Tag Archives: S&P 500

Technically Speaking: The 4-Phases Of A Full-Market Cycle

In a recent post, I discussed the “3-stages of a bear market.”  To wit:

“Yes, the market will rally, and likely substantially so.  But, let me remind you of Bob Farrell’s Rule #8 from our recent newsletter:

Bear markets have three stages – sharp down, reflexive rebound and a drawn-out fundamental downtrend

  1. Bear markets often START with a sharp and swift decline.
  2. After this decline, there is an oversold bounce that retraces a portion of that decline.
  3. The longer-term decline then continues, at a slower and more grinding pace, as the fundamentals deteriorate.

Dow Theory also suggests that bear markets consist of three down legs with reflexive rebounds in between.

However, the “bear market” is only one-half of a vastly more important concept – the “Full Market Cycle.”

The Full Market Cycle

Over the last decade, the media has focused on the bull market, making an assumption that the current trend would last indefinitely. However, throughout history, bull market cycles make up on one-half of the “full market” cycle. During every “bull market” cycle, the market and economy build up excesses, which must ultimately be reversed through a market reversion and economic recession. In the other words, as Sir Issac Newton discovered:

“What goes up, must come down.” 

The chart below shows the full market cycles over time. Since the current “full market” cycle is yet to be completed, I have drawn a long-term trend line with the most logical completion point of the current cycle.

[Note: I am not stating the markets are about to crash to the 1600 level on the S&P 500. I am simply showing where the current uptrend line intersects with the price. The longer that it takes for the markets to mean revert, the higher the intersection point will be. Furthermore, the 1600 level is not out of the question either. Famed investor Jack Bogle stated that over the next decade we are likely to see two more 50% declines.  A 50% decline from the all-time highs would put the market at 1600.]

As I have often stated, I am not bullish or bearish. My job as a portfolio manager is simple; invest money in a manner that creates returns on a short-term basis, but reduces the possibility of catastrophic losses, which wipe out years of growth.

Nobody tends to believe that philosophy until the markets wipe about 30% of portfolio values in a month.

The 4-Phases

AlphaTrends previously put together an excellent diagram laying out the 4-phases of the full-market cycle. To wit:

“Is it possible to time the market cycle to capture big gains? Like many controversial topics in investing, there is no real professional consensus on market timing. Academics claim that it’s not possible, while traders and chartists swear by the idea.

The following infographic explains the four important phases of market trends, based on the methodology of the famous stock market authority Richard Wyckoff. The theory is that the better an investor can identify these phases of the market cycle, the more profits can be made on the ride upwards of a buying opportunity.”

So, the question to answer, obviously, is:

“Where are we now?”

Let’s take a look at the past two full-market cycles, using Wyckoff’s methodology, as compared to the current post-financial-crisis half-cycle. While actual market cycles will not exactly replicate the chart above, you can clearly see Wyckoff’s theory in action.

1992-2003

The accumulation phase, following the 1991 recessionary environment, was evident as it preceded the “internet trading boom” and the rise of the “dot.com” bubble from 1995-1999. As I noted previously:

“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 nation’s 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.”

The distribution phase became evident in early-2000 as stocks began to struggle.

Names like Enron, WorldCom, Global Crossing, Lucent Technologies, Nortel, Sun Micro, and a host of others, are “ghosts of the past.” Importantly, they are the relics of an era the majority of investors in the market today are unaware of, but were the poster children for the “greed and excess” of the preceding bull market frenzy.

As the distribution phase gained traction, it is worth remembering the media and Wall Street were touting the continuation of the bull market indefinitely into the future. 

Then, came the decline.

2003-2009

Following the “dot.com” crash, investors had all learned their lessons about the value of managing risk in portfolios, not chasing returns, and focusing on capital preservation as the core for long-term investing.

Okay. Not really.

It took about 27-minutes for investors to completely forget about the previous pain of the bear market and jump headlong back into the creation of the next bubble leading to the “financial crisis.” 

During the mark-up phase, investors once again piled into leverage. This time not just into stocks, but real estate, as well as Wall Street, found a new way to extract capital from Main Street through the creation of exotic loan structures. Of course, everything was fine as long as interest rates remained low, but as with all things, the “party eventually ends.”

Once again, during the distribution phase of the market, the analysts, media, Wall Street, and rise of bloggers, all touted “this time was different.” There were “green shoots,” it was a “Goldilocks economy,” and there was “no recession in sight.” 

They were disastrously wrong.

Sound familiar?

2009-Present

So, here we are, a decade into the current economic recovery and a market that has risen steadily on the back of excessively accommodative monetary policy and massive liquidity injections by Central Banks globally.

Once again, due to the length of the “mark up” phase, most investors today have once again forgotten the “ghosts of bear markets past.”

Despite a year-long distribution in the market, the same messages seen at previous market peaks were steadily hitting the headlines: “there is no recession in sight,” “the bull market is cheap” and “this time is different because of Central Banking.”

Well, as we warned more than once, all that was required was an “exogenous” event, which would spark a credit-event in an overly leveraged, overly extended, and overly bullish market. The “virus” was that exogenous event.

Lost And Found

There is a sizable contingent of investors, and advisors, today who have never been through a real bear market. After a decade long bull-market cycle, fueled by Central Bank liquidity, it is understandable why mainstream analysis believed the markets could only go higher. What was always a concern to us was the rather cavalier attitude they took about the risk.

“Sure, a correction will eventually come, but that is just part of the deal.”

As we repeatedly warned, what gets lost during bull cycles, and is always found in the most brutal of fashions, is the devastation caused to financial wealth during the inevitable decline. It isn’t just the loss of financial wealth, but also the loss of employment, defaults, and bankruptcies caused by the coincident recession.

This is the story told by the S&P 500 inflation-adjusted total return index. The chart shows all of the measurement lines for all the previous bull and bear markets, along with the number of years required to get back to even.

What you should notice is that in many cases bear markets wiped out essentially all or a very substantial portion of the previous bull market advance.

There are many signs suggesting the current Wyckoff cycle has entered into its fourth, and final stage. Whether, or not, the current decline phase is complete, is the question we are all working on answering now.

Bear market cycles are rarely ended in a month. While there is a lot of “hope” the Fed’s flood of liquidity can arrest the market decline, there is still a tremendous amount of economic damage to contend with over the months to come.

In the end, it does not matter IF you are “bullish” or “bearish.” What matters, in terms of achieving long-term investment success, is not necessarily being “right” during the first half of the cycle, but by not being “wrong” during the second half.

Previous Employment Concerns Becoming An Ugly Reality

Last week, we saw the first glimpse of the employment fallout caused by the shutdown of the economy due to the virus. To wit:

“On Thursday, initial jobless claims jumped by 3.3 million. This was the single largest jump in claims ever on record. The chart below shows the 4-week average to give a better scale.”

This number will be MUCH worse when claims are reported later this morning, as many individuals were slow to file claims, didn’t know how, and states were slow to report them.

The importance is that unemployment rates in the U.S. are about to spike to levels not seen since the “Great Depression.” Based on the number of claims being filed, we can estimate that unemployment will jump to 15-20% over the next quarter as economic growth slides 8%, or more. (I am probably overly optimistic.)

The erosion in employment will lead to a sharp deceleration in economic and consumer confidence, as was seen Tuesday in the release of the Conference Board’s consumer confidence index, which plunged from 132.6 to 120 in March.

This is a critical point. Consumer confidence is the primary factor of consumptive behaviors, which is why the Federal Reserve acted so quickly to inject liquidity into the financial markets. While the Fed’s actions may prop up financial markets in the short-term, it does little to affect the most significant factor weighing on consumers – their jobs.

The chart below is our “composite” confidence index, which combines several confidence surveys into one measure. Notice that during each of the previous two bear market cycles, confidence dropped by an average of 58 points.

With consumer confidence just starting its reversion from high levels, it suggests that as job losses rise, confidence will slide further, putting further pressure on asset prices. Another way to analyze confidence data is to look at the composite consumer expectations index minus the current situation index in the reports.

Similarly, given we have only started the reversion process, bear markets end when deviations reverse. The differential between expectations and the current situation, as you can see below, is worse than the last cycle, and only slightly higher than before the “dot.com” crash.

If you are betting on a fast economic recovery, I wouldn’t.

There is a fairly predictable cycle, starting with CEO’s moving to protect profitability, which gets worked through until exhaustion is reached.

As unemployment rises, we are going to begin to see the faults in the previous employment numbers that I have repeatedly warned about over the last 18-months. To wit:

“There is little argument the streak of employment growth is quite phenomenal and comes amid hopes the economy is beginning to shift into high gear. But while most economists focus at employment data from one month to the next for clues as to the strength of the economy, it is the ‘trend’ of the data, which is far more important to understand.”

That “trend” of employment data has been turning negative since President Trump was elected, which warned the economy was actually substantially weaker than headlines suggested. More than once, we warned that an “unexpected exogenous event” would exposure the soft-underbelly of the economy.

The virus was just such an event.

While many economists and media personalities are expecting a “V”-shaped recovery as soon as the virus passes, the employment data suggests an entirely different outcome.

The chart below shows the peak annual rate of change for employment prior to the onset of a recession. The current cycle peaked at 2.2% in 2015, and has been on a steady decline ever since. At 1.3%, which predated the virus, it was the lowest level ever preceding a recessionary event. All that was needed was an “event” to start the dominoes falling. When we see the first round of unemployment data, we are likely to test the lows seen during the financial crisis confirming a recession has started. 

No Recession In 2020?

It is worth noting that NO mainstream economists, or mainstream media, were predicting a recession in 2020. However, as we noted in 2019, the inversion of the “yield curve,” predicted exactly that outcome.

“To CNBC’s point, based on this lagging, and currently unrevised, economic data, there is ‘NO recession in sight,’ so you should be long equities, right?

Which indicator should you follow? The yield curve is an easy answer.

While everybody is ‘freaking out’ over the ‘inversion,’it is when the yield-curve ‘un-inverts’ that is the most important.

The chart below shows that when the Fed is aggressively cutting rates, the yield curve un-inverts as the short-end of the curve falls faster than the long-end. (This is because money is leaving ‘risk’ to seek the absolute ‘safety’ of money markets, i.e. ‘market crash.’)”

I have dated a few of the key points of the “inversion of the curve.” As of today, the yield-curve is now fully un-inverted, denoting a recession has started.

While recent employment reports were slightly above expectations, the annual rate of growth has been slowing. The 3-month average of the seasonally-adjusted employment report, also confirms that employment was already in a precarious position and too weak to absorb a significant shock. (The 3-month average smooths out some of the volatility.)

What we will see in the next several employment reports are vastly negative numbers as the economy unwinds.

Lastly, while the BLS continually adjusts and fiddles with the data to mathematically adjust for seasonal variations, the purpose of the entire process is to smooth volatile monthly data into a more normalized trend. The problem, of course, with manipulating data through mathematical adjustments, revisions, and tweaks, is the risk of contamination of bias.

We previously proposed a much simpler method to use for smoothing volatile monthly data using a 12-month moving average of the raw data as shown below.

Notice that near peaks of employment cycles the BLS employment data deviates from the 12-month average, or rather “overstates” the reality. However, as we will now see to be the case, the BLS data will rapidly reconnect with 12-month average as reality emerges.

Sometimes, “simpler” gives us a better understanding of the data.

Importantly, there is one aspect to all the charts above which remains constant. No matter how you choose to look at the data, peaks in employment growth occur prior to economic contractions, rather than an acceleration of growth. 

“Okay Boomer”

Just as “baby boomers” were finally getting back to the position of being able to retire following the 2008 crash, the “bear market” has once again put those dreams on hold. Of course, there were already more individuals over the age of 55, as a percentage of that age group, in the workforce than at anytime in the last 50-years. However, we are likely going to see a very sharp drop in those numbers as “forced retirement” will surge.

The group that will to be hit the hardest are those between 25-54 years of age. With more than 15-million restaurant workers being terminated, along with retail, clerical, leisure, and hospitality workers, the damage to this demographic will be the heaviest.

There is a decent correlation between surges in the unemployment rate and the decline in the labor-force participation rate of the 25-54 age group. Given the expectation of a 15%, or greater, unemployment rate, the damage to this particular age group is going to be significant.

Unfortunately, the prime working-age group of labor force participants had only just returned to pre-2008 levels, and the same levels seen previously in 1988. Unfortunately, it may be another decade before we see those employment levels again.

Why This Matters

The employment impact is going to felt for far longer, and will be far deeper, than the majority of the mainstream media and economists expect. This is because they are still viewing this as a “singular” problem of a transitory virus.

It isn’t.

The virus was simply the catalyst which started the unwind of a decade-long period of debt accumulation and speculative excesses. Businesses, both small and large, will now go through a period of “culling the herd,” to lower operating costs and maintain profitability.

There are many businesses that will close, and never reopen. Most others will cut employment down to the bone and will be very slow to rehire as the economy begins to recover. Most importantly, wage growth was already on the decline, and will be cut deeply in the months to come.

Lower wage growth, unemployment, and a collapse in consumer confidence is going to increase the depth and duration of the recession over the months to come. The contraction in consumption will further reduce revenues and earnings for businesses which will require a deeper revaluation of asset prices. 

I just want to leave you with a statement I made previously:

“Every financial crisis, market upheaval, major correction, recession, etc. all came from one thing – an exogenous event that was not forecast or expected.

This is why bear markets are always vicious, brutal, devastating, and fast. It is the exogenous event, usually credit-related, which sucks the liquidity out of the market, causing prices to plunge. As prices fall, investors begin to panic-sell driving prices lower which forces more selling in the market until, ultimately, sellers are exhausted.

It is the same every time.”

Over the last several years, investors have insisted the markets were NOT in a bubble. We reminded them that everyone thought the same in 1999 and 2007.

Throughout history, financial bubbles have only been recognized in hindsight when their existence becomes “apparently obvious” to everyone. Of course, by that point is was far too late to be of any use to investors and the subsequent destruction of invested capital.

It turned out, “this time indeed was not different.” Only the catalyst, magnitude, and duration was.

Pay attention to employment and wages. The data suggests the current “bear market” cycle has only just begun.

S&P 500 Monthly Valuation & Analysis Review – 4-01-2020

J. Brett Freeze, CFA, founder of Global Technical Analysis. Each month Brett will provide you their valuable S&P 500 Valuation Chart Book. This unique analysis provides an invaluable long term perspective of equity valuations. If you are interested in learning more about their services, please connect with them.


Cartography Corner – April 2020

J. Brett Freeze and his firm Global Technical Analysis (GTA) provides RIA Pro subscribers Cartography Corner on a monthly basis. Brett’s analysis offers readers a truly unique brand of technical insight and risk framework. We personally rely on Brett’s research to help better gauge market trends, their durability, and support and resistance price levels.

GTA presents their monthly analysis on a wide range of asset classes, indices, and securities. At times the analysis may agree with RIA Pro technical opinions, and other times it will run contrary to our thoughts. Our goal is not to push a single view or opinion, but provide research to help you better understand the markets. Please contact us with any questions or comments.  If you are interested in learning more about GTA’s services, please connect with them through the links provided in the article.

The link below penned by GTA provides a user’s guide and a sample of his analysis.

GTA Users Guide


March 2020 Review

E-Mini S&P 500 Futures

We begin with a review of E-Mini S&P 500 Futures (ESM(H)0) during March 2020. In our March 2020 edition of The Cartography Corner, we wrote the following:

In isolation, monthly support and resistance levels for March are:

  • M4                 3614.00
  • M1                 3457.50
  • PMH              3397.50
  • MTrend         3166.53
  • Close             2951.00     
  • PML               2853.25
  • M3                 2678.00    
  • M2                 2525.50     
  • M5                2369.00

Active traders can use 3166.50 as the pivot, whereby they maintain a long position above that level and a flat or short position below it.

Figure 1 below displays the daily price action for March 2020 in a candlestick chart, with support and resistance levels isolated by our methodology represented as dashed lines.  The first trading session of March saw the market price rise, reflecting market participants’ “buy-the-dip” mentality towards February’s weakness and anticipation of the Federal Reserve responding with further monetary stimulus.  The high trade for March was realized during the second trading session at 3137.00, just under our isolated pivot at March Monthly Trend, MTrend: 3166.53.  The following two trading sessions saw lower highs, yet they also afforded market participants reasonable opportunities to sell against March Monthly Trend.  On March 6th, 2020, the market price began to break lower, with clustered support at QTrend: 2974 and Q2: 2934.25 being surpassed intra-session and the market price settling the session below QTrend.

