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.)

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.)

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.)

‘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

Bullish in a bull market, bearish in a bear market

We are witnessing the transition from a bull to a bear market.

I subscribe to Jesse Livermore’s maxim (emphasis added):

“I began to see more clearly—perhaps I should say more maturely—that since the entire list moves in accordance with the main current…. Obviously the thing to do was to be bullish in a bull market and bearish in a bear market. Sounds silly, doesn’t it? But I had to grasp that general principle firmly before I saw that to put it into practice really meant to anticipate probabilities. It took me a long time to learn to trade on those lines.”

The second part of that quote is equally important. You determine whether a market is bullish or bearish by “anticipating probabilities”. Don’t take signals from the charts in isolation. You have to study general conditions.

Livermore gives a classic example in Reminiscences of a Stock Operator of how he anticipated a bear market in 1906 after the Boer War in South Africa had drained Britain’s coffers and the San Francisco earthquake led to massive insurance payouts, forcing insurers to liquidate large swathes of their investment portfolios. But he was wiped out as the market repeatedly rallied. He persisted and eventually was proved right when large rail stocks announced new stock issues. The fact that the issues were structured as instalment issues, with only a down-payment needed to acquire the stock, alerted Livermore that there was not enough liquidity in the market to absorb the stock issues. His broker extended him a line of credit and…

“I profited by my earlier and costly mistakes and sold more intelligently. My reputation and my credit were reestablished in a jiffy. That is the beauty of being right in a broker’s office, whether by accident or not. But this time I was cold-bloodedly right, not because of a hunch or from skillful reading of the tape, but as the result of my analysis of conditions affecting the stock market in general. I wasn’t guessing. I was anticipating the inevitable. It did not call for any courage to sell stocks. I simply could not see anything but lower prices, and I had to act on it….”

General conditions in the US are still strong.

Credit and the broad money supply (MZM plus time deposits) are growing at close to 5%.

S&P 500

Credit risk premiums are rising but are nowhere near alarming. A spread of more than 3.0% between lowest grade investments (Baa) and 10-year Treasuries would flag a warning.

S&P 500

The big shrink, as the Fed unwinds its balance sheet, is still a myth. Banks are drawing down excess reserves at a faster rate, so that liquidity is rising. The rising green line on the chart below shows Fed assets net of excess reserves.

S&P 500

But charts are bearish.

Market volatility is high and a large bearish divergence on S&P 500 Momentum warns of a bear market.

S&P 500

We need to look at global conditions to identify the cause for market concern: Brexit, slowing European growth, but primarily, a potential trade war with China.

It’s time to be cautiously bearish.

There is no training, classroom or otherwise, that can prepare for trading the last third of a move, whether it’s the end of a bull market or the end of a bear market.

~ Paul Tudor Jones

Get ready for economic slowdown | Trivium China

While we cannot rule out the chance of a large Chinese stimulus, senior officials are talking this down. In 2008/2009, China injected a whopping 19% of GDP to revive its flagging economy, compared to roughly 6.5% of GDP by the Obama administration at the height of the GFC. The size and scope of the stimulus achieved the desired result but had several undesirable side effects, including accelerating the property bubble and rapid growth expansion of the informal shadow banking sector as speculative fever grew.

From Trivium China:

At his meeting with businessmen on Tuesday, Li Keqiang [Premier of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China] also laid out his views on the economy.

In a nutshell: Things do not look good (Gov.cn).

  • “Downward economic pressure is increasing.”
  • “[We must] thoroughly prepare to react to difficulties and challenges.”

But Li stressed (again!) that the government’s response to this slowdown will be different than in the past:

  • “[We] will not rely on traditional measures.”

Instead, Li wants to take a more measured, precise approach:

  • “Macro policies should be stable, precise, and effective in order to counter external uncertainties.”

The top priority will continue to be improving the business environment, with a focus on three areas:

  • Eliminating government interference in business operations
  • Reducing taxes and fees
  • Making financing easier and cheaper to get

Get smart: If you haven’t gotten the message yet, you have not been listening. The government is not going to repeat the massive stimulus that it enacted 10 years ago in response to the financial crisis.

China’s newest export

“Polish authorities have arrested a Chinese employee of Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant, and a Polish citizen, and charged them with spying for Beijing, officials said on Friday, amid a push by the United States and its allies to restrict the use of Chinese technology based on espionage fears….
It is not the first time in recent months a Huawei employee has been arrested abroad. Meng Wanzhou, the company’s chief financial officer, was arrested in Canada last month at the request of the United States, where she had been charged with fraud designed to violate American sanctions on Iran….
A 2012 report from United States lawmakers said that Huawei and another company, ZTE, were effectively arms of the Chinese government whose equipment was used for spying. Security firms have reported finding software installed on Chinese-made phones that sends users’ personal data to China.”
From Joanna Berendt at The New York Times

Lack of independence of private companies in China, their use for espionage purposes including industrial espionage, and failure to open Chinese markets up to foreign competitors are likely to throttle attempts to resolve trade disputes with the US. An impasse seems unavoidable.

