September’s Start Gives Investors Whiplash

September’s Start Gives Investors Whiplash

The markets closed last week in a bullish mood on the news that (stop me if you’ve heard this one before) the US and China will be back at the negotiating table in October. You don’t say! Oh but this time we have schedules and a list of attendees so it is totally different.

h/t @StockCats

The past three days of bullishness have been in sharp contrast to the chaos of August during which global stock markets lost around $3 trillion in market cap thanks to the ongoing trade wars and more data pointing to global slowing. As of Friday’s close, over the past year, the S&P 500 is up 3.7%, the Nasdaq 2.5%, Dow Jones Industrial Average up 3.4%, the NYSE Composite Index up 0.17% and the Russell 2000 is down -12.1%. During August 2,930 acted as a resistance level for the S&P 500 multiple times, but the index managed to break through that level last week, which is typically a bullish signal.

As the markets have taken an immediate about-face on the reignited hopes for progress in the trade wars, we’ve seen a profound flip-flop in equity performance which gave many a portfolio whiplash.

  • Those stocks with the lowest P/E ratios that were pummeled in August are up an average of 5.3% since last Tuesday’s close.
  • The stocks that held up best in August are barely breakeven over the final three trading days last week while those that were soundly beaten down in August are up the most so far in September.
  • Stocks with the most international revenue exposure are materially outperforming those with primarily domestic revenue exposure.

While corporate buybacks have been a major source of support for share prices in recent years, corporate insiders have been big sellers in 2019 selling an average of $600 million worth of stock every trading day in August, per TrimTabs Investment Research. Insider selling has totaled over $10 billion in five out of the first eight months of 2019. The only other time we’ve seen so much insider selling was in 2006 and 2007.

Bonds

August saw an additional $3 trillion of bonds drop into negative territory. We are now up to $17 trillion in negative-yielding bonds globally, with $1 trillion of that corporate bonds – talk about weak growth expectations! We also saw the yield on the 30-year Treasury bond drop below the dividend yield for the S&P 500 recently. The last time that happened was in 2008.

The yield on the 10-year Treasury dipped below the 2-year multiple times during the trading day in August but closed for the first time inverted on August 26th. August 27th the spread between the 10-year Treasury yield and the 2-year rate fell to negative 5 basis points, its lowest level since 2007. Overall the yield on the 10-year Treasury note fell 52 basis points during the month of August – that’s a big deal. The last time we saw a fall of that magnitude in such a short period of time was in 2011 when fears of a double-dip recession were on the table. Currently, the real yield on US 10-year is sitting in negative territory which says a lot about the bond market’s expectations for growth in the coming years. Keep that in mind as you look at the PE multiple for the S&P 500 after having two consecutive quarters of contracting EPS.

A growing number of countries have their 10-year dropping into negative territory:

  • Switzerland first in January 2015
  • Japan in February 2016
  • Germany and Netherlands in the Summer of 2016
  • Finland and Denmark in the Fall of 2016
  • Ireland, Latvia, Slovakia, Belgium, Sweden, Austria, France all negative

The US is now the only nation in the developed world with any sovereign rate above 2% (h/t @Charlie Bilello). My bets are that we are the outlier that won’t stay an outlier indefinitely.

Recently the Italian 10-year bond dropped to new all-time lows as Cinque Stelle (5 Star) movement managed to team up with the center-left Democratic Party of former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. Don’t expect this new odd-couple coalition to last long as these two parties have basically nothing in common save for their loathing of Matteo Salvini and the League, but for now, the markets have been pacified. These two parties detest one another and were trading insults via Twitter up until about a month ago. This marriage of convenience is unlikely to last long.

The European Central Bank meets on September 12th, giving them one week head start versus the Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee meeting, which is September 17th & 18th, kicking off the next round of the central bank race to the bottom. The ECB needs to pull out some serious moves to prop up Eurozone banks, which are near all-time lows relative to the broader market. We’ll next hear from the eternally-pushing-on-a-string Bank of Japan on September 19th.

Currency

Dollar Strength continues to be a problem across the globe. The US Trade Weighted Broad Dollar Index recently reached new all-time highs, something I have warned about in prior Context & Perspective pieces as being highly likely. It’s happened and this is big – really big when you consider the sheer volume of dollar-denominated debt coming due in the next few years and that this recent move is likely setting the stage for significant further moves to the upside.

In the context of the ongoing trade war with China, the renminbi dropped 3.7% against the dollar in August, putting it on track for the biggest monthly drop in more than a quarter of a century as Beijing is likely hunkering down for a protracted trade war with the US, despite what the sporadically hopefully headlines may say.

Make no mistake, this is about a lot more than just terms of trade. This is about China reestablishing itself as a major player on the world stage if not the dominant one. For much of the past two millennia, China and India together accounted for at least half of global GDP. The past few centuries of western dominance have been a historical aberration.

As the uncertainty around Brexit continues to worsen (more on this later), the British pound last week dropped to its lowest level against the dollar in 35 years, apart from a brief plunge in 2016 likely for technical reasons.

Domestic Economy

The US economy continues to flash warning signs, but there remain some areas of strength.

