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.

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…?”

 

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?