During the following session, March 9th, the market price gapped lower on the open, breaking and settling below another clustered support zone at PQL: 2855.00 and PML:2853.25.  The following two trading sessions were spent with the market price oscillating between PQL / PML now acting as resistance and isolated support at M3: 2678.00.  On March 12th, the market price descended below isolated support at M3: 2678 and M2: 2525.50, stopping short of achieving the Monthly Downside Exhaustion level for March at M5: 2369.00.  The following three trading sessions were spent with the market oscillating between M3: 2678.00 now acting as resistance and support at M5: 2369.00.  The Monthly Downside Exhaustion level was first achieved on March 16th, 2020.

With the market price having achieved our isolated Monthly Downside Exhaustion level, our focus turned immediately to our weekly support levels.  The following four trading sessions, March 18th through March 23rd, saw the market price continue to descend below M5: 2369.00.  The low price for March was achieved on March 23rd at the price of 2174.00.

On March 23rd, the Federal Reserve committed to unlimited quantitative easing (QE).  That action stopped the market price descent and a rally ensued.  The final six trading sessions of March saw the market price rise sharply from the low, with monthly (and weekly) support levels acting as resistance.

Active traders following our monthly analysis had the opportunity to capture a 24% profit.

 

Figure 1:

Gold Futures

We continue with a review of Gold Futures (GCM(J)0) during March 2020.  In our March 2020 edition of The Cartography Corner, we wrote the following:

In isolation, monthly support and resistance levels for March are:

  • M4         1863.70
  • M1         1770.10
  • PMH       1691.70
  • M2         1582.50
  • Close        1566.70
  • MTrend   1560.26
  • PML        1551.10           
  • M3         1545.50                       
  • M5           1488.90

Active traders can use 1545.50 as the pivot, whereby they maintain a long position above that level and a flat or short position below it.

Figure 2 below displays the daily price action for March 2020 in a candlestick chart, with support and resistance levels isolated by our methodology represented as dashed lines.  The first six trading sessions of March, aided by the Federal Reserve’s actions on March 3rd, saw the market price ascend to and surpass intra-session February’s high price at PMH: 1691.70.  However, the market price did not settle above February’s high.

Over the following four trading sessions, the market price descended through multiple isolated support levels, including our isolated pivot at M3: 1545.50.  On March 16th, our Monthly Downside Exhaustion level for March at M5: 1488.90 was achieved and exceeded intra-session.  The low price for the month at 1451.74 was realized during that session.  The following four sessions were spent with the market price oscillating between clustered support levels at MTrend: 1560.26 / PML: 1551.10 / M3: 1545.50, now acting as resistance, and Monthly Downside Exhaustion level acting as support.

The Federal Reserve announcement of unlimited quantitative easing on March 23rd re-ignited market participant’s enthusiasm for Gold.  The market price cleared the clustered support levels at MTrend: 1560.26 / PML: 1551.10 / M3: 1545.50, now acting as resistance.  On March 24th and March 25th, the market price ascended to and surpassed intra-session February’s high price at PMH: 1691.70.  The final four trading sessions of March were spent with the market price essentially drifting sideways, with a final push lower towards isolated support at M2: 1582.50.

Our analysis essentially bound the realized range for March.

Figure 2:

April 2020 Analysis

E-Mini S&P 500 Futures

We begin by providing a monthly time-period analysis of E-Mini S&P 500 Futures (ESM0).  The same analysis can be completed for any time-period or in aggregate.

Trends:

  • Monthly Trend        2980.56       
  • Quarterly Trend      2918.33
  • Current Settle         2569.75       
  • Daily Trend             2567.31       
  • Weekly Trend          2501.47

In the quarterly time-period, the chart shows that E-Mini S&P 500 Futures are in “Consolidation”, after having been “Trend Up” for four quarters.  Stepping down one time-period, the monthly chart shows that E-Mini S&P 500 Futures are in “Consolidation”, settling below Monthly Trend for two months.  Stepping down to the weekly time-period, the chart shows that E-Mini S&P 500 Futures have been “Trend Down” for five weeks.  The relative positioning of the Trend Levels has lost its bullish posture.

We wrote in March, “The final piece of the sustained Trend Reversal puzzle is a quarterly settlement under Quarterly Trend at QTrend: 2974.00.”  March’s settlement completed the puzzle.

One rule we have is to anticipate a two-period high (low), within the following four to six periods, after a Downside (Upside) Exhaustion level has been reached.  We now anticipate a 2-period high in the quarterly time- period over the next four to six quarters, in the monthly time-period over the next four to six months, and in the weekly time-period within two weeks.  This does not mean the market price will immediately reverse higher, as those two-period highs can occur at lower absolute levels.  In our judgment, in bear markets, two-period highs are the safest place to sell. Illustrations of this concept, in the monthly time-period, can be found in our April 2018 commentary.

Support/Resistance:

In isolation, monthly support and resistance levels for April are:

  • M4                 3420.75
  • PMH              3137.00
  • MTrend         2980.56
  • M1                 2876.50
  • Close             2569.75     
  • M3                 2188.50
  • PML               2174.00     
  • M2                 1494.75     
  • M5                950.50

Given that the first monthly resistance and support levels are roughly 300 and 400 points away from the current market price, we suggest active traders rely upon our weekly analysis to guide them directionally.

For less-active market participants with an intermediate or long time-period focus, we suggest using MTrend: 2980.56 and QTrend: 2918.33 as the pivot, respectively.  Maintain a flat or short position below the pivot and a long position above the pivot.

WTI Crude Oil Futures

For April, we focus on WTI Crude Oil Futures (“Crude”).  We provide a monthly time-period analysis of CLK0.  The same analysis can be completed for any time-period or in aggregate.

Trends:

  • Quarterly Trend    49.79             
  • Monthly Trend      44.43
  • Weekly Trend       26.73             
  • Daily Trend           20.94             
  • Current Settle       20.48

As can be seen in the quarterly chart below, Crude is in “Consolidation”.  Stepping down one time-period, the monthly chart shows that Crude has been “Trend Down” for three months.  Stepping down to the weekly time-period, the chart shows that Crude has been “Trend Down” for five weeks.

Our model got short Crude in January with the break of Monthly Trend.  We had no insight into the actions of Saudi Arabia concerning oil output and pricing.  As we have, please consider the following words of wisdom from Ed Seykota:

“A surprise is an event that catches someone unaware.  If you are already on the trend, the surprises seem to happen to the other guys.”

To our knowledge, no one predicted that Saudi Arabia would boost production and cut its selling price for oil.      

Support/Resistance:

In isolation, monthly support and resistance levels for April are:

  • M4         53.47
  • PMH       48.66
  • MTrend  44.43
  • M1         42.66
  • Close        20.48
  • PML         19.27
  • M3         0.00     
  • M2         0.00                 
  • M5           0.00

Active traders can use 19.27 as the pivot, whereby they maintain a long position above that level and a flat or short position below it.

Summary

The power of technical analysis is in its ability to reduce multi-dimensional markets into a filtered two-dimensional space of price and time.  Our methodology applies a consistent framework that identifies key measures of trend, distinct levels of support and resistance, and identification of potential trading ranges.  Our methodology can be applied to any security or index, across markets, for which we can attain a reliable price history.  We look forward to bringing you our unique brand of technical analysis and insight into many different markets.  If you are a professional market participant and are open to discovering more, please connect with us.  We are not asking for a subscription; we are asking you to listen.

Technically Speaking: 5-Questions Bulls Need To Answer Now.

In last Tuesday’s Technically Speaking post, I stated:

From a purely technical basis, the extreme downside extension, and potential selling exhaustion, has set the markets up for a fairly strong reflexive bounce. This is where fun with math comes in.

As shown in the chart below, after a 35% decline in the markets from the previous highs, a rally to the 38.2% Fibonacci retracement would encompass a 20% advance.

Such an advance will ‘lure’ investors back into the market, thinking the ‘bear market’ is over.”

Chart Updated Through Monday

Not surprisingly, as we noted in this weekend’s newsletter, the headlines from the mainstream media aligned with our expectations:

So, is the bear market over? 

Are the bulls now back in charge?

Honestly, no one knows for certain. However, there are 5-questions that “Market Bulls” need to answer if the current rally is to be sustained.

These questions are not entirely technical, but since “technical analysis” is simply the visualization of market psychology, how you answer the questions will ultimately be reflected by the price dynamics of the market.

Let’s get to work.

Employment

Employment is the lifeblood of the economy.  Individuals cannot consume goods and services if they do not have a job from which they can derive income. From that consumption comes corporate profits and earnings.

Therefore, for individuals to consume at a rate to provide for sustainable, organic (non-Fed supported), economic growth they must work at a level that provides a sustainable living wage above the poverty level. This means full-time employment that provides benefits, and a livable wage. The chart below shows the number of full-time employees relative to the population. I have also overlaid jobless claims (inverted scale), which shows that when claims fall to current levels, it has generally marked the end of the employment cycle and preceded the onset of a recession.

This erosion in jobless claims has only just begun. As jobless claims and continuing claims rise, it will lead to a sharp deceleration in economic confidence. Confidence is the primary factor of consumptive behaviors, which is why the Federal Reserve acted so quickly to inject liquidity into the financial markets. While the Fed’s actions may prop up financial markets in the short-term, it does little to affect the most significant factor weighing on consumers – their job. 


Question:  Given that employment is just starting to decline, does such support the assumption of a continued bull market?


Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE)

Following through from employment, once individuals receive their paycheck, they then consume goods and services in order to live.

This is a crucial economic concept to understand, which is the order in which the economy functions. Consumers must “produce” first, so they receive a paycheck, before they can “consume.”  This is also the primary problem of Stephanie Kelton’s “Modern Monetary Theory,” which disincentivizes the productive capacity of the population.

Given that Personal Consumption Expenditures (PCE) is a measure of that consumption, and comprises roughly 70% of the GDP calculation, its relative strength has great bearing on the outcome of economic growth.

More importantly, PCE is the direct contributor to the sales of corporations, which generates their gross revenue. So goes personal consumption – so goes revenue. The lower the revenue that flows into company coffers, the more inclined businesses are to cut costs, including employment and stock buybacks, to maintain profit margins.

The chart below is a comparison of the annualized change in PCE to corporate fixed investment and employment. I have made some estimates for the first quarter based on recent data points.


Question: Does the current weakness in PCE and Fixed Investment support the expectations for a continued bull market from current price levels? 


Junk Bonds & Margin Debt

While global Central Banks have lulled investors into an expanded sense of complacency through years of monetary support, it has led to willful blindness of underlying risk. As we discussed in “Investor’s Dilemma:”

Classical conditioning (also known as Pavlovian or respondent conditioning) refers to a learning procedure in which a potent stimulus (e.g. food) is paired with a previously neutral stimulus (e.g. a bell). What Pavlov discovered is that when the neutral stimulus was introduced, the dogs would begin to salivate in anticipation of the potent stimulus, even though it was not currently present. This learning process results from the psychological “pairing” of the stimuli.”

That “stimuli” over the last decade has been Central Bank interventions. During that period, the complete lack of “fear” in markets, combined with a “chase for yield,” drove “risk” assets to record levels along with leverage. The chart below shows the relationship between margin debt (leverage), stocks, and junk bond yields (which have been inverted for better relevance.)

While asset prices declined sharply in March, it has done little to significantly revert either junk bond yields or margin debt to levels normally consistent with the beginning of a new “bull market.”

With oil prices falling below $20/bbl, a tremendous amount of debt tied to the energy space, and the impact the energy sector has on the broader economy, it is likely too soon to suggest the markets have fully “priced in” the damage being done.


Question:  What happens to asset prices if more bankruptcies and forced deleveraging occurs?


Corporate Profits/Earnings

As noted above, if the “bull market” is back, then stocks should be pricing in stronger earnings going forward. However, given the potential shakeout in employment, which will lower consumption, stronger earnings, and corporate profits, are not likely in the near term.

The risk to earnings is even higher than many suspect, given that over the last several years, companies have manufactured profitability through a variety of accounting gimmicks, but primarily through share buybacks from increased leverage. That cycle has now come to an end, but before it did it created a massive deviation of the stock market from corporate profitability.

“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.”

It isn’t just the deviation of asset prices from corporate profitability, which is skewed, but also reported earnings per share.

The impending recession, and consumption freeze, is going to start the mean-reversion process in both corporate profits, and earnings. I have projected the potential reversion in the chart below. The reversion in GAAP earnings is pretty calculable as swings from peaks to troughs have run on a fairly consistent trend.

Using that historical context, we can project a recession will reduce earnings to roughly $100/share. (Goldman Sachs currently estimates $110.) The resulting decline asset prices to revert valuations to a level of 18x (still high) trailing earnings would suggest a level of 1800 for the S&P 500 index. (Yesterday’s close of 2626 is still way to elevated.)

The decline in economic growth epitomizes the problem that corporations face today in trying to maintain profitability. The chart below shows corporate profits as a percentage of GDP relative to the annual change in GDP. The last time that corporate profits diverged from GDP, it was unable to sustain that divergence for long. As the economy declines, so will corporate profits and earnings.


Question: How long can asset prices remain divorced from falling corporate profits and weaker economic growth?


Technical Pressure

Given all of the issues discussed above, which must ultimately be reflected in market prices, the technical picture of the market also suggests the recent “bear market” rally will likely fade sooner than later. As noted above”

Such an advance will ‘lure’ investors back into the market, thinking the ‘bear market’ is over.”

Importantly, despite the sizable rally, participation has remained extraordinarily weak. If the market was seeing strong buying, as suggested by the media, then we should see sizable upticks in the percent measures of advancing issues, issues at new highs, and a rising number of stocks above their 200-dma.

However, on a longer-term basis, since this is the end of the month, and quarter, we can look at our quarterly buy/sell indication which has triggered a “sell” signal for the first time since 2015. While such a signal does not demand a major reversion, it does suggest there is likely more risk to the markets currently than many expect.


Question:  Does the technical backdrop currently support the resumption of a bull market?


There are reasons to be optimistic on the markets in the very short-term. However, we are continuing to extend the amount of time the economy will be “shut down,” which will exacerbate the decline in the unemployment and personal consumption data. The feedback loop from that data into corporate profits and earnings is going to make valuations more problematic even with low interest rates currently. 

While Central Banks have rushed into a “burning building with a fire hose” of liquidity, there is the risk that after a decade of excess debt, leverage, and misallocation of assets, the “fire” may be too hot for them to put out.

Assuming that the “bear market” is over already may be a bit premature, and chasing what seems like a “raging bull market” is likely going to disappoint you.

Bear markets have a way of “suckering” investors back into the market to inflict the most pain possible. This is why “bear markets” never end with optimism, but in despair.

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.

Technically Speaking: Risk Limits Hit, When Too Little Is Too Much

For the last several months, we have been issuing repeated warnings about the market. While such comments are often mistaken for “being bearish,” we have often stated it is our process of managing “risk” which is most important.

Beginning in mid-January, we began taking profits out of our portfolios and reducing risk. To wit:

“On Friday, we began the orderly process of reducing exposure in our portfolios to take in profits, reduce portfolio risk, and raise cash levels.”

Importantly, we did not “sell everything” and go to cash.

Since then, we took profits and rebalanced risk again in late January and early February as well.

Our clients, their families, their financial and emotional “well being,” rest in our hands. We take that responsibility very seriously, and work closely with our clients to ensure that not only are they financially successful, but they are emotionally stable in the process.

This is, and has been, our biggest argument against “buy and hold,” and “passive investing.” While there are plenty of case studies showing why individuals will eventually get back to even, the vast majority of individuals have a “pain point,” where they will sell.

So, we approach portfolio management from a perspective of “risk management,” but not just in terms of “portfolio risk,” but “emotional risk” as well. By reducing our holdings to raise cash to protect capital, we can reduce the risk of our clients hitting that “threashold” where they potentially make very poor decisions.

In investing, the worst decisions are always made at the moment of the most pain. Either at the bottom of the market or near the peaks. 

Investing is not always easy. Our portfolios are designed to have longer-term holding periods, but we also understand that things do not always go as planned.

This is why we have limits, and when things go wrong, we sell.

So, why do I tell you this?

On Friday/Monday, our “limits” were breached, which required us to sell more.

Two Things

Two things have now happened, which signaled us to reduce risk further in portfolios.

On Sunday, the Federal Reserve dropped a monetary “nuclear bomb,” on the markets. My colleague Caroline Baum noted the details:

“After an emergency 50-basis-point rate cut on March 3, the Federal Reserve doubled down Sunday evening, lowering its benchmark rate by an additional 100 basis points to a range of 0%-0.25% following another emergency meeting.

After ramping up its $60 billion of monthly Treasury bill purchases to include Treasuries of all maturities and offering $1.5 trillion of liquidity to the market via repurchase agreements on March 3, the Fed doubled down Sunday evening with announced purchases of at least $500 billion of Treasuries and at least $200 billion of agency mortgage-backed securities.

