ASX 200: Iron ore tailwinds continue

The ASX continues to enjoy a massive tailwind, with iron ore spot prices holding above $120/tonne. Prices are expected to moderate, with Brazilian exports recovering. Clyde Russell at Mining.com comments:

“Even if Brazil’s exports do remain slightly below normal, it may be the case that the iron ore forward curve is currently too optimistic. The Singapore Exchange front-month contract closed at $121.24 a tonne on Wednesday, while the six-month contract was at $100.52 and the 12-month at $89.52. This shows traders do expect prices to moderate…”

Iron Ore

The Materials index continues to climb, with rising troughs on the Trend Index signaling buying pressure.

ASX 200 Materials

REITs continue their strong up-trend, in expectation of lower interest rates. The equity (dividend) yield on VAP/ASX 300 REITs has fallen to 4.3%.

ASX 200 REITs

Financials are testing resistance at 6450 but face headwinds from declining house prices and construction work.

ASX 200 Financials

The ASX 200 is headed for a test of its 2007 high at 6830, with a rising Trend index indicating buying pressure. Penetration of the rising trendline on the index chart is not likely but would warn of a correction to test support at 6000.

ASX 200

We continue to maintain a high level of cash in our Australian Growth portfolio.

Gold: Every cloud has a Silver lining

Long-term interest rates are declining after more dovish speeches from the Fed, with 10-year Treasury yields re-testing support at 2.0%. The opportunity cost of holding gold is low.

10-Year Treasury Yields

The Dollar Index is likely to weaken, testing primary support at 95. A weakening Dollar boosts demand for Gold.

Dollar Index

A big gain in Silver this week is likely to be followed by a similar move in Gold. The two precious metals tend to move in unison. Breakout above $16.00/ounce signals an advance to $17.50.

Spot Silver in USD

Gold is consolidating above short-term support at $1400 after a strong advance, indicating buying pressure. Another advance is likely, with a medium-term target of $1500/ounce.

Spot Gold in USD

Rate cuts and buybacks – the emperor’s new clothes

The interest rate outlook is softening, with Fed chairman Jerome Powell hinting at rate cuts in his Wednesday testimony to Congress:

“Our baseline outlook is for economic growth to remain solid, labor markets to remain strong and inflation to move back over time.”
but…. “Uncertainties about the outlook have increased in recent months. In particular, economic momentum appears to have slowed in some major foreign economies and that weakness could affect the US economy.”

Stephen Bartholomeusz at The Sydney Morning Herald comments:

“Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the Fed shifting into an easing cycle before there is strong evidence to warrant it, is economies already stuck in high debt and low growth environments will be forced even deeper into the kind of policies that in Japan have produced more than 30 years of economic winter with no apparent escape route.”

If the Fed moves too early they could further damage global growth, with long-term consequences for US stocks. But markets are salivating at the anticipated sugar hit from lower rates. Stocks surged in response to Powell’s speech, with the S&P 500 breaking resistance at 3000. A rising Trend Index indicates buying pressure.

S&P 500

The argument for higher stock prices is that lower interest rates may stave off a recession. The chart below shows how recessions (gray bars) are normally preceded by rising interest rates (green) followed by sharp cuts when employment growth (blue) starts to fall.

Fed Funds Rate & Payroll Growth

Rate cuts themselves are not a recession warning, unless accompanied by declining employment growth. Otherwise, as in 1998 when there was minimal impact on employment, the economy may recover. Falling employment growth is, I believe, the most reliable recession warning. So far, the decline in growth has been modest but should be monitored closely.

Falling employment is why recessions tend to lag an inverted yield curve (negative 10-year minus 3-month Treasury yield spread) by up to 18 months. The negative yield curve is a reliable warning of recessions only because it reflects the Fed response to rising inflation and then falling employment.

Yield Spread

Valuations

A forward Price-Earnings ratio of 19.08 at the end of June 2019 warned that stocks are highly priced relative to forecast earnings. The forward PE  jumped to 19.55 by Friday — an even stronger warning.

S&P 500 Forward Price-Earnings Ratio

June 2019 trailing Price-Earnings ratio at 21.52 warned that stock prices are dangerously high when compared to the 1929 and 1987 peaks preceding major crashes. That has now jumped to 22.04.

S&P 500 Price-Earnings (based on highest trailing earnings)

The only factor that could support such a high earnings multiple is unusually strong earnings growth.

But real corporate earnings are declining. Corporate profits, before tax and adjusted for inflation, are below 2006 levels and falling. There are still exceptional stocks that show real growth but they are counter-balanced by negative real growth in other stocks.

