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Real Cure or Placebo Effect?

Jason Stipp

Jason Stipp: I'm Jason Stipp for Morningstar, and welcome to the Friday Five.

Although January was a stellar month for stocks, most investors would fail to give the market a completely clean bill of health.

Here with me with five potential cures for what still ails us is Morningstar markets editor Jeremy Glaser. He is going to offer his insights and his prognosis for whether those cures will work.

Jeremy, thanks for joining me.

Jeremy Glaser: You're quite welcome, Jason.

Stipp: What do you have for the Friday Five this week?

Glaser: We're going to talk about the mortgage settlement, about Greek austerity, about emerging markets, Sprint, and finally Pepsi.

Stipp: So I'd like to think that the mortgage disease is well behind us, but we all know that's not the case. We see the housing market still struggling, but there was news about a potential settlement this week. What does that mean?

Glaser: You're absolutely right that we are not out of the woods yet. Even recently in the last couple of quarters we've seen banks continue to take charges against their mortgage portfolios, continue to take charges against potential settlements they're going to have to pay to get out of all of this mortgage mess. But that doesn't even get into the rest of the malaise that's still over the rest of the housing industry in terms of sales levels, in terms of inventory that's on the market, in terms of people not really feeling any kind of pressure to actually buy now because people don't think prices are going to go up any time soon and could in fact fall even more.

This week we found out about a mortgage settlement, somewhere around $25 billion, $26 billion between five of the largest market servicers, including Citigroup, JPMorgan, Wells Fargo, Bank of America and Ally Financial with both state attorney generals and the Federal government to settle some of the robo-signing claims, which was the idea that people were being foreclosed on without the due process really being completely followed to the letter of the law. Sometimes the banks didn't know exactly who owned the different mortgages and were just foreclosing anyway instead of looking at ways to work out different payment plans, to work out other ways to keep those homeowners in their houses.

So, this settlement, I think, put some uncertainty behind the big banks. They don't have to worry about even more lawsuits about robo-signing. They will be able to put that behind them. They've really already taken the charges because they had a feeling that the settlement was forthcoming. So, I think in that sense it's good, but in the sense that it's going to cure all of these ails, I think it absolutely won't.

I think that we still have those underlying housing problems that I was talking about. The banks are still facing lawsuits from the origination side--the idea that they were giving loans to people who they knew wouldn't be able to repay it, or they were repackaging the loans in such a way that they knew would fail.

There is still a lot of uncertainty out there for the banks. I think we're going to be hearing a lot about the mortgage market for a long time. I think this is an important step, but it's certainly not the end of the road.

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Stipp: Other symptoms that are still afflicting us have to do with Greece. We got some news about austerity agreements there that should help to have the bailout continue for Greece. Is this really going to solve that problem, though? Is austerity going to be enough to cure that disease?

Glaser: It certainly seems like amongst most Europeans today, the answer to any sovereign debt crisis is austerity, and if that doesn't work, try even more austerity.

This week the EU, the European Central bank, and International Monetary Fund, the so called, "troika," put a lot of pressure on Greek political leaders to agree to another round of austerity, and they did this because they wanted to try to make the Greek economy more competitive, get rid of those structural budget deficits so that they can be on a path toward fiscal stability, and they used this as a condition of giving even more bailout money ... to Greece to make sure that they stave off a sudden default; it just buys them a few more months to work out some more issues with their creditors.

But this really is another very short-term fix. These austerity measures are going to take years and years to implement if they ever can actually be implemented. The popular unrest in Greece continues to rise. There just isn't a lot of appetite to continue to cut spending, particularly when unemployment remains so high, especially among the youth in Greece, and public sector workers really feel like they are not going to give up the benefits that they feel that they are entitled to and that they have been promised for so many years.

I think certainly, some of them will be able to be implemented, but unless you really have the buy-in of the Greek people and the bureaucracy within the Greek government to actually implement it, you are not going to be able to become more competitive. You are probably just going to continue to build resentment against the international creditors, and that could really, I think, cause some problems down the line.

So, again, a short-term fix that we have in Greece, but I think that austerity is not going to be the final measure. They need to find a way to reduce that burden either through some sort of controlled default, through a bond swap with private creditors saying you are not going to get 100 cents on the dollar and maybe you will get $0.50 or $0.30 on the dollar--whatever the right number is. That's really the long-term solution, but right now this is not a cure for Greece.

Stipp: So, we know that austerity even if you can accomplish it usually means low or no growth. Investors who want to stay away from that have been looking at the emerging markets. Now, that didn't work out so well for them in 2011, but are we getting some signs that the emerging markets will be the cure for an otherwise low-growth world?

