Forget about earnings. Forget about the economy. None of it matters. Investors are totally mesmerized by every twist and turn in the on-going soap opera playing out in Europe.
A week ago, France and Germany announced they had a deal which would be all but completed this weekend and signed, sealed and delivered by November 3, the date of the next G-20 meeting. Markets rallied. Then word came down that this weekend may be too soon for a definitive agreement. Markets fell.
Markets both sold off and then rallied when both French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Prime Minster Angela Merkel indicated that, while no definitive agreement would be completed this weekend, both countries were in agreement on the broad outlines of a deal. The markets here have been up or down eleven days in a row based on this “she said, he said” soap opera.
In a negotiation of this size, with so much at stake, one should expect plenty of starts and stops, contradictory statements and, yes, even some back tracking. It is natural given that this new “comprehensive” program must be sold to 17 nations. A period of consensus building must occur while behind the scenes deals are cut between the players. All this takes time. The fact that the lead players gave themselves such a short deadline in the first place has me scratching my head in puzzlement.
But the real insanity is in the market’s reaction. All the historical tools that normally govern the direction of the market have been cast to the winds. The inmates are running the asylum for now and there is little we can do about it.
Granted this crisis has been going on for a long time and has contributed to investors’ schizophrenic behavior. The longer things are left to atrophy, the higher the chances of some great meltdown occurring, such as a default by Greece or maybe even one of the larger countries like Italy or Spain. Then too, the markets have grown increasingly impatient with delay after delay and could force the crisis (and a solution) by selling Europe and global markets en masse. It was exactly what occurred in the U.S. after the first TARP bill failed to pass.
To date, the Europeans are playing a smart game of poker. Every time the markets threaten to swoon in dissatisfaction or frustration, one or more statement is leaked or announced via a newspaper or official, which keeps the markets hoping and investors buying in anticipation of a deal. There are still significant issues to be overcome and the international press has gone over the negatives ad infinitum. By promising a solution in the near future, “next Wednesday” or the “Wednesday after next,” they are succeeding in pushing world markets higher, staving off a run on their banks and their markets while giving them more time to negotiate a final solution.
In the meantime, on this side of the Atlantic, quarterly earnings are not as bad as some feared. The macroeconomic data is coming in stronger than expected and there are a proliferating number of stories concerning a plan by the administration and the Federal Reserve to address the housing market. Readers should pay attention to this.
I first wrote a column (“What the Markets Missed”) explaining that the Fed’s latest move in targeting long-term interest rates had much more to do with the mortgage markets, refinancing of troubled homeowners and providing a stimulus to what really is ailing the economy—housing. The troubles in Europe, the “he said, she said” headline grabbers are focusing investor’s attention on the forest while a tree may be growing over here in America.
I’m still riding this rally higher but have my finger on the trigger. The game Europe’s leaders are playing with the market have a finite lifeline. At some point, they either have to deliver and show their hand or face the consequences.