Tag Archives: earnings

Fed Trying To Inflate A 4th Bubble To Fix The Third

Over the last couple of years, we have often discussed the impact of the Federal Reserve’s ongoing liquidity injections, which was causing distortions in financial markets, mal-investment, and the expansion of the “wealth gap.” 

Our concerns were readily dismissed as bearish as asset prices were rising. The excuse:

“Don’t fight the Fed”

However, after years of zero interest rates, never-ending support of accommodative monetary policy, and a lack of regulatory oversight, the consequences of excess have come home to roost. 

This is not an “I Told You So,” but rather the realization of the inevitable outcome to which investors turned a blind-eye too in the quest for “easy money” in the stock market. 

It’s a reminder of the consequences of “greed.” 

The Liquidity Trap

We previously discussed the “liquidity trap” the Fed has gotten themselves into, along with Japan, which will plague economic growth in the future. To wit:

“The signature characteristics of a liquidity trap are short-term interest rates that are near zero and fluctuations in the monetary base that fail to translate into fluctuations in general price levels.

Our “economic composite” indicator is comprised of 10-year rates, inflation (CPI), wages, and the dollar index. Importantly, downturns in the composite index leads GDP. (I have estimated the impact to GDP for the first quarter at -2% growth, but my numbers may be optimistic)

The Fed’s problem is not only are they caught in an “economic liquidity trap,” where monetary policy has become ineffective in stimulating economic growth, but are also captive to a “market liquidity trap.”

Whenever the Fed, or other Global Central Banks, have engaged in “accommodative monetary policy,” such as QE and rate cuts, asset prices have risen. However, general economic activity has not, which has led to a widening of the “wealth gap” between the top 10% and the bottom 90%. At the same time, corporations levered up their balance sheets, and used cheap debt to aggressively buy back shares providing the illusion of increased profitability while revenue growth remained weak. 

As I have shown previously, while earnings have risen sharply since 2009, it was from the constant reduction in shares outstanding rather than a marked increase in revenue from a strongly growing economy. 

Now, the Fed is engaged in the fight of its life trying to counteract a “credit-event” which is larger, and more insidious, than what was seen during the 2008 “financial crisis.”  

Over the course of the next several months, the Federal Reserve will increase its balance sheet towards $10 Trillion in an attempt to stop the implosion of the credit markets. The liquidity being provided may, or may not be enough, to offset the risk of a global economy which is levered roughly 3-to-1 according to CFO.com:

“The global debt-to-GDP ratio hit a new all-time high in the third quarter of 2019, raising concerns about the financing of infrastructure projects.

The Institute of International Finance reported Monday that debt-to-GDP rose to 322%, with total debt reaching close to $253 trillion and total debt across the household, government, financial and non-financial corporate sectors surging by some $9 trillion in the first three quarters of 2019.”

Read that last part again.

In 2019, debt surged by some $9 Trillion while the Fed is injecting roughly $6 Trillion to offset the collapse. In other words, it is likely going to require all of the Fed’s liquidity just to stabilize the debt and credit markets. 

Bubbles, Bubbles, Bubbles

Jerome Powell clearly understands that after a decade of monetary infusions and low interest rates, he has created an asset bubble larger than any other in history. However, they were trapped by their own policies, and any reversal led to almost immediate catastrophe as seen in 2018.

As I wrote previously:

“In the U.S., the Federal Reserve has been the catalyst behind every preceding financial event since they became ‘active,’ monetarily policy-wise, in the late 70’s.”

For quite some time now, we have warned investors against the belief that no matter what happens, the Fed can bail out the markets, and keep the bull market. Nevertheless, it was widely believed by the financial media that, to quote Dr. Irving Fisher:

“Stocks have reached a permanently high plateau.”

What is important to understand is that it was imperative for the Fed that market participants, and consumers, believed in this idea. With the entirety of the financial ecosystem more heavily levered than ever, due to the Fed’s profligate measures of suppressing interest rates and flooding the system with excessive levels of liquidity, the “instability of stability” was the most significant risk. 

“The ‘stability/instability paradox’ assumes that all players are rational, and such rationality implies avoidance of complete destruction. In other words, all players will act rationally, and no one will push ‘the big red button.’”

The Fed had hoped they would have time, and the “room” needed, after more than 10-years of the most unprecedented monetary policy program in U.S. history, to try and navigate the risks that had built up in the system. 

Unfortunately, they ran out of time, and the markets stopped “acting rationally.”

This is the predicament the Federal Reserve currently finds itself in. 

Following each market crisis, the Fed has lowered interest rates, and instituted policies to “support markets.” However, these actions led to unintended consequences which have led to repeated “booms and busts” in the financial markets.  

While the market has currently corrected nearly 25% year-to-date, it is hard to suggest that such a small correction will reset markets from the liquidity-fueled advance over the last decade.

To understand why the Fed is trapped, we have to go back to what Ben Bernanke said in 2010 as he launched the second round of QE:

“This approach eased financial conditions in the past and, so far, looks to be effective again. Stock prices rose and long-term interest rates fell when investors began to anticipate the most recent action. Easier financial conditions will promote economic growth. For example, lower mortgage rates will make housing more affordable and allow more homeowners to refinance. Lower corporate bond rates will encourage investment. And higher stock prices will boost consumer wealth and help increase confidence, which can also spur spending.”

I highlight the last sentence because it is the most important. Consumer spending makes up roughly 70% of GDP; therefore increased consumer confidence is critical to keeping consumers in action. The problem is the economy is no longer a “productive” economy, but rather a “financial” one. A point made by Ellen Brown previously:

“The financialized economy – including stocks, corporate bonds and real estate – is now booming. Meanwhile, the bulk of the population struggles to meet daily expenses. The world’s 500 richest people got $12 trillion richer in 2019, while 45% of Americans have no savings, and nearly 70% could not come up with $1,000 in an emergency without borrowing.

Central bank policies intended to boost the real economy have had the effect only of boosting the financial economy. The policies’ stated purpose is to increase spending by increasing lending by banks, which are supposed to be the vehicles for liquidity to flow from the financial to the real economy. But this transmission mechanism isn’t working, because consumers are tapped out.”

This was shown in a recent set of studies:

The “Stock Market” Is NOT The “Economy.”

Roughly 90% of the population gets little, or no, direct benefit from the rise in stock market prices.

Another way to view this issue is by looking at household net worth growth between the top 10% to everyone else.

Since 2007, the ONLY group that has seen an increase in net worth is the top 10% of the population.

“This is not economic prosperity. This is a distortion of economics.”

As I stated previously:

“If consumption retrenches, so does the economy.

When this happens debt defaults rise, the financial system reverts, and bad things happen economically.”

That is where we are today. 

The Federal Reserve is desperate to “bail out” the financial and credit markets, which it may  be successful in doing, however, the real economy may not recover for a very long-time. 

With 70% of employment driven by small to mid-size businesses, the shutdown of the economy for an extended period of time may eliminate a substantial number of businesses entirely. Corporations are going to retrench on employment, cut back on capital expenditures, and close ranks. 

While the Government is working on a fiscal relief package, it will fall well short of what is needed by the overall economy and a couple of months of “helicopter money,” will do little to revive an already over leveraged, undersaved, consumer. 

The 4th-Bubble

As I stated previously:

“The current belief is that QE will be implemented at the first hint of a more protracted downturn in the market. However, as suggested by the Fed, QE will likely only be employed when rate reductions aren’t enough.”

The implosion of the credit markets made rate reductions completely ineffective and has pushed the Fed into the most extreme monetary policy bailout in the history of the world. 

The Fed is hopeful they can inflate another asset bubble to restore consumer confidence and stabilize the functioning of the credit markets. The problem is that since the Fed never unwound their previous policies, current policies are having a much more muted effect. 

However, even if the Fed is able to inflate another bubble to offset the damage from the deflation of the last bubble, there is little evidence it is doing much to support economic growth, a broader increase in consumer wealth, or create a more stable financial environment. 

It has taken a massive amount of interventions by Central Banks to keep economies afloat globally over the last decade, and there is little evidence that growth will recover following this crisis to the degree many anticipate.

There are numerous problems which the Fed’s current policies can not fix:

  • A decline in savings rates
  • An aging demographic
  • A heavily indebted economy
  • A decline in exports
  • Slowing domestic economic growth rates.
  • An underemployed younger demographic.
  • An inelastic supply-demand curve
  • Weak industrial production
  • Dependence on productivity increases

The lynchpin in the U.S., remains demographics, and interest rates. As the aging population grows, they are becoming a net drag on “savings,” the dependency on the “social welfare net” will explode as employment and economic stability plummets, and the “pension problem” has yet to be realized.

While the current surge in QE may indeed be successful in inflating another bubble, there is a limit to the ability to continue pulling forward future consumption to stimulate economic activity. In other words, there are only so many autos, houses, etc., which can be purchased within a given cycle. 

There is evidence the cycle peak has already been reached.

One thing is for certain, the Federal Reserve will never be able to raise rates, or reduce monetary policy ever again. 

Welcome to United States of Japan.

#MacroView: Fed Launches A Bazooka To Kill A Virus

Last week, we discussed in Fed’s ‘Emergency Rate Cut’ Reveals Recession Risks” that while current economic data may not suggest a possibility of a recession was imminent, other “off the run” data didn’t agree.

We are likely experiencing more than just a ‘soft patch’ currently despite the mainstream analysts’ rhetoric to the contrary. There is clearly something amiss within the economic landscape, even before the impact of COVID-19, and the ongoing decline of inflationary pressures longer term was already telling us just that.”

The plunge in both 5- and 10-year “breakeven inflation rates,” are currently suggesting that economic growth over the next couple of quarters will drop markedly. The last time there was such a sharp drop in inflation expectations at the beginning of the “financial crisis.”

In the meantime, the markets have been rocked as concerns over the spread of the“COVID-19” virus in the U.S. have shut down sporting events, travel, consumer activities, and a host of other economically sensitive inputs. As we discussed previously:

“Given that U.S. exporters have already been under pressure from the impact of the ‘trade war,’ the current outbreak could lead to further deterioration of exports to and from China, South Korea, and Japan. This is not inconsequential as exports make up about 40% of corporate profits in the U.S. With economic growth already struggling to maintain 2% growth currently, the virus could shave between 1-1.5% off that number.”

As noted, with the U.S. now shutting down and entrenching itself in response to the virus, the economic impact will be worsened. However, given that economic data is lagging, and we only have numbers that were mostly pre-virus, the reports over the next couple of months will ultimately reveal the extent of the damage.

We suspect that it will be more significant than most analysts currently expect.

With our Economic Output Composite Indicator (EOCI) at levels which have previously warned of recessions, the “timing” of the virus, and the shutdown of activity in response, will push the indications lower.

“Given the current level of the index as compared to the 6-Month rate of change of the Leading Economic Index, there is a risk of a recessionary drag within the next 6-months.”

(The EOCI is comprised of the Fed Regional Surveys, CFNAI, Chicago PMI, NFIB, LEI, and ISM Composites. The indicator is a broad measure of hard and soft data of the U.S. economy)”

One reason we are confident the economic data will worsen near term is the correlation between the index and the annual rate of change of the S&P 500 index.

The financial markets lead the economy by about 6-months as markets begin to “price in” changes to earnings due to the outlook for economic strength. The recent plunge in the S&P 500 has deviated from the current EOCI index reading suggesting the index will decline towards recessionary levels over the next few months.

What the chart above obfuscates is the severity of the recent market rout. As shown below, in just three very short weeks, the market has reversed almost the entirety of the “Trump Stock Market” gains since he took office on January 20th.

The estimation of substantially weaker economic growth is not just a random assumption. In a post next week, I am going through the math of our analysis. Here is a snippet.

“Over the last sixty years, the yield on the 10-year has approximated real GDP plus inflation (shown in the chart below). Given this historical fact, we can do some basic math to determine what yields are currently predicting for the U.S. economy currently.”

Doug Kass recently did the math:

“Given ZIRP and QE policies around the globe which has pulled an extraordinary amount of sovereign debt into negative territory coupled with secular headwinds to energy prices, I have assumed that the 10 year yield will fall from 1.0x nominal GDP and average about 0.8x nominal GDP. 

According to my pal Peter Boockvar, the 10-year inflation breakeven (in the tips market) stands at 1.41% this morning:

So, let’s solve for what the market expects Real GDP to be (over the next 1-2 years) with this formula:

10-Year Yield (0.744% Actual) = 0.8x (Real GDP + 1.41% Actual (inflation))

The implied U.S. Real GDP of this equation is now negative — at -0.48%. (This compares to the consensus 2020 Real GDP growth forecast of between +1.75% to +2.00%) It also implies that nominal GDP (Real GDP plus Inflation) will be only about +0.93% – substantially below consensus expectations of slightly above 3%.”

Doug’s estimates were before to the recent collapse in oil prices, and breakeven inflation rates. With oil prices now at $30/bbl and 10-year breakeven rates to 0.9%, the math is significantly worse, and that is what the severity of the recent selloff is telling us. Over the next two quarters, we could see as much as a 3% clip off of current GDP.

This data is not lost on the Federal Reserve and is why they have been taking action over the last two weeks.

The Fed Bazooka

It’s quite amazing that in mid-February, which now seems like a lifetime ago, we were discussing the markets being 3-standard deviations above their 200-dma, which is a rarity. Three short weeks later, the markets are now 4-standard deviations below, which is even a rarer event. 

That swing in asset prices has cut the “wealth effect” from the market, and will severely impact consumer confidence over the next few months. The decline in confidence, combined with the impact of the loss of activity from the virus, will sharply reduce consumption, which is 70% of the economy.

This is why the Fed cut rates in an “emergency action” by 0.50% previously. Then on Wednesday, increased “Repo operations” to $175 Billion.

However, like hitting a patient with a defibrillator, the was no response from the market.

Then yesterday, the Fed brought out their “big gun.”  In a statement from the New York Fed:

The Federal Reserve said it would inject more than $1.5 trillion of temporary liquidity into Wall Street on Thursday and Friday to prevent ominous trading conditions from creating a sharper economic contraction.

‘These changes are being made to address highly unusual disruptions in Treasury financing markets associated with the coronavirus outbreak.’

The New York Fed said it would conduct three additional repo offerings worth an additional $1.5 trillion this week, with two separate $500 billion offerings that will last for three months and a third that will mature in one month.

If the transactions are fully subscribed, they would swell the central bank’s $4.2 trillion asset portfolio by more than 35%.” – WSJ

As Mish Shedlock noted,

“The Fed can label this however they want, but it’s another round of QE.”

As you can see in the chart below, this is a massive surge of liquidity hitting the market at a time the market is sitting on critical long-term trend support.

Of course, this is what the market has been hoping for:

  • Rate cuts? Check
  • Liquidity? Check

For about 15-minutes yesterday, stocks responded by surging higher and reversing half of the day’s losses. Unfortunately, the enthusiasm was short-lived as sellers quickly returned to continue their “panic selling.” 

This has been frustrating for investors and portfolio managers, as the ingrained belief over the last decade has been “Don’t worry, the Fed’s got this.”

All of a sudden, it looks like they don’t.

Will It Work This Time?

There is a singular risk that we have worried about for quite some time.

Margin debt.

Here is a snip from an article I wrote in December 2018.

Margin debt is the ‘gasoline,’ which drives markets higher as the leverage provides for the additional purchasing power of assets. However, that ‘leverage’ also works in reverse as it provides the accelerant for larger declines as lenders ‘force’ the sale of assets to cover credit lines without regard to the borrower’s position.

That last sentence is the most important. The issue with margin debt, in particular, is that the unwinding of leverage is NOT at the investor’s discretion. It is at the discretion of the broker-dealers that extended that leverage in the first place. (In other words, if you don’t sell to cover, the broker-dealer will do it for you.) When lenders fear they may not be able to recoup their credit-lines, they force the borrower to either put in more cash or sell assets to cover the debt. The problem is that “margin calls” generally happen all at once as falling asset prices impact all lenders simultaneously.

Margin debt is NOT an issue – until it is.”

Given the magnitude of the declines in recent days, and the lack of response to the Federal Reserve’s inputs, it certainly has the feel of a margin debt liquidation process. This was also an observation made by David Rosenberg:

“The fact that Treasuries, munis, and gold are getting hit tells me that everything is for sale right now. One giant margin call where even the safe-havens aren’t safe anymore. Except for cash.”

Unfortunately, FINRA only updates margin debt in arrears, so as of this writing, the latest margin debt stats are for January. What we do know is that due to the market decline, negative free cash balances have likely declined markedly. That’s the good news.

Back to my previous discussion for a moment:

“When an event eventually occurs, it creates a rush to liquidate holdings. The subsequent decline in prices eventually reaches a point which triggers an initial round of margin calls. Since margin debt is a function of the value of the underlying ‘collateral,’ the forced sale of assets will reduce the value of the collateral, further triggering further margin calls. Those margin calls will trigger more selling forcing, more margin calls, so forth and so on.

Given the lack of ‘fear’ shown by investors during the recent decline, it is unlikely that the recent drop in margin debt is a function of ‘forced liquidations.’ As I noted above, it will likely take a correction of more than 20%, or a ‘credit related’ event, which sparks broker-dealer concerns about repayment of their credit lines.

The risk to the market is ‘when’ those ‘margin calls’ are made.

It is not the rising level of debt that is the problem; it is the decline which marks peaks in both market and economic expansions.”

That is precisely what we have seen over the last three weeks.

While the Federal Reserve’s influx of liquidity may stem the tide temporarily, it is likely not a “cure” for what ails the market.

However, with that said, the Federal Reserve, and Central Banks globally, are not going to quietly into the night. Expect more stimulus, more liquidity, and more rate cuts. If that doesn’t work, expect more until it does.

We have already reduced a lot of equity risk in portfolios so far, but are going to continue lifting exposures and reducing risk until a bottom is formed in the market. The biggest concern is trying to figure out exactly where that is.

One thing is now certain.

We are in a bear market and a recession. It just hasn’t been announced as of yet.

That is something the Fed can’t fix right away with monetary policy alone, and, unfortunately, there won’t be any help coming from the Government until after the election.

#MacroView: Fed’s “Emergency Rate Cut” Reveals Recession Risks

Last week, I discussed in “Recession Risks Tick Up” that while current data may not suggest a possibility of a recession was imminent, other “off the run” data didn’t agree.

“The problem with most of the current analysis, which suggests a “no recession” scenario, is based heavily on lagging economic data, which is highly subject to negative revisions. The stock market, however, is a strong leading indicator of investor expectations of growth over the next 12-months. Historically, stock market returns are typically favorable until about 6-months prior to the start of a recession.”

“The compilation of the data all suggests the risk of recession is markedly higher than what the media currently suggests. Yields and commodities are suggesting something quite different.”

In this particular case, while the market is suggesting there is an economic problem coming, we also discussed the impact of the “coronavirus,” or “COVID-19,” on the economy. Specifically, I stated:

But it isn’t just China. It is also hitting two other economically important countries: Japan and South Korea, which will further stall exports and imports to the U.S. 

Given that U.S. exporters have already been under pressure from the impact of the “trade war,” the current outbreak could lead to further deterioration of exports to and from China, South Korea, and Japan. This is not inconsequential as exports make up about 40% of corporate profits in the U.S. With economic growth already struggling to maintain 2% growth currently, the virus could shave between 1-1.5% off that number. 

With our Economic Output Composite Indicator (EOCI) already at levels which has previously denoted recessions, the “timing” of the virus could have more serious consequences than currently expected by overzealous market investors. 

(The EOCI is comprised of the Fed Regional Surveys, CFNAI, Chicago PMI, NFIB, LEI, and ISM Composites. The indicator is a broad measure of hard and soft data of the U.S. economy)”

“Given the current level of the index as compared to the 6-Month rate of change of the Leading Economic Index, there is a rising risk of a recessionary drag within the next 6-months.”

That analysis seemed to largely bypass the mainstream economists, and the Fed, who were focused on the “number of people getting sick,” rather than the economic disruption from the shutdown of the supply chain.

On Tuesday, the Federal Reserve shocked the markets with an “emergency rate cut” of 50-basis points. While the futures market had been predicting the Fed to cut rates at their next meeting on March 18th, the half-percent cut shocked equity markets as the Fed now seems more concerned about the economy than they previously acknowledged.

It is one thing for the Fed to cut rates to support economic growth. It is quite another for the Fed to slash rates by 50 basis points between meetings.

It smacks of “fear.” 

Previously, such emergency rate cuts have not been done lightly, but in response to a bigger crisis which was simultaneously unfolding.

While we have spilled a good bit of digital ink as of late warning about the ramifications of COVID-19:

“Clearly, the ‘flu’ is a much bigger problem than COVID-19 in terms of the number of people getting sick. The difference, however, is that during ‘flu season,’ we don’t shut down airports, shipping, manufacturing, schools, etc. The negative impact on exports and imports, business investment, and potential consumer spending are all direct inputs into the GDP calculation and will be reflected in corporate earnings and profits.”

This is not a trivial matter.

“Nearly half of U.S. companies in China said they expect revenue to decrease this year if business can’t return to normal by the end of April, according to a survey conducted Feb. 17 to 20 by the American Chamber of Commerce in China, or AmCham, to which 169 member companies responded. One-fifth of respondents said 2020 revenue from China would decline more than 50% if the epidemic continues through Aug. 30..”WSJ

That drop in revenue, and ultimately earnings, has not yet been factored into earnings estimates. This is a point I made on Tuesday:

“More importantly, the earnings estimates have not been ratcheted down yet to account for the impact of the “shutdown” to the global supply chain. Once we adjust (dotted blue line) for a negative earnings environment in 2020, with a recovery in 2021, you can see just how far estimates will slide over the coming months. This will put downward pressure on stocks over the course of this year.”

It is quite possible even my estimates may still be too high.

While the markets have been largely dismissing the impact of the virus, the Fed’s “panic” move on Tuesday was confirming evidence that we are on the right track.

The market’s wild correction over the past two weeks, also begins to align with the Fed’s previous rate-cutting cycles. While it initially appeared “this time was different,” as the market continued to rise due to the Fed’s flood of liquidity, the markets seem to be playing catch up to previous rate-cutting cycles. If the economic data begins to weaken markedly, we may will see an alignment with the previous starts of bear markets and recessions.

Of course, we need to add some context to the chart above. Historically, the reason the Fed cuts rates, and interest rates fall, is because the Fed has acted in response to a crisis, recession, or both. The chart below shows when there is an inversion between the Fed Funds rate, and the 10-year Treasury, it has been associated with recessionary onset. (This curve will invert when the Fed cuts rates further at their next meeting.)

Not surprisingly, as suggested by the historical data above, the stock market has yielded a negative return a year after an emergency rate cut was initiated.

There is another risk the Fed may not be prepared for, an inflationary spike in prices. What could potentially impact the economy, and inflationary pressures, is the shutdown of the global supply chain which creates a lack of supply to meet immediate demand. Basic economics suggests this could lead to inflationary pressures as inventories become extremely lean, and products become unavailable. Even a short-term inflationary spike would put the Federal Reserve on the “wrong-side” of the trade, rendering the Fed’s monetary policies ineffective.

The rising recession risk is also being signaled by the collapse in the 10-year Treasury yield, a point which I have made repeatedly over the last several years in discussing why interest rates were headed toward zero.

“Outside of other events such as the S&L Crisis, Asian Contagion, Long-Term Capital Management, etc. which all drove money out of stocks and into bonds pushing rates lower, recessionary environments are especially prone at suppressing rates further. But, given the inflation of multiple asset bubbles, a credit-driven event that impacts the corporate bond market will drive rates to zero.

Furthermore, given rates are already negative in many parts of the world, which will likely be even more negative during a global recessionary environment, zero yields will still remain more attractive to foreign investors. This will be from both a potential capital appreciation perspective (expectations of negative rates in the U.S.) and the perceived safety and liquidity of the U.S. Treasury market. 

Rates are ultimately directly impacted by the strength of economic growth and the demand for credit. While short-term dynamics may move rates, ultimately the fundamentals combined with the demand for safety and liquidity will be the ultimate arbiter.”

A chart of monetary velocity tells you there is a problem in the economy as lower interest rates fails to spark an uptick in the flow of money.

My friend Caroline Baum summed up the Fed’s primary problem given the issue of plunging rates:

“All of a sudden, the reality of revisiting the zero lower bound, which the Fed now refers to as the effective lower bound (ELB), is no longer off in the distance. It could be right around the corner.

And this at a time when Fed officials are still saying that the economy and monetary policy are ‘in a good place’ and the fundamentals are sound. So what do policymakers do when the good place deteriorates into something mediocre, and the fundamentals turn sour?

Forward guidance, which I like to call talk therapy? Large-scale asset purchases? Unfortunately, the Fed goes to war with the tools it has, not the tools it might want or wish to have.”

Unfortunately, the Fed is still misdiagnosing what ails the economy, and monetary policy is unlikely to change the outcome in the U.S.

The reasons are simple. You can’t cure a debt problem with more debt. Therefore, monetary interventions, and government spending, don’t create organic, sustainable, economic growth. Simply pulling forward future consumption through monetary policy continues to leave an ever-growing void in the future that must be filled.

There is already evidence that lower rates are not leading to expanding consumption, business investment, or economic activity. Furthermore, while QE may temporarily lift asset prices, the lack of economic growth, resulting in lower earnings growth, will eventually lead to a repricing of assets.

Furthermore, there is likely no help coming from fiscal policy, either. As Caroline noted:

“Fiscal-policy measures, which entail tax cuts and government spending, will be difficult to enact in this highly charged political environment. There is little evidence that the Republicans and Democrats can put partisan differences aside to work together.”

Or, as Chuck Schumer said to Ben Bernanke just prior to the “financial crisis:”

“You’re the only game in town.” 

The real concern for investors, and individuals, is the real economy.

We are likely experiencing more than just a “soft patch” currently despite the mainstream analysts’ rhetoric to the contrary. There is clearly something amiss within the economic landscape, even before the impact of COVID-19, and the ongoing decline of inflationary pressures longer term was already telling us just that.

The Fed already realizes they have a problem, as noted by Fed Chair Powell on Tuesday:

“A rate cut will not reduce the rate of infection. It won’t fix a broken supply chain. We get that.”

More importantly, this is no longer a domestic question, but rather a global one. Since every major central bank is now engaged in a coordinated infusion of liquidity, fighting slowing economic growth, a rising level of negative yields, and a spreading virus shutting down economic activity, it is “all hands on deck.”

The Federal Reserve is currently betting on a “one trick pony” which is that by increasing the “wealth effect,” it will ultimately lead to a return of consumer confidence, and mitigate the effect of a global contagion.

Unfortunately, there mounting evidence it may not work.

MacroView: The Ghosts Of 2018?

On Jan 3rd, I wrote an article entitled: “Will The Market Repeat The Start Of 2018?” At that time, the Federal Reserve was dumping a tremendous amount of money into the financial markets through their “Repo” operations. To wit:

“Don’t fight the Fed. That is the current mantra of the market as we begin 2020, and it certainly seems to be the right call. Over the last few months, the Federal Reserve has continued its “QE-Not QE” operations, which has dramatically expanded its balance sheet. Many argue, rightly, the current monetary interventions by the Fed are technically “Not QE” because they are purchasing Treasury Bills rather than longer-term Treasury Notes.

However, ‘Mr. Market’ doesn’t see it that way. As the old saying goes, ‘if it looks, walks, and quacks like a duck…it’s a duck.'” 

