Tuesday, February 27, 2007

When China Sneezes . . . The US Doesn't Have to

As I write this, the Dow Jones is down about 400 points or just over 3%. The fall in US stocks is a carry over of the selling that occurred in China and the Far East overnight. Stocks in China fell by almost 10%, as investors sought to lock in profits in the face of a rumored Chinese crackdown on speculative buying and stock manipulation. The Shanghai domestic stock market has been nothing short of phenomenal, recently, racking up a gain in 2006 of 127% and 13% year to date. To say the Chinese market may have been a bit overbought, is an understatement of monumental proportions. But what does a sell off in the frothy markets in China have to do with the rest of Asia, Europe, and the US, where stocks have also sold off sharply? The answer is the interrelatedness of the world wide capital markets and economy. Welcome to the global economy. If any of the world's major economic players sneezes, there is the chance that the rest of the world may catch a cold. If you think of this in reverse, it may be more understandable. If the US would have reported an Enron like scandal yesterday that caused US stocks to fall sharply, today all the major stock markets around the world would be down in sympathy with us. We are so important to the world's economy that any disturbance in our economic prospects or confidence impacts everyone, because we are the largest consuming nation in the world. How about China? How important is it in the world's economic scheme of things. On an exchange adjusted basis, China is about one sixth the size of the US, and represents about one thirtieth of World Gross Production. Trouble in such a small portion of the world's economy would not seem to justify such a violent reaction to stock markets in the world's economic capitols. Indeed, we see few fundamental reasons for the world wide stock sell off, and we do not believe that economic growth estimates will change much as a result of today's sell off. Stocks sold off, mainly, because of the ease of selling. All you have to do is to turn go on your Internet and sell until your fingers wear out. In our judgment, in the days and weeks ahead today's selloff will be seen for what it is: a trading event and not a fundamental economic event. The fundamentals are still strong and stock prices will, ultimately, follow the fundamentals. How about the prospects that the US stocks markets, which had a good year in 2006, could be overvalued? There is good news on that front. US stocks did rise over 15% in 2006, but they are now selling at about the same PE and dividend yield than did at the beginning of 2006. The price rise in 2006 was entirely justified by the growth of earnings and dividends. US corporate earnings were better than expected in all four quarters of the year just past. The US economy is growing near 3%, and the Fed has stopped raising rates. If the economy were to slow for any reason, the Fed would quickly cut rates to spur economic growth. Finally, my friend Dr. Spear sent me an email and said, "Is this 1929 or 1987?" The answer, Doc, is neither. In 1929, on Black Monday, stocks fell by almost 13%. That would be equivalent today of nearly 1650 points. On Oct. 19, 1987, stocks fell by an amazing 22.6%, equivalent to nearly 2850 points today. The US markets have experienced numerous 3%-5% selloffs in its history. Few have led to any serious economic downturns. We are confident this one will not either. With US stocks having recently reached all time highs, some profit taking was probably inevitable sooner or later. The sell offs in Asia and Europe last night were just a good excuse for it to happen today here. While we believe the volatile markets will calm down in the days ahead, we expect that some additional selling may occur in the near term. We have put together a buy list of terrific companies that we would like to own, we hope we get the chance to do some nibbling. China may have sneezed. They might even have a cold, but our economic strength will help us ward off any cold bug, and, indeed, help pull them out of their chill. We'll keep you posted on any changes in our thinking.