The Good:

  • Consumer Spending rose +0.4% month-over-month in July, beating expectations for an increase of +0.3%.
  • Average hourly earnings for August increased by 0.4% month-over-month and 3.2% year-over-year, each beat expectations by 0.1%.
  • ADP private nonfarm payrolls increased by 195,000 in August versus expectations for 148,000.
  • Unemployment rates for black and Hispanic workers hit record lows.
  • The prime-age (25-54) employment-population ratio hit a new high for this business cycle, still below the peak of both the prior and 1990s expansion peaks, but still an improvement.
  • While employment growth is slowing, jobs continue to grow faster than the population.
  • Despite the weakest ISM Manufacturing report in years, the ISM Non-Manufacturing report painted a much rosier picture of at least the service sector. While expectations were for an increase to 54.0 from 53.7 in July, the actual reading came in well above at 56.4. In contrast to the ISM Manufacturing report, New Orders were much stronger than the prior month and only slightly below the year-ago level.
  • The Citi Economic Surprise Index (CESI) has continued to recover, moving above zero (meaning more surprises to the upside than down) for the first time in 140 days after having been in negative territory for a record 357 days.

The Bad:

  • Nonfarm payrolls increased by only 130,000 versus consensus estimates for 163,000 and only 96,000 of those jobs came from the private sector – the slowest pace since February. Both July and June job figures have been revised lower, which is basically what we have been seeing in 2019. A long string of revisions to the downside means there is a material shift in the labor market. Total nonfarm payroll employment increased by 130,000 in August.
  • Job growth has averaged 158,000 per month in 2019, below the average monthly gain of 223,000 in 2018.
  • University of Michigan Consumer Confidence survey total contradicted the Conference Board’s findings with its main index falling the most since 2012 in August, dropping to the lowest level since President Trump took office. Concerns over tariffs were spontaneously mentioned by 1/3 of the respondents. The most concerning data from the survey where Household Expectations for personal finances one year from now experienced the biggest one month drop since 1978, falling 14 points.
  • Consumer spending doesn’t look so great when you look at the drop in the Personal Savings rate from 8.0% in June to 7.7% in July, which means that 75% of the increase in spending was at the cost of savings. Net income only rose 0.1% in nominal terms in July versus expectations for a 0.3% increase – not at all consistent with the narrative of a strong labor market.
  • The Chicago Fed’s Midwest state economy survey found that the number of firms cutting jobs rose to 21% in August from just 6% in July while those hiring dropped to 25% from 36%.
  • The Quinnipiac University poll found that for the first time since President Trump took office, more Americans believe the economy is getting worse (37%) than believe it is improving (31%).
  • Camper van sales dropped 23% year-over-year in July. This has historically been a pretty accurate leading indicator of future consumer spending.
  • The Duncan Leading Indicator (by Wallace Duncan of the Dallas Fed in 1977) has turned negative year-over-year for the first time since 2010. A Morgan Stanley study found that when this indicator has turned negative, a recession began on average four quarters later, with only one false positive out of seven going back to the late 1960s.
  • While expectations were for the ISM Manufacturing Index to increase from 51.2 to 51.3 in August, the reading came in at 49.1 (below 50 indicates contraction), the fifth consecutive monthly decline in the index and the first time the index has dropped into contraction in three years. Even worse, the only sub-index not in contraction was supplier deliveries. New Orders (the most forward-looking of all sub-indices) hasn’t been this weak since April 2009.
  • Durable Goods New Orders and Sales are improving but remain in contraction territory while Inventories are rising at around a 5% annual pace – that’s a problem.
  • US Producer Prices experienced their first decline in 18 months.
  • The Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow estimate for the third quarter has fallen to 1.5%.

The Ugly:

  • US Freight rates have fallen 20% from the June 2018 high. Even more dire warning comes from freight orders, which dropped 69% in June from June 2018.

Europe

That nation that has been the region’s strongest economy is struggling as the fallout from the US-China trade war expands around the world.

  • The German unemployment rate rose for the fourth consecutive month.
  • German retail sales took a bigger battering than expected in July, falling 2.2% from June to reveal the biggest drop this year in the latest indication that Europe’s largest economy may well slide into recession. Since February, monthly retail sales figures have either declined or been flat, with the exception of the 3% gain in June.
  • A recent survey revealed that employers are posting fewer jobs, intensifying fears that the downturn in the country’s manufacturing industry has spread into the wider economy.
  • Manufacturing orders came in weaker than expected, declining -5.6% versus expectations for -4.2%.
  • Construction activity has contracted at the fastest rate since June 2014.
  • Germany’s export-dependent economy shrank 0.1% in the second quarter while the central bank warned this month that a recession is likely.

The rest of Europe continues to weaken.

  • Italian industrial orders fell -0.9% in June, making for a -4.8% year-over-year contraction
  • French consumer spending is up all of +0.1% year-over-year.
  • Spain’s flash CPI has fallen from 0.5% year-over-year in July to 0.3% in August year-over-year.
  • Switzerland’s year-over-year-GDP growth has fallen to 0.2% versus expectations for 0.9% – treading water here.
  • Brexit has turned into an utter mess as Prime Minister Boris Johnson has lost his majority in Parliament. Novels could and likely will be written on this mind-boggling drama in what was once one of the most stable democracies in the world. Rather than put you through that, as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.