In addition, the Fed reduced reserve requirements to zero, encouraged banks to borrow from its discount window at a rate of 0.25%, and, in coordination with five other central banks, lowered the price of U.S. dollar swap arrangements to facilitate dollar liquidity abroad”

We had been anticipating the Federal Reserve to try and rescue the markets, which is why we didn’t sell even more aggressively previously. The lesson investors have been taught repeatedly over the last decade was “Don’t Fight The Fed.”

One of the reasons we reduced our exposure in the prior days was out of concern the Fed’s actions wouldn’t be successful. 

On Monday, we found out the answer. The Fed may be fighting a battle it can’t win as markets not only failed to respond to the Fed’s monetary interventions but also broke the “bullish trend line” from the 2009 lows.  (While the markets are oversold short-term, the long-term “sell signals” in the bottom panels are just being triggered from fairly high levels. This suggests more difficulty near-term for stocks. 

This was the “Red Line” we laid out in our Special Report for our RIAPro Subscribers (Risk-Free 30-Day Trial) last week:

“As you can see in the chart below, this is a massive surge of liquidity, hitting the market at a time the market is testing important long-term trend support.”

It is now, or never, for the markets.

With our portfolios already at very reduced equity levels, the break of this trendline will take our portfolios to our lowest levels of exposure.

What happened today was an event we have been worried about, but didn’t expect to see until after a break of the trendline – “margin calls.” This is why we saw outsized selling in “safe assets” such as REITs, utilities, bonds, and gold.

Cash was the only safe place to hide.

We aren’t anxious to “fight the Fed,” but the markets may have a different view this time.

Use rallies to raise cash, and rebalance portfolio risk accordingly.

We are looking to be heavy buyers of equities when the market forms a bottom, we just aren’t there as of yet.”

On Monday morning, with that important trendline broken, we took some action.

  • Did we sell everything? No. We still own 10% equity, bonds, and a short S&P 500 hedge. 
  • Did we sell the bottom? Maybe.

We will only know in hindsight for certain, and we are not willing to risk more of our client’s capital currently. 

There are too many non-quantifiable risks with a global recession looming, as noted by David Rosenberg:

“The pandemic is a clear ‘black swan’ event. There will be a whole range of knock-on effects. Fully 40 million American workers, or one-third of the private-sector labor force, are directly affected ─ retail, entertainment, events, sports, theme parks, conferences, travel, tourism, restaurants and, of course, energy.

This doesn’t include all the multiplier effects on other industries. It would not surprise me at all if real GDP in Q2 contracts at something close to an 8% annual rate (matching what happened in the fourth quarter of 2008, which was a financial event alone).

The hit to GDP can be expected to be anywhere from $400 billion to $600 billion for the year. But the market was in trouble even before COVID-19 began to spread, with valuations and complacency at cycle highs and equity portfolio managers sitting with record-low cash buffers. Hence the forced selling in other asset classes.

If you haven’t made recession a base-case scenario, you probably should. All four pandemics of the past century coincided with recession. This won’t be any different. It’s tough to generate growth when we’re busy “social distancing.” I am amazed that the latest WSJ poll of economists conducted between March 6-10th showed only 49% seeing a recession coming”.

The importance of his commentary is that from an “investment standpoint,” we can not quantify whether this “economic shock” has been priced into equities as of yet. However, we can do some math based on currently available data:

The chart below is the annual change in nominal GDP, and S&P 500 GAAP earnings.

I am sure you will not be shocked to learn that during “recessions,” corporate “earnings’ tend to fall. Historically, the average drawdown of earnings is about 20%; however, since the 1990’s, those drawdowns have risen to about 30%.

As of March 13th, Standard & Poors has earnings estimates for the first quarter of 2020 at $139.20 / share. This is down just $0.20 from the fourth quarter of 2019 estimates of $139.53.

In other words, Wall Street estimates are still in “fantasy land.” 

If our, and Mr. Rosenberg’s, estimates are correct of a 5-8% recessionary drag in the second quarter of 2020, then an average reduction in earnings of 30% is most likely overly optimistic. 

However, here is the math:

  • Current Earnings = 132.90
  • 30% Reduction = $100 (rounding down for easier math)

At various P/E multiples, we can predict where “fair value” for the market is based on historical assumptions:

  • 20x earnings:  Historically high but markets have traded at high valuations for the last decade. 
  • 18x earnings: Still historically high.
  • 15x earnings: Long-Term Average
  • 13x earnings: Undervalued 
  • 10x earnings: Extremely undervalued but aligned with secular bear market bottoms.

You can pick your own level where you think P/E’s will account for the global recession but the chart below prices it into the market.

With the S&P 500 closing yesterday at 2386, this equates to downside risk of:

  • 20x Earnings = -16% (Total decline from peak = – 40%)
  • 18x Earnings = 24.5% (Total decline from peak = – 46%)
  • 15x Earnings = -37.1% (Total decline from peak = – 55%)
  • 13x Earnings = 45.5% (Total decline from peak = – 61%)
  • 10x Earnings = 58.0% (Total decline from peak = – 70%)

NOTE: I am not suggesting the market is about to decline 60-70% from the recent peak. I am simply laying out various multiples based on assumed risk to earnings. However, 15-18x earnings is extremely reasonable and possible. 

When Too Little Is Too Much

With our risk limits hit, and in order to protect our clients from both financial and emotional duress, we made the decision that even the reduced risk we were carrying was still too much.

One concern, which weighed heavily into our decision process, was the rising talk of the “closing the markets” entirely for a week or two to allow the panic to pass. We have clients that depend on liquidity from their accounts to sustain their retirement lifestyle. In our view, a closure of the markets would lead to two outcomes which pose a real risk to our clients:

  1. They need access to liquidity, and with markets closed are unable to “sell” and raise cash; and,
  2. When you trap investors in markets, when they do open again, there is a potential “rush” of sellers to get of the market to protect themselves. 

That risk, combined with the issue that major moves in markets are happening outside of transaction hours, are outside of our ability to hedge, or control.

This is what we consider to be an unacceptable risk for the time being.

We will likely miss the ultimate “bottom” of the market.

Probably.

But that’s okay, we have done our job of protecting our client’s second most precious asset behind their family, the capital they have to support them.

The good news is that a great “buying” opportunity is coming. Just don’t be in a “rush” to try and buy the bottom.

I can assure you, when we see ultimately see a clear “risk/reward” set up to start taking on equity risk again, we will do so “with both hands.” 

And we are sitting on a lot of cash just for that reason.Save

RIA PRO: Risk Limits Hit

For the last several months we have been issuing repeated warnings about the market. While such comments are often mistaken for “being bearish,” we have often stated it is our process of managing “risk” which is most important.

Beginning in mid-January, we began taking profits out of our portfolios and reducing risk. To wit:

“On Friday, we began the orderly process of reducing exposure in our portfolios to take in profits, reduce portfolio risk, and raise cash levels.”

Since then, as you know, we have taken profits, and rebalanced risk several times within the portfolios.

Importantly, we approach portfolio management from a perspective of “risk management,” but not just in terms of “portfolio risk,” but “emotional risk” as well. By reducing our holdings to raise cash to protect capital, we can reduce the risk of our clients hitting that “threshold” where they potentially make very poor decisions.

In investing, the worst decisions are always made at the moment of the most pain. Either at the bottom of the market or near the peaks. 

Investing is not always easy. Our portfolios are designed to have longer-term holding periods, but we also understand that things do not always go as planned.

This is why we have limits, and when things go wrong, we sell.

So, why do I tell you this?

On Friday/Monday, our “limits” were breached, which required us to sell more.

Two Things

Two things have now happened which signaled us to reduce risk further in portfolios.

On Sunday, the Federal Reserve dropped a monetary “nuclear bomb,” on the markets. My colleague Caroline Baum noted the details:

“After an emergency 50-basis-point rate cut on March 3, the Federal Reserve doubled down Sunday evening, lowering its benchmark rate by an additional 100 basis points to a range of 0%-0.25% following another emergency meeting.

After ramping up its $60 billion of monthly Treasury bill purchases to include Treasuries of all maturities and offering $1.5 trillion of liquidity to the market via repurchase agreements on March 3, the Fed doubled down Sunday evening with announced purchases of at least $500 billion of Treasuries and at least $200 billion of agency mortgage-backed securities.

In addition, the Fed reduced reserve requirements to zero, encouraged banks to borrow from its discount window at a rate of 0.25%, and, in coordination with five other central banks, lowered the price of U.S. dollar swap arrangements to facilitate dollar liquidity abroad”

We had been anticipating the Federal Reserve to try and rescue the markets, which is why we didn’t sell even more aggressively previously. The lesson investors have been taught repeatedly over the last decade was “Don’t Fight The Fed.”

One of the reasons we reduced our exposure in the prior days was out of concern we didn’t know if the Fed’s actions would be successful. 

On Monday, we found out the answer. The Fed may be fighting a battle it can’t win as markets not only failed to respond to the Fed’s monetary interventions, but also broke the “bullish trend line” from the 2009 lows.  (While the markets are oversold short-term, the long-term “sell signals” in the bottom panels are just being triggered from fairly high levels. This suggests more difficulty near-term for stocks. 

This was the “Red Line” we laid out in our last week, in the Special Report Red Line In The Sand:

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

It is now, or never, for the markets.

With our portfolios already at very reduced equity levels, the break of this trendline will take our portfolios to our lowest levels of exposure. However, given the extreme oversold condition, noted above, it is likely we are going to see a bounce, which we will use to reduce risk into.

What happened today was an event we have been worried about, but didn’t expect to see until after a break of the trendline – “margin calls.”

This is why we saw outsized selling in “safe assets” such as REITs, utilities, bonds, and gold.

Cash was the only safe place to hide.

This also explains why the market “failed to rally” when the Fed announced $500 billion today. There is another $500 billion coming tomorrow. We will see what happens.

We aren’t anxious to “fight the Fed,” but the markets may have a different view this time.

Use rallies to raise cash, and rebalance portfolio risk accordingly.

We are looking to be heavy buyers of equities when the market forms a bottom, we just aren’t there as of yet.”

On Monday morning, we took some action.

  • Did we sell everything? No. We still own 10% equity, bonds, and a short S&P 500 hedge. 
  • Did we sell the bottom? Maybe.

We will only know in hindsight for certain, and we are not willing to risk more of our client’s capital currently. 

There are too many non-quantifiable risks with a global recession looming, as noted by David Rosenberg:

“The pandemic is a clear ‘black swan’ event. There will be a whole range of knock-on effects. Fully 40 million American workers, or one-third of the private sector labor force, are directly affected ─ retail, entertainment, events, sports, theme parks, conferences, travel, tourism, restaurants and, of course, energy.

This doesn’t include all the multiplier effects on other industries. It would not surprise me at all if real GDP in Q2 contracts at something close to an 8% annual rate (matching what happened in the fourth quarter of 2008 which was a financial event alone).

The hit to GDP can be expected to be anywhere from $400 billion to $600 billion for the year. But the market was in trouble even before COVID-19 began to spread, with valuations and complacency at cycle highs and equity portfolio managers sitting with record-low cash buffers. Hence the forced selling in other asset classes.

If you haven’t made recession a base-case scenario, you probably should. All four pandemics of the past century coincided with recession. This won’t be any different. It’s tough to generate growth when we’re busy “social distancing.” I am amazed that the latest WSJ poll of economists conducted between March 6-10th showed only 49% seeing a recession coming”.

The importance of his commentary is that from an “investment standpoint,” we can not quantify whether this “economic shock” has been priced into equities as of yet. However, we can do some math based on currently available data:

The chart below is annual nominal GDP, and S&P 500 GAAP earnings.

I am sure you will not be shocked to learn that during “recessions,” corporate “earnings’ tend to fall. Historically, the average drawdown of earnings is about 20%, however, since the 1990’s, those drawdowns have risen to about 30%.

As of March 13th, Standard & Poors has earnings estimates for the first quarter of 2020 at $139.20/share. This is down just $0.20 from the fourth quarter of 2019 estimates of $139.53.

If our, and Mr. Rosenberg’s, estimates are correct of a 5-8% recessionary drag in the second quarter of 2020, then an average reduction in earnings of 30% is most likely overly optimistic. 

However, here is the math:

  • Current Earnings = 132.90
  • 30% Reduction = $100 (rounding down for easier math)

At various P/E multiples we can predict where “fair value” for the market is based on historical assumptions:

  • 20x earnings:  Historically high but markets have traded at high valuations for the last decade. 
  • 18x earnings: Still historically high.
  • 15x earnings: Long-Term Average
  • 13x earnings: Undervalued 
  • 10x earnings: Extremely undervalued but aligned with secular bear market bottoms.

You can pick your own level where you think P/E’s will account for the global recession but the chart below prices it into the market.

With the S&P 500 closing yesterday at 2386, this equates to downside risk of:

  • 20x Earnings = -16% (Total decline from peak = – 40%)
  • 18x Earnings = 24.5% (Total decline from peak = – 46%)
  • 15x Earnings = -37.1% (Total decline from peak = – 55%)
  • 13x Earnings = 45.5% (Total decline from peak = – 61%)
  • 10x Earnings = 58.0% (Total decline from peak = – 70%)

NOTE: I am not suggesting the market is about to decline 60-70% from the recent peak. I am simply laying out various multiples based on assumed risk to earnings. However, 15-18x earnings is extremely reasonable and possible. 

When Too Little Is Too Much

With our risk limits hit, and in order to protect our clients from both financial and emotional duress, we made the decision that even the reduced risk we were carrying was still too much.

One concern, which weighed heavily into our decision process, was the rising talk of the “closing the markets” entirely for a week or two to allow the panic to pass. We have clients that depend on liquidity from their accounts to sustain their retirement lifestyle. In our view, a closure of the markets would lead to two outcomes which pose a real risk to our clients:

  1. They need access to liquidity, and with markets closed are unable to “sell” and raise cash; and,
  2. When you trap investors in markets, when they do open again there is a potential “rush” of sellers to get of the market to protect themselves. 

That risk, combined with the issue that major moves in markets are happening outside of transaction hours, are outside of our ability to hedge, or control.

This is what we consider to be unacceptable risk for the time being.

We will likely miss the ultimate “bottom” of the market?

Probably.

But that’s okay, we have done our job of protecting our client’s second most precious asset behind their family, the capital they have to support them.

The good news is that a great “buying” opportunity is coming. Just don’t be in a “rush” to try and buy the bottom.

I can assure you that when we see ultimately see a clear “risk/reward” set up to start taking on equity risk again, we will do so “with both hands.” 

And we are sitting on a lot of cash just for that reason.Save

#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.

Technically Speaking: On The Cusp Of A Bear Market

“Tops are a process, and bottoms are an event”

Over the last couple of years, we have discussed the ongoing litany of issues that plagued the underbelly of the financial markets.

  1. The “corporate credit” markets are at risk of a wave of defaults.
  2. Earnings estimates for 2019 fell sharply, and 2020 estimates are now on the decline.
  3. Stock market targets for 2020 are still too high, along with 2021.
  4. Rising geopolitical tensions between Russia, Saudi Arabia, China, Iran, etc. 
  5. The effect of the tax cut legislation has disappeared as year-over-year comparisons are reverting back to normalized growth rates.
  6. Economic growth is slowing.
  7. Chinese economic data has weakened further.
  8. The impact of the “coronavirus,” and the shutdown of the global supply chain, will impact exports (which make up 40-50% of corporate profits) and economic growth.
  9. The collapse in oil prices is deflationary and can spark a wave of credit defaults in the energy complex.
  10. European growth, already weak, continues to weaken, and most of the EU will likely be in recession in the next 2-quarters.
  11. Valuations remain at expensive levels.
  12. Long-term technical signals have become negative. 
  13. The collapse in equity prices, and coronavirus fears, will weigh on consumer confidence.
  14. Rising loan delinquency rates.
  15. Auto sales are signaling economic stress.
  16. The yield curve is sending a clear message that something is wrong with the economy.
  17. Rising stress on the consumption side of the equation from retail sales and personal consumption.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

In that time, these issues have gone unaddressed, and worse dismissed, because of the ongoing interventions of Central Banks.

However, as we have stated many times in the past, there would eventually be an unexpected, exogenous event, or rather a “Black Swan,” which would “light the fuse” of a bear market reversion.

Over the last few weeks, the market was hit with not one, but two, “black swans” as the “coronavirus” shutdown the global supply chain, and Saudi Arabia pulled the plug on oil price support. Amazingly, we went from “no recession in sight”, to full-blown “recession fears,” in less than month.

