Bill Fleckenstein

Contrarian Chronicles10/1/2007 12:01 AM ET

Recession isn't an 'if' but a 'when'

Housing prices are heading lower. Stock prices are heading down. And it's all systems go for a downturn in the U.S. economy, no matter what the bulls say.

By Bill Fleckenstein

As I think about recent developments on Wall Street, I am struck by the absurdity of the current mentality. By that I mean: The latest run in the stock market, which peaked as the structured-credit problems made themselves known, had been powered by leveraged-buyout madness, which itself had been powered by lunacy in various forms of structured credit.

Nevertheless, when it became clear that the plumbing of structured credit was a disaster -- witness the lines around the block at England's Northern Rock branches and, to a lesser extent, at Countrywide Financial (CFC, news, msgs) here -- the Federal Reserve felt compelled to cut rates by a surprise half a percentage point. In doing so, Bennie and the Inkjets (thanks to my friend Colin for that moniker) have tanked the bond market and the dollar.

King Quants often gets what he wants

Of course, stock bulls responded on cue -- by racing in for more. Apparently, those with the most stock-market votes, i.e., those who run the most money these days, seem to believe in some sort of immutable law of physics that says stocks must go up each and every day.

Within that money-running group, I have a sneaking suspicion that the bizarre action in tech stocks is a function of quant funds. It seems they don't operate as they once did, when stocks were picked based on fundamental statistics. These days, the characteristics (volatility, correlation, membership in an index, etc.) of stock-price movement are all that matters.

Skies bluish versus bearish

What I expect to unfold is a recession and severe weakness in the equity market. To get a sense of the timing, I was therefore eager to hear the comments of noted speakers last week at a New York conference held by Jim Grant of Grant's Interest Rate Observer. To my surprise, it seemed most of them were not too terribly concerned about the stock market or the economy.

That is not to say everyone felt that way. But I think it accurately encapsulates the opinion of investor Sam Zell, who was downright bullish on world gross-domestic-product growth. He seemed to think that we'd most likely muddle through and that the recent hiccups in liquidity and the markets would not lead to anything very troubling or long-lasting. (Though he just concluded a $40 billion sale of commercial real estate, he didn't sound too bearish on that asset class, either.)

Mohamed El-Erian, Harvard's former endowment chief who is now moving to Pimco as a co-head, was similarly sanguine. But he felt that we would see plenty of volatility in the future and that folks had better learn how to manage risk. He thought the innards of the financial system hadn't quite caught up to all the changes in the world and indicated that would continue to raise issues for folks.

I guess GMO Chairman Jeremy Grantham came the closest to being downright bearish. He was unequivocal in his belief that housing prices will revert to the mean. Likewise profit margins in corporate America (which are at a record) and price-earnings ratios -- implying stock prices were going down a fair amount or, as an asset class, would generate negative real returns for an extended period. Obviously, if he is right about housing prices, I don't see how the trouble I envision is going to be avoided.

The nitty-gritty of the president's committee

An item that I felt folks would find most newsworthy is that the president's working committee on financial markets, known by some as the PPT, or plunge protection team, now has about 20 outsiders who attend certain meetings to advise the committee. One of them is none other than noted short-seller Jim Chanos, who left Grant's conference early last Tuesday to attend a PPT meeting. In response to my question as to why the committee had chosen him and others, he cited one reason: that the panel was worried about adverse publicity and wanted to communicate that there was no nefarious buying of S&P futures, as is constantly rumored.

Continued: The bears aren't acting bearish

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