The challenge for anyone negotiating terms for Brexit with the Eurozone basically comes down to this.

Talk about a Sisyphean effort

Understanding this impossible reality, here is what to expect in the coming weeks.

For those who may not be convinced that this is a material problem, this is an estimate of the impact of a hard Brexit on the Eurozone alone.

Bottom Line

Around 70% of the world’s major economies have their Purchasing Managers Index in contraction territory (below 50) – that is a lot of slowing going on. Much of the world is drowning in debt with excess productive capacity – a highly deflationary combination.

We are witnessing a major turning point in the global economy and geopolitical landscape. The past 60 post-WWII years have primarily consisted of US economic and military dominance, increasing levels of globalization and relatively low levels of geopolitical tension.

Today we are seeing a shift away from an optimistic world of highly interconnected global supply chains towards one driven by xenophobia and nationalism. We are seeing rising economic and political tensions between not only traditional rivals but also between long-term allies. In the coming decades, the US economy will no longer be the singular global economic and military powerhouse, which will have a material impact on the world’s geopolitical balance of power.

The big question facing investors is whether the US and much of the rest of the world are heading into a recession. Many leading indicators that have proven themselves reliable in the past indicate that this is highly likely but today really is different.

Never before in modern history have we had these levels and types of central bank influence. Never before have we had such a long expansion period. Never before have we had this much debt, particularly at the corporate level. Never before have we had such profound demographic headwinds. On top of all that, we have a directional shift away from globalization that is forcibly dismantling international supply chains that were decades in the making with no clarity on future trade rules.

Will central bankers be able to engineer a way to extend this expansion? No one who is intellectually honest can answer that question with a high level of confidence as we are in completely uncharted territory. This means investors need to be agile and put on portfolio protection while it remains relatively cheap thanks to historically low volatility levels.

I’ll leave you with a more upbeat note, my favorite headline of the week.

The Magic 8-Ball Market

The Magic 8-Ball Market

Last week ended with equity markets taking another dive that accelerated into Friday’s close as the trade war with China intensified heading into its eighteenth month with China announcing that it will impose retaliatory tariffs on US goods. The S&P 500 closed down 2.5% for the third time this month. After the close President Trump launched a twitter storm to announce additional retaliatory tariffs in response to China’s. So that’s going well.

Investors face challenging times as the major market movers have simply been words (tweets) coming from politicians and bureaucrats, the prediction of which is akin to assessing the next missive from a Magic 8-Ball.

While many continue to talk about the ongoing bull market, the major US equity market indices have seen four consecutive weekly declines and are all in the red over the past year with the small cap Russell 2000 down well over 10%, sitting solidly in correction territory. On the other hand, this year has seen the strongest performance out of long-maturity Treasuries since at least 1987.


Source: Bespoke Investment Group

How many bull markets see the total return for the long bond outpace the S&P 500 by over 16%.

This comes at a time when the domestic economy is in it 121st month, the longest is post-war history, which means that many have not lived through a recession as an adult.


Yield Curve

As the adage goes, expansions don’t die of old age, but their footing becomes less sure over time and we are seeing signs of rockier terrain. One sign comes from the yield curve which has been flattening steadily since October 2018 with the spread between the 10-year and the 3-month falling from over 100 basis points to -39. The most widely watched part of the curve, between the 10-year and 2-year, has inverted four times in the past few weeks.


This 2-10 inversion is most closely watched as over the past 50 years it has preceded all seven recessions. Credit Suisse has found that on average a recession hit 22 months after the 2-10 inversion occurred.

The third of August’s four inversions came as Kansas City Federal Reserve President Esther George and Philadelphia Fed President Patrick Harker stated in a CNBC interview that they don’t see the case for additional interest rate cuts following the cut in July. Mr. Market was not looking to hear that.

This past week we also received the meeting minutes from the prior Fed meeting with led to July’s 25 basis point cut which gave the impression of a Fed far less inclined to cut than the market was expecting with most Fed participants seeing July’s cut as part of a recalibration but not part of a pre-set course for future cuts. Keep in mind that central bank rate cuts are a relative game and ECB officials have been signaling a high likelihood of significant accommodative measures at the September meeting, saying the ECB “will announce a package of stimulus measures at its next policy meeting in September that should overshoot investors’ expectations.”

Manufacturing

Another source of bumps on the economic road comes from the manufacturing sector, both domestic and international. A recent IHS Markit report found that the US manufacturing sector is in contraction for the first time in nearly a decade as the index fell from 50.4 in July to a 119-month low of 49.9 in August – readings below 50 indicate contraction.

According to the Institute for Supply Management, US manufacturing activity has slowed to a nearly three-year low in July. By August New Orders (a key leading indicator) had dropped by the most in 10 years with export sales falling to the lowest level since August 2009.

New business growth has slowed to its weakest rate in a decade, particularly across the service sector. Survey respondents mentioned headwinds from weak corporate spending based on slower growth expectations both domestically and internationally – likely caused by the ongoing trade war that got much, much worse this past week.