“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.”

On The Cusp Of A Bear Market

Let me start by making a point.

“Bull and bear markets are NOT defined by a 20% move. They are defined by a change of direction in the trend of prices.” 

There was a point in history where a 20% move was significant enough to achieve that change in overall price trends. However, today that is no longer the case.

Bull and bear markets today are better defined as:

“During a bull market, prices trade above the long-term moving average. However, when the trend changes to a bear market prices trade below that moving average.”

This is shown in the chart below, which compares the market to the 75-week moving average. During “bullish trends,” the market tends to trade above the long-term moving average and below it during “bearish trends.”

In the last decade, there have been three previous occasions where the long-term moving average was violated but did not lead to a longer-term change in the trend.

  • The first was in 2011, as the U.S. was dealing with a potential debt-ceiling and threat of a downgrade of the U.S. debt rating. Then Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke came to the rescue with the second round of quantitative easing (QE), which flooded the financial markets with liquidity.
  • The second came in late-2015 and early-2016 as the market dealt with a Federal Reserve, which had started lifting interest rates combined with the threat of the economic fallout from Britain leaving the European Union (Brexit). Given the U.S. Federal Reserve had already committed to hiking interest rates, and a process to begin unwinding their $4-Trillion balance sheet, the ECB stepped in with their own version of QE to pick up the slack.
  • The latest event was in December 2018 as the markets fell due to the Fed’s hiking of interest rates and reduction of their balance sheet. Of course, the decline was cut short by the Fed reversal of policy and subsequently, a reduction in interest rates and a re-expansion of their balance sheet.

Had it not been for these artificial influences, it is highly likely the markets would have experienced deeper corrections than what occurred.

On Monday, we have once again violated that long-term moving average. However, Central Banks globally have been mostly quiet. Yes, there have been promises of support, but as of yet, there have not been any substantive actions.

However, the good news is that the bullish trend support of the 3-Year moving average (orange line) remains intact for now. That line is the “last line of defense” of the bull market. The only two periods where that moving average was breached was during the “Dot.com Crash” and the “Financial Crisis.”

(One important note is that the “monthly sell trigger,” (lower panel) was initiated at the end of February which suggested there was more downside risk at the time.)

None of this should have been surprising, as I have written previously, prices can only move so far in one direction before the laws of physics take over. To wit”

Like a rubber band that has been stretched too far – it must be relaxed before it can be stretched again. This is exactly the same for stock prices that are anchored to their moving averages. Trends that get overextended in one direction, or another, always return to their long-term average. Even during a strong uptrend or strong downtrend, prices often move back (revert) to a long-term moving average.”

With the markets previously more than 20% of their long-term mean, the correction was inevitable, it just lacked the right catalyst.

The difference between a “bull market” and a “bear market” is when the deviations begin to occur BELOW the long-term moving average on a consistent basis. With the market already trading below the 75-week moving average, a failure to recover in a fairly short period, will most likely facilitate a break below the 3-year average.

If that occurs, the “bear market” will be official and will require substantially lower levels of equity risk exposure in portfolios until a reversal occurs.

Currently, it is still too early to know for sure whether this is just a “correction” or a “change in the trend” of the market. As I noted previously, there are substantial differences, which suggest a more cautious outlook. To wit:

  • Downside Risk Dwarfs Upside Reward. 
  • Global Growth Is Less Synchronized
  • Market Structure Is One-Sided and Worrisome. 
  • COVID-19 Impacts To The Global Supply Chain Are Intensifying
  • Any Semblance of Fiscal Responsibility Has Been Thrown Out the Window
  • Peak Buybacks
  • China, Europe, and the Emerging Market Economic Data All Signal a Slowdown
  • The Democrats Control The House Which Effectively Nullifies Fiscal Policy Agenda.
  • The Leadership Of The Market (FAANG) Has Faltered.

Most importantly, the collapse in interest rates, as well as the annual rate of change in rates, is screaming that something “has broken,” economically speaking.

Here is the important point.

Understanding that a change is occurring, and reacting to it, is what is important. The reason so many investors “get trapped” in bear markets is that by the time they realize what is happening, it has been far too late to do anything about it.

Let me leave you with some important points from the legendary Marty Zweig: (h/t Doug Kass.)

  • Patience is one of the most valuable attributes in investing.
  • Big money is made in the stock market by being on the right side of the major moves. The idea is to get in harmony with the market. It’s suicidal to fight trends. They have a higher probability of continuing than not.
  • Success means making profits and avoiding losses.
  • Monetary conditions exert an enormous influence on stock prices. Indeed, the monetary climate – primarily the trend in interest rates and Federal Reserve policy – is the dominant factor in determining the stock market’s major decision.
  • The trend is your friend.
  • The problem with most people who play the market is that they are not flexible.
  • Near the top of the market, investors are extraordinarily optimistic because they’ve seen mostly higher prices for a year or two. The sell-offs witnessed during that span were usually brief. Even when they were severe, the market bounced back quickly and always rose to loftier levels. At the top, optimism is king; speculation is running wild, stocks carry high price/earnings ratios, and liquidity has evaporated. 
  • I measure what’s going on, and I adapt to it. I try to get my ego out of the way. The market is smarter than I am, so I bend.
  • To me, the “tape” is the final arbiter of any investment decision. I have a cardinal rule: Never fight the tape!
  • The idea is to buy when the probability is greatest that the market is going to advance.

Most importantly, and something that is most applicable to the current market:

“It’s okay to be wrong; it’s just unforgivable to stay wrong.” – Marty Zweig

There action this year is very reminiscent of previous market topping processes. Tops are hard to identify during the process as “change happens slowly.” The mainstream media, economists, and Wall Street will dismiss pickup in volatility as simply a corrective process. But when the topping process completes, it will seem as if the change occurred “all at once.”

The same media which told you “not to worry,” will now tell you, “no one could have seen it coming.”

The market may be telling you something important, if you will only listen.

Save

#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.

Technically Speaking: Sellable Rally, Or The Return Of The Bull?

Normally, “Technically Speaking,” is analysis based on Monday’s market action. However, this week, we are UPDATING the analysis posted in this past weekend’s newsletter, “Market Crash & Navigating What Happens Next.”

Specifically, we broke down the market into three specific time frames looking at the short, intermediate, and long-term technical backdrop of the markets. In that analysis, we laid out the premise for a “reflexive bounce” in the markets, and what to do during the process of that move. To wit:

“On a daily basis, the market is back to a level of oversold (top panel) rarely seen from a historical perspective. Furthermore, the rapid decline this week took the markets 5-standard deviations below the 50-dma.”

Chart updated through Monday

“To put this into some perspective, prices tend to exist within a 2-standard deviation range above and below the 50-dma. The top or bottom of that range constitutes 95.45% of ALL POSSIBLE price movements within a given period.

A 5-standard deviation event equates to 99.9999% of all potential price movement in a given direction. 

This is the equivalent of taking a rubber band and stretching it to its absolute maximum.”

Importantly, like a rubber band, this suggests the market “snap back” could be fairly substantial, and should be used to reduce equity risk, raise cash, and add hedges.”

Importantly, read that last sentence again.

The current belief is that the “virus” is limited in scope and once the spread is contained, the markets will immediately bounce back in a “V-shaped” recovery.  Much of this analysis is based on assumptions that “COVID-19” is like “SARS” in 2003 which had a very limited impact on the markets.

However, this is likely a mistake as there is one very important difference between COVID-19 and SARS, as I noted previously:

“Currently, the more prominent comparison is how the market performed following the ‘SARS’ outbreak in 2003, as it also was a member of the ‘corona virus’ family. Clearly, if you just remained invested, there was a quick recovery from the market impact, and the bull market resumed. At least it seems that way.”

“While the chart is not intentionally deceiving, it hides a very important fact about the market decline and the potential impact of the SARS virus. Let’s expand the time frame of the chart to get a better understanding.”

“Following a nearly 50% decline in asset prices, a mean-reversion in valuations, and an economic recession ending, the impact of the SARS virus was negligible given the bulk of the ‘risk’ was already removed from asset prices and economic growth. Today’s economic environment could not be more opposed.”

This was also a point noted by the WSJ on Monday:

Unlike today, the S&P 500 ETF (SPY) spent about a year below its 200-day moving average (dot-com crash) prior to the SARS 2003 outbreak. Price action is much different now. SPY was well above its 200-day moving average before the coronavirus outbreak, leaving plenty of room for profit-taking.”

Importantly, the concern we have in the intermediate-term is not “people getting sick.” We currently have the “flu” in the U.S. which, according to the CDC, has affected 32-45 MILLION people which has already resulted in 18-46,000 deaths.

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 to exports and imports, business investment, and potentially consumer spending, which are all direct inputs into the GDP calculation, is going to be reflected in corporate earnings and profits. 

The recent slide, not withstanding the “reflexive bounce” on Monday, was beginning the process of pricing in negative earnings growth through the end of 2020.

More importantly, the earnings estimates have not be ratcheted down yet to account for the impact of the “shutdown” to the global supply chain. Once we adjust (dotted blue line) for the 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.

Given this backdrop of weaker earnings, which will be derived from weaker economic growth, in the months to come is why we suspect we could well see this year play out much like 2015-2016. In 2015, the Fed was beginning to discuss tapering their balance sheet which initially led to a decline. Given there was still plenty of liquidity, the market rallied back before “Brexit” risk entered the picture. The market plunged on expectations for a negative economic impact, but sprung back after Janet Yellen coordinated with the BOE, and ECB, to launch QE in the Eurozone.

Using that model for a reflexive rally, we will likely see a failed rally, and a retest of last weeks lows, or potentially even set new lows, as economic and earnings risks are factored in. 

Rally To Sell

As expected, the market rallied hard on Monday on hopes the Federal Reserve, and Central Banks globally, will intervene with a “shot of liquidity” to cure the market’s “COVID-19” infection.

The good news is the rally yesterday did clear initial resistance at the 200-dma which keeps that important break of support from being confirmed. This clears the way for the market to rally back into the initial “sell zone” we laid out this past weekend.

Importantly, while the volume of the rally on Monday was not as large as Friday’s sell-off, it was a very strong day nonetheless and confirmed the conviction of buyers. With the markets clearing the 200-dma, and still oversold on multiple levels, there is a high probability the market will rally into our “sell zone” before failing.

For now look for rallies to be “sold.”

The End Of The Bull

I want to reprint the last part of this weekend’s newsletter as the any rally that occurs over the next couple of weeks will NOT reverse the current market dynamics.

“The most important WARNING is the negative divergence in relative strength (top panel).  This negative divergence was seen at every important market correction event over the last 25-years.”

“As shown in the bottom two panels, both of the monthly ‘buy’ signals are very close to reversing. It will take a breakout to ‘all-time highs’ at this point to keep those signals from triggering.

For longer-term investors, people close to, or in, retirement, or for individuals who don’t pay close attention to the markets or their investments, this is NOT a buying opportunity.

Let me be clear.

There is currently EVERY indication given the speed and magnitude of the decline, that any short-term reflexive bounce will likely fail. Such a failure will lead to a retest of the recent lows, or worse, the beginning of a bear market brought on by a recession.

Please read that last sentence again. 

Bulls Still In Charge

The purpose of the analysis above is to provide you with the information to make educated guesses about the “probabilities” versus the “possibilities” of what could occur in the markets over the weeks, and months, ahead.

It is absolutely “possible” the markets could find a reason to rally back to all-time highs and continue the bullish trend. (For us, such would be the easiest and best outcome.) Currently, the good news for the bulls, is the bullish trend line from the 2015 lows held. However, weekly “sell signals” are close to triggering, which does increase short-term risks.

With the seasonally strong period of the market coming to its inevitable conclusion, economic and earnings data under pressure, and the virus yet to be contained, it is likely a good idea to use the current rally to rebalance portfolio risk and adjust allocations accordingly.

As I stated in mid-January, and again in early February, we reduced exposure in portfolios by raising cash and rebalancing portfolios back to target weightings. We had also added interest rate sensitive hedges to portfolios, and removed all of our international and emerging market exposures.

We will be using this rally to remove basic materials and industrials, which are susceptible to supply shocks, and financials which will be impacted by an economic slowdown/recession which will likely trigger rising defaults in the credit market.

Here are the guidelines we recommend for adjusting your portfolio risk:

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 been big winners
  3. Sell laggards and losers
  4. Raise cash and rebalance portfolios to target weightings.

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

  1. Determine areas requiring new or increased exposure.
  2. Determine how many shares need to be purchased to fill allocation requirements.
  3. Determine cash requirements to make purchases.
  4. Re-examine portfolio to rebalance and raise sufficient cash for requirements.
  5. Determine entry price levels for each new position.
  6. Determine “stop loss” levels for each position.
  7. Determine “sell/profit taking” levels for each position.

(Note: the primary rule of investing that should NEVER be broken is: “Never invest money without knowing where you are going to sell if you are wrong, and if you are right.”)

Step 3) Have positions ready to execute accordingly given the proper market set up. In this case, we are adjusting exposure to areas we like now, and using the rally to reduce/remove the sectors we do not want exposure too.

Stay alert, things are finally getting interesting.

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Cartography Corner – March 2020

J. Brett Freeze and his firm Global Technical Analysis (GTA) provides RIA Pro subscribers Cartography Corner on a monthly basis. Brett’s analysis offers readers a truly unique brand of technical insight and risk framework. We personally rely on Brett’s research to help better gauge market trends, their durability, and support and resistance price levels.

GTA presents their monthly analysis on a wide range of asset classes, indices, and securities. At times the analysis may agree with RIA Pro technical opinions, and other times it will run contrary to our thoughts. Our goal is not to push a single view or opinion, but provide research to help you better understand the markets. Please contact us with any questions or comments.  If you are interested in learning more about GTA’s services, please connect with them through the links provided in the article.

The link below penned by GTA provides a user’s guide and a sample of his analysis.

GTA Users Guide


February 2020 Review

E-Mini S&P 500 Futures

We begin with a review of E-Mini S&P 500 Futures (ESH0) during February 2020. In our February 2020 edition of The Cartography Corner, we wrote the following:

In isolation, monthly support and resistance levels for February are:

  • M4                 3605.50
  • M1                 3421.00
  • PMH              3337.50
  • M2                 3292.50
  • Close             3224.00     
  • M3                 3217.00
  • PML               3181.00     
  • MTrend         3180.97     
  • M5                3108.00

Active traders can use 3217.00 as the pivot, whereby they maintain a long position above that level and a flat or short position below it.

Figure 1 below displays the daily price action for February 2020 in a candlestick chart, with support and resistance levels isolated by our methodology represented as dashed lines.  The first four trading sessions of February saw the market price rise, reflecting market participants’ bullishness toward the recent directional bias.  On February 6th, the market price exceeded, and settled above, January’s high price at PMH: 3337.50.  The market oscillated around that level for the following two trading sessions, building energy for the next directional move.  Over the following six trading sessions, the market price continued to drift higher, reaching its high settlement price for the month on February 19th at 3387.25.

During the following session, February 20th, the market achieved its high price for February at 3397.50 yet settled down for the trading session.  This small reversal was a precursor to the carnage that ensued.

Over the final six trading sessions of February, risk-management and speculative actions related to fear of the economic impact(s) of the CoronaVirus gripped market participants.  The market price declined (16.02%) peak-to-trough and (12.88%) on a settlement basis.  To the uninformed and unprepared, the rapid decline may have appeared to be unorderly.  However, we know that is not the case…

 

I would like readers to focus on the “anatomy” of the decline:

  • February 20th: The small reversal referred to earlier stopped right in front of PMH: 3337.50, then acting as support.
  • February 21st: PMH: 3337.50 again offered support, with the market price settling at 3339.25.
  • February 24th: The market had an opening gap lower, with the early price action occurring in front of M2: 3292.50, then acting as support.  Once that level gave way, the market price declined to and settled just above our isolated pivot for February at M3: 3217.00.
  • February 25th: Clustered support levels at M3: 3217.00 / PML: 3181.00 / MTrend: 3180.97 gave way, suggesting the market price was going to test the Monthly Downside Exhaustion at M5: 3108.00.  The low for the session was 3117.25.
  • February 26th: The trading range for the session was essentially bound by MTrend: 3180.97 and PML: 3181.00, then acting as resistance, and M5: 3108.00, acting as support.  The market price settled the session at 3110.25, with an intra-session low of 3091.00.

Our clients know that the emphasis we place on our levels increases with the length of the time period.  Quarterly levels, with Quarterly Trend specifically, being the most important.  Coming into the trading session of the 27th, the market had already achieved our isolated Monthly Downside Exhaustion, so what were we to do?  Our focus turned immediately to the quarterly support levels.

