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.

Turning Heads I Win, Tails You Lose Inside Out

Turning Heads I Win, Tails You Lose Inside Out

For much of the current expansion, cycle investors have been forced taught to believe in a Heads-I-Win-Tales-You-Lose investing environment in which good economic news was good for equities and bad economic news was also good for equities. Good news obviously indicates a positive environment, but bad news meant further central bank intervention, which would inevitably raise asset prices.

Those who didn’t buy-the-dip were severely punished. Many fund managers who dared to take fundamentals into consideration and were wary, or put on portfolio protection, saw their clients take their money and go elsewhere. An entire generation of market participants learned that it’s easy to make money, just buy the dip. That mode just may be changing as the past two weeks the major indices have taken some solid hits. Keep in mind that while the headlines keep talking up the equity markets, the total return in the S&P 500 has been less than 5% while the long bond has returned over 18%. Austria’s century bond has nearly doubled in price since it was first offered less than two years ago!

Earnings Season Summary

So far, we’ve heard from just under 2,000 companies with the unofficial close to earnings season coming next week as Wal Mart (WMT) reports on the 15th. The EPS beat rate has fallen precipitously over the past week down to 57.2%, which if it holds, will be the lowest beat rate since the March quarter of 2014. Conversely, the top line beat rate has risen over the past week to 57.4% which is slightly better than last quarter, but if it holds will be (excepting last quarter) the weakest in the past 10 quarters. The difference between the percent of companies raising guidance versus percentage lowering is down to -1.8% and has now been negative for the past four quarters and is below the long-term average.

With 456 of the 505 S&P 500 components having reported, the blended EPS growth estimate is now -0.72% year-over-year, with six of the eleven sectors experiencing declining EPS. This follows a -0.21% decline in EPS in Q1, giving us (if this holds) an earnings recession. The last time we experienced such a streak was the second quarter of 2016.

The Fed Disappoints

Last week Jerome Powell and the rest of his gang over at the Federal Reserve cut interest rates despite an economy (1) the President is calling the best ever, (2) an unemployment rate near the lowest level since the 1960s, at a (3) time when financial conditions are the loosest we’ve seen in over 16 years and (4) for the first time since the 1930s, the Fed stopped a tightening cycle at 2.5%. We have (5) never seen the Fed cut when conditions were this loose. They were looking to get some inflation going, Lord knows the growing piles of debt everywhere would love that, but instead, the dollar strengthened, and the yield curve flattened. Oops. That is not what the Fed wanted to see.

The President was not pleased. “What the Market wanted to hear from Jay Powell and the Federal Reserve was that this was the beginning of a lengthy and aggressive rate-cutting cycle which would keep pace with China, The European Union and other countries around the world,” he said in a tweet. “As usual, Powell let us down.”

The dollar’s jump higher post-announcement means that the Fed in effect tightened policy by 20 basis points. Oops2. The takeaway here is that the market was not impressed. It expected more, it priced in more and it wants more. Now the question is, will the Fed give in and give the market what it wants? Keep in mind that both the European Central Bank and the Bank of England are turning decisively more dovish, which effectively strengthens the dollar even further.

Looking at past Fed commentary, the track record isn’t exactly inspirational for getting the all-important timing right.

But, we think the odds favor a continuation of positive growth, and we still do not yet see enough evidence to persuade us that we have entered, or are about to enter, a recession.” Alan Greenspan, July 1990

“The staff forecast prepared for this meeting suggested that, after a period of slow growth associated in part with an inventory correction, the economic expansion would gradually regain strength over the next two years and move toward a rate near the staff’s current estimate of the growth of the economy’s potential output.” FOMC Minutes March 20, 2001

“At this juncture, however, the impact on the broader economy and financial markets of the problems in the subprime market seems to likely be contained.” Ben Bernanke, March 2007

“Would I say there will never, ever be another financial crisis? You know probably that would be going too far but I do think we’re much safer and I hope that it will not be in our lifetimes and I don’t believe it will be.” Janet Yellen, June 2017 (This one is going to be a real doozy)

This time around Fed Chairman Powell told us that what we are getting is a “mid-cycle policy adjustment.” Wait, what? We are now (1) in the longest expansion in history with (2) the lowest unemployment rate in over 50 years as (3) corporate leverage levels reaching record levels at a (4) time when more of it is rated at just above junk than ever before in history. This is mid-cycle? I’m pretty sure this one will be added to the above list as some serious Fed facepalming. Now I think these folks are incredibly bright, but they are just tasked with an impossible job and live in a world in which their peers believe they can and ought to finesse the economy. So far that theory hasn’t turned out all that well for anyone who doesn’t already have a good-sized pile of assets.