In a note to clients on August 11th, Goldman Sachs stated that fears of the US-China trade war leading to a recession are increasing and that the firm no longer expects a trade deal between the two before the 2020 US election. The firm also lowered its GDP forecast for the US in the fourth quarter by 20 basis points to 1.8%.

Global manufacturing has also been slowing, with just two of the G7 nations, Canada and France, currently showing expansion in the sector. In July, China’s industrial output growth slowed to the weakest level in 17 years.

Germany is seeing the most pronounced contraction with its manufacturing PMI dropping from 63.3 in December 2017 to 43.6 this month. German car production has fallen to the levels last seen during the financial crisis.

Overall, we see no sign of stabilization in global manufacturing as global trade volumes look to be rolling over, leaving the economy heavily dependent on growth in the Consumer and the Service sectors. Keep in mind that the last time global trade volumes rolled over like this was back in 2008.

The Consumer

The consumer is yet another source of bumps on the economic road. Ms. Pomboy’s tweet is perfect.

As for that debt, Citigroup recently reported that its credit-card delinquency rate had risen to 2.91% in July from 2.56% in June versus its three-month average of just 1.54%. With all the positive stock moves we’ve seen in retail, keep in mind that the story for many has been more about earnings than actual growth.

For example, Nordstrom (JWN) shares rose 21% after it delivered stronger-than-expected earnings, but that was off of weaker than expected revenue of $3.87 billion versus expectations for $3.93 billion. Nordstrom also slashed net sales guidance for the fiscal year as well as earnings guidance. Management forecast net sales for the year to decrease by about 2%. It previously estimated sales would be flat to 2% down. It also slightly lowered guidance on earnings per share to a range of $3.25 to $3.50, compared with the prior guidance of between $3.25 to $3.65. Did I mention shares rose 21%?

US Consumer sentiment fell to 92.1 in August, the lowest reading for 2019, versus expectations for 97 and down from 98.4 in July. If sentiment continues to degrade, how long will the consumer continue to load up credit cards in order to spend?

Debt

It isn’t just the consumer that is taking on more debt – yet more economic bumps. The federal government deficit rose by $183 billion to $867 billion during just the first 10 months of this fiscal year as spending grew at more than twice the rate of tax collections. The Congressional Budget Office expects the annual budget deficit to be more than 1 TRILLION dollars a year starting in 2022. Total public debt, which includes federal, state and local has reached a record 121% of GDP in 2019, up from 69% in 2000 and 43% in 1980.

Keep in mind that debt is pulling resources out of the private sector and at such high levels, fiscal stimulus becomes more challenging in times of economic weakness. The only time debt to GDP has been higher was after WWII, but back then we had relatively young population and a rapidly growing labor force compared to today.

I’ve mentioned before that I am concerned with the strengthening dollar. Dollar denominated on balance sheet debt is over $12 trillion with roughly an additional $14 trillion in off-balance sheet dollar denominated debt – that’s a huge short USD position. The recent resolution of the debt ceiling issue means that the US Treasury now needs to rapidly rebuild its cash position as I had been funding the government through its reserves. This means that we will see a drain on global liquidity from the issue of over $200 billion in Treasury bills.

I’ve also written many times in the past concerning the dangers that lie in the enormous levels of corporate debt with negative yielding corporate debt rising from just $20 billion in January to pass the $1 trillion mark recently – more bumps on the road.

Bottom Line

As I said at the start of this piece, this expansion is the longest in post-war history which doesn’t itself mean a recession is imminent, but it does mean that the economy is likely to be more vulnerable. Looking next at the economic indicators we see quite a few that also imply a recession is increasingly likely.

The President’s twitter storm in response to China’s tariffs and the continually rising geopolitical uncertainties that create a strong headwind to any expansions in the private sector only increase risks further. Perhaps by the time you read this piece some part of the rapid escalation of the trade war will have been reversed, as foreign policy has become increasingly volatile day-to-day, but either way, the view from here is getting ugly.

Central Bankers’ New Clothes

Central Bankers’ New Clothes

In this week’s musings:

  • Earnings Season Kicks Off 
  • Central Bankers’ New Clothes 
  • Debt Ceiling – I’m Baaack
  • Trade Wars – The Gift that Keeps on Giving
  • Domestic Economy – More Signs of Sputtering
  • Stocks – What Does It All Mean

It’s Earnings Season

Next week banks unofficially kick off the June quarter earnings season with expectations set for a -2.6% drop in S&P 500 earnings, (according to FactSet) after a decline of -0.4% in the first quarter of 2019. If the actual earnings for the June quarter end up being a decline, it will be the first time the S&P 500 has experienced two quarters of declines, (an earnings recession) since 2016. Recently the estimates for the third quarter have fallen from +0.2% to -0.3%. Heading into the second quarter, 113 S&P 500 companies have issued guidance. Of these, 87 have issued negative guidance, with just 26 issuing positive guidance. If the number issuing negative guidance does not increase, it will be the second highest number since FactSet began tracking this data in 2006. So not a rosy picture.

