Retail sales fall while trade talks stall

Retail sales

Retail sales growth (USA advance retail sales excluding autos and parts) fell sharply in December, indicating that consumer confidence is fading despite strong employment figures.

Advance Retail Sales

The decline in consumer confidence also shows in lower January 2019 light vehicle sales.

Light Vehicle Sales

Trade talks make little progress

Trivium provide a useful update on US-China trade negotiations:

The latest round of trade talks with the US are finishing up as we go to press. There hasn’t been much progress (Bloomberg): “As of Friday afternoon, there had been no visible progress on efforts to narrow the gap around structural reforms to China’s economy that the U.S. has requested, according to three U.S. and Chinese officials who asked not to be identified because the talks were private……Chinese officials are angry about what they see as US efforts to undermine their state-led economy.”

These are issues that will take generations to resolve. The chance of a quick fix is highly unlikely.

Stocks

The stock market continues to rally on the back of a solid earnings season.

Of the 216 issues (505 in the S&P 500 index) with full operating comparative data 154 (71.3%) beat, 51 (23.6%) missed, and 11 met their estimates; 135 of 215 (62.8%) beat on sales. (S&P Dow Jones Indices)

Index volatility remains high, however, and a 21-day Volatility trough above 1.0% would warn of a bear market. S&P 500 retreat below 2600 would reinforce the signal.

S&P 500

Crude prices continue to warn of a fall in global demand.

Light Crude

As do commodity prices.

DJ-UBS Commodities Index

10-Year Treasury yields are testing support at 2.50% and a Trend Index peak below zero warns of buying pressure from investors seeking safety (yields fall as prices rise).

10-Year Treasury Yield

The Nasdaq 100 shows rising Money Flow but I believe this is secondary in nature. The next correction is likely to provide a clearer picture.

Nasdaq 100

My conclusion is the same as last week. This is a bear market. Recovery hinges on an unlikely resolution of the US-China ‘trade dispute’.

Concessions to adversaries only end in self reproach, and the more strictly they are avoided the greater will be the chance of security.

~ Thucydides (460 – 400 B.C.)

ASX 200 enjoys iron ore spike

The ASX 200 has been buoyed by a temporary spike in iron ore prices. Materials (comprising 18.5% of the main index) broke through resistance at 12500, signaling a primary advance. A higher trough on Twiggs Money Flow indicates buying pressure.

ASX 200 Materials

The ASX 200 encountered resistance at 6100 but the rally could go so far as to test the 2018 high of 6350. We remain in a bear market. Only a correction that successfully forms a higher trough would reverse that. Expect another test of the former primary support level at 5650.

ASX 200

Financials, the largest ASX 200 sector (31.4%), remains in a primary down-trend. Declining house prices are likely to drag the index lower. Respect of resistance at 5900 would strengthen the bear signal, while breach of 5300 would signal another decline.

ASX 200 Financials

I have been cautious on Australian stocks, especially banks, for a while, and hold more than 40% in cash and fixed interest investments in the Australian Growth portfolio.

Why the RBA shouldn’t cut interest rates

There are growing cries in local media for the RBA to cut interest rates in order to avoid a recession. House prices are falling and shrinking finance commitments point to further price falls. Declining housing values are likely to lead to a negative wealth effect, with falling consumption as household savings increase. Employment is also expected to weaken as household construction falls. Respected economist Gerard Minack thinks “a recession in Australia is becoming more likely”.

The threat should not be taken lightly, but is cutting interest rates the correct response?

Let’s examine the origins of our predicament.

A sharp rise in commodity prices in 2004 to 2008.

Commodity Prices

Led to a massive spike in the Trade-weighted Index.

Australia Trade Weighted Index

And a serious case of Dutch Disease: the destructive effect that offshore investment in large primary sector projects (such as the 1959 Groningen natural gas fields in the Netherands) can have on the manufacturing sector.

Business investment in Australian has fallen precipitously since 2013.

Australia Business Investment

With wages growth in tow.

Wages Index

Instead of addressing the underlying cause (Dutch Disease), Australia tried to alleviate the pain by stimulating the housing market. Housing construction boosted employment and the banks were only to happy to accommodate the accelerating demand for credit.