  • February 27th: Support at M5: 3108.00 gave way and the market price achieved, and exceeded, Quarterly Trend at QTrend: 2974.00.  The market price settled at 2957.00, in between QTrend: 2974.00 and our next support level at Q2: 2934.25.
  • February 28th: The purpose of every trading session is to surpass the high or low of the previous trading session…  The trading range was essentially bound by QTrend: 2974.00, then acting as resistance, and the previous quarter low at PQL: 2855.00, acting as support.  The low trade for February occurred at the price of 2853.25; purpose fulfilled in both the monthly and quarterly time periods.

Our analysis, yet again, proved its worth to the discerning market participant.  For both long-term investors managing risk and traders actively speculating, our analysis provided a map to profitability.  Subscriptions and referrals are appreciated.

Bitcoin Futures

We continue with a review of Bitcoin Futures (BTH0) during February 2020.  In our February 2020 edition of The Cartography Corner, we wrote the following:

In isolation, monthly support and resistance levels for February are:

  • M4         13,070
  • M3         11,670
  • M1         11,520
  • PMH       9,745
  • Close        9,440
  • MTrend   7,982
  • M2         7,300  
  • PML        6,860              
  • M5           5,750

Active traders can use 9,745 as the pivot, whereby they maintain a long position above that level and a flat or short position below it.

Figure 2 below displays the daily price action for February 2020 in a candlestick chart, with support and resistance levels isolated by our methodology represented as dashed lines.  On the third trading session of February, bitcoin settled above our isolated pivot level at PMH: 9,745.  The following six trading sessions saw the market price rise to a high price of 10,670 on February 13th, with the high settlement price for the month being achieved at 10,525 the session before.

Over the following four trading sessions, the market price descended to and settled back below our isolated pivot level at PMH: 9,475, then acting as support.  The final six trading sessions of the month saw the market price declining towards Monthly Trend at MTrend: 7,982.

Conservatively, active traders following our analysis had the opportunity to monetize a 10.7% profit.

 

March 2020 Analysis

E-Mini S&P 500 Futures

We begin by providing a monthly time-period analysis of E-Mini S&P 500 Futures (ESH0).  The same analysis can be completed for any time-period or in aggregate.

Trends:

  • Weekly Trend         3250.44       
  • Monthly Trend        3166.53
  • Daily Trend             3022.42       
  • Quarterly Trend      2974.00       
  • Current Settle          2951.00

In the quarterly time-period, the chart shows that E-Mini S&P 500 Futures have been “Trend Up” for four quarters.  Stepping down one time-period, the monthly chart shows that E-Mini S&P 500 Futures are in “Consolidation”, after having been “Trend Up” for eight months.  Stepping down to the weekly time-period, the chart shows that E-Mini S&P 500 Futures are in “Consolidation”.  The relative positioning of the Trend Levels is beginning to lose its bullish posture.

We wrote in February, “The next event that needs to occur to strengthen the case of a possible Trend Reversal is a monthly settlement under Monthly Trend.”  February’s settlement achieved that.  The final piece of the sustained Trend Reversal puzzle is a quarterly settlement under Quarterly Trend at QTrend: 2974.00.  We eagerly anticipate the settlement price on March 31st.

Support/Resistance:

In isolation, monthly support and resistance levels for March are:

  • M4                 3614.00
  • M1                 3457.50
  • PMH              3397.50
  • MTrend         3166.53
  • Close             2951.00     
  • PML               2853.25
  • M3                 2678.00    
  • M2                 2525.50     
  • M5                2369.00

Active traders can use 3166.50 as the pivot, whereby they maintain a long position above that level and a flat or short position below it.

 

Gold Futures

For the month of March, we focus on Gold Futures (“Gold”).  We provide a monthly time-period analysis of GCJ0.  The same analysis can be completed for any time-period or in aggregate.

Trends:

  • Daily Trend           1627.51         
  • Weekly Trend       1604.79
  • Current Settle       1566.70         
  • Monthly Trend       1560.26        
  • Quarterly Trend     1449.56

As can be seen in the quarterly chart below, Gold has been “Trend Up” for five quarters.  Stepping down one time-period, the monthly chart shows that Gold has been “Trend Up” for three months.  Stepping down to the weekly time-period, the chart shows that Gold is in “Consolidation”, after having been “Trend Up” for eleven weeks.

If not for the agenda of a motivated seller on Friday, February 28th, Gold would have settled above Weekly Trend again.  However, as a technician, my primary job is to recognize the beginning of a new trend, the reversal of an existing trend, or a consolidation area, regardless of qualitative factors.  Adhering to that job, Gold has begun to consolidate in the weekly time-period and is only 6.43 points away from consolidating in monthly time-period.  This deserves attention, as Gold has had quite a rally over the past five quarters.

Support/Resistance:

In isolation, monthly support and resistance levels for March are:

  • M4         1863.70
  • M1         1770.10
  • PMH       1691.70
  • M2         1582.50
  • Close        1566.70
  • MTrend   1560.26
  • PML        1551.10           
  • M3         1545.50                       
  • M5           1488.90

Active traders can use 1545.50 as the pivot, whereby they maintain a long position above that level and a flat or short position below it.

Summary

The power of technical analysis is in its ability to reduce multi-dimensional markets into a filtered two-dimensional space of price and time.  Our methodology applies a consistent framework that identifies key measures of trend, distinct levels of support and resistance, and identification of potential trading ranges.  Our methodology can be applied to any security or index, across markets, for which we can attain a reliable price history.  We look forward to bringing you our unique brand of technical analysis and insight into many different markets.  If you are a professional market participant and are open to discovering more, please connect with us.  We are not asking for a subscription; we are asking you to listen.

Buffett Lost $90 Billion By Not Following His Own Advice

Every year, investors anxiously await the release of Warren Buffett’s annual letter to see what the “Oracle of Omaha” has to say about the markets, economy, and where he is placing his money.

Before we blindly heed Buffett’s advice we must factor in that he has long been a source of contradiction. As Michael Lebowitz previously penned:

“The general platitudes of market and economic optimism Buffett shares in his CNBC interviews, letters to investors and shareholder meetings often run counter to the actions he has taken in his investment approach.

This year was no different as Buffett wrote in his annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders:

“If something close to current rates should prevail over the coming decades and if corporate tax rates also remain near the low level businesses now enjoy, it is almost certain that equities will over time perform far better than long-term, fixed-rate debt instruments. These elements, coupled with the ‘American Tailwind,’ will make ‘equities the much better long-term choice for the individual who does not use borrowed money and who can control his or her emotions.”

To clarify, Buffett is suggesting that over the coming decades, it will be better to be invested in equities (aka S&P 500 Index) versus Treasury bonds, given that the yield on bonds is so low.

That point doesn’t quite square with facts. Buffett is now holding his largest amount of cash in the history of the firm.

As the old saying goes: “Follow the money.” 

If Buffett thinks stocks will outperform bonds, then why is holding $128 billion in short term bonds?

There is an important distinction to be made if you choose to follow Mr. Buffett’s advice. It is true that stocks will outperform bonds over the long-term given the right starting valuations and a long enough time frame. Currently, using Warren Buffett’s favorite measure of valuations (Market Capitalization to GDP), there is a substantial risk of low returns from stocks over the next decade.

While valuations DO NOT predict market crashes, they are very predictive of future returns on investments from current levels.

Period.

I previously quoted Cliff Asness on this issue in particular:

“Ten-year forward average returns fall nearly monotonically as starting Shiller P/E’s increase. Also, as starting Shiller P/E’s go up, worst cases get worse and best cases get weaker.

If today’s Shiller P/E is 30x, and your long-term plan calls for a 10% nominal return on the stock market, you are assuming a best case scenario to play out in a market that is drastically above the average case from these valuations. We can prove that by looking at forward 10-year total returns versus various levels of PE ratios historically.

Importantly, this is likely the reason that Buffett is sitting on $128 billion in historically low yielding bonds. The graph below provides further evidence using his favorite valuation indicator, market cap to GDP.

Not surprisingly, like every other measure of valuation, forward return expectations are substantially lower over the next 10-years as opposed to the past 10-years.

“Price is what you pay, value is what you get.” – Warren Buffett

Do What I Say, Not What I Do

So the question is this:

“If Warren is suggesting you should just invest in the index and hold on, why is he sitting on so much cash?”

The immediate observation is that he is just waiting on a “good deal” to come along. He has been vocal about looking for a new acquisition. However, he hasn’t done so. Why, “valuations”  are sky high.

Unfortunately, “good deals” based on valuations, and market crashes, have typically been highly correlated throughout history. As he said in his letter:

“Anything can happen to stock prices tomorrow. Occasionally, there will be major drops in the market, perhaps of 50% magnitude or even greater.”

Interestingly, while Buffett has been telling everyone else to buy a stock index, and avoid bonds, he has been doing exactly the opposite by “buying bonds.”

Make no mistake, Buffett is indeed a great investor, and has made a tremendous amount of money for his shareholders over the years. One of the reasons for this is that at times of market excesses he has preferred holding cash.At the time he is leaving money on the table, but that cash can be deployed when markets are panicking and value appears. Remember, Buffett had cash on hand in 2008 to lend to Goldman Sachs at 10%.

The downside to holding cash is that performance of Berkshire Hathaway is no longer outperforming the S&P in recent years. This is due to the shear “size” of the company as Buffett no longer has the luxury of making small value-based acquisitions of a few hundred million in value. Such acquisitions don’t “move the needle” in terms of returns for shareholders. Berkshire has grown to the point it has essentially become an index itself.

The chart below shows Buffett’s annual cash holdings versus the S&P 500 ($SPY) over the last several years.

So, what would have happened if Buffett had taken his own advice and invested his cash into the S&P 500 index rather than bonds. The index is highly liquid, so he could have sold the index at any time he needed cash for an acquisition, and the shares could have been lent out for an additional return on his investment.

However, the chart below shows the difference in market cap of the Berkshire Hathaway currently, with the cash invested in the S&P 500 index, as compared to the returns of the S&P 500 index. Not surprisingly, returns to shareholders improved over the last decade.

While it may not look like much on a percentage basis, the cumulative return lost to Berkshire Shareholders over the last decade was roughly $90 Billion dollars.

Or rather, a $1000 investment in 2010 would have grown to nearly $4000 versus just $3500.

Summary

As Michael Lebowitz previously wrote:

“Warren Buffett is without question the modern day icon of American investors. He has become a living legend, and the respect he receives is warranted. He has certainly been a remarkable steward of wealth for himself and his clients.

Where we are challenged with regard to his approach, is the way in which he shirks his responsibilities as a leader. To our knowledge, he is not being overtly dishonest but he certainly has a way of rationalizing what appears to be obvious contradictions. Because of his global following and the weight given to each word he utters, the fact that his actions often do not match the spirit of his words is troubling.”

Warren Buffett did not amass his fortune by following the herd but by leading it.

He is sitting on a $128 Billion in cash for a reason. Buffett is fully aware of the gains he has forgone, yet still continues his ways. Buffet is not dumb!

Before taking his advice to buy an index and hold on, you may want to consider more carefully why he is telling you to “do as I say, not as I do.” 

S&P 500 Monthly Valuation & Analysis Review – 3-2-2020

J. Brett Freeze, CFA, founder of Global Technical Analysis. Each month Brett will provide you their valuable S&P 500 Valuation Chart Book. This unique analysis provides an invaluable long term perspective of equity valuations. If you are interested in learning more about their services, please connect with them.


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.

Cartography Corner – February 2020

J. Brett Freeze and his firm Global Technical Analysis (GTA) provides RIA Pro subscribers Cartography Corner on a monthly basis. Brett’s analysis offers readers a truly unique brand of technical insight and risk framework. We personally rely on Brett’s research to help better gauge market trends, their durability, and support and resistance price levels.

GTA presents their monthly analysis on a wide range of asset classes, indices, and securities. At times the analysis may agree with RIA Pro technical opinions, and other times it will run contrary to our thoughts. Our goal is not to push a single view or opinion, but provide research to help you better understand the markets. Please contact us with any questions or comments.  If you are interested in learning more about GTA’s services, please connect with them through the links provided in the article.

The link below penned by GTA provides a user’s guide and a sample of his analysis.

GTA Users Guide


January 2020 Review

E-Mini S&P 500 Futures

We begin with a review of E-Mini S&P 500 Futures (ESH0) during January 2020. In our January 2020 edition of The Cartography Corner, we wrote the following:

In isolation, monthly support and resistance levels for January are:

  • M4                 3475.00
  • M1                 3353.00
  • M3                 3318.25
  • PMH              3254.00
  • Close             3231.00     
  • M2                 3106.00
  • MTrend        3092.44     
  • PML               3069.50    
  • M5                 2984.00

Active traders can use 3254.00 as the pivot, whereby they maintain a long position above that level and a flat or short position below it.

Figure 1 below displays the daily price action for January 2020 in a candlestick chart, with support and resistance levels isolated by our methodology represented as dashed lines.  The first four trading sessions of January saw the market price exhibit “choppiness”, reflecting market participants’ indecision as to directional bias.  Early into the fifth trading session, January 8th, the geopolitical event emanating from Iran caused the market price to achieve its low price for the month at 3181.00.  However, by the end of the day, the market price had recovered and settled back above our isolated pivot at PMH: 3254.00.     

Over the following six trading sessions, the market price ascended to our isolated resistance level at M3: 3318.25.  The ensuing four sessions saw the market price lose its upward momentum, straddling either side of M3: 3318.25.  On January 22nd the high price for the month was realized at 3337.50, in between our resistance levels at M3: 3318.25 and M1: 3353.00.

From January 24th through the end of the month, the market price action was dominated by market participants’ reaction-to and anticipation-of the effects of the Wuhan Coronavirus.  The trading sessions of January 24th and 27th saw the market price decline a total of 86.50 points on a settlement basis.  The final four trading sessions were spent with the market price oscillating around our isolated pivot at PMH: 3254.00.

Conservatively, active traders following our analysis had the opportunity to monetize a 1.78% profit.

  

Figure 1:

Japanese Yen Futures

We continue with a review of Japanese Yen Futures (6JH0) during January 2020.  In our January 2020 edition of The Cartography Corner, we wrote the following:

In isolation, monthly support and resistance levels for January are:

  • M4         0.94068
  • M3         0.93445
  • PMH       0.92659
  • Close      0.92455
  • M1           0.92403
  • MTrend   0.92330
  • PML        0.91195           
  • M2         0.91140                       
  • M5           0.89475

Active traders can use 0.92659 as the upside pivot, whereby they maintain a long position above that level.  Active traders can use 0.92330 as the downside pivot, whereby they maintain a flat or short position below that level.

As you read this, recall that we wrote in January that the annual correlation of daily returns between Japanese Yen Futures and E-Mini S&P 500 Futures is -0.53.  January’s price action in those markets were mirror images of one another.

Figure 2 below displays the daily price action for January 2020 in a candlestick chart, with support and resistance levels isolated by our methodology represented as dashed lines.  The first four trading sessions of January saw the market price exhibit “choppiness”, reflecting market participants’ indecision as to directional bias.  Early into the fifth trading session, January 8th, the geopolitical event emanating from Iran caused the market price to achieve its high price for the month at 0.93235.  However, by the end of the day, the market price had recovered and settled back below our isolated downside pivot at MTrend: 0.92330.

Over the following six trading sessions, the market price descended to and settled below, our clustered support levels at PML: 0.91195 and M2: 0.91140.  On January 17th the low price for the month was realized at 0.90935.

From January 18th through the end of the month, the market price action was dominated by market participants’ reaction-to and anticipation-of the effects of the Wuhan Coronavirus.  The market price rallied back to, and settled slightly above, our clustered support levels at MTrend: 0.92330 and M1: 0.92403, now acting as resistance.

Conservatively, active traders following our analysis had the opportunity to monetize a 0.81% profit.

Figure 2:

February 2020 Analysis

E-Mini S&P 500 Futures

We begin by providing a monthly time-period analysis of E-Mini S&P 500 Futures (ESH0).  The same analysis can be completed for any time-period or in aggregate.

Trends:

  • Weekly Trend         3285.17       
  • Daily Trend             3265.61
  • Current Settle         3224.00       
  • Monthly Trend        3180.97       
  • Quarterly Trend      2974.00

In the quarterly time-period, the chart shows that E-Mini S&P 500 Futures have been “Trend Up” for four quarters.  Stepping down one time-period, the monthly chart shows that E-Mini S&P 500 Futures have been “Trend Up” for eight months.  Stepping down to the weekly time-period, the chart shows that E-Mini S&P 500 Futures are in “Consolidation”, after having been “Trend Up” for sixteen weeks.  The relative positioning of the Trend Levels is beginning to lose its bullish posture.