Naturally, in the post-financial crisis bad-is-good-and-good-is-bad-world, the S&P 500 is up nearly 20% in the face of contracting earnings — potentially three quarters worth — and experienced the best first half of the year since 1997. In the past week, both the S&P 500 and the Dow Jones Industrial Average have closed at record highs as Federal Reserve Chairman Powell’s testimony before Congress gave the market comfort that cuts are on the way. This week’s stronger than expected CPI and PPI numbers are unlikely to alter their intentions. Welcome to the world of the Central Bankers’ New Clothes

Central Bankers’ New Clothes

Here are a few interesting side-effects of those lovely stimulus-oriented threads worn in the hallowed halls of the world’s major central banks.

https://www.tematicaresearch.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/2019-07-12-EU-EM-Neg-Yields.png https://www.tematicaresearch.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/2019-07-12-Greek-below-UST.png

Yes, you read that right. Greece, the nation that was the very first to default on its debt back in 377BC and has been in default roughly 50% of the time since its independence in 1829, saw the yield on its 10-year drop below the yield on the 10-year US Treasury bond. But how can that be?

Back to those now rather stretchy stimulus suits worn by the world’s central bankers that allow for greater freedom of movement in all aspects of monetary policy. In recent weeks we’ve seen a waterfall of hints and downright promises to loosen up even more. The European Central Bank, the US Federal Reserve, the Bank of Canada have all gone seriously dovish. Over in Turkey, President Erdogan fired his central banker for not joining the party. Serbia, Australia, Dominican Republic, Iceland, Mozambique, Russia, Chile, Azerbaijan, India, Australia, Sri Lanka, Kyrgyzstan, Angola, Jamaica, Philippines, New Zealand, Malaysia, Rwanda, Malawi, Ukraine, Paraguay, Georgia, Egypt, Armenia, and Ghana have all cut rates so far this year, quite a few have done so multiple times. From September of 2018 through the end of 2018, there were 40 rate hikes by central banks around the world and just 3 cuts. Since the start of 2019, there have been 11 hikes and 38 cuts.

That’s a big shift, but why? Globally the economy is slowing and in the aftermath of the financial crisis, a slowing economy is far more dangerous than in years past. How’s that?

In the wake of the financial crisis, governments around the world set up barriers to protect large domestic companies. The central bankers aimed their bazookas at interest rates, which (mostly as an unintended consequence) ended up giving large but weak companies better access to cheap money than smaller but stronger companies. This resulted in increasing consolidation which in turn has been shrinking workers’ share of national income. For example, the US is currently shutting down established companies and generating new startups at the slowest rates in at least 50 years. Today much of the developed world faces highly consolidated industries with less competition and innovation (one of the reasons we believe our Disruptive Innovators investing theme is so powerful) and record levels of corporate debt. It took US corporations 50 years to accumulate $3 trillion in debt in the third quarter of 2003. In the first quarter of 2019, just over 15 years later, this figure had more than doubled to $6.4 trillion.

Along with the shrinking workers’ share of national income, we see a shrinking middle class in many of the developed nations – which we capitalize on in our Middle Class Squeeze investing theme. As one would expect, this results in the economy becoming more and more politicized – voters aren’t happy. Recessions, once considered a normal part of the economic cycle, have become something to be avoided at all costs. The following chart, (using data from the National Bureau of Economic Research) shows that since the mid-1850s, the average length of an economic cycle from trough to peak has been increasing from 26.6 months between 1854 and 1919 to 35 months between 1919 and 1945 to 58.4 months between 1945 and 2009. At the same time, the duration of the economic collapse from peak to trough has been shrinking. The current trough to (potential peak) is the longest on record at 121 months – great – but it is also the second weakest in terms of growth, beaten only by the 37-month expansion from October 1945 to November of 1948.

https://www.tematicaresearch.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/2019-07-12-Economic-Cycles.png

Why has it been so weak? One of the reasons has been the rise of the zombie corporation, those that don’t earn enough profit to cover their interest payments, surviving solely through refinancing – part of the reason we’ve seen ballooning corporate debt. The Bank for International Settlements estimates that zombie companies today account for 12% of all companies listed on stock exchanges around the world. In the United States zombies account for 16% of publicly listed companies, up from just 2% in the 1980s. 

This is why central bankers around the world are so desperate for inflation and fear deflation. In a deflationary environment, the record level of debt would become more and more expensive, which would trigger delinquencies, defaults and downgrades, creating a deflationary cycle that feeds upon itself. Debtors love inflation, for as purchasing power falls, so does the current cost of that debt. But in a world of large zombie corporations, a slowing economy means the gap between profit and interest payments would continue to widen, making their survival ever more precarious. This economic reality is one of the reasons that nearly 20% of the global bond market has negative yield and 90% trade with a negative real yield (which takes inflation into account).

Debt Ceiling Debate – I’m baack!

While we are on the topic of bonds, the Bipartisan Policy Center recently reported that they believe there is a “significant risk” that the US will breach its debt limit in early September if Congress does not act quickly. Previously it was believed that the spending wall would not be hit until October or November. As the beltway gets more and more, shall we say raucous, this round could unnerve the markets.