Domestic Economy (in summary because it is August after all)

  • We are 3-year lows for the US ISM manufacturing and services PMIs.
  • We are seeing a shrinking workweek, contracting manufacturing hours and factory overtime is at an 8-year low.
  • Just saw a contraction in the American consumer’s gasoline consumption.
  • American households just cut their credit card balances, something that happens only about 10% of the time during an expansion. Keep in mind that Q2 consumer spending was primarily debt-fueled when looking towards Q3 GDP.
  • The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Leading Economic Indicator for the US fell to a 10-year low in June, having declined for 18 consecutive months. A streak of this nature has in the past always been indicative of a recession. Interestingly that same indicator for China just hit a 9-month high.
  • The Haver Analytics adjusted New York Fed recession risk model has risen from 50% in early January to a 10-year high of 80%.

Global Economy

  • The IMF has cut world GDP forecasts for the fourth consecutive time.
  • We have 11 countries so far in 2019 experiencing at least one quarter of shrinking GDP and 17 central banks are in cutting mode with Peru the latest to cut, the Royal Bank of Australia hinting at further cuts and Mexico and Brazil likely next in line.
  • Some 30% of the world’s GDP is experiencing inverted yield curves.
  • Over half the world’s bond market is trading below the Fed funds rate.
  • Despite the sanctions on Iran and OPEC output cuts, WTI oil prices have fallen over 20% in the past year.

Europe

  • The Eurozone manufacturing PMI for July fell to 46.5, down from 47.6 in June and is now at the lowest level since the Greek debt crisis back in 2012 as employment declined to a six-year low with a decline in exports. Spain came in at 48.2, 48.5 for Italy and 49.7 for France.
  • Germany, long the economic anchor for the Eurozone and the world’s fourth-largest economy, has negative yields all the way out 30 years and about 40% of Europe’s investment-grade bonds have negative yields. The nation’s exports declined 8% year-over-year and imports fell 4.4% in June as global demand continues to weaken.
  • France had its industrial production contract -2.3% in June versus expectations for -1.6%.
  • Italy’s government is back in crisis mode as the two coalition ruling parties look to be calling it quits. Personally, I think Salvini (head of the League) has been waiting for an opportune time to dump his Five Star partners and their recent vote against European Infrastructure gave him that chance. The nation is likely heading back to the polls again at a time when Europe is facing a potential hard Brexit, so we’ve got that going for us.
  • The UK economy just saw real GDP in Q2 contract 0.2% quarter-over-quarter. Domestic demand contracted -3%. Capex fell -0.5% and has now been in contraction for five of the past six quarters. Manufacturing output also contracted -2.3% in the worst quarter since the Great Financial Crisis.

Asia

  • South Korean exports, a barometer for global trade, fell 11% year-over-year in July. The trade war between South Korea and Japan continues over Japan’s reparations for its brutal policy of “comfort women” during WWII.
  • The trade war with China has entered the second year and this past week it looks unlikely that we will get anything sorted out with China before the 2020 election. The day after Fed’s rate decision Trump announced that the US would be imposing 10% tariffs on $300 billion of Chinese goods starting September 1st. In response, China devalued its currency and word is getting out that the nation is preparing itself for a prolonged economic war with the US. The rising tension in Hong Kong are only making the battle between the US and China potentially even more volatile and risky. Investors need to keep a sharp eye on what is happening there.
  • Auto sales in China contracted 5.3% year-over-year in July for the 13th contraction in the past 14 months.
  • Tensions are rising between India and Pakistan thanks to India’s PM Modi’s decision to revoke Kashmir’s autonomy.

US Dollar

When we look at how far the dollar has strengthened is have effectively contracted the global monetary base by more than 6% year-over-year. This type of contraction preceded the five most recent recessions. While the headlines have been all about moves in the equity and bond markets, hardly anyone has been paying attention to what has been happening with the dollar, which looks to be poised the breakout to new all-time highs.

Reaching for new all-time highs?

A strengthening dollar is a phenomenally deflationary force, something that would hit the European and Japanese banks hard. So far we are seeing the dollar strengthen significantly against Asian and emerging market currencies, against the New Zealand Kiwi and the Korean Won, against the Canadian dollar and the Pound Sterling (Brexit isn’t helping) and China has lowered its peg to the dollar in retaliation against new tariffs in the ongoing trade war. There is a mountain of US Dollar-denominated debt out there, which is basically a short position on the greenback and as the world’s reserve currency and the currency that utterly dominates global trade. As the USD strengthens it creates an enormous headwind to global growth.

The deflationary power of a strengthening US dollar strength in the midst of slowing global trade and trade wars just may overpower anything central banks try. This would turn the heads-I-win-tales-you-lose buy-the-dip strategy inside out and severely rattle the markets.

The bottom line is investors need to be watching the moves in the dollar closely, look for those companies with strong balance sheets and cash flows and consider increasing liquidity. The next few months (at least) are likely to be a bumpy ride.

The market is going great so no need to worry, right?

The market is going great so no need to worry, right?


There are weeks when sitting down to write this piece is tough because not much worthy of note has happened in the markets or the economy outside of the usual noise. This week, that was most definitely not the case. Thank God it is Friday – we all need a break.