It is important that the West confronts China over their trade tactics, espionage and ‘influence’ operations. Whether Donald Trump is the right person to lead this, I will leave for you to judge.

I doubt that China wants to rule the world. Dominate, perhaps. But the overriding goal of their leaders is to ensure the survival of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). They want to make the world safe for autocracy. They don’t seem to understand that this is an oxymoron. Autocracies make the world unsafe because they lack the checks and balances, imperfect as they may be, that ensure stable government in democracies whose citizens are protected by rule of law. If you think the world is already unsafe, imagine Donald Trump as president without the constraints of the US Constitution. History provides plenty of evidence of autocrats — Stalin, Hitler and Mao are prime examples — who abused their power with catastrophic results.

China’s newest export may be a global recession if world leaders are not careful. These two charts from the RBA highlight the current state of play.

Declining growth in retail sales is accelerating. Manufacturing PMI is rolling over and industrial production is likely to follow.

China Activity Levels

Output, on the other hand is surging, as the state attempts to spend its way out of a recession. Cement production is the sole laggard.

China Output

Matt O’Brien at The Age describes China’s dilemma:

…in the depths of the Great Recession, Beijing unleashed a stimulus the likes of which the world hadn’t seen since World War II.

It amounted to some 19 per cent of its gross domestic product, according to Columbia University historian Adam Tooze. By point of comparison, US President Barack Obama’s stimulus was only about 5 or 6 per cent of US GDP.

Aside from its size, what made China’s stimulus unique was the way it was administered. The central government didn’t borrow a lot of money itself to use on infrastructure, but it pushed local governments and state-owned companies to do so.

The result was a web of debt that’s been even harder to clean up than it might have been because of all the money that unregulated lenders – “shadow banks” – were frantically handing out above and beyond what Beijing had been hoping for….

What is new, though, is that this isn’t working quite as well as before. As the International Monetary Fund reports, China seems to have reached a point of diminishing returns with this kind of credit stimulus.

So much new debt is either going toward paying off old debt or toward economically questionable projects that it takes a lot more of it than it used to just to achieve the same amount of growth.

Three times as much, in fact. Whereas it had only taken 6.5 trillion yuan of new credit to make China’s economy grow by 5 trillion yuan per year in 2008, it took 20 trillion yuan of new credit by 2016.

I don’t share Matt’s conclusion that Wall Street fears the broad market will follow Apple (AAPL) into a tailspin as Chinese retail sales decline. I covered this in my last newsletter.

Nor do I think that falling Chinese steel production will plunge the global economy into recession. Though it would certainly affect Australia.

China has $3 trillion of foreign reserves and has shown in the past that it is prepared to spend big to buy its way out of a recession. Whether they succeed this time is uncertain, but old-fashioned stimulus spending will soften the impact.

I believe Wall Street has no idea how the trade dispute will play out. And financial markets have gone risk-off because of the uncertainty, despite a booming US economy.

Earnings ratios have fallen dramatically, back to 17.8, from what was clearly bubble territory above 20 times historic earnings. I use the highest preceding four quarters earnings, to smooth out earnings volatility, so my P/E charts (PEmax) will look a little different to anyone else’s.

S&P 500 PEmax

Market volatility remains high, with S&P 500 Volatility (21-day) above 2.0%. A trough above 1% on the next multi-week rally would confirm a bear market — as would an index retracement that respects 2600.

S&P 500

Momentum shows a strong bearish divergence.

S&P500 Momentum

Similar to the Dotcom era below. It would be prudent to wait for a bullish divergence, as in 2003, to signal the start of the next bull market.

S&P500 Momentum

I repeat the same quote as last week as an important reminder of current market volatility.

What beat me was not having brains enough to stick to my own game – that is, to play the market only when I was satisfied that precedents favored my play. There is the plain fool, who does the wrong thing at all times everywhere, but there is also the Wall Street fool, who thinks he must trade all the time.

~ Jesse Livermore

Risk averse rather than fearful

The S&P 500 is again testing the band of primary support between 2600 and 2550. Follow-through below this level would warn of a bear market. Volatility (21-day) is in the amber zone between 1% and 2%. A real test of market resilience will be the next sizable rally or advance. If declining volatility remains above 1%, that would warn of an imminent market sell-off.

S&P 500

The Nasdaq 100 is in a similar position, with declining Money Flow warning of medium-term selling pressure.

Nasdaq 100

Of the big five tech stocks, only Microsoft looks strong. Facebook is in a primary down-trend but Apple and Google are testing primary support. Apple’s exposure to China is obviously a concern. China accounts for roughly 25% of Apple’s global market but Apple estimates that it is responsible for 4.8 million jobs in China which gives them some negotiating clout.

Big Five tech stocks

If two more of the big five broke primary support, that would in my opinion signal a bear market.