As I noted then, despite commentary to the contrary, there were only two conclusions to draw from the data:

  1. There is something functionally “broken” in the financial system which is requiring massive injections of liquidity to try and rectify, and;
  2. The surge in liquidity, whether you want to call it a “duck,” or not, is finding its way into the equity markets.

Let me remind you this was all BEFORE the outbreak of the Coronavirus.

The Ghosts Of 2018

“Well, this past week, the market tripped ‘over its own feet’ after prices had created a massive extension above the 50-dma as shown below. As I have previously warned, since that extension was so large, a correction just back to the moving average at this point will require nearly a -6% decline.”

“I have also repeatedly written over the last year:

‘The problem is that it has been so long since investors have even seen a 2-3% correction, a correction of 5%, or more, will ‘feel’ much worse than it actually is, which will lead to ’emotionally driven’ mistakes.’

The question now, of course, is do you “buy the dip” or ‘run for the hills?’”

Yesterday morning, the markets began the day deeply in the red, but by mid-morning were flirting with a push into positive territory. By the end of the day, the Dow had posted its largest one-day point loss in history.”

That was from February 6th, 2018 (Technically Speaking: Tis But A Flesh Wound)

Here is a chart of October 2019 to Present.

Besides the reality that the only thing that has occurred has been a reversal of the Fed’s “Repo” rally, there is a striking similarity to 2018. That got me to thinking about the corollary between the two periods, and how this might play out over the rest of 2020.

Let’s go back.

Heading in 2018, the markets were ebullient over President Trump’s recently passed tax reform and rate cut package. Expectations were that 2018 would see a massive surge in earnings growth, due to the lower tax rates, and there would be a sharp pickup in economic growth.

However, at the end of January, President Trump shocked the markets with his “Trade War” on China and the imposition of tariffs on a wide variety of products, which potentially impacted American companies. As we said at the time, there was likely to be unintended consequences and would kill the effect of tax reform.)

“While many have believed a ‘trade war’ will be resolved without consequence, there are two very important points that most of the mainstream analysis is overlooking. For investors, a trade war would likely negatively impact earnings and profitability while slowing economic growth through higher costs.”

Over the next few months, the market dealt, and came to terms with, the trade war and the Fed’s tightening of the balance sheet. As we discussed in May 2018, the trade war did wind up clipping earnings estimates to a large degree, but massive share repurchases helped buoy asset prices.

Then in September, the Fed did the unthinkable.

After having hiked rates previously, thereby tightening the monetary supply, they stated that monetary policy was not “close to the neutral rate,” suggesting more rate hikes were coming. The realization the Fed was intent on continuing to tighten policy, and further extracting liquidity by reducing their balance sheet, sent asset prices plunging 20% from the peak, to the lows on Christmas Eve.

It was then the Fed acquiesced to pressure from the White House and began to quickly reverse their stance and starting pumping liquidity back into the markets.

And the bull market was back.

Fast forward to 2020.

“The exuberance that surrounded the markets going into the end of last year, as fund managers ramped up allocations for end of the year reporting, spilled over into the start of the new with S&P hitting new record highs.

Of course, this is just a continuation of the advance that has been ongoing since the Trump election. The difference this time is the extreme push into 3-standard deviation territory above the moving average, which is concerning.” – Real Investment Report Jan, 5th 2018

As noted in the chart below, in both instances, the market reached 3-standard deviations above the 200-dma before mean-reverting.

Of course, while everyone was exuberant over the Fed’s injections of monetary support, we were discussing the continuing decline in earnings growth estimates, along with the lack of corporate profit growth To wit:

With equities now more than 30% higher than they were then, the Fed mostly on hold in terms of rate cuts, and ‘repo’ operations starting to slow, it certainly seems that expectations for substantially higher market values may be a bit optimistic.

Furthermore, as noted above, earnings expectations declined for the entirety of 2019, as shown in the chart below. However, the impact of the ‘coronavirus’ has not been adopted into these reduced estimates as of yet. These estimates WILL fall, and likely markedly so, which, as stated above, is going to make justifying record asset prices more problematic.”

Just as the “Trade War” shocked the markets and caused a repricing of assets in 2018, the “coronavirus” has finally infected the markets enough to cause investors to adjust their expectations for earnings growth. Importantly, as in 2018, earnings estimates have not been revised lower nearly enough to compensate for the global supply chain impact coming from the virus.

While the beginning of 2020 is playing out much like 2018, what about the rest of the year?

There are issues occurring which we believe will have a very similar “feel” to 2018, as the impact of the virus continues to ebb and flow through the economy. The chart below shows the S&P 500 re-scaled to 1000 for comparative purposes.

Currently, the expectation has risen to more than a 70% probability the Fed will cut rates 3x in 2020. Historically, the market tends to underestimate just how far the Fed will go as noted by Michael Lebowitz previously:

“The graph below tracks the comparative differentials (Fed Funds vs. Fed Fund futures) using the methodology outlined above. The gray rectangular areas represent periods where the Fed was systematically raising or lowering the Fed funds rate (blue line). The difference between Fed Funds and the futures contracts, colored green or red, calculates how much the market over (green) or under (red) estimated what the Fed Funds rate would ultimately be. In this analysis, the term overestimate means Fed Funds futures thought Fed Funds would be higher than it ultimately was. The term underestimate, means the market expectations were lower than what actually transpired.”

Our guess is that in the next few weeks, the Fed will start using “forward guidance” to try and stabilize the market. Rate cuts, and more “quantitative easing,” will likely follow.

Such actions should stabilize the market in the near-term as investors, who have been pre-conditioned to “buy” Fed liquidity, will once again run back into markets. This could very well lift the markets into second quarter of this year.

But it will likely be a “trap.”

While monetary policy will likely embolden the bulls short-term, it does little to offset an economic shock. As we move further into the year, the impact to the global supply chain will begin to work its way through the system resulting in slower economic growth, reduced corporate profitability, and potentially a recession. (See yesterday’s commentary)

This is a guess. There is a huge array of potential outcomes, and trying to predict the future tends to be a pointless exercise. However, it is the thought process that helps align expectations with potential outcomes to adjust for risk accordingly.

A Sellable Rally

Just as in February 2018, following the sharp decline, the market rallied back to a lower high before failing once again. For several reasons, we suspect we will see the same over the next week or two, as the push into extreme pessimism and oversold conditions will need to be reversed before the correction can continue.

While 2019 ended in an entirely dissimilar manner as compared to 2018, the current negative sentiment, as shown by CNN’s Fear & Greed Index is back to the extreme fear levels seen at the lows of the market in 2018.

On a short-term technical basis, the market is now extremely oversold, which is suggestive of a counter-trend rally over the next few days to a week or so.

It is highly advisable to use ANY reflexive rally to reduce portfolio risk, and rebalance portfolios. Most likely, another wave of selling will likely ensue before a stronger bottom is finally put into place. 

Lastly, our composite technical overbought/oversold gauge is also pushing more extreme oversold conditions, which are typical of a short-term oversold condition.

In other words, in 2019 “everyone was in the pool,” in 2020 we just found out “everyone was swimming naked.” 

Rules To Follow

One last chart.

I just want you to pay attention to the top panel and the shaded areas. (standard deviations from the 50-dma)

We were not this oversold even during the 2015-2016 decline, much less the two declines in 2018.

Currently, not only is the market extremely oversold on a short-term basis, but is currently 5-standard deviations below the 50-dma.

Let me put that into perspective for you.

  • 1-standard deviation = 68.26% of all possible price movement.
  • 2-standard deviations = 95.45% 
  • 3-standard deviations = 99.73%
  • 4-standard deviations = 99.993%
  • 5-standard deviations = 99.9999%

Mathematically speaking, the bulk of the decline is already priced into the market.

“I get it. We are gonna get a bounce. So, what do I do?”

I am glad you asked.

Step 1) Clean Up Your Portfolio

  1. Tighten up stop-loss levels to current support levels for each position.
  2. Take profits in positions that have outperformed during the rally.
  3. Sell laggards and losers (those that lagged the rally, probably led the decline)
  4. Raise cash, and rebalance portfolios to reduced risk levels for now.

Step 2) Compare Your Portfolio Allocation To Your Model Allocation.

  1. Determine areas where exposure needs to be increased, or decreased (bonds, cash, equities)
  2. Determine how many shares need to be bought or sold to rebalance allocation requirements.
  3. Determine cash requirements for hedging purposes
  4. Re-examine the portfolio to ensure allocations are adjusted for FORWARD market risk.
  5. Determine target price levels for each position.
  6. Determine “stop loss” levels for each position being maintained.

Step 3) Be Ready To Execute

  • Whatever bounce we get will likely be short-lived. So have your game plan together before-hand as the opportunity to rebalance risk will likely not be available for very long. 

This is just how we do it.

However, there are many ways to manage risk, and portfolios, which are all fine. What separates success and failure is 1) having a strategy to begin with, and; 2) the discipline to adhere to it.

The recent market spasm certainly reminds of 2018. And, if we are right, it will get better, before it gets worse.

Earnings Lies & Why Munger Says “EBITDA is Bull S***”

Earnings Worse Than You Think

Just like the hit series “House Of Cards,” Wall Street earnings season has become rife with manipulation, deceit and obfuscation that could rival the dark corners of Washington, D.C.

What is most fascinating is that so many individuals invest hard earned capital based on these manipulated numbers. The failure to understand the “quality” of earnings, rather than the “quantity,” has always led to disappointing outcomes at some point in the future. 

As Drew Bernstein recently penned for CFO.com:

“Non-GAAP financials are not audited and are most often disclosed through earnings press releases and investor presentations, rather than in the company’s annual report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Once upon a time, non-GAAP financials were used to isolate the impact of significant one-time events like a major restructuring or sizable acquisition. In recent years, they have become increasingly prevalent and prominent, used by both the shiniest new-economy IPO companies and the old-economy stalwarts.”

Back in the 80’s and early 90’s companies used to report GAAP earnings in their quarterly releases. If an investor dug through the report they would find “adjusted” and “proforma” earnings buried in the back.

Today, it is GAAP earnings which are buried in the back hoping investors will miss the ugly truth.

These “adjusted or Pro-forma earnings” exclude items that a company deems “special, one-time or extraordinary.” The problem is that these “special, one-time” items appear “every” quarter leaving investors with a muddier picture of what companies are really making.

An in-depth study by Audit Analytics revealed that 97% of companies in the S&P 500 used non-GAAP financials in 2017, up from 59% in 1996, while the average number of different non-GAAP metrics used per filing rose from 2.35 to 7.45 over two decades.

This growing divergence between the earnings calculated according to accepted accounting principles, and the “earnings” touted in press releases and analyst research reports, has put investors at a disadvantage of understanding exactly what they are paying for.

As BofAML stated:

“We are increasingly concerned with the number of companies (non-commodity) reporting earnings on an adjusted basis versus those that are stressing GAAP accounting, and find the divergence a consequence of less earnings power. 

Consider that when US GDP growth was averaging 3% (the 5 quarters September 2013 through September 2014) on average 80% of US HY companies reported earnings on an adjusted basis. Since September 2014, however, with US GDP averaging just 1.9%, over 87% of companies have reported on an adjusted basis. Perhaps even more telling, between the end of 2010 and 2013, the percentage of companies reporting adjusted EBITDA was relatively constant, and since 2013, the number has been on a steady rise.

So, why do companies regularly report these Non-GAAP earnings? Drew has the answer:

“When management is asked why they resort to non-GAAP reporting, the most common response is that these measures are requested by the analysts and are commonly used in earnings models employed to value the company. Indeed, sell-side analysts and funds with a long position in the stock may have incentives to encourage a more favorable alternative presentation of earnings results.”

If non-GAAP reporting is used as a supplemental means to help investors identify underlying trends in the business, one might reasonably expect that both favorable and unfavorable events would be “adjusted” in equal measure.

However, research presented by the American Accounting Association suggests that companies engage in “asymmetric” non-GAAP exclusions of mostly unfavorable items as a tool to “beat” analyst earnings estimates.

How The Beat Earnings & Get Paid For It

Why has there been such a rise is Non-GAAP reporting?

Money, of course.

“A recent study from MIT has found that when companies make large positive adjustments to non-GAAP earnings, their CEOs make 23 percent more than their expected annual compensation would be if GAAP numbers were used. This is despite such firms having weak contemporaneous and future operating performance relative to other firms.” – Financial Executives International.

The researchers at MIT combed through the annual earnings press releases of S&P 500 firms for fiscal years 2010 through 2015 and recorded GAAP net income and non-GAAP net income when the firms disclosed it. About 67 percent of the firms in the sample disclose non-GAAP net income.

The researchers then obtained CEO compensation, accounting, and return data for the sample firms and found that “firms making the largest positive non-GAAP adjustments… exhibit the worst GAAP performance.”

The CEOs of these firms, meanwhile, earned about 23 percent more than would be predicted using a compensation model; in terms of raw dollars. In other words, they made about $2.7 million more than the approximately $12 million of an average CEO.

It should not be surprising that anytime you compensate individuals based on some level of performance, they are going to figure out ways to improve performance, legal or not. Examples run rampant through sports from Barry Bonds to Lance Armstrong, as well as in business from Enron to WorldCom.

This was detailed in a WSJ article:

One out of five [20%] U.S. finance chiefs have been scrambling to fiddle with their companies’ earnings.”

This rather “open secret” of companies manipulating bottom line earnings by utilizing “cookie-jar” reserves, heavy use of accruals, and other accounting instruments to flatter earnings is not new.

The tricks are well-known: A difficult quarter can be made easier by releasing reserves set aside for a rainy day or recognizing revenues before sales are made, while a good quarter is often the time to hide a big ‘restructuring charge’ that would otherwise stand out like a sore thumb.

What is more surprising though is CFOs’ belief that these practices leave a significant mark on companies’ reported profits and losses. When asked about the magnitude of the earnings misrepresentation, the study’s respondents said it was around 10% of earnings per share.

Manipulating earnings may work in the short-term, eventually, cost cutting, wage suppression, earnings adjustments, share-buybacks, etc. reach an effective limit. When that limit is reached, companies can no longer hide the weakness in their actual operating revenues.

There’s a big difference between companies’ advertised performance, and how they actually did. We discussed this recently by looking at the growing deviation between corporate earnings and corporate profits. There has only been one other point where earnings, and stock market prices, were surging while corporate profits were flat. Shortly thereafter, we found out the “truth” about WorldCom, Enron, and Global Crossing.

The American Accounting Association found that over the past decade or so, more companies have shifted to emphasizing adjusted earnings. But those same companies’ results under generally accepted accounting principles, or GAAP, often only match or slightly exceed analysts’ predictions.

“There are those who might claim that so far this century the U.S. economy has experienced such an unusual period of economic growth that it has taken analysts and investors by surprise each quarter … for almost two decades. This view strains credulity.” – Paul Griffin, University of California & David Lont, University of Otago

After reviewing hundreds of thousands of quarterly earnings forecasts and reports of 4,700 companies over 17 years, Griffin and Lont believe companies shoot well above analysts’ targets because consistently beating earnings per share by only a penny or two became a red flag.

“If they pull out all the accounting tricks to get their earnings much higher than expected, then they are less likely to be accused of manipulation.” 

The truth is that stocks go up when companies beat their numbers, and analysts are generally biased toward wanting the stock they cover to go up. As we discussed in “Chasing The Market”, it behooves analysts to consistently lower their estimates so companies can beat them, and adjusted earnings are making it easier for them to do it.

For investors, the impact from these distortions will only be realized during the next bear market. For now, there is little help for investors as the Securities and Exchange Commission has blessed the use of adjusted results as long as companies disclose how they are calculated. The disclosures are minimal, and are easy to get around when it comes to forecasts. Worse, adjusted earnings are used to determine executive bonuses and whether companies are meeting their loan covenants. No wonder CEO pay, and leverage, just goes up.

Conclusion & Why EBITDA Is BullS***

Wall Street is an insider system where legally manipulating earnings to create the best possible outcome, and increase executive compensation has run amok,. The adults in the room, a.k.a. the Securities & Exchange Commission, have “left the children in charge,” but will most assuredly leap into action to pass new regulations to rectify reckless misbehavior AFTER the next crash.

For fundamental investors, the manipulation of earnings not only skews valuation analysis, but specifically impacts any analysis involving earnings such as P/E’s, EV/EBITDA, PEG, etc.

Ramy Elitzur, via The Account Art Of War, expounded on the problems of using EBITDA.

“One of the things that I thought that I knew well was the importance of income-based metrics such as EBITDA, and that cash flow information is not as important. It turned out that common garden variety metrics, such as EBITDA, could be hazardous to your health.”

The article is worth reading and chocked full of good information, however, here are the four-crucial points:

  1. EBITDA is not a good surrogate for cash flow analysis because it assumes that all revenues are collected immediately and all expenses are paid immediately, leading to a false sense of liquidity.
  2. Superficial common garden-variety accounting ratios will fail to detect signs of liquidity problems.
  3. Direct cash flow statements provide a much deeper insight than the indirect cash flow statements as to what happened in operating cash flows. Note that the vast majority (well over 90%) of public companies use the indirect format.
  4. EBITDA, just like net income is very sensitive to accounting manipulations.

The last point is the most critical. As Charlie Munger recently stated:

“I think there are lots of troubles coming. There’s too much wretched excess.

I don’t like when investment bankers talk about EBITDA, which I call bulls— earnings.

It’s ridiculous. EBITDA does not accurately reflect how much money a company makes, unlike traditional earnings. Think of the basic intellectual dishonesty that comes when you start talking about adjusted EBITDA. You’re almost announcing you’re a flake.”

In a world of adjusted earnings, where every company is way above average, every quarter, investors quickly lose sight of what matters most in investing.

“This unfortunate cycle will only be broken when the end-users of financial reporting — institutional investors, analysts, lenders, and the media — agree that we are on the verge of systemic failure in financial reporting. In the history of financial markets, such moments of mental clarity most often occur following the loss of vast sums of capital.” – American Accounting Association

Imaginary worlds are nice, it’s just impossible to live there.

MacroView: The Next “Minsky Moment” Is Inevitable

In 2007, I was at a conference where Paul McCulley, who was with PIMCO at the time, was discussing the idea of a “Minsky Moment.”  At that time, this idea fell on “deaf ears” as the markets, and economy, were in full swing.

However, it wasn’t too long before the 2008 “Financial Crisis” brought the “Minsky Moment” thesis to the forefront. What was revealed, of course, was the dangers of profligacy which resulted in the triggering of a wave of margin calls, a massive selloff in assets to cover debts, and higher default rates.

So, what exactly is a “Minskey Moment?”

Economist Hyman Minsky argued that the economic cycle is driven more by surges in the banking system, and in the supply of credit than by the relationship which is traditionally thought more important, between companies and workers in the labor market.

In other words, during periods of bullish speculation, if they last long enough, the excesses generated by reckless, speculative, activity will eventually lead to a crisis. Of course, the longer the speculation occurs, the more severe the crisis will be.

Hyman Minsky argued there is an inherent instability in financial markets. He postulated that an abnormally long bullish economic growth cycle would spur an asymmetric rise in market speculation which would eventually result in market instability and collapse. A “Minsky Moment” crisis follows a prolonged period of bullish speculation which is also associated with high amounts of debt taken on by both retail and institutional investors.

One way to look at “leverage,” as it relates to the financial markets, is through “margin debt,” and in particular, the level of “free cash” investors have to deploy. In periods of “high speculation,” investors are likely to be levered (borrow money) to invest, which leaves them with “negative” cash balances.

While margin balances did decline in 2018, as the markets fell due to the Federal Reserve hiking rates and reducing their balance sheet, it is notable that current levels of “leverage” are still excessively higher than they were either in 1999, or 2007.

This is also seen by looking at the S&P 500 versus the growth rate of margin debt.

The mainstream analysis dismisses margin debt under the assumption that it is the reflection of “bullish attitudes” in the market. Leverage fuels the market rise. In the early stages of an advance, this is correct. However, in the later stages of an advance, when bullish optimism and speculative behaviors are at the peaks, leverage has a “dark side” to it. As I discussed previously:

“At some point, a reversion process will take hold. It is when investor ‘psychology collides with ‘leverage and the problems associated with market liquidity. It will be the equivalent of striking a match, lighting a stick of dynamite, and throwing it into a tanker full of gasoline.”

That moment is the “Minsky Moment.”

As noted, these reversion of “bullish excess” are not a new thing. In the book, The Cost of Capitalism, Robert Barbera’s discussed previous periods in history:

The last five major global cyclical events were the early 1990s recession — largely occasioned by the U.S. Savings & Loan crisis, the collapse of Japan Inc. after the stock market crash of 1990, the Asian crisis of the mid-1990s, the fabulous technology boom/bust cycle at the turn of the millennium and the unprecedented rise and then collapse for U.S. residential real estate in 2007-2008.

All five episodes delivered recessions, either global or regional. In no case was there as significant prior acceleration of wages and general prices. In each case, an investment boom and an associated asset market ran to improbably heights and then collapsed. From 1945 to 1985 there was no recession caused by the instability of investment prompted by financial speculation — and since 1985 there has been no recession that has not been caused by these factors. 

Read that last sentence again.

Interestingly, it was post-1970 the Federal Reserve became active in trying to control interest rates and inflation through monetary policy.

As noted in “The Fed & The Stability Instability Paradox:”

“In the U.S., the Federal Reserve has been the catalyst behind every preceding financial event since they became ‘active,’ monetarily policy-wise, in the late 70’s. As shown in the chart below, when the Fed has lifted the short-term lending rates to a level higher than the 2-year rate, bad ‘stuff’ has historically followed.”

The Fed Is Doing It Again

As noted above, “Minsky Moment” crises occur because investors, engaging in excessively aggressive speculation, take on additional credit risk during prosperous times, or bull markets. The longer a bull market lasts, the more investors borrow to try and capitalize on market moves.

However, it hasn’t just been investors tapping into debt to capitalize on the bull market advance, but corporations have gorged on debt for unproductive spending, dividend issuance, and share buybacks. As I noted in last week’s MacroView:

“Since the economy is driven by consumption, and theoretically, companies should be taking on debt for productive purposes to meet rising demand, analyzing corporate debt relative to underlying economic growth gives us a view on leverage levels.”

“The problem with debt, of course, is it is leverage that has to be serviced by underlying cash flows of the business. While asset prices have surged to historic highs, corporate profits for the entirety of U.S. business have remained flat since 2014. Such doesn’t suggest the addition of leverage is being done to ‘grow’ profits, but rather to ‘sustain’ them.”

Over the last decade, the Federal Reserve’s ongoing liquidity interventions, zero interest-rates, and maintaining extremely “accommodative” policies, has led to substantial increases in speculative investment. Such was driven by the belief that if “something breaks,” the Fed will be there to fix to it.

Despite a decade long economic expansion, record stock market prices, and record low unemployment, the Fed continues to support financial speculation through ongoing interventions.

John Authers recently penned an excellent piece on this issue for Bloomberg:

“Why does liquidity look quite so bullish? As ever, we can thank central banks and particularly the Federal Reserve. Twelve months ago, the U.S. central bank intended to restrict liquidity steadily by shrinking the assets on its balance sheet on “auto-pilot.” That changed, though. It reversed course and then cut rates three times. And most importantly, it started to build its balance sheet again in an attempt to shore up the repo market — which banks use to access short-term finance — when it suddenly froze up  in September. In terms of the increase in U.S. liquidity over 12 months, by CrossBorder’s measures, this was the biggest liquidity boost ever:”

While John believes we are early in the global liquidity cycle, I personally am not so sure given the magnitude of the increase Central Bank balance sheets over the last decade.

Currently, global Central Bank balance sheets have grown from roughly $5 Trillion in 2007, to $21 Trillion currently. In other words, Central Bank balance sheets are equivalent to the size of the entire U.S. economy.

In 2007, the global stock market capitalization was $65 Trillion. In 2019, the global stock market capitalization hit $85 Trillion, which was an increase of $20 Trillion, or roughly equivalent to the expansion of the Central Bank balance sheets.

In the U.S., there has been a clear correlation between the Fed’s balance sheet expansions, and speculative risk-taking in the financial markets.

Is Another Minsky Moment Looming?

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has been issuing global warnings of high debt levels and slowing global economic growth, which has the potential to result in Minsky Moment crises around the globe.

While this has not come to fruition yet, the warning signs are there. Globally, there is roughly $15 Trillion in negative-yielding debt with asset prices fundamentally detached for corporate profitability, and excessive valuations on multiple levels.

As Desmond Lachman wrote:

“How else can one explain that the risky U.S. leveraged loan market has increased to more than $1.3 trillion and that the size of today’s global leveraged loan market is some two and a half times the size of the U.S. subprime market in 2008? Or how else can one explain that in 2017 Argentina was able to place a 100-year bond? Or that European high yield borrowers can place their debt at negative interest rates? Or that as dysfunctional and heavily indebted government as that of Italy can borrow at a lower interest rate than that of the United States? Or that the government of Greece can borrow at negative interest rates?

These are all clear indications that speculative excess is present in the markets currently.

However, there is one other prime ingredient needed to complete the environment for a “Minsky Moment” to occur.

That ingredient is complacency.

Yet despite the clearest signs that global credit has been grossly misallocated and that global credit risk has been seriously mispriced, both markets and policymakers seem to be remarkably sanguine. It would seem that the furthest thing from their minds is that once again we could experience a Minsky moment involving a violent repricing of risky assets that could cause real strains in the financial markets.”

Desmond is correct. Currently, despite record asset prices, leverage, debt, combined with slowing economic growth, the level of complacency is extraordinarily high. Given that no one currently believes another “credit-related crisis” can occur is what is needed to allow one to happen.

Professor Minsky taught that markets have short memories, and that they repeatedly delude themselves into believing that this time will be different. Sadly, judging by today’s market exuberance in the face of mounting economic and political risks, once again, Minsky is likely to be proved correct.

At this point in the cycle, the next “Minsky Moment” is inevitable.

All that is missing is the catalyst to start the ball rolling.

An unexpected recession would more than likely due to trick.

MacroView: The Fed’s View Of Valuations May Be Misguided

On Wednesday, the Federal Reserve concluded their January “FOMC” meeting and released their statement. Overall, there was not much to get excited about, as it was virtually the same statement they released at the last meeting.

However, Jerome Powell made a comment which caught our attention:

“We do see asset valuations as being somewhat elevated” 

It is an interesting comment because he compares it to equity yields.

“One way to think about equity prices is what’s the premium you’re getting paid to own equities rather than risk-free debt.”

As we have discussed previously, looking at equity yield, which is the inverse of the price-earnings ratio, versus owning bonds is a flawed and ultimately dangerous premise. To wit:

“Earnings yield has been the cornerstone of the ‘Fed Model’ since the early ’80s. The Fed Model states that when the earnings yield on stocks (earnings divided by price) is higher than the Treasury yield, you should invest in stocks and vice-versa.”

The problem here is two-fold.

1. You receive the income from owning a Treasury bond, whereas there is no tangible return from an earnings yield. For example, if we purchase a Treasury bond with a 5% yield and stock with an 8% earnings yield, if the price of both assets remains stable for one year, the net return on the bond is 5% while the return on the stock is 0%. Which one had the better return?  Furthermore, this has been especially true over the last two decades where owning bonds has outperformed owning stocks. (Data is total real return via Aswath Damodaran, NYU)

2. Unlike stocks, bonds have a finite value. At maturity, the principal is returned to the holder along with the final interest payment. However, while stocks may have an “earnings yield,” which is never received, stocks have price risk, no maturity, and no repayment of principal feature. The risk of owning a stock is exponentially more significant than owning a “risk-free” bond.