New Market Highs and the Economy Gets Uglier

Thursday the S&P 500 closed at a new all-time high and is now above its 50-day, 100-day and 200-day moving averages. The post Federal Reserve Open Market Committee meeting debrief gave the market essentially what it wanted, a significantly more dovish stance with plenty of reasons to believe future rate cuts are imminent. Perhaps the Marty Zweig adage, “Don’t fight the Fed,” has been flipped on its head to “Fed, don’t fight the markets.” Unemployment is at multi-decade lows with more job openings than unemployed persons, rising hourly earnings, and improving retail sales while the market hits all-time highs and yet the Fed is preparing to stimulate. Yeah, something’s off here.

Stocks may be partying like it is 1999 (for those who remember that far back) but the yield on the 10-year closed at 2.01% Thursday. To put that in context, on June 9th when the 10-year was down to 2.09%, the Wall Street Journal ran an article asserting that, “Almost nobody saw the nosedive in bond yields coming, but a few players were positioned well enough to profit. Some think there is more room for yields to fall further,” along with this chart. To be clear, despite not one respondent predicting the yield on the 10-year would fall below 2.5% in 2019, none of these economists are idiots, but the thing is they all tend to read from the same playbook.

The stock market is giddy over its expectations for lower rates, yet the spread between the 3-month and the 10-year Treasury has been inverted for four weeks as of this writing, not exactly a ringing endorsement for economic growth prospects. Every time this curve has been inverted for 4 consecutive weeks, it has been followed by a recession (hat tip @Saxena_Puru) for this chart. Note that the chart uses 10-year versus 1-year until the 3-month became available in 1982. Much of the mainstream financial media and fin twit believe this time is different. Time will tell.

The red arrows denote 4 consecutive weeks of inversion and the blue arrows mark bear-market lows (20% declines).

Then there is this, with a hat tip to Sven Henrich whose tweet with a chart from Fed went viral – that in and of itself says a lot.

Both US imports and exports have declined from double-digit growth in 3Q 2018 to essentially flat today. The recent CFO Outlook by Duke’s Fuqua School of Business found that optimism about the US and about their own companies amongst CFO’s had fallen from the prior year.

The shipments of goods being moved around the country have plummeted since the beginning of 2018, as shown by the Cass Freight Index.

The Morgan Stanley Business Conditions Index fell 32 points in June, the largest one-month decline in its history.

If all that doesn’t have your attention, consider that the New York Fed’s recession probability model puts the probability that we are in a recession by May 2020 at 30%. Note that going back to 1961, whenever the probability has risen to this level we have either already been in a recession or shortly entered one with the exception of 1967 – 7 out of 8 times.

But hey, the market is going great so no need to worry right? If that’s what you are thinking, skip this next chart from @OddStats.


Geopolitics – From Bad to Oh No, No No

Brinksmanship with Iran continues as in the early hours of Friday we learned that the US planned a military strike against Iran in response to the shooting down of an American reconnaissance drone. The mission was called off at the last minute after the President learned that an estimated 150 people would likely have been killed. Frankly, the official story sounds a bit off, but what we do know is that we are in dangerous territory and one can only hope that some cooler heads prevail, and the situation gets dialed back a whole heck of a lot.

Given we weren’t enjoying enough nail-biting out of the Middle East news, an independent United Nations human rights expert investigating the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi is in a 101-page report recommending an investigation into the possible role of the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salam citing “credible evidence,” and while not specifically assigning blame to bin Salam, did assign responsibility to the Saudi government. This week the US Senate voted to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia, rebuking the President’s decision to use an emergency declaration to move the deal forward. This matters when it comes to investing because there are some seriously high-stakes games being played out that have the potential to suddenly rock markets without any warning.

Over in Europe more and more data points pointing to a slowing economy, which led to European Central Bank President Mario Draghi to announce that more stimulus could be in the works if inflation fails to accelerate. At the ECB’s annual conference in Sintra, Portugal Draghi stated that, “In the absence of improvement, such that the sustained return of inflation to our aim is threatened, additional stimulus will be required.” It isn’t just inflation that is troubling the region. Euro Area Industrial Production (ex Construction) has only seen increases in 2 of the last 11 months.

Italy continues to struggle with its budget deficit outside the limits allowed by the European Union, leading to a battle between Rome and Brussels. Friday Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini (head of the euro-skeptic Lega party) threatened to quit his position if he is not able to push through tax cuts for at least €10 billion. While the US has been laser-focused on the Fed (and the president’s tweets) the Italian situation is getting more tense and a time when UK leadership with respect to Brexit is also getting a lot more tense. To put the Italian problem in perspective and understand why this problem is not going away, look at the chart below.

Today, Italy’s per capita GDP is 2.8% BELOW where it was in 2000 while Germany is 24.8% higher. Even the beleaguered Greece has outperformed Italy. Italy’s debt level is material to the rest of the world, its economy is material to the European Union, its citizens are losing their patience and its leadership consists of a tenuous partnership between a far-right, fascist-leaning Lega and a far-left, communist(ish) 5 Star movement lead by folks that very few in the nation respect. So that’s going well.

As if the European Union didn’t have enough to worry about as its new parliament struggles to find any sort of direction or agreement on leadership, the parliamentary process for selecting the next Prime Minister of the UK is down to two finalists. Enthusiam is rampant.

