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.

Doubling Down on Digital Infrastructure Thematic Leader

Doubling Down on Digital Infrastructure Thematic Leader

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Adding two Middle-class Squeeze call option positions ahead of earnings this week

Adding two Middle-class Squeeze call option positions ahead of earnings this week

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Bond market dancing to a different tune than equities

Bond market dancing to a different tune than equities

Whenever we see trends in the market we immediately look for confirming data points. With the impressive rise in equity markets since the election, we look at the bond market to see if there is agreement on all this bullishness. There isn’t.

“The bond market is taking a totally different view from the equity market. Blowing raspberries is a good way to put it,” says Jim McCaughan, chief executive of Principal Global Investors. “There’s no belief that the growth agenda will be dramatic.”

After having thrown everything possible at the bond market, from a hawkish Fed to pro-growth promises from President Trump to ebullient sentiment surveys and a record-smashing equity rally, the best the 10-year Treasury can muster is to butt its head against 2.5 percent?

10 Year Treasury Rate Chart

10 Year Treasury Rate data by YCharts

The 10-year, 10-year forward rate is 3.6 percent, which is well below the long-run norm of 5.5 percent and implies a real neutral interest rate of around 1.6 percent. This at a time when the Federal Reserve is claiming that we are near full employment?

The yield curve — the relationship derived from the various maturities of Treasury bonds — also signals a subdued outlook. The difference between two- and 30-year Treasury yields stands at just 176 basis points, not far from the nine-year low of 140bp touched last August.

Yes, but what about all that glorious survey data?

According to David Rosenberg of Gluskin Sheff, going back to 2000 there was one other period in which Bloomberg’s economic surprise index for surveys and business cycle indicators was as unambiguously euphoric relative to market expectations. That was back at the beginning of 2011, which ultimately saw GDP for the year at a painful 1.6 percent with a macro backdrop so painful that the headlines were full of prognostications for a double-dip recession. Recall that at the start of 2011 the ISM manufacturing index started out at 59.6 but ended the year at 52.9.

Back to today and we see that the NAHB housing index looks to have peaked in December at 69, having fallen to 67 in January and then again down to 65 in February. AIA Architectural Billings confirmed this move, dropping to a four-month low of 49.5 in January after sitting at 55.6 in December.

We’d also like to point out that the recent NFIB index, while having made a new cycle high, also saw plans for capital investments drop to 27 from 29 while hiring plans fell to a 3-month low in February at 15 from 19 in January. Hot labor market? Atlanta Fed’s wage tracker hit a cycle high of 3.9 percent (yoy) in October and November, but dropped to 3.5 percent in December and then again to 3.2 percent in January, the weakest since January 2016 – not so hot!

An economy in need of cooling? Loans and leases tell a different story.

 

Headlines rarely give the whole story and the vast majority of investors buy at the top and sell at the bottom. That being said, we still do not believe this is a market that is safe to short, but valuations in light of the fundamentals have us wary of those lofty prices to say the least.

Source: Bond investors send warning for record high equity market

January Core Capital Goods Shipments Pour Cold Water on GDP Forecasts

January Core Capital Goods Shipments Pour Cold Water on GDP Forecasts

Yesterday, we received the January Durable Orders report, which at 1.8 percent was in line with expectations and up sharply from the -0.8 percent reading in December. The clear cut driving factor for the month over month increase was the near 70 percent increase in nondefense aircraft and parts orders and the roughly 60 percent increase in defense aircraft and parts orders. Stripping out these items and others to get to nondefense, nonaircraft durable orders, more commonly referred to as core capital good, we find those orders contracted 0.4 percent in January. Stepping back and looking at the trend over the last three months, core capital goods orders have been falling since November when they hit 1.7 percent. Meanwhile, shipments of nondefense capital goods excluding aircraft were down 0.6 percent in December.

Not only does this conflict with the economic data we’ve been getting over the last several weeks, like that from Markit Economics and ISM, but it also conflicts with the sentiment indicators and spending optimism that has been reported in surveys like the NFIB Small Business Optimism Index. That index hit 105.9 in January, its highest reading since December 2014, and that uptick follows the largest month-over-month increase in the survey’s history during December. That led NFIB Chief Economist Bill Dunkelberg to say the data could signal higher GDP growth in 2017.

The January durable orders report throws a fly in the ointment, suggesting business spending fell at the start of the year. This is in direct contrast to the NFIB’s findings, which are more about sentiment than actions, and the decline in January nondefense, nonaircraft capital good shipments will likely weigh on 1Q 2016 GDP forecasts. Currently the Atlanta Fed’s GDP Now Forecast, which has missed wildly over the last few quarters, sees GDP reaching 2.5 percent in the current quarter. It’s sister Federal Reserve Bank, the NY Fed, is calling for 3.1 percent GDP in the current quarter per the  FRBNY Staff Nowcast. As we’ve said previously, the Fed tends to be cheerleaders for the economy, which means they tend to err to the upside in their forecasts, roughly 99.9 percent of the time. Our preference is to favor the consensus view of a multitude of economists, like the ones offered by the Wall Street Journal, who in aggregate see 1Q GDP hitting 2.2 percent before climbing to 2.4 percent in 2Q 2017.

We attribute that lack of demonstrable economic lift to the reality we talked about yesterday — we are not likely to see any pronounced impact of President Trump’s fiscal policy moves until later in the second half of 2017 at the soonest. We see the January Durable Orders report as a reminder that at more than 18x 2017 earnings, as measured by the S&P 500, the domestic stock market is getting ahead of economic reality. At some point, these two will have to reconcile with one another, and odds are it won’t be in the form an economy that looks like a charcoal grill that has been doused with lighter fluid. This could result in a breather for The Industrial Select Sector SPDR Fund (XLI) and similar ETFs like the iShares Dow Jones US Industrial ETF (IYJ) that have climbed more than 6 percent and 5.8 percent respectively since the start of 2017.

As we pointed out in our weekly Monday Morning Kickoff piece this week, over the next few days we’ll get several more 1Q 2017 GDP puzzle pieces including February ISM Manufacturing and Services data as well as the US Manufacturing and Services PMI reports from Markit Economics and the January Personal Income & Spending Report. The more data puzzle pieces we get, the more we can get a clearer picture on how the domestic economy is shaping up in the current quarter.

Great jobs number but…

Great jobs number but…

Friday we saw a great jobs number but… were the knock-it-out-of the ballpark numdr+evil+villainbers really indicative of a (finally) robust economy?  Hmmmm, methinks there is more to it all.  You’re shocked right?

I spoke with Matt Ray yesterday on America’s Morning news about the jobs report and how I thought the data could be misleading.  You can listen to our chat by clicking here. Today, after seeing the NFIB report, I decided the topic deserved a thorough analysis, so I’ve added a lot here to what we discussed.

To start with, this number can be quite volatile, so if we look at a three-month rolling average, the current gain is still 26,000 less than the average during the first six months of the year.  We did like to see a 0.4% rise in average hourly earnings last month, bringing the annual rate up to 2.5%, which is the strongest in the past six years. That bodes well for holiday spending, which ought to have companies like Amazon pleased as punch.  If we look at the labor-force participation rate however, that remained unchanged at 62.4%, which is 0.5 lower than in January.  This data point is one that causes yours truly much angst.  Think of this as a measure of what percentage of the population is rowing the economic row boat.  The more that row, the faster we can go.  Today we have roughly the same portion we had in the late 1970s, not exactly a robust growth period for the nation!

 

The news of the strong jobs report sent the markets into a tizzy as the probability of the Fed kicking off the first interest rate hike in more than nine years at their next meeting in December soared to 68%, which is almost double the odds of such a hike just one month ago.  One of the arguments for such an increase is that it would provide some assistance to savers, who have been struggling to earn much of anything on their savings.  Hmmmm, if the Fed raises rates, and yours truly still considers that unlikely given the bigger picture of the US economy and slowing global growth, it will likely only raise rates initially by 0.25%.  Over perhaps the following year it could theoretically get to 1%, which would in reality still do very little to help savers. The true beneficiaries would be those providers of money market funds that have been forced to eat the cost of overhead to give investors in such funds even the tiniest of yields.  This led to soaring share prices of companies like Charles Schwab, E*Trade Financial and TD Ameritrade Holdings on the jobs news Friday.

In contrast to Friday’s robust report, today’s report from the National Federation of Independent Businesses revealed that job creation came to halt in October, with owners adding a net 0.0 workers per firm in recent months.  55% reported hiring or trying to hire, which was up 2%, but 48% reported few or no qualified applications for the positions they wanted to fill.

If we look at other economic indicators, we see that things really aren’t as rosy as Friday’s job report would lead one to believe.

Last week started with the weakest headline ISM (Institute of Supply Management) Manufacturing report since December 2012 at 50.1, however many economists were expected a reading below 50, (which is a contraction) so this was actually better than expected. Whoop, whoop!  But, a painful portion of the grim report came from ISM Manufacturing employment, which is now at its lowest reading since August 2009 – good times! Thankfully manufacturing is a relatively small share of the total US economy, but we’d prefer to see more upbeat data. Overall manufacturing just looks awful, with everything but customer inventories lower year-over-year, as this next chart illustrates.

ISM manufacutring

If that didn’t drive it home, this next chart on US Industrial Production ought.  The Industrial Production index shown below is an indicator that measures real output for all facilities located in the United States manufacturing, mining, and electric, and gas utilities.  This index is generated using 312 individual data series.  The chart below shows how its longer-term upward trend from the depths of the financial crisis stalled towards the end of last year and is now trending downwards.

IP Trends

In fact, on a global level, manufacturing has been under pressure with the Global Manufacturing Purchasing Manager’s Index, (an indicator of the economic health of the manufacturing sector based on new orders, inventory levels, production, supplier deliveries and the employment environment) down to 51.4 from 52.2 a year ago. Remember that anything below 50 is a contraction. On the bright side, the number is a seven-month high.  In the US, the Manufacturing Purchasing Manager’s Index is down to 54.1 from 55.9 a year ago, but up from 53.1 last month.

Speaking of inventories… this next chart almost speaks for itself.  The wholesale inventory-to-sales ratio is at a level not seen out of a recession in decades, but  I’m sure that’s nothing to be concerned over!  Looking back at history, keep in mind the strides made in inventory management in order to keep inventories as low as possible to maximize returns. In a perfect world, the second a business gets an item into inventory, a customer grabs it right off the shelf.  The longer items sit on the shelf, the more money the business has sitting idle.  It is best to look at inventories relative to sales, as if sales double, it would be reasonable for a business to need to keep more inventory on hand. When we see inventories relative to sales rise dramatically though, that means that businesses are having more items sit on the shelves for longer, which is never a good sign.

Inventories to Sales

On a more upbeat note, the ISM non-manufacturing beat expectations mightily, coming in at 59.1 versus expectations for 56.5, down from last month’s 56.9. So the manufacturing sector is continuing to weaken while the services sector strengthens.  The good news is the service sector counts for a larger portion of the economy, however the fly in the ointment is that these two tend to move along much closer together and are now diverging to a point not seen since late 2000/early 2001.  This is cause for concern as we have every reason to believe the two will return to their historical relationship.  Given the global picture, at the moment it looks more like services will move towards manufacturing than the reverse.

If we look at construction, it is also struggling. Residential construction spending rose 61 basis points in September, driven primarily by gains in private residential spending, without which, the spending number would have actually declined month-over-month.

Recently the Federal Reserve released its Senior Loan Officer Survey reported that for the first time since early 2012, a net 7.3% of bankers reported tightening standards for large and mid-size firms based on a less certain economic outlook.  Most banks also reported weakening demand for most categories of mortgages since the second quarter while seeing credit card credit demand increase.  In response, banks reported having eased lending standards on loans eligible for purchase by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.  Tightening credit conditions are a headwind to economic growth, of which Chairperson Yellen and her team are highly aware.  We’re quite sure they are watching this data very closely.

Looking at the Global Economy…

Monday morning the OECD, (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) lowered its global growth forecasts for 2015 and 2016 to 2.9% and 3.3% versus 3.0% and 3.6% previously.  This comes just a few weeks after the International Monetary Fund predicted that the world economy would, in 2015, grow at its slowest pace since the financial crisis. We are particularly concerned with global exports as world trade has long been a strong indicator of global growth and so far in 2015, trade levels have been at levels typically associated with a global recession.  To further drive home our concerns on global trade, we looked at the reports coming from the largest shipping company in the world, A.P. Moeller-Maersk, which handles about 15% of all consumer goods transported by sea.  The CEO of A.P. Moeller-Maersk recently stated that, “The world economy is growing at a slower pace than the International Monetary Fund and other large forecasters are predicting.”  Err, wait, what?!  They just reported trade levels that are typically seen during a global recession and this guy thinks it is even worse? Argh!  The company reported recently a 61% drop in third quarter profit as demand for ships to transport goods across the world hardly grew from a year earlier.

China, the world’s second largest economy, reported that its exports declined 6.9% year-over-year versus expectations for 3.8% and marked the fourth consecutive month of declines.  In India, exports of the top five sectors including engineering and petroleum fell by about 31% in September on a year-over-year basis. Keeping a wary eye out here!

To put the chart below in perspective, world trade grew by 13% in 2010, but has been slowing considerably since then.  The WTO (World Trade Organization) lowered its forecast in volumes to 2.8% from 3.5%, which is well below the 7% average for the 20 years leading up to 2007.

World Imports

Bottom LineWe are seeing diverging data coming out on the domestic economy and continue to be concerned with the weakness we see in global commodities, transports and particularly in global exports as they typically lead global GDP trends. The combination of new trade barriers being introduced faster than existing ones are being removed coupled with cyclical problems that include falling commodity prices and debt overhang are acting as headwinds to global trade, which harms economies all over the world.  While the US is the largest economy and is driven to a large degree by internal demand, it is not immune to the fates of the global economy.  As is such, the US manufacturing sector is teetering on the brink of a recession. Whether the service sector, which is typically correlated with the manufacturing sector, can remain strong is yet to be seen.

P.S.: It isn’t only global trade that is suffering from too much government intervention.  Today The National Federation of Independent Businesses released its Small Business Economic Trends Report which revealed that the single most important problem facing small businesses is (1) Government Regulation and Red Tape followed by (2) Taxes. The government could do a lot to stimulate the economy, by getting the hell of out it!