This flawed concept of risk, as promoted by the Federal Reserve, also undermines their view of current valuations.

I have spilled an enormous amount of “digital ink” discussing the importance of valuations on future returns for investors, and most recently, why high starting valuations are critically important to individuals at, or near, retirement.

“Over any 30-year period, beginning valuation levels have a tremendous impact on future returns. As valuations rise, future rates of annualized returns fall. This should not be a surprise as simple logic states that if you overpay for an asset today, the future returns must, and will, be lower.”

Not surprisingly, valuations are often dismissed in the short-term because there is not an immediate impact on price returns. Valuations, by their very nature, are not strong predictors of 12-month returns. This was a point made by Janet Yellen in 2017:

“The fact that [stock market] valuations are high doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily overvalued. For starters, high valuations don’t portend lackluster returns in the near term. History shows that valuations provide no reliable signal as to what will happen in the next 12 months.”

That is correct. However, over long periods, valuations are strong predictors of expected returns, which is what matters for investors.

As my friends over at Crescat Capital, Kevin Smith and Tavi Costa, recently penned:

“The problem is that P/E, even Shiller’s cyclically adjusted P/E ratio (CAPE), is a potential value-trap measure in the current economy because of three issues:

  1. Profit margins are unsustainably high today, not only within this business cycle but compared to other business cycles making P/E ratios understated;
  2. The P/E ratio completely ignores debt in its valuation, not a good idea at a time when corporations have record leverage; and
  3. The most common measures of total market P/E use the mean rather than median company valuation which understates the average company’s multiple today by putting more weight on bigger, more profitable companies – the median better captures the valuation of the breadth of the market.

We believe median enterprise value to sales is one of the best measures to understand the extent of the bubble in the stock market today compared to history. By looking at sales and not earnings, we control for today’s likely fleeting, record-high profit margins. And because EV includes debt as well as equity in the total valuation of the company, it properly reflects the valuation of the business. Finally, our focus on the median company’s valuation illustrates the breadth of the valuation extreme in the market today.”

Let’s break down Crescat’s important points visually.

Since the economy is driven by consumption, and theoretically, companies should be taking on debt for productive purposes to meet rising demand, analyzing corporate debt relative to underlying economic growth gives us a view on leverage levels.

As Scott Minerd, CIO of Guggenheim Investments tweeted on Friday:

The problem with debt, of course, is it is leverage that has to be serviced by underlying cash flows of the business. While asset prices have surged to historic highs, corporate profits for the entirety of U.S. business have remained flat since 2014. Such doesn’t suggest the addition of leverage is being done to “grow” profits, but rather to “sustain” them. 

However, when it comes to GAAP earnings per share, which have been heavily manipulated by massive levels of “share buybacks,” the deviation between what investors are paying for earnings is the largest on record, far surpassing the “Dot.com” bubble era.

“The average investor does not need an advanced finance degree to understand these valuation points. It is a worthy endeavor to avoid getting caught up in the popular delusions associated with late-cycle market euphoria. We believe investors will need a good grounding in valuation and business cycle analysis to reject the common buy-the-dip advice that is soon to become prevalent in the still early stages of what is likely to become a brutal bear market.” Crescat Capital

As I stated above, what price-to-earnings (P/E) ratios tell us is that high valuations lead to lower future returns over time. However, what Jerome Powell misses in comments that valuations are elevated, but not concerning, is that it isn’t just P/E’s which are elevated.

“Below is another way to visualize the current market valuation extremes to understand the risks of a severe market downturn ahead. Here we look at each sector of the S&P 500 and compare its valuation today to compared to prior market peaks in the tech and housing bubbles in 2000 and 2007. We can see that an unprecedented 8 out of 11 sectors are at top-decile, historical valuations illustrating the breadth of the current market excess.” – Crescat Capital

“Below we show the gamut of measures currently at record high fundamental valuation for the market at large based on their historical percentile ranking. Data for MAPE and CAPE ratios go back prior to 1929! The other measures are based on the entire history of available data which goes back at least two and half business cycles:” – Crescat Capital

Low Interest Rates Support Higher Valuations

This is where we generally hear a common refrain from the mainstream media:

“Low levels of interest rates justify higher valuations.” 

To analyze the relative value argument, let’s look at the interaction of interest rates and stock valuations over the broad sweep of time. As shown, extremely high stock market valuations occurred in 1929, 2000, and recently. However, interest rates were extremely low only once (recently) during those three occurrences. If low interest rates coincide with extremely high stock valuations only one time out of three, then it is obvious that low interest rates do not cause, or justify, high stock valuations. Yet “low interest rates justify high stock valuations” is one of the certainties of the current mainstream narrative.

Source:  Robert Shiller, multipl.com.  Data through June 2017.

If we isolate the times when interest rates were extremely low, the 1940s and currently, we find in the 1940s stock valuations were low. So, the statement that low interest rates justify high stock valuations is only supported by one event….now.

A better understanding is achieved by the relative value argument that extremely high interest rates coincide with extremely low stock market valuations, which occurred in 1921 and 1981. Although a sample size of two observations is not enough to draw a statistically-significant conclusion, at least it is two events with the same outcome.

The historical relationship between extremes in stock market valuations with extremes in interest rates is as follows:

  • Extremely high interest rates, which have occurred twice, coincided with low stock market valuations.
  • Extremely low interest rates, which have occurred twice, have coincided with high stock market valuations only once; today.
  • Extremely high stock valuations have occurred three times. Only once (1/3 probability) did high stock valuations coincide with low interest rates; today.
  • If extremely low interest rates do not justify extremely high stock market valuations, then a rise in rates should not necessarily cause a decline in stocks, but rising rates do lead to market corrections and bear markets.

Crescat Capital also weighed in on this point as well:

“A common argument today is that low interest rates justify today’s high equity valuations. That is not true at all. When low interest rates are due to low growth and excessive debt, as is the case today, no valuation premium is justified.”

Make No Mistake

Jerome Powell clearly understands that a decade of monetary infusions and low interest rates has created an asset bubble larger than any other in history. However, they are trapped by their own policies as any reversal leads to the one outcome they can’t afford – a broad market correction.

As I wrote previously:

“In the U.S., the Federal Reserve has been the catalyst behind every preceding financial event since they became ‘active,’ monetarily policy-wise, in the late 70’s.”

This is the problem facing the Fed.

Currently, investors have been led to believe that no matter what happens, the Fed can bail out the markets and keep the bull market going for a while longer. Or rather, as Dr. Irving Fisher once uttered:

“Stocks have reached a permanently high plateau.”

Interestingly, the Fed is dependent on both market participants, and consumers, believing in this idea. With the entirety of the financial ecosystem now more heavily levered than ever, due to the Fed’s profligate measures of suppressing interest rates and flooding the system with excessive levels of liquidity, the “instability of stability” is now the most significant risk.

The “stability/instability paradox” assumes that all players are rational, and such rationality implies avoidance of complete destruction. In other words, all players will act rationally, and no one will push “the big red button.”

The Fed is highly dependent on this assumption as it provides the “room” needed, after more than 10-years of the most unprecedented monetary policy program in U.S. history, to try and navigate the risks that have built up in the system.

Simply, the Fed is dependent on “everyone acting rationally.”

The problem comes when they don’t.

MacroView: Elites View The World Through “Market Colored” Glasses

It is easy to suggest the economy is booming when your net worth is in the hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars, or when your business, and your net worth, directly benefit from surging asset prices. This was the consensus from the annual gaggle of the ultra-rich, politicians, and media stars in Davos, Switzerland this past week.

As J.P. Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon told CNBC on Wednesday the stock market is in a “Goldilocks place.” 

Of course, it is when you bank receives an annual dividend from the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet expansion. This isn’t the first time I have picked on Dimon’s delusional view of the world. To wit:

“This is the most prosperous economy the world has ever seen and it’s going to be a very prosperous economy for the next 100 years. The consumer, which is 70% of the U.S. economy, is quite strong. Confidence is very high. Their balance sheets are in great shape. And you see that the strength of the American consumer is driving the American economy and the global economy. And while business slowed down, my current view is that, no, it just was a slowdown, not a petering out.”  

Jamie Dimon during a “60-Minutes” interview.

If you’re in the top 1-2% of income earners, like Jamie, I am sure it feels that way.

For everyone else, not so much. Here are some stats via the WSJ:

The median net worth of households in the middle 20% of income rose 4% in inflation-adjusted terms to $81,900 between 1989 and 2016, the latest available data. For households in the top 20%, median net worth more than doubled to $811,860. And for the top 1%, the increase was 178% to $11,206,000.”

Put differently, the value of assets for all U.S. households increased from 1989 through 2016 by an inflation-adjusted $58 trillion. A full 33% of that gain—$19 trillion—went to the wealthiest 1%, according to a Journal analysis of Fed data.

The problem that is missed is that the “stock market” is NOT the “economy.”

This is a point President Trump misses entirely when he tweets:

“Stocks are hitting record highs. You’re welcome.”

As discussed earlier this week, 90% of the population gets little, or no, direct benefit from the rise in stock market prices.

Another way to view this issue is by looking at household net worth growth between the top 10% and everyone else.

Since 2007, the ONLY group that has seen an increase in net worth is the top 10% of the population. This is not economic prosperity. This is simply a distortion of economics.

Another example of President Trump’s misunderstanding of the linkage between the economy and the stock market was displayed in his presser on Wednesday.

“Now, had we not done the big raise on interest [rates], I think we would have been close to 4% [GDP]. And I – I could see 5,000 to 10,000 points more on the Dow. But that was a killer when they raised the [interest] rate. It was just a big mistake.”President Donald Trump via CNBC

That is not actually the case. From 2009-2016, the Federal Reserve held rates at 0%, and flooded the financial system with 3-consecutive rounds of “Quantitative Easing” or “Q.E.” During that period average real rates of economic growth rates never rose much above 2%.

Yes, asset prices surged as liquidity flooded the markets, but as noted above “Q.E.” programs did not translate into economic activity. The two 4-panel charts below shows the entirety of the Fed’s balance sheet expansion program (as a percentage) and its relative impact on various parts of the real economy. (The orange bar shows now many dollars of increase in the Fed’s balance sheet that it took to create an increase in each data point.)

As you can see, it took trillions in “QE” programs, not to mention trillions in a variety of other bailout programs, to create a relative minimal increase in economic data. Of course, this explains the growing wealth gap which currently exists. Furthermore, while the Fed did hike rates slightly off of zero, and reduce their bloated balance sheet by a negligible amount, there was very little impact on asset prices or the trajectory of economic growth.

Not understood, especially by the Fed, is that the natural rate of economic growth is declining due to their very practices which incentivize non-productive debt. While QE and low rates may boost growth a little and for a short period of time, they actually harm future growth.

The Goldilocks Warning

While Jamie Dimon suggests we are in a “Goldilocks economy,” and President Trump says we are in the “Greatest Economy Ever,” such really isn’t the case. Despite a severe economic slow down globally, Dimon believes the domestic economy will continue to chug along with not enough inflation to push the Fed into hiking rates, but also won’t fall into a recession.

It is a “just right” economy, which will allow corporate profits to grow at a strong enough rate for stocks to continue to rise at 8-10% per year. Every year, into eternity.

This is where Jamie’s delusion becomes most evident. As shown in the chart below, since 2014, the S&P 500 index has soared to record heights, yet corporate profits for the entire universe of U.S. corporations have failed to rise at all. This is the clearest evidence of the disconnect between the markets and the real economy.

Note: It is worth mentioning the last time we saw a period where corporate profits were flat, while stock market prices surged higher was from 1995-1999. Unfortunately, as is repeatedly the case throughout history, prices “catch down” with profits and not the other way around.

Interestingly, in the rush to come up with a “bullish thesis” as to why stocks should continue to elevate in the future, many have forgotten the last time the U.S. entered into such a state of “economic bliss.”

“The Fed’s official forecast, an average of forecasts by Fed governors and the Fed’s district banks, essentially portrays a ‘Goldilocks’ economy that is neither too hot, with inflation, nor too cold, with rising unemployment.” – WSJ Feb 15, 2007

Of course, it was just 10-months later that the U.S. entered into a recession, followed by the worst financial crisis since the “Great Depression.”

The problem with this “oft-repeated monument to trite” is that it’s absolute nonsense. As John Tamny once penned:

A “Goldilocks Economy,” one that is “not too hot and not too cold,” is very much the fashionable explanation at the moment for all that’s allegedly good. “Goldilocks” presumes economic uniformity where there is none, as though there’s no difference between Sausalito and Stockton, New York City and Newark. But there is, and that’s what’s so silly about commentary that lionizes the Fed for allegedly engineering “Goldilocks,” “soft landings,” and other laughable concepts that could only be dreamed up by the economics profession and the witless pundits who promote the profession’s mysticism.

What this tells us is that the Fed can’t engineer the falsehood that is Goldilocks, rather the Fed’s meddling is what some call Goldilocks, and sometimes worse. Not too hot and not too cold isn’t something sane minds aspire to, rather it’s the mediocrity we can expect so long as we presume that central bankers allocating the credit of others is the source of our prosperity.”

John is correct. An economy that is growing at 2%, inflation near zero, and Central banks globally required to continue dumping trillions of dollars into the financial system just to keep it afloat is not an economy we should be aspiring to.

The obvious question we should be asking is simply:

“If we are in a booming economy, as supposedly represented by surging asset prices, then why are Central Banks globally acting to increase financial stimulus for the market?”

The problem the Fed and other central banks confront is that, when market levels are predicated on ever-cheaper cash being freely available, even the faintest threat that the cash might become more expensive or less available causes shock waves.

This was clearly seen in late 2018, when the Fed signaled it might increase the pace of normalizing monetary policy, the markets imploded, and the Fed was forced to halt its planned continued shrinking of its balance sheet. Then, under intense pressure from the White House, and still choppy markets, they reduced interest rates to bolster asset markets and stave off a potential recessionary threat.

The reality is the Fed has left unconventional policies in place for so long after the “Financial Crisis,” the markets can no longer function without them. Risk-taking, and a build-up of financial leverage, has now removed their ability to “normalize” financial policy without triggering destructive convulsions.

Given there is simply too much debt, too much activity predicated on ultra-low interest rates, and confidence hinging on inflated asset values, the Fed has no choice but to keep pushing liquidity until something eventually “pops.”

Unfortunately, when trapped in a “Goldilocks” economy, realities tend to become blurred as inherent danger is quickly dismissed. A recent comment from another “Davos elite,” Bob Prince, who helps oversee the world’s biggest hedge fund at Bridgewater Associates, made this clear.

“The tightening of central banks all around the world wasn’t intended to cause the downturn, wasn’t intended to cause what it did. But I think lessons were learned from that and I think it was really a marker that we’ve probably seen the end of the boom-bust cycle.”

No more “booms” and “busts?”

Thomas Palley had an interesting take on this:

The US is currently enjoying another stock market boom which, if history is any guide, also stands to end in a bust.

For four decades the US economy has been trapped in a ‘Groundhog Day’ cycle in which policy engineered new stock market booms to cover the tracks of previous busts. But as each new boom ameliorates, it does not recuperate the prior damage done to income distribution and shared prosperity.”

Well, except for those at the top, as Sven Henrick concluded last week:

“In a world of measured low inflation and weak wage growth easy central bank money creates vast price inflation in the assets owned by the few making the rich richer, but also enables the taking on ever higher debt burdens leaving everyone else to foot the ultimate bill.

There are two guarantees in life: The rich get obscenely rich, everybody else gets to carry ever more obscene public debt levels.”

That is the measured outcome of the central bank easy money dynamic that has been with us now for decades, but has taken on new obscene forms in the past 10 years with absolutely no end in sight.”

While the elites are certainly taking in the “view through market colored” glasses, the reality is far different for most.

It is true the bears didn’t eat “Goldilocks” at the end of the story, but then again, there never was a sequel either.

MacroView: 2020 Market & Investment Outlook

On Tuesday, Michael Lebowitz and I held private events with our high net worth clients to review our investment strategy and outlook for the rest of the year. The purpose of these events was to provide clarity on portfolio allocation, weightings,  and the risks that could potentially lead to large losses of capital.

As we noted in last weekend’s newsletter, we recently took profits in our various portfolio strategies to raise cash slightly, and reduce excess portfolio risk. Given our portfolios are already hedged with early exposures to value positioning, gold, and short-duration Treasuries, there currently isn’t a need to become overly defensive given the ongoing, liquidity fueled, momentum of the markets. 

Currently, the bullish exuberance, extreme complacency, and technical deviations are issuing warning signs which investors should NOT readily dismiss. These are the issues we cover in the following video presentation:

  1. The “risks” to the current “bullish view,” 
  2. Why we reduced risk in portfolios
  3. The importance of valuations
  4. The Fed’s ongoing liquidity programs.
  5. Future expected returns, and more.

If you have any questions, please email us.


 

MacroView: Has The Fed Trapped Itself?

“Don’t fight the Fed”

That’s how I started out last week’s “Macroview.”

“That is the current mantra of the market as we begin 2020, and it certainly seems to be the right call. Over the last few months, the Federal Reserve has continued its ‘QE-Not QE’ operations, which has dramatically expanded its balance sheet. Many argue, rightly, the current monetary interventions by the Fed are technically ‘Not QE’ because they are purchasing Treasury Bills rather than longer-term Treasury Notes.

However, ‘Mr. Market’ doesn’t see it that way. As the old saying goes, ‘if it looks, walks, and quacks like a duck…it’s a duck.'” 

As we discussed, there is something “broken” in the financial system when it requires massive injections of capital to maintain sufficient liquidity. This was a point noted by Curvature Securities’ Scott Skyrm in his daily “Repo Market Commentary” via Zerohedge:

“Indeed, something appears amiss, because the total overnight and term Fed RP operations on Friday were greater than on year end! On year-end, the Fed had pumped a total of $255.95 billion into the market verses $258.9 billion on Friday.”

When these excessive “Repurchase Operations” initially began in late September, we were told they were to meet corporate tax payments. The issue with that excuse is that corporate tax payments come due every quarter and are easy to forecast weeks in advance. Why was last October’s payment period so different? But, following October 15th, the “repo” operations should have been no longer needed, however, the funding not only continued, but grew.

As the end of the year approached, we were told liquidity was needed to meet “the turn,” as 2019 ended, and 2020 began. Once again, this excuse falls short as, without exception, every year ends on December 31st. So, after nearly a decade of NO “repo” operations, as shown below, what is really going on?

What is clear, is the Fed may be trapped in their own process, a point made by Mark Cabana of BofAML:

“It seems implausible to me that the Fed will be able to stop their repo operations by the end of January.”

The Fed’s New Liquidity Trap

We previously discussed the “liquidity trap” the Fed has gotten themselves into, along with Japan, which will plague economic growth in the future. To wit:

“The signature characteristics of a liquidity trap are short-term interest rates that are near zero and fluctuations in the monetary base that fail to translate into fluctuations in general price levels.

Our “economic composite” indicator is comprised of 10-year rates, inflation (CPI), wages, and the dollar index. Importantly, downturns in the composite index leads GDP.

The Fed’s problem is not only are they caught in an “economic liquidity trap,” where monetary policy has become ineffective in stimulating economic growth, but are also captive to a “market liquidity trap.”

As Mr. Skrym noted:

“The problem with the broken repo market, and the Fed’s respective Repo operations, is similar to the problem observed with QE, and the Fed’s balance sheet in general, over the past decade. The market has gotten addicted to the easy Fed liquidity.” 

This can be seen in the chart below.

Whenever the Fed, or other Global Central Banks, have engaged in “accommodative monetary policy,” such as QE and rate cuts, asset prices have risen. However, as denoted by the “red” shaded areas, when those activities are not present, asset prices have declined.

In short, the market has become addicted to QE, and like any drug addict, when the drug was taken away in 2018, as the Fed hiked rates and reduced their balance sheet in an attempt to normalize policy, the market dropped by nearly 20%.

To understand why this is important we have to go back to what Ben Bernanke said in 2010 as he launched the second round of QE:

“This approach eased financial conditions in the past and, so far, looks to be effective again. Stock prices rose and long-term interest rates fell when investors began to anticipate the most recent action. Easier financial conditions will promote economic growth. For example, lower mortgage rates will make housing more affordable and allow more homeowners to refinance. Lower corporate bond rates will encourage investment. And higher stock prices will boost consumer wealth and help increase confidence, which can also spur spending.”

I highlight the last sentence because it is the most important. Consumer spending makes up roughly 70% of GDP, therefore increased consumer confidence is critical to keeping consumers in action. The problem is the economy is no longer a “productive” economy, but rather a “financial” one. A point made by Ellen Brown recently:

“The financialized economy – including stocks, corporate bonds and real estate – is now booming. Meanwhile, the bulk of the population struggles to meet daily expenses. The world’s 500 richest people got $12 trillion richer in 2019, while 45% of Americans have no savings, and nearly 70% could not come up with $1,000 in an emergency without borrowing.

Central bank policies intended to boost the real economy have had the effect only of boosting the financial economy. The policies’ stated purpose is to increase spending by increasing lending by banks, which are supposed to be the vehicles for liquidity to flow from the financial to the real economy. But this transmission mechanism isn’t working, because consumers are tapped out.”

If consumption retrenches, so does the economy.

When this happens debt defaults rise, the financial system reverts, and bad things happen economically.

For this reason the Federal Reserve has been engaged in an ongoing campaign to “avoid the pain” experienced during the financial crisis. This was a question asked of Janet Yellen during her semi-annual Humphrey-Hawkins testimony by Rep. Edward Royce. I am going to break this down for clarity.

“ROYCE: I’m worried that the Federal Reserve has created a third pillar of monetary policy, that of a stable and rising stock market. And I say that because then-Chairman Bernanke, when he appeared here, stated repeatedly that, ‘the goal of QE was to increase asset prices like the stock market to create a wealth effect.’”

As stated, Ben Bernanke clearly states the goal of Q.E. was to increase asset prices. As Royce continues he clearly identifies the Fed’s “new liquidity trap:”

“ROYCE: That seems as though that was goal. It would stand to reason then that in deciding to raise rates and reduce the Fed’s QE balance sheet standing at a still record $4.5 trillion, one would have to be prepared to accept the opposite result, a declining stock market, and a slight deflation of the asset bubble that QE created.

Yet, every time in the past three years when there has been a hint of raising rates and the stock market has declined accordingly, the Fed has cited stock market volatility as one of the reasons to stay the course and hold rates at zero.

Read the last paragraph again.

Royce understands that in order to normalize monetary policy, and return markets to a more normal state of operation, some pain would have to be expected.

So, what was Yellen’s response.

YELLEN: It is not a third pillar of monetary policy. We DO NOT target the level of stock prices. That is not an appropriate thing for us to do.”

Yes, the Fed absolutely targets the financial markets with their policies. However, as Royce notes above, it will require a level of pain to wean the markets off of ongoing liquidity. In 2018, the Fed learned their lesson of what would happen as the small adjustment to monetary policy they did make resulted in a market decline of nearly 20%, yield curves inverted, and threats of a recession rose.

They aren’t willing to make that mistake again. The subsequent policy reversal pushed the markets to new record highs, which has been a function of  valuation expansion due to the lack of improvement in underlying fundamentals and earnings.

The Inextricable Problem

The problem is that stopping the current “repo” operations is that it could well spark another “repo market crisis,” especially with $259 billion in liquidity pumped currently. Notably, that is even more than what was at year end to fulfill “the turn.”

The BIS recently explained why these operations lift asset prices.

Repo markets redistribute liquidity between financial institutions: not only banks (as is the case with the federal funds market), but also insurance companies, asset managers, money market funds and other institutional investors. In so doing, they help other financial markets to function smoothly. Thus, any sustained disruption in this market, with daily turnover in the U.S. market of about $1 trillion, could quickly ripple through the financial system. The freezing-up of repo markets in late 2008 was one of the most damaging aspects of the Great Financial Crisis (GFC).

You really have to ask what is going on here. Wall Street veteran Caitlin Long provided a clue.

U.S. Treasuries are the most rehypothecated asset in financial markets, and the big banks know this. [They] are the core asset used by every financial institution to satisfy its capital and liquidity requirements, which means that no one really knows how big the hole is at a system-wide level.

This is the real reason why the repo market periodically seizes up. It’s akin to musical chairs – no one knows how many players will be without a chair until the music stops.

As ZeroHedge noted, this isn’t just a bank issue.

Hedge funds are the most heavily leveraged multi-strategy funds in the world, taking something like $20 billion to $30 billion in net assets under management and levering it up to $200 billion. As noted by The Financial Times:

“Some hedge funds take the Treasury security they have just bought and use it to secure cash loans in the repo market. They then use this fresh cash to increase the size of the trade, repeating the process over and over and ratcheting up the potential returns.”

So….it’s a hedge fund problem, right?

Probably.

“The repo-funded [arbitrage] was (ab)used by most multi-strat funds, and the Federal Reserve was suddenly facing multiple LTCM (Long-Term Capital Management) blow-ups which could have started an avalanche. Such would have resulted in trillions of assets being forcefully liquidated as a tsunami of margin calls hit the hedge funds world.”

Think “Lehman crisis” multiplied by a factor of four.

The Fed’s position is they must continue inflating a valuation bubble despite the inherent, and understood, risks of doing so. However, with no alternative to “emergency measures,” the Fed is trapped in their own process. The longer they continue their monetary interventions, the more impossible it becomes for the Fed to extricate itself without causing the crash they want to avoid.

Stated simply, the longer the Fed avoids normalizing monetary policy, and weaning the “crack addicted” markets off of their “liquidity drug,” the bigger the “reversion” will be “when,” not “if,” it occurs.

The only question is how much longer can Jerome Powell continue “pushing on a string.”

Technically Speaking: Markets Dismiss Iran As The Fed “Put” Remains

You would think that with the U.S. taking out a top Iranian commander, threats of military action flying between the U.S. and Iran, not to mention the Selective Service” website crashing over concerns of World War III, the markets would be in full “sell” mode.

If you thought that would be the case, you were wrong.

Here is the market from the beginning of the year through yesterday’s close.

The dismissal by the market of the situation with Iran suggests only a couple of things:

  1. The market sees no inherent risk from Iran other than a lot of “saber rattling,” or
  2. Given the Federal Reserve’s recent transition to a “do anything” monetary policy stance, all “risks” are being dismissed under the assumption the Fed has become a “cure all” for any market ill.

Since this is a technical post on the financial markets and investing, I won’t get into all the risks inherent from a conflict with Iran. However, if we assume there are indeed “risks” with Iran, then it becomes apparent the market is betting on the Fed.

As I noted in this past weekend’s missive, the Fed has been dumping massive amounts of liquidity into the system over the last few weeks. To wit:

“But concerns over potential Iranian conflict quickly abated as the markets returned their focus to the Federal Reserve, and the continued pump of monetary liquidity into the markets. 

Currently, we are told there is ‘nothing to worry about’ concerning the financial system. Maybe, but the amount of liquidity being injected dwarfs all previous injections by massive proportions.

Those injections continue to run unabated currently, which has lulled the markets into a more extreme state of complacency. This can see in the low reading of bearish investors and the suppressed levels of the put/call ratio. Both suggest there is “no fear” of a market correction currently. (h/t Soberlook)

Here is the investor conundrum.

With the market currently on registering of the monthly buy signals, which confirmed the bull market in the S&P 500 had resumed following the 2018 Fed/Trade induced sell-off, there is also the risk of a short-term correction. Previously, when the market was this extended, deviated from longer-term means, and excessively bullish, a correction has always occurred. The problem for investors is maintaining patience in the process.

