No bottom in sight May 15, 2009 3:19:37 GMT -5
Post by Bozur on May 15, 2009 3:19:37 GMT -5
No bottom in sight
Economic research guru and resident skeptic Charles Biderman, the CEO of TrimTabs, says the FORTUNE Recovery Index won't see an uptick until 2010.
By Lee Clifford
Last Updated: April 24, 2009: 11:35 AM ET
NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Few individuals derive quite so much pleasure from digging through data as Charles Biderman. He's the always-opinionated, hyper-watchful numbers hound behind TrimTabs Investment Research, the firm that FORTUNE partnered with to build our Recovery Index.
And though he's a Harvard Business School grad, Biderman's insights about how the market moves are more than purely academic. In order to pay back his school loans, he spent the 1970s and 1980s building a career in real estate development until, in 1988, his bank went broke and his loans were called.
Biderman was forced into personal bankruptcy and emerged with key insight: price is a function of liquidity, it has nothing to do with value.
That notion led him to form TrimTabs, which sells proprietary research about the markets, money flows and the economy to investors (currently one-fourth of the biggest hedge funds in the United States are clients, and Goldman Sachs purchased a minority stake in the company last year).
Candid and colorful in conversation, Biderman's exhaustive research has produced some alarmingly simple findings.
For instance: "When companies are net buyers of stock, the market goes up, when they're net sellers the market goes down," he says. Indeed, one of his favorite metrics to watch is the number of stock buybacks by corporations, which he says start climbing at the trough of every downturn (something, as we note in our Recovery Index, that hasn't happened yet.)
Biderman talked to FORTUNE's Lee Clifford about what the Recovery Index is showing now, the one move Obama needs to make, and when he thinks the stock market will finally hit bottom.
Fortune: Give us your take on the health of the overall economy right now.
Biderman: Things are getting worse. The job market continues to contract. Incomes keep declining, even after adjusting for the latest round of tax credits. We don't see any slowdown in the rate of declines in incomes or job losses. There's no end in sight.
I've been looking at the numbers, comparing the three-week Easter season this year versus last year. Incomes are down 10%. We haven't seen anything like that for decades.
Fortune: How do you view the policy responses from Washington so far?
Biderman: The only thing that's helping anybody right now is the $400 per person [$800 per couple] tax cut. That's helping somewhat. But I'm a little cynical. My feeling is that the divine purpose of the political system is to raise money for politicians so they can get reelected.
The banks that are in trouble have paid Congress a lot of money over the years. You and I don't pay anything to the congressman. What we would recommend is that instead of focusing on getting the banks to lend, you've got to focus on giving wage earners more money.
Fortune: You don't believe any of the recent stock market rallies have been for real. Explain.
Biderman: Well, what you've had recently is $2 billion a week in tax refunds that started to go out during the first in week February and will continue through the third week in May. I suspect that's part of the reason for the stock market rally, but that's only temporary.
In March there was a little revival in refinancing, but again, I think the number of people who are in a position to take advantage of refinancings right now is pretty small. The glimmers of hope were temporary and now we see that things are declining again.
Fortune: Talk about what you're seeing in terms of the housing market.
Biderman: If we look at homes, while the number of foreclosures seems to be dropping somewhat, the notices of default are at record levels and so we expect the foreclosures to spike up again too. If you look at what's really going on, right after the 'peak' in foreclosures in September, there was a moratorium on foreclosures, but that ended in March. Once those pick up again, it's going to be a new down leg in the real estate market.
Fortune: If there's one policy you could implement now to help fix the economy, what would it be?
Biderman: If we cut withholding rates by 15%, and we did it for three years, it would be $300 billion a year in lower taxes, which is less than it costs to bail out some of these institutions. But we're not doing that, so instead you're creating a situation where more and more consumers are going to be defaulting on their debts. Forget new lending, the real problem for banks is going to be collecting on all these loans, and the problems are going to be way beyond sub prime.
Fortune: In your view, what would be the single best sign that we've hit bottom?
Biderman: That foreclosures dry up. That'll be a sign that household wealth has stabilized. Things aren't going to hit bottom until the real estate market bottoms, and we work through all the problem homes, and people can afford the homes they're in. Then we can grow from there.
Fortune: And when do you think that might be?
Biderman: At least another year. We probably won't see a bottom till sometime in 2010. We're still in retreat.
Fortune: You've long taken issue with the way the government collects some economic data. What bothers you most?
Biderman: Just look at how they track income and jobs. When everybody gets paid, the amount of money withheld goes to the government. From that you could tell who had jobs and how much they're making. But instead of tracking this in aggregate and reporting it in real time, the Bureau of Economic Analysis uses historic data that's 5 to 7 months old and based on state unemployment data to come up with estimate of current income and job gains or losses. Then of course they always go back and revise the number. But they never have a press release about the revisions. What's equally annoying is that nobody's taking the time to say, 'this is crazy!' To top of page
First Published: April 21, 2009: 3:35 PM ET