In the process of investing we spend a great deal of time in linear thinking. We measure, we weigh, we time, and we project. We draw lots of lines as we make our assertions and projections. The regulatory agencies require us to disclaim that past results do not guarantee future results, but we all, to various degrees, subscribe to that very notion. The multi-billion dollar marketing machine we’ll simply call Wall Street spends millions of dollars a day drawing lines which analyze, dissect, compare, measure, and highlight past results. There is an implication that the more colorful and complicated these reports are the better equipped we are to decide their appropriateness for the future.  

There are two categories of policy available to the government to influence an economy; monetary and fiscal. Fiscal policy employs government spending and taxation. Monetary policy, primarily overseen by the Federal Reserve and the Treasury is used to control and manipulate the supply and the cost (interest) of money in order to regulate the growth in the economy and the stability of prices. Of the nearly $12 trillion lent, promised and spent so far, Fed Chair Ben Bernanke’s program to drive down mortgage rates is delivering on its promise. Fixed 30-year mortgage rates are now down to 4.78% according to Freddie Mac. They are down for the second week in a row.

This was a good week from both the perspective of strong new monetary remedies as well as economic indicators that the economy may be turning. On Monday, Mr. Geithner knocked one out of the park (market-wise) when he announced his plan to buy as much as $1 trillion of bad assets from banks and avoid nationalization. Bond fund giants Pimco and Blackrock and others say they will participate in the plan. Economic reports on housing and durable goods also added to the prospect that the fourth quarter’s slide of 6.3% might have been its worst.

Today, there is a strongly held belief that financial markets are efficient. The efficient market hypothesis maintains that prices of traded assets such as stocks, bonds, or property adequately reflect the sum of all known information at any given point in time. With today’s rapid flow of information, we see prices adjusting ever more quickly and with greater volatility. The hypothesis also asserts that it is impossible to consistently outperform the market by using any information the market already knows, except through luck. There are strong and passionate opinions on both sides of this hypothesis and it is not our goal to defend or to debunk them today. Rather we aim to point out that because of the widely held belief in market efficiency there are some exciting opportunities that have strong potential if we lengthen our timeframe beyond nest week or next year. We want you to know about them.

This afternoon we find the S&P 500 advancing for the fourth day, up nearly 12% for the week. News on Tuesday that Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit’s remarks in an internal memo saying the bank is having its best quarter since 2007 and comments from regulators in Washington suggesting they may reinstate rules that limit short selling sparked the rally. By Wednesday it looked like it would run out of steam when Thursday’s Retail Sales report demonstrated there was still life in the consumer. The possibility that consumer, the largest part of the US economy combined with the picture Bernie Madoff swiftly and justly being escorted off to jail in handcuffs gave the market it’s second powerful boost upward. This week’s move dramatically demonstrates how fast markets can move on relatively little information.

The free enterprise system that made this country second to none on earth is in the cross-hairs of an increasingly out-of-touch Washington, D.C.  Frank, Dodd, Pelosi, Reich, Schrum, and others boldly, arrogantly, and endlessly flog the whole of in particular Wall Street and free-enterprise in general. As they continue, they risk dousing the spirit of risk-taking which drives our economy. If Mr. Obama places himself in the company of Abraham Lincoln he must better understand that the 16th President was a champion for the protection and nurture of the free enterprise energy of this country. In a famous speech in February of 1859, Mr. Lincoln the patent system “secured to the inventor, for a limited time, the exclusive use of his invention; and thereby added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius, in the discovery and production of new and useful things.” Mr. Lincoln observed that the government was not the inventor, the creator, or the risk taker, but rather the protector of the free citizen; protected by this government to take risk in hopes of profit, not vice versa.

Mr. Obama’s budget is out and the message for investors is as clear as any missive from Washington in a long time. Get the defense on the field and keep ‘em all well watered. . . they may be out there for a while!

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."George Santayana, in The Life of Reason 

“Common sense is very uncommon.” Horace Greeley

There seems to be a sense in Washington in this time of crisis that the rules of ordinary behavior of most any kind simply don’t apply. Whether observing economic behavior, spending behavior, fiscal behavior, monetary behavior, political behavior, or what used to be generally acceptable and responsible behavior, it’s all up for grabs these days. Didn’t we get into this mess by abandoning the ordinary rules of lending and of borrowing and regulating?

In uncertain times we look for some bedrock to anchor into. While history cannot predict the future, it can provide a useful frame of reference. Some say we are in completely uncharted waters. Others argue there are eerie similarities to the Great Depression, and still others argue that this will be no more than a deep recession not unlike those of the 1970’s.

There’s an old market axiom that says as goes January, so goes the market. As this one draws to a close we find the S&P 500 down 7.5% as the economy’s descent continues. According to Commerce this morning, the economy contracted at a 3.8% annualized rate in the fourth quarter. If the inventory buildup which occurred in the fourth quarter is excluded, the economy actually contracted 5.1%, the worst in 28 years. As reported, it is the worst since 1982. The economy shrank at a 0.5% annual rate from July through September. The back-to-back contraction is the first since 1991. For all of 2008, the economy expanded 1.3% helped by exports and government tax rebates in the first half of the year. The GDP report is the first for the quarter and will be revised in February and March as more information becomes available.