Corporate Profits before tax adjusted for Inflation

Impossible, you may argue, given rising earnings for the S&P 500.

S&P 500 Earnings

There are three key differences that contribute to earnings per share growth for the S&P 500:

  1. Inflation;
  2. Taxes; and
  3. Stock Buybacks.

Inflation is fairly steady at 2.0%.

GDP Implicit Price Deflator & Core CPI

Quarterly tax rates declined from 25% in Q3 2017 to 13.22% in Q4 2018 (source: S&P Dow Jones Indices).

S&P 500 Quarterly Tax Rates

Stock buybacks are climbing. The buyback yield for the S&P 500 rose to 3.83% in Q4 2018 (source: S&P Dow Jones Indices).

S&P 500 Buyback Yield

The 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act caused a surge in repatriation of offshore cash holdings — estimated at almost $3 trillion — by multinationals. And a corresponding increase in stock buybacks.

S&P 500 Buybacks, Dividends & Earnings

In summary, the 2018 surge in S&P 500 earnings is largely attributable to tax cuts and Q1 2019 is boosted by a surge in stock buybacks in the preceding quarter.

Buybacks plus dividends exceed current earnings and are unsustainable in the long run. When the buyback rate falls, and without further tax cuts, earnings growth is going to be hard to find. Like the emperor’s new clothes.

It’s a good time to be cautious.

“Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked”.

~ Warren Buffett

Gold buying pressure

Long-term interest rates close to zero after inflation, with 10-year Treasury yields testing support at 2.0%, means that the opportunity cost of holding gold is minimal.

10-Year Treasury Yields

A weakening Dollar Index is expected to test primary support at 95, further boosting demand for Gold.

Dollar Index

Gold found short-term support at $1400 after a strong advance, indicating buying pressure. Respect of support at $1350/$1400 would offer a medium-term target of $1500/ounce.

Spot Gold in USD

ASX tailwinds v. headwinds

The ASX continues to enjoy a massive external tailwind, with iron ore spot prices holding at $120/tonne.

Iron Ore

Headwinds stem mainly from domestic sources. Low employment and disposable income growth have slowed consumption, especially of durables such as housing and motor vehicles. Construction work done in the private engineering sector (mainly mining and energy related) continues to decline after a dramatic fall in 2013-2015. Public sector spending is also tailing off as the NBN roll-out winds down.

Australia: Construction Work Done

Private sector building still shows some resilience but is expected to fall as approvals for new residential construction decline (source: ABS).

Australia: Building Approvals

My concern is that the headwinds will outlast the tailwind, in which case all three construction sectors could fall to 2006 levels.

The ASX 200 continues to advance, headed for a test of its 2007 high at 6830. A declining Trend index would warn of rising selling pressure, while penetration of the rising trendline on the index chart would signal a correction to test support at 6000.

ASX 200

We continue to maintain a high level of cash in our Australian Growth portfolio.

ASX: Iron ore at $120

The ASX is still enjoying a massive tailwind from iron ore prices, with  spot prices close to $120/tonne.

Iron Ore

My concern is how long this tailwind will last. But the ASX 200 advances unperturbed, heading for a test of its 2007 high at 6830. Penetration of the rising trendline is unlikely but would warn of a correction to test support at 6000.

ASX 200

I continue to maintain a high level of cash in my Australian Growth portfolio because of long-term headwinds.

Still cautious

Inflationary pressures are easing, with average hourly earnings growth declining to 3.35% in June, for Production and Non-Supervisory Employees, and 3.14% for Total Private sector.

Average Wage Rates

But this warns that economic growth is slowing. Annual growth in hours worked has slowed to 1.25%, suggesting a similar decline in GDP growth for the second quarter.

Real GDP and Hours Worked

Jobs growth held steady at 1.5% for the 12 months ended June 2019, after a decline from 2.0% in January.

Payroll Growth

Further decline in jobs growth is likely in the months ahead and a fall below 1.0% would warn that recession is imminent.

The Case Shiller index warns that growth in housing prices is slowing.

Case Shiller Index

Growth in construction expenditure (adjusted for inflation) has stalled.

Construction Expenditure/CPI

Retail sales growth is faltering.

Retail Sales

Units of light vehicle sales has stalled.

Light Vehicle Sales

And capital goods orders (adjusted for inflation) are faltering.

Manufacturers Orders for Capital Goods

One of the few bright spots is corporate bond spreads — the difference between lowest investment grade (Baa) and equivalent Treasury yields — still low at 2.3%, indicating that credit risk is benign.