A hard Brexit is looking more likely and that is not going to be smooth sailing for anyone.


The Bottom Line

All this is a lot to take in, but there is a bright light for the week. Anna Wintour, Vogue’s editor-in-chief and eternal trend-setter, has given flip-flops her seal of approval. So, we’ve got that going for us. If that didn’t put a little spring into your step, I suggest you check out this twitter feed from Paul Bronks. Your soon-to-be more swimsuit ready abs will thank me, but your neighbors will wonder what the hell is going on at your place.

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!

Falling Dollar as Trump Trade Tumbles into Investor “Meh”

Falling Dollar as Trump Trade Tumbles into Investor “Meh”

The U.S. dollar got hit hard again today as the Trump Trade continues to reverse and investor sentiment becomes more neutral – a big “Meh.”

The U.S. dollar is continuing its steep decline today as the AMEX U.S. Dollar Index makes new lows for 2017 and is nearing the lowest point over the past year, pushing down towards 94.

^DXY Chart

This represents not only an unwinding of the so-called Trump Trade, but speaks to how weak economic data has been coming in relative to expectations, (we’ve talked about this extensively which you can read about most recently here and here) AND relative to what we are seeing outside of the country. This decline has been driven primarily by the euro, the Mexican peso and the Japanese yen.

The dollar fell as the European Central Bank President, Mario Draghi, delivered a talk conveying more optimism for the European Union, citing growing political tailwinds, and the emergence of reflationary pressures. This came as Monday’s Durable Goods report showed the American economy is treading water, with Shipments and New Orders both dropping 0.2 percent month-over-month versus expectations for 0.4 percent gains. Core Capex has basically stagnated since February and despite all the euphoria in tech stocks, booking for new computers and electronics also declined 0.2 percent month-over-month and has now declined in 3 out of the past 4 months, which translates into a 6.5% decline on an annual basis: a long way from the 10 percent annual growth rate we saw at the start of 2017.

The Chicago Fed National Activity Index declined in May, the second decline in the past 3 months with the 3-month moving average essentially flatlining.

Looking over at France, with the recent win by Macron the economy there is looking much more upbeat as single-family housing permits rose 17 percent year-over-year versus 6 percent in the U.S. Single-family housing starts rose 19.4 percent in France and 8.5 percent in the U.S. In addition, mortgage purchase applications in the U.S. have fallen in 6 out of the past 7 weeks.

In Germany, the lfo business sentiment index recently hit a record high and across the Eurozone a collective sigh of relief can be heard as Italy is addressing its NPL (non-performing loan) problems. The latest was with a mix of state bailout, to the tune of €17b, on Banca Popolare di Vicenza and Veneto Banca that has equity and junior bondholders wiped out, protecting only senior note holders and depositors. More is likely to follow.

Looking at yesterday’s Consumer Confidence Survey, while the overall index rose from 117.9 to 118.9, it didn’t make up for the decline of 7.3 during April and May. That’s not terribly concerning, but this other bit in the details is. While the index for the Present Situation rose from 140.6 to 146.3 and is at the highest level since June 2001, Expectations fell again for the third consecutive month and are now at the lowest level since January. This type of divergence typically precedes a recession and if we look at these moves over the years, a recession typically hits 9 months after Expectations peak. That peak, so far, looks to have been in March.

Yes, but those Fed guys sound oh so confident despite tightening into an economy with slowing growth, declining inflation, weakening credit growth and a flattening yield curve.

  • Since World War II, the Fed has engaged in 13 tightening cycles
  • During 10 of those cycles, the economy slid into a recession
  • In the 3 where a recession did not occur, GDP growth fell by 2 to 4 percent. With current GDP growth struggling to get above 2 percent, that’s worth noting.

Meanwhile, the equity market is mostly yawning.

The VIX has now dropped below 10 eight times in 2017. To put that into perspective, in the 22 years from 1994 through the end of 2016, the VIX saw that level all of 7 times!

VIX Chart

In the past month, short position contracts on the VIX have doubled to now sit at a record level.

Over in the bond market, the view of the economy isn’t all that rosy. As of June 20th, the net longs on the 10-year Treasury hit a level we haven’t seen since December 2007.

Today’s AAII Investor Sentiment report showed that neutral sentiment is at its highest level since last August at 43.4 percent while bullish sentiment declined from 32.7 percent to 29.7 percent. This market is seriously astounding with a record 130 consecutive weeks where half the investors surveyed were not bullish, while we’ve had such a smooth melt up in the first half of 2017. Only one other year have we seen even less of a pullback during the first half! Meanwhile, the Bears are also scratching their heads with bearish sentiment falling from 28.9 percent to 26.9 percent, the lowest level since the first week of the year.

With economic data coming in well below expectations while the market has continued its melt up (today notwithstanding) despite bonds telling a worrisome tale with falling long-term rates and a flattening yield curve, it is no wonder investor sentiment is increasingly a neutral “meh..” or perhaps more of an “Eh…?”