Leading Index

But house prices have to keep growing and banks have to keep lending else the giant Ponzi scheme unwinds. When house prices and construction slows, the economy is susceptible to a severe backlash as Gerard Minack pointed out.

How to fix this?

The worst response IMO would be to pour more gasoline on the fire: cut interest rates and reignite the housing bubble. Low interest rates have done little to stimulate business investment over the last five years, so further cuts are unlikely to help.

The only long-term solution is to lift business investment which creates secure long-term employment. To me there are three pillars necessary to achieve this:

  1. Accelerated tax write-offs for new business investment;
  2. Infrastructure investment in transport and communications projects that deliver long-term productivity gains; and
  3. A weaker Australian Dollar.

Corporate tax write-offs

Accelerated corporate tax write-offs were a critical element of the US economic recovery under Barack Obama. They encourage business to bring forward planned investment spending, stimulating job creation.

Infrastructure

Government and private infrastructure spending is important to fill the hole left by falling consumption. But this must be productive investment that generates a market-related return on investment. Else you create further debt with no income streams to service the interest and capital repayments.

A weaker Australian Dollar

Norway is probably the best example of how an economy can combat Dutch Disease. They successfully weathered an oil-driven boom in the 1990s, protecting local industry while establishing a sovereign wealth fund that is the envy of its peers. Their fiscal discipline set an example to be followed by any resource-rich country looking to navigate a sustainable path through a commodities boom.

In Australia’s case that would be closing the gate after the horse has bolted. The benefits of the boom have long since been squandered. But we can still protect what is left of our manufacturing sector, and stimulate new investment, with a weaker exchange rate.

I doubt that the three steps are sufficient to avert a recession. But the same is true of further interest rate cuts. And at least we would be addressing the root cause of the problem, rather than encouraging further malinvestment in an unsustainable housing bubble.

More signs of risk avoidance

Bloomberg: “U.S. stocks slid as investors grew anxious that the Trump administration won’t reach a trade deal with China before a March deadline for escalating the war. Treasuries surged.

The post-Christmas rally that added 16 percent to the S&P 500 came under increasing pressure amid reports the two trading partners remained far apart on a deal and that the nations’ presidents won’t meet before higher tariffs are slated to take effect on Chinese goods next month.”

S&P 500 volatility remains high. If the rally runs out of steam, a large Twiggs Volatility (21-day) trough above 1.0% would signal a bear market. Retreat below 2600 would reinforce the signal.

S&P 500

Crude prices retreated below resistance at $54/$55 per barrel, on fears of falling global (mainly Chinese) demand. Another test of primary support at $42/barrel is likely.

Light Crude

10-Year Treasury yields retreated to 2.65%. A Trend Index peak below zero warns of buying pressure from investors (yields fall when prices rise) who are looking for safety.

10-Year Treasury Yield

My conclusion is the same as last week. This is a bear market. Recovery hinges on an unlikely resolution of the US-China ‘trade dispute’.

The secret of happiness is freedom and the secret of freedom is courage.

~ Thucydides (460 – 400 B.C.)

ASX 200 spikes but will it last?

The reason for the upward spike in the ASX 200 is clear. While shortage in iron ore supply may be temporary, while Brazil reviews mine safety, it is sufficient to cause spot prices to jump 20% in the last week.

Iron Ore

Windfall profits are likely to benefit not only the Materials sector but the entire economy over the next few months. The ASX 200 Materials Index ran into resistance at 12500 while a bearish divergence on Money Flow continues to warn of selling pressure.

ASX 200 Materials

The ASX 200 broke resistance at 6000 but remains in a bear market. Reversal below 5650 would signal a primary decline, with a target of the 2016 low at 4700.

ASX 200

ASX 200 Financials Index rallied on release of the Royal Commission on Banking final report. The outcome could have been a lot worse, or so the market seems to think.

ASX 200 Financials

I suspect the bank rally will be short-lived. Credit growth is falling and broad money warns of further contraction.

Australia Credit and Broad Money Growth

House prices are falling and concerns over a slowing economy have caused many to call for further rate cuts. I believe this is short-sighted.

Australia House Prices and Household Debt

One of the biggest threats facing the economy is ballooning household debt. Tighter credit and falling house prices are likely to curb debt growth….provided the RBA doesn’t pour more gasoline on the fire.

I have been cautious on Australian stocks, especially banks, for a while, and hold more than 40% in cash and fixed interest investments in the Australian Growth portfolio.

Robust US employment but global bear market warning

The US economy remains robust, with hours worked (non-farm) ticking up 2.2% in January, despite the government shutdown. Real GDP growth is expected to follow a similar path.

Real GDP and Hours Worked

Average hourly earnings growth increased to 3.4% p.a. for production and non-supervisory employees (3.2% for all employees). The Fed has limited wiggle room to hold back on further rate hikes if underlying inflationary pressures continue to rise.

Average Wage Rate Growth

History shows that the Fed lifts short-term interest rates more in response to hourly wage rates than core CPI.

Average Wage Rate Growth, Core CPI and 3-Month T-Bills

The Leading Index from the Philadelphia Fed ticked down below 1% (0.98%) for November 2018. While not yet cause for concern, it does warn that the economy is slowing. Further falls, to below 0.5%, would warn of a recession.

Leading Index

Markets are anticipating a slow-down, triggered by falling demand in China more than in the US.

S&P 500 volatility remains high and a large (Twiggs Volatility 21-day) trough above 1.0% (not zero as stated in last week’s newsletter) on the current  rally would signal a bear market. Retreat below 2600 would strengthen the signal.

S&P 500

Crude prices have plummeted, anticipatiing falling global (mainly Chinese) demand. Another test of primary support at $42/barrel is likely.

Light Crude

Dow Jones-UBS Commodity Index breached primary support at 79, signaling a primary decline with a target of 70.

DJ-UBS Commodity Index

China’s Shanghai Composite Index is in a bear market. Respect of resistance at 2700 would confirm.

Shanghai Composite Index

Bearish divergence on India’s Nifty also warns of selling pressure. Retreat below 10,000 would complete a classic head-and-shoulders top but don’t anticipate the signal.

Nifty Index

DJ Stoxx Euro 600 rallied but is likely to respect resistance at 365/370, confirming a bear market.

DJ Stoxx Euro 600 Index

The UK’s Footsie also rallied but is likely to respect resistance at 7000. Declining Trend Index peaks indicate selling pressure, warning of a bear market.

FTSE 100 Index

My conclusion is the same as last week. This is a bear market. Recovery hinges on an unlikely resolution of the US-China ‘trade dispute’.

Concessions to adversaries only end in self reproach, and the more strictly they are avoided the greater will be the chance of security.

~ Thucydides (460 – 400 B.C.)

ASX 200 Financials test key support ahead of Hayne report

A long-term view of ASX 200 Financials shows the index testing key support at 5300, confirming the selling pressure signaled by bearish divergence on Twiggs Money Flow. Breach of support is likely, especially with the final report of the Royal Commission on Banking due for release on Monday. Breach would offer a target of 4000.

ASX 200 Financials

The Materials index continues in a primary up-trend, assisted by a surge in iron ore prices caused by the temporary shut-down of iron ore mining in Brazil as tailings dams are inspected after the recent disaster.

ASX 200 Materials

Financials is the largest sector in the ASX 200. Respect of 6000 is likely and reversal below 5650 would signal a primary decline, with a target of the 2016 low at 4700.

ASX 200

I have been cautious on Australian stocks, especially banks, for a while, and hold more than 40% in cash and fixed interest investments in the Australian Growth portfolio.

Deal or no deal

Brexit

No one knows what the outcome of Brexit will be but, whatever the outcome, it is unlikely to send global markets into a tail-spin. There is bound to be short-term pain on both sides but the long-term costs and benefits are unclear.

China

Far more likely to send investors scuttling for shelter is a ‘no deal’ outcome on US trade negotiations with China. I would be happy to be proved wrong but I believe that a deal is highly unlikely. There may be press photos with beaming officials shaking hands and tweets from the White House promising a rosy future for all (with or without a wall). But what we are witnessing is not straight-forward negotiations between trading partners, which normally take years to resolve, but a hegemonic power struggle between two super-powers, straight out of Thucydides.

Thucydides wrote “When one great power threatens to displace another, war is almost always the result.” In his day it was Athens and Sparta but in the modern era, war between great powers, with mutually assured destruction (MAD), is most unlikely. Absent the willingness to use military force, the country with the greatest economic power is in the strongest position.

One of the key battlefronts is technology.

“China is now almost wholly dependent on foreign chipsets. And that makes leaders nervous, especially given a series of actions by foreign governments to limit the ability of Huawei and ZTE to operate internationally and acquire Western technology.” ~ Trivium China

“To address this risk, President Xi Jinping aims to increase China’s semiconductor self-sufficiency to 40% in 2020 and 70% in 2025 as part of his ‘Made in China 2025’ initiative to modernize domestic industry.” ~ Nikkei

Xi is unlikely to abandon his ‘Made in China 2025’ plans and the US is unlikely to settle for anything less.

USA

The US economy remains robust despite the extended government shutdown and concerns about Fed tightening.

“Federal Reserve officials are close to deciding they will maintain a larger portfolio of Treasury securities than they had expected when they began shrinking those holdings two years ago, putting an end to the central bank’s portfolio wind-down closer into sight.” ~ The Wall Street Journal

This is just spin. As I explained last week. Fed run-down of assets is more than compensated by repayment of liabilities (excess reserves on deposit) on the other side of the balance sheet. Liquidity is unaffected.

Charts remain bearish as the market views global risks.

Volatility is high and a large (Twiggs Volatility 21-day) trough above zero on the current S&P 500 rally would signal a bear market. Retreat below 2600 would strengthen the signal.

S&P 500

Asia

Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Index is in a bear market but shows a bullish divergence on the Trend Index. Breakout above 27,000 would signal a primary up-trend. This seems premature but needs to be monitored.

Hang Seng Index

India’s Nifty has run into stubborn resistance at 11,000. Declining peaks on the Trend Index warn of selling pressure. Retreat below 10,000 would complete a classic head-and-shoulders top but don’t anticipate the signal.

Nifty Index

Europe

DJ Stoxx Euro 600 is in a primary down-trend. Reversal below 350 would warn of another decline.

DJ Stoxx Euro 600 Index

The UK’s Footsie has retreated below primary support at 6900. Declining Trend Index peaks warn of selling pressure. This is a bear market.

FTSE 100 Index

This is a bear market. Recovery hinges on an unlikely resolution of the US-China ‘trade dispute’.

War is a matter not so much of arms as of money.

~ Thucydides (460 – 400 B.C.)

ASX 200: Hanging man

A hanging man candlestick on the weekly chart warns of increasing selling pressure as the ASX 200 approaches resistance at 6000.

Hanging man

Respect of 6000 is likely and reversal below 5650 would confirm the primary down-trend. Resolution of the US-China trade dispute or announcement of another massive Chinese stimulus could avert the bear market, but don’t hold your breath. Breach of support would offer a target of the 2016 low at 4700.

ASX 200

I have been cautious on Australian stocks, especially banks, for a while, and hold 40% cash in the Australian Growth portfolio.

‘It could be on the scale of 2008’ | SMH

Harvard professor Ken Rogoff said the key policy instruments of the Communist Party are losing traction and the country has exhausted its credit-driven growth model. This is rapidly becoming the greatest single threat to the global financial system.

“People have this stupefying belief that China is different from everywhere else and can grow to the moon,” said Professor Rogoff, a former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund.

“China can’t just keep creating credit. They are in a serious growth recession and the trade war is kicking them on the way down,” he told UK’s The Daily Telegraph, speaking before the World Economic Forum in Davos.

“There will have to be a de facto nationalisation of large parts of the economy. I fear this really could be ‘it’ at last and they are going to have their own kind of Minsky moment,” he said.

Read the full article from Ambrose Evans-Pritchard at smh.com.au: ‘It could be on the scale of 2008’: Expert sends warning on China downturn