Asia

The Shanghai Composite Index is consolidating in a narrow band below 2700. Downward breakout is likely and would signal another decline, with a target of 2300.

Shanghai Composite Index

India’s Nifty is testing resistance at 11,000. Respect would be bearish, warning of another test of primary support at 10,000. Declining peaks on the Trend Index warn of long-term selling pressure.

NSX Nifty

Europe

Dow Jones Euro Stoxx is in a primary down-trend. Follow-through below 350 confirms a bear market, warn of a decline to test 305/310.

DJ Euro Stoxx 600

The Footsie also broke primary support at 6900. Retracement is testing the new resistance level but respect of 7000 is likely and would confirm a bear market, with a target between 5600 and 6000.

FTSE 100

There is a high level of uncertainty in global markets at present. Europe has Brexit and Italy. The US has investigations into Donald Trump’s election campaign. China has the threat of a trade war with the US. But my sense is that the market has become risk averse rather than fearful. There is no sign of panic selling as yet. But investors are clearly on the defensive and prepared to sell off vulnerable stocks.

Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

East to West

The S&P 500 put in a strong blue candle this week but one swallow doesn’t make a summer. Follow-through above 2800 would signal a test of 2950. Small bullish divergence on Twiggs Money Flow looks promising but is secondary in nature and may not alter the larger trend.

S&P 500

The Nasdaq 100 shows a similar W-shaped bottom but weaker divergence.

Nasdaq 100

Bellwether transport stock Fedex recovered above the former primary support level at 225 but still looks weak. Reversal below 220 would warn of another decline.

Fedex

Asia

The Shanghai Composite Index rally ran out of steam. Respect of 2700 warns of another decline, with a target of 2300.

Shanghai Composite Index

India’s Nifty is headed for a test of 11,000. Respect would be bearish, warning of another test of primary support at 10,000. Declining peaks on the Trend Index warn of long-term selling pressure.

NSX Nifty

Australia

The ASX 200 is testing primary support at 5650 following a down-turn on the mining index. Bullish divergence on Twiggs Money Flow has now rolled over, with penetration of the rising trendline. Breach of primary support would warn of a decline, with a target of 5000.

ASX 200

Europe

Dow Jones Euro Stoxx warns of a bear market. Breach of primary support at 365, and respect of the new resistance level on the subsequent retracement, warn of a decline to test 305/310.

DJ Euro Stoxx 600

The Footsie is testing support at 6900, while bearish divergence on the Trend Index warns of selling pressure. Breach would signal a decline, with a target between 5600 and 6000.

FTSE 100

Never cut a tree down in the wintertime. Never make a negative decision in the low time. Never make your most important decisions when you are in your worst moods. Wait. Be patient. The storm will pass. The spring will come.

~ Robert Schuller

No explanation required

In the past week, I have seen a number of market commentators attempting to explain the current correction. Reasons given vary from rising interest rates, Fed shrinking its balance sheet, the impact of trade tariffs on manufacturing input costs and inflation, mid-term elections and peak growth in earnings.

Truth is, there is no single reason that could justify the dramatic market falls. Some of the reasons cited are insufficient while others are invalid. But no explanation is necessary. Market sentiment has simply shifted. The scale has tipped and more investors are taking profits than new money coming into the market. When that happens, prices fall. And falling prices become a self-fulfilling prophecy, scaring off new investors and panicking investors with a short-term outlook.

How long this will go on for, I cannot tell. But I am sure there are growing numbers of long-term investors picking through the debris looking for opportunities. And the greater the fall, the greater the opportunity.

Earlier in the week I cited Netflix (NFLX) as one such example. Price has fallen almost 20% in October 2018, while recently released earnings announced a 34% year-on-year increase in revenue for the third quarter and a 130% increase in operating income.

Netflix

Patience is required but opportunities abound.

East to West

A quick recap of markets.

China’s Shanghai Composite Index is in a primary down-trend, having broken primary support at 2650, but rising troughs on the Trend Index warn of strong support. I suspect this is government-orchestrated as investors have little reason for optimism.

Shanghai Composite Index

India’s Nifty is testing primary support at 10,000.

Nifty

Europe is in a primary down-trend, with the DJ Euro Stoxx 600 respecting its former primary support level at 365/366.

DJ Euro Stoxx 600

The Footsie is testing primary support at 6900/7000.

FTSE 100

Dow Jones Industrial Average is undergoing a strong correction. Bearish divergence on the Trend Index warns of a reversal but only breach of primary support at 23,500, completing a double-top, would confirm.

Dow Jones Industrial Average

Dow Jones Transportation Average is already testing primary support at 10,000. Reversal signals on both averages would confirm a bear market according to Dow Theory.

Dow Jones Transportation Average

But technology stocks play a far larger role than in Charles Dow’s day, more than a hundred years ago. The Nasdaq 100 is still a long way above primary support at 6,300. Bearish divergence on Money Flow warns of selling pressure, but only breach of primary support would confirm a bear market.

Nasdaq 100

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

~ Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1933 inaugural address