 

Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta’s GDPNow forecast for Q1 drops to 1.3 percent

Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta’s GDPNow forecast for Q1 drops to 1.3 percent

While the headlines have been all about the Republicans proposed replacement for the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare), the Atlanta Fed issued their latest forecast for first quarter GDP, which has been lowered yet again and is now sitting near stall speed at 1.3 percent.

 

The GDPNow model forecast for real GDP growth (seasonally adjusted annual rate) in the first quarter of 2017 is 1.3 percent on March 7, down from 1.8 percent on March 1.

 

We also saw signs of slowing from across the Atlantic where in a major blow to the acceleration narrative in Europe, German Factory orders plunged 7.4% in January, the biggest sequential decline since the financial crisis and the second-largest sequential decline on record. (Hat tip to Bespoke Institutional for the chart)

We are also watching nerves get a bit tigher on the global stage following Sunday night’s test of North Korean ballistic missiles. In response, the U.S. military is deploying its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD) to South Korea. This is strictly a defensive weapon, but be on the watch for a reaction to China that may see this as more of an offensive move.

Why care about such a military move? With the Atlanta Fed forecasting weaker Q1 GDP, signs of weakness in the Eurozone and now rising global tensions, Fed Chair Janet Yellen and her Committee have a lot to contemplate as they discuss a potential rate hike this month.

If all that didn’t get your attention, the OECD just released a report today in which they warned that the

In financial markets, there are apparent disconnects between the positive assessment of economic prospects reflected in market valuations and forecasts for the real economy. Equity valuations have increased significantly further in many major markets over the past six months, despite the large rise in nominal interest rates and with long-term nominal and real GDP growth expectations based on consensus forecasts barely changed. Expectations for corporate earnings growth in the euro area and the United States have also not been revised up over this period.

The report went on to further discuss the issues surrounding global trade.

A roll-back of existing trade openness would be costly, with a significant share of jobs in many countries linked to participation in global value chains. An increase in trade barriers in the major global trading economies – Europe, the United States and China – roughly equivalent to an average increase of tariffs to the bound tariff rates in 2001, the year when the trade negotiations under the Doha Development Round started, would have a major adverse impact on trade and GDP, particularly for those economies that imposed new trade barriers.

Turns out that quite a few folks are seeing disconnects and are concerned that anti-trade measures have the potential to be harmful to growth.

Source: GDPNow – Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta

What We’re Watching This Week

What We’re Watching This Week

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As you probably know, this week is a shortened one following the 3-day holiday that was President’s Day. We still have a number of companies reporting their quarterly earnings this week, and that includes the Tematica Select List’s own Universal Display (OLED). The shares have had a strong run, up just over 28 percent year to date, and that likely has them priced near if not at perfection. Last week, Applied Materials (AMAT) gave a very bullish view when it comes to the ramping organic light emitting diode manufacturing capacity, as the industry prepares for Apple (AAPL) and others switching to this display technology. Consensus expectations for Universal’s December quarter results are EPS of $0.42 on $68.6 million in revenue. We expect a bullish outlook to be had when Universal reports its results this Thursday.

Alongside Universal Display, there will be a few hundred other companies reporting. Among those, we’ll be tuning into reports from Wal-Mart (WMT), Macy’s (M), JC Penney (JCP) and TJX (TJC) for confirming data on our Amazon (AMZN) thesis. Similarly, we’ll be looking at Cheesecake Factory’s (CAKE) for confirmation in the restaurant pain that is benefitting our McCormick & Co. (MKC) and United Natural (UNFI) shares.

On the economic data front, the calendar is a tad light, with the highlight likely to be the next iteration of the Fed’s FOMC minutes. Given Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen’s two-day testimony on Capitol Hill that we touched on above, we’re not expecting any major surprises in those minutes. Even so, we’ll be pouring over them just the same.

This morning we received the February Flash Manufacturing PMI metrics from Markit Economics and not only did Europe crush expectations hitting a six-year high in February. Across the board, from business activity to backlogs of work and business confidence, the metrics rose month over month. One item that jumped out to us was the increase in supplier delivery times, which tends to be a harbinger of inflation — something to watch in average selling price data over the next few months. Turning to Japan, the Markit flash manufacturing PMI rose to 53.5 in February, its highest level since March 2014, with sequential strength in all key categories — output, exports, employment and new orders. but Japan hit it’s highest level since March 2014.

 


Here at home, the Flash U.S. Composite Output Index hit 54.3 in February, a downtick from 55.8 in January, but still well above the 50 line that denotes a growing economy. The month over month slip was seen in manufacturing as well as the service sector. Despite that slip, new manufacturing order growth remained faster than at any other time since March 2015 and called out greater demand from energy sector clients. No surprise, given the rising domestic rig count we keep reading about each week.

Manufacturers also called out that input cost inflation was at its highest level since September 2014 and we think this is something that will have the Fed’s ears burning.

 


Currently, our view is the next likely rate hike by the Fed will be had at the May meeting, which offers plenty of time to assess pending economic stimulus, immigration and tax cut plans from President Trump. Again, we’ll be watching the data to determine to see if that timing gets pulled forward.