Corporate Bond spreads

The S&P 500 broke through 2950 and is testing 3000. The 3000 level is an important watershed, double the 2000 and 2007 highs at 1500 (1552 and 1576 to be exact), and I expect strong resistance.

S&P 500

A rising Trend Index indicates buying pressure but this seems to be mainly stock repurchases and institutional buying. Retail money, as indicated by investment flows into ETFs, favors fixed income over equities despite the low yields.

ETF Flows source: ETF.com

It’s still a good time to be cautious.

The prevailing wisdom is that markets are always right. I take the opposite position. I assume that markets are always wrong……I watch out for telltale signs that a trend may be exhausted. Then I disengage from the herd and look for a different investment thesis. Or, if I think the trend has been carried to excess, I may probe going against it. Most of the time we are punished if we go against the trend. Only at an inflection point are we rewarded.

~ George Soros

The Long Game: Why the West is losing

Autocracies like China, Russia and Iran are challenging the dominance of Western democracies. Much has changed in the last two decades, fueling this emerging threat to the free world.

China & Global Trade

China joined the WTO in 2001 and disrupted global trade. Subsidy of state-owned or state-sponsored industries tilted the playing field. Manipulation of exchange rates, amassing $4 trillion of foreign reserves, helped to depress the yuan, creating a further advantage for Chinese manufacturers.

Manufacturing employment in the US shrank by more than 5.5 million jobs between 2000 and 2010.

Manufacturing Jobs USA

Europe experienced similar losses.

Manufacturing Jobs UK, France & EU

Output recovered, but through a combination of automation and offshoring labor-intensive activities, manufacturing jobs were never restored. Losses of 4 million US manufacturing jobs (23.5% of total) and an equal 4 million (10%) in the European Union appear permanent.

Manufacturing US & EU

The Global Financial Crisis

The global financial crisis (GFC) in 2008 and the recession caused soaring unemployment and further alienated blue collar workers.

Unemployment US & EU

The $700 billion bailout of the banking system (Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008), with no prosecutions of key actors, undermined trust in Federal government.

The Rise and Decline of Nations

Mancur Olson, in The Rise and Decline of Nations (1982), argues that interest groups — such as cotton-farmers, steel-producers, labor unions, and banks  — tend to unite into pressure groups to influence government policy in their favor. The resulting protectionist policies hurt economic growth but their costs go unnoticed, attracting little resistance, as they are diffused throughout the economy. The benefits, on the other hand, are concentrated in the hands of a few, incentivizing further action. As these pressure groups increase in strength and number, the costs accumulate, and nations burdened by them fall into economic decline.

Olson formulated his theory after studying the rapid rise in industrial power in Germany and Japan after World War II. He concluded that their economies had benefited from the almost complete destruction of interest groups and protectionist policies as a result of the war and were able to pursue optimal strategies to rebuild their economies. The result was that their economies, unfettered by pressure groups and special interests, far outstripped those of the victors, burdened by the same inefficient, protectionist policies as before the war.

Federal government, choked by lobbyists and special interests, failed to prioritize issues facing blue collar workers: global trade, off-shoring jobs and fallout from the GFC. Formation of the Tea Party movement in 2009 created a rallying point for libertarians and conservatives — supporting small government and traditional Judeo-Christian values1 — but it also opened the door for populists like Donald Trump.

Polarization

Exponential growth of social media, combined with disinformation and fake news, has polarized communities.

In 2017, 93 percent of Americans surveyed said they receive news online, with news organization websites (36%) and social media (35%) the most common sources. Trust and confidence in mass media has declined from 53 percent in 1997 to 32 percent in 2016, according to Gallup Polls.

Politics are increasingly dominated by outrage and division, with populist candidates gaining handsomely.

Many Western governments are now formed of fragile coalitions. Greece, Italy, Germany, even the UK.  Others in Eastern Europe — Poland, Hungary, Austria, Turkey — are heading towards autocracy.

The Long Game

China has been quietly playing the long game. Massive investment in infrastructure, subsidy of key industries, controlled access to its markets, upgrading technology through forced partnerships with Western companies in exchange for access to Chinese markets, and industrial espionage have all been used to gain an advantage over competitors.

The CCP exploits divisions within and between Western governments while expanding their influence in universities, think tanks and the media. The stated aim of the CCP’s United Front Work Department is to influence Chinese diasporas in the West to accept CCP rule, endorse its legitimacy, and assist in achieving Party aims. This includes some 50 million who emigrated after 1979 or are PRC students studying abroad. Stepped up surveillance of PRC students, funding of Confucius Institutes on campuses and growing student activism has raised concerns in Australia over academic freedom and promotion of pro-Beijing views3.