We wrote in January, “The first indication of weakness will be a weekly settlement under Weekly Trend”.  We now have that indication.  The next event that needs to occur to strengthen the case of a possible Trend Reversal is a monthly settlement under Monthly Trend.  As noted above, Monthly Trend for February is at 3180.97.

Astute readers will notice that January’s low coincided with February’s Monthly Trend level.  Hmmm…

Support/Resistance:

In isolation, monthly support and resistance levels for February are:

  • M4                 3605.50
  • M1                 3421.00
  • PMH              3337.50
  • M2                 3292.50
  • Close             3224.00     
  • M3                 3217.00
  • PML               3181.00     
  • MTrend         3180.97     
  • M5                3108.00

Active traders can use 3217.00 as the pivot, whereby they maintain a long position above that level and a flat or short position below it.

Bitcoin Futures

For the month of February, we focus on Bitcoin Futures.  We provide a monthly time-period analysis of BTG0.  The same analysis can be completed for any time-period or in aggregate.

Trends:

  • Daily Trend           9,489             
  • Current Settle       9,440
  • Quarterly Trend    9,239             
  • Weekly Trend       8,830             
  • Monthly Trend      7,982

As can be seen in the quarterly chart below, Bitcoin is in “Consolidation”.  Stepping down one time-period, the monthly chart shows that Bitcoin is in “Consolidation”, after having been “Trend Down” for five months.  Stepping down to the weekly time-period, the chart shows that Bitcoin has been “Trend Up” for five weeks.

With the weekly, monthly, and quarterly trend levels having quietly slipped beneath the market price, it is worth considering that the rally in Bitcoin that began five weeks ago may be just the beginning of a substantial move higher in price.

Support/Resistance:

In isolation, monthly support and resistance levels for February are:

  • M4         13,070
  • M3         11,670
  • M1         11,520
  • PMH       9,745
  • Close        9,440
  • MTrend   7,982
  • M2         7,300  
  • PML        6,860              
  • M5           5,750

Active traders can use 9,745 as the pivot, whereby they maintain a long position above that level and a flat or short position below it.

Summary

The power of technical analysis is in its ability to reduce multi-dimensional markets into a filtered two-dimensional space of price and time.  Our methodology applies a consistent framework that identifies key measures of trend, distinct levels of support and resistance, and identification of potential trading ranges.  Our methodology can be applied to any security or index, across markets, for which we can attain a reliable price history.  We look forward to bringing you our unique brand of technical analysis and insight into many different markets.  If you are a professional market participant and are open to discovering more, please connect with us.  We are not asking for a subscription; we are asking you to listen.

S&P 500 Monthly Valuation & Analysis Review – 2-1-2020

J. Brett Freeze, CFA, founder of Global Technical Analysis. Each month Brett will provide you their valuable S&P 500 Valuation Chart Book. This unique analysis provides an invaluable long term perspective of equity valuations. If you are interested in learning more about their services, please connect with them.


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.

Maybe This Time Is Different?

“Stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau” – Irving Fisher, New York Times September 3, 1929

One of the more infamous quotes from the roaring ‘20s came within two months of a market peak, which would not be surpassed again until the 1950s. Between 1920 and September 1929, the Dow Jones Industrial Average rose over 18% on an annualized basis.  Economist Irving Fisher essentially declared that such outsized gains were the norm. As he discovered a couple of months later, that time was not different.

Today, with valuations as stretched as they were in 1929 and 1999, the calls for a lengthy continuation of the current bull market are growing to a crescendo. The sentiment is so extreme that some outlandish predictions on individual stocks and indexes are treated as gospel as opposed to the warnings they likely are.  

Despite the high likelihood of poor returns over the coming decade, more and more stock analysts are telling us this time is different. One particular article caught our attention and is worth discussing to show how data can be used to support nearly any view.

4x by 2030

The Investor’s Fallacy by Nick Magguilli, states the following:

“And the crazy part is that the red star represents “only” a doubling over the next decade.  If history were to repeat itself in some meaningful way, the S&P 500 would be 4x higher by 2030 than where it is today.” 

Magguilli’s bold statement is based on an analysis comparing prior returns to forward returns. Correctly, he assumes that periods of lower than average returns are typically followed by a period of higher returns. We wholeheartedly agree; however, one must first understand that this method of forecasting returns is heavily reliant on the dates one assigns to prior and forward periods.

The article shows several charts using different periods. The intention is to show that 20 year prior returns have a stronger correlation with ten year forward returns than other date ranges. The graph below from the article highlights his findings.

Below the graph Magguilli states the following:

“Think about how insane this would be relative to history.  If you are expecting anything less than a doubling of the S&P 500 by 2030, then you are suggesting that the red star above will be even lower on the y-axis than where I already placed it.  If this were to occur, it would be unlike anything we have ever seen before in terms of growth over such a long time period.

And the crazy part is that the red star represents “only” a doubling over the next decade.  If history were to repeat itself in some meaningful way, the S&P 500 would be 4x higher by 2030 than where it is today. 

This statement seems crazy right now, but that’s what has happened historically.  I understand that there is no law forcing U.S. markets to follow this trend indefinitely.  However, if you are forecasting an awful coming decade for U.S. stocks, I have some bad news for you—the evidence is heavily against you.

We repeat- the evidence is heavily against you. We find not only the forecast crazy but his assertion that anyone bracing for a period of weak returns is an outlier.”

With that ringing endorsement to quadruple your money in the next ten years, it is worth highlighting two significant flaws in the analysis.

Flaw #1

One of the reasons that his forecast for the 2020s is so high is that the preceding 20-year period started in 2000 at the peak of a ten-year bull market and what was clearly an equity market bubble. The total annualized return (dividends included) from that peak to today is 5.30%, as shown below. If instead he had used 17 years as his backward-looking period, the start date would have coincided with the bottom of the dot com crash, and the total annualized returns over the past period would have been significantly higher.

Recall, from his graph, the higher the prior period return, the lower the forecasted return and vice versa. The graph below shows how a relatively small change in the start date makes a big difference in the analytical conclusion.

Data Courtesy Shiller

As we will detail below, when one uses a 17-year prior period starting at the market trough, the expected annualized return is only 10% as opposed to Magguilli’s approximated 16% return using a 20-year time frame. This is certainly not the end of the world, as 10% is still an above-average return. To put the two returns in context, the 6% annualized difference on a $100,000 portfolio results in a $182,000 difference in returns over the ten-year period.

Most analysts, ourselves included, like to use even numbers when conducting long term analysis. In this case, an even 20 years coincides with an important market peak. The lesson from the first flaw is that the start and end dates and associated index values are very important.

Flaw #2

And though my process is limited by the amount of data that I have, I know that it’s not unreasonable.”

Despite Magguilli’s attestation, the amount of data he used could have been more robust. The second flaw in the article relates to the span of data used to assess correlation. We believe he is using approximately 60 years of data. While 60 years encompasses a lot of data, more data is readily available to make the analysis better. If we include data back to 1900, as shown below, the chart tells us something different about the future.

Data Shiller

The first thing to notice is that R2, or measure of correlation, drops significantly from .83 to .33. It appears a primary reason for the loss of correlation is the performance from the depression era, as shown with orange dots.   

The following graph uses prior 17-year returns from 1900 forward. The red line highlights the current prior 17 years annualized return of 9.47%.

Data Shiller

The expected total annualized return for the next decade is approximately 10%, denoted on the chart above where the red line crosses the dotted regression line. More importantly, the range of possible returns is much larger than what Nick’s graph shows.  Annualized returns could be as high as 18% but may also be as low as negative 3%. As it should, the risk-adjustment considering dispersion, or range of possible returns, raises a variety of other questions and concerns, among them, certitude in the original analysis.

Your guess is as good as ours on where returns will fall over the next ten years. However, consider that in 1929 valuations were similar to where levels stand today across a wide variety of metrics. Many valuation-based forecasts predict returns of plus or minus a few percent annualized over the next ten years.  The graph below, for example, shows that returns could easily be below zero for the next ten years.

For further perspective on valuations, the following table contrasts current valuations versus prior periods.

Additionally, the more rigorous and detailed analysis of Jeremy Grantham of GMO show 7-year projected returns which are not encouraging.

Summary

Maggiulli humbly states that he doesn’t know what the future holds, but the substance of the article suggests that you, dear investor, would be a fool not to buy and hold stocks for the next decade.

Although you cannot predict the future, you can prepare for it. What we do know is that we are well into a historically long bull market and valuations are in record territory. We believe that at this stage of the cycle investors should focus less on the potential rewards and much more on the risks. The primary reason is that market reversals are often sudden and vicious, especially from points of extreme valuation. As one example, after peaking on March 10, 2000, the NASDAQ composite wiped out 29% of its value in only three weeks and 37% in less than five weeks. Having been conditioned to “buy-the-dip” over the previous months and years, investors could not envision a lasting selloff despite the radical dislocation between market prices and fundamentals.  

For those who have enjoyed the benefits of the surging equity market over the past several quarters, congratulations on a race well run, but do not forget the importance of risk management. Those who fail to heed signs of caution or are blinded by false confidence tend to lose what they gained. Remember, the objective is compounding wealth over the long haul and not keeping up with the S&P 500 index.

We hope this article encourages you to think about current circumstances and develop plans to hedge and/or reduce exposure if and when you deem appropriate.

That “high plateau” Irving Fisher thought we had achieved in September 1929 cost him his reputation and his net worth. The cost of being prudent is not that expensive and, in part, depends on one questioning both bullish and bearish arguments.

Retired Or Retiring Soon? Yes, Worry About A Correction

When I was growing up, my father used to tell me I should “never take advice from anyone who hasn’t succeeded at what they are advising.” 

The most truth of that statement is found in the financial press, which consists mostly of people writing articles and giving advice on topics where they have little experience, and in general, have achieved no success.

The best example came last week in an email quoting:

“You recently suggested that you took profits from your portfolios; however, I read an article saying retirees shouldn’t change their strategies. ‘If you’ve got a thoughtful financial plan and a diversified investment portfolio, the general rule is to leave everything alone.'” 

This seems to be an entirely different approach to what you are suggesting. Also, since corrections can’t be predicted, it seems to make sense.” 

One of the biggest reasons why investors consistently underperform over the long-term is due to flawed investment advice.

Let me explain.

Corrections & Bear Markets Matter

It certainly seems logical, by looking the 120-year chart of the market, that one should just stay invested regardless of what happens. Eventually, as the financial media often suggests, the markets always get back to even. One such chart is the percentage gain/loss chart over the long-term, as shown below.

This is one of the most deceptive charts an advisor can show a client, particularly one that is close to, or worse in, retirement.

The reality is that you DIED long before ever achieving that 8% annualized long-term return you were promised. Secondly, math is a cruel teacher.

Visually, percentage drawdowns seem to be inconsequential relative to the massive percentage gains that preceded them. That is, until you convert percentages into points and reveal an uglier truth.

It is important to remember that a 100% gain on a $1000 investment, followed by a 50% loss, does not leave you with $1500. A 50% loss wipes out the previous 100% gain, leaving you with a 0% net return.

For retirees, this is a critically important point.

In 2000, the average “baby boomer” was around 45-years of age. The “dot.com” crash was painful, but with 20-years to go before retirement, there was time to recover. In 2010, following the financial crisis, the time to retirement for the oldest boomers was depleted, and the average boomer only had 10-years to recover. During both of these previous periods, portfolios were still in accumulation mode. However, today, only the youngest tranche of “boomers,” have the luxury of “time” to work through the next major market reversion. (This also explains why the share of workers over the age of 65 is at historical highs.) 

With the majority of “boomers” now faced with the implications of a transition into the distribution phase of the investment cycle, such has important ramifications during market declines. The following example shows a $1 million portfolio with, and without, an annualized 4% withdrawal rate. (We are going into much deeper analysis on this in a moment.)

While a 10% decline in the market will reduce a portfolio from $1 million to $900,000, when combined with an assumed monthly withdrawal rate, the portfolio value is reduced by almost 14%. This is the result of taking distributions during a period of declining market values. Importantly, while it ONLY requires a non-withdrawal portfolio an 11.1% return to break even, it requires nearly a 20% return for a portfolio in the distribution phase to attain the same level.

Impairments to capital are the biggest challenges facing pre- and post-retirees currently. 

This is an important distinction. Most articles written about retirees, or those ready to retire, is an unrealized assumption of an indefinite timeline.

While the market may not be different than it has been in the past. YOU ARE!

Starting Valuations Matter

As I have discussed previously, without understanding the importance of starting valuations on your investment returns, you can’t understand the impact the market will have on psychology, and investor behavior.

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.

This is far less than the 8-10% rates of return currently promised by the Wall Street community. It is also why starting valuations are critical for individuals to understand when planning for both the accumulation and distribution, phases of the investment life-cycle.

Let’s elaborate on our example above.

We know that markets go up and down over time, therefore when advisors use “average” or “annualized” rates of return, results often deviate far from reality. However, we do know from historical analysis that valuations drive forward returns, so using historical data, we calculated the 4-periods where starting valuations were either above 20x earnings, or below 10x earnings. We then ran a $1000 investment going forward for 30-years on a total-return, inflation-adjusted, basis. 

The results were not surprising.

At 10x earnings, the worst performing period started in 1918 and only saw $1000 grow to a bit more than $6000. The best performing period was actually not the screaming bull market that started in 1980 because the last 10-years of that particular cycle caught the “dot.com” crash. It was the post-WWII bull market that ran from 1942 through 1972 that was the winner. Of course, the crash of 1974, just two years later, extracted a good bit of those returns.

Conversely, at 20x earnings, the best performing period started in 1900, which caught the rise of the market to its peak in 1929. Unfortunately, the next 4-years wiped out roughly 85% of those gains. However, outside of that one period, all of the other periods fared worse than investing at lower valuations. (Note: 1993 is still currently running as its 30-year period will end in 2023.)

The point to be made here is simple and was precisely summed up by Warren Buffett:

“Price is what you pay. Value is what you get.” 

To create our variable return assumption model, we averaged each of the 4-periods above into a single total return, inflation-adjusted, index. We could then see the impact of $1000 invested in the markets at both valuations BELOW 10x trailing earnings, and ABOVE 20x. Investing at 10x earnings yields substantially better results.

Starting Valuations Are Critical To Withdrawal Rates

With a more realistic return model, the impact of investing during periods of high valuations becomes more evident, particularly during the withdrawal phase of retirement.

Let’s start with our $1 million retirement portfolio. The chart below shows various “spend down” assumptions of a $1 million retirement portfolio adjusted for an 8% annualized return, the impact of inflation at 3%, and the effect of taxation on withdrawals.

By adjusting the annualized rate of return for the impact of inflation and taxes, the life expectancy of a portfolio grows considerably shorter. Unfortunately, this is what “really happens” to investors over time, but is never discussed in mainstream analysis.

To understand “real outcomes,” we must adjust for variable rates of returns. There is a significant difference between 8% annualized rates of return and 8% real rates of return. 

When we adjust the spend down structure for elevated starting valuation levels, and include inflation and taxes, a far different, and less favorable, outcome emerges. Retirees will run out of money not in year 30, but in year 18.

With this understanding, let’s revisit what happens to “buy and hold” investors over time. The chart below shows $3000 invested annually into the S&P 500 inflation-adjusted, total return index at 10% compounded annually, and both 10x and 20x valuation starting levels. I have also shown $3000 saved annually and “stuffed in a mattress.”

The red line is 10% compounded annually. While you don’t get compounded returns, it is there for comparative purposes to the real returns received over the 30-year investment horizon starting at 10x and 20x valuation levels. The shortfall between the promised 10% annual rates of return and actual returns are shown in the two shaded areas. In other words, if you are banking on some advisor’s promise of 10% annual returns for retirement, you aren’t going to make it.

Questions Retirees Need To Ask About Plans

What this analysis reveals is that “retirees” SHOULD be worried about bear markets. 

Taking the correct view of your portfolio, and the risks being undertaken is critical when entering the retirement and distribution phase of the portfolio life cycle.

Most importantly, when building and/or reviewing your financial plan, these are the questions you must ask and have concrete answers for:

  • What are the expectations for future returns going forward given current valuation levels? 
  • Should the withdrawal rates be downwardly adjusted to account for potentially lower future returns? 
  • Given a decade long bull market, have adjustments been made for potentially front-loaded negative returns? 
  • Has the impact of taxation been carefully considered in the planned withdrawal rate?
  • Have future inflation expectations been carefully considered?
  • Have drawdowns from portfolios during declining market environments, which accelerates principal bleed, been considered?
  • Have plans been made to harbor capital during up years to allow for reduced portfolio withdrawals during adverse market conditions?
  • Has the yield chase over the last decade, and low interest rate environment, which has created an extremely risky environment for retirement income planning, been carefully considered?
  • What steps should be considered to reduce potential credit and duration risk in bond portfolios?
  • Have expectations for compounded annual rates of returns been dismissed in lieu of a plan for variable rates of future returns?