Stay tuned for more this week.

America First? When it comes to GDP we get the bronze!

America First? When it comes to GDP we get the bronze!

Yesterday we talked about how the American economy, despite all the euphoric headlines since the election, didn’t deliver much of a performance in the fourth quarter and in fact we saw the weakest full-year GDP growth rate since 2011 which was well below the U.K.’s 2016 growth rate of 2 percent. Today we learned that the Eurozone as well kicked our economic tuckus in 2016.

GDP grows 0.6% in final quarter of 2016, beating expectations and taking annual figure to 1.8%

Yep, that hurt. So much for America being the “cleanest shirt in the economic laundry.” Despite headwinds ranging from the accelerating Greek drama to the mountain of Italian non-performing loans that led to the nationalisation of Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, Brexit, failed Constitutional reforms leading to the resignation of Prime Minister Renzi in Italy …. the list goes on, they beat us.

 

Last week talks between the U.S. and Mexico hit a serious bump after a President Trump Tweet led Mexico’s President Peña Nieto to cancel their upcoming meeting, while the administration has been threatening a 20 percent tax on imports from Mexico, which would put serious upward price pressure on, (among other things) fruits, vegetables and auto parts. Today Peter Navarro, Trump’s top trade advisor, accused Germany of currency exploitation. According to the FT, “In a departure from past US policy, Mr Navarro also called Germany one of the main hurdles to a US trade deal with the EU and declared talks with the bloc over a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership dead.”

While last week’s meeting with the British Prime Minister Theresa May ended with some serious hand-holding, over the weekend the President’s sudden implementation of an immigration ban left, “our closest ally flailing after the UK government was openly contradicted by US diplomats over which British nationals were covered by the measure.”

After Trump’s election victory, the Bank of Japan was initially more optimistic about more favourable economic conditions amid expectations for stronger American growth. That enthusiasm has been fading as yesterday, ahead of a two-day policy meeting, officials are less optimistic about the impact on Japan’s economy. According to the Wall Street Journal, “We now realise that we know very little about him.”

Trump’s team has been poking our allies in some uncomfortable ways, making many around the globe nervous, and yet the VIX (a measure of implied volatility) is pretty much yawning.

The 90 percent of the America economy that is not represented by either inventory build or state and local government spending managed to grow at a whopping 0.6 percent annual rate in the fourth quarter.

Amidst all this, the Fed keeps talking about further rate hikes

Under Armour (UA) just released its fourth quarter and full year results and was yet one more citing currency headwinds.

Upon the announcement of Trump’s immigration ban on Friday, the markets started to fall. Monday the S&P 500 fell 60 basis points and is now down 0.76 percent from its most recent closing high last Wednesday. Bespoke compiled headlines over the past few days that reveal concerns the Trump hope trade is starting to fade.

Is this an inflection point? Too soon to tell, but we can say that having an administration with no political history who has pretty much tossed out the rule book is likely to cause heightened volatility, which is not reflected in market pricing. Erecting trade barriers and surprising the market, let alone allies, is likely to induce more caution in the C suite.

This morning we also saw that compensation costs in 2016 rose 2.2 percent, significantly faster than GDP of 1.6 percent, which makes another Fed hike more likely. We’ll be hearing from the Federal Reserve on Wednesday and will be looking to see if the tone from the FOMC meeting is more dovish than we heard in Fed Chair Janet Yellen’s testimony on January 19th. We will also hear from over 100 companies this week on their earnings, putting the relative complacency in the markets to a test.

Source: Eurozone’s economic recovery picks up speed

Brexit

Brexit

Brexit. It’s all the rage these days. The word is whispered over candlelight glasses of wine in dark corners at swanky post-market-closeBrexit, Symbol of the Referendum UK vs EU cocktail bars. It is spit out over conference room tables amongst such phrases as “contingency planning” and “hedging strategies.” It has everything a news agency drools over, drama with the dark horse effect as the yes vote gains unexpected traction on the very last loop around the track.  It provides angry rants that skirt around xenophobia or at least a level of indignant nationalism that can generate eye-catching headlines. It paints the image of a battle of wills between the confident and worldly intellectual, gazing with vague annoyance over wire-rimmed glasses at the rough and tumble, calloused working man who is damn tired of those immigrants stealing jobs. It is a story filled with fear, hope, anger, frustration, isolation and unity.  Whatever version of the story attracts you the most, as an investor a “yes” vote for the UK to leave the European Union has two major impacts, currency and uncertainty.

Currency Effect

The currency effect means a stronger US dollar relative to the Euro and Pound Sterling. This would make american exports more expensive and imports relatively less expensive. The United States is the second largest exporter in the world, so when our exports become more expensive, that’s harder on everyone buying our stuff so it becomes a headwind to growth. With imports relatively less expensive, Americans are more likely to purchase an imported product than they otherwise would have been, which can also hurt american producers.

The currency effect can also be a problem for emerging markets where companies have issued unprecedented levels of debt denominated in US dollars. As the US dollar rises in value, that debt become more and more expensive, resulting in everything from reduced investment in growth to defaults which are further headwinds to global growth.