Glaser: Certainly, there have been a lot investors interested in emerging markets and one of the things that we have remarked on recently is that, even though performance of emerging markets stocks in particular didn't look good through 2011, investors continued to put their bets into those markets, and the same is true with corporations. When they see slow growth in Europe, they see slow growth in the United States, a lot of companies have for years now been building up their presences abroad in emerging markets.

Two companies that reported earnings this week, Yum Brands--which operates KFC, and Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut--and Coke, really showed that that strategy is starting to pay off for them big time.

Now, certainly both these companies have enjoyed emerging-markets growth for quite a number of years; it has been a big part of their investment thesis, but that's continuing to play out. All of this ... fretting over a so-called hard landing in China, and the idea that emerging-market growth would suddenly start to slow because there is just too much investment, it's becoming a bubble--that's just not happening on the ground.

Consumers are out there, they are buying fast-food, they are buying soda, they are making those everyday purchases, as the middle class is continuing to expand, and the prosperity in those nations continues to get bigger and bigger and is spread among a larger group of people.

So, I think we have seen emerging-market growth in India and China and South America in particular, looking really strong. Is it going to continue at those great growth rates forever? Probably not. But we haven't seen signs, especially in these earnings reports yet, of a big slowdown in emerging-markets consumers. I think that's a good sign for companies and for investors who are looking for that growth.

Stipp: In the telecom sector we see that Sprint is continuing to try to regain its footing. It's taking the iPhone pill, which it hopes will help. But is that really going to cure their problems?

Glaser: They have been taking a lot of different cures to try to get themselves out of the doldrums they have been in for a long time, and the iPhone was the latest gambit. That were going after really the most iconic handset that people were maybe leaving Sprint [to get] the iPhone on either AT&T or Verizon, and they really did bring in a fair number of new iPhone users, but those users were incredibly expensive for them.

When carriers take on the iPhone, they are paying a big upfront subsidy to Apple. Take a look at Apple earnings to see how lucrative those iPhone contracts are. The flip side of that is that it really hurts profitability, and Sprint really saw their profitability getting squeezed this quarter when they had so many iPhone activations.

I think when you see a company that's really trying to rebuild their free cash flow, that's really thinking about how to have their financing in order so that they are able to invest in their network, get those 4G networks going, keep those lucrative postpaid customers on their network and not have them leave to some of the bigger carriers out there, you have to wonder if kind of pressuring your cash flow that much is really the thing that's going to cure them.

I think they are glad that they have the iPhone. I don't think you're going to see them discontinue it, but it certainly was not the cure-all that many people had thought would all of a sudden just ... boost the network and really stop their decline.

Stipp: A lot of companies, Jeremy, when they face slower growth for their stock price, they want to try to take a cure of breaking up the company--spinning off asset-heavy businesses or trying to isolate a business whose value isn't being realized. We see that Pepsi, however, is bucking this trend. So, is not taking the breakup pill going to be the thing for them?

Glaser: This seems to be happening a lot. Breakups are nothing new, but really over the last couple of years, we've seen a big acceleration in big companies wanting to break themselves up, because they think they can unlock value by finding potential acquirers for different parts of business who might not want to deal with some of the other pieces and parts.

And we've seen that especially in the food-service business. When we look across companies like Kraft and Sara Lee who are saying, forget it. We don't need all of these different brands together. We're really going to focus in on our core strengths instead of trying to be everything to everybody.

But Pepsi is going to take a different tack. ... Obviously they have the two big verticals of salty snacks and sugary drinks, but I think they really see that those two really belong together. They think that their distribution network is strong enough that it makes sense to have those different products distributed together. They think that their customer base is relatively similar, selling to convenient stores and grocery stores, that it doesn't makes sense to really split it up.

So, we'll see if this works out for them. I think Pepsi has had some trouble selling their investment story over the last couple of years. They are announcing new restructuring. They are going to invest more in the brands. They are going to lay off some workers and try to get themselves back to their profitability.

We'll see if this is the right cure for them, or the right thing is to not take this cure of breaking up, and they always have the option of doing it later. If a few years from now this restructuring plan doesn't work, they'll always have that option value of splitting up, and it's something that they can consider down the road.

Stipp: We'll, Jeremy, I think our viewers would agree that the cure for a very long week is to spend a few minutes on the Friday Five. Thanks for joining us today.

Glaser: You're welcome, Jason.

Stipp: For Morningstar, I'm Jason Stipp. Thanks for watching.