Green Shoots over Thin Ice

John Hussman has a nice piece out named “Green Shoots over Thin Ice. (hat tip Scott)” Below is the core of his argument regarding the recent rally in stocks and the free gift to bondholders. I have bolded parts of the original to add emphasis.

Thus far, we’ve got a strong rally off the recent trough, with uninspiring sponsorship but good breadth, reasonable but not strikingly attractive valuations, and an overhang of increasingly distressed mortgage and non-residential debt that looks like Armageddon Part II in the offing, because we are doing nothing to restructure it. In my view, the recent advance looks not like a garden of “green shoots,” but very much like a short-squeeze off of an oversold trough. It would be convenient if such bounces could be predicted in advance, but as we observed last year, the market can become very persistently oversold during bear markets, and even an “oversold” decline can go much deeper until the oversold condition is abruptly cleared.

Fundamentally, my view is that the U.S. economy is on very thin ice, and that by focusing on the bailout of corporate bondholders rather than the restructuring of debt, we are courting the risk of a far deeper downturn. Last year, I didn’t think it was conceivable that policy-makers would attempt to address this problem by making lenders whole with public funds. This is an ethical abomination, putting the public in the position of absorbing the losses that should properly be borne by those who provided capital to these institutions. It is not sustainable. What it does it place the public in the position of losing first, but it will not, and cannot prevent the ultimate failure of the debt – for the simple reason that without restructuring, the debt can’t be serviced.

It is true that insurers, pension funds, and other entities own part of the debt of these financial institutions, but they certainly do not own all of it, and to the extent that it is in the public interest to use public funds to reimburse the losses of various entities, that can and should be part of the political process. But to broadly immunize every bondholder of these institutions with public funds is repulsive. Even the bondholders of Bear Stearns can expect to get 100% of their principal back, with interest.

Aside from the abuse of the public trust inherent in these bailouts, it is also offensive to anybody who devotes a significant portion of their income to charity, because there are so many better uses for trillions of dollars. Think about it. Two of the wealthiest people on earth, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, after lifetimes of work, will be able to commit a combined total of about $100 billion to charity. But that figure is dwarfed by the amount being allocated to protect corporate bondholders from taking a “haircut” on distressed debt, or swapping a portion of it for equity – both perfectly appropriate ways of compartmentalizing the losses of these financial institutions, without public funds, and without receivership or “nationalization.”

I have stated previously that bondholders are going to need to get stuffed. However, giving them too much of a haircut is not a very good way to re-liquify capital markets. Right now, it’s not looking like they are going to get stuffed at all and Hussman is rightly indignant.

See the link below for all of his comments.

Green Shoots over Thin Ice – John Hussman

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