The currency effect can also have a secondary impact in its correlation with oil. With oil denominated primarily in dollars in the global marketplace, strengthening dollar means weaker oil prices. This can then affect the sovereign wealth funds from those oil-dependent nations as they are pressured to sell assets in order to pour more back into their domestic economies. This is a headwind to global asset prices.

Overall the currency effect is essentially deflationary for the US, which makes it more difficult for the Federal Reserve to return us to a more normal rate environment, prolonging the negative side effects from low-to-zero interest rates.

Uncertainty Effect

The uncertainty effect is all about the impact on companies. Although the word sounds easy enough, Brexit, short, simple and comfortably straightforward, the reality is no one really knows just how this darn thing will pan out! If there is in fact a yes vote, unthinkable a few weeks ago but now looking increasingly like it just might happen, no one is clear as to just how it would be implemented. Then there is the reality that the vast majority of politicians in the U.K., regardless of party, are all against a Brexit, so these folks will find themselves having to enact legislation based on a vote by their constituency that goes against what they believe is best; rock meet hard place.

With the realities of the actual implementation unknown, companies will be much less likely to invest which means less spending/less growth. There will be less M&A activity and the potential momentum of this vote with respect to rising nationalism is a further headwind to already falling levels of global trade which means even slower growth across the globe.

Brexit, the end of french kisses along the Thames?

China isn't the only country slowing

China isn't the only country slowing

Slow-TurtleChina isn’t the only country slowing, as we are sure you’ve all been hearing, the global economy is slowing to a level that ought to make everyone pay attention. Earlier this month the International Monetary Fund (IMF) cut forecasts for 2015 yet again, projecting 3.1% versus its prediction in July for 3.3% and its April prediction for 3.5%.  This means that this year, despite the unprecedented level of monetary stimulus injected all over the world by government desperate to get things moving… the world economy will grow at its slowest pace since the global financial crisis.

Last week, Citibank cut its global growth forecast for 2016 for the fifth consecutive month, predicting 2.8% versus the previous forecast of 2.9%. Keep in mind that Citibank’s chief economist William Buiter has stated previously that global growth below 3% coupled with a significant output gap effectively represents a global recession. Now that’s just one person’s opinion, but it conveys the importance of these numbers.

If we take a brief tour around the globe, we’ll see that the Eurozone in 2014 finally posted positive growth of 0.9%, after having contracted in 2012 and 2013. The first quarter’s growth rate came in at 0.5% with the second quarter slowing slightly to 0.4%, giving the economy about 1.2% growth year-over-year.

In mid-November, we’ll get the first estimate for the third quarter, which so far is likely to be at around the same pace as the second. On Friday, we got some good news when the Eurozone Markit Composite PMI (Purchasing Manager’s Index) came in at 54 (above 50 is expansionary). The data for services came in nicely at 54.2 with manufacturing unchanged from the prior month at 52. So there is some growth in the region, though from a historical perspective it is still relatively weak. So let’s dig into the details.

If we dig a bit deeper, we see that the Eurozone’s largest economy, Germany, is suffering from the slowing in China and Russia, two major export partners with its 2nd quarter GDP coming in at 0.4%. Consumer confidence has been falling since the first quarter, but it still maintains an enviable unemployment rate of less than 5%, with a youth unemployment rate of 7%, which bodes well for the nation’s productivity in the future.

France, the Eurozone’s second largest economy, on the other hand experienced no growth in the second quarter, versus expectations for a 0.2% increase with an unemployment rate of just under 11% and a youth unemployment rate of nearly 25%.

Italy, the Eurozone’s third biggest economy experienced just 0.2% growth versus 0.3% expected. Unemployment has remained stubbornly high at nearly 12% with youth unemployment over 40%, which is a devastating number for the future of the country.  However, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has made a lot of progress in reforming the government, so despite those rather dour numbers, consumer confidence is higher today than it has been over the past 12 years! Directions are important – we can’t just look at the numbers in isolation.

So things aren’t great in Europe, but they aren’t horrible either… however, significant growth seems perpetually illusive with rising concerns that the slowing in China and the emerging markets could be a tipping point for the area, which is likely why the head of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, hinted last Thursday that the ECB (Europe’s version of the Fed) is willing and ready to inject more quantitative easing into Europe’s economy. More QE, the now omnipresent heroin of the stock market was promised and equity indices all over soared!

So what about China? How bad it is there? Truth is, no one really knows. The country is based on an ideology that requires opacity at all levels of government, so accurate data or even an honest attempt at accurate data is something we are unlikely to ever get from official sources.

Those sources recently reported that China’s growth in Q2 was 6.9%, close enough to the official target of 7.0%, but being below, it provides a wee bit of cover for some stimulus. And wouldn’t you just know it! The People’s Bank of China, essentially their Fed, just lowered lending rates…a coincidence we’re sure!

