking system during the Great Depression. This could lead to a rally in economically sensitive stocks that have been sold down to distressed levels.”

  Considering Friday’s debacle for Citigroup, we’re not surprised to hear Abu Dhabi is “carefully assessing” its $7.5 billion investment in the bank.

The wealthiest of the UAE’s emirates, Abu Dhabi’s got a bit of a dilemma on its hands: Its billions in convertible bonds will convert to shares this time next year. Once the date comes, the bonds will convert between $31-37 a share… just a bit higher than Citi’s current $1.50 bid. That’s assuming, of course, that the U.S. government won’t wipe out all the shares by then via sudden nationalization. Either way, should add an interesting twist for the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund… and fifth largest petroleum exporter.

  The mood in the market is as grim as our most famous investor. When he participated in the panel following the premiere of I.O.U.S.A., Warren Buffett shocked many of the film’s makers by playing the token Pollyanna. He all but dismissed the possibility that the U.S. faces a crisis of any kind.

Today, a scant six months later, Mr. Pollyanna is singing a different tune:

“The economy will be in shambles throughout 2009,” Buffett wrote in his annual letter to shareholders over the weekend, “and, for that matter, probably well beyond.”

The above is certainly the most headline worthy quote of his latest missive, and the one that’s got most Buffett disciples running for cover. But of course, there were plenty of little nuggets of wisdom in his yearly letter. Here are a few:

— “In poker terms, the Treasury and the Fed have gone ‘all in.’ Economic medicine that was previously meted out by the cupful has recently been dispensed by the barrel. These once-unthinkable dosages will almost certainly bring on unwelcome aftereffects. Their precise nature is anyone’s guess, though one likely consequence is an onslaught of inflation.”

— “Our long-avowed goal is to be the ‘buyer of choice’ for businesses —  particularly those built and owned by families. The way to achieve this goal is to deserve it. That means we must keep our promises; avoid leveraging up acquired businesses; grant unusual autonomy to our managers; and hold the purchased companies through thick and thin (though we prefer thick and thicker).”

— “Home purchases should involve an honest-to-God down payment of at least 10% and monthly payments that can be comfortably handled by the borrower’s income. That income should be carefully verified.

“Putting people into homes, though a desirable goal, shouldn’t be our country’s primary objective. Keeping them in their homes should be the ambition.”

— “The investment world has gone from underpricing risk to overpricing it. This change has not been minor; the pendulum has covered an extraordinary arc. A few years ago, it would have seemed unthinkable that yields like today’s could have been obtained on good-grade municipal or corporate bonds even while risk-free governments offered near-zero returns on short-term bonds and no better than a pittance on long-terms.”

— “When the financial history of this decade is written, it will surely speak of the Internet bubble of the late 1990s and the housing bubble of the early 2000s. But the U.S. Treasury bond bubble of late 2008 may be regarded as almost equally extraordinary.

“Clinging to cash equivalents or long-term government bonds at present yields is almost certainly a terrible policy if continued for long.”

  Yet the U.S. government pumped $30 billion more taxpayer dollars into AIG this morning. The injection came as the doomed insurer announced a $61.7 billion quarterly loss.

That’s a record for any publicly traded American company and even bigger than the group anticipated a few weeks ago.

Last year, AIG lost just under $100 billion. That’s around $3,200 for every second of the year. We’re impressed. Losing that much money that fast takes talent.

Today’s injection brings Uncle Sam’s AIG tab up to $180 billion. In exchange, you own almost 80% of the company… that you’ll never see.

  Two more banks failed over the weekend. The 15th and 16th failure of 2009 will nick another $100 million notch in the FDIC’s belt.

  Consumer spending in the U.S. registered a surprise gain in January, the Commerce Dept. said today. After falling a record six months in a row, spending popped up 0.6% during the month.

At the same time, personal savings in the U.S. has shot up to 5%. That’s the highest level since 1995.

Hmmn….

  The climbing savings rate explains this phenomenon too. The dollar index, still the ultimate flight to “safety” (sic) is just below 89 — its highest level since April 2006.