The chart below shows the issues. When the market becomes more than 2-standard deviations above the 200-WEEK (4-year) moving average, you have gotten a correction, or a deeper mean-reverting event. However, since this a weekly chart, those corrective processes can take some time to occur. This lures investors into thinking “this time is different,” just before an event has tended to reduce their investment capital

Optimistically Cautious Short-Term

In the short-term, our outlook remains optimistically cautious due to the aforementioned ongoing liquidity injections from the Federal Reserve. As we noted to our RIAPro Subscribers yesterday (Try Free For 30-Days):

“The markets remain positively biased but have gotten overly extended in the short-term. We suggest remain long current holdings, but take profits and rebalance risks in positions accordingly. We will likely have a much better entry point in the next couple of months to ‘buy’ into.”

While we remain optimistic on stocks over the next couple of months, as we are in the “seasonally strong period” of the year, there are several risks which need monitoring closely.

The most obvious risk is a reversal of the Fed’s monetary policy. Currently, the Fed’s balance sheet has almost entirely reversed last year’s decline. Subsequently, changes in the S&P 500 have closely tracked weekly changes to the Fed’s balance sheet. As noted last week:

Of course, it should be expected that if the Fed reverses those flows, then equities will likely follow suit.

Secondly, ultimately, will be valuations.

Yes, I know that “valuations” do not seem to matter currently, however, it is important to realize they will eventually matter, and they will matter a lot.

Currently, the S&P 500 trading roughly 20x current reported earnings estimates of $161.87 per share for the end of 2020, based on data from S&P Dow Jones. Going back to the year 1988, on average, the S&P 500 trades for around 16x times trailing earnings estimates. But it isn’t just P/E ratios which are rich. As we discussed yesterday, multiple measures of the markets are trading at levels which have denoted much lower rates of returns going forward.

What this suggests is that for equities to see a continued, and significant, advance in 2020, it will require investors to continue paying higher prices for equity ownership. While this may seem to make sense in a “low-interest rate” world, historically overpaying for earnings growth has often turned out poorly.

In other words, what investors are betting on is that earnings will catch up with price. However, currently, there is no evidence such will be the case as earnings have been repeatedly ratcheted lower since April 2019.

As shown in the chart below, earnings for the entire 2020 period started at $174.29/share. At that time, the beginning of April, the S&P 500 was trading at 2892. While the forward P/E seemed reasonable at 16.5x earnings, which was roughly equal to the long-term average, this assumed earnings estimates were correct. However, with the S&P 500 trading, as of yesterday’s close, at 3246, estimates for 2020 have fallen to just $161.87. That $12 decline in estimates, combined with a 354 point (an 11.8% advance) in the market, brings that forward P/E multiple to a rather expensive 20.05x reported earnings.

Of course, the risk to investors is that earnings growth fails to recover as we head further into 2020. Currently, there is evidence from the manufacturing, employment and wage data which suggests such could indeed be the case.

The Path Ahead

What is clear is that the path ahead for stocks is much less certain than a year ago when we were coming off deeply depressed sentiment levels, and the Fed was rapidly reversing monetary policy from “tightening” to “easing.”  With equities now 30% higher than they were then, the Fed mostly on hold in terms of rate cuts, and “repo” operations slated to end in the next couple of months, it certainly seems that expectations for substantially higher market values may be a bit optimistic.

Furthermore, as noted, if signs of economic improvement don’t start to lift expectations for earnings growth into the last half of the year, it could prove problematic given current valuations.

However, if the economy does show improvement, it could result in yields rising on the long-end of the curve, which could also make stocks less attractive. This would effectively keep a lid on just how much risk some investors will be willing to take, and the price they are willing to pay.

One thing is for certain, the sharp rise in stocks in 2019 has left prices at levels that already seem expensive on numerous measures. As such it will required investors to take on increasing levels of risk if prices are going to push higher this year. While this is certainly not an improbability given the current levels of complacency and optimism, it is just worth noting that outcomes of such endeavors have always been poor.

There is one true axiom of the market which is always forgotten.

“The market has a habit of sucking investors in to inflict the most pain possible.”

Just make sure you aren’t one of them.

If you feel you must chase the markets currently, then at least do it with a set of guidelines to follow in case things turn against you. We printed these a couple of weeks ago, but felt there are worth mentioning again.

  1. Move slowly. There is no rush in adding equity exposure to your portfolio. Use pullbacks to previous support levels to make adjustments.
  1. If you are heavily UNDER-weight equities, DO NOT try and fully adjust your portfolio to your target allocation in one move.This could be disastrous if the market reverses sharply in the short term. Again, move slowly.
  1. Begin by selling laggards and losers. These positions are dragging on performance as the market rises and tend to lead when markets fall. Like “weeds choking a garden,” pull them.
  1. Add to sectors, or positions, that are performing with, or outperforming, the broader market.
  1. Move “stop loss” levels up to current breakout levels for each position. Managing a portfolio without “stop loss” levels is like driving with your eyes closed.
  2. While the technical trends are intact, risk considerably outweighs the reward. If you are not comfortable with potentially having to sell at a LOSS what you just bought, then wait for a larger correction to add exposure more safely. There is no harm in waiting for the “fat pitch” as the current market setup is not one.
  1. If none of this makes any sense to you – please consider hiring someone to manage your portfolio for you. It will be worth the additional expense over the long term.

While we remain optimistic on the markets currently, we are also taking precautionary steps of tightening up stops, adding non-correlated assets, raising some cash, and looking to hedge risk opportunistically.

Just because it isn’t raining right now, doesn’t mean it won’t. Nobody has ever gotten hurt by keeping an umbrella handy.

MacroView: Will The The Market Repeat The Start Of 2018?

“Don’t fight the Fed”

That is the current mantra of the market as we begin 2020, and it certainly seems to be the right call. Over the last few months, the Federal Reserve has continued its “QE-Not QE” operations, which has dramatically expanded its balance sheet. Many argue, rightly, the current monetary interventions by the Fed are technically “Not QE” because they are purchasing Treasury Bills rather than longer-term Treasury Notes.

However, “Mr. Market” doesn’t see it that way. As the old saying goes, “if it looks, walks, and quacks like a duck…it’s a duck.” 

Those liquidity flows most notably have been chasing the largest of large caps – namely Apple (AAPL) and Microsoft (MSFT). As Ed Dowd noted, there are many similarities between now and the last time the Fed was fighting a perceived liquidity shortage before the “turn of the century” over concerns of “Y2K.”

But here is what jumped out at me.

Going back to 2016, as the world faced a “Brexit” crisis, the Fed, ECB, and the BOE all joined forces to provide liquidity to the markets. Then, just before the 2016 election, as the world was concerned a “Trump Election” would crash the market, the Fed provided a huge boost of liquidity. All along the way, each dip in the market was met by liquidity support.

Currently, we are being told there is “nothing to worry about” with respect to the financial system. Maybe, but the amount of liquidity being injected dwarfs all previous injections by massive proportions.

You can see the issue more clearly looking at a rolling 4-week change to the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet.

So, despite commentary to the contrary, there are only two conclusions to draw from the data:

  1. There is something functionally “broken” in the financial system which is requiring massive injections of liquidity to try and rectify, and;
  2. The surge in liquidity, whether you want to call it a “duck,” or not, is finding its way into the equity markets.

January 2018 Redux

“The exuberance that surrounded the markets going into the end of last year, as fund managers ramped up allocations for end of the year reporting, spilled over into the start of the new with S&P hitting new record highs.

Of course, this is just a continuation of the advance that has been ongoing since the Trump election. The difference this time is the extreme push into 3-standard deviation territory above the moving average which is concerning.” – Real Investment Report Jan, 5th 2018

At the beginning of 2018, following the passage of “tax reform,” the market was pushing 3-standard deviations of the 50-dma. It eventually pushed 3-standard deviations above the 200-dma before it came crashing back to earth. The second time it pushed the same deviation was in October of 2018, which was again followed by a marked decline.

Currently, that push into a 3-standard deviation extreme is once again present. Does that mean a sharp correction is coming? Not necessarily. However, it does suggest gains are likely limited in the short-term.

As I stated in 2018:

“That extension, combined with extreme overbought conditions multiple levels, has historically not been met with the most optimistic of outcomes. But, as I will discuss next, “exuberance” of this type is not uncommon during a market ‘melt-up’ phase.”

Currently, “exuberance” has returned with a vengeance, as noted by my friend and colleague Doug Kass:

“2019 ended in an entirely dissimilar manner compared to the way that 2018 ended. (As an example the CNN Fear & Greed Index was under 10 a year ago, its at 90 this week).

Despite a continued manufacturing recession, ongoing weakness in many global economies, political discord (and a Presidential impeachment), little resolution of the U.S./China trade differences and a flat year for S&P profits – valuations exploded (from 14.5x to nearly 19x) as confidence in an extended domestic economic recovery was heightened.”

But it isn’t just sentiment which has gotten extraordinarily extended, but also investor positioning on many levels both individual and professional.

Lastly, our composite technical overbought/oversold gauge has also hit extremes.

In other words, “everyone is in the pool,” including the “life guards.” 

While the levels of exuberance are quite astonishing, it certainly isn’t surprising. This is what has been witnessed during previous market “melt-ups” throughout history. Jeremy Grantham of GMO previously wrote an excellent piece on market “melt-ups” and potential outcomes. To wit:

“As a historian of the great equity bubbles, I also recognize that we are currently showing signs of entering the blow-off or melt-up phase of this very long bull market. 

The classic examples are not just characterized by higher-than-average prices. Price alone seems to me now to be by no means a sufficient sign of an impending bubble break. Among other factors, indicators of extremes of euphoria seem much more important than price.

Let’s look at what is missing in the way of psychological and technical signs of a late-stage bubble and what is beginning to fall into place. On the topic of classic bubbles, I have long shown Exhibits 1 and 2. They recognize the importance of a true psychological event of momentum increasing to a frenzy. That is to say, acceleration of price.

Grantham is certainly very correct in his analysis. As shown in the chart below, the reversion of oversold, to extreme overbought (top panel in blue) has been extremely rapid. Historically speaking, such extreme overbought, overconfident, and extended markets tend not to stay that way for long.

From S&P 3300 to 3500, & Back Again

While we penned our initial target for the bull cycle at 3300 in July, given the extreme level of Federal Reserve monetary interventions, I certainly WOULD NOT rule out the possibility of a further melt up to 3500.

It is a possibility which must be considered. However, you must also balance that possibility with the probability of an eventual reversion. As noted by George Soros’ “Theory of Reflexivity:”

Typically bubbles have an asymmetric shape. The boom is long and slow to start. It accelerates gradually until it flattens out again during the twilight period. The bust is short and steep because it involves the forced liquidation of unsound positions.”

Asymmetric-bubbles

In the latter stages of the advance, money simply chases price. This is the point in the cycle where everything rises regardless of fundamental underpinnings or value.

2019 was such a year.

Eric Parnell recently noted the same:

“It’s a marshmallow world for capital markets as we enter 2020. Name the asset class, and it had a stellar year in 2019. U.S. stocks? Up over +30%. Stocks across the rest of the world? Higher by more than +20%. Investment grade corporate bonds? Up nearly +20%. High yield bonds? +14%. Long-Term US Treasuries? +15%. Gold and silver? +16% each. Even long struggling commodities posted high single-digit returns this year. If you were allocated to risk assets in 2019, you likely enjoyed a good year.”

However, as Eric notes, when everything is “as good as it can get,” that only leaves one other option.

“Past performance can present future challenges. Most significantly, such universally good returns are difficult to maintain. Typically, capital markets assign winners and losers even when the % stimulus is pumping full throttle as it is today. So whether such good times can continue in 2020 across all asset classes remains to be seen, but investors are well served to consider what categories may be best positioned to continue to climb and those that may be set to take a breather in the year ahead.”

In particular, stocks are facing increasingly challenging headwinds from sluggish economic growth, to weaker earnings growth. Currently, economists are predicting economic growth below 2% in 2020, as noted by FactSet:

“While the odds of a near-term recession appear to have diminished, growth is projected to slow in the coming quarters due to a weaker global outlook and reduced global trade flows. U.S. economic growth is expected to continue to slow into 2020, with analysts surveyed by FactSet projecting 2.3% annual growth in 2019 followed by 1.8% in 2020.”

Despite the S&P 500 being up 353% (total return since January 1st, 2009), economic growth has been the weakest in history.

This is why the differential between GAAP earnings and corporate profits is going to be a major challenge for investors going forward.

This was a point Eric noted:

“Stocks are facing a slowing corporate earnings problem in 2020. Quarterly GAAP earnings on the S&P 500 declined by more than -6% on a year-over-year basis in 2019 Q3. This marked the first quarterly year-over-year decline since 2015 Q4 and 2016 Q1 when oil prices were cascading to the downside and the U.S. economy appeared headed toward recession were it not for a major monetary policy intervention stick save.

Thus, corporate earnings growth is not only slowing, but it may be set up to disappoint in the coming quarters.”

As such, stocks will likely once again be reliant on both multiple expansion and share buybacks for further gains in 2020. However, there are limits to just how many shares a company can repurchase given balance sheet constraints of both liquid cash and debt levels.

The bullish case does remain as both fiscal and monetary stimulus remains excessively abundant. Given the recent passage of another $1.4 trillion continue resolution to increase spending without the constraint of a “debt ceiling,” and the Fed continuing with monetary interventions, the amount of money sloshing around the system has to go somewhere.

This is why, despite excessive technical deviations, extraordinary complacency, and extreme bullishness, we remain allocated toward equity risk in portfolios currently.

But, these words were the same as 2018 opened for trading. Just a few weeks later, as Trump launched the “trade war,” exuberance was replaced with pessimism as stocks wiped out all the gains for the month.

What could trip up the markets this January?

In a word, “much.” 

2020: The Futility Of Predictions & Understanding The Risk

“Predictions Are Difficult…Especially When They Are About The Future” – Niels Bohr

We can’t predict the future. If we could, fortune tellers would win all of the lotteries. They don’t, we can’t, and we are not going to try to.

However, we can analyze what has happened in the past, weed through the noise of the present, and discern the possible outcomes of the future. The biggest problem with Wall Street, both today and in the past, is the consistent disregard of the unexpected and random events they inevitability occur.

There was once a study done of the accuracy of “predictions.” The study took predictions from a broad range of professions from psychics to weathermen. The study came to two conclusions. The first was that “weathermen” are the MOST accurate predictors of the future. The second conclusion was that the predictive ability was only accurate out to 3-days. Beyond 3-days, and the predictive ability was no better than a coin flip.

When it comes to trying to predict what will happen in the financial markets over the next year, which is an annual event, it is essentially an act of futility. Given the markets are affected by a broad spectrum of inputs from economics, to geopolitics, monetary policy, rates, and financial events, any prediction should be taken with a very high degree of skepticism.

So, with that said, here is how we are preparing for 2020.

Odds Have It

In our portfolio management practice, we begin with the basic assumption there is a 69% chance the market will finish the coming year at a level greater than where it started. That 69% probability comes from the fact that over the last 120-years, the market has (on a total real return basis) finished the year in positive territory 83 times, and negative only 37 times.

Therefore, from an “odds” perspective, markets are more likely to finish positive on any given year, than not. By starting our forecast with this basic assumption, it removes all the “guess work” of what has to go “right,” leaving us with only having to focus on the things which could potentially “go wrong.” 

At the core of our portfolio management process is a risk management thesis. That philosophy was well defined by Robert Rubin, former Secretary of the Treasury, when he said;

“As I think back over the years, I have been guided by four principles for decision making.  First, the only certainty is that there is no certainty.  Second, every decision, as a consequence, is a matter of weighing probabilities.  Third, despite uncertainty we must decide and we must act.  And lastly, we need to judge decisions not only on the results, but on how they were made.

Most people are in denial about uncertainty. They assume they’re lucky, and that the unpredictable can be reliably forecast. This keeps business brisk for palm readers, psychics, and stockbrokers, but it’s a terrible way to deal with uncertainty. If there are no absolutes, then all decisions become matters of judging the probability of different outcomes, and the costs and benefits of each. Then, on that basis, you can make a good decision.”

It should be obvious that an honest assessment of uncertainty leads to better decisions, but the benefits of Rubin’s approach, and mine, goes beyond that. For starters, although it may seem contradictory, embracing uncertainty reduces risk while denial increases it. Another benefit of acknowledged uncertainty is it keeps you honest.

“A healthy respect for uncertainty and focus on probability drives you never to be satisfied with your conclusions.  It keeps you moving forward to seek out more information, to question conventional thinking and to continually refine your judgments and understanding that difference between certainty and likelihood can make all the difference.”

The reality is that we can’t control outcomes. The most we can do is influence the probability of certain outcomes through the management of risks, and investing based on probabilities, rather than possibilities, which is important to capital preservation and investment success over time.

So, as we head into 2020, here is a short-list of the things we are either currently hedging portfolios against, or will potentially need to:

  1. China fails to comply with the terms of the “Phase One” trade deal which reignites the trade war.
  2. Earnings growth fails to recover, and valuations finally become a concern for the markets.
  3. Corporate profits, which have been essentially flat since 2014, deteriorate due to slower economic growth both domestically and globally.
  4. Excessively high consumer confidence converges with low levels of CEO Confidence as employment begins to weaken.
  5. Interest rates rise which trips up heavily leveraged consumers and corporations.
  6. Investors become concerned about excess valuations.
  7. A credit-related event causes a market liquidity crunch. (Convent-Lite, Leveraged Loans, BBB-rated downgrades all pose a potential threat)
  8. The Fed’s “repo-crisis” continues to grow and turns out to be something much more significant.
  9. Similar to 2016, a shocking election result.

While I am not going to address all of these concerns, I do want to touch a few that we feel are significant risks heading into the first half of the decade.

Valuations

While valuations are a terrible market timing device, they do impact long-term returns and investment outcomes. Currently, at 30x earnings, valuations are elevated, which suggests that the next decade of returns will be significantly lower than the last. Statistically, returns in the very low single digits should be expected.

However, it isn’t just PE ratios which are extended, but both Price-to-Sales and Enterprise Value to EBITDA (Earnings Before Interest Taxes Depreciation Amortization) are at or near all time highs.

Record highs in stocks, near-record lows in bond yields, and historically tight credit spreads present significant challenges for investors. Economic data has improved, but many fundamental economic gauges remain soft relative to pre-crisis averages, and are inconsistent with current asset price levels and valuations.

Importantly, it is worth noting that negative returns tend to cluster during periods of declining valuations. These “clusters” of negative returns are what define “secular bear markets.” 

Most investors do not seem at all concerned as money continues to move into risky asset classes, a classic sign of a bubble. While a defensive posture seems prudent, the technical picture remains supportive of further gains. One should respect the momentum behind these moves for the foreseeable future, but be mindful that liquidity can evaporate quickly.

The Debt Risk

One of the common misconceptions in the market currently, is that the “subprime mortgage” issue was vastly larger than what we are talking about currently.

Not by a long shot. 

Combined, there is about $1.15 trillion in outstanding U.S. leveraged loans — a record that is double the level five years ago — and, as noted, these loans increasingly are being made with less protection for lenders and investors.

Just to put this into some context, the amount of sub-prime mortgages peaked slightly above $600 billion or about 50% less than the current leveraged loan market.

Of course, that didn’t end so well.

Currently, the same explosion in low-quality debt is happening in another corner of the US debt market as well.

As noted by John Mauldin:

“In just the last 10 years, the triple-B bond market has exploded from $686 billion to $2.5 trillion—an all-time high. To put that in perspective, 50% of the investment-grade bond market now sits on the lowest rung of the quality ladder.

And there’s a reason BBB-rated debt is so plentiful. Ultra-low interest rates have seduced companies to pile into the bond market and corporate debt has surged to heights not seen since the global financial crisis.”

The biggest risk currently is refinancing the debt as over the next 5-years, more than 50% of the debt is maturing. A weaker economy, recession risk, falling asset prices, or rising interest rates could well lock many corporations out of refinancing their share of this $5 trillion debt. Defaults will move significantly higher, and much of this debt will be downgraded to junk.

This is a problem the Fed can not fix with more liquidity.

Technically Troubling

In last week’s Technically Speaking we discussed the more extreme deviations in the market. To wit:

The first chart shows the monthly buy/sell signals stretched back to 1995 (25 Years). As shown, these monthly ‘buy’ and ‘sell’ indications are fairly rare over that stretch. What is interesting is that since 2015 there have been two-major sell signals, both of which were arrested by Central Bank interventions.”

With these “buy signals” in place, and the market pushing higher on conclusions of “trade deals” and the election of the conservative party in the U.K. (which clears the way for Brexit), the markets rallied further toward our target of 3300.

In the short-term it is entirely feasible, particularly with the Federal Reserving pushing billions of dollars into the financial system currently, the bull market could easily eclipse our target of 3300. However, in the longer-term, virtually all of our primarily technical measures are stretched to levels normally seen near market tops rather than at the beginning of a new stretch of gains.

There are several measures used to justify current valuations, but they sound similar to those used in the dot-com Tech bubble. The relationships between valuation and fundamentals, on which cash flows are ultimately based, are grossly dislocated. Markets may well move higher, but to advocate a full allocation to equities under current circumstances ignores warnings of bubbles past.

Stock market cap-to-GDP, price-to-sales, margin balances, cyclically-adjusted price-to-earnings ratios, and others argue convincingly that the stock market is either near historic valuations, or well through them. Owning well-selected, single-name companies because they are fundamentally cheap, not relatively cheap, makes sense. Otherwise, limiting general equity allocation exposures is prudent until reasonable opportunities return. We suggest setting stop losses, and/or options strategies to help limit downside risk and retain any additional upside.

Sentiment Is Excessively Bullish

This past summer everyone was convinced a recession was near, now there is no such concern and investors are literally as “bullish” as they can get.

From a contrarian point of view, this is a fairly obvious warning to reduce risk in the market. However, the “Fear Of Missing Out,” is overriding investor logic at the moment. The recent market surge, which started coincidentally with the Fed’s restart of “QE, Not QE,” is very reminiscent of the surge in asset prices we saw at the end of 1999 as the Fed flooded the system with liquidity in advance of the potential “Y2K” issues.

As noted in our RIAPRO Daily Market Commentary:

“Today’s ‘Chart of the Day’ shows the surge in the NASDAQ index, which occurred during the last few months of 1999. Most people attribute the massive gain to the feverish pitch in the dot com bubble. We believe the real culprit was the Fed which added substantial amounts of repo liquidity to the banking sector due to concerns of Y2K and the potential for mass computer malfunctioning. Those repo funds gravitated to the financial markets.

For more, please read the following WSJ article from 1999- Federal Reserve Clears Loan Facility Linked To Y2K Computer Problems.

“The graph below shows the 10x surge in repo during late 1999 and its quick removal shortly after the New Year. Note the recent surge, on the right side of the graph, dwarfs the 1999 experience and that is before an expected $500 billion spike in repo financing over the next week or two.”

Unlike 1999, we have our doubts as to how quickly the graph normalizes, as the Fed continues to underestimate the scope of the growing overnight funding issues.

To quote Yogi Berra “it’s deja vu, all over again.”

Conclusion

Statistically speaking, the odds suggest that the market could indeed be higher in 2020. However, there are numerous risks which could derail the markets which should not be dismissed.

This is not a “bearish forecast.” It is just an assessment of trends, statistics, and probabilities given the current monetary, financial and economic backdrop.

If we are wrong, and stocks do post gains in the coming year, being more conservative will only mean a small relative under-performance in your portfolio next year.

If we are right, the preservation of capital will be far more beneficial. As we have stated previously, participating in the bull market over the last decade is only one-half of the job. The other half is keeping those gains during the second half of the full market cycle.

One of my favorite quotes is by Howard Marks and is a principle that we live by in our little shop;

“Resisting – and thereby achieving success as a contrarian – isn’t easy. Things combine to make it difficult; including natural herd tendencies and the pain imposed by being out of step, since momentum invariably makes pro-cyclical actions look correct for a while. (That’s why it’s essential to remember that “being too far ahead of your time is indistinguishable from being wrong.”)

Given the uncertain nature of the future, and thus the difficulty of being confident your position is the right one – especially as price moves against you – it’s challenging to be a lonely contrarian.”

As we enter into 2020 it may pay to be a little more cautious after such a large rise in the financial markets.

Let me leave you with Bob Farrell’s 10 Rules:

  1. Markets tend to return to the mean over time
  2. Excesses in one direction will lead to an opposite excess in the other direction
  3. There are no new eras — excesses are never permanent
  4. Exponential rapidly rising or falling markets usually go further than you think, but they do not correct by going sideways
  5. The public buys the most at the top and the least at the bottom
  6. Fear and greed are stronger than long-term resolve
  7. Markets are strongest when they are broad and weakest when they narrow to a handful of blue-chip names
  8. Bear markets have three stages — sharp down, reflexive rebound and a drawn-out fundamental downtrend
  9. When all the experts and forecasts agree — something else is going to happen
  10. Bull markets are more fun than bear markets

Our job is managing risk to conserve principle and create absolute returns over time. What matters most to us is that we provide a disciplined management process suitable for our clients who seek long-term performance as measured by annualized and risk-adjusted returns, and conservation of investment principle.

We wish you a prosperous 2020.

The Stock Market Has Become A Private Club For The Elite

A recent Peter G Peterson Foundation poll, as reported by the Financial Times, revealed a statistic that we have suspected for quite some time. To wit:

“Nearly two-thirds of Americans say this year’s record-setting Wall Street rally has had little or no impact on their personal finances, calling into question whether one of the strongest bull markets in a decade will boost Donald Trump’s re-election chances.

A poll of likely voters for the Financial Times and the Peter G Peterson Foundation found 61-percent of Americans said stock market movements had little or no effect on their financial well-being. 39-percent said stock market performance had a “very strong” or “somewhat strong” impact.

The survey suggested most Americans are not aware of market movements, with just 40-percent of respondents correctly saying the stock market had increased in value in 2019. 42-percent of likely voters said the market was at “about the same” levels as at the start of the year, while 18-percent believed it had decreased.”

Another article by Shawn Langlois via MarketWatch revealed much the same discussing a recent publication from the Economic Policy Institute. That study also revealed the increasingly inadequate retirement savings of Americans, as well as the dispersion of wealth among income earners.

As Shawn penned:

“The big gap between the mean retirement savings of $120,809 and the median retirement savings is yet another example of how the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer in this country.”

This isn’t anything new.

We have been reporting on this issue over the last few years, and just recently dug into current details in our discussion on the “Savings Rate.” To wit:

“The calculation of disposable personal income (which is income less taxes) is largely a guess, and very inaccurate, due to the variability of income taxes paid by households. More importantly, the measure is heavily skewed by the top 20% of income earners, and even more so by the top 5%. As shown in the chart below, those in the top 20% have seen substantially larger median wage growth versus the bottom 80%. (Note: all data used below is from the Census Bureau and the IRS.)”

The reality is the majority of Americans are struggling just to make ends meet, which has been shown in a multitude of studies.

“The [2019] survey found that 58 percent of respondents had less than $1,000 saved.” – Gobankingrates.com

Such levels of financial “savings” are hardly sufficient to support individuals through retirement, much less leave enough savings to actively participate in the “booming stock market.” Such confirms the Peterson study that the “longest bull market in history” has largely bypassed a vast majority of Americans.

It also confirms why, after a decade-long bull market, that a rising trend of individuals over the age of 55 remain in the workforce. 

“Growing numbers of U.S. ­boomers—currently 55 to 73—are working beyond the traditional retirement age, going back to school, and choosing to age in place in familiar neighborhoods instead of moving to senior communities. 