Trade Wars – the gift that keeps on giving

Aside from the upcoming fun (sarcasm) of watching Congress and the President whack each other around over rising government debt, the trade war with China, which gave the equity markets a serious pop post G20 summit on the news that progress was being made, is once again looking less optimistic. China’s Commerce Minister Zhong Shan, who is considered a hardliner, has assumed new prominence in the talks, participating alongside Vice Premier Liu He (who has headed the Chinese team for over a year) in talks this week. The Chinese are obviously aware that with every passing month President Trump will feel more pressure to get something done before the 2020 elections and may be looking to see just how hard they can push.

Trade tensions between the US and Europe are back on the front page. This week, senators in France voted to pass a new tax that will impose a 3% charge on revenue for digital companies with revenues of more than €750m globally and €25m in France. This will hit roughly 30 companies, including Apple (AAPL), Facebook (FB), Amazon (AMZN) and Alphabet (GOOGL) as well as some companies from Germany, Spain, the UK and France. The Trump administration was not pleased and has launched a probe into the French tax to determine if it unfairly discriminates against US companies. This could lead to the US imposing punitive tariffs on French goods.

Not to be outdone, the UK is planning to pass a similar tax that would impose a 2% tax on revenues from search engine, social media and e-commerce platforms whose global revenues exceed £500m and whose UK revenue is over £25m. This tax, which so far appears to affect US companies disproportionately, is likely to raise additional ire at a time when the US-UK relationship is already on shaky ground over leaked cables from the UK’s ambassador that were less than complimentary about President Trump and his administration.  

That’s just this week. Is it any wonder the DHL Global Trade Barometer is seeing a contraction in global trade? According to Morgan Stanley research, just under two thirds of countries have purchasing manager indices below 50, which is contraction territory and further warning signs of slowing global growth. This week also saw BASF SE (BASFY), the world’s largest chemical company, warn that the weakening global economy could cut its profits by 30% this year.

Domestic Economy – more signs of sputtering

The ISM Manufacturing index weakened again in June and has been declining now for 10 months. The New Orders component, which as its name would imply, is more forward-looking, is on the cusp of contracting. It has been declining since December 2017 and is at the lowest level since August 2016. Back in 2016 the US experienced a bit of an industrial sector mini-recession that was tempered in its severity by housing. Recall that back then we saw two consecutive quarters of decline in S&P 500 earnings. Today, overall Construction is in contraction with total construction spending down -2.3% year-over-year. Residential construction has been shrinking year-over-year for 8-months and in May was down -11.2% year-over-year. Commercial construction is even worse, down -13.7% year-over-year in May and has been steadily declining since December 2016. What helped back in 2016 is of no help today.

While the headlines over the employment data (excepting ADP’s report last week) have sounded rather solid, we have seen three consecutive downward revisions to employment figures in recent months. That’s the type of thing you see as the data is rolling over. The Challenger, Gray & Christmas job cuts report found that employer announced cuts YTD through May were 39% higher than the same period last year and we are heading into the 12thconsecutive month of year-over-year increases in job cuts – again that is indicative of a negative shift in employment.

Stocks – what does it all mean?

Currently, US stock prices, as measured by the price-to-sales ratio (because earnings are becoming less and less meaningful on a comparative basis thanks to all the share buybacks), exceed what we saw in the late 1999s and early 2000s. With all that central bank supplied liquidity, is it any wonder things are pricey?

On top of that, the S&P 500 share count has declined to a 20-year low as US companies spent over $800 million on buybacks in 2018 and are poised for a new record in 2019 based on Q1 activity. Overall the number of publicly-listed companies has fallen by 50% over the past 20 years and the accelerating pace of stock buybacks has made corporations the largest and only significant net buyer of stocks for the past 5 years! Central bank stimulus on top of fewer shares to purchase has overpowered fundamentals.

This week, some of the major indices once again reached record highs and given the accelerating trend in central bank easing, this is likely to continue for some time — but investors beware. Understand that these moves are not based on improving earnings, so it isn’t about the business fundamentals, (at least when we talk about equity markets in aggregate as there is always a growth story to be found somewhere regardless of the economy) but rather about the belief the central bank stimulus will continue to push share prices higher. Keep in mind that the typical Federal Reserve rate cut cycle amounts to cuts of on average 525 basis points. Today the Fed has only about half of that with which to work with before heading into negative rate territory.

The stimulus coming from most of the world’s major and many of the minor central banks likely will push the major averages higher until something shocks the market and it realizes, there really are no new clothes. What exactly that shock will be — possibly the upcoming debt ceiling debates, trade wars or intensifying geological tensions — is impossible to know with certainty today, but something that cannot go on forever, won’t.

Meatless alternatives are on the rise, but so is global meat consumption

Meatless alternatives are on the rise, but so is global meat consumption

One of the dangers investors is looking at the world with blinders on because it means missing the larger picture. For example, if we were to look at the recent stock price success of Beyond Meat, a new constituent in the Tematica Research Cleaner Living index, and chatter over the expanding reach of Impossible Foods, one might think the world was no longer interesting in meat.

To the contrary, we are continuing to see the tailwind of our New Global Middle-Class investing them spur demand for the protein complex.