 If the answer is “no” to the majority of these questions. then feel free to contact one of the CFP’s in our office who take all of these issues into account. 

Yes, not only should you worry about bear markets, you should worry about them a lot.

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.”

Market Bubbles: It’s Not The Price, It’s The Mentality.

“Actually, one of the dangers is that people could be throwing risk to the wind and this [market] could be a runaway. We sometimes call that a melt-up and produces prices too high and then if there’s a shock, you come down to Earth and that could impact sentiment. I think this market is fully valued and not undervalued, but I don’t think it’s overvalued,” Jeremy Siegel

Here is an interesting thing.

“Market bubbles have NOTHING to do with valuations or fundamentals.”

Hold on…don’t start screaming “heretic,” and building gallows just yet.

Let me explain.

I can’t entirely agree with Siegel on the market being “fairly valued.” As shown in the chart below, the S&P 500 is currently trading nearly 90% above its long-term median, which is expensive from a historical perspective.

However, since stock market “bubbles” are a reflection of speculation, greed, emotional biases; valuations are only a reflection of those emotions.

In other words, bubbles can exist even at times when valuations and fundamentals might argue otherwise. Let me show you an elementary example of what I mean. The chart below is the long-term valuation of the S&P 500 going back to 1871.

Notice that with the exception of only 1929, 2000, and 2007, every other major market crash occurred with valuations at levels LOWER than they are currently. 

Secondly, all market crashes have been the result of things unrelated to valuation levels such as liquidity issues, government actions, monetary policy mistakes, recessions, or inflationary spikes. Those events were the catalyst, or trigger, that started the “reversion in sentiment” by investors.

For Every Buyer

You will commonly hear that “for every buyer, there must be a seller.”

This is a true statement. The issue becomes at “what price.” What moves prices up and down, in a normal market environment, is the price level at which a buyer and seller complete a transaction.

Market crashes are an “emotionally” driven imbalance in supply and demand.

In a market crash, the number of people wanting to “sell” vastly overwhelms the number of people willing to “buy.” It is at these moments that prices drop precipitously as “sellers” drop the levels at which they are willing to dump their shares in a desperate attempt to find a “buyer.” This has nothing to do with fundamentals. It is strictly an emotional panic, which is ultimately reflected by a sharp devaluation in market fundamentals.

Bob Bronson once penned:

“It can be most reasonably assumed that markets are sufficient enough that every bubble is significantly different than the previous one, and even all earlier bubbles. In fact, it’s to be expected that a new bubble will always be different than the previous one(s) since investors will only bid up prices to extreme overvaluation levels if they are sure it is not repeating what led to the last, or previous bubbles. Comparing the current extreme overvaluation to the dotcom is intellectually silly.

I would argue that when comparisons to previous bubbles become most popular – like now – it’s a reliable timing marker of the top in a current bubble. As an analogy, no matter how thoroughly a fatal car crash is studied, there will still be other fatal car crashes in the future, even if the previous accident-causing mistakes are avoided.”

Comparing the current market to any previous period in the market is rather pointless. The current market is not like 1995, 1999, or 2007? Valuations, economics, drivers, etc. are all different from cycle to the next. Most importantly, however, the financial markets adapt to the cause of the previous “fatal crashes,” but that adaptation won’t prevent the next one.

It’s All Relative

Last week, in our MacroView, I touched on George Soros’ theory on bubbles, which is worth expanding a bit on in the context of this article.

Financial markets, far from accurately reflecting all the available knowledge, always provide a distorted view of reality. The degree of distortion may vary from time to time. Sometimes it’s quite insignificant, at other times it is quite pronounced. When there is a significant divergence between market prices and the underlying reality, the markets are far from equilibrium conditions.

Every bubble has two components:

  1. An underlying trend that prevails in reality, and; 
  2. A misconception relating to that trend.

When positive feedback develops between the trend and the misconception, a boom-bust process is set into motion. The process is liable to be tested by negative feedback along the way, and if it is strong enough to survive these tests, both the trend and the misconception will be reinforced. Eventually, market expectations become so far removed from reality that people are forced to recognize that a misconception is involved. A twilight period ensues during which doubts grow, and more people lose faith, but the prevailing trend is sustained by inertia.

As Chuck Prince, former head of Citigroup, said, ‘As long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance. We are still dancing.’ Eventually, a tipping point is reached when the trend is reversed; it then becomes self-reinforcing in the opposite direction.”

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.

The chart below is an example of asymmetric bubbles.

The pattern of bubbles is interesting because it changes the argument from a fundamental view to a technical view. Prices reflect the psychology of the market, which can create a feedback loop between the markets and fundamentals.

This pattern of bubbles can be seen at every bull market peak in history. The chart below utilizes Dr. Robert Shiller’s stock market data going back to 1900 on an inflation-adjusted basis with an overlay of the asymmetrical bubble shape.

As Soro’s went on to state:

Financial markets do not play a purely passive role; they can also affect the so-called fundamentals they are supposed to reflect. These two functions, that financial markets perform, work in opposite directions.

  • In the passive or cognitive function, the fundamentals are supposed to determine market prices. 
  • In the active or manipulative function market, prices find ways of influencing the fundamentals. 

When both functions operate at the same time, they interfere with each other. The supposedly independent variable of one function is the dependent variable of the other, so that neither function has a truly independent variable. As a result, neither market prices nor the underlying reality is fully determined. Both suffer from an element of uncertainty that cannot be quantified.”

Currently, there is a strong belief the financial markets are not in a bubble, and the arguments supporting that belief are based on comparisons to past market bubbles.

It is likely that in a world where there is virtually “no fear” of a market correction, an overwhelming sense of “urgency” to be invested, and a continual drone of “bullish chatter;” the markets are poised for the unexpected, unanticipated, and inevitable event.

Reflections

When thinking about excess, it is easy to see the reflections of excess in various places. Not just in asset prices but also in “stuff.” All financial assets are just claims on real wealth, not actual wealth itself. A pile of money has use and utility because you can buy stuff with it. But real wealth is the “stuff” — food, clothes, land, oil, and so forth.  If you couldn’t buy anything with your money/stocks/bonds, their worth would revert to the value of the paper they’re printed on (if you’re lucky enough to hold an actual certificate). 

But trouble begins when the system gets seriously out of whack.

“GDP” is a measure of the number of goods and services available and financial asset prices represent the claims (it’s not a very accurate measure of real wealth, but it’s the best one we’ve got.) Notice the divergence of asset prices from GDP as excesses develop.

What we see is that the claims on the economy should, quite intuitively, track the economy itself. Excesses occur whenever the claims on the economy, the so-called financial assets (stocks, bonds, and derivatives), get too far ahead of the economy itself.

This is a very important point. 

“The claims on the economy are just that: claims. They are not the economy itself!”

Take a step back from the media, and Wall Street commentary, for a moment and make an honest assessment of the financial markets today.

The increase in speculative risks, combined with excess leverage, leave the markets vulnerable to a sizable correction at some point in the future. The only missing ingredient for such a correction is the catalyst to bring “fear” into an overly complacent marketplace.  

It is all reminiscent of the market peak of 1929 when Dr. Irving Fisher uttered his now famous words: “Stocks have now reached a permanently high plateau.” 

This “time IS different.” 

However, “this time” is only different from the standpoint the variables are not exactly the same as they have been previously. The variables never are, but the outcome is always the same.

Can Six Myths Keep The Market Going?

Piper Jaffray forecasts by year end 2020, the S&P 500 (SPX) will hit 3600, a 12.8 % increase. Of eighteen analysts interviewed by Marketwatch only three forecasters expect a decline for the SPX. Will the SPX reach 3600?  The SPX has soared over 400 % from a low of 666 in 2009 to over 3200 at the close of 2019. Mapping the SPX ten year history onto a psychology market cycle map of growth and decline phases poses interesting questions. As the market has zoomed over 400% upwards over ten years, it is clearly in the Mania Phase. Yet, the US economy is growing at the slowest rate of any economic recovery since WWII at 2.2 % GDP per year, why the disconnect?

Source: Patrick Hill – 12-31-19

One reason for the disconnect is investment analysts and the media lead investors to believe there is no downside risk. On New Year’s Eve, Goldman Sachs released a prediction for 2020 claiming that the ‘tools of the Great Moderation’ (Fed policy shift) begun 30 years ago low-interest rates, low volatility, sustainable growth and muted inflation are still in place and were only interrupted by the 2008 financial crisis. Plus we would add the Dotcom crash. GS concluded that the economy ‘was nearly recession-proof.’

The mainstream financial media also feed the Mania Phase with stories like Goldman Sachs declaring the Great Moderation is working with our economy in a ‘new paradigm’. We are to believe there will not be a recession because our policymakers have the economy under control.  Really?  With over $17 trillion of negative debt worldwide to keep the world economy going, central banks have succeeded in sustaining worldwide GDP at 1 – 2 % and falling as of late! For the SPX market to not descend into the Blow Off phase, investors will need to continue to believe in six economic myths:

  1. The Growth Phase of the Economic Cycle is Continuing
  2. Consumers Will Bailout the Economy
  3. The Fed Will Keep the Economy Humming
  4. If the Fed Fails Then the Federal Government Will Provide Stimulus
  5. The Trade War Won’t Hurt Global Growth
  6. The Economy and Markets Are Insulated from World Politics

Let’s look at each myth that is likely to affect portfolio and market performance in the next year.  This analysis is based on research data of economic, social, government, business trends and observation of markets and the economy. If markets are to continue to climb, either policymakers must solve difficult issues or investors must continue to believe these myths are true. The first myth establishes a critical framework for viewing all economic activity. We are actually at the end of the growth phase of the economic cycle; here is why.

Myth 1. The Growth Phase of the Economic Cycle is Continuing

The Fed has reported that the economy is still in ‘mid-cycle’ phase.  We differ with this position as several indicators show the economy is reaching the end of its growth cycle and ready to revert to the mean. As GDP is driven 70 % by consumers, let’s look at what is really happening to consumers.  The ratio of current consumer conditions minus consumer expectations is at levels seen just before prior recessions not mid-stage growth economies.

Sources: The Conference Board, The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Shot – 6/14/19

In the chart below, consumers are stretched as loan default rates are rising despite a 50-year low unemployment rate. Rising delinquencies tend to signal rising unemployment and economic decline is likely in the near future.

Sources: Deutsche Bank, Bureau of Labor Statistics, The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Shot – 6/4/19

Of major concern is that the manufacturing sector is now in a recession based on five months of ISM reports below the 50 % economic expansion benchmark. The overall contraction is validated as 70 % of manufacturing sub-sectors are contracting as noted in the report below.  While the US economy is primarily driven by services, the manufacturing sector has a multiplier effect on productivity, support services, and employment with high paying jobs. Note the contraction in sub-sectors is reaching levels last seen before recessions.

            Sources Oxford Economics, The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Shot – 12-20-19

There are other indicators pointing to the end of the growth phase.  For example, the inversion of the 2 – 10 yield curve last summer is now steepening – often seen before an economic slowdown. Another indicator is the number of firms with negative earnings launching IPOs in 2019 was at levels not seen since 2000. Finally, productivity and capital investments are at ten year lows.

Myth 2.  Consumers Will Bailout the Economy

Market pundits have been quick to rely on the consumer to continue spending at growth sustaining rates.  Yet, budgets for the middle class are squeezed as consumers cope with student loan debt payments, new car payments, health care bills, and credit card debt.  The Bloomberg Personal Finance Index dropped significantly in October:

Source: Bloomberg, The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Shot – 11/10/19

Car loans now span seven years on average versus five years a few years ago. Further, the new loans ‘roll in’ debt from previous car purchases due to negative equity in the owner’s trade-in vehicle.  Vehicle price increases up to 10 % over the last year for both cars and trucks add to the debt burden.  Car debt is beginning to weigh on consumers as delinquencies are climbing:

Sources: NY Federal Reserve, The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Shot – 10/29/19

Today, credit card rates are running at a ten-year peak of 17 – 22 % have seen no relief despite the Fed cutting rates.  There is a record spread between the Federal Funds rate and credit card rates as banks seek new revenue sources beyond making loans. Many consumers are turning to credit cards to pay bills to sustain their lifestyle as their wages are not keeping up with rising living costs.

In addition, consumers are increasingly working at more than one job to be sure they can pay their bills.

Sources: Deutsche Bank, Bureau of Labor Statistics, The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Shot – 10/21/19

Workers need to take on multiple jobs in the gig economy. McKinsey & Company estimates that 52 million people are gig workers or a third of the 156 million person workforce. Contractors have no job security.  Gig workers often receive hourly wages with no health, retirement or other benefits. The lack of benefits means they have limited or no financial safety net in the event of an economic slowdown.

There are other key indicators of consumer financial distress, for example, consumer spending on a quarter over quarter basis has continued to decline, Bankrate reports that 50 % of workers received no raise in the last year.  Real wages (taking into account inflation) for 80 % of all workers have been stagnant for the past twenty years.  Uncertain economic forces are putting consumers in a financial bind, for more details, please see our post: Will the Consumer Bailout the Economy?


Myth 3.  The Fed Will Keep the Economy Humming

The Fed has said it will do whatever necessary to keep the economy growing by keeping interest rates low and injecting liquidity into the financial system. However, a survey on Fed actions shows that 70 % of economists interviewed believe the Fed is running out of ammo to turnaround the economy.

Sources: The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Shot – 12-30-19

We agree with their perspective that the Fed is entering an economic space where no central bank has gone before.  In the past, the Fed lowered rates when an economic downturn was evident. Just prior to earlier recession’s interest rates were at a higher starting level of at least 4 – 5 %.  Plus, today the Fed has returned to pumping liquidity into the economy via its repo operation and QE as shown below.

Sources: The Federal Reserve of St. Louis, The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Shot – 12/30/19

The International Bureau of Settlements (BIS) disclosed in their analysis of recent Fed repo operations that funding supported not only banks but hedge funds. A key concern is the nature of the hedge fund bailout. How steep is the loss being mitigated? Is there a possibility of contagion? Is more than one hedge fund involved?  Should the Fed be bailing out hedge funds that are overextended due to speculation? The Fed is already using its tools at the height of the current economic growth cycle. The Fed financial tools are too stretched to turnaround an economy in a recession from multiple financial bubbles bursting.

The Fed continues to declare that inflation is at 2.1 %, missing the reality of what consumers are actually paying for goods and services.  We find from industry research that finds inflation is likely in the 6 – 10% range. Inflation should be defined as price increases of goods and services that consumers buy, not inflation defined by a formula to suit political needs. Using inflation lifestyle ‘cost of living’ data, which is not transparent or available for audit does not meet the foundational data needs of investors.  Gordon Haskett Research Advisors conducted a study by purchasing a basket of 76 typical items consumers frequently buy at Walmart and Target.  Their study showed that from June 2018 to June 2019, prices increased by about 5.5%. 

Other industry research supports inflation running at a much higher level than government figures. On a city by city basis, Chapwood has developed an index for 500 items in major metropolitan areas of the US.  Chapwood reports the average national inflation level to be about 10 %.  Note inflation is compounded; for example, in San Jose a five year average price increase of 13% is for each year. An item costing $1.00 would cost $1.13 the next year and then $1.28 the third year and so forth. It is likely workers caught in a squeeze between stagnant wages and 10 % inflation will not be able to continue to sustain present levels of economic growth.

Real inflation at 6 – 10 % has major policy, portfolio, and social implications.  For example, with the ten year Treasury Bond at 1.90% and inflation at 6 %, we are actually living in a ’de facto negative interest’ economy of – 4.10 %Higher inflation levels fit the financial reality of what workers, portfolio managers, and retirees are facing in managing their finances.  Many workers must take multiple jobs and develop a ‘side hustle’ to just keep up with inflation much less get ahead. For portfolio managers, they must grow their portfolio at much higher rates than was previously thought just to maintain portfolio value.  Finally, for retirees on a fixed income portfolio it is imperative they have additional growth income sources or part-time work to keep up with inflation eating away at their portfolio. For more details on our analysis of a variety of inflation, categories see our post: Is Inflation Really Under Control?

One additional assumption about Fed intervention repeated by many analysts is the Fed liquidity injections mean that corporate sales and profits will bounce back.  For some financially sensitive industries this argument may be true. For other firms with excellent credit ratings, they may be able to obtain low-interest loans to ride out falling sales. But, the reality is that corporations build and sell products based on demand. If demand falls, low-interest loans will not increase sales.  Only new products, new channels, reduced pricing, marketing and other initiatives will revive sales.