For the first time in history, there are multiple generations alive together for long stretches of time.

It’s not that “Boomers” don’t want to retire, it’s because they “can’t afford to.” 

The Expanding Problem

Despite Central Bank’s best efforts globally to stoke economic growth by pushing asset prices higher, the effect has been entirely consumed by those with actual savings, and discretionary income, available to invest.

In other words, the stock market has become an almost “exclusive” club for the elite.

While monetary policies increased the wealth of those that already have wealth, the Fed has been misguided in believing that the “trickle down” effect would be enough to stimulate the entire economy.

It hasn’t.

The sad reality is that these policies have only acted as a transfer of wealth from the middle class to the wealthy and created one of the largest “wealth gaps” in human history. Via Forbes:

“‘The top 10% of the wealth distribution—the purple and green areas together—hold a large and growing share of U.S. aggregate wealth, while the bottom half (the thin red area) hold a barely visible share,’ Fed economists write in a paper outlining the new data set on inequality, which is more timely than exisiting statistics. The chart show that ‘while the total net worth of U.S. households has more than quadrupled in nominal terms since 1989, this increase has clearly accrued more to the top of the distribution than the bottom.'”

Lack Of Capital

The current economic expansion is already the longest post-WWII expansion on record. Of course, that expansion was supported by repeated artificial interventions rather than stable organic economic growth. As noted, while the financial markets have soared higher in recent years, it has bypassed a large portion of Americans NOT because they were afraid to invest, but because they have NO CAPITAL to invest with.

The ability to simply “maintain a certain standard of living” has become problematic for many, which forces them further into debt.

“The debt surge is partly by design, a byproduct of low borrowing costs the Federal Reserve engineered after the financial crisis to get the economy moving. It has reshaped both borrowers and lenders. Consumers increasingly need it, companies increasingly can’t sell their goods without it, and the economy, which counts on consumer spending for more than two-thirds of GDP, would struggle without a plentiful supply of credit.” – WSJ

I often show the “gap” between the “standard of living” and real disposable incomes. Beginning in 1990, incomes alone were no longer able to meet the standard of living, so consumers turned to debt to fill the “gap.” However, following the “financial crisis,” even the combined levels of income and debt no longer fill the gap. Currently, there is almost a $2600 annual deficit that cannot be filled. (Note: this deficit accrues every year which is why consumer credit keeps hitting new records.)

The debt-to-income problem keeps individuals from building wealth, and government statistics obscure the basic reality. We discussed this point in detail in “Dimon’s View Of Economic Reality Is Still Delusional:”

“The median net worth of households in the middle 20% of income rose 4% in inflation-adjusted terms to $81,900 between 1989 and 2016, the latest available data. For households in the top 20%, median net worth more than doubled to $811,860. And for the top 1%, the increase was 178% to $11,206,000.

Put differently, the value of assets for all U.S. households increased from 1989 through 2016 by an inflation-adjusted $58 trillion. A third of the gain—$19 trillion—went to the wealthiest 1%, according to a Journal analysis of Fed data.

‘On the surface things look pretty good, but if you dig a little deeper you see different subpopulations are not performing as well,’ said Cris deRitis, deputy chief economist at Moody’s Analytics.” – WSJ

The One Problem The Fed Can’t Fix

The problem with the Fed’s ongoing liquidity interventions is that they continue to benefit those in the top 20% of population which exacerbates the wealth gap between them and everyone else.  Importantly, the current gap between household net worth and GDP is the greatest on record, and those previous gaps were filled by reversions with the most painful of outcomes.

While such a reversion in “net worth” will have the majority of its impact at the upper end of the income scale; it will be the job losses through the economy that will further damage and already ill-equipped population in their prime saving and retirement years.

Compound that problem with the massive amount of corporate debt, which if it begins to default, will trigger further strains on the financial and credit systems of the economy.

The reality is that the U.S. is now caught in the same liquidity trap as Japan. With the current economic recovery already pushing the long end of the economic cycle, the risk is rising that the next economic downturn is closer than not. The danger is that the Federal Reserve is now potentially trapped with an inability to use monetary policy tools to offset the next economic decline when it occurs. Combine this with:

  • A decline in savings rates to extremely low levels which depletes productive investments
  • An aging demographic that is top heavy and drawing on social benefits at an advancing rate.
  • A heavily indebted economy with debt/GDP ratios above 100%.
  • A decline in exports due to a weak global economic environment.
  • Slowing domestic economic growth rates.
  • An underemployed younger demographic.
  • An inelastic supply-demand curve
  • Weak industrial production
  • Dependence on productivity increases to offset reduced employment

While the stock market may be an exclusive club for its members currently, the combined issues of #debt, #deflation, and #demographics is a problem the Fed can’t fix.

It isn’t a question of “if.” It is simply a function of “when.”

The next crisis will repair the “wealth gap” to some degree only because 2/3rds of American’s never participated in the bull market to begin with.

Technically Speaking: How To Pick Up A Porcupine

Last week, I discussed the registering of the monthly buy signals, which confirmed the bull market in the S&P 500 had resumed following the 2018 Fed/Trade induced sell off. Here is a snippet of our history in this regard:

“In April of 2018, I penned an article entitled ‘10-Reasons The Bull Market Ended,in which we discussed the yield curve, slowing economic growth, valuations, volatility, and sentiment. Of course, 2018 turned out to be a tough year culminating in a 20% slide into the end of the year. Since then, we have daily reminders we are ‘close to a trade deal,’ and the Fed has completely reversed course on hiking rates and extracting liquidity. In July, we published “S&P 3300, The Bull Vs. Bear Case.”

While volatility and sentiment have reverted back to levels of more extreme complacency, the fundamental and economic backdrop has deteriorated further.

The first chart shows the monthly buy/sell signals stretched back to 1995 (25 Years). As shown, these monthly ‘buy’ and ‘sell’ indications are fairly rare over that stretch. What is interesting is that since 2015 there have been two-major sell signals, both of which were arrested by Central Bank interventions.”

With these “buy signals” in place, and the market pushing higher on conclusions of “trade deals” and the election of the conservative party in the U.K. (which clears the way for Brexit), the markets rallied further toward our target of 3300.

Over the last couple of weeks, we have slowly been increasing the equity allocation in portfolios toward being fully exposed.

This is because, as we have been discussing on RIAPRO (Try FREE for 30-days), the Fed’s “QE-NOT QE” was being interpreted by the markets as QE. The chart below shows the increase in the Fed’s balance sheet as compared to the rally in the market.

The recent market surge, which started coincident with the Fed’s restart of “QE, Not QE,” is very reminiscent of the surge in asset prices we saw at the end of 1999 as the Fed flooded the system with liquidity in advance of the potential “Y2K” issues.

As noted in our RIAPRO Daily Market Commentary:

“Today’s ‘Chart of the Day’ shows the surge in the NASDAQ index, which occurred during the last few months of 1999. Most people attribute the massive gain to the feverish pitch in the dot com bubble. We believe the real culprit was the Fed which added substantial amounts of repo liquidity to the banking sector due to concerns of Y2K and the potential for mass computer malfunctioning. Those repo funds gravitated to the financial markets.

For more, please read the following WSJ article from 1999- Federal Reserve Clears Loan Facility Linked To Y2K Computer Problems.

“The graph below shows the 10x surge in repo during late 1999 and its quick removal shortly after the New Year. Note the recent surge, on the right side of the graph, dwarfs the 1999 experience and that is before an expected $500 billion spike in repo financing over the next week or two.”

Unlike 1999, we have our doubts as to how quickly the graph normalizes, as the Fed continues to underestimate the scope of the growing overnight funding issues.

To quote Yogi Berra “it’s deja vu, all over again.”

Overly Extended, Bullish & Valued

While we have been adding exposure in recent weeks to participate with the rise in the markets, the issues of technical price deviations, valuations, and subsequent risk has not been forgotten. By the majority of measures that we track from momentum, to price, and deviation, the market’s sharp advance has pushed the totality of those indicators back to overbought.

These overbought conditions, combined with the more extreme deviation from the 200-dma, and the longer-term bullish trend, have led to short-term corrections.

The deviations from the longer-term bullish trend are shown below, along with the more extreme levels of complacency by investors.

Historically, when all of the indicators are suggesting the market has likely encompassed the majority of its price advance, a correction to reverse those conditions is often not far away.

For these reasons, and others, this is why the exposure we have added has been only partial holdings, that we will build into opportunistically, and have a “value tilt” to them. Currently, there are the early signs of a rotation from momentum to value in the market, which gives “value” a bit of a “defensive” posture currently.

We still remain fully weighted in our fixed income portfolios, which consist of high quality holdings and a bit shorter-duration, with a slight overweight in cash.

How To Add Exposure

Adding exposure at these levels can be a challenge, unless you just don’t care about the “risk of loss.” Since we manage money for clients who are near, or in, retirement, we care about the risk very much. So, the answer to how to add exposure at this stage of the bull cycle is the same as the answer to that age-old question:

“How do you pick up a porcupine? Carefully.”

Here are the guidelines we are following:

  1. Move slowly. There is no rush in adding equity exposure to your portfolio. Use pullbacks to previous support levels to make adjustments.
  1. If you are heavily UNDER-weight equities, DO NOT try and fully adjust your portfolio to your target allocation in one move.This could be disastrous if the market reverses sharply in the short term. Again, move slowly.
  1. Begin by selling laggards and losers. These positions are dragging on performance as the market rises and tend to lead when markets fall. Like “weeds choking a garden,” pull them.
  1. Add to sectors, or positions, that are performing with, or outperforming, the broader market.
  1. Move “stop loss” levels up to current breakout levels for each position. Managing a portfolio without “stop loss” levels is like driving with your eyes closed.
  2. While the technical trends are intact, risk considerably outweighs the reward. If you are not comfortable with potentially having to sell at a LOSS what you just bought, then wait for a larger correction to add exposure more safely. There is no harm in waiting for the “fat pitch” as the current market setup is not one.
  1. If none of this makes any sense to you – please consider hiring someone to manage your portfolio for you. It will be worth the additional expense over the long term.

Buying Because I Have To. You Don’t.

“So, if you believe the market is overbought, why are you buying?”

There is a difference between views of long-term fundamentally driven potential outcomes, and short-term opportunities in the markets.

Let me be VERY clear about something.

As a portfolio manager, we buy “opportunity” because we have to. If we don’t, we suffer career risk, plain and simple.

However, you don’t have to. If you are truly a long-term investor, you have to question the risk being undertaken to achieve further returns in the market.

Think about it this way.

The markets have returned more than 300% since the 2009 lows in the longest bull market on record. Yes, it is still just one bull market. 

Assuming that you were astute enough to buy the “cherry picked” low, and didn’t spend the bulk of the bull market rally simply getting back to even, you would have accumulated years of excess returns towards meeting your retirement goals. 

If you went to cash now, the odds are EXTREMELY high that in the years ahead you will far outpace investors who remain invested. Sure, they may get an edge on you in the short-term, and chastise you for “missing out,”  but when the next “mean reverting event” occurs the decline will destroy most, if not all, of the returns accumulated over the last decade. (That isn’t a theoretical assumption. It’s historical fact.)

While we may indeed be shifting exposure and taking on some additional risk, we do so very cautiously.

Cracks In The Bull Market Armor

While we did increase our exposure to the markets, as the bullish trend does currently persist, there is growing evidence of “cracks” appearing.

With the Fed flooding the system with liquidity to fund short-term repurchase operations, this is not normal and suggests that something has “broken” in the system. 

Given the current rally is built on substantially weaker fundamental and economic underpinnings, weaker earnings growth, and an exhausted consumer, increases in equity risk could very well be reversed in short order. This due to the following reasons:

  1. We are in the latter stages of the bull market.
  2. Economic data continues to remain weak
  3. Earnings are beating continually reduced estimates
  4. Volume is weak
  5. Longer-term technical underpinnings are weakening and extremely stretched.
  6. Complacency is extremely high
  7. Share buybacks are slowing

It is worth remembering that markets have a very nasty habit of sucking individuals into them when prices become detached from fundamentals. Such is the case currently and has generally not had a positive outcome.

What you decide to do with this information is entirely up to you. As I stated, I do think there is enough of a bullish case, technically, to warrant taking on some equity risk on a very short-term basis. We will see what happens over the next couple of weeks. 

However, the longer-term dynamics are turning more bearish. When those negative price dynamics are combined with the fundamental and economic backdrop, the “risk” of having excessive exposure to the markets greatly outweighs the potential “reward. “

Remember, investing is not a competition, it is a game of long-term survival. 

The Myth Of The “Great Cash Hoard” Of 2019

Tell me if you heard this one lately:

“There’s a trillion dollars in cash sitting on the sidelines just waiting to come into the market.” 

No.

Well, here it is directly from the Wall Street Journal:

“Assets in money-market funds have grown by $1 trillion over the last three years to their highest level in around a decade, according to Lipper data. A variety of factors are fueling the flows, from higher money-market rates to concerns over the health of the 10-year economic expansion and an aging bull market.

Yet some analysts say the heap of cash shows that investors haven’t grown excessively exuberant despite markets’ double-digit gains this year, and have plenty of money available to buy when lower prices prevail.”

See…there is just tons of “cash on the sidelines” waiting to flow into the market.

Except there isn’t.

The Myth Of Cash On The Sidelines

Despite 10-years of a bull market advance, one of the prevailing myths that seeming will not die is that of “cash on the sidelines.” To wit:

“’Cash always makes me feel good, both having it and seeing it on the sidelines,’ said Michael Farr, president of the money-management firm Farr, Miller & Washington.

Stop it.

This is the age-old excuse why the current “bull market” rally is set to continue into the indefinite future. The ongoing belief is that at any moment investors are suddenly going to empty bank accounts and pour it into the markets. However, the reality is if they haven’t done it by now, following 4-consecutive rounds of Q.E. in the U.S., a 330% advance in the markets, and ongoing global Q.E., exactly what is it going to take?

But here is the other problem.

For every buyer there MUST be someone willing to sell. As noted by Clifford Asness:

“There are no sidelines. Those saying this seem to envision a seller of stocks moving her money to cash and awaiting a chance to return. But they always ignore that this seller sold to somebody, who presumably moved a precisely equal amount of cash off the sidelines.”

Every transaction in the market requires both a buyer and a seller with the only differentiating factor being at what PRICE the transaction occurs. Since this is required for there to be equilibrium in the markets, there can be no “sidelines.” 

Think of this dynamic like a football game. Each team must field 11 players despite having over 50 players on the team. If a player comes off the sidelines to replace a player on the field, the player being replaced will join the ranks of the 40 or so other players on the sidelines. At all times there will only be 11 players per team on the field. This holds equally true if teams expand to 100 or even 1000 players.

Furthermore, despite this very salient point, a look at the stock-to-cash ratios (cash as a percentage of investment portfolios) also suggest there is very little available buying power for investors currently. As we noted just recently with charts from Sentiment Trader:

As asset prices have escalated, so have individual’s appetite to chase risk. The herding into equities suggests that investors have thrown caution to the wind.

With cash levels at the lowest level since 1997, and equity allocations near the highest levels since 1999 and 2007, it suggests investors are now functionally “all in.” 

With net exposure to equity risk by individuals at historically high levels, it suggests two things:

  1. There is little buying left from individuals to push markets marginally higher, and;
  2. The stock/cash ratio, shown below, is at levels normally coincident with more important market peaks.

But it isn’t just individual investors that are “all in,” but professionals as well.

Importantly, while investors are holding very little ‘cash,’ they have taken on a tremendous amount of ‘risk’ to chase the market. It is worth noting the current levels versus previous market peaks.”

Even Ned Davis noted that investors remain more invested in riskier assets than has historically been the case.

“Cash is low, meaning households are fairly fully invested.” 

So, Where Is All This Cash Then?

The Wall Street Journal was correct in their statement that money market cash levels have indeed been climbing. The chart from the Office Of Financial Research shows this:

There are a few things we need to consider about money market funds.

  1. Just because I have money in a money market account, doesn’t mean I am saving it for investing purposes. It could be an emergency savings account, a down payment for a house, or a vacation fund on which I want to earn a higher rate of interest. 
  2. Also, money markets are used by corporations to store cash for payroll, capital expenditures, operations, and a variety of other uses not related to investing in the stock market. 
  3. Foreign entities also store cash in the U.S. for transactions processed in the United States which they may not want to immediately repatriate back into their country of origin.

The list goes on, but you get the idea.

If you take a look at the chart above, you will notice that the bulk of the money is in Government Money Market funds. These particular types of money market funds generally have much higher account minimums (from $100,000 to $1 million) which suggests that these funds are predominately not retail investors. (Those would be the smaller balances of prime retail funds.)

So, where is all that cash likely coming from?

Hoarding Cash

You are already most likely aware that Warren Buffett is hoarding $128 billion in cash, and that Apple is sitting on a cash trove of $100 billion, with Microsoft holding $136.6 billion, and Alphabet amassing $121 billion.

Yes, some of that cash has been used for share buybacks, but much of it is sitting there waiting for acquisitions, R&D, capital expenditures, etc. However, that cash is primarily sitting in short-term and longer-term dated treasuries, AND, you guessed it, money market funds.

However, as noted above, there is also a flood of money coming into U.S. Dollar denominated assets for better yield and safety than what is available elsewhere in the world.  

At RIAPRO.NET we regularly track the U.S. Dollar for our subscribers. (You can access these reports with a FREE 30-day Trial.)

  • Despite much of the rhetoric to the contrary, the dollar remains in a strongly rising uptrend. Given a “strong dollar” erodes corporate profits on exports (which makes up 40% of corporate profits overall) a strong dollar combined with tariffs isn’t great for corporate bottom lines. Watch earnings carefully during this quarter.
  • Furthermore, the dollar bounced off support of the 200-dma and the bottom of the uptrend. If the dollar rallies back to the top of its trend, which is likely, this will take the wind out of the emerging market, international, and oil plays.
  • The “sell” signal is also turning up. If it triggers a “buy” the dollar will likely accelerate pretty quickly.

Much of the bulls rallying cry has been based on the dollar weakening with the onset of QE, but as shown above, that has yet to be the case. However, US Dollar positioning has been surging as of late as money has been flowing into US Dollar denominated assets. Importantly, it is worth watching positioning in the dollar as a reversal of dollar-longs are usually reflective of short- to intermediate-term market peaks.

As shown above, and below, such net-long positions have generally marked both a short to intermediate-term peak in the dollar. The bad news is that a stronger dollar will trip up the bulls, and commodities, sooner rather than later.

However, as it relates to foreign positioning, it is worth noting that EURO-DOLLAR positioning has been surging over the last 2-years. This surge corresponds with the surge in dollar-denominated money market assets.

What are Euro-dollars? The term Eurodollar refers to U.S. dollar-denominated deposits at foreign banks, or at the overseas branches, of American banks. Net-long Eurodollar positioning is at an all-time record as foreign banks are cramming money into dollar-denominated assets to get away from negative interest rates abroad.

Importantly, when positioning in the Eurodollar becomes NET-LONG, as it is currently, such has been associated with short- to intermediate corrections in the markets, including outright bear markets. 

What could cause such a reversal? A pick up of economic growth, a reversal of negative rates, a realization of over-valuation in domestic markets, which starts the decline in asset prices. Then, the virtual spiral begins of assets flowing out, lowers asset prices, leading to more asset outflows.

While the bulls are certainly hoping the “cash hoard” will flow into U.S. equities, the reality may be quite different.

That’s how the bear markets begin.

Slowly at first. Then all of a sudden.

Fundamentally Speaking: Earning Season’s Good, Bad & Ugly

With the third quarter of 2019 reporting season mostly behind us, we can take a look at what happened with earnings to see what’s real, what’s not, and what it will mean for the markets going forward.

The Good

As always is the case, the majority of companies beat their quarterly estimates, as noted by Bespoke Investment Group.

With 73% of companies beating estimates, it certainly suggests that companies in the S&P 500 are firing on all cylinders, which should support higher asset prices.

However, as they say, the “Devil is in the details.” 

The Bad

As I noted previously:

One of the reasons given for the push to new highs was the ‘better than expected’ earnings reports coming in. As noted by FactSet: 

73% have reported actual EPS above the mean EPS estimate…The percentage of companies reporting EPS above the mean EPS estimate is above the 1-year (76%) average and above the 5-year (72%) average.”

The problem is the ‘beat rate’ was simply due to the consistent ‘lowering of the bar’ as shown in the chart below:

Beginning in mid-October last year, estimates for both 2019 and 2020 crashed. 

This is why I call it ‘Millennial Soccer.’ 

Earnings season is now a ‘game’ where scores aren’t kept, the media cheers, and everyone gets a ‘participation trophy’ just for showing up.

Let’s take a look at what really happened with earnings.

During Q3-2019, quarterly operating earnings declined from $40.14 to $40.05 or -0.25%. While operating earnings are completely useless for analysis, as they exclude all the “bad stuff” and mostly fudge the rest, reported earnings declined by from $34.93 to $34.33 or -1.75%.

While those seem like very small declines in actual numbers, context becomes very important. In Q3-2018, quarterly operating earnings were $41.38 and reported earnings were $36.36. In other words, over the last year operating earnings have declined by -3.21% and reported earnings fell by -5.58%. At the same time the S&P 500 index has advanced by 7.08%.

It’s actually worse.

Despite the rise in the S&P 500 index, both Operating and Reported earnings have fallen despite the effect of substantially lower tax rates and massive corporate share repurchases, which reduce the denominator of the EPS calculation.

Steve Goldstein recently penned for MarketWatch

“Research published by the French bank Societe Generale shows that S&P 500 companies have bought back the equivalent of 22% of the index’s market capitalization since 2010, with more than 80% of the companies having a program in place.

The low cost of debt is one reason for the surge, with interest rates not that far above zero, and President Trump’s package of tax cuts in 2017 further triggered a big repatriation of cash held abroad. Since the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, non-financial U.S. companies have reduced their foreign earnings held abroad by $601 billion.

This repatriation may have run its course, and stock buybacks should decline from here, but they will still be substantial.

This is no small thing.

As noted in “4-Risks To The Bullish View,”  previously, share repurchases have made up roughly 100% of the net purchases of stocks over the last year.

We have discussed the issue of “share buybacks” numerous times and the distortion caused by the use of corporate cash to lower shares outstanding to increase earnings per share.

“The reason companies spend billions on buybacks is to increase bottom-line earnings per share, which provides the ‘illusion’ of increasing profitability to support higher share prices. Since revenue growth has remained extremely weak since the financial crisis, companies have become dependent on inflating earnings on a ‘per share’ basis by reducing the denominator. As the chart below shows, while earnings per share have risen by over 360% since the beginning of 2009; revenue growth has barely eclipsed 50%.”

Chart updated through Q3-2019

The problem with this, of course, is that stock buybacks create an illusion of profitability. However, for investors, the real issue is that almost 100% of the net purchases of equities has come from corporations.

The issue is two-fold:

  1. That corporate spending binge is slowing down, as noted by Mr. Goldstein; and,
  2. If a recession sets in, share repurchases could easily cease altogether. 

If you don’t think that’s important, the charts above and below should at least make you reconsider.

Of course, such should not be a surprise.

Since the recessionary lows, much of the rise in “profitability” have come from a variety of cost-cutting measures and accounting gimmicks rather than actual increases in top-line revenue. While tax cuts certainly provided the capital for a surge in buybacks, revenue growth, which is directly connected to a consumption-based economy, has remained muted.

Since 2009, the operating earnings per share of corporations has risen 296%. However, the increase in earnings did not come from a commensurate increase in actual revenue which has only grown by a marginal 62% during the same period. At the same time, investors have bid up the market more than 300% from the financial crisis lows of 666.

Needless to say, investors are once again extremely optimistic they haven’t overpaid for assets once again.

Always Optimistic

But optimism is certainly one commodity that Wall Street always has in abundance. When it comes to earnings expectations, estimates are always higher regardless of the trends of economic data. As shown, Wall Street is optimistic the current earnings decline is just a blip on the way to higher-highs.

As of April 2019, when Wall Street first published their estimates for 2020, the expectations were that earnings would grow to $174.29 by the end of next year.

The difference between Wall Street’s expectations and reality tends to be quite dramatic.

You can see the over-optimism collided with reality in just a few short months. Since April, forward expectations have fallen by more than $11/share as economic realities continue to impale overly optimistic projections.

Unfortunately, estimates are still too high and have further to fall. It is very likely, particularly if “tariffs” remain in place into 2020, that the majority of expected earnings growth will be reversed.

(This shouldn’t surprise you. We previously warned that by the end of 2018, the entirely of the “Trump Tax Cut” benefit would be erased.)

The Ugly

This divergence in stock prices not only shows up in operating earnings but also in reported corporate profits. As noted previously, the deviation between prices and profits is at historically high levels which cannot be sustained indefinitely.

“If the economy is slowing down, revenue and corporate profit growth will decline also. However, it is this point which the ‘bulls’ should be paying attention to. Many are dismissing currently high valuations under the guise of ‘low interest rates,’ however, the one thing you should not dismiss, and cannot make an excuse for, is the massive deviation between the market and corporate profits after tax. The only other time in history the difference was this great was in 1999.”

While the market has rallied sharply in 2019 on continued “hopes” for a “trade deal,” and more accommodative actions from the Federal Reserve, the deviations from fundamentals have reached extremes only seen at peaks of previous market cycles.

The chart below shows the real, inflation-adjusted, profits after-tax versus the cumulative change to the S&P 500. Here is the important point – when markets grow faster than profitability, which it can do for a while; eventually a reversion occurs. This is simply the case that all excesses must eventually be cleared before the next growth cycle can occur. Currently, we are once again trading a fairly substantial premium to corporate profit growth.

Since corporate profit growth is a function of economic growth longer term, we can also see how “expensive” the market is relative to corporate profit growth as a percentage of economic growth. Once again, we find that when the price to profits ratio is trading ABOVE the long-term linear trend, markets have struggled, and ultimately experienced a more severe mean-reverting event. With the price to profits ratio once again elevated above the long-term trend, there is little to suggest that markets haven’t already priced in a good bit of future economic and profits growth.

While none of this suggests the market will “crash” tomorrow, it is supportive of the idea that future returns will be substantially weaker in the future.

Currently, there are few, if any, Wall Street analysts expecting a recession currently, and many are certain of a forthcoming economic growth cycle. Yet, at this time, there are few catalysts supportive of such a resurgence.

  • Economic growth outside of China remains weak
  • Employment growth is going to slow.
  • There is no massive disaster currently to spur a surge in government spending and reconstruction.
  • There isn’t another stimulus package like tax cuts to fuel a boost in corporate earnings
  • With the deficit already pushing $1 Trillion, there will only be an incremental boost from additional deficit spending this year. 
  • Unfortunately, it is also just a function of time until a recession occurs.

Wall Street is notorious for missing the major turning of the markets and leaving investors scrambling for the exits.

While no one on Wall Street told you to be wary of the markets in 2018, we did, but it largely fell on deaf ears as “F.O.M.O.” clouded basic investment logic.

The next time won’t be any different.

Strongest Economy Ever? I Warned You About Negative Revisions

Over the last 18-months, there has been a continual drone of political punditry touting the success of “Trumponomics” as measured by various economic data points. Even the President himself has several times taken the opportunity to tweet about the “strongest economy ever.”

But if it is the “strongest economy ever,” then why the need for aggressive rate cuts which are “emergency measures” to be utilized to offset recessionary conditions?

First, it is hard to have an “aggressive rate-cutting cycle” when you only have 2.4% to work with.