Western governments seem unable to present a coordinated response. Absence of a cohesive, long-term strategy and weakened alliances make them an easy target.

Pressure Groups

Governments are also subjected to pressure from within. The latest example is pressure exerted, by US companies, on the White House to lift the ban on sales of US technology to Huawei. From the New York Times a few days ago:

Beijing has also pressured American companies. This month, the Chinese government said it would create an “unreliable entities list” to punish companies and individuals it perceived as damaging Chinese interests. The following week, China’s chief economic planning agency summoned foreign executives, including representatives from Microsoft, Dell and Apple. It warned them that cutting off sales to Chinese companies could lead to punishment and hinted that the companies should lobby the United States government to stop the bans. The stakes are high for some of the American companies, like Apple, which relies on China for many sales and for much of its production.

Short-term Outlook

The problem with most Western democracies is that they are stuck in a short-term election cycle, with special interest groups, lobbyists for hire, and populist policies targeted at winning votes in the next election. Frequent changes of government lead to a lack of continuity, ensuring that long-term vision and planning, needed to build a winning global strategy, are woefully neglected.

Autocrats like China, Russia and Iran are able to play the long game because they enjoy continuity of leadership. They do not have to concern themselves with elections and the media cycle. They own the media. And elections, if held, are a mere formality, with pre-selected candidates and pre-ordained results.

Western democracies will have to adapt if they want to remain competetive in the 21st century.

Focus on the Long-term

Switzerland is one of the few Western democracies that is capable of a long-term focus. Their unique, consensus-driven system ensures stability and continuity of government, with buy-in from all major political parties. The largest parties are all represented on the 7-member governing Federal Council. Elected by Federal Assembly (a bicameral parliament) for four-year terms on a proportional basis. There has been only one change in party representation on the Federal Council since 19592.

Cohesiveness and stability provide a huge advantage when it comes to long-term planning.

Conclusion

Regulating global trade, limiting the threat of social media, ensuring quality journalism, protecting academic freedom, guarding against influence operations by foreign powers, limiting the power of lobbyists and special interest groups — all of these require a long-term strategy. And buy-in from all sides of the political spectrum.

We need to adapt our current form of democracy, which has served us well for the last century, but is faltering under the challenges of the modern era, or risk losing it all together. Without bipartisan support for, and commitment to, long-term policies, there is little hope for building a winning strategy.

The choice is ours: a highly-regulated, autocratic system where rule of law is the first casualty; a stable form of democracy that ensures long-term continuity and planning; or continuation of the present melee, driven by emotion rather than forethought, populist leaders, frequent changes in government — and subservience to our new autocratic masters.

Footnotes:

  1. Wikipedia: Tea Party movement
  2. Current Federal Council representation is 2 Free Democratic Party (liberals), 2 Social Democratic Party (social democrats), 1 Christian Democratic People’s Party [CVP] (Christian conservatives) and 2 Swiss People’s Party [SVP] (national conservatives), reflecting 76.2% of the popular vote in 2015 Federal elections. The SVP gained one seat from the CVP in 2003.
  3. The Diplomat: China’s United Front work – Propaganda as Policy

S&P 500: Plan B

The S&P 500 is testing its all-time high at 2950. Bearish divergence on Twiggs Money Flow warns of secondary selling pressure. Respect of resistance is likely and would signal retracement to test support at 2750.

S&P 500

The 10-Year Treasury yield has fallen to 2.0%, indicating that the Fed is expected to cut interest rates in the second half of 2019.

10-Year Treasury yield

Stocks are still running on hope of a deal in the US-China trade dispute. Xi Jinping and Donald Trump will meet this weekend to discuss the way forward. Chinese preconditions for a trade agreement are likely to include the US lifting its ban on the sale of technology to telecommunications giant Huawei and removal of US tariffs on Chinese imports, according to The Wall St Journal. The US is unlikely to accede and chances of a deal are slim to nonexistent.

Trump doesn’t seem concerned: “My Plan B with China is to take in billions and billions of dollars a month and we’ll do less and less business with them……My plan B’s maybe my plan A.” (Bloomberg)

Plan B is the likely outcome, with a moderate impact on US corporate earnings and Fed rate cuts to keep the market on track. Risks rise while the potential upside declines. It’s a good time to be cautious.

We must recognize that as the dominant power in the world we have a special responsibility. In addition to protecting our national interests, we must take the leadership in protecting the common interests of humanity……There is no other country that can take the place of the United States in the foreseeable future. If the United States fails to provide the right kind of leadership our civilization may destroy itself. That is the unpleasant reality that confronts us.

~ George Soros: The Age of Fallibility