Don't Pine for a Mirage

 | Mar 14, 2013 | 7:43 AM EDT
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I have been hearing lamentations that perhaps this market isn't that strong because whole groups are being left behind. The steels aren't rallying. Copper's been hideous. The oils aren't keeping pace. The miners are bad news. Aluminum's horrendous. The fertilizers can't get out of their own way.

To which I say: good!

Have you ever spent time going back and looking at the charts of what led us into the valley of the shadow of the deadly bear market of 2007 -- until, well, perhaps, the present, when the averages just took out those highs?

It was a total rogues gallery of leaders -- narrow, dependent upon the kindness and steroids of the Chinese government and in need of hyperinflation in order to maintain growth.

Hardly a day goes by when someone doesn't say, "Can we really be in a trustworthy bull market if Freeport-McMoRan (FCX) can't rally?" First, Freeport, with its recent $9 billion foray into oil-and-gas assets, has done what can only be regarded as its level best to destroy itself. The borrowings alone are hideous, even with money costing so little right now. But, as Freeport is a miner and refiner of mostly foreign copper and gold, I question whether you want it as your leader, as it was during its January-to-June-2008 rally from $33 to $61. Back in that antediluvian moment, Freeport was the most visible of the leaders.

Latin American mineral giant Vale (VALE) spurted from $14 in January of 2007 to $42 in May of 2008. It's now struggling to maintain $17.

Peabody (BTU) put on 50 points between January of 2007 and June of 2008, rallying as high as $89 as a leader in the great coal bull market of that moment -- impressive, but not as strong as Arch Coal (ACI), which rolled from $27 to $75 in that same period. Of course, these moves pale in comparison to Cliffs Natural (CLF), the true leader of the era, which pushed from $24 to $120 from the beginning of 2007 until the middle of 2008.

Alcoa's (AA) been in the Dow kennel for so long that I think its parents forgot about it. We need a PetSmart (PETM) for aluminum companies. Alcoa rose from $29 to $45 between January until June of 2008, a move that defined the halcyon days for the commodity players -- which, despite Alcoa's gigantic efforts to become more proprietary, is still very much the company's lot in life.

But of all the components of that faux bull market that brought stocks so high last time, nothing defined it more than the fertilizer companies. The stench still hangs over Agrium (AGU), which soared from $30 in January of 2007 to $113 in June of 2008. Potash's (POT) miracle move from $15 in January of 2007 to $80 in June of 2008 is still the stuff of bull-market legend -- perhaps outdone only by total market darling, Mosiac (MOS), which tore from $20 in February of 2007 to $157 in June of 2008. The descent from these heights, of course, was every bit as precipitous. We discovered just how easy it really is to make fertilizer; the barriers to entry turned out to be much lower than anyone had thought at the time.

Also on fire back then were steels, a commodity that rallies only on severe price increases over contained periods of time. That's how U.S. Steel (X) could run from $72 in January of 2007 to $191 in June of 2008. Terrific, but nothing like shooting star AK Steel (AKS), which vaulted from $18 in January of 2007 to $73 in June of 2008. Don't even bother to look at that flyspeck of a stock now.

Oil and gas played kingly roles. Those were the days when Chesapeake (CHK) was levitating, going on a run from $27 in January of 2007 to $69 in June of 2008. Apache (APA) doubled in a similar time frame.

Yep, those were the leaders of that era, companies that made undifferentiated product that needed rampant inflation and an ever-growing China to beat the numbers and stay strong.

You want that leadership? You worried about those stocks? Then I think you ought to recognize how zero-sum those stocks were at the time. They had everything going for them, and the rest of the market had very little going for it. All in all, I'd rather take what we have going now. It's a lot healthier, and certainly a lot safer and potentially much longer-lasting.



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