Secondly, I am not sure we want to be like China or Europe economically speaking, and running a $1.5 Trillion deficit during an expansion, suspending the debt ceiling, and expanding spending isn’t that much different.

Nonetheless, I have repeatedly cautioned about the risk of taking credit for the economic bump, or the stock market, as a measure of fiscal policy success. Such is particularly the case when you are a decade into the current economic cycle.

Economic growth is more than just a reported number. The economy has been “in motion” following the last recession due to massive liquidity injections, zero interest rates, and a contraction in the labor force. Much like a “snowball rolling downhill,” the continuation of economic momentum should have been of little surprise.

As an example, we can look at full-time employment (as a percentage of 16-54  which removes the “retiring baby boomer” argument) by President. The rise in full-time employment has been on a steady trend higher following the financial crisis as the economic and financial systems repaired themselves.

As discussed previously, economic data is little more than a “wild @$$ guess” when it is initially reported. However, one-year and three-years later, the data is revised to reveal a more accurate measure of the “real” economy.

Unfortunately, we pay little attention to the revisions.

While there are many in the media touting “the strongest economy ever” since Trump took office, a quick look at a chart should quickly put that claim to rest.

Yes, there was a spurt in economic growth during 2018, which did seem to support the claims that Trump’s policies were working. As I warned then, there were factors at play which were obfuscating the data.

“Lastly, government spending has been very supportive to the markets in particular over the last few quarters as economic growth has picked up. However, that “sugar-high” was created by 3-massive Hurricanes in 2017 which has required billions in monetary stimulus which created jobs in manufacturing and construction and led to a temporary economic lift. We saw the same following the Hurricanes in 2012 as well.”

“These “sugar highs” are temporary in nature. The problem is the massive surge in unbridled deficit spending only provides a temporary illusion of economic growth.”

The importance is that economic “estimates” become skewed by these exogenous factors, and I have warned these over-estimations would be reversed when annual revisions are made.

Last week, the annual revisions to the economic data were indeed negative. The chart below shows “real GDP” pre- and post-revisions.

This outcome was something I discussed previously:

With the Fed Funds rate running at near 2%, if the Fed now believes such is close to a ‘neutral rate,’ it would suggest that expectations of economic growth will slow in the quarters ahead from nearly 6.0% in Q2 of 2018 to roughly 2.5% in 2019.”

However, there is further evidence that actual, organic, economic growth is weaker than the current negative revisions suggest. More importantly, the revisions to the 2019 data, in 2020, will very likely be as negative as well.

This is also the case with the employment data which I discussed previously:

“Months from now, the Establishment Survey will undergo its annual retrospective benchmark revision, based almost entirely on the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages conducted by the Labor Department. That’s because the QCEW is not just a sample-based survey, but a census that counts jobs at every establishment, meaning that the data are definitive but take time to collect.”

“The Establishment Survey’s nonfarm jobs figures will clearly be revised down as the QCEW data show job growth averaging only 177,000 a month in 2018. That means the Establishment Survey may be overstating the real numbers by more than 25%.”

There is nothing nefarious going on here.

It is the problem with collecting data from limited samples, applying various seasonal adjustment factors to it, and “guesstimating” what isn’t known. During expansions, the data is always overstated and during recessions it is understated. This is why using lagging economic data as a measure of certainty is always erroneous.

Debt-Driven Growth

I recently discussed the “death of fiscal conservatism” as Washington passed another spending bill.

“In 2018, the Federal Government spent $4.48 Trillion, which was equivalent to 22% of the nation’s entire nominal GDP. Of that total spending, ONLY $3.5 Trillion was financed by Federal revenues, and $986 billion was financed through debt.

In other words, if 75% of all expenditures is social welfare and interest on the debt, those payments required $3.36 Trillion of the $3.5 Trillion (or 96%) of revenue coming in.”

The “good news” is, if you want to call it that, is that Government spending does show up in economic growth. The “bad news” is that government spending has a negative “multiplier” effect since the bulk of all spending goes to non-productive investments. (Read this)

Nonetheless, the President suggests we are “winning.”

The problem is that economic growth less government spending is actually “recessionary.” 

As shown in the chart below, since 2010 it has taken continually increases in Federal expenditures just to maintain economic growth at the same level it was nearly a decade ago. Such a “fiscal feat” is hardly indicative of “winning.”

As Mike Shedlock noted, part of the issue with current economic estimates is simply in how it is calculated.

In GDP accounting, consumption is the largest component. Naturally, it is not possible to consume oneself to prosperity. The ability to consume more is the result of growing prosperity, not its cause. But this is the kind of deranged economic reasoning that is par for the course for today.

In addition to what Tenebrarum states, please note that government transfer payments including Medicaid, Medicare, disability payments, and SNAP (previously called food stamps), all contribute to GDP.

Nothing is “produced” by those transfer payments. They are not even funded. As a result, national debt rises every year. And that debt adds to GDP.”

This is critically important to understand.

While government spending, a function of continually increasing debt, does appear to have an economic benefit, corporate profits tell a very different story.

The Real Economy

I have been noting for a while the divergence between “operating earnings” (or rather “earnings fantasy”) versus corporate profits which are what companies actually report for tax purposes. From “Earnings Growth Much Weaker Than Advertised:”

“The benefit of a reduction in tax rates is extremely short-lived since we compare earnings and profit growth on a year-over-year basis.

In the U.S., the story remains much the same as near-term economic growth has been driven by artificial stimulus, government spending, and fiscal policy which provides an illusion of prosperity.”

Since consumption makes up roughly 70% of the economy, then corporate profits pre-tax profits should be growing if the economy was indeed growing substantially above 2%.”

We now know the economy wasn’t growing well above 2% and, as a consequence, corporate profits have been revised sharply lower on a pre-tax basis.

The reason we are looking at PRE-tax, rather than post-tax, profits is because we can see more clearly what is actually happening at the corporate level.

Since corporate revenues come for the sale of goods and services, if the economy was growing strongly then corporate profits should be reflective of that. However, since 2014, profits have actually been declining. If we take the first chart above and adjust it for the 2019-revisions we find that corporate profits (both pre- and post-tax) are the same level as in 2012 and have been declining for the last three-years in particular.

Again, this hardly indicates the “strongest economy in history.”

These negative revisions to corporate profits also highlight the over-valuation investors are currently paying for asset prices.  Historically, such premiums have had rather horrific “paybacks” as markets eventually “reprice” for reality.

Trump’s Political Risk

While the media is quick to attribute the current economic strength, or weakness, to the person who occupies the White House, the reality is quite different.

Most fiscal, and monetary, policy changes can take up to a year before the impact shows in the economic data. While changes to “tax rates” can have a more immediate impact, “interest rate” changes take longer to filter through.

The political risk for President Trump is taking too much credit for an economic cycle which was already well into recovery before he took office. Rather than touting the economic numbers and taking credit for liquidity-driven financial markets, he should be using that strength to begin the process of returning the country to a path of fiscal discipline rather than a “drunken binge” of spending.

With the economy, and the financial markets, sporting the longest-duration in history, simple logic should suggest time is running out.

This isn’t doom and gloom, it is just a fact.

Politicians, over the last decade, failed to use $33 trillion in liquidity injections, near zero interest rates, and surging asset prices to refinance the welfare system, balance the budget, and build surpluses for the next downturn.

Instead, they only made the deficits worse and the U.S. economy will enter the next recession pushing a $2 Trillion deficit, $24 Trillion in debt, and a $6 Trillion pension gap which will devastate many in their retirement years.

While Donald Trump talked about “Yellen’s big fat ugly bubble” before he took office, he has now pegged the success of his entire Presidency on the stock market.

It will likely be something he eventually regrets.

“Then said Jesus unto him, Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.” – Matthew 26, 26:52

Fundamentally Speaking: Earnings Growth Much Weaker Than Advertised

With the fourth quarter of 2018 reporting season now behind us, we can take a look at what happened with earnings to see what’s real, what’s not, and what it will mean for the markets going forward.

Last November, I discussed an important issue which is not being fully recognized by the “always bullish” media in that while “tax cuts” have a very short life span. To wit:

“The benefit of a reduction in tax rates is extremely short-lived since we compare earnings and profit growth on a year-over-year basis.

In the U.S., the story remains much the same as near-term economic growth has been driven by artificial stimulus, government spending, and fiscal policy which provides an illusion of prosperity. For example, the chart below shows raw corporate profits (NIPA) both before, and after, tax.”

“Importantly, note that corporate profits, pre-tax, are at the same level as in 2011. In other words, corporate profits have not grown over the last 7-years, yet it was the decline in the effective tax rate which pushed after-tax corporate profits to a record in the second quarter. Since consumption makes up roughly 70% of the economy, then corporate profits pre-tax profits should be growing if the economy was indeed growing substantially above 2%.”

Furthermore, note that since I originally penned that article, after-tax corporate profits have declined back to 2014 levels.

My…how quickly the “tax cut boost” faded.

With roughly all of the 4th quarter 2018 earnings now in we can look at the results. All data used is derived from Standard & Poors.

During the last quarter of 2018, quarterly operating earnings declined from $41.38 to $35.03 or -15.35%. While operating earnings are completely useless for analysis, as they exclude all the “bad stuff” and mostly fudge the rest, reported earnings declined by from $36.36 to $28.96 or -20.35%. 

But if earnings declined by that much, how is that so many companies beat their estimates?”

That beat rate was simply due to the consistent “lowering of the bar” so companies can get over the hurdle. On Wall Street, earnings season has simply become “Millennial Soccer” where scores aren’t kept and everyone gets a “participation trophy” just for showing up. More on this in a moment.

For the entire 2018 reporting year operating earnings per share rose from $124.51 per share in Q4 of 2017 to $151.60 in Q4 of 2018 for a 21.76% annual gain. Reported earnings also rose from $109.88 to $132.39 during the same period for an annualized gain of 20.49%.

Before you get all excited, that surge included the benefit of the massive corporate tax reduction. However, those gains aren’t all that noteworthy when you consider that on an annualized basis 2017 operating earnings growth was 17.17% and reported earnings growth was 16.21% which was without the benefit of tax cuts.

Not nearly as exciting as the media made it out to be is it?

However, let’s get into the analysis of what happened, and what it means for the markets going forward.

Shawn Langlois recently reported for MarketWatch:

“Nicolas Colas said that Wall Street analysts started the quarter with bullish earnings expectations of about 3% growth but are now looking for a 4% drop, which could cause problems for the market. ‘That’s the worst comp [comparable] and the first negative comp since 2Q of ‘16,’ he said, in reference to how those results compare with prior periods.

‘Even if companies beat materially though, the big issue here: Revenue growth is still supposed to be 5%. So margin pressure is going to be the story for this quarter.’”

This is correct and it is also coming on the heels of a sharp slowdown in growth in the last two quarters. Note that while revenues have not yet turned lower, revenues tend to lag downturns in earnings. It is also worth noting that sharp downturns in earnings preceded the onset of recessions in 2001 and 2008.

More importantly, earnings fell as share buybacks set new records in 2018. With corporations expected to set a new record in share repurchases again in 2019, the question will become how much “bang for the buck” are they getting?

Of course, such should not be a surprise.

Since the recessionary lows, much of the rise in “profitability” have come from a variety of cost-cutting measures and accounting gimmicks rather than actual increases in top-line revenue. While tax cuts certainly provided the capital for a surge in buybacks, revenue growth, which is directly connected to a consumption-based economy, has remained muted. Since 2009, the reported earnings per share of corporations has decreased from 353% in Q2-2018 to just 285% in Q4. However, even with the recent decline, this is still the sharpest post-recession rise in reported EPS in history. Moreover, the increase in earnings did not come from a commensurate increase in revenue which has only grown by a marginal 56% during the same period. (Again, note the sharp drop in EPS despite both tax cuts and massive share buybacks. This is not a good sign for 2019.)

The reality is that stock buybacks create an illusion of profitability. Such activities do not spur economic growth or generate real wealth for shareholders, but it does provide the basis for with which to keep Wall Street satisfied and stock option compensated executives happy.

Always Optimistic

But optimism is certainly one commodity that Wall Street always has in abundance. When it comes to earnings expectations, estimates are always higher regardless of the trends of economic data. As shown, Wall Street is optimistic the current earnings decline is just a blip on the way to higher-highs.

Unfortunately, the difference between Wall Street’s expectations and reality tends to be quite dramatic.

You can see the over-optimism collide with reality in just the last two months. Since the beginning of December, forward expectations have fallen as economic realities continue to impale overly optimistic projections. Just since February, the estimates for the front half of 2019 have plummeted.

The chart below shows the changes in estimates a bit more clearly. It compares where estimates were on January 1st, 2018 versus June and December of 2018 and January and April of 2019. You can see the massive downward revisions to estimates from June of last year to April of this year. As I stated above, this is why a high percentage of companies ALWAYS beat their estimates. Had analysts been required to stick with their original estimates, the beat rate would be close to zero. 

I Told You So

This is the part where I get to say “I told you so.”

In June of 2017, I wrote “The Drums Of Trade War” stating:

“Wall Street is ignoring the impact of tariffs on the companies which comprise the stock market. Between May 1st and June 1st of this year, the estimated reported earnings for the S&P 500 have already started to be revised lower (so we can play the ‘beat the estimate game’).  For the end of 2019, forward reported estimates have declined by roughly $6.00 per share.”

However, the red dashed line denotes an 11% reduction to those estimates due to a “trade war” where an across-the-board tariff of 10% on all US imports and exports would lower 2018 EPS for S&P 500 companies and, thus, completely offset the positive fiscal stimulus from tax reform.”

Surprise! As of the end of the Q4-2018 reporting period, guess where we are? Exactly 11% lower than where we started which, as stated then, has effectively wiped out all the benefit from the tax cuts.

Sadly, as we noted several times in early 2018, the entire piece of legislation to cut corporate taxes was squandered with “Trump’s trade war” which has yet to yield any tangible positive benefits economically speaking.

Importantly, the estimates for the end of 2019 are still too high and will need to revised lower over the next couple of quarters as economic growth remains materially weaker. The burgeoning debts and deficits, corporate and household leverage, and slower job growth will ensure slower growth into year end.

The End Of The Cycle

While the market continues to struggle with more than a year of consolidation, we are continuing to most likely watching the end of the current bull market cycle.

If we expand our data back to 1955. The chart below shows the real, inflation-adjusted, profits after-tax versus the cumulative change to the S&P 500. Here is the important point – when markets grow faster than profitability, which it can do for a while, eventually a reversion occurs. This is simply the case that all excesses must eventually be cleared before the next growth cycle can occur. Currently, we are once again trading a fairly substantial premium to corporate profit growth.

Since corporate profit growth is a function of economic growth longer term, we can also see how “expensive” the market is relative to corporate profit growth as a percentage of economic growth. Once again, we find that when the price to profits ratio is trading ABOVE the long-term linear trend, markets have struggled and ultimately experienced a more severe mean reverting event. With the price to profits ratio once again elevated above the long-term trend, there is little to suggest that markets haven’t already priced in a good bit of future economic and profits growth.

While none of this suggests the market will “crash” tomorrow, it is supportive of the idea that future returns will be substantially weaker in the future.

With analysts once again hoping for a surge in earnings in the months ahead, along with an economic revival, it is worth noting this has always been the case. Currently, there are few, if any, Wall Street analysts expecting a recession currently, and many are certain of a forthcoming economic growth cycle. Yet, at this time, there are few catalysts supportive of such a resurgence.

  • The Fed isn’t hiking rates, but they aren’t reducing them either.
  • The Fed isn’t reducing their balance sheet any more after September, but they aren’t increasing it either.
  • Economic growth outside of China remains weak
  • Employment growth is going to slow.
  • There is no massive disaster currently to spur a surge in government spending and reconstruction.
  • There isn’t another stimulus package like tax cuts to fuel a boost in corporate earnings
  • With the deficit already pushing $1 Trillion, there will only be an incremental boost from additional deficit spending this year. 
  • Unfortunately, it is also just a function of time until a recession occurs.

As I stated in Q2 of 2018:

“The deterioration in earnings is something worth watching closely. While earnings have improved in the recent quarter, due to the benefit of tax cuts, it is likely transient given the late stage of the current economic cycle, continued strength in the dollar and potentially weaker commodity prices in the future. Wall Street is notorious for missing the major turning of the markets and leaving investors scrambling for the exits.

Of course, no one on Wall Street told you to be wary of the markets in 2018. While we did, it largely fell on deaf ears.

This time will likely be no different.

Charts Both Bulls & Bears Should Consider

There has been a litany of articles written recently discussing how the stock market is set for a continued bull rally and that last year’s 20% decline was just an anomaly. The are some primary points that are common threads among each of these articles which are:  1) interest rates are low, 2) corporate profitability is high, and; 3) the Fed continues to put a floor under stocks, and 4) there is no recession in sight. Each of these arguments, while currently accurate, are based primarily on artificial influences and conjecture.

  • Interest rates are low because real economic growth remains weak.
  • Profitability is high due to accounting gimmicks and share repurchases.
  • The Fed is verbally putting a floor under stocks but continues to extract liquidity from the market, and;
  • “There is no recession in sight” argument have been famous last words historically.

While the promise of a continued bull market is very enticing it is important to remember that all markets ultimately complete a “full cycle.” Therefore, if your portfolio, and ultimately your retirement, is dependent upon the thesis of an indefinite bull market, you should at least consider the following charts.


It is often stated that valuations are still cheap based on forward estimates. However, as I noted on Tuesday, forward estimates are always flawed, overly estimated, and repeatedly lead to poor outcomes over time (buy high/sell low) Therefore, trailing reported earnings is truly the only measure one should use.

The chart below shows Dr. Robert Shiller’s cyclically adjusted P/E ratio combined with Tobin’s Q-Ratio. Both measures of valuations simply show that markets are not cheap which historically lead to lower future returns.

  • Shiller’s PE Ratio – is calculated by taking the current price of the market and dividend it by the average of 10-years of reported earnings.
  • Tobin’s Q Ratio – is calculated as the market value of a company divided by the replacement value of the firm’s assets.) 

Most people dismiss valuations because of their inefficiency in dictating market turns. I understand.

However, valuations are NOT, and have never been, a market timing indicator. They are simply a “road map” to future returns.

On a much shorter time-frame, a look at the price of the market as compared to corporate profits give us a better clue. Currently, with the market is trading substantially above the level of corporate profits, any weakness in profit growth (which is heavily tied to economic growth) will foster a reversion in price.

Another way to look at the excess over time is by examining the inflation-adjusted S&P 500 index as compared to real profits. Note that previous extensions of price above profits have generally not ended well when profit growth reversed.

We recently proved this point by looking at the RIA Economic Composite Index as compared to the annual rate of change of the market. Not surprisingly, markets tend to perform poorly during weakening economic environments.

Another way to look at the issue of profits as it relates to the market is shown below. When we measure the cumulative change in the S&P 500 index as compared to the level of profits we find again that when investors pay more than $1 for a $1 worth of profits there is an eventual mean reversion.

The correlation is clearer when looking at the market versus the ratio of corporate profits to GDP. (Again, since corporate profits are ultimately a function of economic growth, the correlation is not unexpected.) With investors paying more today than at any point in history, the next mean reversion will be a humbling event.

Another argument made lately to support the bullish meme is that retail investors all jumped out of the market. The chart below shows the percentage of stocks, bonds and cash owned by individual investors according to the American Association of Individual Investor’s survey.  As you can see, equity ownership did indeed drop from the second highest level on record. However, while many are suggesting this is “bullish,” it is worth noting that historically sharp downturns have also denoted the start of bigger declines and bear markets.

As we have noted previously, investors have been leveraging up portfolios to chase the market. The issue with margin debt is NOT the increasing levels of it. Rising leverage provides buying power to continue to push stocks higher. The issue of margin debt is when it reverses. Just as margin debt increases the rise of stock prices, the reverse is also true.

The chart below shows the history of margin debt levels versus the 12-month moving average. Over the last decade, when the 12-month moving average was violated it has previously been met with Central Bank interventions. Currently, the Fed still remains on a path of reducing accommodative policy and liquidity is being slowly drained. The decline in margin debt is an additional removal of liquidity which has previously supported higher asset prices.

As a money manager, we are currently long the stock market albeit at reduced levels currently. The reality is that I must maintain exposure or potentially suffer career risk. However, my job is not only to make money for my clients, but also to preserve their gains, and investment capital, as much as possible.

The bullish case is based on expectations that current trends from the last decade will continue indefinitely, such as:

  1. Profit margins will only grow and never mean revert.
  2. Yields will remain stable at low levels.
  3. Fed rate hikes and yield curve inversions no longer matter
  4. Weakness in housing, autos, and other credit sensitive ares will not impact domestic growth.
  5. $1 Trillion+ deficits won’t slow the economy.
  6. Inflationary pressures will remain forever muted.
  7. Political turmoil will not roil markets or inhibit consumer confidence.
  8. U.S. dollar won’t appreciate to higher levels
  9. The U.S. economy can remain indefinitely decoupled from the rest of world.
  10. Trade wars and tariffs are a non-event.
  11. Corporations will continue to be the predominant purchasers of U.S. stocks.
  12. Liquidity will remain plentiful
  13. The Central Bank “put” will remain in place forever.
  14. This time is different.

Understanding these bullish arguments is important. But more importantly is the understanding that many of these beliefs have already begun to deteriorate and are substantially increasing the risk to investors and their capital. The markets will not rise indefinitely, and the eventual mean reversion will be more destructive than most realize.

Unfortunately, since most individuals only consider the “bull case,” as it creates confirmation bias for their “greed” emotion, they never see the “train coming.”

Hopefully, these charts will give you some food for thought. 

The Economy IS Slowing

In August of last year, I wrote an article entitled “As Good As It Gets which discussed the record levels being set by a broad swath of economic indicators. To wit:

First, “record levels” of anything are records for a reason. It is where the point where previous limits were reached. Therefore, when a ‘record level’ is reached, it is NOT THE BEGINNING, but rather an indication of the MATURITY of a cycle. While the media has focused on employment, record stock market levels, etc. as a sign of an ongoing economic recovery, history suggests caution.”

In the “rush to be bullish” this a point often missed. When data is hitting “record levels” it is when investors get “the most bullish.” Conversely, they are the most “bearish” at the lows.

But as investors, such is exactly the opposite of what we should do. It is just our human nature.

“What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.” – T.S. Eliot

There currently seems to be a very high level of complacency that the economy will continue its current cycle indefinitely. Or should I say, there seems to be a very large consensus the economy has entered into a “permanently high plateau,” or an era in which economic recessions have been effectively eliminated through monetary and fiscal policy.

Interestingly, it is that very belief on which the Fed is dependent.  They have voiced some minor concerns over a slowing in some of the data, yet they remain committed to trailing economic data points which suggest the economy remains robust.

But herein lies “the trap” for investors.

With the entirety of the financial ecosystem now more heavily levered than ever, due to the Fed’s profligate measures of suppressing interest rates and flooding the system with excessive levels of liquidity, “instability of stability” is now the biggest risk.

The “stability/instability paradox” assumes that all players are rational and such rationality implies avoidance of complete destruction. In other words, all players will act rationally and no one will push “the big red button.”

Again, the Fed is highly dependent on this assumption to provide the “room” needed, after a decade of the most unprecedented monetary policy program in U.S. history, to extricate themselves from it.

The Fed is dependent on “everyone acting rationally.” However, as was seen in the last two months of 2018, such may not actually be the case.

That market rout, and pressure from the White House, has caused the Fed to tilt a bit more “dovish” as of late. However, it should not be mistaken that their views have substantially changed or that they are no longer committed to the reduction of their balance sheet and hiking rates, albeit at a potentially slower pace.

There is good reason to expect that this strong [economic] performance will continue. I believe that this gradual process of normalization remains appropriate.

But that may be a mistake as I pointed out recently:

“But the cracks are already starting to appear as underlying economic data is beginning to show weakness. While the economy ground higher over the last few quarters, it was more of the residual effects from the series of natural disasters in 2017 than “Trumponomics” at work. The “pull forward” of demand is already beginning to fade as the frenzy of activity culminated in Q2 of 2018.

To see this more clearly we can look at our own RIA Economic Output Composite Index (EOCI) which is an extremely broad indicator of the U.S. economy. It is comprised of:

  • Chicago Fed National Activity Index (an index comprised of 85 subcomponents)
  • Chicago Purchasing Managers Index
  • ISM Composite Index (composite of the manufacturing and non-manufacturing surveys)
  • Richmond Fed Manufacturing Survey
  • New York (Empire) Manufacturing Survey
  • Philadelphia Fed Manufacturing Survey
  • Dallas Fed Manufacturing Survey
  • Markit Composite Manufacturing Survey
  • PMI Composite Survey
  • Economic Confidence Survey
  • NFIB Small Business Index 
  • Leading Economic Index (LEI)

All of these surveys (both soft and hard data) are blended into one composite index which, when compared to U.S. economic activity, has provided a good indication of turning points in economic activity.

As shown, the slowdown in economic activity has been broad enough to turn this very complex indicator lower.

One of the components of the EOCI is the Leading Economic Index (LEI) which is a strong leading indicator of the economy as shown below.

The recent downturn in the LEI suggests economic data will likely be weaker in the quarters ahead. However, this downturn wasn’t a surprise and was something I showed would be the case in July of 2018.

As shown, over the last six months, the decline in the LEI has actually been sharper than originally anticipated. Importantly, there is a strong historical correlation between the 6-month rate of change in the LEI and the EOCI index. As shown, the downturn in the LEI predicted the current economic weakness and suggests the data is likely to continue to weaken in the months ahead.

Another component of the EOCI is the National Federation of Small Business index. In 2018, that index peaked at a record of 108.8 and has since fallen more than 4-points in recent months. While it has been of little concern to the media, it should be noticed that at no point in history did the index peak at a record and not substantially decline over the coming months.

More importantly, notice that peaks in the optimism have previously always occurred shortly after a recession ended, not nearly a decade into an economic upturn. Such suggests the time between the current peak and the next recessionary spat could be closer than seen previously.

However, while small business owners are still “saying” they are optimistic, they are not necessarily acting that way. A look at their level of economic confidence versus their capital expenditures suggests a much more cautious stance relative to their level of “optimism.”

Currently, their level of capital expenditures has plunged back to levels more often seen during a recessionary period than a burgeoning economic upswing.

The same goes for the difference between the “expectation of sales” versus their “actual sales.”

Notice that actual sales are always less than expectations, but the current gap is one of the largest on record. More importantly, both actual and expected sales have turned lower in recent months which was during the seasonally strong Christmas shopping period.

All of this underscores the single biggest risk to your investment portfolio.

In extremely long bull market cycles, investors become “willfully blind,” to the underlying inherent risks. Or rather, it is the “hubris” of investors they are now “smarter than the market.” 

However, while the Fed is focused on what has happened in the past, the market is focused on what will happen in the future. What the current trend of economic data suggests is that the global economic weakness, which we have been discussing for the last few months, has now come home to roost. As shown below, the EOCI index has provided a leading indication historically to market weakness. The difference between small corrections and larger declines was determined by the secular period of the market.

What shouldn’t be overlooked, is that the risk to investors is a negative impact to corporate profitability in the quarters ahead. Valuations are still a major issue for investors as corporate profits have not grown over the last 8-years. (They have only set a record recently on an “after tax” basis due to recent legislative changes.)

Of course, changing profits on the bottom line of the corporate balance sheet is not what drives the economy. That comes from consumption, and if pretax corporate profits aren’t growing, neither is revenue which is consistent with the modest rates of economic growth seen over the last decade.