When it comes to the burgers or steaks on your plate, looks and tastes can be deceiving as “meatless meat” and “plant-based meat” gain traction.

Sales of meat alternative grew 30% in 2018 compared to the previous year, according to Nielsen Product Insider.

While the alternative meat market could grow to be worth $140 billion globally in the next ten years, according to Barclays, it’s still a small percentage of the current $1.4 trillion global meat market which is also showing no signs of slowing down.

Still, the demand for alternatives has increased.

Despite the trend in eating plant-based “meat,” global consumption for meat is still on the rise, driven in part by countries like China and Brazil which saw a massive increase in recent decades.

The average person in China, for instance, went from consuming just nine pounds of meat per year in 1961, to 137 pounds per year in 2013, according to The Economist.

“As countries get wealthier, there’s a tendency to eat more meat as a sign of wealth, as a sign of like, ‘I can afford it,’” said Lily Ng, CEO of Foodie, a food magazine and online platform based in Hong Kong.

Globally, the average amount of meat consumption has nearly doubled over the past 50 years.

Although, countries including the U.S. and the U.K. may have reached a so-called “Meat Peak” — which means total meat consumption has hit a peak and declined slightly recently. In addition to that, one in three people in the U.K. says they’ve stopped or cut down on eating meat, according to a survey by Waitrose supermarket.

Source: Meatless alternatives are on the rise, so is global meat consumption

Seeing Through the Smoke of the Trade War

Seeing Through the Smoke of the Trade War

I’d like to open this week’s piece with a bit of Twitter wisdom – as much as an oxymoron as that sounds.

The impact of Federal Reserve Chairman Powell’s sweet whispers to the market that the 2018 rate hikes are on hold for 2019 is wearing off as politics and trade tensions dominate the markets. I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that prescriptions for Xanax and the like have been on the rise inside the beltway in recent weeks. Those headlines investors are trying to navigate around are dominated by talk of the trade war with China, which has evolved from last year’s Presidential tweet.

Fourteen months later, the May 23rd, 2019 comment from Ministry of Commerce spokesperson Gao Feng in Mandarin, (according to a CNBC translation) casts a different tone.

“If the U.S. would like to keep on negotiating it should, with sincerity, adjust its wrong actions. Only then can talks continue.”

So that’s going well. China appears to very much be digging in its heels and preparing for a prolonged battle. We are hearing talk of a ‘cold war’ on the tech sector and the New York Times wrote, “Mnuchin Presses Companies For Trade War Contingency Plans.”

With all that, it is no wonder that the CBOE S&P 500 Volatility Index (VIX) has moved above both its 50-day and 200-day moving average.

May has not been kind to the major US indices.

^SPX Chart

^SPX data by YCharts

Many market bellwethers that had previously been investor darlings are in or shortly will be in correction territory.

GOOGL Chart

GOOGL data by YCharts

But the US economy is strong right? As we’ve mentioned in prior pieces here and here, not so much. This week the Financial Times reported that non-performing loans at the 10 largest commercial US banks rose 20% in the first quarter. That was in a quarter in which GDP came in above 3% and above expectations. What happens in a weak quarter? Those banks aren’t being helped by falling interest rates either, which crush their margins. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note has fallen below the mid-point on the Fed’s target range for the overnight funds rate. A flat-to-inverted yield curve just screams economic party-on.

As we look at growth in the second quarter, remember that the first quarter build-up in inventories was a function of the trade war. Businesses were stocking up before tariffs and in response to all the uncertainty. This buildup was a pull forward in demand for stockpiling which serves as a headwind to growth in later quarters.

We are also seeing reports of trade war related supply chain disruptions, which means declining productivity. Remember that the growth of an economy is a function of the growth of the labor pool (all but tapped out) and growth in productivity. The Atlanta Fed’s GDPNow estimate reflects this with second quarter growth down to 1.3% from 1.6% on May 14th. Following the week’s slump in April core-capital goods orders the New York Fed’s Nowcast reading for the current quarter fell to 1.4% from 1.8% last week.

While the headlines are dominated by the trade wars or the latest drama in DC, what most aren’t watching is the most important factor in the global economy today – the rising dollar.

The US Dollar Index (ICE:DX) has been in a steady uptrend for over a year.

The broader Federal Reserve Trade Weighted US Dollar Index has broken above is December 2016 high and may be on its way to new all-time highs – if it breaks above 129.85, we are in unchartered territory.

Why does the dollar matter so much? About 80% of global trade relies on the US Dollar. Last year the Fed’s rate hikes drove up the price (AKA interest rate) of the dollar for other countries. As the US looks to reduce its trade deficit with many of its trading partners, that means less dollars available outside of the US. When the US imports, goods and services come into the country and dollars leave. A shrinking trade deficit creates a double whammy on the dollar of rising interest rate effects (higher price) and a reduction in supply.

The rising dollar obviously hurts the sales of US companies internationally, (think on this in light of that 20% rise in non-performing loans at US banks) but it is also major headwind to emerging markets, particularly given the massive amount of US dollar denominated debt in emerging economies. As quantitative easing pushed the dollar down, emerging economies gorged on US dollar denominated debt. That seemingly free lunch is now getting expensive, and if the dollar breaks into unchartered territory, that free lunch could turn into spewed chunks.