  Investors are showing commodities no mercy during today’s sell-off. Oil is down $4 a barrel, now just clinging to $40. Even gold can’t withstand the pressure… it’s down almost $30, to $933.

  “The U.S. had better start looking for someplace else to store its high-level nuclear waste,” declares Byron King, with today’s energy opportunity. “Because they won’t be storing the waste at Yucca Mountain, Nev. This week, the Obama administration announced that it will not support the 20-year-long, $10 billion project to store waste at Yucca Mountain, located about 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

“The new administration had better start an alternative soon, and move fast. Almost every one of 104 operating U.S. nuclear power plants are either out of room for on-site storage or nearly so. And then we have to deal with the many forms of nuclear waste generated in government labs and everyday nongovernment industry.

“This ranges from the U.S. nuclear weapons complex to the medical arena and things like metallurgical testing and oil well logging. The nuclear waste that comes from these activities presents a serious problem, with no solution in sight. Lack of storage is a key roadblock to the expanded use of nuclear power in the U.S. Every nuclear-related project needs to show how it will handle nuclear waste from cradle to grave. So what happens when there’s no grave?

“Canceling the Yucca Mountain project may feel good to longtime critics. Indeed, canceling Yucca Mountain may even be the right thing to do. We’ll find out over the next century or so. But right now, we have a problem. Where else to store large volumes of high-level nuclear waste? Any volunteers? No, I didn’t think so. All the wise heads at DOE and in the U.S. nuclear industry had better get their thinking caps on. And whoever figures it out will probably make some serious money.”

For more from Byron, be sure to check out his latest special report: How to Buy Gold for a Penny per Ounce.

  “Your reader complains ,” writes a reader, “that letting the big banks fail will be more than ugly, that it will be Armageddon. I have spent hours a day online reading about this crisis, and have found not a single article explaining in any significant detail how this conclusion is reached. The Fed and Treasury refuse to disclose the extent of the problem for two reasons: 1) fear of spreading panic, and 2) fear of disclosing the banks’ ‘trade secrets.’ We’re even denied the knowledge of how our money has already been spent. Bloomberg and Fox News have both filed FOIA lawsuits that the Fed is fighting.

“It’s not enough to describe the situation as a ‘house of cards.’ Let’s open the process to daylight, bring in outside persons who are likely to question our existing authorities (I’d nominate Buffett, Roubini, Taleb and Santelli to start). Have this group perform the ‘stress test,’ not the idiots who couldn’t and didn’t see this coming. An audit by the people who are to blame for the problem is NOT going to restore public confidence, any more than would a urine test by Barry Bonds’ trainer.

“Indeed, when I saw the stress test parameters issued yesterday by the Fed, I concluded that Geithner has already peed in Citigroup’s cup.”

The 5: Charming.

  At least we’re not in Europe, eh? This miniature Hooverville is parked outside the capital in Kiev.

We saw what happened to the rest of Europe last month when Russia and Ukraine had their little pipeline tiff… hard to imagine the energy crisis that would result from total economic failure.

  “Central Europe’s refinancing needs in 2009 could total 300 billion euro, 30% of the region’s GDP,” declared Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany. He said over the weekend that the richer EU members should set up a $200 billion fund to help keep union alive. Germany has already rejected the bailout… France and Italy will likely follow.

“A significant crisis in Eastern Europe would trigger political tensions and immigration pressures. With a Central and Eastern European population of 350 million, of which 100 million are in the EU, a 10% increase in unemployment would lead to at least 5 million unemployed people within the EU…

“We should not allow that a new Iron Curtain should be set up and divide Europe.”

  Across the English Channel, Europe’s biggest bank is in dire straits too. HSBC was forced to raise over $17 billion today after announcing its 2008 income crashed 68%. The bank will issue over 5 billion new shares, Britain’s biggest ever rights issue. The mega bank also announced a 29% dividend cut.

Cheers,

Addison Wiggin
The 5 Min. Forecast

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rspertzel

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