This is why both the Fed, and the markets, are very dependent on “stability.” As long as no one asks the “tough questions,” the bullish thesis can continue as momentum and psychology remain intact.

Unfortunately, as seen in the last quarter of 2018, “instability” can happen very quickly leaving investors with little time to react. The recent market rout was likely a warning sign that investors should not dismiss as a “one-off” event.

  • The Federal Reserve is still looking to increase rates.
  • They are also committed to continuing the reduction of their balance sheet which is extracting liquidity from the financial markets.
  • Even if the Fed doesn’t hike rates further, rates are still materially higher than they were two-years ago which is impinging consumers discretionary incomes.
  • Earnings estimates are still too high
  • China is becoming a bigger problem.
  • Debt remains a substantial problem as default risks increase
  • Domestic economic weakness, as shown, is gaining traction
  • The Global economy is weakening at a faster pace than the US economy, and;
  • Markets have begun to show their vulnerabilities.

What happens next is anyone’s guess, but erring to the side of caution currently will likely turn out to be a good decision.

What Will Cause The Next Recession?

J. Bradford Delong wrote a very interesting article discussing the trigger for the next recession. 

“Three of the last four US recessions stemmed from unforeseen shocks in financial markets. Most likely, the next downturn will be no different: the revelation of some underlying weakness will trigger a retrenchment of investment, and the government will fail to pursue counter-cyclical fiscal policy.

Over the past 40 years, the US economy has experienced four recessions. Among the four, only the extended downturn of 1979-1982 had a conventional cause. The US Federal Reserve thought that inflation was too high, so it hit the economy on the head with the brick of interest-rate hikes. As a result, workers moderated their demands for wage increases, and firms cut back on planned price increases.

The other three recessions were each caused by derangements in financial markets. After the savings-and-loan crisis of 1991-1992 came the bursting of the dot-com bubble in 2000-2002, followed by the collapse of the sub-prime mortgage market in 2007, which triggered the global financial crisis the following year.”

While I agree with Bradford’s point, I think there is a disconnect between the crises he points out and repeated behaviors which lead to those events.

Let’s review some basic realities about the economy that seems to be lost on the mainstream media. 

First, this is NOT an economic cycle:

This is:

Despite the hopes the economy will continue into an everlasting expansion, such has historically never been the case. The current economic expansion, which has been driven by massive infusions of liquidity, extremely accommodative interest rate policy, and a surge in debt accumulation, is just 4-months away from setting a new record. 

Secondly, while the recession prior to 1980 was driven by a super-aggressive Fed rate tightening policy, since 1950 we can find fingerprints of monetary policy in every event.

I am not saying that just because the Fed hikes rates, that a recession, or crisis, will be triggered.

What I am saying is that over the entire rate cycle, the Fed has fostered the credit driven expansion and laid the groundwork necessary for a crisis to be born.

Let’s revisit Bradford’s three specific crises.

The S&L Crisis

The savings and loan crisis of the 1980s and 1990s (commonly dubbed the S&L crisis) was the failure of 1,043 out of the 3,234 savings and loan associations in the United States from 1986 to 1995.

However, just looking at the event we miss the bigger picture.

If we go back in time before the crisis began, we find an environment where the Federal Reserve had drastically lowered the overnight lending rates in order to spur more borrowing and economic activity coming out of the back-to-back recessions of the late ’70s and early ’80s.

Of course, in a capitalist-driven economy, as demand for loans for cars, housing, businesses, etc. rose; bankers figured out ways to continue to extend credit in order to maximize their profitability. As is always the case, greed over took prudence and many bankers relaxed risk management protocols which would ultimately cost them their jobs and in many cases the bank.

Of course, in 1979, when the Federal Reserve hiked the discount rate from 9.5% to 12%, ostensibly to quell inflation pressures, it also slowed the economy. Since the S&L’s had issued long-term loans at fixed rates lower than the now higher rate at which they could borrow the rise in rates combined with rising default rates, led to insolvency.

Probably the most famous example from the S&L Crisis period was
that of financier Charles Keating, who paid $51 million financed through Michael Milken’s “junk bond” operation, for his Lincoln Savings and Loan Association which at the time had a negative net worth exceeding $100 million.

The Dot.Com Bubble

While the “dot.com” bubble is often thought of as a one-off event caused by speculative excess, there was actually much more going on at the time.

Many have forgotten the names of Enron, WorldCom, Global Crossing, and other booming tech companies which were riff with financial shenanigans at the time which ultimately led to the passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.

However, again, we can’t look at just the event itself but need to go back prior to the event to understand the groundwork that was laid.

Following the recession of 1991, the Federal Reserve drastically lowered interest rates to spur economic growth. However, the two events which laid the foundation for the “dot.com” crisis was the rule-change which allowed the nations pension funds to own equities and the repeal of Glass-Steagall which unleashed Wall Street upon a nation of unsuspecting investors.

The major banks could now use their massive balance sheet to engage in investment-banking, market-making, and proprietary trading. The markets exploded as money flooded the financial markets. Of course, since there were not enough “legitimate” deals to fill demand and Wall Street bankers are paid to produce deals, Wall Street floated any offering it could despite the risk to investors.

Of course, it wasn’t long until the Federal Reserve, again concerned about the prospect of rising inflation and an overheating economy, started hiking rates. As monetary policy became more restrictive, the cost of capital rose, and the economy slowed.

It wasn’t long before the system came unglued.

The Great Financial Crisis

In response to the “Dot.com” crisis, the Federal Reserve once again drastically lowered interest rates to spur economic growth.

This was also the point where the Bush Administration, along with the Alan Greenspan headed Federal Reserve, decided that “everyone” should own a home. Lending standards were relaxed and a variety of new mortgage structures were introduced by Wall Street in the quest to make money.

Over the next several years, as lending rates declined, and everyone wanted to buy into the surging housing market, Wall Street packaged mortgages into exotic instruments allowing them to sell the mortgages to investors. The cycle continued with ever increasing demand from home buyers and demand from investors.

As the housing market boomed, the stock market fully recovered from the “dot.com” crash, and with the economy booming, the Federal Reserve, now under the leadership of Ben Bernanke, decided to start tightening monetary policy in the belief that inflation was an imminent threat from an overheating economy.

But there were no pressing concerns as it was believed that “subprime mortgage loans were contained” and the ongoing “Goldilocks economy” would continue uninterrupted.

They weren’t and it didn’t.

If you are interested in this crisis we urge you to read or watch The Big Short by Michael Lewis

The Common Threads

While each of these events were much more complex than what I have outlined here, there were many others along the way like the Russian Debt Default, The Asian Contagion, and Long-Term Capital Management, which all shared important commonalities between them.

In each case we find that prior to the event the Federal Reserve was loosening monetary policy to spur economic growth following a preceding economic downturn. They did this to halt the downturn but in doing so failed to allow the system to clear itself over time.

Looser monetary policy, and continuing relaxation of regulations led to excessive greed by the primary players in the market which was supported by a rising level of speculative frenzy and easy access to capital by investors.

In other words, instead allowing the system to clear the previous build up of excesses, the Federal Reserve intervened to keep that process from happening. As a result, each crisis has been worse than the one before it because the debt and leverage in the system continues to mount.

As shown in the chart below, whenever the Federal Reserve previously loosened monetary policy, debt as a percentage of the economy surged. Naturally, when monetary policy was reversed, things tended to go bad…and generally very quickly.

Since 1980, the eventual and inevitable unwind of an overly levered system was met by a drastic drop in the Fed Funds rate to stimulate debt induced consumption and spur economic activity. The problem, is that each effort by the Fed to limit the impact to the system has required a lower interest rate than the one that preceded.

With rates near the lowest level on record still, the next event will once again require dramatic measures to stem the unwinding of a decade long, debt supported, economic cycle.

But this is where Bradford gets it absolutely right about the cause of the next recession.

“Specifically, the culprit will probably be a sudden, sharp ‘flight to safety’ following the revelation of a fundamental weakness in financial markets. “

Of course, such has always been the case when it comes to the financial markets.

However, the risk of a recession has continue to rise in recent months with plenty of warnings already showing up from a near-inverted yield curve, declining economic momentum, low nominal and real bond yields, and struggling stock prices

The problem, as Bradford notes, is the next financial cataclysm may well fall outside of the capability of the Federal Reserve and Government to neutralize.

“If a recession comes anytime soon, the US government will not have the tools to fight it. The White House and Congress will once again prove inept at deploying fiscal policy as a counter-cyclical stabilizer; and the Fed will not have enough room to provide adequate stimulus through interest-rate cuts. As for more unconventional policies, the Fed most likely will not have the nerve, let alone the power, to pursue such measures.”

As a result, for the first time in a decade, Americans and investors cannot rule out a downturn. At a minimum, they must prepare for the possibility of a deep and prolonged recession, which could arrive whenever the next financial shock comes.”

He is absolutely correct in his assessment of the impact of the next fiscal problem. When it comes, it will be totally unexpected, unanticipated, and unprepared for by investors. Such has always been the case through out history.

But there is one thing that all these crises have in common.

A belief by the Federal Reserve that inflation is going to be problem and that they can control inflation through monetary policy.

This time will be no different.

The Problem With Wall Street’s Forecasts

Over the last few weeks, I have been asked repeatedly to publish my best guess as to where the market will wind up by the end of 2019.

Here it is:

“I don’t know.”

The reality is that we can not predict the future. If it was actually possible, fortune tellers would all win the lottery.  They don’t, we can’t, and we aren’t going to try.

However, this reality certainly does not stop the annual parade of Wall Street analysts from pegging 12-month price targets on the S&P 500 as if there was actual science behind what is nothing more than a “WAG.” (Wild Ass Guess).

The biggest problem with Wall Street, both today and in the past, is the consistent disregard of the possibilities for unexpected, random events. In a 2010 study, by the McKinsey Group, they found that analysts have been persistently overly optimistic for 25 years. During the 25-year time frame, Wall Street analysts pegged earnings growth at 10-12% a year when in reality earnings grew at 6% which, as we have discussed in the past, is the growth rate of the economy.

Ed Yardeni published the two following charts which show that analysts are always overly optimistic in their estimates.

This is why using forward earnings estimates as a valuation metric is so incredibly flawed – as the estimates are always overly optimistic roughly 33% on average.

Most importantly, the reason earnings only grew at 6% over the last 25 years is because the companies that make up the stock market are a reflection of real economic growth. Stocks cannot outgrow the economy in the long term…remember that.

The McKenzie study noted that on average “analyst’s forecasts have been almost 100% too high” which leads investors into making much more aggressive bets in the financial markets which has a general tendency of not working as well as planned.

However, since “optimism” is what sells products, it is not surprising, as we head into 2019, to see Wall Street once again optimistic about higher markets even after massively missing 2018’s outcome.

But, that was so last year.

For 2019, analysts have outdone themselves on scrambling to post the most bullish of outcomes that I can remember. Analysts currently expect a median projected return of 23.66% from the 2018 close.

No…seriously. This is what Wall Street is currently expecting despite the fact that foreign and domestic economic data is weakening, corporate profit growth is likely peaking, trade wars are heating up and the Federal Reserve is tightening monetary policy. As Greg Jensen, co-chief investment officer of Bridgewater Associates, the biggest hedge fund in the world, recently stated: 

“The biggest theme developing is that you are going to have significantly weaker growth, near recession-level growth in 2019, based on our measures, and the markets are generally not pricing that in.

Although the movement has been in that direction, the degree of [ the market’s decline] is still small relative to what we are seeing in terms of the shifts in likely economic conditions.  2019 will be a year of weaker growth and central banks struggling to move from their current tightening stance to easing and finding it difficult to ease because they have very little ammunition to ease.”

All of this should sound very familiar if you have been reading our work over the past year.

The problem with the year-end “guesses” above is they are based on “forward operating earnings estimates” which is another set of severely flawed “WAG’s” on top of a “WAG.”

Let me explain.

First, operating earnings are at best a myth, and mostly a lie. As opposed to reported earnings, operating earnings are essentially “earnings if everything goes right with all the bad stuff excluded.”

Secondly, operating earnings are cooked, baked, and fudged in more ways than you can imagine to win the “beat the estimate gaime.” The Wall Street Journal confirmed as much in a 2012 article entitled “Earnings Wizardry” which stated:

“If you believe a recent academic study, one out of five [20%] U.S. finance chiefs have been scrambling to fiddle with their companies’ earnings. Not Enron-style, fraudulent fiddles, mind you. More like clever—and legal—exploitations of accounting standards that ‘manage earnings to misrepresent [the company’s] economic performance,’ according to the study’s authors, Ilia Dichev and Shiva Rajgopal of Emory University and John Graham of Duke University. Lightly searing the books rather than cooking them, if you like.”

This should not come as a major surprise as it is a rather “open secret.” Companies manipulate bottom line earnings by utilizing “cookie-jar” reserves, heavy use of accruals, and other accounting gimmicks to either increase or depress, earnings.

Cooking-The-books-2

“The tricks are well-known: A difficult quarter can be made easier by releasing reserves set aside for a rainy day or recognizing revenues before sales are made, while a good quarter is often the time to hide a big ‘restructuring charge’ that would otherwise stand out like a sore thumb. What is more surprising though is CFOs’ belief that these practices leave a significant mark on companies’ reported profits and losses. When asked about the magnitude of the earnings misrepresentation, the study’s respondents said it was around 10% of earnings per share.”

Since company executives are highly compensated by rising stock prices, it should not be surprising to see 93% of the respondents pointing to “influence on stock price” and “outside pressure” as reasons for manipulating earnings.

Note: For fundamental investors, this manipulation of earnings skews valuation analysis particularly with respect to P/E’s, EV/EBITDA, PEG, etc.

This was brought to the fore in 2015 by the Associated Press in: “Experts Worry That Phony Numbers Are Misleading Investors:”

“Those record profits that companies are reporting may not be all they’re cracked up to be.

As the stock market climbs ever higher, professional investors are warning that companies are presenting misleading versions of their results that ignore a wide variety of normal costs of running a business to make it seem like they’re doing better than they really are.

What’s worse, the financial analysts who are supposed to fight corporate spin are often playing along. Instead of challenging the companies, they’re largely passing along the rosy numbers in reports recommending stocks to investors.

Here were the key findings of the report:

  • Seventy-two percent of the companies reviewed by AP had adjusted profits that were higher than net income in the first quarter of this year.
  • For a smaller group of the companies reviewed, 21 percent of the total, adjusted profits soared 50 percent or more over net income. This was true of just 13 percent of the group in the same period five years ago.
  • From 2010 through 2014, adjusted profits for the S&P 500 came in $583 billion higher than net income. It’s as if each company in the S&P 500 got a check in the mail for an extra eight months of earnings.
  • Fifteen companies with adjusted profits actually had bottom-line losses over the five years. Investors have poured money into their stocks just the same.
  • Stocks are getting more expensive. Three years ago, investors paid $13.50 for every dollar of adjusted profits for companies in the S&P 500 index, according to S&P Capital IQ. Now, they’re paying nearly $18.

These “gimmicks” to boost earnings, combined with artificially suppressed interest rates and massive rounds of monetary interventions, unsurprisingly pushed asset prices to historically high levels. However, as noted, the boost to “profitability” did not come from organic economic growth. As I showed previously:

“Since the recessionary lows, much of the rise in ‘profitability’ has come from a variety of cost-cutting measures and accounting gimmicks rather than actual increases in top-line revenue. While tax cuts certainly provided the capital for a surge in buybacks; revenue growth, which is directly connected to a consumption-based economy, has remained muted. 

Here is the real kicker. Since 2009, the reported earnings per share of corporations has increased by a total of 391%. This is the sharpest post-recession rise in reported EPS in history. However, the increase in earnings did not come from a commensurate increase in revenue which has only grown by a marginal 44% during the same period. This is an important point when you realize only 11% of total reported EPS growth actually came from increased revenues.”

“While stock buybacks, corporate tax cuts, and debt-issuance can create an illusion of profitability in the short-term, the lack of revenue growth the top line of the income statement suggests a much weaker economic environment over the long-term.”

Way Too Optimistic

With share buyback activity already beginning to slow, the Federal Reserve extracting liquidity from the financial markets, and the Administration continuing their “trade war,” the risks to extremely elevated forward earnings estimates remain high. We are already seeing the early stages of these actions through falling home prices, automobile sales, and increased negative guidance for corporations.

If history, and logic, is any guide, we will likely see the U.S. economy pushing into a recession in 2019 particularly as the global economy continues to weaken. This is something both domestic and global yield curves are already screaming is an issue, but to which few are listening.

Currently, analysts’ forward earnings estimates are still way too lofty going into 2019. As I noted in the recent missive on rising headwinds to the market, earnings expectations have already started to get markedly ratcheted down for the end of 2019. In just the last 45-days the estimates for the end of 2019 have fallen by more than $14/share. The downside risk remains roughly $10/share lower than that and possibly much more if a recession hits.

As stated, beginning in 2019, the estimated quarterly rate of change in earnings will drop markedly and head back towards the expected rate of real economic growth. (Note: these estimates are as of 12/31/18 from S&P and are still too high relative to expected future growth. Expect estimates to continue to decline which allow for continued high levels of estimate “beat” rates.)

The end of the boost from tax cuts has arrived.

Since the tax cut plan was poorly designed, to begin with, it did not flow into productive investments to boost economic growth. As we now know, it flowed almost entirely into share buybacks to boost executive compensation. This has had very little impact on domestic growth.

The “sugar high” of economic growth seen in the first two quarters of 2018 has been from a massive surge in deficit spending and the rush by companies to stockpile goods ahead of tariffs. These activities simply pull forward “future” consumption and have a very limited impact but leave a void which must be filled in the future.

Nearly a full year after the passage of tax cuts, we face a nearly $1 Trillion deficit, a near-record trade deficit, and, as expected, economic and earnings reports are now showing markedly weaker projections. Apple (AAPL) is just the first of many companies that will confirm this in the coming weeks.

It is all just as we predicted.

The problem when it comes to blindly invest in markets without a thorough understanding of underlying dynamics is much the same as playing “leapfrog with a unicorn,” eventually, there is a very negative outcome.

As we head into 2019, all of the anecdotal evidence continues to suggest weaker markets rather than a surging recovery.

But, that is just a guess.

As I said, I honestly “don’t know.”

What I do know is that I will continue to manage our portfolios for the inherent risks to capital, take advantage of opportunities when I see them, and will allow the market to “tell me” what it wants to do rather than “guessing” at it.

While I read most of the mainstream analyst’s predictions to get a gauge on the “consensus.”  This year, more so than most, the outlook for 2019 is universally, and to many degrees, exuberantly bullish.

What comes to mind is Bob Farrell’s Rule #9 which states:

“When everyone agrees…something else is bound to happen.”

You Have A “Trading” Problem – 10 Steps To Fix It

In April of 2018, I wrote an article entitled “10-Reasons The Bull Market Ended In 2018” in which I concluded:

“There is a reasonably high possibility, the bull market that started in 2009 has ended. We may not know for a week, a month or even possibly a couple of quarters. Topping processes in markets can take a very long time.

If I am right, the conservative stance and hedges in portfolios will protect capital in the short-term. The reduced volatility allows for a logical approach to further adjustments as the correction becomes more apparent. (The goal is not to be forced into a ‘panic selling’ situation.)

If I am wrong, and the bull market resumes, we simply remove hedges and reallocate equity exposure.

‘There is little risk, in managing risk.’

The end of bull markets can only be verified well after the fact, but therein lies the biggest problem. Waiting for verification requires a greater destruction of capital than we are willing to endure.”

It is important to remember, that “Risk” is simply the function of how much you will lose when you are wrong in your assumptions.

2018 has been a year of predictions gone horribly wrong.

Not surprisingly, after a decade-long bull market, individuals who were betting on a more positive outcome this year are now clinging to “hope.”

Do you remember all of the analysis about how:

  • Rate hikes won’t matter
  • Surging earnings due to tax cuts will power the market higher
  • Valuations are reasonable

These were all issues which we have heavily questioned over the last couple of years.

And the majority of our warnings “fell on deaf ears” as just being simply “bearish.” 

Of course, you really can’t blame the average investor for ignoring fundamental realities considering they have been repeatedly told the stock market is a “sure thing.” Just “buy and hold” and the market will return 10% a year just as it has over the last 100 years.

This fallacy has been so repeatedly espoused by pundits, brokers, financial advisors, and the media that it has become accepted as “truth.”

But, if it were true, then explain why roughly 80% of Americans, according to numerous surveys, have less than one years salary saved up on average? Furthermore, no one who simply bought and held the S&P 500 has ever lost money over a 10- or 20-year time span. Right? 

Not exactly.

Here is the problem.

No matter how resolute people think they are about buying and holding, they usually fall into the same old emotional pattern of “buying high” and “selling low.”

Investors are human beings. As such, we gravitate towards what feels good and we seek to avoid pain. When things are euphoric in the market, typically at the top of a long bull market, we buy when we should be selling. When things are painful, at the end of a bear market, we sell when we should be buying.

In fact, it’s usually the final capitulation of the last remaining “holders” that sets up the end of the bear market and the start of a new bull market. As Sy Harding says in his excellent book “Riding The Bear:” 

“No such creature as a ‘buy and hold’ investor ever emerged from the other side of the subsequent bear market.”

Statistics compiled by Ned Davis Research back up Harding’s assertion. Every time the market declines more than 10%, (and “real” bear markets don’t even officially begin until the decline is 20%), mutual funds experience net outflows of investor money. To wit:

“Lipper also found the largest outflows on record from stocks ($46BN)the largest outflows since December 2015 from taxable bond ($13.4BN) and Investment Grade bond ($3.7BN) funds, and the 4th consecutive week of outflows from high yield bonds ($2.1BN), offset by a panic rush into cash as money market funds attracted over $81BN in inflows, the largest inflow on record.”

“Fear is a stronger emotion than greed.”

Most bear markets last for months (the norm), or even years (both the 1929 and 1966 bear markets), and one can see how the torture of losing money week after week, month after month, would wear down even the most determined “buy and hold” investor.

But the average investor’s pain threshold is a lot lower than that. The research shows that it doesn’t matter if the bear market lasts less than 3 months (like the 1990 bear) or less than 3 days (like the 1987 bear). People will still sell out, usually at the very bottom, and almost always at a loss.

So THAT is how it happens.

And the only way to avoid it – is to avoid owning stocks during bear markets. If you try to ride them out, odds are you’ll fail. And if you believe that we are in a “New Era,” and that bear markets are a thing of the past, your next of kin will have our sympathies.

But you can do something about it.

Just like any “detox” program, these are the steps to follow to becoming a better long-term investor.

10-Step Process To Curing The Addiction

STEP 1: Admitting there is a problem 

The first step in solving any problem is to realize that you have a “trading” problem. Be willing to take the steps necessary to remedy the situation

STEP 2: You are where you are

It doesn’t matter what your portfolio was in March of 2000, March of 2009, or last Friday.  Your portfolio value is exactly what it is, rather it is realized or unrealized. The loss is already lost, and understanding that will help you come to grips with needing to make a change. Open those statements and look at them – shock therapy is usually effective in bringing about awareness.

STEP 3:  You are not a loser

Most people have a tendency to believe that if they “sell a loser,” then they are a “loser” by extension. They try to ignore the situation, or hide the fact they lost money, which in turn causes more mistakes. This only exacerbates the entire problem until they then try to assign blame to anyone and anything else.

You are not a loser. You made an investment mistake. You lost money. 

It has happened to every person that has ever invested in the stock market, and there are many others who lost more than you.

STEP 4:  Accept responsibility

In order to begin the repair process, you must accept responsibility for your situation. It is not the market’s fault. It is not your advisor’s or money manager’s fault, nor is it the fault of Wall Street. 

It is your fault.

Once you accept that it is your fault and begin fixing the problem, rather than postponing the inevitable and suffering further consequences of inaction, only then can you begin to move forward.

STEP 5:  Understand that markets change

Markets change due to a huge variety of factors from interest rates to currency risks, political events, to geo-economic challenges.

If this is a true statement, then how does it make sense to buy and hold?

If markets are in a constant state of flux, and your portfolio remains in a constant state, then the law of change must apply: 

The law of change:  Change will occur and the elements in the environment will adapt or become extinct and that extinction in and of itself is a consequence of change. 

Therefore, if you are a buy and hold investor then you have to modify and adapt to an ever-changing environment or you will become extinct.

STEP 6:  Ask for help

This market has baffled, and confused, even the best of investors and will likely continue to do so for a while. So, what chance do you have doing it on your own?

Don’t be afraid to ask, or get help, if you need it. This is no longer a market which will forgive mistakes easily and while you may pay a little for getting help, a helping hand may keep you from making more costly investment mistakes in the future.

STEP 7:  Make change gradually

No one said that change was going to easy or painless. Going against every age-old philosophy and piece of advice you have ever been given about investing is tough, confusing and froth with doubt.

However, make changes gradually at first – test the waters and measure the results. For example, sell the positions that are smallest in size with the greatest loss. You will make no noticeable change in the portfolio right away, but it will make you realize that you can actually execute a sell order without suffering a negative consequence.

Gradually work your way through the portfolio on rallies and cleanse the portfolio of the evil seeds of greed that now populate it, and replace them with a garden of investments that will flourish over time.

STEP 8:  Develop a strategy 

Now that you have cleaned everything up you should be feeling a lot more in control of your portfolio and your investments. Now you are ready to start moving forward in the development of a goal-based investment strategy.

If your portfolio is a hodge-podge of investments, then how do you know whether or not your portfolio will generate the return you need to meet your goals. A goal-based investment strategy builds the portfolio to match investments, and investment vehicles, in an orderly structure to deliver the returns necessary with the least amount of risk possible. Ditch the benchmark index and measure your progress against your investment destination instead.

STEP 9:  Learn it. Live it. Love it.

Once you have designed the strategy, including monthly contributions to the plan, it is time to implement it. This is where the work truly begins.

  • You must learn the plan inside and out so every move you make has a reason and a purpose. 
  • You must live the plan so that adjustments are made to the plan, and the investments, to match performance, time and value horizons.
  • Finally, you must love the plan so that you believe in it and will not deviate from it. 

It must become a part of your daily life, otherwise, it will be sacrificed for whims and moments of weakness.

STEP 10:  Live your life 

That’s it.

You are in control of your situation rather than the situation controlling you.

The markets will continue to remain volatile as a more important “bear market” takes hold in the next year or so.

The good news is that there will be lots of opportunities to make money along the way.

But that is just how it works. As long as you work your plan, the plan will work for you, and you will reach your goals…eventually.

There is no “get rich quick” plan.

So, live your life, enjoy your family, and do whatever it is that you do best. Most importantly, make your portfolio work as hard for you as you did for the money you put into it.

Did The Market Miss Powell’s Real Message?

Last week, I discussed the recent message from Fed Chairman Jerome Powell which sent the markets surging higher.

“During his speech, Powell took to a different tone than seen previously and specifically when he stated that current rates are ‘just below’ the range of estimates for a ‘neutral rate.’ This is a sharply different tone than seen previously when he suggested that a “neutral rate” was still a long way off.

Importantly, while the market surged higher after the comments on the suggestion the Fed was close to ‘being done’ hiking rates, it also suggests the outlook for inflation and economic growth has fallen. With the Fed Funds rate running at near 2%, if the Fed now believes such is close to a ‘neutral rate,’ it would suggest that expectations of economic growth will slow in the quarters ahead from nearly 6.0% in Q2 of 2018 to roughly 2.5% in 2019.”

