Every Which Way But Short

 | Jul 24, 2014 | 6:38 AM EDT  | Comments
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Stock quotes in this article:

pbyi

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idix

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cmg

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msft

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ogzpy

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aapl

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vz

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biib

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FB

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z

The macro data never complies. We aren't supposed to have a robust Chinese Purchasing Managers report like the one we had last night. Remember when all Chinese numbers were worse than expected? Last night's plus-52 number was much better than expected and it dovetails with the high in the Chinese stock market index I follow, the iShares China Large-Cap (FXI). This morning's eurozone numbers, which show good expansion in Europe for both services and manufacturing (and it is not all Germany), again, aren't supposed to happen. Given all the turmoil in Russia and how important Russian trade is for so many companies in Europe, that number should have slipped.

But it didn't.

"Wow, great, party on," you may say. That's one way to look at it.

I like to look at it as another "big short" gone wrong, meaning another bright idea from some $10 billion-running hedge fund that didn't pan out, and now that hedge fund has to panic and cover.

Remember the "Big Short," the book about the collapse of the housing bubble and subprime credit? That book defines the money management business in the way that Flash Boys now -- rightly or wrongly -- defines trading. It is definitional because hedge funds are constantly trawling the world for the best "big short," the one that will distinguish them from the pack, make them rich beyond Croesus and most important, gives them bragging rights as "the world's smartest man."

No one gets to be the world's smartest man by going long anything. You could have been in Puma Biotech (PBYI), Idenix (IDIX), and every other biotech that's been up more than 100% this year and nobody could care less.

But if you hit the big short, well, then you are the genius we are all looking to anoint.

And that's where the macro comes in. The big short is supposed to be the bet against the most overheated market that everyone is most gaga about. Or, alternatively, it is about identifying the complacency trade and then running against it.

So what's the current complacency trade? Long equities. With the S&P 500 at record highs, despite the phasing out of the Fed's bond buying, don't you have to bet against stocks? How can you not? How long have you been listening to people and reading people who told you that the stock market's bubble will burst when the Fed takes the punchbowl away?

What happens, though, if corporate balance sheets are so strong, earnings remain robust, a real economic turnaround picks up, and yet inflation doesn't roar, allowing rates to stay lower than you think while the leverage from higher sales and lower expenses comes through? Don't you get Chipotle (CMG) or Microsoft (MSFT) -- two that reported this week that gave you the bounty -- virtually all over the place?

Now, I admit that if we had more supply coming into the market -- like the big Aliababa, Uber, Drop Box, Box, Air BNB deluge, this trade may hit a bit of pay dirt. Right now, though, as we see the earnings come in, we see the dearth of stock courtesy, how much was bought back so far this year, and we see the PEs shrink on 2015 earnings because of the better-than-expected projections, it seems like a real tough trade. It isn't looking like the Big Short that will get Michael Lewis sitting alongside you at the trading turret for his next book.

Then there's the macro trade that I allude to at the top. With minerals still trading shabbily, with the Baltic Freight Index trying to find a bottom in the 700s, and with the see-through building story ever upon us, what the heck is the FXI doing hitting new highs? Could that just, once again, be "short blowback?" Makes sense. It is so logical to short China, that the move, of course, defies logic.

Or how about shorting Europe against the United States? The European market's been very strong, even as the corporate earnings picture there is hardly as robust as ours. You have the makings of a new cold war out of nowhere. Weren't Europeans happily skating and going downhill in Sochi just a few months ago? Now the whole relationship is going downhill. Here's the big short gone awry so far, European-style: Germany, in a very representative way, gets at least 35% of its natural gas from Russia, according to various sources. Given that Germany has taken its nuclear power plants offline post Fukushima and given that it is one of the most "pro-environmental" countries in Europe, with a green party so strong there is almost no hope of fracking German's big natural gas reserves, imported natural gas will have to supplant coal as a much more important supplier of energy.

Germany's natural gas market is hostage to Gazprom (OGZPY), the gigantic quasi-government agency corporation that can and has turned the European spigot on and off when it wants to.

Our country wants to ratchet up the sanctions against Russia. But we get our natural gas from the Marcellus, the Utica, the Eagle Ford, the Haynesworth, the Permian, the Andarko and so many others of these basins, that we are insulated.

Germany's anything but insulated, and Germany is the locomotive of Europe. That locomotive increasingly runs on Gazprom's natural gas. So why not short Europe based on the tensions?

Sure, but then you get manufacturing and eurozone PMIs that are so strong that it is too risky to keep the big short on. Instead, it rips your face off. It fails, and you have a ruined quarter when the benchmark you need to beat, the S&P 500, hits an all time high. That's called a "take the money away" trade.

Or how about the most logical Big Short of all: the bond market, both the Treasuries and the corporate credit markets? Those are ridiculously overpriced, not unlike the way housing was ridiculously overpriced in 2006. Yet that's been a total widow-maker, even with the Fed tapering its bond buying. Is that because the world's rates are too low? Is that Chinese money coming out of Europe and into our bonds? Is that just the new normal, like these bond marketeers like to use, as they are real big on sweeping judgments?

Whatever. As much as I would like to short the Apple (AAPL) and Verizon (VZ) bonds, to name two gigantic pieces of paper sold at the lowest rates, I think you have to be worried if you put that one on. We hear patience, but sometimes the patience of the people whose money you are running runs, well, thin, and you don't get to see the trade through.

Look, even shorting the most overextended parts of the U.S. market as a big short -- the Fed-knocked biotechs and social media stocks -- has been a horrendous trade. Whether it be Biogen (BIIB) or Puma, Facebook (FB) or Zillow (Z), you are in the house of pain.

The Big Short of 2014 has been elusive and nightmarish to those who seek it. Maybe that's why this darned market's so buoyant. The pools of capital betting it every which way but loose haven't yet managed to score. It's been the big long globally and while "just you wait," can suffice for some, for most, it's just an object lesson in being wrong when, alas, you, intellectually and theoretically, should be right.

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