In addition to the problems with existing dollar denominated debt, the rising dollar increases the scarcity of capital in emerging markets. As the dollar increases relative to another nation’s currency, domestic asset values decline which means banks are less willing to lend. Investment declines and there goes the growth in emerging economies.

With respect to China and the dollar, as the US imposes tariffs on China, the roughly 8% decline in the renminbi versus the US Dollar has helped to offset the impact. This week the renmimbi dropped to nearly a six-month low, falling briefly below 7. To put that move in context, from the mid-1990s to July 2005, China had pegged its currency to 8.28 to the dollar. It only dropped below 7 in 2008 before the nation halted all movement as the financial crisis rolled across the globe. Trading resumed in 2010 officially within a managed band of a basket of currencies, but in practice primarily against the dollar. The big question now is will China let the renminbi stay below the 7 mark.

As global trade slows amidst trade wars, rising populism and dollar scarcity, exports in April in Asia showed the strain.

  • Indonesia -13.1%
  • Singapore NODX -10%
  • Taiwan -3.3%
  • China -2.7%
  • Thailand -2.6%
  • Japan -2.4%
  • South Korea -2%
  • Vietnam 7.5% (woot woot)

Looking at South Korea, semiconductors account for 1/5th of the nation’s exports and we’ve seen global semiconductor sales decline the fastest since 2009. With the ubiquitous nature of these chips, this says a lot above overall global growth. And that’s before the growing ban placed on China telecom company Huawei, which reportedly consumes $20 billion of semiconductors each year, is factored into the equation.

Worldwide Semiconductor Sales Chart

Worldwide Semiconductor Sales data by YCharts

It isn’t just the emerging economies that are struggling with a rising dollar. The Brexit embattled UK, (who just lost its current Prime Minister Theresa May) has seen its currency weaken significantly against the dollar, losing around 25% over the past 5 years – effectively a 25% tax on US imports from currency alone.

Pound Sterling to US Dollar Exchange Rate Chart

Pound Sterling to US Dollar Exchange Rate data by YCharts

The euro hasn’t fared well either. While above the 2017 lows, it has lost nearly 20% versus the dollar in the past 5 years – effectively a 20% tax on US imports from currency alone.

Euro to US Dollar Exchange Rate Chart

Euro to US Dollar Exchange Rate data by YCharts

If all that isn’t enough to get your attention, then just wait until later this summer when we have another debt ceiling drama to which we can look forward. With how well the left and right are getting along these days on Capitol Hill, I’m sure this will be smooth sailing. With volatility still relatively low (but rising) perhaps putting on a little bit of protection on one’s portfolio would be in order?

And on that note, have a great holiday weekend!

Slowing growth and rising debt hit China luxury brand sales

Slowing growth and rising debt hit China luxury brand sales

Over the last several months, we’ve received several pieces of data that not only point to a slowing global economy, particularly at Europe and China but also to growing worries over the consumer’s ability to spend. We’ve covered the US data points rather thoroughly on this episode of the Cocktail Investing Podcast as part of our Middle-class Squeeze investing theme. When it comes to China, from the CEIC shows why luxury goods companies associated with our Living the Life investing theme are seeing falling sales. Per the CEIC, China’s household debt as a percentage of GDP surged to 53.2% in December, from 36% five years earlier. While that remains below the global average of 62%, it’s the pace of growth that has caused concern likely leading to either a re-think or retrenchment in Chinses consumer spending.

Factor in the recent problems associated with Boeing’s 737 Max aircraft that are likely to crimp international air travel, and the outlook for luxury goods companies and others associated with our Living the Life investing theme, at least in the near-term, look for less vibrant than they have in several years. Casting a shadow as well is the latest pushout in US-China trade talks that appear to have slipped to June from March/April.

Prada SpA shares fell to the lowest close since 2016 as slower Chinese spending contributed to an unexpected drop in the Italian fashion house’s annual profit.

The Hong Kong-listed luxury group attributed a slump in Asia mostly to Chinese tourists reining in spending in Hong Kong and Macau because of the weakness in the yuan. Other luxury brands, including Kering SA’s Gucci, have seen the impact of softer buying by Chinese tourists offset by increased spending on the mainland, but Prada failed to get a similar boost from Chinese spending at home, said Citigroup analysts led by Thomas Chauvet.

Prada’s China sales were flat for the year, a “significant swing” after a first-half gain of 17 percent, Citigroup said. Monday’s stock plunge after the disappointing earnings shaved $864 million off the company’s market value.

Chinese consumers have turned more cautious amid the slowest economic expansion in almost three decades and a trade war with the U.S. While cars and iPhones have seen bigger slumps so far, Prada’s results could spark worry that China’s newly wealthy middle class is scaling back on high-end purchases. For an industry that relies on Chinese demand for 30 percent of $1 trillion in global luxury spending, that’s a chilling prospect.

Source: Prada Loses $864 Million in Value as China Slump Hits Profit – Bloomberg