Myth 4.  If the Fed Fails Then the Federal Government Will Provide Stimulus

European Central Bank leaders have called on European governments to provide economic stimulus for their markets.  Picking up on this idea, analysts have proposed the US government move on infrastructure and other spending programs. However, tax cuts, low-interest rates, stock buybacks, and record corporate debt offerings have shifted a huge balance of world-wide wealth to the private sector.  For 40 years, there has been a significant increase in private capital worldwide while public wealth has declined. In 2015, the value of net public wealth (or public capital) in the US was negative -17% of net national income, while the value of net private wealth (or private capital) was 500% of national income. In comparison to 1970, net public wealth amounted to 36% of national income, while net private wealth was at 326 %.

Source: World Inequality Lab, Thomas Piketty, Gabriel Zucman et al. – 2018

Essentially, central banks, Wall Street, and governments have built monetary and economic systems that have increased private wealth at the expense of public wealth.  The lack of public capital makes the creation of major levels of public goods and services nearly impossible. The US government is now running $1 trillion yearly deficits with public debt at record levels not seen since WWII and total debt to GDP at all-time highs. The development of public goods and services like basic research and development, education, infrastructure, and health services are necessary for an economic rebound. The economy will need a huge stimulus ‘lifting’ program and yet the capital necessary to do the job is in the private sector where private individuals make investment allocation decisions.  Congress may pass an ‘infrastructure’ bill in 2020 but given the election, it is likely to be lightly funded to pass both houses of Congress and receive the president’s signature.

Myth 5.  The Trade War Won’t Hurt Global Growth

By closing the Phase One trade deal, the market has been sighing with relief with observers declaring that trade will resume a growth track.  Yet, the Phase One deal is not a long term fix. If anything, the actions on the part of both governments have been to dig in for the long term.  The Chinese government has taken several key actions in parallel to the deal to move their agenda ahead.

China has quietly raised the exchange rate of their currency to offset some of the impact of still in place tariffs on the U.S. economy.  The government made a major move to block US and foreign companies from providing key technical infrastructure. The technology ministry has told government agencies that all IT hardware and software from foreign firms are to be replaced by Chinese systems within three years. If the Chinese government decides to establish ‘China only’ network standards it may be difficult for US firms to even work with state-sponsored companies or private businesses that must meet China’s only standards. Apple and Microsoft would have to build two versions of their products. One version for the Chinese economy and one for the world.  A critical change is taking place in world trade which is the establishment of a two-block trading world.  China is a key growth market at a 20 % – 30 % increase in sales annually for US multinational companies. For these corporations navigating the trade war will be problematic even with the Phase One agreement.  Our post characterizing this major change in world trade can be found at: Navigating a Two Block Trading World.  

The U.S. has placed sanctions on Chinese sponsored network provider Huawei, effectively limiting the network vendor from US government and private networks.  The Phase One agreement includes the US canceling planned tariffs for December 15th in 2019 and rolling back tariffs to 7.5 % on $120 billion of goods imposed on September 1st of last year. Yet, tariffs of 25 % remain in place on $250 billion of Chinese goods.  The Chinese have canceled retaliatory tariffs planned for December 15th and plan to increase purchases of US goods and services by $200 billion over two years. In addition, China will purchase US agriculture products at a $40 billion rate per year from a baseline of $24 billion in 2017.  If the Chinese follow through on their purchase commitments US companies should see increased sales.  However, history on Chinese purchases shows they forecast large purchases but small purchases are made.

A major trade issue has been created when the US decided not to appoint any new judges to the World Trade Organization court for disputes. The court cannot hear or make decisions on any disputes any longer; meaning countries will resort to free-for-all negotiations on trade disputes.  We expect as economies falter, nationalist policies on trade will gain more popularity and world trade will continue to decline after a slight blip up from the U.S.-China Phase One deal.

Sources: BCOT Research, The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Shot – 12/16/19

Finally, prior to the trade war global trade has been facing major headwinds. Since 2008, global firms have looked to open more international markets to sell their goods, but have met sales resistance causing revenue and profits to be flat or decline.  We expect the flattening of global sales to output to continue and eventually decline as overall world trade falls.

CEOs in a Conference Board survey rate trade as a major concern as they look at a highly uncertain economic picture.  Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, described his concerns at a company all hands meeting last November:

 “Because that issue (trade) is on the table, then everybody has a question mark around in some part of their business,” he said. “I mean, we’re in this strange economic time, we all know that.”

Myth 6. The Economy and Markets Are Insulated from World Politics

Protests have broken out in Hong Kong, Iraq, Iran, Chile, and other world cities while stock markets continue their climb.  Yet, when the U.S. killed a key Iranian general the overnight S &P futures market fell 41 pts before recovering and closing 23 pts lower. The VIX soared 22 % overnight before settling back to close for a 12 % increase at 14.02.  The U.S. – Iran conflict does not seem to be under control with most Middle East analysts predicting a major retaliation by the Iranian government. The price of oil spiked 4 % before settling to a 3.57 % increase on fears the Iranians may attack oil tankers in the Gulf.  An escalating conflict will drive oil prices higher, disturb supply chains and likely tip the world economy into a recession.

We saw during the negotiations for the Phase One trade deal how rumors both in China and the U.S. would send the S & P futures market up or down by 10 – 15 points depending upon whether the news was positive or negative. Algo traders would drop 30k contracts in a matter of seconds to make huge moves in SPX price, while the VIX was at 12.50, supposedly a calm market. The chart below shows how positive and negative news whipsawed the market.

Source: Liz Ann Sonders – Schwab – 12-7-19

Political news not only moves markets but the economy as well.  When the president tweets a tariff threat, consumers and industry move swiftly to buy those goods before their prices go up.  Businesses have to build the product quickly, sell it and they are left with falling sales as future purchases are pulled forward.  Business to business deals are caught up in this constant flip flop on trade policies as well. CEOs must make investment decisions to build a plant in a particular country 1 – 3 years in advance. They must calculate their allocation plans based on inadequate information and in a highly uncertain policy environment.  Often, rather than make an investment decision, executives will wait for the economic clouds to clear.

Summary:

The current bull market run has set record highs continuously.  Yet, as the saying goes: markets go up in stair steps and down in an elevator.  As a selling panic sets in the market goes into a free fall. If an economic myth is revealed by market action, corporate results, economic reports or an event the loss of belief causes the market to fall much faster than a slow stair step up.

The prudent investor will recognize the end of the business cycle is likely underway. It is time to prepare for an economic slowdown and a resulting equity market reversion to the mean. A reversion to the mean quite often requires that markets swing beyond the mean.

The wary investor will ask hard questions of their financial advisor and review corporate reports with an eye on fundamentals. Financial success is likely to result from good risk management and implementation combined with agility to make mid-course corrections.  Investors should test their assumptions based on breaking trends that may impact portfolio performance.  At the same time, constantly flipping investments will lead to poor performance. Allocate funds to different portfolio groups based on long, medium and short term goals to keep from being emotionally swept up in temporary market swings. The key is to be prepared for the unknown, or a black swan event.  Expect the unexpected and consider the advice of market legends like Bernard Baruch:

Some people boast of selling at the top of the market and buying at the bottom – I don’t believe this can be done. I had bought when things seemed low enough and sold when they seemed high enough. In that way, I have managed to avoid being swept along to those wild extremes of market fluctuations which prove so disastrous.”

Patrick Hill is the Editor of The Progressive Ensign, https://theprogressiveensign.com/ writes from the heart of Silicon Valley, leveraging 20 years of experience as an executive at firms like HP, Genentech, Verigy, Informatica and Okta to provide investment and economic insights. Twitter: @PatrickHill1677.

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.

The Next Decade: Valuations & The Destiny Of Low Returns

Jani Ziedins via Cracked Market recently penned an interesting post:

“As for what comes next, is this bull market tired? Is a crash long overdue? Not if you look at history. Stocks rallied for nearly 20 years between the early 1980s and the late 1990s. By that measure, we could easily see another decade of strong gains before the next “Big One”. Of course, the worst day in stock market history happened during that 20-year bull market in 1987, so we cannot be complacent. But the prognosis for the next 10 years is still good even if we run into a few 20% corrections along the way.”

After a decade of strong, liquidity-driven, post-crisis returns in the financial markets, investors are hopeful the next decade will deliver the same, or better. As Bob Farrell once quipped:

“Bull markets are more fun than bear markets.” 

However, from an investment standpoint, the real question is:

“Can the next decade deliver above average returns, or not?”

Lower Returns Ahead?

Brian Livingston, via MarketWatch, previously wrote an article on the subject of valuation measures and forward returns.

“Stephen Jones, a financial and economic analyst who works in New York City, tracks the formulas that several market wizards have disclosed. He recently updated his numbers through Dec. 31, 2018, and shared them with me. Buffett, Shiller, and the other boldface names had nothing to do with Jones’s calculations. He crunched the financial celebrities’ formulas himself, based on their public statements.

“The graph above doesn’t show the S&P 500’s price levels. Instead, it reveals how well the projection methods estimated the market’s 10-year rate of return in the past. The round markers on the right are the forecasts for the 10 years that lie ahead of us. All of the numbers for the S&P 500 include dividends but exclude the consumer-price index’s inflationary effect on stock prices.”

  • Shiller’s P/E10 predicts a +2.6% annualized real total return.
  • Buffett’s MV/GDP says -2.0%.
  • Tobin’s “q” ratio indicates -0.5%.
  • Jones’s Composite says -4.1%.

(Jones uses Buffett’s formula but adjusts for demographic changes.) 

Here is the important point:

“The predictions might seem far apart, but they aren’t. The forecasts are all much lower than the S&P 500’s annualized real total return of about 6% from 1964 through 2018.”

While these are not guarantees, and should never be used to try and “time the market,” they are historically strong predictors of future returns.

As Jones notes:

“The market’s return over the past 10 years,” Jones explains, “has outperformed all major forecasts from 10 years prior by more than any other 10-year period.”

Of course, as noted above, this is due to the unprecedented stimulation the Federal Reserve pumped into the financial markets. Regardless, markets have a strong tendency to revert to their average performance over time, which is not nearly as much fun as it sounds.

The late Jack Bogle, founder of Vanguard, also noted some concern from high valuations:

“The valuations of stocks are, by my standards, rather high, butmy standards, however, are high.”

When considering stock valuations, Bogle’s method differs from Wall Street’s. For his price-to-earnings multiple, Bogle uses the past 12-months of reported earnings by corporations, GAAP earnings, which includes “all of the bad stuff.” Wall Street analysts look at operating earnings, “earnings without all that bad stuff,” and come up with a price-to-earnings multiple of something in the range of 17 or 18, versus current real valuations which are pushing nearly 30x earnings.

“If you believe the way we look at it, much more realistically I think, the P/E is relatively high. I believe strongly that [investors] should be realizing valuations are fairly full, and if they are nervous they could easily sell off a portion of their stocks.” – Jack Bogle

These views are vastly different than the optimistic views currently being bantered about for the next decade.

However, this is where an important distinction needs to be made.

Starting Valuations Matter Most

What Jani Ziedins missed in his observation was the starting level of valuations which preceded those 20-year “secular bull markets.”  This was a point I made previously:

“The chart below shows the history of secular bull market periods going back to 1871 using data from Dr. Robert Shiller. One thing you will notice is that secular bull markets tend to begin with CAPE 10 valuations around 10x earnings or even less. They tend to end around 23-25x earnings or greater. (Over the long-term valuations do matter.)”

The two previous 20-year secular bull markets begin with valuations in single digits. At the end of the first decade of those secular advances, valuations were still trading below 20x.

The 1920-1929 secular advance most closely mimics the current 2010 cycle. While valuations started below 5x earnings in 1919, they eclipsed 30x earnings ten-years later in 1929. The rest, as they say, is history. Or rather, maybe “past is prologue” is more fitting.

Low Returns Mean High Volatility

When low future rates of return are discussed, it is not meant that each year will be low, but rather the return for the entire period will be low. The chart below shows 10-year rolling REAL, inflation-adjusted, returns in the markets. (Note: Spikes in 10-year returns, which occurred because the 50% decline in 2008 dropped out of the equation, has previously denoted peaks in forward annual returns.)

(Important note: Many advisers/analysts often pen that the market has never had a 10 or 20-year negative return. That is only on a nominal basis and should be disregarded as inflation must be included in the debate.)

There are two important points to take away from the data.

  1. There are several periods throughout history where market returns were not only low, but negative.(Given that most people only have 20-30 functional years to save for retirement, a 20-year low return period can devastate those plans.)
  2. Periods of low returns follow periods of excessive market valuations and encompass the majority of negative return years. (Read more about this chart here)

“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.’” 

While valuations are often dismissed in the short-term because there is not an immediate impact on price returns. Valuations, by their very nature, are HORRIBLE predictors of 12-month returns and should never be used in any investment strategy which has such a focus. However, in the longer term, valuations are strong predictors of expected returns.

The chart below shows Dr. Robert Shiller’s cyclically adjusted P/E ratio combined with Tobin’s Q-ratio. Again, valuations only appear cheap when compared to the peak in 2000. Outside of that exception, the financial markets are, without question, expensive. 

Furthermore, note that forward 10-year returns do NOT improve from historically expensive valuations, but decline rather sharply.

Warren Buffett’s favorite valuation measure is also screaming valuation concerns (which may explain why he is sitting on $128 billion in cash.). The following measure is the price of the Wilshire 5000 market capitalization level divided by GDP. Again, as noted above, asset prices should be reflective of underlying economic growth rather than the “irrational exuberance” of investors. 

Again, with this indicator at the highest valuation level in history, it is a bit presumptuous to assume that forward returns will continue to remain elevated,.

Bull Now, Pay Later

In the short-term, the bull market continues as the flood of liquidity, and accommodative actions, from global Central Banks, has lulled investors into a state of complacency rarely seen historically. As Richard Thaler, the famous University of Chicago professor who won the Nobel Prize in economics stated:

We seem to be living in the riskiest moment of our lives, and yet the stock market seems to be napping. I admit to not understanding it.

I don’t know about you, but I’m nervous, and it seems like when investors are nervous, they’re prone to being spooked. Nothing seems to spook the market.”

While market analysts continue to come up with a variety of rationalizations to justify high valuations, none of them hold up under real scrutiny. The problem is the Central Bank interventions boost asset prices in the short-term, in the long-term, there is an inherently negative impact on economic growth. As such, it leads to the repetitive cycle of monetary policy.

  1. Using monetary policy to drag forward future consumption leaves a larger void in the future that must be continually refilled.
  2. Monetary policy does not create self-sustaining economic growth and therefore requires ever larger amounts of monetary policy to maintain the same level of activity.
  3. The filling of the “gap” between fundamentals and reality leads to consumer contraction and ultimately a recession as economic activity recedes.
  4. Job losses rise, wealth effect diminishes and real wealth is destroyed. 
  5. Middle class shrinks further.
  6. Central banks act to provide more liquidity to offset recessionary drag and restart economic growth by dragging forward future consumption. 
  7. Wash, Rinse, Repeat.

If you don’t believe me, here is the evidence.

The stock market has returned more than 125% since 2007 peak, which is roughly 3x the growth in corporate sales and 5x more than GDP.

It is critical to remember the stock market is NOT the economy. The stock market should be reflective of underlying economic growth which drives actual revenue growth. Furthermore, GDP growth and stock returns are not highly correlated. In fact, some analysis suggests that they are negatively correlated and perhaps fairly strongly so (-0.40).

However, in the meantime, the promise of another decade of a continued bull market is very enticing as the “fear of missing out” overrides the “fear of loss.”

Let me conclude with this quote from Vitaliy Katsenelson which sums up our investing view:

Our goal is to win a war, and to do that we may need to lose a few battles in the interim.

Yes, we want to make money, but it is even more important not to lose it. If the market continues to mount even higher, we will likely lag behind. The stocks we own will become fully valued, and we’ll sell them. If our cash balances continue to rise, then they will. We are not going to sacrifice our standards and thus let our portfolio be a byproduct of forced or irrational decisions.

We are willing to lose a few battles, but those losses will be necessary to win the war. Timing the market is an impossible endeavor. We don’t know anyone who has done it successfully on a consistent and repeated basis. In the short run, stock market movements are completely random – as random as you’re trying to guess the next card at the blackjack table.”

For long-term investors, the reality that a clearly overpriced market will eventually mean revert should be a clear warning sign. Given the exceptionally high probability the next decade will be disappointing, gambling your financial future on a 100% stock portfolio is likely not advisable.