Since then, the bond market has picked up on that realization as the yield has flattened considerably over the last few days as the 10-year interest rate broke back below the 3% mark. The chart below shows the difference between the 2-year and the 10-year interest rate.

Now, there are many who continue to suggest “this time is different” and an inverted yield curve is not signaling a recession, and Jerome Powell’s recent comments are “in line” with a “Goldilocks economy.”

Maybe.

But historically speaking, while an inversion of the yield curve may not “immediately” coincide with a recessionary onset, given its relationship to economic activity it is likely a “foolish bet” to suggest it won’t. A quick trip though the Fed’s rate hiking history and “soft landing” scenarios give you some clue as to their success.

While the Fed has been acting on previously strong inflationary data due to surging oil prices, the real long-term drivers of inflation pressures weren’t present. I have commented on this previously, but Kevin Giddis from Raymond James had a good note on this:

“We have always known that the bond market wasn’t as worried about inflation as the Fed, but it really needed the Fed to come out and indicate a ‘shift’ in that way of thought to seal the deal.”

This is exactly correct, and despite the many arguments to the contrary we have repeatedly stated the rise in interest rates was a temporary phenomenon as “rates impact real economic activity.” The “real economy,” due to a surge in debt-financed activity, was not nearly strong enough to withstand substantially higher rates. Of course, such has become readily apparent in the recent housing and auto sales data.

Flat As A Pancake

All of sudden, the bond market has woken up to reality after a year-long slumber. The current spread between the 2-year note and the 10-year note is as tight as it has been in many years and has rarely occurred when the economic fundamentals were as strong as many believe.

The reality, of course, is much of the current strength in economic activity is not from organic inputs in a consumer-driven economy, but rather from one-off impacts of several natural disasters, a surge in consumer debt, and a massive surge in deficit spending. To wit:

“The problem is the massive surge in unbridled deficit spending only provides a temporary illusion of economic growth. Over the long-term, debt leads to economic suppression. Currently, the deficit is rapidly approaching $1 Trillion, and will exceed that level in 2019, which will require further increases in the national debt.”

“There is a limited ability to issue debt to pay for excess spending. The problem with running a $1 Trillion deficit during an economic expansion is that it reduces the effectiveness of that tool during the next recession.”

Our assessment of Powell’s change in tone comes from the message the bond market is sending about the risk to the economy. Since economic data is revised in arrears, the onset of a recession will likely surprise most economists when they learn about it “after the fact.”  Let’s go back to Kevin:

“Here is what we know right now:

1) The U.S. economy seems to be slowing, falling under the weight of higher borrowing costs. What’s hard to predict is whether this is a trend change or a temporary pause.

2) The Fed appeared to blink last week, but we won’t know for sure until December 19th when they release their Rate Decision and ‘tell’ the market what the forward-looking path looks like to them.

3) Inflation is well-contained. For all of you who left town riding on the ‘inflation train,’ welcome back.

4) Global economies are weakening and could get weaker.

5) Friday’s release of the Employment Report should give the market guidance on wages, but not much else.

Kevin is correct, take a look at inflation breakeven rates.

It is quite likely these are not temporary stumbles, but rather a more important change in the previous trends. More importantly, the “global weakness” has continued to accelerate and given that roughly 40% of corporate profits are driven by exports, this does not bode well for extremely lofty earnings forecasts going into 2019.

What Powell Really Said

Caroline Baum had an interesting comment on MarketWatch on Tuesday morning:

“I read with interest the articles last week about the Federal Reserve’s new “unpredictable” and “flexible” approach to monetary policy. No longer can financial markets rely on the gradual, premeditated and practically pre-announced adjustments to the benchmark overnight interest rate, according to these analyses. From now on, the Fed will be ‘data dependent.’”

The whole article is worth a read, but the point being made is that the Fed has always been “data dependent” even if their ability to read and interpret the data has been somewhat flawed. The table below is the average range of their predictions for GDP they publish each quarter versus what really happened.

As Caroline noted, the September projections pegged the “neutral rate” range at 2.5-3.5% with a median estimate of 3%. If Powell is indeed suggesting that the neutral rate has fallen to the low-end of that range, he is likely only confirming what the “yield curve” has been telling us for months. As I quoted previously:

“The yield curve itself does not present a threat to the U.S. economy, but it does reflect a change in bond investor expectations about Federal Reserve actions and about the durability of our current economic expansion.”

Importantly, yield curves, like valuations, are “terrible” with respect to the “timing” of the economic slowdown and/or the impact to the financial markets. So, the longer the economy and markets continue to grow without an event, or sign of weakness, investors begin to dismiss the indicator under the premise “this time is different.” 

The spread between the 10-year and 2-year Treasury rates, historically a good predictor of economic recessions, is also suggesting that Powell may have “woken up to smell the coffee.” While the curve is not inverted as of yet, the trend of the spread is clearly warning the economy is much weaker much of the mainstream economists suggests. (The boosts to economic growth are now all beginning to fade and the 2nd-derivative of growth will begin to become more problematic starting in Q4.)

Mr. Powell most likely also realizes that continuing to tighten monetary policy will simply accelerate the time frame to the onset of the next recession. In fact, there have been absolutely ZERO times in history that the Federal Reserve has begun an interest-rate hiking campaign that has not eventually led to a negative outcome.

The only question is the timing.

There are currently too many indicators already suggesting higher rates are impacting interest rate sensitive, and economically important, areas of the economy. The only issue is when investors recognize the obvious and sell in the anticipation of a market decline.

As I discussed previously, the stock market is a strong leading indicator of economic turns and the turmoil this year may be signaling just that.

Believing that professional investors will simply ignore the weight of evidence to contrary in the “hopes” this “might” be different this time is not a good bet as “risk-based” investors will likely act sooner, rather than later. Of course, the contraction in liquidity causes the decline in asset prices which will contribute to the economic contraction as consumer confidence is shattered. Importantly, since recessions are only identified in hindsight when current data is negatively revised in the future, it won’t become “obvious” the yield curve was sending the correct message until far too late to be useful.

While it is unwise to use the “yield curve” as a “market timing” tool, it is just as unwise to completely dismiss the message it is currently sending.

Yes, We Are In Another Tech Bubble

Technology has touched our lives in so many ways, and especially so for investors. Not only has technology provided ever-better tools by which to research and monitor investments, but tech stocks have also provided outsized opportunities to grow portfolios. It’s no wonder that so many investors develop a strong affinity for tech.

Just as glorious as tech can be on the way up, however, it can be absolutely crushing on the way down. Now that tech stocks have become such large positions in major US stock indexes as well as in many individual portfolios, it is especially important to consider what lies ahead. Does tech still have room to run or has it turned down? What should you do with tech?

For starters, recent earnings reports indicate that something has changed that deserves attention. Bellwethers such as Amazon, Alphabet and Apple all beat earnings estimates by a wide margin. All reported strong revenue growth. And yet all three stocks fell in the high single digits after they reported. At minimum, it has become clear that technology stocks no longer provide an uninterrupted ride up.

These are the kinds of earnings reports that can leave investors befuddled as to what is driving the stocks. Michael MacKenzie gave his take in the Financial Times late in October [here]:

“The latest fright came from US technology giants Amazon and Alphabet after their revenue misses last week. Both are highly successful companies but the immediate market reaction to their results suggested how wary investors are of any sign that their growth trajectories might be flattening.”

Flattening growth trajectories may not seem like such a big deal, but they do provide a peak into the often-tenuous association between perception and reality for technology. Indeed, this relationship has puzzled economists as much as investors. A famous example arose out of the environment of slowing productivity growth in the 1970s and 1980s [here] which happened despite the rapid development of information technology at the time. The seeming paradox prompted economist Robert Solow to quip [here],

You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.”

The computer age eventually did show up in the productivity statistics, but it took a protracted and circuitous route there. The technologist and futurist, Roy Amara, captured the essence of that route with a fairly simple statement [here]:

“We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.” Although that assertion seems innocuous enough, it has powerful implications. Science writer Matt Ridley [here] went so far as to call it the “only one really clever thing” that stands out among “a great many foolish things that have been said about the future.”

Gartner elaborated on the concept by describing what they called “the hype cycle” (shown below).

The cycle is “characterized by the ‘peak of inflated expectations’ followed by the ‘trough of disillusionment’.” It shows how the effects of technology get overestimated in the short run because of inflated expectations and underestimated in the long run because of disillusionment.

Amara’s law/ the hype cycle

Source: Wikipedia [here]

Ridley provides a useful depiction of the cycle:

“Along comes an invention or a discovery and soon we are wildly excited about the imminent possibilities that it opens up for flying to the stars or tuning our children’s piano-playing genes. Then, about ten years go by and nothing much seems to happen. Soon the “whatever happened to …” cynics are starting to say the whole thing was hype and we’ve been duped. Which turns out to be just the inflexion point when the technology turns ubiquitous and disruptive.”

Amara’s law describes the dotcom boom and bust of the late 1990s and early 2000s to a tee. It all started with user-friendly web browsers and growing internet access that showed great promise. That promise lent itself to progressively greater expectations which led to progressively greater speculation. When things turned down in early 2000, however, it was a long way down with many companies such as the e-tailer Pets.com and the communications company Worldcom actually going under. When it was all said and done, the internet did prove to be a massively disruptive force, but not without a lot of busted stocks along the way.

How do expectations routinely become so inflated? Part of the answer is that we have a natural tendency to adhere to simple stories rather than do the hard work of analyzing situations. Time constraints often exacerbate this tendency. But part of the answer is also that many management teams are essentially tasked with the effort of inflating expectations. A recent Harvard Business Review article [here] (h/t Grants Interest Rate Observer, November 2, 2018) provides revealing insights from interviews with CFOs and senior investment banking analysts of leading technology companies.

For example, one of the key insights is that “Financial capital is assumed to be virtually unlimited.” While this defies finance and economics theory and probably sounds ludicrous to most any industrial company executive, it passes as conventional wisdom for tech companies. For the last several years anyway, it has also largely proven to be true for both public tech-oriented companies like Netflix and Tesla as well as private companies like Uber and WeWork.

According to the findings, tech executives,

“…believe that they can always raise financial capital to meet their funding shortfall or use company stock or options to pay for acquisitions and employee wages.”

An important implication of this capital availability is,

“The CEO’s principal aim therefore is not necessarily to judiciously allocate financial capital but to allocate precious scientific and human resources to the most promising projects …”

Another key insight is, “Risk is now considered a feature, not a bug.” Again, this defies academic theory and empirical evidence for most industrial company managers. Tech executives, however, prefer to, “chase risky projects that have lottery-like payoffs. An idea with uncertain prospects but with at least some conceivable chance of reaching a billion dollars in revenue is considered far more valuable than a project with net present value of few hundred million dollars but no chance of massive upside.”

Finally, because technology stocks provide a significant valuation challenge, many tech CFOs view it as an excuse to abdicate responsibility for providing useful financial information. “[C]ompanies see little value in disclosing the details of their current and planned projects in their financial disclosures.” Worse, “accounting is no longer considered a value-added function.” One CFO went so far as to note “that the CPA certification is considered a disqualification for a top finance position [in their company].”

While some of this way of thinking seems to be endemic to the tech industry, there is also evidence that an environment of persistently low rates is a contributing factor. As the FT mentions [here], “When money is constantly cheap and available everything seems straightforward. Markets go up whatever happens, leaving investors free to tell any story they like about why. It is easy to believe that tech companies with profits in the low millions are worth many billions.”

John Hussman also describes the impact of low rates [here]:

“The heart of the matter, and the key to navigating this brave new world of extraordinary monetary and fiscal interventions, is to recognize that while 1) valuations still inform us about long-term and full-cycle market prospects, and; 2) market internals still inform us about the inclination of investors toward speculation or risk-aversion, the fact is that; 3) we can no longer rely on well-defined limits to speculation, as we could in previous market cycles across history.”

In other words, low rates unleash natural limits to speculation and pave the way for inflated expectations to become even more so. This means that the hype cycle gets amplified, but it also means that the cycle gets extended. After all, for as long as executives do not care about “judiciously allocating capital”, it takes longer for technology to sustainably find its place in the real economy. This may help explain why the profusion of technology the last several years has also coincided with declining productivity growth.

One important implication of Amara’s law is that there are two distinctly different ways to make money in tech stocks. One is to identify promising technology ideas or stocks or platforms relatively early on and to ride the wave of ever-inflating expectations. This is a high risk but high reward proposition.

Another way is to apply a traditional value approach that seeks to buy securities at a low enough price relative to intrinsic value to ensure a margin of safety. This can be done when disillusionment with the technology or the stock is so great as to overshoot realistic expectations on the downside.

Applying value investing to tech stocks comes with its own hazards, however. For one, several factors can obscure sustainable levels of demand for new technologies. Most technologies are ultimately also affected by cyclical forces, incentives to inflate expectations can promote unsustainable activity such as vendor financing, and debt can be used to boost revenue growth through acquisitions.

Further, once a tech stock turns decidedly down, the corporate culture can change substantially. The company can lose its cachet with its most valuable resource — its employees. Some may become disillusioned and even embarrassed to be associated with the company. When the stock stops going up, the wealth creation machine of employee stock options also turns off. Those who have already made their fortunes no longer have a good reason to hang around and often set off on their own. It can be a long way down to the bottom.

As a result, many investors opt for riding the wave of ever-inflating expectations. The key to succeeding with this approach is to identify, at least approximately, the inflection point between peak inflated expectations and the transition to disillusionment.

Rusty Guinn from Second Foundation Partners provides an excellent case study of this process with the example of Tesla Motors [here]. From late 2016 through May 2017 the narrative surrounding Tesla was all about growth and other issues were perceived as being in service to that goal. Guinn captures the essence of the narrative:

“We need capital, but we need it to launch our exciting new product, to grow our factory production, to expand into exciting Semi and Solar brands.” In this narrative, “there were threats, but always on the periphery.”

Guinn also shows how the narrative evolved, however, by describing a phase that he calls “Transitioning Tesla”. Guinn notes how the stories about Tesla started changing in the summer of 2017:

“But gone was the center of gravity around management guidance and growth capital. In its place, the cluster of topics permeating most stories about Tesla was now about vehicle deliveries.”

This meant the narrative shifted to something like, “The Model 3 launch is exciting AND the performance of these cars is amazing, BUT Tesla is having delivery problems AND can they actually make them AND what does Wall Street think about all this?” As Guinn describes, “The narrative was still positive, but it was no longer stable.” More importantly, he warns, “This is what it looks like when the narrative breaks.”

The third phase of Tesla’s narrative, “Broken Tesla”, started around August 2017 and has continued through to the present. Guinn describes,

“The growing concern about production and vehicle deliveries entered the nucleus of the narrative about Tesla Motors in late summer 2017 and propagated. The stories about production shortfalls now began to mention canceled reservations. The efforts to increase production also resulted in some quality control issues and employee complaints, all of which started to make their way into those same articles.”

Finally, Guinn concludes, “Once that happened, a new narrative formed: Tesla is a visionary company, sure, but one that doesn’t seem to have any idea how to (1) make cars, (2) sell cars or (3) run a real company that can make money doing either.” Once this happens, there is very little to inhibit the downward path of disillusionment.

Taken together, these analyses can be used by investors and advisors alike to help make difficult decisions about tech positions. Several parts of the market depend on the fragile foundations of growth narratives including many of the largest tech companies, over one-third of Russell 2000 index constituents that don’t make money, and some of the most over-hyped technologies such as artificial intelligence and cryptocurrencies.

One common mistake that should be avoided is to react to changing conditions by modifying the investment thesis. For example, a stock that has been owned for its growth potential starts slowing down. Rather than recognizing the evidence as potentially indicative of a critical inflection point, investors often react by rationalizing in order to avoid selling. Growth is still good. The technology is disruptive. It’s a great company. All these things may be true, but it won’t matter. Growth is about narrative and not numbers. If the narrative is broken and you don’t sell, you can lose a lot of money. Don’t get distracted.

In addition, it is important to recognize that any company-specific considerations will also be exacerbated by an elemental change in the overall investment landscape. As the FT also noted, “But this month [October] can be recognised as the point at which the market shifts from being driven by liquidity to being driven by fundamentals.” This turning point has significant implications for the hype cycle: “Turn off the liquidity taps at the world’s central banks and so does the ability of the market to believe seven impossible things before breakfast.”

Yet another important challenge in dealing with tech stocks that have appreciated substantially is dealing with the tax consequences. Huge gains can mean huge tax bills. In the effort to avoid a potentially complicated and painful tax situation, it is all-too-easy to forego the sale of stocks that have run the course of inflated expectations.

As Eric Cinnamond highlights [here], this is just as big of a problem for fiduciaries as for individuals:

“The recent market decline is putting a growing number of portfolio managers in a difficult situation. The further the market falls, the greater the pressure on managers to avoid sending clients a tax bill.”

Don’t let tax considerations supersede investment decisions.

So how do the original examples of Amazon, Alphabet and Apple fit into this? What, if anything, should investors infer from their quarterly earnings and the subsequent market reactions?

There are good reasons to be cautious. For one, all the above considerations apply. Further, growth has been an important part of the narrative of each of these companies and any transition to lower growth does fundamentally affect the investment thesis. In addition, successful companies bear the burden of ever-increasing hurdles to growth as John Hussman describes [here]:

“But as companies become dominant players in mature sectors, their growth slows enormously.”

“Specifically,” he elaborates, “growth rates are always a declining function of market penetration.” Finally, he warns,

“Investors should, but rarely do, anticipate the enormous growth deceleration that occurs once tiny companies in emerging industries become behemoths in mature industries.”

For the big tech stocks, wobbles from the earnings reports look like important warning signs.

In sum, tech stocks create unique opportunities and risks for investors. Due to the prominent role of inflated expectations in so many technology investments, however, tech also poses special challenges for long term investors. Whether exposure exists in the form of individual stocks or by way of major indexes, it is important to know that many technology stocks are run more like lottery tickets than as a sustainable streams of cash flows. Risk may be perceived as a feature by some tech CFOs, but it is a bug for long term investment portfolios.

Finally, tech presents such an interesting analytical challenge because the hype cycle can cause perceptions to deviate substantially from the reality of development, adoption and diffusion. Ridley describes a useful general approach: “The only sensible course is to be wary of the initial hype but wary too of the later scepticism.” Long term investors won’t mind a winding road but they need to make sure it can get them to where they are going.

Exclusive Interview: Peter Boockvar

Last week, I visited with Peter Boockvar, Chief Investment Officer at Bleakley Advisory Group and Editor of The Boock Report. He previously was the Chief Market Analyst for The Lindsey Group, a macro economic and market research firm started by Larry Lindsey. Prior to this, Peter spent a brief time at Omega Advisors, a New York-based hedge fund, as a macro analyst and portfolio manager. Before this, he was an employee and partner at Miller Tabak + Co for 18 years where he was recently the equity strategist and a portfolio manager with Miller Tabak Advisors.

Peter and I cover a wide range of topics from the market, the coming recession, the impact and risks of higher rates, and the Federal Reserve.

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Exclusive Interview: Chris Martenson

I recently spent some time with Chris Martenson from Peak Prosperity about the market, the economy, and the “Great Reset” which is approaching.

Chris Martenson, PhD (Duke), MBA (Cornell) is an economic researcher and futurist specializing in energy and resource depletion, and co-founder of PeakProsperity.com (along with Adam Taggart). As one of the early econobloggers who forecasted the housing market collapse and stock market correction years in advance, Chris rose to prominence with the launch of his seminal video seminar: The Crash Course which has also been published in book form (Wiley, March 2011). It’s a popular and extremely well-regarded distillation of the interconnected forces in the Economy, Energy and the Environment (the “Three Es” as Chris calls them) that are shaping the future, one that will be defined by increasing challenges to growth as we have known it. In addition to the analysis and commentary he writes for his site PeakProsperity.com, Chris’ insights are in high demand by the media as well as academic, civic and private organizations around the world, including institutions such as the UN, the UK House of Commons and US State Legislatures.

The interview has been broken down into 3-chapters for your viewing consumption.

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Jeremy Grantham’s Best Long-Term Advice For Investors

Over the weekend, I was reviewing some old commentary and stumbled across a piece from 2012 which contained an excerpt from Jeremy Grantham who is the famed investor at GMO.

I have spoken, and written many times in the past, that the media and Wall Street alike promotes the bullish and optimistic views not because it is correct – but because it sells product. There is no value in telling the retail investor the truth about the risks in the market because investors would pull money out of the market which would reduce Wall Street’s profitability. In other words, the bullish and optimistic marketing machines are good for their bottom line – just not necessarily yours.  This is one of the primary points that Jeremy Grantham brought out in his commentary.

This is a read which is well worth your time and consideration. It speaks to the very issues that we address most often about understanding the long-term risks to your portfolio, investment rules, and the legacy that we are leaving to our children.

It was refreshing and enlightening in 2012. It is just as important and educational today. I have added illustrations to support his points.

Advice From Uncle Polonius

by Jeremy Grantham, GMO

For individual investors setting out on dangerous investment voyages.

Believe in history. In investing Santayana is right: history repeats and repeats, and forget it at your peril. All bubbles break, all investment frenzies pass away. You absolutely must ignore the vested interests of the industry and the inevitable cheerleaders who will assure you that this time it’s a new high plateau or a permanently higher level of productivity, even if that view comes from the Federal Reserve itself. No. Make that, especially if it comes from there. The market is gloriously inefficient and wanders far from fair price but eventually, after breaking your heart and your patience (and, for professionals, those of their clients too), it will go back to fair value. Your task is to survive until that happens. Here’s how.

Neither a lender nor a borrower be.” If you borrow to invest, it will interfere with your survivability. Unleveraged portfolios cannot be stopped out, leveraged portfolios can. Leverage reduces the investor’s critical asset: patience. (To digress, excessive borrowing has turned out to be an even bigger curse than Polonius could have known. It encourages financial aggressiveness, recklessness, and greed. It increases your returns over and over until, suddenly, it ruins you. For individuals, it allows you to have today what you really can’t afford until tomorrow. It has proven to be so seductive that individuals en masse have shown themselves incapable of resisting it, as if it were a drug. Governments also, from the Middle Ages onwards and especially now, it seems, have proven themselves equally incapable of resistance. Any sane society must recognize the lure of debt and pass laws accordingly. Interest payments must absolutely not be tax deductible or preferred in any way. Governments must apparently be treated like Polonius’s children and given limits. By law, cumulative government debt should be given a sensible limit of, say, 50% of GDP, with current transgressions given 10 or 20 years to be corrected.) But, back to investing …

Don’t put all of your treasure in one boat. This is about as obvious as any investment advice could be. It was learned by merchants literally thousands of years ago. Several different investments, the more the merrier, will give your portfolio resilience, the ability to withstand shocks. Clearly, the more investments you have and the more different they are, the more likely you are to survive those critical periods when your big bets move against you.

Be patient and focus on the long term. Wait for the good cards. If you’ve waited, and waited some more, until finally a very cheap market appears, this will be your margin of safety. Now all you have to do is withstand the pain as the very good investment becomes exceptional. Individual stocks usually recover, entire markets always do. If you’ve followed the previous rules, you will outlast the bad news.

Try to contain natural optimism. Optimism has probably been a positive survival characteristic. Our species is optimistic, and successful people are probably more optimistic than average. Some societies are also more optimistic than others: the U.S. and Australia are my two picks. I’m sure (but I’m glad I don’t have to prove it) that it has a lot to do with their economic success. The U.S. in particular encourages risk-taking: failed entrepreneurs are valued, not shunned. But optimism comes with a downside, especially for investors: optimists don’t like to hear bad news. Tell a European you think there’s a housing bubble and you’ll have a reasonable discussion. Tell an Australian and you’ll have World War III. Been there, done that! And in a real stock bubble like that of 2000, bearish news in the U.S. will be greeted like news of the bubonic plague; bearish professionals will be fired just to avoid the dissonance of hearing the bear case, and this is an example where the better the case is made, the more unpleasantness it will elicit. Here again it is easier for an individual to stay cool than it is for a professional who is surrounded by hot news all day long (and sometimes irate clients too). Not easy, but easier.

But on rare occasions, try hard to be brave. You can make bigger bets than professionals can when extreme opportunities present themselves because, for them, the biggest risk that comes from temporary setbacks – extreme loss of clients and business – does not exist for you. So, if the numbers tell you it’s a real outlier of a mispriced market, grit your teeth and go for it. This goes against the natural psychological behaviors of humans.

Resist the crowd: cherish numbers only. We can agree that in real life as opposed to theoretical life, this is the hardest advice to take: the enthusiasm of a crowd is hard to resist. Watching neighbors get rich at the end of a bubble while you sit it out patiently is pure torture. The best way to resist is to do your own simple measurements of value, or find a reliable source (and check their calculations from time to time). Then hero-worship the numbers and try to ignore everything else. Ignore especially short-term news: the ebb and flow of economic and political news is irrelevant. Stock values are based on their entire future value of dividends and earnings going out many decades into the future. Shorter-term economic dips have no appreciable long-term effect on individual companies, let alone the broad asset classes that you should concentrate on. Leave those complexities to the professionals, who will on average lose money trying to decipher them

Remember too that for those great opportunities to avoid pain or make money – the only investment opportunities that really matter – the numbers are almost shockingly obvious: compared to a long-term average of 15 times earnings, the 1929 market peaked at 21 times, but the 2000 S&P 500 tech bubble peaked at 35 times! Conversely, the low in 1982 was under 8 times. This is not about complicated math!

In the end it’s quite simple. Really. GMO predicts asset class returns in a simple and apparently robust way: we assume profit margins and price earnings ratios will move back to long-term average in 7 years from whatever level they are today. We have done this since 1994 and have completed 40 quarterly forecasts. (We started with 10-year forecasts and moved to 7 years more recently.) Well, we have won all 40 in that every one of them has been usefully above random and some have been, well, surprisingly accurate. These estimates are not about nuances or PhDs. They are about ignoring the crowd, working out simple ratios, and being patient. (But, if you are a professional, they would also be about colossal business risk.) These forecasts were done with a robust but simple methodology. The problem is that though they may be simple to produce, they are hard for professionals to implement. Some of you individual investors, however, may find it much easier.

This above all: to thine own self be true.” Most of us tennis players have benefited from playing against non-realists: those who play to some romanticized vision of that glorious September day 20 years earlier, when every backhand drive hit the corner and every drop shot worked, rather than to their currently sadly atrophied skills and diminished physical capabilities. And thank Heavens for them. But doing this in investing is brutally expensive. To be at all effective investing as an individual, it is utterly imperative that you know your limitations as well as your strengths and weaknesses. If you can be patient and ignore the crowd, you will likely win. But to imagine you can, and to then adopt a flawed approach that allows you to be seduced or intimidated by the crowd into jumping in late, or getting out early, is to guarantee a pure disaster. You must know your pain and patience thresholds accurately and not play over your head.

Good luck. Uncle Polonius

Exclusive Interview: Daniel LaCalle

My interview with Daniel LaCalle on everything from Central Bank policy, interest rates, market risk, and the future of economic growth.

Read more from Daniel Lacalle at D-Lacalle.com

Daniel Lacalle is a PhD in Economy and fund manager. He holds the CIIA financial analyst title, with a post graduate degree in IESE and a master’s degree in economic investigation (UCV).

  • Chief Economist at Tressis SV
  • Fund Manager at Adriza International Opportunities.
  • Member of the advisory board of the Rafael del Pino foundation.
  • Commissioner of the Community of Madrid in London.
  • President of Instituto Mises Hispano.
  • Professor at IE business school, IEB and UNED.
  • Ranked Top 20 most influential economist in the world 2016

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