Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Playing the Confidence Game for High Stakes

What shall we make of how Chuck Mikolajczak reported today's business news for Reuters? He certainly told it straight, as a reporter should:

U.S. stocks posted their best day in four months on Tuesday after Citigroup said it was profitable in the first two months of 2009.

Major indexes jumped off 12-year lows in heavy trading after a key lawmaker said he expected the reinstatement of a rule that makes it harder to bet that a stock will fall.

Financials led the huge rally, rising 16 percent after Citigroup Inc (C.N)Chief Executive Vikram Pandit also stated in a memo to staff of what was once the largest U.S. bank that he was confident about its capital strength.

Nevertheless, since I tend to seek out the literary in every story I read, no matter how straight the delivery may be, I could only think (with grudging respect to Peggy Noonan) of the words of Willy Loman's long-suffering wife Linda in Death of a Salesman:

It takes so little to make him happy.

So little, indeed: Citigroup's self-proclamation of two months of profitability, and CEO Vikram Pandit's declaration of confidence. If that is not enough to confirm that our whole economic system is little more than a confidence game played for stakes we can barely imagine, I do not know what is. Furthermore, just to play the rubes for all they were worth, all the high rollers started breaking positive like a row of dominos:

The last time the S&P rose this much was after the U.S. government decided to rescue Citigroup for the first time in late November, when it agreed to pump $20 billion of new capital into the bank to avert a collapse that could have crippled the world's financial system.

Shares of Citigroup, in which the government more recently took a large common equity stake to help shore it up, jumped 38.1 percent to $1.45. Citi's stock has fallen about 78 percent year to date.

Other bank shares rallied, with Bank of America (BAC.N) up nearly 28 percent at $4.79, and Wells Fargo (WFC.N) up 18.5 percent at $11.81. An S&P index of financial stocks .GSPF popped up 15.6 percent.

JPMorgan (JPM.N) was the Dow's top performer with nearly a 23 percent jump to $19.50. All 30 Dow components were in positive territory.

Other standouts included technology shares, with a jump in bellwethers like Apple Inc (AAPL.O) halting a three-day sell-off in the sector. The iPhone maker's stock, up 6.6 percent at $88.63, provided the biggest boost to the Nasdaq 100 .NDX. Microsoft (MSFT.O) gained 8.8 percent to $16.48 while Qualcomm (QCOM.O) added 7.2 percent to $35.36.

Highlighting the broad-based rally, the Dow Jones Home Construction index .DJUSHB climbed 15 percent, led by Pulte Homes (PHM.N) and D.R. Horton Inc (DHI.N).

Trading was heavy on the New York Stock Exchange, with about 2.19 billion shares changing hands, above last year's estimated daily average of 1.49 billion, while on Nasdaq, about 2.39 billion shares traded, above last year's daily average of 2.28 billion.

Volume on the NYSE was the second largest for the year.

Advancing stocks outnumbered declining ones on the NYSE by a ratio of about 14 to 1, while on the Nasdaq, about five stocks rose for every one that fell.

Now, given how bad economic conditions are, I do not want to rain on anyone's parade; but isn't this a bit of an exaggerated reaction to a few claims that may not even have been validated? Indeed, the magnitude of that exaggeration demonstrates just how desperate things are and how addicted we continue to be to our belief in quick fixes (multiple semantics intended there). I may have thought that one of the changes that mattered would be that Barack Obama would treat us like adults, in contrast to George W. Bush treating us like scared children; but our fixation with instant gratification demonstrates that childhood is still with us. Tomorrow may be another day, Scarlett; but don't expect it to be better, just because today was good!

No comments: