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.

With May @MarkitEconomics manufacturing PMI for #Japan @ 40 month low @AbeShinzo plans more stimulus

With May @MarkitEconomics manufacturing PMI for #Japan @ 40 month low @AbeShinzo plans more stimulus

Despite all the central bank intervention to date, Japan’s manufacturing economy continues to contract.  May MarkitEconomics manufacturing PMI for Japan came in at a 40 month low with falling output and orders, which of course means Abe Shinzo sees it as a call to further stimulate the Japanese economy… sounds like more of the same (more debt, low to no growth) to us. 

Japan will delay its planned sales tax hike for a second time, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced Wednesday, while also detailing a new stimulus package for the economy this fall.

Source: Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe plans large stimulus package this fall

What the Fed Did Not Say

What the Fed Did Not Say

The annoying truth that very few economists want to admit is that the field is more art than science – much like investing. If investing were as easy as simply looking at the past and extrapolating it forward, you’d not need us. When it comes to econElephant face downomics, the best we can do is to develop an idea of general future probabilities based on how events unfolded in the past.

The headlines have been heralding all kinds of economic triumphs lately, which has been giving yours truly much brow furrowing consternation; talk about heads in the sand! Let me walk you through what no one seems else seems to be talking about.

 

One: Q1 GDP has been revised into a contraction, falling 0.7%. It is important to note that this is the first time in recorded US economic data that the economy has contracted three times during a recovery. That seems like a noteworthy lack of strength, particularly given all the support the Federal Reserve has been supplying coupled with the mindboggling level of federal spending; recall that during the last seven years US debt has doubled, meaning the government overspent as much in the past 7 years as it did in the entire 230 years prior combined!

 

Two: June 15th we learned that Capacity Utilization for total industry in the United States fell for the sixth month in a row. This is measured by the Federal Reserve and represents, “the percentage of resources used by corporations and factories to produce goods in manufacturing, mining, and electric and gas utilities for all facilities located in the United States (excluding those in U.S. territories). This measure has fallen six months in a row ten times previously since 1967, the earliest recorded data. Every single time it has fallen in the past six times in a row, the economy has been in a recession. In fact, the economy has never been in a recession when the metric did not fall for at least six consecutive months. Think of it this way, the US economy has thrown a big old production party, but hardly anyone’s on the dance floor and everyone’s wondering when the crowd is finally going to arrive.

Total Capacity Utilization

Three: Industrial Production has now come in below expectations six months in a row, and has shown a rather concerning downward trend since January. Keep in mind that a contraction in GDP for two quarters in a row, i.e. six months, is the definition of a recession. Industrial Production used to be the metric for the economy before GDP started being measured after WWII. May’s number is also a bit of a blow to the hopes for a turnaround to GDP in Q2, as the level of production so far in Q2 is down 2.4% at an annual rate relative to the average for Q1, which was itself down 0.3% from Q4 2014. This means we are likely to see the first back-to-back quarterly contraction in production since Q1 and Q2 of 2009. Were this pre-WWII, this data mean an official declaration of a recession.

 IndustrialProduction2

Four: The three month moving average for US retail sales is at a level that is never seen outside of a recession, hat tip to Raoul Pal of Real Vision Television, (which I highly recommend for on-demand interviews with the best and brightest in the markets) for pointing out this one to me. While May retail sales were up from April, they were still 25% below March with an overall trend downward trend that is clear in the chart. So much for the return of the American consumer… not just yet.

US Retail Sales

Five: The talking heads on TV claimed that the contraction in Q1 was due to extreme weather conditions and the port closures/slowdowns due to the labor union kerfuffle on the west coast. First quarter earnings releases and analyst calls where abuzz with retail executive bemoaning the lost sales thanks to goods getting stuck at the west coast ports. Alrighty then… we were willing to give them some wiggle room here. However, the port situation was resolved some months ago, which should have led to a big jump up in transportation needs within the US to get goods to and from those congested ports. Errrh….. May… not looking so good. That phrase is starting to sound like Wall Street speak for, “The dog ate my homework.”

RailTransports

Not exactly inspirational; not only has rail traffic in 2015 been materially lower overall than in 2014, but May saw a sizeable decline both relative to April and to May 2014. This data is reinforced by the Cass Freight Shipping data, which was released on June 15th, showing that while shipments and expenditures rose in May from April, they are still below 2014 levels, which was the strongest year so far since the Great Recession. Both car-loadings and intermodal-loadings were declining by month’s end as well, indicating that June is likely to also be weak.

CassFreight

 

To emphasize the point with transports, earlier this week Federal Express delivered quarterly earnings and revenue that fell short of expectations, citing pension costs, the impact of the strong dollar and lower fuel surcharges. All reasonable claims except they are nothing new, thus the company’s guidance should have already taken those factors into account. To us this just gives further reason for concern.

 

Six: For all the talk about how the labor markets are heating up, getting tighter… whatever lovely catch phrase you like, June 18th the Labor of Bureau Statistics announced that real average hourly earnings decreased by 0.1% in May, seasonally adjusted. Real average weekly earnings also decreased by 0.1%. So much for all the talk about tightening labor markets inducing inflation, I keep scratching my head wondering what the heck the talking heads are looking at! On top of that, a recent report from Glassdoor Inc. revealed that job seekers had to wait about 22.9 days for an offer or rejection in 2014, up from 12.6 days in 2010 – again not an indicator of a tight job market.

 

To drive the point home, the chart below shows just how much of the incoming data has surprised to the downside. Does this mean that expectations are entirely out of whack with reality or does it mean that the economy is weakening? Well, putting it all together…

Surprise Index

Bottom Line: As I said earlier, economics and investing involve looking at the new data coming in, comparing it to earlier data and looking for correlations in an attempt to identify trends or causation. In other words, we seek to understand what’s going on now, what’s causing it and where are we going? The current recovery has stumbled an unprecedented three times into contraction, which gives concrete data on how week this recovery actually has been. Capacity utilization, Industrial Production and Retail Sales data all point to a recession. Transportation of goods is well below last year and not showing signs of improvement and if one looks under the covers of the labor market – it is much weaker than the headlines indicate. One of our primary jobs is to manage risk and when we put all that data together, it gives us cause for concern as to the direction of the economy. The chart below indicates that we aren’t the only ones noticing just how weak the economy has become, as executives increasingly decide to return money to shareholders directly rather than invest it in elusive future growth.

Cash Uses