Taking a step back, China has cut their 1-year interest rate 6 times since November of 2014, lowering the rate from 5.6% to 4.35%… but we’re sure everyone there is quite calm! The Required Deposit Reserve Ratio for Major Banks has been lowered 4 times since February, from 19.50% to 17.50%. This ratio determines how much leverage banks can have, which translates into loans. The lower the ratio, the greater the leverage which means more loans… more of nothing to see here folks? We don’t think so.

Here are a few more interesting data points:

  • China’s export trade has fallen -8.8% year to date.
  • China import trade is down 17.6% year to date.
  • Railway freight volume is down 17.34% year over year.
  • China hot rolled steel price index is down 35.5% year to date
  • Fixed asset investment is up 10.3% sounds great? (averaged +23% 2009-2014)
  • Retail sales are up 10.9%, the slowest growth in 11 years
  • China Containerized Freight Index, which reflects the contractual and spot market rates to ship containers from China to 14 destinations around the world, has just hit its lowest level in history, now 30% below where it was in February and 25% below where it was at its inception 17 years ago.

You get the point. It is slowing and we suspect it is slowing a lot more than the official GDP numbers would indicate.

Why should those of us outside China care? Because China has been a major supporter of global growth since the financial crisis. When all hell broke loose in 2007 & 2008, China put its infrastructure spending into high gear. That meant that those economies that supply commodities had a backup buyer for their exports when everyone else was crashing, which put a vital floor under the global economy.

But China couldn’t keep it up indefinitely, and we are seeing the consequences of that nation’s shift from a primarily export driven, massive infrastructure-building economy to a more domestic demand-driven economy with a lot less infrastructure spending.

China has been Germany’s fourth-largest export partner, with Russia not that far behind. Falling oil prices and sanctions have crippled Russia’s economy, so it also isn’t buying much from Germany. If Germany sells less, it’ll buy less from other nations… and keep in mind that all those Eurozone countries are just barely eking out positive growth, so small changes will have an impact.

Onto those emerging economies, many of which were benefiting from China’s infrastructure spend as they are primarily commodity exporters. If we look at what has happened to commodity prices over the past twelve months, you can get an appreciation for just how painful this has been for many of these countries. Keep in mind that 45% of global GDP comes from commodity export nations – commodity prices crater and these nations can buy less stuff from other nations – more headwinds to growth.

In fact, 2015 will be the fifth consecutive year that average growth in emerging economies has declined. This is a serious drag on the advanced economies, which on the other end of the spectrum, will likely post their best growth since 2010 – albeit growth that isn’t all that spectacular.

Japan… well it’s still stuck between barely growing and contracting, regardless of how much the Bank of Japan tries to kick start the economy. Japan’s industrial output unexpectedly fell in September, raising concerns that the nation may be slipping back into another recession. Production declined 0.5% in August following a 0.8% decline in July versus economists’ expectations for a 1% gain. Inventories rose 0.4% in August over July, and expanded in five of eight months this year, which is a hindrance to future growth as with rising stockpiles of unsold goods, companies are less likely to expand output in the future.

As for Latin America, Argentina is still a mess and Brazil is in a recession, with many of the other countries doing alright. Chile is expected to be around 2.5% for 2015. Colombia 2.8%… like we said, ok, not great.

In the US, things aren’t awful, but not exactly robust, which is why I had been predicting for months that the Fed would not hike rates in September.

  • For example, the Industrial production index came in with another decline of -0.4% in September versus expectations of -0.2%, which makes it the 5th decline out of 8 reported figures in 2015.
  • Capacity utilization, which measures to what degree the economy is taking advantage of its ability to make stuff, was expected to drop from 78% to 77.8%. Instead, it fell further to 77.6%, for the 7th decline out of 8 readings in 2015. This means the U.S. continues to use less and less of its capacity to make stuff – hardly shocking given the wide misses in manufacturing data reported by regional Federal Reserve banks for August.
  • September retail sales came in below expectations, rising a seasonally adjusted 0.1% from August versus expectations for 0.2%. The good news is the increase came from a 1.8% month-over-month increase in auto sales. Overall retail sales, when we exclude autos and gasoline, have not grown since January.
  • U.S. producer prices in September posted their biggest decline in eight months, at a drop of -0.5%, as energy costs fell for the third month in a row. This means that the Producer Price Index is now down 1.1% year-over-year as of the end of September.
  • U.S. total business sales also declined in September, down -0.58% month-over-month and down -3.09% year-over-year as of August.

Going forward, I still remain very skeptical that the Fed will raise rates. The fact that China is continuing to loosen its monetary policy and comments out of the ECB concerning it likely embarking on further easing only add to our skepticism as the moves by China and the ECB will already put upward pressure on the dollar, harming U.S. exports. A rate hike would only exacerbate the dollar strengthening against other currencies.

Fed tightening has been a trigger in nine of the last eleven recessions, so you can see yet another reason for the Fed to be cautious.

The tough thing now is that with a Fed that can’t seem to make up its mind, investors are left wondering what to do, so they end up selling the good and the bad when they get nervous. This will make for increased volatility, but that also means more opportunities for those that keep focused on the goal and don’t get distracted by shorter-term market dramatics.